Recently, I was given a wonderful gift by fellow artist. The gift was a book called BIG MAGIC by Elizabeth Gilbert. I have read her work before and always am invigorated by her reassurance that art is a gift, not an obligation to succeed. But in BIG MAGIC she put a feeling into words for me. It explains why so many of us persist in our creations, whether they are in art or other arenas. "Best of all," she writes, "at the end of your creative adventure, you have a souvenir-something that you made, something to remind you forever of your brief but transformative encounter with inspiration."
I laughed when I read her words because all of my art, writing or painting, has been an attempt to create a souvenir from some journey I have been on. These words also encourage me to create more souvenirs, whether they are from people I have met, places I have been or my own internal travels.
The painting above sat unfinished for a while. It was from a photograph I took when a man came through our town and transformed my way of thinking of how landowners (we have three acres) use their land. In his view it was a waste for people to sit on land and not garden, raise animals, produce food, etc. We were doing all of that, but had never thought of it very deeply. I could write a book about him (actually I did try to do that with a friend). We spent days listening to him as he parked his gypsy wagons with his mules, donkeys, chickens and goats along the roadside and pastures, and shared his philosophy with us and others. I have been getting pictures of our time with him out and studying them during the last year because I am hoping to create another souvenir of our encounter.
Sometimes it is hard to persist on a painting or a project, but thinking of them as souvenirs - a physical memory to put in life's scrapbook is great incentive.
Thank you for the book, Molly.
It has been over two years since I have written a blog post. I haven’t felt compelled to say much in writing, because like many others, most of our world was turned upside down with cancer. Searching for answers for a husband who had seldom been sick, finding one we did not want, and a stem cell transplant demanded total focus and trust on friends and family to pull us through. it pushed us into an unfamiliar world where the future was not visible. Thanks to wonderful friends, a supportive family, the Mayo Clinic and a great medical team here, we are on the good side of things at this point. We are grateful, and my husband deserves his own story, for sure.
During that time, i was reminded that my art and writing are more than a profession, more than an activity or a passion...they are how I survive as an individual. My art, my stories, my interpretation of the world was the place I could retreat to. It is a place filled with the colors of my mood, with my own colors, my own sense of peace and soul. It was what I had and have that was totally mine, and also mine to share when finished. I hid in it, thrived on it, and could carry it with me. I could carry it with me on flights to the clinic in Minnesota, thanks to electronics, could carry it into waiting rooms where we spent much of our time.
There was something about not having any control other than doing our best that was actually a relief from the daily striving for more and better. It was not unlike giving in to the painting or story you are working on and letting it tell itself-the point at which you give up wondering if it will sell, if anyone else will understand it, or if you are wasting your time on it. I began the drawing for the image above while in the waiting room, sketched it on the back of a schedule. It was going to be called “On Thin Ice”, but by the time it was finished, I knew that was not the main idea behind the drawing. The ice we did feel thin, cracks formed while we were not aware of them. But somehow we keep afloat. Somewhere in the middle of the piece, which is called “Keeping Watch”, I realized that the important part of our lives has been how we were watched over, how neighbors and friends surrounded us during this time. While we were away someone always kept watch and took care of our home. I felt that the world had its arms around us and that is what has allowed us to drift this far.
I have taken a break for the last two weeks, which is a long time for me to avoid working on new pieces. I cleaned my studio, ordered new pastels, and feel like I am ready for a fresh start. What I hope I can keep from the last two years, other than my husband’s good health, is the realization that each hour in the studio is a time to find myself once again, an to let go of the vision for the final outcome and let life's painting take over.
I realized that I had things in my head, not like what I had been taught-not like what I had seen-shapes and ideas so familiar to me that it hadn't occurred to me to put them down. I decided to stop painting, to put away everything I had done, and to start to say things that were my own.- Georgia O'Keefe.
So many times I hesitate to go to the full uniqueness of a piece of art that I want to share because it is different than my other pieces or different than the work I have sold lately. My mind will fill itself with doubts over what should be such a pleasurable experience: Will people know what this woman represents? Does it matter? Can I be patient enough to stick with my inner vision, enough to do it over and over till it matches what is in my head? Can I change mediums if this one is not working to tell the story? Can I like it if no one else does?
And there you have it- just a few of the thoughts that ride on my left shoulder while my right arm is painting an image from my imagination, or changing a landscape to match what I feel and not just what I see. And I don't think I am alone, which is why so many of us appreciate Georgia O'Keefe's stubborn insistence on going her own way. If I am lucky, the stroke of pastel or paint on paper and watching the image evolve silences those unwanted words.
ILLUMINATED GARDEN, the image above, developed a meaning-its own story-after landing on paper in bright, soft pastels. Something about planting seeds when no one is looking and being content that they would sprout in their own good time and grow into what they were meant to be takes faith. I am thankful that this image sold, but I keep a framed print of it nearby because it is a reminder that I need to plant those seeds, whether they are in the form of words or images. To know that Georgia O'Keefe had to remind herself to stay true to herself is a wonderful validation that the insecurity, the need to push on, the temptation to paint just to please others is there with even the best of artists. Her words are a reminder that this decision is one we need to make over and over again as we continue our journey. A small book of her quotes, WORDS/WORKS was given to me by a friend who knows me well.
The meaning of a word -to me- is not exact as the meaning of a color. Colors and shapes make a more definite statement than words." Georgia O'Keefe, 1976.
A dear friend and neighbor gave me a beautiful book of quotes by Georgia O'Keefe for Christmas. WORDS AND WORKS really spoke to me. I often speak about which comes first, the word or picture of a story. They are in partnership more often than we know. Often I have to paint a picture two or three times so that I know it is telling the story in my mind. Sometimes I can't articulate the story until it sits in front of me.
In CRANE WOMAN, the painting shown above, patterns needed to show me a heavy settling of cold air. The colors needed to be earthy and subdued. Winter is coming too early on the tundra. In one version the birds I made were flying in a dynamic pattern, but these birds, even though migrating south, are patterned in the weight of the air. They needed to be contained by both color and shape.
Like much of the world, I have been captivated by O'Keefe's work as she leads us into a stillness of enlarged shapes…sun, flowers, skulls and clouds, and into deeper thoughts.
As a writer and artist I am always ready to share my work…sometimes too soon. By nature, many others who share my love for words and images, work within our own worlds, secretly hoping that what we create will delight or move others besides ourselves. That is the way we choose to connect to the rest of the world, to find ourselves in others-to connect. And that is what makes us human.
I am a people person and for me, the desire to connect urges me to share too quickly. I was laughing the other day at how often I pass out tastes of my work before I even know what I want to do with it. I’m looking for approval, for compliments, for the energy to keep going. But, in the end, sometimes sharing too soon can lead to reactions that are discouraging, a little like a cook who asks us to taste the raw meat going into the soup, hoping we tell him how delicious the soup will be.
A good cook may go over the recipe or thought with someone, but waits until the soup is pleasing to his or her taste before sharing, or asking if something is missing. I think that is what we, as artists need to do. While we are waiting for the pot to boil, wondering if we should have stuck to a familiar recipe that has received compliments before, we need to believe in the value of what we are doing until we see it through to completion. For me, this skill is taking a lifetime to develop. It takes a daily reminder that art is not a selfish act; it is a calling that we have an obligation to pursue, just like any other calling.
As the holidays call us to stop and do some reflecting, I often think of the loon, who also spends much of its time alone or with one other loon on a lake or pond close to saltwater. They only gather briefly where the feed is good. They don’t spend their time telling each other about all the fish they caught or the nests they built. They seem to the viewer to be satisfied with the company of one another and an abundance of food before going their separate ways.
I hope you find many of these moments of gathering during your holiday.
One of my favorite songs is from Jimmy Buffet’s album “License to Chill.” It rings true every time I hear it, and every time I hear it - it bears a slightly different message. The song is called, "Life is Simply Complicated." The lyrics that make me laugh go like this:
Now I’m having a big problem with my present day career;
My ship, she has a rudder, but she don’t know where to steer.
Am I country, pop or rock’ n’roll?
I know they are related.
I’ll just let you be the judge.
It’s simply complicated.
Life is complicated with its if’s and and’s and buts.
It’s alright to be crazy...just don’t let it drive you nuts!
If I had a ship, I would name it CHASING WONDER. Lately that is what I have been doing, and I find myself painting the same scene over and over again, the same coffee cup in different light, or mystical birds witnessing the end of winter as a woman brings spring to their land. The theme that runs true through all of the images is that there was something I saw, either in my head or in one of those coffee cups that made me feel a sense of ahhh! which is such a childlike delight.
I am starting to understand a little more why artists, musicians, and writers pursue similar themes over and over again. They are chasing wonder, whether it is Diebenkorn continually examining his subjects through abstract expressionism, or Van Gogh’s turbulence of brush strokes as he repeatedly painted sunflowers, rooms, and himself, or Pat Conroy writing his fascination/obsession with his family and the south into so many wonderful novels.
There are many subjects I return to, over and over...Sonoma County mountains. birds, and I continue to return to my childhood fascination with reflections...in still water, shiny ceramics and metal. They bring to me the sense of wonder I had as a child when I realized that a muddy puddle could transform itself into a sepia-toned mirror of sky and trees. To make it better a puddle has it’s own edges so the picture is framed. Recently I finished AUTUMN, which is a painting of our drainage ditch after the leaves started falling. I loved the image but want to do it again. This time to capture less leaves and a time of day, next time to capture something else. It is the same puddle I must have passed by a lifetime ago in a different spot while growing up, and whenever it reappears, I feel that sense of wonder once again. I will continue to paint that scene as long as leaves float in water, I’m sure.
As artists we are often encouraged to brand ourselves, to stick with one genre of art to make ourselves known and sellable. But lately, as I steer my ship between these ways of expressing myself, I somehow know that I am always chasing wonder.
If you would like to read earlier installments of Painting The Sky, you can find them here.