Thursday, June 11, 2020

Dear Bus Artist: An Open Letter

An Open Letter to an Artist I Met on a Bus in 2009

Dear Bus Artist,

The summer before I started ninth grade, my youth group did a "stay-cation"-style mission trip.

In other words, we camped out in the back yard of one of our youth leaders and did various service projects around the city.

We did things like painting and playing with kids at the Salvation Army youth center, working at an urban garden, and working with other local ministries. Each day, we took the city bus to a different work site.

For me, this was an eye-opening experience on many levels.

I had no idea the need, or the important work being done, in my own city!

Here I was, a timid, awkward freshman girl, hopping aboard a bus each morning and evening with a group of 20 other high school students. Have I mentioned I'd never ridden a bus before?

I was terrified of sitting next to a stranger, terrified of getting lost or missing my stop (yes, I was in a group; no, that did little to calm my fears), terrified that I'd make the wrong move and be mugged in the street.

At the time, I didn't realize these fears had a name: anxiety. As an adult, very aware of myself and my mental state, I can look back and point out all sorts of symptoms I had. As a young teen, I had no idea. I thought I was just a typical, if shy, person.

Of course I also had the normal teen girl fears, like not wanting to look stupid in front of my crush... Anyway, moving on.

By the end of the week, I was exhausted, probably stank from not showering enough, and was only slightly less terrified of the bus.

That Friday afternoon, we all piled on the bus and to my dismay, I was the odd one out. I was forced to sit beside a stranger (horror of horrors!).

This is where you come in, Bus Artist. The strange I sat beside was you.

As a child I had an unexplained fear of men, particularly old men. Well, all old people. And strangers. And sick people, and people who smoked, and people with facial hair (my dad was clean-shaven). Or people who were loud and rambunctious. I had a long list of fears!

In light of all that, I hope you weren't offended by my silence or my unwillingness to even let our clothing brush, though we shared a seat on a bus. I was a dumb kid, and you were an older man with a 5 o'clock shadow and the lingering scent of cigarettes.

But from the first moment, I noticed your clipboard and thick stack of paper. As we rode along on our jerky, stop-and-go way, I was intrigued to find that you were drawing on this makeshift sketchbook. I didn't want to pry, but I couldn't resist watching.

You sketched our fellow bus-passengers without a word. One, two, three pages, filled and flipped over the clipboard.

I would have never said spoken if you hadn't spoken first. I would have sat in silence the entire way, sneaking peeks at your sketches.

I'm so glad you spoke up!

You asked if I liked art. My response, still nervous, was less than enthusiastic. I admitted I liked to draw sometimes.

I wish I'd had the guts to speak freely, to tell you I'd been wondering about pursuing a career as an artist. I'd always loved art, poring over drawing books trying to absorb every word of instruction. I'd moved on from Crayola markers and crayons to "fancy pencils," charcoal, and ink-washes. I specialized in horses, copying all my favorite pictures in my horse books. Yes, I liked art!

You spent the rest of our bus ride showing me how you did gesture drawings. We talked about shading, and the direction of the light. Several times, you told me to get the book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards. I tucked that title away in my mind.

You asked if I drank or smoked, which I, being a sheltered homeschool kid, was somewhat shocked by. I answered "no" truthfully. You smiled and said that was good, and not to try those things. You said drinking and smoking could ruin someone's life. I wondered, but I didn't ask whose life they'd ruined--yours or that of someone you loved. I've wondered ever since... and I've prayed. Whatever your story, I wish life had been a little kinder to you.

As soon as I got home, I borrowed Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain at the library. You were right, it's a pretty insightful book!

I'll admit, I largely forgot about our little encounter until a few years later when I stumbled upon that book in a used book sale.

I opened the book, a hardcover, unlike the paperback library copy I'd borrowed years earlier. The spine was stiff from sitting unopened on someone's shelf.

Turning the pages, it all came tumbling back to me.

Your gruff but kind words, you rough clothing, calloused hands cradling your scrap-paper sketchpad. Your sketches, so expressive and full of movement. The way you explained drawing perspective, shadows, and keeping in mind the direction of a light source.

I was wildly glad that long-forgotten drawing book popped back into my life so unexpectedly, at a time when I happened to be feeling pretty frustrated and uninspired in the creative department.

I don't know if I thanked you for talking about drawing with me. I don't remember our exact conversation, if I said anything when we reached my bus stop. You removed the sketches you'd made during our ride from your clipboard and handed them to me. They are the drawings in this letter.

We parted knowing almost nothing about each other, except that we shared a love of art.

Looking back, I wish I'd asked your story! I wish I'd asked you what you did for a living, what lead you to sketch your fellow bus-riders, or when you first started drawing. I wish I'd asked you if you knew Jesus.

When I got off the bus with my friends, clutching the stack of pencil gesture drawings, I started crying. Weeping. I felt as if I had seen a glimpse of God, and in the most unexpected place: a 50-year-old artist riding a bus. I cried because I could suddenly see how much God loved you, and how much God loved me.

That was in 2009. 

Today, eleven years after that bus ride, I wonder where you've ended up.

What's happened in your life since that Friday afternoon? Do you still ride that bus route? Do you still carry your makeshift sketchpad of scrap paper?

Thank you, sir, for speaking first. Thank you for the book recommendation, it's a great book!

Thank you for reminding me that every person is a story, a poem, a sketch of dreams, mistakes, and memories.

Thank you for reminding me that art exists to bring people together. I pray that I may grow to become the one who speaks first, myself, and touches the heart of a young person.


The Teenage Girl on the Bus

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Fear, Unfinished Art, and COVID-19

Work-in-progress collage (untitled)
Hey all! I hope you're staying healthy, safe, and sane during these strange times...

For well over a month I've been working on a large, colorful collage of sunflowers and bunnies. A few weeks ago I wrote up a basic first draft of the blog post I planned to share when it's finished... It's mostly about my mental health and how good this year has been so far, the symbolism of sunflowers and bunnies, good stuff like that.

The problem is, everything changed in the past three weeks. 

A few weeks ago, COVID-19 was a distant concern for much of the world. For those like me, living a quiet life in the midwestern US, it was barely even a headline in the world news. 

For the first two months of this year, my mental health was the best it has been in years!

I was happy, my depression was creeping steadily backward, my anxiety was the lowest since I don't even know when. My few anxious days each had specific causes, easy to address and move on. I refocused my relationship with God, I was spending more time with people I care about, I had a lot of new and exciting things happening, I was happy and healthy and doing so, so well. The happiest I've been in a long time.

Since COVID-19 developed into a full-blown pandemic, anxiety and depression began rearing their ugly heads once again.

I'm not all that concerned about getting sick (although maybe I should be? We can debate that later). My feelings about the illness itself are more of resignation than fear. I'm washing my hands, taking care of myself and my family, staying home. If I get sick, I get sick, there's nothing more I can do about it. All I can do is pray it would be a mild case. If any of my loved ones get sick, my prayer remains the same. My prayer remains the same for everyone across the world.

What's really caused me anxiety is the social upheaval and uncertainty over the future.

In a matter of days and weeks, businesses closed, restaurants closed their dining rooms, people became afraid, and most days social media seems to be more guilt-trips than anything else.

I felt guilty when I wasn't able to work from home, I feel guilty when I go to the grocery store, I feel guilty for cracking coronavirus jokesbut I need to make money, I need to eat, and I need to laugh in order to cope.

Now I'm off work until April 6th at the earliest, so at least I don't have to feel guilty about going to the office. Instead I just get to think about how long my paid time off will last, compared to how long this pandemic could run... fun thoughts, amiright? And as someone whose mental health thrives on routine, these ever-changing, uncertain times are rough

On top of everything else, I've had a mild cough lingering for the past month, slowly and steadily improving. I feel guilty every time I have to cough or clear my throat in public, worried that my innocent cough is spreading fear and panic. 

Work-in-progress collage (untitled)
Everything feels strange and surreal. On one hand, we're in the middle of a worldwide emergency, a deadly pandemic. People are sick, dying, or losing their jobs, suffering from deep depression exacerbated by loneliness and fear. Businesses are struggling. My heart breaks for those suffering, and I fear the long-term effects this will have on the economy and society. 

On the other hand, the sun is shining and spring has arrived. My 25th birthday is in ten days! I'm making art, writing, baking cookies, exercising. Life goes on, strange as it may be right now.

However, I'm beyond thankful to say that my mental health is holding strong. The week of the 15th I was filled with anxiety and dread. I couldn't paint most of that week because I was too anxious.

This past week has been a different story! I'm still anxious and I dread the turmoil and loss in the coming weeks and months, but I've felt enough peace to paint, and that is truly a precious gift to me.

I've continued working on this collage I started long before COVID-19 was a pandemic. Today I'm doing something I wouldn't normally do on this site... Today I've shared only work-in-progress photos, because the collage isn't finished yet.

I'm hoping to complete it sometime this week, and then I'll edit and publish my other blog post draft sharing the inspiration behind the piece. That is also when I will reveal the title of this piece. I've chosen a title I think we all will be able to connect with...

For now, I hope you enjoy these progress shots. Just as this bunnies and flowers collage is unfinished, remember that this pandemic is not the new normal, this is not the end. This is temporary, and in time the term "social distancing" will become a memory.

Until then, this collage has become my prayer. I pray you remain healthy, safe, and happy. I pray illness, stress, financial struggle, loneliness, and boredom stay far away from you. I pray these bright sunflowers and blue bunnies can brighten your day a little. I pray you enjoy baking sourdough bread, sewing masks for hospitals, binge-watching Netflix, or whatever you're doing while quarantined. I pray you learn new things about the world, yourself, and your loved ones during this time. I pray that we all learn to value our relationships more, and learn to treat others with an extra dose of kindness... especially those workers who are so often mistreated, but are truly essential to keeping our society going.

I pray you remain healthy and safe.


Saturday, February 1, 2020

Franz Marc, Laurel Burch, and Me

Franz Marc, Blaues Pferd I (Blue Horse I ), 1911
Another blog post, another note about forgetting to publish this when I drafted it, almost a year ago... I know, my blunder is old news.

Don't worry, we're almost through this old batch about last year's Silhouette Girl and the Moonhorse project. I just couldn't allow myself to trash all this content, even if it's old. I really love sharing my inspiration with you. Please stay with me just a little longer?

I'm still embarrassed, but I take great comfort in the fact that you're still here, reading all this. I appreciate the support, more than you know!

I promise, new content will come soon. I've got some really exciting things headed your way... more art, more poetry, more everything. In the meantime...

Franz Marc rocks.

Not sure who he is? No worries! I'm going to talking about him today so if you're curious, keep reading. If you're not curious, well... I really hope you keep reading anyway?

Laurel Burch, "Indigo Mares"
Okay, back to Franz Marc. Franz Marc painted lots of subjects, but he was especially fond of animals, and of all the animals, he painted horses the most. As one who has grown up with a love for horses, I can't help thinking of Franz Marc as "the blue horse guy".

Growing up, I tended to prefer realism. As my appreciation for expressionism has grown, so has my enjoyment of Marc and his colorful cubist critters.

Nevertheless, there's a connection which didn't occur to me until I opened this old blog draft. I was preparing a basic piece on Marc and his animals, but I realized that Marc and I seem to have something in common... And we're not alone.

Enter Laurel Burch!

In one fell 16-page swoop starring a blue horse, I managed to accidentally echo both Franz Marc and Laurel Burch.

I would be mad if they both weren't so great!

Detail, "Meeting," Silhouette Girl and the Moonhorse.
Watercolor, gouache, ink, and mulberry paper on paper
cloth. March 2019.
Oops, did I say that? Yes, I'm also a Laurel Burch fan! Not the cats; I'm not a cat person, but I'm all over her horses. Her use of colors and shapes is gorgeous.

Between the two of them, Marc and Burch managed to capture animals in entirely new ways, using vibrant colors, shapes, and patterns. They both favored cats and horses and created dynamic compositions with them.

They also both felt strongly about the meaning of art and the feelings they could evoke with their paintings.

"Today we are searching for things in nature that are hidden behind the veil of appearance... We look for and paint this inner, spiritual side of nature."
- Franz Marc

Franz Marc, Wassily Kandinsky, and some of their avant-garde friends formed an organization called Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) in 1911.

This group was deeply interested in spiritual meaning within art. Their mission was to get away from the long-standing art traditions and returning to a raw, primal, spiritually meaningful art. They were deeply invested in symbolism and spiritual representation in art. Kind of a kooky bunch in my opinion, but we all have different beliefs. I won't fault them for being a little kooky.

Cover of Der Blaue Reiter. Design by Wassily 
Kandinsky, 1912.
In 1912 Der Blaue Reiter published a journal of essays by the artists and almost 150 reproductions of primitive, children's, and folk art.

Marc, like many influential artists, had some traditional art training early on. He fell in love with the work of Vincent van Gogh, and left art school in favor of developing his skills alongside other avant-garde artists.

As Der Blaue Reiter focused more and more on the spiritual meanings of color and form, their work continued to drift more and more toward cubism and the abstract, leaving their traditional art education behind.

The start of WWI brought an end to The Blue Rider organization and publication. Franz Marc was drafted into the German cavalry and killed in battle in 1916.

However, Marc and Kandinsky sparked something that lasted far longer. Der Blaue Reiter led the way for the Abstract Expressionists, 20th century "modern artists" like Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko.

"My paintings are the most intimate portrayals of all that is precious to me, my greatest joy is to offer them in forms that enhance and brighten the lives of kindred spirits all around the globe."
- Laurel Burch

Like Franz Marc, Laurel Burch felt strongly about the meaning in her art. She used color and form as tools for spreading joy, building her career on that mission. Whereas Marc and Kandinsky were focused on the spiritual and mystical, Burch's focus was on the mythical and fantastical, creating images of cats, butterflies, horses, and other animals in sparkling jewel tones and geometric designs, ignoring fashion trends and instead drawing influences from folk art and her imagination.

Laurel Burch started out as a young single mother making jewelry to sell in shops in San Francisco, but quickly outgrew her humble beginning. She made jewelry, painted, and experimented with many art and craft techniques.

Laurel Burch with one her numerous cat paintings
Burch had a bone disease, osteopetrosis ("stone bone") and passed away in 2007 due to complications from that. Her bones were very hard and brittle, and she broke over 100 bones in her life. She knew pain, and strove to outweigh her pain with vibrant, joyful art.

Like Marc and the artists of Der Blaue Reiter, Laurel Burch's influence went beyond simply painting. Burch was something of a pioneer— she was one of the first Americans to partner with Chinese manufacturers, in the early 70s when China was generally considered a closed market. Burch stood up for the integrity of her work, politely but firmly insisting that every product reproduce her images exactly, with no change or interpretation.

Burch's colorful, fun-loving art and her mind for business led to a worldwide market, expanding to license numerous companies to create products using her original artwork. She made her art accessible to all, with everyday products like jewelry, accessories, and clothing, sold at inexpensive prices. Laurel Burch, Inc. virtually exploded in the 80s and 90s, and is still known and loved today, especially among cat-lovers.

Am I breaking some rule by comparing Franz Marc and Laurel Burch?

Did an art critic somewhere in New York, London, or Paris just start inexplicably crying?

I really don't know, and that's the thing about the art world. I've barely dipped my toe in with a few art shows and that awesome RAW: Columbus experience, but from the outside I see so many unspoken, unwritten rules. So many "shoulds."

As a child I fell in love with Norman Rockwell's paintings, and as a teen I discovered that many artists and critics claim he was "only an illustrator" or "only a cover designer." Apparently he didn't count as a a "real artist"...whatever that means.

Detail, "The Dance," from Silhouette Girl and the
Moonhorse. Watercolor, gouache, ink, and mulberry
paper on paper cloth. March 2019.
As if being an illustrator or a designer is somehow not being an artist? Somehow, I don't see the logic there...

For a long time I grudgingly believed that pretentious, long-held, harmful idea that if an artist is not devoted to making it in the fine art world of galleries and agents, cocktail dresses and auctions, they don't belong. Grudgingly, because I don't like the idea of being boxed into that role.

Finally I found my mistake, and suddenly I felt free to have an Etsy shop and design on Redbubble, and still call myself a serious artist.

I had spent so long wanting to "be an artist" as if that were a dream job to work toward, not realizing that I was an artist simply because I made art!

I now believe the purpose of art is to build bridges and bring people together, not divide them. Art is meant to open the eyes of those who cause hurt, and to heal those who are hurting.

Whether the artist is Franz Marc, Laurel Burch, Norman Rockwell, Leonard da Vinci, whoever - our art exists to try to bridge the gaps between all of us.

I believe that when two people who are otherwise opposite—upbringing, nationality, age, religion, class, education, values—become lost in the same painting, feeling the same emotions, longing for the same things, utterly eclipsed by a single painting, song, book, or movie... that is why we make art.


Some sources on Franz Marc, Der Blaue Reiter, and Laurel Burch:

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Arches National Park, Ohioans, and the Moon

Delicate Arch from the upper viewpoint. This is the closest we could get
without a strenuous hike, and I don't have a telephoto lens!
If you read my post before last, the one about Mars and Bryce Canyon, you know I recently found a batch of unpublished stuff all about Silhouette Girl and the Moonhorse, and some of the creative inspiration behind that project. Well, today I'm coming at ya with another of those forgotten blog posts... the inspiration for my depiction of the moon. Good ol' Luna, Earth's beautiful moon...

But before I get started, I want to share a quick note of thanks to the first person to look at Moonhorse in the Brooklyn Art Library! Last week I got an email notifying me that someone looked at it. Thank you, Audrey, wherever you are! I hope you liked my fanciful little story!

Okay, back to business... One of the highlights of my family vacation in 2018 (yes, you'll be hearing about that trip as long as I live; no, I don't feel bad about bringing it up all the time) was seeing Arches National Park. Arches is located in Moab, Utah, one of the "Big 5" national parks in Utah, and a must-see if you're visiting the area.

The entrance to Arches is dramatic. The visitor center is at the foot of huge cliffs rising up around it.

To enter the park, you have to drive up and around the sides of the cliffs as if the road is gradually curving and switch-backing up the sides of a funnel. The visitor's center is 4,085 feet above sea level, the lowest elevation in the park. By the time you reach the top of the "funnel" and are truly inside the park, you've gained over 500 feet.

At the top you're met with Arches' beautiful natural spires, walls, fins, columns, of course arches.
Tall, narrow fins of rock, aptly named Park Avenue in a double-pun, rise above the entrance road like skyscrapers. Much of the rock in southern Utah is bright orange and golden-brown sandstone, and the colors only push the drama further.

Arches Entrance Road curves deep into the park, with numerous viewpoints and other roads breaking off from it. Most the sites are easy to see from the car, and there are lots of short trails up to and around the enormous stone features.

Of course we were all eager to see the famous Delicate Arch, a beautiful, free-standing arch near the eastern edge of the park. Unfortunately, getting to the arch required a more serious hike than any of us were up to at that point. This was the last real day of our grand adventure, before driving halfway across Colorado and flying home. Between our exhaustion and the elevation, we settled for the sight above, from the upper Delicate Arch viewpoint.

Balanced Rock, Arches Nat'l Park, Utah. November 2018.
Detail from Silhouette Girl and the Moonhorse.
Balanced Rock, Earth and Mars. Watercolor, ink,
gouache, and mulberry paper on paper cloth.
Nine miles in, Balanced Rock is easily recognizable from the main park road. Balanced Rock is what inspired my drawings of the moon in Silhouette Girl and the Moonhorse! I wanted to convey the near-weightlessness of the Moon, while echoing familiar terrestrial nature.

I imagine rock formations which would be impossible on earth might in fact be plausible in lower gravity. I'm no physicist, but I like the idea that the moon could have a response to our Balanced Rock. Don't you?

There's something almost surreal about finally seeing these things in person after admiring photos all my life. It's entirely changed my perspective.

One amazing rock formation we got to see is the Parade of Elephants. This is a series of massive rocks that really do look like a heard of elephants.

We climbed up to get a closer look at it, and it really was marvelous to stand up close and realize just how enormous these rocks were. They weren't just rocks or boulders. They were immense.

They say everything's bigger in Texas, but if my whirlwind tour through New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado is any indication, I actually think everything's bigger west of the Mississippi. Photos can never show just how massive these things truly are. In photos, Balanced Rock looks like something I could reach out and tip over with one hand, but it's actually a 55-foot boulder naturally cemented onto a 73-foot base, reaching well over 100 feet into the air. Compared to many of the rock features in Arches, Delicate Arch stands relatively small at 52 feet.

Arches National Park, November 2018.
Walking around these stone structures that absolutely overshadow Ohio's forests, plains, and foothills, I could hardly believe that the stone of Arches is actually wearing down, shrinking away over time, thanks to the constant (believe me, constant) wind on the high plains.

Arches is composed mostly of mudstone and sandstone, which crumble and wear away easily. Delicate Arch is, in fact, becoming more delicate with each passing day. One day, Balanced Rock may fall. The Parade of Elephants is very gradually crumbling, tiny grain by grain of sandstone.

We often believe stone is as close to eternal as anything can be, but the truth of the matter is that even rock wears away, falls, shatters, turns to sand and dust. This was a sobering thought, a faint shadow at the edges of our visit at Arches, and the buffeting wind served as a constant reminder.

But Arches is also a reminder that you shouldn't dwell on that distant future. All you can do is enjoy what is here now, and do your best to conserve and not harm the environment.

With that in mind, we had a lot of fun. We took goofy pictures, peered through ginormous openings like windows, enjoying every moment. We stuck to simple hikes, but had no regrets.

O-H-I-O pose!
Buckeye Fans at Parade of Elephants. Pen on paper, 2018.
As Ohioans will, we had to take plenty of pictures posing with our arms spelling out O-H-I-O.

My brother-in-law, who hails from Florida, was thoroughly unimpressed by our repeated shows of state pride, but that didn't stop us from doing the O-H-I-O pose every chance we got. His scoffing wasn't going to stop these devoted Buckeyes.

There were so many reasons to be excited for vacation, and one of them was my hope to get reconnected with art after a long time of feeling unable to draw, paint, or even look at art. I was burnt-out and dealing with heightened anxiety after some major life-events.

Indeed, this trip out west was the reset I needed! I came back physically worn out but creatively refreshed. It's like the art centers had my brain had been numbed for months on end, but this trip woke them and got me back on track.

It felt amazing to come home and finally paint again.

Sometimes a major change of scenery and break in routine is all that's needed to cut the burnout and creative frustration. This trip was such a big deal for my family and me, and such a big creative boost, that you'll just have to deal with continuing to hear about it more than a year later. I hope you'll forgive me...


Saturday, January 11, 2020

Calm, Comfort, Courage

I know, I just posted a few days ago! I'm trying to get back on track posting regularly. Yay for starting the year with good intentions!
Calm (Still). January 2020. Collage on canvas, 8"x10".  

On Monday I went home from work planning to spend the evening tidying up, crocheting, and catching the latest episode of Saturday Night Live on Hulu.

Instead, the evening became a mad rush to create. I haven’t had a strong collage urge lately; I started a couple of very small pieces a few months ago, but nothing large or elaborate. But by the time I got home Monday evening, I felt it. 

I needed to make a collage!

Then "a collage" turned into three collages. Why hold back?

I started by looking through some photos and pulling out three that I wanted to use. I can’t describe why I picked them over any others, they just had the right feelingThen I dug through my extensive collection of painted and textured paper, old maps, feathers, bits of lace, and odds and ends I’ve saved on the off chance they’ll come in handy for a collage. 

Eventually I pulled out several different-colored sheets of mulberry paper, some scraps of a Chinese newspaper, and some pieces of an old world map, and set to work.

Comfort (Small). January 2020. Collage on canvas, 8"x10". 
After organizing all the materials into three stacks, one per photo, I got out three 8x10 canvas boards. I might have done larger if I had any, but that was the only size that I had three of. We look for a lot of meaning in a piece of art, analyzing everything—subject, color, symbolism, composition, size, media—and I generally think carefully about everything, even the canvas size I want to work with… but sometimes an artist’s choice is as simple as what she happens to have on hand!

I lined up my three small canvases so I could arrange the collages simultaneously. I started by determining and laying out the key elements: the photos, three squares of paper that felt meaningful to me, and three rectangles of paper to coordinate the colors within each piece.

The first, Calm (Still), features a photo of the beach on Tybee Island, Georgia. In this collage I used a lot of silver, soft blue and bronze-y grey.

The second, Comfort (Small), has a photo of a quilt that was handmade by my great-grandmother, then finished and given to me by my mom. For this one I focused on the colors in the quilt, like soft blue, warm tan, and golden red-orange. In the corner I used a piece of paper inscribed with a definition of peace written by a dear teacher of mine... 

Contentment. Calmness. Assurance of "it will be okay."

Courage (Voice). January 2020. Collage on canvas, 8"x10".
Finally, Courage (Voice) features a photo of myself—that is, myself a few years ago, when I had very long hair. You can’t see my face, only my hair tumbled down around my heart, with a few feathers woven in. For this one, I used mostly black and gold. 

The paper square in the lower corner is cut from the table of contents for an old book entitled The Emblems of The Holy Spirit.

Even though each individual piece contains some different colors and motifs, I wanted the series to be easily recognized as one image. A triptych, technically. Arranging them all at once and placing certain parts so they lined up perfectly with one another helped to create this feeling of oneness.

If you were paying attention to the parenthetical titles and the symbolism of three in one, you’ve probably picked up on the fact that this was a very spiritual project.

I’ve always struggled with what it means to make “Christian” art. I’ve written about this before. It’s an ongoing point of tension in my work.

Over the years I’ve drawn Bible scenes, made collages of what the Church or Christian community means and does, and made pieces inspired by certain Bible verses. This one doesn't contain a single piece of scripture or Bible story, but for me, this triptych is as deeply faith-based as anything else I could make. 

Comfort (Small) detail.
With each scrap of paper I glued down, I thought and prayed about my relationship with God.

My faith has been difficult for me; I won't lie. It’s not that I struggle with belief—I can’t see any way for me to stop believing! I absolutely believe that the Bible is true and that God made us, loves us despite our flaws and mistakes, and defeated sin and death so that we could be with him. 

The trouble for me has always been the challenge of spreading my faith from my mind to my heart.I can see his works, the things he’s done that no coincidence can explain. I know how to read the Bible, I know a lot about its history, about theology and what some of the different Biblical concepts mean. 

The truth is, knowing about God is different from knowing him, and knowing him is different from having a relationship with him.

When I first started making collages, my art teacher had a rule: no matter what other materials I used, I always had to include something I drew or painted myself. I break plenty of art "rules", but that's one I have kept.

Courage (Voice) detail. 
So I set these aside for a few days, not sure what to draw (and I was busy! It's hard to balance full-time work, some semblance of a social life, writing, and art!). But all the time, that last, all-important element was needling at me. I needed one, single image to draw across the three and make them really, truly one artwork in three pieces.

The answer came when a friend shared a few song lyrics on Instagram. 

The song was from my long-time favorite band, Relient K. I don’t remember which friend it was and I don't remember which song they shared, but it called to mind a different song. This is one of my favorite Relient K songs, "Prodigal." 

"Prodigal" is about returning to faith after periods of stagnation, or times when life seems to take over and push God aside. One of the verses begins, “Sweet Jesus, I was coming to pray, but Lord, I’ve been so busy and I kept you away.”

Oof. If that line doesn't hit you in the gut, I don't know what will. I don't know why, but it's just so easy to let busyness get in the way of the more important things! Whether it's your relationship with God, your significant other, your best friend... I know I'm guilty of this on several accounts. 

...I seriously love good bread....
The chorus of the song goes like this:

“I am the champion of wine,
you’re the bread on my tongue.
I am the last one in line,
the prodigal.”

It probably helped that the night before, I ate some delicious homemade sourdough bread... 

Regardless, there it was—the image I was looking for. 

Bread and wine.

Of course, if your church is anything like mine, bread and wine is translated to be wafers the size of your pinky-fingernail and half a swallow of grape juice.

I’m not looking to bash my church—I love my church! They are a group of people who worship and serve God with a passion, love each other truly, and try to live according to the Bible. I love the community, the preaching, the worship, the teaching... but I’ve never loved how we do communion.

Once in a while, I wish I could walk up to the communion table and rip a hearty, wholesome chunk from a crusty loaf of bread and dunk that bad boy into a nice glass of… well, I don’t like the taste of wine. The daydream stops there. I guess I’m glad my church serves grape juice, after all.

And due to food allergies and intolerances, I know those minuscule wafers are a better option.

My point is, communion is an act of remembering, with all your senses, the sacrifice Jesus made to redeem us all. When I really take the time to fully experience it instead of going through the motions as I so often do, this rejuvenates my faith like nothing else can.

Three in one: Calm, Comfort, Courage (Still, Small Voice). January 2020. Collage on three 8"x10" canvases (24"x10").  

Sometimes keeping faith feels easy, and sometimes it’s really, really difficult and I revert to simply going through the motions. But no matter what, I always come back to my core beliefs, like that song Prodigal. I always come back to communion... 

Soft, crusty bread, bread that’s hard on the outside but nearly melts on the tongue, warm and oh-so-sweet, symbolizing Jesus' teaching: difficult at times, but oh-so-sweet. A glass of wine—Jesus blood, his life, his spirit—that tastes like swallowing a sword, but is capable of easing the spirit and resting the heart. 

This year I've decided to make some changes and actively work to strengthen my faith, starting with this collage (and the little daily devotion book I received for Christmas). I hope you'll join me!


Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Mars, Bryce Canyon, and the Sketchbook Project

Detail, Mars Landing. Watercolor, ink, gouache, and
mulberry paper on paper cloth. March 2019.
It's almost exactly a year later, and I just found a few drafts I wrote about Silhouette Girl and the Moonhorse last year! That's a little embarrassing, but I'm embracing it. It's not late and disorganized, it's time-travel. So, kick back with your device and get ready for a few throwback posts about the art project that kicked off my 2019. Ready, set, go...

One of my favorite things about art is a little thing called "artistic license."

Artistic license means I can change how something looks just for the sake of aesthetics I have the freedom to be realistic or abstract in my depictions. I especially love surrealism, art that recreates the impossible in a life-like style.

I used a lot of artistic license in my paintings for the Sketchbook Project last winter.

For example, obviously we haven't found extraterrestrial life, especially not lunar life, but I invented a Moonhorse.

Obviously you can't fly to Mars in a night, at least until they solve the problem of faster-than-light travel. When that day comes, you better believe I'll be vacationing on Mars!

I've never seen or heard of a horse walking a tightrope, and even the deepest craters are more like gradually-sloping bowls than the straight-sided pit I painted Hellas Planitia to be.

Nothing in my story is possible, but I still drew inspiration from reality.

I modeled Silhouette Girl's steampunk shuttle after the NASA shuttles of the last few decades, changing the color to bronze and adding just a few "steampunk" details of my own. The terrain of Mars is based heavily on Bryce Canyon, Utah. 

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah, October 2018.

The Mars we see sometimes in the early morning, like a large, untwinkling star, is a planet humans have long been interested in. It's our second-closest neighbor and bears many similarities to us.

We're tilted on similar axes, share similar seasonal patterns, and the geography of Mars has many of the topographical features we have - mountain ranges, valleys, deserts, canyons, plains, and polar ice caps of frozen CO2 (we're familiar with this as dry ice). Mars even has water, amounting roughly to that of Lake Superior, frozen underground. It also has many craters like our moon.

Speaking of our moon, Mars has two lopsided moons, named Phobos and Deimos. 

Though it's smaller then Earth, a Mars day, called a sol, is about 40 minutes longer because it rotates much more slowly. Orbiting at a greater distance from the sun, however, a Martian year is 669 sols, or 687 Earth days.

No planet's orbit is a perfect circle, and the oval-shape of our orbit causes the seasons.

Sol 343 on Route to Mount Sharp, Mars. Curiosity Rover, NASA .
July 24, 2013.
On Mars, the seasons are almost twice as long as Earth, and tend to see slightly more dramatic temperature shifts because Mars' orbit is more eccentric, or oval-shaped, than Earth's. This means that even if Earth and Mars were the same average distance from the sun, Mars would have greater temperature extremes.

Negev Desert, Israel. April 20, 2007. By brewbooks.
Earth is covered with a strong atmosphere that burns up approaching space debris and blocks the sun's most harmful rays. We rarely even think about space debris even though it's flying around us all the time, because virtually anything that hits the atmosphere is incinerated.

Mars also has an atmosphere, but it's very thin and provides little protection. Mars has craters like the moon because its atmosphere isn't enough to burn up all of the space debris flying at it.

In the research stage of my project, I was surprised to find that on top of all these scientific similarities, most our photos of Mars look quite a bit like any number of Earth's own rocky deserts.

In fact, a quick Google search brought me to the Negev Desert in Israelsome of the pictures of Mars and the Negev Desert are almost indistinguishable, aside from the blue skies and a few signs of life. Sparse vegetation dots the landscape, dirt roads criss-cross through it, and animals like leopards, gazelle, hyenas, tortoises, and birds.

However, I wanted to make Mars look entirely foreign, while still echoing patterns in nature. It is, after all, an entirely different planet!

Bryce's otherworldly hoodoos were the perfect model for my Mars.

The main amphitheater of Bryce Canyon. The edges of the thousands of
hoodoos are a little difficult to make out in this direct light. October 2018.
Hoodoos like these are found on every continent, but Bryce is the largest concentration of them in the world.

Bryce Canyon is a national park in southern Utah, famed for its bright orange rock formed in strange towers and walls, like castle ruins.

Bryce is a beautiful park. Less popular than its neighbor Zion, but definitely worth visiting. If anything, being less popular means it's easier to find a parking spot so you can get out of the car and enjoy the park.

The main part of the park, a huge natural amphitheater, looks a little like a giant bowl holding a stone army, all wearing pointed gnome hats.

A series of smaller amphitheaters and hoodoo outcroppings are lined up north-to-south from the main amphitheater, extending about 20 miles to the highest point of the park, Rainbow Point.

When my family and I visited, we drove all the way up to Rainbow Point and then made our way slowly back down, stopping at most of the viewpoints until we reached the main amphitheater. Once there, we hiked down into the canyon. This seemed like a fine idea, except that once you're at the bottom, you have to get back up. It turned out to be a much tougher hike than I was prepared for! This really dampened my experience, but I try not to hold my own lack of fitness against Bryce.
Bryce Canyon National Park, October 2018. This is the photograph on
which I based the scene below. 

Months later, back in my basement-bedroom in Ohio, I turned to Bryce's alien terrain for Mars-spiration.

Watercolor, ink, gouache, and mulberry paper on paper cloth. March 2019.
I transferred my initial sketches onto the sketchbook pages, painted the dark sky and orange-brown watercolor landscapes, and added line details in gold, yellow, and black ink. I painted the stars and moons with white gouache, which is basically opaque watercolor paint.

The poetry text boxes were the final touch before packing up my sketchbook and mailing it to the Sketchbook Library in Brooklyn.

Silhouette Girl and the Moonhorse irreversibly ties together Bryce and Mars in my mind. This is the power of artistic license. You can arrive at entirely new connections, create new ways to envision and understand reality. Not that I've forgotten what I see in photos of Mars, but that there's a vast gap between reality and my creative depiction of it.

There's a little irony hereMars looks so much like Earth that I instead based my fantastical Mars illustrations off a geological feature on Earth. Granted, we've only seen a tiny fraction of the red planet. I'm certain there are hidden wonders on Mars, just as there are on Earth. But still, we live on a spectacular planet, indeed.

I wonder if a group of Martians and a group of Earthlings switched places, the Martians might be much more shocked by our terrain than we'd be by theirs.


Friday, December 27, 2019

Fine Art Friday: Robert Colescott

Robert Colescott, Eat Dem Taters, on display at the
Contemporary Art Center in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Hey there! A while back I shared a really special project I was involved in at work, Arts and Accessibility: Robert Colescott at CAC.

I had the amazing opportunity to write detailed descriptions of ten artworks from "Art and Race Matters: the Career of Robert Colescott," an exhibit which opened in September, kicking off the 2019-2020 exhibition season at the Contemporary Art Center (CAC) in downtown Cincinnati. This exhibit consists of 85 works Colescott created over his 53-year career. 

The descriptions I wrote were narrated and recorded by a couple of coworkers who work in audio. I loved this chance to work closely with these passionate, highly skilled people, who also happen to be a lot of fun to work with!

The resulting audio recordings, along with recordings of all of the exhibit wall-text, was loaded onto mp3-players. These mp3-players and some hard-copy braille booklets were made available for any blind or visually-impaired (BVI) visitors at CAC.

Next month (January 2020) the exhibit and BVI-accessible materials will be traveling to Portland, OR, followed by a few other cities around the US. I love the fact that our hard work will benefit blind people across the country!

Now, as promised, I want to share a little more about Robert Colescott and his art. 

Robert Colescott, 1919. Acrylic on Canvas, 1980. 
191If you haven’t heard of him, rest easy. I hadn’t either. 

I think it's safe to say most people are familiar with just a few of the very most famous artists in history: Leonardo da Vinci, Vincent van Gogh, Michelangelo, Pablo Picasso.

If you go to the occasional art museum, you may also be familiar with Edgar Degas, Georgia O'Keefe, Jackson Pollock, Frida Kahlo, Paul Cezanne, Rembrandt van Rijn, Claude Monet, Salvador Dali, or Andy Warhol.

Compared to these names, Robert Colescott is an unknown. But take a look at the New York City arts scene in the 1970s and '80s, and you might find his name cropping up a bit more. 

Colescott was an African-American artist from California. He passed away in 2009, at the age of 83. His best-known works are Eat Dem Taters and George Washington Carver Cross the Delaware, both of which are new renditions of earlier famous paintings by other artists (Vincent van Gogh and Emanuel Leutze, respectively).

Robert Colescott, Eat Dem Taters. Acrylic on Canvas, 1975. 

Eat Dem Taters was my first solo stab at describing. It is based on The Potato Eaters by van Gogh, but in the place of impoverished Dutch coal miners, Colescott painted stereotypical "happy darkies." This is classic Colescott: taking a familiar image and filling it with imagery that strikes discomfort, pain, and horror over appalling subjects like racism. 

I'll be honest: at first, I was not a fan. I didn't like his style and I didn't like his subject matter. 

I'm still not a major fan of his style, and that's okay. I can appreciate the skill, effort, and care his painting required, without loving the technique. But now that I understand his work better, the common subject matter, and the manner with which he presents it, has grown near and dear to my heart. Colescott's combination of frank humor and gut-wrenching imagery is a one-two punch that has become mesmerizing to me.
Robert Colescott, George Washington Carve Crossing the Delaware. Acrylic
on canvas, 1975. 

No one likes looking at things that make them feel uncomfortable or guilty. And for many people, racist imagery is extremely uncomfortable. As it should be! No one should feel comfortable looking at something that demeans others! 

It’s horrifying that the blackface and "happy darky" imagery he used is from real cartoons, made by people who look like me. 

Even more appalling is seeing these images larger-than-life on ten-foot canvases, in garish colors and exaggerated poses. 

As an African-American man, Colescott made it his mission to create satirical, racially-charged paintings to create discomfort. He painted these things to force people to think about race, sex, inequality, discrimination, systemic racism, and what these things are doing to individuals, communities, and the world at large. He wanted to spark conversations, spark emotions, and most importantly, spark fires under the seats of those untouched by racism.

Cesar Cruz, Mexican poet and human rights activist famously said, “art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” 

Robert Colescott, Colored T.V. Acrylic on canvas, 1977.  
Colescott's work is disturbing for everyone, no matter their race, sex, age; whether they're comfortable or uncomfortable. The comfort of Colescott's art lies in the opportunity for open and heartfelt communication. 

A month or so after the exhibit opened, I toured the exhibit with a group from work. We were a large group, some 15-20 individuals, and a mix of blind, visually impaired, and sighted. 

It was amazing to experience this exhibit with my BVI coworkers, listening to descriptions before discussing how we felt about each work. Several of those in our group were also people of color, and it was truly special to hear these people share how they felt about the art and the painful history behind each piece. 

One painting that struck a major chord is called Listening to Amos and Andy. This painting is based on the old radio show Amos and Andy, a comedy about two black men from Atlanta who move to Chicago for a fresh start in life. It follows their friendship, struggles, and the development of their taxi company. 

Sounds perfectly nice until you learn that the show was created, written, and performed by two white men. 

From there, things go straight down-hill. After looking at (and listening to a description of) Colescott's painting, we listened to a clip from the radio show. Just a few minutes long, the clip was exactly what we all expected: 4 minutes of racist stereotyping, delivered by two white men using "black voices." 

Robert Colescott, Listening to Amos and Andy. Acrylic on Canvas, 1982. 
This painting led to a great discussion about representation and racism in the media. For BVI individuals, the issue of representation hits home because blind actors are few and far between. Most blind characters are played by sighted actors. And for those in our group who were African-American, this painting was especially jarring. 

The first time I heard of Colescott was when I was tasked with describing his art. Being a white woman working in a style of writing entirely new to me, I was suddenly extremely aware of my phrasing in these descriptions. Every time I pulled up one of the curator's hi-res photographs, I found myself battling both white guilt and the fear that I might mishandle any of the subject matter. 

Robert Colescott, Le Demoiselles d'Alamaba: Vestidas. Acrylic on
Canvas, 1985.
Looking at Colescott’s art with my black coworkers was awkward at first, but discussing it together also eased my mind. 

We acknowledged together that the subject matter was disturbing and offensive for all of us, that these paintings brought to mind worldviews, art, and events that we all desperately wish had never happened. We experienced a wide range of emotions together, and some of us even cried together as we looked at these paintings. 

It would be foolish and na├»ve for me to say that I’ve never made a racially-based judgement or decision. I’m aware that I grew up benefiting, and continue to benefit, from a society filled with systemic racism. 

I fervently wish that weren’t true, but pretending it doesn’t exist is a mistake white people have been making throughout history. Racism is everywhere, from the justice system to the arts, and the only way to make things right is to acknowledge the harm done and then to do better. 

It was good to see these emotionally-charged paintings in person, and to discuss as a group how bad things were in the past, how much society has changed, and how far we still have to go before everyone can truly be equal. It's a long way, but each step is another step away from a long history that must never be repeated.

As both a year and a decade come to an end, it's only natural to take a look at where we are as individuals and as a society. It's a time of examining our values, habits, and growth across the years and decades. What did we look like ten years ago, when Robert Colescott passed away? What did we look like 100 years ago, on the verge of the Roaring '20s? What might we look like ten years from now, in 2029, or 100 years from now? 

The arts demonstrate society's values and habits, and upholding work like Colescott's is necessary for us to continue growing together.