With This Printing Press, I Thee Wed

March 30, 2016

Elspeth Pope's "wedding ring"

Elspeth Pope’s “wedding ring”

To say Dr. Elspeth Pope was a lover of letterpress would be an understatement. She was a book artist, a maker of printed cards, and a printer of broadsides, and used letterpress freely in all of these media. She named all of her dogs and cats after typefaces. When her future husband proposed to her, he gave her the option of an engagement ring, or a printing press. Ever the enthusiastic printmaker, Elspeth chose the press.

After meeting Dr. Melissa Hardie, who had founded an artistic residency in Great Britain, Elspeth created an American chapter. Elspeth’s Hypatia-in-the-Woods, located in Shelton, WA was a residency for women in the arts, that recognized women’s need to separate their artistic selves from the special and intense demands of their home lives, and gave them a space to focus on their work.

I think of her as the Florence Griswold of the West. Like Florence Griswold’s house in Old Lyme, CT, Elspeth’s residency attracted some famous names. One is Nikki McClure, who generously donated a lithographic plate from her residency to use in a recent event sponsored by Artist Trust. I was lucky enough to pull a print from Nikki’s plate on Elspeth’s “wedding ring” press.

Pulling prints is always exciting -that surprise of never quite knowing what you’re going to get – but it was extra exciting to be a part of this community, to feel on a tangible level the sensation of women, makers, and doers paying it forward for others. Even just for one night.

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Real Art in the Real World

March 24, 2016

Unknown, found at the mall

Unknown, found at the mall

I love finding real artwork outside of a museum. Just like when I see real, live flowers on a restaurant table or in an office, no matter how simple the arrangement, my opinion of the place goes up a hundred fold. I found this print (a real print, not a poster!) when I was waiting in line for the restroom at a mall in Bellevue, WA.

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Hearing Your Work Matters: Priceless

March 23, 2016

Excerpt from my 2010 sketchbook; this image is from the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi.

Excerpt from my 2010 sketchbook; this image is from the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi.

My 7th grade English teacher, who lives in Florida, was visiting New York and decided to look up some of my work at The Sketchbook Library. This is very touching on its own, but it turns out the Library has recently relocated. My teacher hiked around Brooklyn and finally found the new Library. Except their new location wasn’t quite open for business yet. Undeterred, she sweet-talked them into letting her in so that she could check out my sketchbook.

All this effort to see my book! I’m so very humbled.

She wrote to me about these adventures, and told me she had tears in her eyes when she was finally able to examine my book. Then, she actually quoted a line from the book to me. I’ve heard authors talk about seeing someone on the subway reading the book they wrote (or maybe fantasizing this scenario), and this is what it felt like:

I’m grateful for our friendship. I’m happy that something she read and saw in my work moved her. I’m moved that she worked so hard to see it, and wanted to tell me about it.

Sometimes you need to know that your work matters. This was one of those times. I really needed to hear this right now.

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Behind the Scenes, Part 2

March 17, 2016

Tangier Overture

Tangier Overture

“What does it mean?”
“What were you thinking about when you painted this?”
A few times: “I see a golfer”.

It’s amused me to think of doing a series on golfers to give the people what they seem to want, but I don’t really care for golf. So instead, here’s what I was thinking about when I painted this painting:

As I mentioned earlier, this painting already existed as another painting, until I decided I needed to return to it and improve it (which I hope I’ve done).

In the exhibition where that original version was shown, someone started a conversation with me about pattern in my work. Specifically, he said that he noticed that I used a lot of pattern, but that I always cover it up with fields of plain color. He asked me why I did that, and I didn’t have an answer because I hadn’t even thought of it that way myself. From that conversation, I challenged myself to consciously use pattern, and to resist what I now know is my temptation to bury it. This has led to some interesting developments for me, and a new (to me), labor-intensive way of deliberately creating patterns, such as stripes. I’ve used a lot of tape in the process, laying it down, painting stripes, blow-drying them, removing the tape, and starting again with the next stripe.

This mindfulness, and taking pains with details, came at a time where my wife and I suddenly woke to the fact that, Hey, we’ve been together a while now; this is now what you’d call a long-term relationship! We’re not honeymooners any more. Time has a way of creeping up like that.

In my mind, I started to examine these two things side by side, the attention to my process, and the attention to my marriage. Both go better when you’re mindful. Both go better when you take the time. Both need a lot of attention.

Also around this time, we took a long vacation, the first since our honeymoon. Among our stops, we revisited Italy, where we had gone together in the very early days of our relationship. Going there again provided a natural comparison and opportunity to look at our relationship at its beginning and at its current bloom, seven years in.

As an artist also, there was an irresistible comparison to revisit old themes, since Italy had provided me with such inspiration for my work a few years ago. I’ve started working with Italian wall posters again, as well as other found objects. Bruce Springsteen and many others have revisited past material and made it fresh again, for example, rearranging Born to Run, a song he wrote at age 23, to reflect a mid-life perspective, or touring this year solely on the back of an album, The River, that he wrote at age 30. There is the possibility for an increased richness of perspective and self-knowledge and of course – better work! Which is really what us artists are after all along.

So these are the thoughts that are influencing my work right now. For this painting specifically, I was also thinking about some experiences in Morocco. The blue and white color palette, as well as the suggestion of Arabic writing evoke a little of the visuals of Tangier, where we spent a couple of days.

You may or may not know that being gay is illegal there, and there is an active effort, in some locales more than others, to bring gays to “justice”, which is harsh. I wasn’t concerned to travel to Morocco, as I’d had quite a bit of experience in the Middle East, and we were going to Tangier, a major city located within sight of Spain. The sophistication of a big city and its familiarity with Europeans made me feel completely comfortable, and honestly, we can “pass” as straight whenever we want to. (We don’t usually do this, but sometimes it’s safer). Mia, though, had some hesitations about ways that we might accidentally reveal ourselves, and was anxious about getting “caught”.

On top of this dynamic, in the airport when we left, I was pulled aside for an additional, private inspection by a female security agent. This never happens to me, so it was notable. It became even more notable when this particular inspection made up for the previous lack of attention. When I tell the story in person, I make it sound very funny and act it out with some degree of abandon. But that funny version sort of minimizes the underlying scare of it, because when you’re gay in a time and place where it’s illegal to be, you don’t have any power. I made the conscious decision to not object in any way to any part of the inspection, because I had my own fears about what would happen if I had. If I had suggested that the inspector was somehow wrong, or had gone too far, I’d be making a public declaration. By saying I was uncomfortable, I’d be saying that there was something inherently sexual in what had happened. Because we were both women, that would make it illegal. If I put her back up against that hypothetical wall, her only defense would be to lash out. And if she lashed at me, she’d hit her mark, because after all, I really am gay, and my wife is standing right there to prove it. Suddenly, or in my mind anyway, we’d both be going to jail, while the inspector is filling out paperwork and making jokes in the backroom. No thank you.

So these relationships – between visual elements in the painting, between Mia and me, between our current relationship and our younger relationship, between the agent and me, between my current work and my previous work, between a foreigner and a new city – were in my mind while I worked.

Then, one day while I was listening to classical music in the car, I heard the title of a piece, which was Algerian Overture. [Lately, I’ve been enjoying this fun game that I play with myself, which is that I get ideas for paintings from mis-hearing the titles of classical pieces. My favorite is that I heard Music of 10,000 Fernandas, which had so many possibilities to a lesbian, but when I checked the playlist later, I realized that they’d said “Music from Antonio Fernandez”, the classical guitar player. Which I can’t help but think isn’t nearly as interesting]. Although I’d heard Algerian Overture correctly, I knew then that I’d found my title if I just changed it to “Tangier”.

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Behind the Scenes (The Painting Fought Back)

March 7, 2016

Tangier Overture

Tangier Overture

The author David Foster Wallace once said something like, When writing a book, there always comes a time where you fall to the ground and bang your head against the floor. I see a lot of parallels between writing and painting, but I don’t feel this way with every painting because there are some that almost paint themselves. Then there are definitely those that want to wrestle you to the ground, grab you by the hair, and forcibly bang your head down for you.

This was one of those paintings. Now that I’m finished, I can talk about it without feeling like I’m going to jinx it. Or, like it’s judging me. You can see up there at the top, hanging out, looking innocent. In reality, I think it’s the most difficulty I’ve had in five years. I probably went through a good 17 different versions of this painting, including turning it to different sides, completely wiping out sections, changing or moving elements, even starting over completely from what I thought was already a finished painting.

Yes, here’s the painting that I thought, for a brief moment, was a finished work:

Beginning point (sort of!)

Beginning point (sort of!)

I even exhibited it, but I knew it was wrong when I saw it again on the wall at the show after not having seen it for a while. My head kind of snapped, and I made a little half-gasp under my breath. All of a sudden, it just wouldn’t do. It no longer seemed resolved. It bugged the hell out of me.

When the show was over and I got the painting back to the studio, I tried not to look at it, but it always tugged my eyes over. I knew I’d have to do something about it. After some time of assessing it, I started to work on it again.

Work-in-progress, Stage 2

Work-in-progress, Stage 2

I didn’t document it completely, but now you can see a big difference in the overall structure of the painting from the so-called starting point. See that little pointing, square blue shape from the top right of the Starting Point painting? I liked that, and it stayed, but see how everything around it changes.

Work-in-progress, Stage 3

Work-in-progress, Stage 3

Follow the little blue square as it moves to the upper left…see how I turned the painting 90 degrees counterclockwise? For a while, that seemed to make more sense. Eventually, I turned this version upside-down and settled on that orientation for the final. The blue square ended up at the bottom right.

And those were just some of the major changes. There were many minor ones that probably only I would notice. And then, one day, when you’re lucky, you look at a painting and it tells you it’s finished. There’s nothing more you can do to resolve the energy and the tensions between the parts. It fits the way it is.

Hopefully, this one will stay that way this time…

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The Art of Alzheimer’s

February 21, 2016

Sea Creatures (via artofalzheimers.net)

Sea Creatures (via artofalzheimers.net)

There’s an inspiring exhibition right now at Seattle City Hall that deals with Alzheimer’s and dementia. The works on paper were created by artists aged 60 – 101, all of whom are living with some stage of the disease.

Please notice that I didn’t write “suffering from”…they are “living with” this disease, and that kind of distinction is important to this exhibition. The curator, whose mother is one of the 50 or so artists in the show, sets out to tear down the sense of hopelessness that the word “Alzheimer’s” conjures up, and to offer an alternative view of Alzheimer’s patients: that they are people who are capable of happiness and joy, who are still interested in creating, who are still living with us. This is radically different from the usual point of view that focuses on the people they “used to be”, and the losses the people around them suffer when they take this perspective.

This is also different from the prevailing views on aging in general. About three years ago, I received a grant to teach art at a senior center in Manhattan. As part of the training leading up to entering the classroom, we artist-teachers met with leaders in the field of aging, as well as various city officials. I’ll never forget one specialist who said that “Aging is a series of losses” and proceeded to list them all: loss of eyesight/hearing/taste, loss of friends, loss of mobility, loss of health, etc. I remember feeling a little jolt to have it all laid out like that, and feeling a young person’s guilt that I’d never considered it that way. I felt a little sorry, and moved on with that information.

But is it only a series of losses? I’ve also read about couples who felt freedom…to enjoy the benefits of spoiling grandkids without any of the hassles of raising them, to travel at a moment’s notice, to have the time to delve into a hobby or go back to school, to enjoy sex without anyone in the house or the worries of pregnancy.

This exhibit doesn’t look at the so-called losses. A panel discussion that included social workers, a doctor, a patient and her husband stressed the vitality of these patients and artists and encouraged a paradigm shift. The doctor said that once basic survival needs are met, the goal should absolutely be to strive to meet the other basic, human need: for self-expression (this, from a medical doctor! I was thrilled). Alice, the patient, took the microphone to say that she was happy. She said she understood that people worried about Alzheimer’s but that she herself was too busy enjoying her life to worry about it. She was delightful.

Now a word about the artwork. It’s moving. Some of it you’ll remember after the show, for the liveliness and joie-de-vivre in the paint handling. Some pieces are a little haunting, but all of them show a curiosity and effort at capturing a mood, a moment. To be sure, many of these watercolors (and a few collages) seem to look inward, capturing a hidden, interior moment, like a triptych that categorizes near-taxonomic details of a still life of fish on a plate. Other versions by different artists of this still life yielded goldfish swimming (above), and fish bones. Most of the pieces are watercolor, mostly using wet-on-wet technique and some printing or stamping techniques. The colors are vibrant, for the most part, with lots of primaries.

This is a rare show where you think of the artist before the artwork…(Not many can say that, besides the Van Goghs of the world). But the artwork holds up as beautiful expressions of their own. At least two people at the show mentioned aloud that they would have bought pieces if they’d been for sale. You can’t look at this show without thinking of the creators and clearly seeing people behind the diagnoses.

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Dining in the Dark

January 31, 2016

black rectangle

Recently, Mia and I went to dinner at a restaurant called Dark Table in Vancouver, B.C. This restaurant offers a “blind dining” experience, that is, there is no light whatsoever. Not even a speck. The blackness is thick and complete. I may have seen a couple of static-electric sparks when I took off my jacket, but that was the extent of the light source for the next couple of hours. Dinner is served and eaten in complete darkness. The servers are literally blind. You’re led to and from your table by putting your hands on a blind escort’s shoulders and trusting them to lead you safely through the tables, patrons and staff.

The experience was incredible and unexpected. One of the first surprises for us was to touch the edge of our table and feel that it was shaped like an oddball curvy wedge. We kept saying, Why would this table be shaped so weirdly? We kept running our fingers along it and marveling at the shape.

Meanwhile, we ordered the Surprise entree and cocktail, because we wanted to try to parse the mystery dishes and really taste the ingredients. I tasted the coconut right away in our drinks, but we were both shocked by how long it took us to figure out what we were eating. Besides that, we had different opinions about what it was. There was a rich blend of crunchy vs. smooth textures, and even hot and cool temperatures mixed throughout the entree. After chewing and thinking for several minutes, I suggested beets were in the dish, but otherwise I had no idea. It was tasty and fresh, though.

Mia kept asking what color I thought our food was, how I was sitting in my chair, where my hands were, what I really thought about the table, if I had felt the food and the bowls (Disclosure: I touched my food with my fingers before my first bite). While I could hear the anxiety in her voice, I felt completely relaxed, even meditative. It was comforting to vaguely hear the other patrons and know I was in a crowd, but equally comforting to know that I didn’t have to worry about them, that they didn’t even know I was there. For once, I wasn’t interested in the color of something! When Mia kept insisting that something must be mustard yellow, I said it didn’t matter because we weren’t meant to see it; it didn’t have anything to do with our understanding of it today.

Back to sleuthing out what we were eating: after about ten minutes, Mia finally shouted “Risotto!”. I was shocked that it took us so long to realize such a familiar – and favorite – food. And at some point, Mia suggested we put our elbows on the corners of the table that were nearest to us, and then try to touch each others’ hands. We did this, and realized that our arms perfectly outlined the square edges of the table…it wasn’t wedge-shaped at all! That was a revelation we almost couldn’t believe. How could we have been tricked into thinking something so outlandish…who would have a wedge-shaped table with curlicue “corners” anyway? We were really so dependent on our vision and couldn’t rely on our other senses to give us correct information.

As we paid our bill, we asked about the ingredients, to check our answers. We got some of it (coconut cocktail, yes. risotto, yes. beets, yes.), but there were many things we hadn’t tasted at all. But that wasn’t all…we boxed a bit of our risotto that we didn’t finish. The next day, I opened the box and had an idea of what I’d see in there, even though I hadn’t looked at it the night before. I was expecting to see a pale, neutral-colored dish…pale like rice and cheese. Once we settled on the idea of eating risotto, that’s probably what I assumed, even though I wasn’t actively thinking about colors. But one look at this risotto made me gasp because it was the brightest red and green I’d ever seen!

So what does this have to do with art? It made me really think about my eyes, which I take for granted quite a bit. Because I had to use my other senses, I had to think about them more than I ever do. It was a good check-in about the power of variation in an artwork, just like the variety of textures and temperatures we were presented with. Most of all, it was one more reminder that our eyes, and our brains, thrust us into default mode more than we realize.

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If Renoir Can Do It…

January 16, 2016

I watch this video of Renoir, painting with his curled-up arthritic hands. Then I think how dedicated he must have been to go at it, near the end of his life, with those painful claws. Then I wonder why I have a hard time getting in the studio, when I’m as healthy as they come.

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“Deeds Not Words”

January 11, 2016

Image courtesy of Google

Image courtesy of Google

I love this Google Doodle today, which celebrates the 131st birthday of Alice Paul, feminist and suffragette. Great activist, great graphic design, and all-around words to live by!

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Road Trip: Van Gogh’s Arles, Part 2

October 29, 2015

Garden of Hospital of Arles, 1888, Van Gogh; Photograph of Espace Van Gogh (formerly the hospital), 2015

Garden of Hospital of Arles, 1888, Van Gogh; Photograph of Espace Van Gogh (formerly the hospital), 2015

Arles has managed to keep the look and feel captured by Vincent van Gogh in 1888. Here is the hospital where he stayed after he cut off his ear. It’s been converted into an art center called Espace Van Gogh, with small souvenir shops (mostly related to art) on the ground level. The garden is maintained with plants like the ones that were there in Vincent’s day. For me, it was a very somber place, knowing that this was really the beginning of the end for Vincent

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Road Trip: Van Gogh’s Arles

October 27, 2015

Van Gogh's Cafe Terrace at Night; Van Gogh Cafe in Arles, 2015

Van Gogh’s Cafe Terrace at Night; Van Gogh Cafe in Arles, 2015

One of the most stunning places I’ve been to is Arles, in the south of France, specifically retracing some of Van Gogh’s steps. This is where Vincent van Gogh spent about a year – probably the most eventful year of his life. Arles is where he created many of his masterpieces (the painting of his bedroom, Cafe Terrace at Night, Night Cafe, his yellow sunflowers, and many more). It’s also where he was – briefly – roommates with Paul Gauguin, and where he cut off his ear. It was an artistic high point, and also the beginning of the end.

In Arles, the cafe where Vincent spent many evenings and immortalized in oil paint still stands. The yellow awning is still there, even the green of the neighboring shop down the way, and the blue-gray door jamb of the neighbor on the other side. It’s amazing to be able to see this little piece of history, practically unchanged after over 130 years, and to even walk into the painting, so to speak.

This left a huge impression on me, and made my eyes a little misty. When I came home, I put a reproduction of the Cafe Terrace at Night on my studio wall, to remind me about being hard-working, and sensitive, and how great things can happen from everyday moments.

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Keep Getting Out of the Tent

June 14, 2015

By euphro (Flickr: Horseshoe I Mount Searle with Sally Cove) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons By euphro (Flickr: Horseshoe I Mount Searle with Sally Cove) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
”Mount

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New Beginnings

February 1, 2015

St. Brigid's Cross

St. Brigid’s Cross

Happy Celtic Spring! (Also known as Imbolc or St. Brigid’s Feast Day).

Today we’re halfway between the winter and spring equinoxes, and this was traditionally a pagan feast day to celebrate the lengthening of the days. That increasing daylight means a lot to me on a physical level, as well as a metaphorical one. It feels good to see the sun shining more, and to feel as though we’re all crawling out of hibernation.

Catholicism, of course, co-opted the day and it became St. Brigid’s Feast Day. I can’t object too much, since she seems pretty great. A patron saint of Ireland, she also founded an art school and was quite possibly a lesbian. St. Brigid’s crosses are still made in Ireland to celebrate the day, and are hung above doorways or windows to protect the house and its inhabitants.

This time of year is so full of promise. Here’s to longer days and new beginnings!

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365 Days of Art: December 31 – Brunelleschi Wins Competition to Top Duomo with Lantern

December 31, 2014

August 19-Duomo

December 31, 1436

Wardens for the Santa Maria Fiore cathedral meet in Florence to award the winner of a competition to top the Duomo with a lantern. There are five entries, and Brunelleschi wins. This is a like an Oscar-winner having to audition for a bit part, though: Brunelleschi has already built the duomo, inventing machinery to make it happen, engineering something many people think isn’t possible…and they didn’t trust him enough to put the cherry on top? That stings.

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365 Days of Art: December 30 – Mob Destroys Michelangelo’s Statue

December 30, 2014

Raphael, Pope Julius II, 1511-1512

Raphael, Pope Julius II, 1511-1512

December 30, 1511

Michelangelo’s statue of his frenemy Pope Julius II, who is patron of the Sistine Chapel and other projects, is destroyed by a mob. The tie a rope around its neck and pull the 10,000 pound statue from its pedestal. It smashes into pieces, but not before it leaves a crater in the ground. Alfonso d’Este, an enemy of Julius, melts it into cannon–an ignominious end!

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