Ginevra

Tess Martin, Ginevra

This fantastic, animated cut-paper film at Bellevue Arts Museum has very neatly intersected two trains of thought that have occupied my mind recently.

One is the issue of domestic and other violence against women. #MeToo; Harvey Weinstein and all the others who were unmasked after him, not to mention before him.

The other is, very simply: what happens after death? I’ve been thinking about the energy and physics of life quite a bit recently. As an off-and-on atheist/agnostic, I have been fairly certain (and then again, not certain at all) that nothing happens after you die. I’ve begun to change my mind recently, to consider other, energetic, possibilities. Where does the energy go? What does physics say about energy? And then with the recent death of my father-in-law, this question has recently shifted from a philosophical to a personal one.

This film by Tess Martin is based on an unfinished Percy Bysshe Shelley poem (which was based on a legend of an Italian woman of the Middle Ages, who allegedly woke up a day after she died).

I had to arrive at the end before I truly appreciated the film. At first, I was overly critical of the animation, thinking it too primitive (South Park viewers would see similarities in production values), but by the end, I came to believe that the simplicity actually enhanced the magic and feeling of the story. (Later, when I saw the set, which was approximately 18 inches square, I found myself amazed by how expansive the film actually felt. Beyond impressive).

Tess Martin, Ginevra

The action unfolds slowly, detail by quiet detail. We see a woman murdered in her bedroom, presumably by her husband, and then watch her mother pacing the quiet house with grief. These scenes aren’t played for drama, but with maximum feeling. The mother mourns with the body, which lays in state on a canopy bed, near floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook a balcony, and then, the countryside. The mother is surprised to see the body rise, cross the room, climb the balcony railing, and surprisingly, sprout feathers with which to fly away. Which she does, with a sense of utmost grace and freedom. The last we see of Ginevra, she has joined a community of owls and other large birds who slowly circle the countryside, alternately flapping their wings and resting in the draft.

A beautiful ode to mystery, and freedom.

Cut Up Cut Out

Charles Clary, Double Diddle Daddle Bereavement Movement # 1

I have a soft spot for paper. While my hand was injured, I kept sane by sewing papers together with a sewing machine, and this show at Bellevue Art Museum, about all the ways you never thought to use cut paper, really spoke to me.

I’ve been thinking about how to expand my paintings as I move forward, and this show was certainly full of options. The piece above was one of my favorites, and gave me something to think about, as I consider adding dimension and edges to my works.

Donna Ruff, 10.28.13

It took me a few moments to realize all of Ruff’s work are front pages from The New York Times.

Simone Lourenço, My Universe, Blue

Simone Lourenço uses thread (a love of mine) along with her papers. This, along with the explosion of color and edges, was one of my favorite pieces.

Adam Feibelman, Security (detail)

More sewing here (love!), with multiple sheets of paper making a detailed whole. A true depth and elegance.

Invisible Cities by Terri Saulin-Frock

Invisible Cities, Terri Saulin-Frock, 2017

I love going into what I call “real places” and seeing “real art”. For example, there’s an editioned print (not a poster) in the bathroom at the mall, or a quality painting hanging permanently at a bar.

I was in the Philadelphia International Airport recently, and even though rotating art exhibitions are becoming more popular at airports, I was still struck by an exhibition called Invisible Cities by Terri Saulin Frock. Regrettably, I could spend just a few minutes perusing the work before I had to be on my way, but it was technically extremely well made (I’m becoming more and more insistent on that point), beautiful in every sense of the word, and conceptually fascinating.

Small round ceramic vessels transition into one another via a tumbling conglomeration of ceramic matchstick-like bridge structures. Others stand on their own while simultaneously sprouting and supporting an entire civilization of these matchsticks from their tops. Others tilt and bow to matchsticks sprouting from their sides and by their feet. They’re a combination of the lovely – imperfectly handmade, with fingermarks to prove it – and geometrically precise additions, which grow lives of their own as they multiply. The tension between two extremes is fascinating: organic and geometric, stable and unsteady, individual and proliferating multiples, vertical and horizontal.

Invisible Cities, Terri Saulin-Frock, 2017

The source of inspiration is a short story by Jorge Luis Borges, called “The Garden of Forking Paths” (“El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan”). I haven’t read this story, but have read Borges off and on; the last time I made a conscious effort was in grad school, and I feel it might be time again.

A synopsis of the story: a Chinese professor, Dr. Yu Tsun, living in Great Britain during World War I, is spying for the Germans and is about to be caught. He desperately needs to communicate an important bit of information – the location of a new armory – before his imminent capture. With British intelligence hot on his heels, he visits another professor, while pondering the thwarted creative life of his ancestor, Ts’ui Pên. Pên had been a respected government official but gave up this post in pursuit of two goals: to write an epic novel, and to create an epic labyrinth, “one in which all men would lose their way”. After his death, anyone who attempted to read what he wrote found it to be nonsense that circled back on itself, and no one ever found any labyrinth. So much for that. Tsun meets Dr. Stephen Albert, who has studied Pên’s seemingly meager output. Albert excitedly reveals that Pên was a genius, not a slacker after all; his life’s work was creating a novel that was a labyrinth in and of itself. The reason it read as nonsensical was because each step in the novel, each character’s decision, simultaneously led to every possible outcome of that step or decision. It was not a linear path, A to B to C, but an ever-expanding network of forking paths, each yielding a multitude of rich possibilities, which circled around each other and sometimes crisscrossed back to an earlier point. Albert illustrates his example by saying that in their current scenario, two possible circumstances are that Tsun visits his home as an enemy, yet from a different series of alternate decisions, also visits as a friend. All possibilities are simultaneously present. Tsun, extremely gratified to learn of his ancestor’s victory, sees his pursuer out the window, takes out a gun, claims he comes as a friend, and deliberately shoots Dr. Albert. He is subsequently convicted of murder and sentenced to death. But he also wins, because the Germans bomb the armory during his trial. He has successfully communicated the location of the armory to them – in a town called Albert – by murdering someone named Albert so that the Germans would read about the crime in the news and act on his planted clue.

Yeah, let that sink in.

So these invisible yet proliferating cities, with their contradictory yet completely harmonious natures take on a life of their own. What a beautiful homage to this story. And what a mindblower.

Invisible Cities, Terri Saulin-Frock, 2017

McGurk Mysteries

At my art opening the other night, I engaged in a rather mind-blowing conversation. While I was chatting with a visitor, he idly looked at my business card holder on the countertop, and kind of brushed his index finger along my name. Half to himself, he said he hadn’t heard that name since he was a kid…

As he trailed off,  my brain leapt ahead of his words because no one ever knows my name! It’s a lone wolf of a name…shared by almost no one, not to be found on keychains, in pop culture, or any roster or directory of any kind. You just never – well, almost never – run into it, so I was intrigued. 

He went on to say that he’d read a series of mystery stories as a kid – I practically cut him off to joyfully shout “McGurk Mysteries!” – and then we were off an running on a trip down memory lane about these books. 

I very fondly remember these books from my childhood, and personally owned a good many of them. They featured a ten-year-old boy named McGurk, who ran a private investigation service, the McGurk Organization, out of his basement. I don’t remember how the series came to my attention back in the day, but the main attraction for me was to see my name in print (outside of looking at my own handwriting, that never happens). Meanwhile, my friend said he wanted a window on what it was like to live in the suburbs with a stable family. His memory was excellent, by the way, recalling an astonishing level of detail about the author, illustrator, titles, and plots as if he’d read the series last week, instead of over 30 years ago. 

I was completely tickled by this connection we’d made, which looped back through my childhood and brought us together in the present day because of a shared understanding of my name – of all things. I decided to reread a couple of the books, and checked out two from the library.

I was a little disappointed that the book (it turned out that one was enough) didn’t quite stand the test of time. But, it was funny to see all the detective fiction tropes that were checked off in kid-size boxes:

  • a flawed detective (McGurk is impatient and stubborn, with flashes of risky behavior)
  • a willingness of the Organization employees to shade the truth (especially to those in positions of power)  
  • a strained relationship with local law enforcement (the police chief doesn’t have time for juvenile detectives)
  • good guys working against limitations (curfews, the need to attend school during the day)
  • the unmasking of the villain in dramatic fashion

Moving beyond the books themselves, I couldn’t help thinking that my own love of mysteries relates to my affinity for abstraction…multiple layers of meaning, a chronology that might seem less than straightforward, some red herrings, shrouds, and veils – but ultimately a framework that is flexible enough to tell many tales and engage many topics.

I’m indebted to this art lover for sparking this utterly enjoyable conversation and train of thought.

 

 

Accumulations, Courtesy of Yayoi Kusama

Yayoi Kusama, Phalli’s Field

“Accumulations” are what Yayoi Kusama called these multiple soft sculpture phalluses that she patiently sewed and placed in rooms, in platforms mounted on floors and walls, and even in two rowboats. Kusama made these pillow-esque, polka-dotted, cartoon-like, engorged phalluses as a way to get over her fear of sex – and one vintage 1960s photo depicts her lying uncomfortably on top of a patch of them. Much of the wall text at Seattle Art Museum quaintly names them as “tubers”.

By the artist’s request, each installation room was accessible for a timed period, from about 20 – 30 seconds depending on the room. It was fairly disorienting and completely trippy to enter the room, and try to visually make sense of the lights and mirror reflections – literally, the smoke-and-mirrors of it all. The infinity-ness created by multiple mirrors, reflecting yourself in an endless field of phalluses (Phalli’s Field) was reminiscent of being at the Tulip Festival for example…phalluses as far as the eye could see. But I was more interested in the actual sculptures, rather than their reflections. These funny, bumbling things, with their red polka dots scream out as physical comedy. And there was certainly something funny about two lesbians being locked in a room with many dozens of them…

I knew someone once who also made soft sculptures of phalluses. Those were bigger, and more obvious, and clearly were stylized self-portraits of some kind. It was so personal that I was often embarrassed to hear this person talk about his work, because it was essentially like hearing him talk about his own penis. Cringe. (You too, Master of None, bringing your penis’s “gregarious” personality into conversation with women. I wanted to give up watching the show just for that). Kusama’s work was actually smaller (per each phallus), but felt bigger. As flashy as it was, it came from a humble, exploratory place, that was willing to laugh at itself, not a sling-it-around place that needs to stake some kind of claim.

Other accumulations (of memories and associations):

The demand for this exhibition exceeded the open hours of the museum, so we saw this show at about 11:00 PM one evening, when the museum extended their hours. The lines for each viewing room snaked around the larger room of the museum, and because of the wait time and repetitive nature of seeing the same people over and over again as the lines wound around, we found ourselves in lots of friendly conversations. While people had their phones out for photos, it seemed like folks were more engaged with other people in the line, not with staring at their phones. Mia wondered if this was part of the artist’s plan. Maybe it was the festive atmosphere of being in the museum at night. I don’t know why, just an observation.

Mia’s comment that maybe Kusama wanted to foster connections among the viewers as they waited to enter her environments made me think of the architect Paul Rudolph, who designed the buildings on the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth campus. They are not attractive or stately; in fact, I’d consider them visually harsh. But I felt my heart soften toward them a bit when I learned that Rudolph deliberately created hidden or off-kilter building entrances and approaches, the better to engage the then-commuter students in dialogue with each other as they tried to make their way around.

We waited in line for several hours, sitting on the floor. Some people brought special stadium chairs and food, ready to camp out for the duration. I haven’t waited in line like that since sleeping overnight in a sleeping bag on the sidewalk in Washington, DC about 20 years ago. My friend Tribs and I went to see the Van Gogh show at the National Gallery. I’ll never forget the police officers kicking us through our sleeping bags to wake us up in the morning and get us vertical again to clear the sidewalk.

It was in this Kusama line (we were about 200th, according to a count done by one of the museum staff) that Mia and I mapped out the plan to move me into my new studio. If we hadn’t had that time, surrounded by our own and others’ palpable anticipation and excitement at seeing art, we might not have arrived there. Certainly not before she left for Italy, because there were too many other things to do that seemed higher-priority.

So I left this show feeling like I’d been to Infinity, the Tulip Festival, a carnival funhouse, my grad school days, a sidewalk in Washington, DC, and moved a little closer to my wife. I visited in my mind with a couple of old friends (and foes). We made new acquaintances, not friends for life, but friends for an evening, friends we were happy to see again elsewhere in the exhibition. Were these just ultra-personal dots I was connecting, the criss-crossing of random stories that tell me I’m rambling as I’m getting older? Was there something more going on that I was tapping into?

In one of the films, Kusama discussed her desire to add peace and love to the world, saying that each day is a “test for how much I can contribute to society”. If that’s the measuring stick, I believe that all these connections forged that night embody that desire, and prove it true.

Terra Cotta Warriors

Terra Cotta general

Picturing this exhibition of 8,000 clay statues, I imagined tabletop action figures, as far as the eye could see. Toy “army men” fashioned for grown-up royalty. But what was I thinking – royalty gets the royal treatment, after all – this army, whose purpose was to guard China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, during the afterlife, was larger than life-size. Yes, these statues towered over me, at over six feet tall.

The size (and conditions) prevented more than ten warriors from traveling for this exhibition, which was just a little disappointing for me (because I love the idea of multiples), but what the exhibition lacked in quantity, it completely made up for in specificity and gravitas.

Instead of royalty playing with dolls on chessboards (or something like that, as I’d imagined) this was much closer in nature to Egyptian art of the pyramids because these warriors were actually buried with the emperor around 210 BCE.

There were several different types of warriors, including generals, cavalrymen, and archers. Their uniforms and hats were so specific. For example, archers had loosely cut pants because they needed to easily kneel and aim. Cavalrymen had specific chin straps to hold their caps on. Generals had heavy armor that left them unprotected in the back, purportedly because they were so brave and noble as not to need further protection. You could identify each warrior by their uniforms and caps, if you knew what to look for. I loved seeing the treads on the soles of the Kneeling Archer – that kind of detail almost makes me pucker up to cry.

Cavalryman’s shoes
Soles of shoes of Kneeling Archer warrior

The fabrication of this army was also fascinating to me. More than 2.4 million pounds of clay were used – incredible. It was an assembly line arrangement that ran from least to most skilled as the terra cotta was uniformly shaped and extruded for bodies and limbs, ending with skilled artists who handcrafted each unique face, down to individual hairs and features. Facial recognition software says that no two are the same.

Terra Cotta Warrior

The army was uncovered in China in the 1970s, and there’s still some mystery surrounding it. For example, there was a pit uncovered that was full of armor, made of terra cotta. Why would the warriors need suits of armor made for them, when they already had protective clothing – essentially built-in armor? And if they had needed it, why was the armor tossed into a pit all together, instead of being placed on each warrior? One theory is that these were offerings to dead comrades or dead enemies. But the explanation that I love is that it was an armory. An armory! An imaginary armory for imaginary soldiers.

This magnificent undertaking was humanized with the sobering information that the workers who made this army were almost certainly slaves who were coerced and tortured. Evidence of shackles, assorted injuries, and cuts on bones of human remains prove this.

What a show. There’s a museum in China with more warriors and presumably, more artifacts. I’d like to someday see the Acrobat figures that were in charge of entertaining the troops.

The Oak and the Cypress: Mia, Siena, Stripes

Mia, Siena, Stripes
Mia, Siena, Stripes

…And stand together yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.”

Excerpt from “On Marriage” by Kahlil Gibran

This body of work is about being married, or in a long-term relationship.

This painting was inspired by a photograph I took of my wife in Siena, Italy. Once I decided to incorporate pattern into my work in a conscious way, I suddenly saw pattern everywhere. Especially in Siena, each row of brick and each tile were thoughtfully placed to achieve maximum visual impact. While taking this photo, I was struck by the stripes in Mia’s skirt, but also the more subtle stripes from the architecture. This painting won the People’s Choice Award at the City of Federal Way’s Arts Alive exhibition in 2015.

Solo Show Explores Gay Marriage

You're invited

In an exhibition sponsored by the City of Federal Way, painter Maura McGurk uses texture, color and found objects to explore long-term relationships, particularly gay marriage.

McGurk explains that she arrived at this theme through a challenge she gave to herself, to begin using pattern in more conscious ways in her paintings. This technical consideration quickly turned metaphorical as she began to consider the patterns (specifically behavioral ones) in her daily life. This train of thought eventually led to the realization that her eight-year relationship with her wife could now qualify as “long-term”.

But it was a trip to Italy in 2015, their first since traveling there together as a brand-new couple, that provided a natural opportunity to examine their relationship at its beginning and at its current bloom. This bookending also caused McGurk to revisit some of her earlier artwork, since she was inspired by Italy at that time. The warm Italian palette, crusty textures, sense of the passage of time, and found objects such as Italian wall posters frequently featured in her compositions, and she has returned to some of these elements to explore marriage.

The occasional exploration of the figure is a departure from McGurk’s usual abstraction, and a move into more explicitly personal territory and themes.

…And stand together yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.”

Excerpt from “On Marriage” by Kahlil Gibran

Artist Donates 10% of Sales to OneOrlando Fund

Art for Orlando exhibition, First Covenant Church, Seattle
Art for Orlando exhibition, First Covenant Church, Seattle

On Capitol Hill, the acknowledged center of queer culture in Seattle, the Pulse Nightclub murders in Orlando on June 12 exacted a special toll. Most of Seattle’s gay clubs are located here, and rainbow flags and crosswalks dot the landscape, visually knitting together disparate businesses and corners of the neighborhood. Seattle’s generally liberal vibe may have masked any real sense of danger; although assorted hate crimes have increased in the neighborhood over the last few years, there still existed a general feeling that Seattle was safe for queers. The news from Orlando reminded everyone that anything can happen anywhere.

In the immediate aftermath, before the motive was understood or the perpetrator was known, an idea was hatched to create something positive out of this destabilizing grief. Ellie VerGowe, the Community Outreach Coordinator at First Covenant Church, decided to turn the church’s art space over to a month-long tribute to the victims, affording an opportunity for the community to process its grief. Artists, performers and church staff swung into action, hanging a show of over two dozen works that honored the victims in Orlando and celebrated the queer community there and beyond. In addition to the two dimensional works on the wall, the opening reception featured musical compositions as well as an elegiac dance and spoken word performance.

The show was a financial success too, with a robust number of sales and various proceeds marked for support of victims in Orlando. One artist who donated 10% of sales was painter Maura McGurk, who sold seven of the twelve paintings she exhibited. Her paintings were not specifically painted in reaction to the news from Orlando, but were a selection of what she calls “Pride Paintings”. She began on June 1 to honor a different queer person or moment with a commemorative painting each day of Pride Month. When the events in Orlando unfolded, the Pride Paintings took on a different character for McGurk. The collection that was growing on her wall took on a protective aspect, with each portrait looking down and seeming to watch over McGurk and her wife. McGurk’s donation goes to OneOrlando Fund.

Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow

screenshot-2016-09-24-22-37-51

Deinstalling an exhibition is emotional work. It’s the end of something you’ve worked very hard for, you find yourself looking at empty walls once again, packing up the car and holding a little box of plastery nails and gnarled wire…when you’re used to making things instead of tearing them down, it’s tough.

I just closed two exhibitions within a week of each other, so it was doubly hard. But, what makes it manageable is distributing the paintings that have sold. I was lucky enough to bring seven paintings to new homes. I had some of the most excited, grateful reactions I’ve ever had from collectors, so I know these works are going to good homes. That makes a difference!

12 Paintings in Exhibition to Honor Orlando

Kiyoshi Kuromiya, Mixed media, 4" x 5"
Kiyoshi Kuromiya, Mixed media, 4″ x 5″

This June, I did something I’ve been meaning to do for several years: I created a painting each day of the month to celebrate Pride.

I was having fun with this project, and adhering quite nicely to my self-imposed deadlines. Then Orlando happened, and the project took on a slightly new meaning.

Where earlier in the project, I experimented in style and celebrated not only the idea of Pride itself, but also a “I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow” kind of thinking, after June 12, I felt less celebratory and decidedly more serious. The faces and events that I pinned to the wall above my bed delivered – needed to deliver, for me – a sense of protection. The paintings became more focused on portraits – faces – looking down and yes, I saw them as protectors.

People who know me know that I’m quite superstitious. Maybe that’s my (decidedly former) Catholic background talking, the need for an icon to look to for stability. Maybe the absence of that statuary, scapulary et al, in my life dictates the current need to carry an Evil Eye in my pocket every day, as well as to have these portraits (icon-like) looking down from above my bed.

In any case, 12 of these Pride paintings will be on display at First Covenant Church in Seattle, with an opening reception on July 14, 2016, from 6:00 – 9:00 pm. The exhibition honors the victims of the Orlando murders.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of this project to me. When I began, I imagined the possibility of glitter and silliness. But less than halfway through, although there were still some lighter notes (talking to you, Lesbian Pirates) gravitas became a necessity. And I deeply appreciated the many people who wrote to me and thanked me for helping them to process the events in Orlando via my paintings. That was precious to me, and as an artist, there’s nothing higher than that.

Unfortunately, now we turn our attention to other tragedies, with our thoughts in Minnesota and Baton Rouge. I can hardly say I’ve come to terms with Orlando, and we’re faced with these additional senseless killings. I hope for a sense of closure for Orlando through this exhibition, and I promise there will be upcoming work that deals with Black Lives Matter.

Drop by, open-house style, at First Covenant Church for Capitol Hill Art Walk. I’ll be there, and hope you will too.

Details:

First Covenant Church (Summit Building)
420 E. Pike St.
Seattle, WA

Opening Reception:
Thursday, July 14, 2016
6 – 9 PM
Light refreshments provided

Exhibition on view until August 10.

You’re Invited!

Tangier Overture
Tangier Overture

To an exhibition of new paintings at the Knutzen Family Theatre in Federal Way, Washington.

The Oak and the Cypress

…And stand together yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.

Excerpt from “On Marriage” by Kahlil Gibran

This body of work is about being married, or in a long-term relationship. The first step toward this theme was a technical one: I challenged myself to begin using pattern in more conscious ways in my paintings. This technical consideration soon turned metaphorical as I began to consider the patterns (specifically behavioral ones) in my daily life. Around this time, maybe because of this train of thought, I suddenly realized that my eight-year relationship with my wife can now be considered “long-term”. We’re not honeymooners any more, and sometimes we’re both surprised to realize that. On top of this, we traveled to Italy last summer, the first time we’d been there since we went together as a brand-new couple. This trip provided a natural comparison and opportunity to look at our relationship at its beginning and at its current bloom. It also caused me to revisit some of my earlier artwork, since I was inspired by Italy at that time. The warm Italian palette, crusty textures, sense of the passage of time, and found objects such as Italian wall posters frequently featured in my compositions, and I’ve returned to some of these themes to explore marriage.

The exploration of the figure is a departure from my usual abstract paintings, and a move into more personal territory and themes. Only two paintings have ever been shown before in public.

The Oak and the Cypress
On view at Knutzen Family Theatre
3200 SW Dash Point Rd.
Federal Way, WA 98023
Monday – Friday, 9 to 5
Through August 16, 2016

Behind the Scenes (The Painting Fought Back)

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…

The Art of Alzheimer’s

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.