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February 2012

January 2012

When the Art Feels Old

I have been writing too much.  Last year it seemed that I was writing and writing and painting just a little.   Some of the paintings were good but most of them felt old, old in that they were echoes of what I used to do, had been doing for so many years.  I can’t explain it,  except to say that when I looked at them I saw myself two, even five years ago, the same approach, the same emotion, maybe  a general improvement in technique and materials, but still that underlying...sameness.

There was a part of me remembering what it felt like, long ago, before I learned about painting. A part that could remember the escape into the paint without the worry that worried me now, and part that whispered late into the night that I was well on my way toward competent mediocrity.  I began reading, and then I was reading and writing too much and still painting just a little, only the painting became less and less enjoyable until I wondered if I really wanted to be an artist at all.

I don’t really think my experience is unique.   We like to call it a growth process, but it’s damn discouraging when it happens – yes, we’re supposed to come out of it stronger but that only happens if you destroy a bit of yourself in the process – that bit that holds on to what you’ve been doing, the part that creeps into your work and makes it look old.

And that’s the thing, because there does seem to be a strong rational for creating work that appeals to the gatekeepers, those in power who tell the public what to look for in fine art.  In one of the books I am reading, titled Why Art Artists Poor? The Exceptional Economy of the Arts, the author, Hans Abbing (an economist and an artist), describes what he calls the two kinds of Art – High Art and Low Art, and that those who enjoy High Art look down on Low Art, while those who understand Low Art might admire High Art but they will never embrace it. 

It’s one of the books I probably shouldn’t have started to read, when I was reading and writing too much, because it made it more difficult to get back to serious painting.  Oddly enough it didn’t interfere with the painting that felt old, so I suppose that out of cowardice I was safely painting the way I had been painting while I tried not to answer the questions as to why.

But that “getting back to serious painting” part – that’s the key phrase here.  Because what I realized was that – for myself – the painting that felt old was the painting that was hanging on to the way I used to create  – when what I was doing was slowly moving into a different place, a different perspective about what I wanted to achieve.   And all that reading and writing was simply a way for me get beyond the form of tunnel vision that had been dictating my choices. 

In an odd way I feel like I grew up a bit. That old growth process thing again. 

But the new art doesn’t feel old. 



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Why Pure Representation isn't Enough

E. H. Gombrich, in his book Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation, starts  with a discussion about the representation of nature over the course of art history, including this statement:

"We see aspects of reality represented on the television screen and in the movies, on postage stamps and on food packages...I think that the victory and vulgarization of representational skills create a problem for both the historian and the critic."

Food for thought for the artist.

When we consider that technology can produce visual images that not only depict, but in the case of 3-dimensional technology, can recreate a visual kinesthetic experience so real as to be able to nearly duplicate reality, then the artist must consider ways in which his or her art can move beyond pure representation.

How much information is necessary before there is a perception of form and substance?

How can we articulate form through unexpectedly beautiful color and abstraction?

Even with a hyper-photorealism approach, where is the hidden magic of the artist's hand?

If art is an illusion, then the artist must be aware of the need for magic in what is produced.  Pure representation of what is seen, perceived, or imagined is not enough. 


If you are interested in this subject, check out these books at your local library:

Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation, by E. H. Gombrich, from the A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts, 1956

Art and Visual Perception: A Psychology of the Creative Eye, by Rudolf Arnheim

As always, I appreciate your contributions to this blog, and please forward it to anyone you know who might find it informative. 




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100 Artist Show - Mile Post 42 and the Art of Communication

 Mile Post 42, 12 x 12 x 2 © 2011


This is my contribution to the 100 Artists Show at the Mary Lou Zeek Gallery in Salem, Oregon.  My challenge was to respond to a letter sent by my partnered artist and to create an art piece that represented our communications. The Mary Lou Zeek Gallery will be blogging about the show and the artists - and how you can bid for your favorite piece - here.

Artist Statement

My letter contained an evocative poem by Portland artist Jeanne Levasseur, titled Winter.  As I read her words I could feel the dampness in the air, the cold bite of frost.  I wanted to capture that sensory experience of time and place in my artwork.

I am inspired by landscape. Looking, experiencing, touching, and feeling the place and form are all necessary for my work. I pick up a dry and brittle twig from the debris of a passing storm, feeling the energy in my fingers, delicate, before crumbling away. This is the energy I try to interpret with my work. 

Paintings often begin with a textured layer of gesso. I rub color onto the surface, or place a gestural mark to suggest the landform.  I am interested in the transforming power of light, and like the Impressionists, I want my paintings to be recognizable but not familiar, a place of memory and not subject matter.  I move from the abstract to the specific, bringing what I know about the landscape into the abstract forms, colors and shapes, and transforming them into a living, breathing place.

Being open to where the paint takes me is part of the process, like a traveler in unknown terrain: the work is successful when I create a space that others want to explore.

This is going to be a fabulous show with so many different artists participating - I hope you will join along in the fun!

Press Release and Info:

100 Artist Show

 Art of Communication-10th Annual 100 Artist Show

Show Date: February 1 – March 3, 2012

Opening reception: First Wednesday February 1, 5-7pm.

Location: Mary Lou Zeek Gallery, 335 State Street, Salem, Oregon 97301

Salem Remember when we looked forward to art class at least a few times a week in school?  How about all that time spent learning how to print and write cursively?  All of those assignments written on notebook paper?  With budget crunches and ever-evolving technology in schools we have to wonder what will happen to all those words and art produced by hand.  And, as technology marches on, what will be the memories that today’s children leave their family and friends?  What if John and Abigail Adams had tweeted across the ocean instead of posting letters?   How about Julia Child and her friend Avis emailing instead of writing? All of that amazing correspondence gone in the flash of a DELETE button?

During the month of February, the Mary Lou Zeek Gallery will be presenting The Art of Communication, the 10th annual 100 Artists show. 

Over 100 artists were sent blank letters which arrived with instructions and included a stamped envelope with the address of a partnered artist.  These letters made their way to 100 different artists across the country and beyond!  Participating artists received a blank letter through the mail and were asked to write a thought, a story, or whatever they so chose and then send to their “partnered” artist. The artists had over three months to transform the writings into their work of art.

 During this show, the artists will present their own ideas of what it is to “communicate”, while creating striking and inspiring art pieces.  The act of letter writing is beginning to be a lost art, and receiving letters through the mail an almost forgotten pleasure for most of us.  The idea of “mail art” and keeping letter writing as a form of communication is our theme for the 10th annual 100 Artist show.

 The artwork will be on display and the letters will be available for viewing.  The sale of the art will last the entire month with a silent bidding process ending at different times throughout the month.  Anyone interested can call the gallery for a bidding number, see the artworks online on the gallery website or stop in and do the bidding in person.  

This year the proceeds from the 100 Artists Show THE ART OF COMMUNICATION will be used to fund a special after school art and writing project for kids.  We want to replicate the DNA of this 100 artists show pairing children with each other as art pen pals and perhaps even with some of our 100 artists.   While this project will be launched in the Salem area community as a pilot, an important component will be to record what takes place so that the curriculum can be shared free of charge with other communities across the country who are interested in this hands-on experience.

The Mary Lou Zeek Gallery, located at 335 State Street in downtown Salem, Oregon, is the premiere place for purchasing contemporary arts and crafts.  Open hours are 12 pm to 5:30 pm Tuesday through Friday, and 12 pm to 5 pm on Saturday.  The gallery is closed on Sunday and Monday.  To preview the upcoming show and see work by many other Northwest artists, visit



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Working in a Series

When I was in my final year of school we were asked to present a Senior Thesis that consisted of 8 large paintings demonstrating a single concept - in other words, a series. Since I was under the Diebenkorn spell and only had 8 weeks to complete the assignment, my work was quite abstract and built around the grid. 

At the time my understanding of what a series was - and why an artist might consider working that way - was heavily influenced by my inexperienced views and the Modernism and Post-Modernism concepts that dominated the curriculum - in other words, I was faking it to a certain extent, repeating myself in different colors and textures without really appreciating what I was trying to do.

I've said before that in my growth as an artist I often do not immediately understand certain ideas, and only years later, as my skill level, comprehension and experience matures, am I able to grasp a deeper understanding of the work of the artist.  Working in a series is one of those concepts.

Right now I work with two specific approaches - the Mile Post Series and the Landscapes of the Interior West .  I consider both a Series - in that they explore unique ideas in different ways and yet are connected conceptually through subject matter.  With this post I want to use a group of paintings from the Interior West series, built around the cattle guards that are iconic in the open west.

I began the first cattle guard painting with a clear image of what I wanted to achieve.  On a recent location-scouting drive we rounded a curve in the road and suddenly the scene presented itself.  The light was perfect.  Late in the year, before the snow falls, there is rich color in the sagebrush and the red and gray cinders: the oblique light of the sun is so low in the horizon it defines edges, bounces across surfaces and dances in what is otherwise a drab landscape.  There was something about the light, and the idea of the empty road and distant vista - this unique physical space - that I wanted to communicate through a painting. 

Cattle Guard, 20" x 24" © 2011

While the oil paint on first Cattle Guard painting was wet, I was happy with the surface quality.  But as the work dried - and those of you who work in oil paint appreciate this - dimension diminished, colors flattened, and texture disappeared.  (This is also a consequence of using a lighter weight cotton commercial canvas that does not have the weave of linen.) 

As I studied the painting over several days, I was disappointed by some of my paint application technique, particularly edges that became more visually hard as the paint dried. These were primarily sections dominated by palette knife work - which I inattentively rely on in an effort to create texture on a - my apologies to all those commercial canvas manufacturers out there - but on a surface quality that just doesn't cut it. Perhaps if I had not felt so strongly about what I was trying to accomplish, I wouldn't have been so hyper-critical - but I knew what I wanted my painting surface to look like, not just the pieces of a composition, and I also realized how working through a series of this same subject matter - much in the way I work with the Mile Post Series - would help me explore subtle variations of my visual goal.

Yellow Cattle Guard, and Yellow Cattle Guard - Late November 2011 developed as I tried to work out issues I wanted to improve.

DSC08162_edited-1 copy sm web
Yellow Cattle Guard, 12" x 18" © 2011


Yellow Cattle Guard - Late November 2011, 8" x 16" © 2011


The locations are different ( between the Cattle Guard painting and the Yellow Cattle Guard painting), but the concept is the same.  Yellow Cattle Guard is painted on a Signature linen panel, and the Late November version is on a Ray-Mar linen panel prepped with flake white which was allowed to dry for several weeks.  For me, having the right surface really allows the full expression of what I am trying to say. 

When you choose to work in a series, the benefits are far more subtle and unique to each circumstance than you might initially assume - you are not repeating an idea over and over, but creating room for your ideas to develop in a variety of ways.  You notice details in your execution that you've overlooked because you are not so tightly focused upon compositional problems.  You learn the surfaces and solve the issues of previous work. You discover happy accidents and - particularly important to me - continued joy in putting paint successfully on a surface. 

It's probably safe to say that all artists start out at a universally equal place - the desire to create something out of shape and color and give it meaning.  But the work of the artist evolves from there.  Words, instructions, generalizations, examples cannot convey the experience of looking at a work of art that impacts our emotions, just as you cannot use words to describe what Yo-Yo Ma creates with the cello.  We must each discover our own sensory language. Working in a series is - for this artist - one way to get there.



 Looking for inspiration or motivation in 2012?

Ancient Wisdom Emerging Artist was nominated as one of the finalists on Katherine Tyrrell's Making a Mark Blog for Best Book by an art Blogger along with Studio and Business Practices (published on Blurb Nov 2010) by Deborah Paris, The Gyotaku Project (published by Blurb Jan. 2011) by Jeanette Jobson, and Color and Light: A Guide for the Realist Painter (published Nov. 2010) by James Gurney.  Thank you, Katherine!



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