Paradise Gardens

I should have met the Reverend Howard Finster in 2000.  He used to sit on his front porch in Summerville, GA once or twice a week, at a scheduled time, to make himself available to his fans.  That included banjo players looking to jam, young art students, fans of the musical group REM…I didn’t realize all this was going on, and showed up on an off day.  But I did get to spend time on his property, which he named “Paradise Gardens”.  If you ever go to visit, which I recommend, you’ll walk around with your mouth wide open most of the time.   I should explain how it looked, and what it is.  Paradise Gardens is an ode to joy.  It is gleeful in celebrating details.  It is evidence of a life lived.

The Reverend Howard Finster was a self-taught folk artist.  He never went to art school, in fact never went past grade school.  His enthuasiasms ran far and wide; he had strong feelings for Coca Cola, Elvis, George Washington, and God, and memorialized them frequently in his artwork.  He began receiving visions and making artwork based on them and was in fact making art right up until he died in 2001.  His grandson, who was overseeing Paradise Gardens on the day I visited this summer, was kind enough to tell me that Howard died peacefully in his sleep.

He numbered each piece (he made about 50,000) and often included a written message or testimony of some kind as well.  I have an original Howard Finster painting which I treasure, and he painted and wrote on both sides of it.

The thing I love about Howard is that everything was worthy of being looked at and engaged with.  A better word for it is “Loved”.  He transformed his property into Paradise Gardens by seeing beauty in every detail and deciding to memorialize it.  He essentially painted everything that didn’t move:  the sides of the house, the cars in the carport, pieces of wood or rock lying around.  Other items–old brooches, pictures, toys, tools, broken pieces of glass and mirror–were set in concrete in beautiful patterns or grouped by theme and used to pave walkways all through his backyard.  If they weren’t put on the ground in a walkway, they were built up into a tower of some kind.  He liked towers and spires.  Many of the walkways and other art have been removed and placed in the the High Museum of Art‘s permanent collection, in order to save them from exposure to the humid Georgia weather.

My favorite walkway involved all kinds of old rusty tools, arranged in patterns and facing off with each other in a nice little themed composition that you stepped on as you strolled among the artwork and shade.  You can see a bullet in this one, but another favorite (also gone) involved antique pistols set into concrete, facing each other and forever dueling.  I recall a bust of Abraham Lincoln in that panel too; an ode to the Civil War.

Nothing escaped his gaze or desire to show it off.  A dentist (whom he thoughtfully and duly credited by name) sent him old plaster molds of bites and jaws and implants; Howard made bas-reliefs out of them, and plaques which he inscribed and hung around the grounds.

He gratefully received anything and everything that people wanted to give him:  the teeth, jars of what seem to be beans which are now impounded in a concrete wall, commemorative plates from the gift shop of a certain university in Pennsylvania.  And then he made something out of it, often a tower, or an adorned pile of concrete that reached toward the sky.

Even his garbage was seen as a gift, and worthy of being commemorated for posterity.  There are several gazebo-like glass-enclosed structures which showcase some of his collections.  My very favorite featured dozens of pencil stubs that were too small to be held in the hand any longer, hundreds of squeezed-out tubes of paint along with dozens of gallon paint cans (for good measure), brushes that had no bristles or damaged bristles or caked-together dried-out bristles.  Broken tools.  Dented aerosol cans.  Items covered in paint that were no longer able to serve their original purpose.  Basically anything you can think of that could have been used to make a piece of artwork and gave up its life in the service of that goal.  He saved all of these things, arranged them around the inside of the gazebo, and attached them with staples, glue, hung them with string or otherwise put them on display so that they could be admired from outside, through the glass.  All along the top of the structure, on the support beams, Howard painted  “40 YEARS OF WORE OUT ART MATERIALS”.  It was gorgeous.  That’s a guy who works hard and admires what he’s done.  He used every one of those things down to the nub.  And when they couldn’t be used anymore, he made more art with them.

The gazebo of round things

It’s usually a surprise to look inside anything in Paradise Gardens–more beautiful than you were ready for.

Here’s another gazebo that’s beautiful in its simplicity.  Everything round, and shapes playing off each other and reflecting the sunlight.

The Bottle Chapel is a new favorite of mine.  Each bottle has a few marbles in it and looks like magic when the light comes through.

Bottle Chapel, from the outside

The group REM, who are from Georgia, made a music video in Finster’s backyard:  Radio Free Europe, by REM .  That was in about 1983 and you can really get an idea of the density of the backyard, and the sense of exploration and imagination needed to walk around.  The old days…

I wanted to come back and show my niece and nephew, who live in Georgia and who are both collectors and creators.  I remembered feeling exhilarated and charmed ten years ago, walking through his sacred space and seeing the connections he made between strange ideas and shapes, and feeling how happy and joyful he was in linking all those

Bottle Chapel, from the inside

things together.  It is a space that’s filled with love and imagination and curiosity, and I wanted them to feel that too and remember what it feels like.  And to remember it even after they grow up.  It was a good time for me to be reminded too.

My nephew, who is five, and I gazed quietly into a dark barn that was piled high with tools, various items, boards, etc etc–what might be junk to many people, but was once lovingly donated or collected,  and are still patiently waiting their turn to be transformed into something unexpected and beautiful.

My nephew said “It’s so sad”.  A pause.  “All those art materials and he never got to use them”.  That was exactly what I was thinking.  But it’s not a sad place by any means.  It’s a place where everything is appreciated, celebrated, and loved– every last one of those things.

It really has to be seen to be believed.

Paradise Gardens World Folk Art Chapel

Vermont Studio Center

I’m very excited to announce that I’ve been awarded an Artist’s Grant from the Vermont Studio Center, which will fund a residency there this fall.  I’ll be there for one month, October-November, and will do nothing but paint!  Meals are provided, as well as a room and a studio for painting.  This is great–stay tuned for updates!

Anatomy of an Artwork, Epilogue

In case anyone is wondering how the silent auction went, my little bird was bid on, and went to a nice home at the end of the night!

The Garden Party was a success and will be remembered for the gale-force winds that didn’t bring the tents down!  A storm was raging, but all was cozy inside the art and food tents.  A “ferry service” was established between the two, guided by quick, friendly folks with umbrellas.  A really nice way to honor and support the New Bedford Art Museum and its mission–keep it in mind for next year!

Maura, at the Garden Party, with Feathered Nest artwork

Anatomy of an Artwork, Part Two

So here’s how my little donation for the New Bedford Art Museum evolved:

wood panel

I prepared my wood panel with paint and roughed up the surface a little.

Then I broke out the Sculpey–a material I’d never used before (even mixed-media artists can be provincial)…it comes in different colors which I loved, and it doesn’t shrink in the oven.  Regular oven–no kiln necessary!  It smelled something like Play-Do, which kind of ruined the illusion for me, but never mind.

Little Sculpey nest

I used the Sculpey to construct my nest and bird.  Each little pellet of the nest, which in nature is mud, was rolled and shaped individually with Sculpey.  And then, even with the 100-degree temperatures and high humidity, I baked them in the oven–see what we do for our art!

Then comes the part where I attach the parts to the wood panel, using paint and matte medium as the glue that will hold it all together.  Dried grass, which I collected from the park, was strategically poked among the nest pellets in order to replicate the look of the Barn Swallow nest.  I also found a real little feather which I placed near the top of the nest.

Much consultation of photos of Barn Swallows, as well as the Audubon print which inspired it all–this, to get the colors of the feathers right, as well as the feather pattern.

I wanted to recreate the feeling of how the swallows choose to build their nest in close quarters–up high near the roof of a barn, under the eaves, cramped in near the storm gutters, etc–so I used a small piece of wood and placed it just above the nest.  This bird would have to wriggle carefully in and out of the nest just like the real ones do.

And here it is.  Inspired by John James Audubon and in support of the New Bedford Art Museum.

Feathered Nest

Anatomy of an Artwork

I’ve been working on a painting which will be a donation for the New Bedford Art Museum, and I’ve enjoyed the project so much that I wanted to share some thoughts on its evolution.

This project is in support of the New Bedford Art Museum and their mission (read more about it here) and is based on the current exhibition called Taking Flight!  The Birds of John James Audubon from the Collection of the New Bedford Free Public Library.

The idea was create a piece–any kind of piece–abstract, figurative, a painting, drawing, sculpture, mobile, etc etc–based on one of the prints in the exhibition.  A wide-open proposition!

I chose the Barn Swallow.

One of the reasons I chose this particular bird was because of fond memories of watching a nest of swallows on my patio in Taormina, Sicily.

Swallow's Nest in Sicily

Every morning before Mia got up, I would spend time on the patio, watching them.  I was really taken with that nest, and how it was a little masterpiece in and of itself.   It was placed very close to the ceiling, and the swallows really had to maneuver to get themselves in and out of such a tight space.

The nest was clearly made from small chunks of mud, which were in some kind of pellet form, and somehow pasted together to make this little fortress.  I don’t even know how they found or made mud–Sicily is an arid climate!  I wondered if the swallows carried the mud in their mouth and regurgitated it, the way they feed their young.  And how did they stick it to the wall?  I would have loved to have seen them actually build the nest but no matter what, I was hooked and watched them every morning.  They were always peeking out, then wriggling to the edge and flying away.  Then coming right back, and wriggling back inside there, peeking out again, repeat.

Those swallows might have been cliff swallows.  One difference I noted between the swallows I came to love in Sicily, and the Barn Swallow in the Audubon print was the grass in the Audubon nest.  I knew that my piece would also contain grass, to be true to the representation of the American bird, and also to give me the chance to use a lot of different materials in my piece.  I decided to really push it.

Swallow's Nest in Sicily

In this vein, I also decided to work more sculpturally, to expand on the textures and bas relief that I often use and just go all-out in that regard, while still keeping it essentially a painting.

I also wanted to work figuratively on this piece, rather than abstractly–something I haven’t done in years!  The reason is that I wanted to take advantage of working outside my body of work and ideas.  I could have made an abstract colorful painting (as I usually do) inspired by a bird–but I wondered to myself how it would be distinguished from any other painting I’m working on at the moment.   I definitely wanted a very clear distinction between this piece and the rest of my current body of work…partly because they’re very different ideas, and partly to give myself a challenge.  What the heck!  So I thought that leaving abstraction behind for a while would be a good idea for this piece.

And in keeping with this theme of mixing it up and stretching myself, I had to temporarily move my studio to the kitchen table because of an air conditioning malfunction at the studio.  Thanks to Mia for putting up with that!  You can see it was quite a production!Taking over the kitchen table

Stay tuned for the next report!

And if you haven’t gotten your tickets for the Garden Party yet, you can get them here.  My painting will be part of the silent auction!


Donations of Artwork for a Good Cause

I have a special place in my heart for donations of artwork for a good cause. If you as an artist ever get the chance to support a cause you like in this way, you should jump at the chance.

The first time I did this was in 2005, just after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans.

New Orleans has been one of my very favorite cities ever since I visited it on a road trip. I fell in love immediately with the look and feel of the city: the often-extravagant decorations of balconies and yards (as a native New Englander, this still feels deliciously exotic to me every time I encounter it)–everything from curlicued metalwork on the balconies, to pink flamingoes arrayed in a tableau in a yard.

The palette of the architecture–deep reds, salmon, pale pink and orange and green.

The sight of balconies that looked directly over the street, where people could call up or down to each other, and where you were never far from the action.

The historical blend of languages and cultures which flavor everything from the music, slang, architecture, spirituality and food in such different ways.

The folklore: one of my favorite stories is the worship of “St. Expedite”–for when you need something in a hurry. This “saint” came to be worshipped when a box of religious statuary arrived from abroad with an unrecognizable statue inside. On the outside of the box was stamped the word “EXPEDITE”–a shipping instruction, possibly in Spanish–but this was seized on as the name of the statue inside! And he is now revered in New Orleans.


Cemeteries above ground.

The birthplace of jazz.

The best damn drink I ever had.

The languorous pace which allows you the time to savor everything, even the contradictions.

So I was extremely saddened to see the horrible images of what was happening down there in New Orleans, during and after Katrina. I was all the way up in Massachusetts, though I wanted desperately to help. As a student, I had no money, and no skills that would have been useful in an emergency like that. But what I had was art. I got some of my own paintings together, and collected artwork from students at UMass Dartmouth, from faculty, local artists–anyone who would listen to my spiel and agree to help out.

The response was astounding. Students handed in projects to me instead of to their teachers. Established artists told me to get whatever I could for their piece–some specifically requested that it go far above their usual asking price because their collectors would pay more for charity, and some gave me permission to drop the price as far as it needed to go in order to sell, so that they could generate even the smallest amount to send to New Orleans.  With all these donations, I organized The Red Cross Art Sale.

I had alot of help–others made t-shirts, posters, staffed the sale tables, and we even were featured on the silly little Paul Revere sign along the highway in New Bedford.

We raised $3575 and sent every penny to New Orleans. That was a drop in the bucket compared to what they needed, but to this day, it is still one of my proudest achievements.

Since then, I’ve also donated artwork to the Gloria Steinem Art Auction, which supported the Women’s Studies program at UMass Dartmouth. This gave me the opportunity to meet the wonderful Ms. Steinem in person, as well as the satisfaction of supporting this good cause.

I’m working on a project right now that will support the New Bedford Art Museum. It’s a piece that’s quite different from my usual work, but I’m enjoying working on it.

If you’re going to donate artwork, make sure you like the cause and that it will be supported sufficiently by your donation to make it worth your while.  And, if you’re going to do it, go all out! Make it a great piece, not one that you do in a hurry, or want to get rid of.

The satisfaction that comes from strengthening our community and doing something positive that benefits others is very fulfilling, on a deep level.  It feels good to contribute, but it’s even better when it comes from your own personal work.

A meditation on worth

I had an experience this week where an exhibition opportunity fell apart because the gallery owner would not provide me with a contract.  After emailing back and forth and finally speaking on the phone, I withdrew my work from the exhibition and I don’t regret it for a second.

Here’s why.

When I said I wanted to understand the terms under which we’d be working together, the owner repeatedly replied: “You either trust me or you don’t”.  I offered alternatives, such supplying a sample contract myself, but she interrupted repeatedly, raised her voice, and tried to intimidate and guilt me into doing the show on her terms.  And by that I mean unknown terms, since I couldn’t get the information from her.

Underneath it all was a confidence on her part that I wouldn’t ever say no, because the myth of artists is that we are so hungry for any opportunity to connect with the outside world that we’ll give up any semblance of professional behavior in order to have a few crumbs thrown our way.  But I said no, and I think I shocked the hell out of her!

I hope all artists realize they’re worth more than that.  We are entitled to professional dealings with other professionals.  That includes following standard business practices–such as getting contracts in writing–and if you’re not being treated professionally, the safest thing you can do is walk away.  If that gallery owner was that adamant and supercilious in what’s supposed to be the honeymoon stage, I can only imagine how difficult things could’ve gotten if she’d sold work and owed me money, or when it came time to get the paintings back to me.

Caroll Michels and Jackie Battenfield are two artist-advocates who believe in getting it in writing, so don’t just take my word for it!  (How to Survive & Prosper as an Artist is a classic, and The Artist’s Guide is a new favorite, used in many college classes now).

I thanked her at the end of the call, when it was clear there was no room for any professional discussion on this topic, and said goodbye.  (Always take the high road; my mother taught me that).  And now I’m sleeping like a baby.  If I’d trusted my work to her under these terms, I know I couldn’t say that.

So, I’m working on making this website…

The current incarnation of this website is an experiment.  And an odyssey.  I started out over a year ago to get a website up and running and ran into a lot of roadblocks:  the designer who took my money and was never heard from again.  (Don’t worry–chased him down and got it back!).  The others who flaked out and were never heard from again, but had luckily not gotten around to taking my money.  The high cost.  The variables and unknowns, such as how would I be able to make changes to the site in an economical way, and on my timetable?

Although I’m not a high-tech person, I realized the best way to go– for me–was to learn something about website design so that I could control more of the process.

I used WP Folio, made by and for artists, and Word Press, and have been teaching myself the ropes.  My new mantra is “Release Early and Often!” which means I’m putting versions of the site out there earlier than I necessarily want to, and before I think they’re ready…but if I didn’t do it this way, nothing would EVER get out there because perfectionism gets in the way!  There’s always something to fix, but I’ll do it as I go along.

So this is a challenge in many ways, one that so far has spawned more than a few tears but also some real fist-pumping moments.  I figure I know just enough to be dangerous, so stay tuned!