Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Playing my way through the pain

This December I'll be Artist in Residence on a cruise sponsored by Semester at Sea through UVa.  We'll be traveling to the Bahamas, Jamaica, Colombia, Panama (going through the Panama Canal), Venezuela, Peru, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Mexico and California.  It will be 25 days long.  It feels like one of the thrills of my life!  I love to travel but felt like perhaps my travel days were mostly over.  This awakened my Wanderlust again for sure!

I'll be teaching classes around the concept of a Visual Journal.  I'll teach Zendoodles (patterns) to decorate the journal with, Composing Photographs Successfully, Blind Contour Drawing, Modified Blind Contour Drawing, Drawing Basic Shapes, One Point Perspective, along with the basic concept of Visual Journaling.  Since I've never kept a Visual Journal, I thought it would be a good idea for me to keep one between now and then!

Generally when I use a sketchbook, I am very careful to create beautiful drawings which I'm comfortable showing others.  I put myself under pressure to make them "good" and don't give myself any room to play or experiment.  I bought a gorgeous leather-bound journal when I was in Venice.  I'm proud of myself for actually using it, but, again, I've only used it to make beautiful art (or as pretty as I can make it!)  I decided I need a change of pace.

While shopping for supplies for the classes for the cruise, I glanced through some of the lesson plans Dick Blick offers on their website.  One of the ones I happened upon is for making a sketch book using raw canvas and acrylic paints.  It looked simple enough so I decided to modify it and make one just like the one I got from Venice except with a canvas, not leather, cover.  And I'd get to decorate it however I wanted. 

I thought about doing the color field art like Dick Blick suggested, but that didn't interest me so much. Instead I gravitated to doing patterns all over it.  That took a couple of days but provided me with so much pleasure and concentrated joy.  I did do a color field painting on the inside but then decided I didn't like it at all - too busy and uninteresting so I painted over what I'd done with purple paint on one side and red on the other.  I put quotes which are important to me there so I can read them when I need inspiration or courage or whatever.

Then I went to the local art store, Main Art, where they have a terrific selection of papers and allowed myself to get whatever spoke to me.  $50 later, I had about 8 different kinds of paper.  The primary one, and what they used in the Venice sketchbook, is RFK Rives, but I also included some MiTientes pastel paper in different colors, some mulberry paper, other Asian papers with cool patterns, tracing paper, glassine, parchment, watercolor paper, Denril (used with markers, I think), and who knows what else?!  I spent the rest of that day tearing the paper to the right size to fit into the book (10"x14" - one page is 10"x7").  Then I grouped those into 4 sheets each which folded over to make 16 pages (2 sides of 8 pages each).  I asked Chris to show me how to use the drill press then used it to drill holes not only in the cover but also in each of the 8 packets of pages (I have approximately 128 sides of paper to use in the finished journal - some packets have more than 8 pages because some of the papers are very thin.)  Then I went to Michaels where I found some thread/string that seemed strong enough to use to bind it then figured out how the other one is bound and sewed up my journal.  I hope it'll hold!  If it doesn't, I can always re-do it.

Pleased with myself, I was ready to sit on my laurels for a while - months - years - who knows? - and admire my pretty work, but I recognized the trap I was setting for myself - this is a journal to USE! not one to just look at and smile cuz it's so pretty.

I boldly did a gesture drawing of the roses Chris gave me for our wedding anniversary last week - mostly wilted, but still pretty - then painted it with watercolor.  Then, boldly, I wrote all over the page.  I wrote a promise to myself that I will use this journal for PLAY and EXPERIMENTATION.  Anything else is a cop out and will be a betrayal of what it is for.   I'm going to make notes on each picture about what I'm doing and why,and I'm going to use all sorts of different materials. 

The second one I did was a total experiment - on parchment, I wrote with  Micron pens I'd found at Michael's on sale -  orange and green - and drew impatiens from a planter on my deck.  This morning I painted them with watercolors.  I found out that parchment isn't all that fond of liquid, but the colors show up brilliantly, and the watercolor dries faster than I expected it would given that it just sits on the surface for a while and puddles.  It's very different than watercolor paper.

Here's what my studio looks like now.  It's a mess with everything sprawled around me, but I love it!  Color pencils, acrylics, pastel pencils, brushes of every description, a book to look at, my journal, drawing tools, flowers, micron pens, a plethora of toys!

I also decided to copy a picture by Frank Lobdell.  It's from a book Chris gave me for Christmas.  Lobdell does figurative work and abstracts with patterns so Chris thought it might give me some ideas as to how to combine the two or move between the two or whatever.  I don't like his work a whole lot, but it was helpful to copy the picture.  I find that to be a good exercise because I learn how other artists work - it makes me use different materials in different ways.  For this one I used acrylics, pastel pencils, color pencils, charcoal pencil, and even a conte' crayon.  After I finished copying his, I decided to play with the concepts on my own.  That's the piece on the right.  I don't consider it finished, but I had fun working with it and look forward to getting back to it tomorrow.  That's the best feeling - looking forward to getting back into the studio the next day.  I've missed that lately.

I'm intentionally not cropping these pictures and making them all pretty, because that's precisely NOT the point!  It is incredibly difficult for me to let myself be messy and to do something which doesn't look precisely perfect - or as perfect as I can let it be.  I think that's one reason I've been in a slump lately - I haven't been allowing myself to experiment or to make mistakes.   I've been creating beautiful work, but the parameters I've been giving myself - to accurately represent what's in front of me - have been stultifying.

I'm also taking Figure Drawing at the Visual Arts Center of Richmond.  You might think I'd be good at that already, but frankly, I'm not.  I can copy 2-D things that are in front of me.  Drawing from life is not yet in my skill set.  I'm rectifying that.  Thomas Van Auken is the teacher I'm working with.  Thankfully he's very good.  He has us doing gesture drawings out the wazoo.  I've already used up most of a pad of newsprint in 2 weeks.  That's fine.  I'm also going to the Friday evening sketching sessions which anyone can come to so I can get extra practice.  I am determined to learn to represent the figure in a way I adore from life.

It's been a very difficult few weeks, feeling somewhat depressed and frustrated and in a lull, but I feel like following these gentle leadings and letting myself PLAY will be the key to moving through the muck and stuck and into something fun and interesting and compelling again.   

Hopefully this sense of adventure will keep me from looking like the self portrait I did last week and will keep me feel enlivened and curious and joyful.  That is, after all, the reason I quit my well-paying job to do my art full time - because the joy I felt doing it overrode any objections I could possible experience - if I'm not letting myself feel that joy, I should move on to something else.

It's painful for me when my creativity and drive are subdued and I can't access them.  I have learned to just let myself ride it out, but that doesn't mean I like it!  I'm hoping that treating myself gently and letting myself play will be the key to transforming the pain into joy.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The importance of the arts

Federal: Support Funding for the NEA
Urge Congress to Reject Funding Cuts for FY 2013!

On June 20, 2012, the U.S House of Representatives Appropriations Interior Subcommittee passed their initial FY 2013 funding legislation and proposed a cut of $14 million to the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).

Please take a few minutes to write to your members of Congress to urge them to support funding for the NEA in the FY 2013 Interior Appropriations Bill.

The NEA funds grants to dance, design, folk & traditional arts, literature, local arts agencies, media arts, multidisciplinary, museums, music, musical theater, opera, presenting, theater, and visual arts. To learn more about the programs of the National Endowment for the Arts, click here.

As you can imagine, this is something which is near and dear to my heart - NEA and other arts funding.  I wrote a letter to my Congressmen sharing my opinion.  I urge you to do the same if you feel so moved.  Here's what I shared with them:

I am writing today as your constituent to ask that you support funding for the National Endowment for the Arts in the FY 2013 Interior Appropriations Bill at the $155 million level OR THAT YOU INCREASE IT! I know it's a tough year economically, and that you'll be forced to make many tough decisions with the budget, but I hope you will recognize how unhelpful this particular cut would be.

I am a full time artist.  I made the choice to quit my 23 year position as an academic tutor just 1.5 years ago so that I could pursue my art career full time.  I might have been crazy!  It's been a challenge to support myself fully in this position, but it has brought me deeper joy and satisfaction than anything else I've ever done other than bring my children into the world and raise them.  Art is actually a critical part of society.  I know we tend to believe in this culture that it is frivolous and unimportant, easily cut.  I disagree heartily!

If you think back on any civilization whose history you've studied, what is it that has helped us understand it?  The art!  We learn about the people and their values and their understanding of life through their art.  We are captivated by their stories and their lives as reflected in the art. 

Other societies support the arts as a matter of course.  They understand the importance.  Germany, for example, (one of the leading economies in the world right now), supports dancers and musicians and artists and funds their organizations quite heftily because it understands how important cultural literacy is to a society.  IT IS A NECESSITY!

Even in our country in the past, there has been this understanding.  Under Roosevelt, the WPA employed artists and had them create some of the most lasting iconic expressions of that era.  Without the WPA's support, artists like Alice Neel and Jackson Pollock might not have survived the years of the depression.  It was during this time that America, NYC specifically, rose to major importance in the art world, overtaking Paris as the capital of the art world. 

Yes, artists love what they do.  We create because we are driven to.  Teachers are called to teach and follow that calling.  Mothers stay home with their children because they love them above all others and understand how important it is for children to have their parent with them.  Priests answer the calling to serve in the church.  Social workers want to save the world and do a great job at it.  What would we do without these loving, compassionate, insightful people?  And what do they all have in common?  They are at the bottom of the professional pay scale. 

Do we really live in a society where those who offer most to society are paid least?  And those who gather in as much money as they can and pillage the Earth in so doing (aka corporate greed) are best rewarded?  I would like to see a different society and am doing what I can to make that happen.

I ask you to please help by INCREASING funding for the NEA, NOT cutting it.  Please take a moment to think back on some of your greatest pleasures - seeing your children in a school play, visiting some of the great cultural sites in the world - created by artists, standing before a great work of art and feeling the rush of spirit which the artist has conveyed, hearing music which transforms your mood.  These are experiences which the NEA helps fund.  Artists NEED support.  We are like everyone else - trying to support our families and ourselves as well as we can.  We are blessed to have such a strong calling and to have the courage to follow it.  Please help us give a voice to what we are seeing in the world - it truly does help make the world a better place.

Many thanks.
Susan Singer

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

A Place of Not Knowing

It's been a very long time since I last wrote a blog post.  Thank you to those of you who've written to ask me what's up.

I've been busy - but not really.  I've been traveling, but that's not really a good excuse.  I've been teaching, but I've always found time to write this blog no matter what else has been going on.  The truth is that I've been in a low spot.  A fallow part of my journey.  And it's difficult to be with and difficult to share.

After the excitement and rush of Not Barbie and Beyond Barbie then the show in Williamsburg then our recent reincarnation of Beyond Barbie, I think I have finally crashed.  I've taken a couple of weeks off the last few months - at the beach and at my high school reunion, thinking those would be times to regenerate, but there is more to regenerate than those two weeks could accomplish.

I am in a state of not knowing.

It's very uncomfortable for a person who prefers to have huge goals she's working towards with an almost manic energy.

Right now I can conger up no goals which matter to me.

I know that women's body image issues still matter to me.  I hate what is happening in our government as it is taking steps towards becoming more repressive to women.  I'm noticing.  And I'm having trouble reacting or even responding.

A couple of months back, I created a powerful response to the Vaginal Probe Ultrasound bill passed here in Virginia.  It was accepted into a show here in town.  Then sent back home with little explanation without being displayed.  What has happened to me is that because I'm not single-minded in my vision of where I'm supposed to be going, that rejection is affecting my self-perception.  When I'm feeling clear and strong, other people can say or do whatever they need do, and it doesn't affect me very much, but right now I feel less empowered and I'm letting this get to me.

A tree by Van Gogh, brimming with effervescent swarms of life and energy
Chris asked me last night where I see myself in 10 years.  I no longer know.  He asked what I want to be doing these days (good question and one I've been mulling over a lot lately too).  I had had a bit of wine (highly unusual for me) so my brain was slipping around enough to find access to a response which felt very true - I want to be fully self-expressed, but I don't need my paintings to be an expression of MY self - rather, I want them to be an expression of my experience of God.  I want to be able to translate my understanding and experience of God onto canvas in such a way that the viewer can have access to that information visually.  I feel that connection in Van Gogh's excellent paintings.  Standing in front of some of his canvases, I can feel an instantaneous connection to the Source of energy and love and divine power.  It blows me away. 

Mark Rothko's painting
In front of Rothko's paintings, I feel sublime peace - something which confuses me because I am aware his life was fraught with distress and addiction, etc.  It feels to me, though, that he must have experienced sublime peace at some level, in order to be able to create the paintings he did.

So I want to be able to access that Source and to put it on canvas.  And I am afraid to.  I'm afraid to be so vulnerable.  I'm afraid to try to do something so important to me because I might fail.  Or others might thing it looks like shit.  Or I might think it looks like shit.  Or it might not work. 

When I paint the images of female nudes, I work from photographs I've taken.  The photographs speak to me with some of the essence I'm referencing or else I wouldn't chose them.  As I'm painting the images, I think about the woman and about what I know of her life and her story.  I try to focus on love and compassion and her divine essence.  Of course, mundane life also intrudes, but my intention is there.  I think that comes through in some of my canvases.

Right now that isn't feeling like an adequate way to explore the essence of divine Source. 

I want to take out raw canvas and pour paint around.  I want to throw paint.  I want to dance all over canvas on the floor.  I want to take off my clothes and roll around on the canvas and wrap myself in it.  I want to become ecstatic and let that jump into and onto the canvas.  I want to be a pure, ecstatic channel for divine joy.  Like Rumi or Hafiz.

Instead I'm writing about it when I have time to actually do it.  Because I'm terrified of what I might find out.  I have high expectations of how I want it to look, and it might not even begin to start to think about thinking about getting there.

It's hard for me to allow myself permission to learn, to have Beginner's Mind, to explore, to screw up, to play.  My inner demons (and some outer very vocal ones in my physical world too) tell me I need to be earning money.  I have to create beauty.  What's inside of me which is craving expression will be too ugly for the world to accept.  If I actually let out my real self, it'll be too much/too intense for others.  No one will be able to take me if I let them really see who I am.  This post is too much.  Too much information.  Who really wants to see the inside of someone else's head?  It's not a pretty place.


It could be that this post is a true comfort for others who've had similar experiences but have never heard it named so thought they were all alone.  I know I would feel that way if I were to stumble upon someone else's existential Angst to which I could relate. 

I know there is divinity and pure unadulterated love at my core.  I trust that unequivocally.  I trust that each person has the same at his/her core.  So why the fear of accessing it and expressing it?

People have been martyred for trying to express this divinity, this love, this passion, this understanding that at our core we are all good. 

In a moment I am going to get up out of this chair and head out into the studio where I will clear off a bit of space so I can have room to explore and play and experiment.  I will ask God to be present and to let me be a channel for Divine goodness and joy.  And I plan to have fun too.  I will let go of my fear, or feel it and go for it anyway.

I'll end this blog with a quote a friend sent me today.  It resonates strongly for me with what I'm going through now:
The woman who needs to create works of art is born with a kind of psychic tension in her which drives her unmercifully to find a way to balance, to make herself whole. Every human being has this need... -May Sarton

If you have experienced any of what I've written about today, I'd love it if you would share your experiences too.  What have you done from this place of Not Knowing and discomfort?