An Artist’s Role in Troubled Times

MeinmystudioThere is the idea that art is not a ‘legitimate’ type of work; that it is a frivolity best saved for spare time, etc; or a luxury for the wealthy. But for artists who have a vision that they are compelled to share, art isn’t a frivolity or luxury- it’s a necessity. And for society, art is also a necessity, although this may not be realized by many. We are the spirit keepers, the mirrors, the candles. And we need to become our own best friends- to believe in ourselves and what we do. And stick together, rather than compete with one another.  – Agnes Martin

For those of you who do not make art full time, Agnes is right, it isn’t a frivolity or luxury, making art for an artist is a necessity, a bodily function if you will, like breathing.  When tragedy occurs , especially on a global scale,  artists respond.  It’s what we do.  We make art to express collective sentiment, or to mark the event, or to raise money for those impacted.  Artists are active participants in change.

For some of us American citizens, the results of the recent presidential election is a tragedy of serious magnitude.  People are afraid- of deportation; of destruction to the environment; of violence caused by racial, gender and sexual prejudice; of certain rights in place being repealed; and of having all that our country has done to progress dismantled.

It is a time for us artists to hunker down and figure out a way to respond.  Usually when faced with a catastrophe, my creativity goes out the window for a good long while.  It’s as if all my creative energy goes elsewhere.  Within me is an ominous radio silence, like the quiet before a tornado when all the birds stop singing and the air is completely still.

The day after the election had me metaphorically face down on my shield.  I was devastated.  I felt all the fight drain from me.  Meanwhile on social media I watch all my artist friends spring into action.   There are calls to action, conferences, symposiums, calls for entry for themed shows, calendars for organized protests, all within a week after the election.  I seem paralyzed.  I feel as if I’ve been through so much that it’s taking me longer and longer to bounce back.  What can I do to help support those willing to be on the front lines?

I thus retreat into contemplative mode.  By quiet contemplation and prayer I seek out the small still voice that will lead me where I need to go and tell me what to do once I get there.  And that small voice is telling me right now that alot of healing and peace making is needed right now.  Comfort and healing is a major thread in my work, has been for  years.  This I can do.  As I pray for healing and comfort to those suffering, and for wisdom and peaceful hearts for those now in charge, I leave you with who I am as an artist and how I respond to times like this through my work:  come inside my work and rest.

 

Gallery Crawls Fall 2015/Winter 2016

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November 12, 2015, inside the Grand Palais for the Paris Photo 2015 exposition

This posting will continue my reporting on what I saw and did in Paris last November as well as catch you up on what I’ve seen lately.  To review, the purpose of the Paris trip was for my husband, photographer Bill Westheimer to attend Paris Photo 2015 at the Grand Palais.  I was along for the ride.  I love looking at art.  I love critiquing art.  I love learning about art.  I love meeting fellow artists and when it comes to international creative events such as these, I love the people watching.  Its where art, fashion and artists collide.

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View from the stairs to the mezzanine. It’s as if Paris Photo is inside an enormous jewel box!

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So much to see, where do I begin?

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As night fell the venues glowed

In my opinion, there was no better location than Paris, no better venue than the Grand Palais to hold this event.  It was as if all the images displayed were slides tucked inside an enormous glass and green steel jewel box.  The structure itself was worth the visit.  I have been told, more than once by Bill, that the purpose of the visit was reconnaissance- for him to see what is out there and who is representing it; to make lists for future reference.  It was NOT the time and place to shop work.  Ok.  Got it.  Message received.  I would keep my eyes and ears open and my mouth shut.  We went twice:  once to breeze through, say hello to a few friends working in the booths and get a lay of the land.  The second trip would be a longer more day long affair, going from booth to booth, taking notes and gathering info.

To execute this feat I realized I needed something to do, some sort of individual purpose other than being the supportive spouse to keep me occupied, engaged and quiet.  So I bought a notebook and a pen and I set about reviewing the work,  the space, the food and what people were wearing, like an undercover reporter for a lets pretend magazine.  In addition to planning the activity it was also necessary to plan attire.  My very first entry in my Paris Photo notebook was:

11/12/15

How to attend an all day exposition:

-Dress in layers:  wear comfortable shoes & clothing; carry a light weight shoulder bag to put things in and hang things from, like jackets and scarves;

Immediately locate and use the bathroom;

-Put some cash in your pockets (wear clothing with lots and lots of pockets)

-Carry a cellphone, pen and little notebook.

-Keep your mouth shut if the reason you are here is for someone else;

-Carry lots of business cards in case you are here for YOU;

-Eat a good breakfast that will give you energy and not slow you down;

-Dress stylishly; to be noticed, in case you get separated from your party; (it pays to be tall by birth but alas I am not)

-Pick a meeting point and a time to meet your friends in case you get separated (meet you by the food every hour;)

-find a place to sit the minute you get cranky (this is important;)

-Don’t try to make dinner plans with every person you run into that you know;

-Try not to get jealous of the success of others on exhibit and don’t come from a place of low self esteem;

Don’t monopolize the time of your friends working the booths;

-Network over lunch;

-Drink alot of caffeine;

-Don’t start drinking until early evening;

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Some hand outs I picked up at the booths and my ever present notebook.

Thus dressed, fortified, informed and debriefed I made my way around the exhibits.  Here are comments I made in my notebook:  NOTE:  My comments will appear in italics

Yves Marchand & Roman Meffre, “Rivoli Theater, Berkley USA, 2013:

Jacob Aoe Sobol, “Boy in Novosibirsk, Russia, 2014;

Polka Gallery, Paris, booth A52

 It’s hard for me to view photos like these because I want to know the story behind each one and they aren’t there, they’re just works of art;

Gitterman Gallery:  Herbert Matter, “Untitled” 1939-43William Larsonsending images and text through telephone lines in the 1970’s!!!

Grids of photos:  Bruno Roels (A palm tree is a palm tree is a palm tree)

Appropriation:  Sherrie Levine: “After Man Ray Man and a Woman 2005”

Man Ray’s photo of a nude descending a staircase by DuChamp, 1920.

Delphine Balley- staged murder scenes “Les Choses de la Vie” at Suzanne Tarasiere booth C37

My favorite and I don’t know why:

Garry Fabian Miller

Winged Hawthorn- The Hedgerows of Homeland & Haying Down, Dartmoor Spring & Late Autumn, 2011″ at Ingelby Gallery

Katarzyna Mircsak (Polish) “Tools of the Crime Series, 2012″ at Eric Franck Fine Art booth C40

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Amazing people watching. I just loved her hair and her whole look.

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These women won the hair category of the people watching awards.

It was an amazing couple of days and we were so glad we went.  Going to Paris for Paris Photo has always been a dream, and all of a sudden it was a wonderful reality.  Ironically, we were there on November 12, 2015, the day before the shootings and bombings in the Bataclan and in the cafes, where many young spirited fun loving people had their lives cut short for no better reason than they were out living their lives in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Ironically even more, since I remember feeling so free and so spirited at the event, thinking to myself, “isn’t it wonderful that we can be out in large venues again without fear of terrorism?”  Oh my.  Like all other public venues in Paris that terrible day, Paris Photo was shuttered and closed early.

February, 2016- my first visit to the new Whitney Museum of Art, New York City

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Yes, can you please tell me, why was art in the 1990’s so bad?

If you know me you know I am not really a fan of the Whitney.  I never liked the architecture of its original location on Madison Avenue.  I tried, I really tried to like the artwork they have presented over the years.  I give them points for exhibiting works by Marilyn Minter, and I never tire of seeing Calder’s Circus, but everything else usually annoys or confuses me, and it’s one of those deals where they actually want you to feel that way.  Whatever.  The Whitney is one of the few museums in New York City where I don’t have an annual membership.  I rather choose to get in free by flashing my museum employee id from the Montclair Art Museum where I teach.  This magical perk is a thrill.  So far I’ve gotten in everywhere except The National Museum of Play in Rochester, NY (the nerve!) and the Denver Botanic Garden (even though the employees thought I should as they sadly made me pay.)

So when the Whitney moved downtown into a new light and airy structure with outdoor terraces on every floor with a killer view in all directions, designed by Renzo Piano, while flashing my employee id I gave going there another chance.

Oh well.

At least Calder’s Circus was still there, this time given a place of pride front and center instead of being tucked into a hard to access mezzanine like at the old location.

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Calder’s Circus

We started at the top floor and worked our way down, beginning with an exhibition of works by Laura Poitras: Astro Noise.  To preface, I try to be as objective as possible in consuming another artist’s work.  I realize that a strong negative reaction is just as successful as a positive one; artwork is not made with the sole purpose of making the viewer smile or feel loved.  Rather, a very important part of making art is to bring difficult subjects often swept under rugs out into the open and visible to the masses.  A critique of the exhibit by me would not be fair as my reaction to it is strongly subjective as the artist is delving into the surveillance, interrogation and wrenching cultural shifts brought about by the attacks on September 11, 2001.  Having seen the second plane slam into the World Trade Center from my seat on the commuter train then being in lower Manhattan as the towers fell, smelling the burning, hearing the screams, seeing people covered with ash running for their lives, then being evacuated to New Jersey are forever seared into my psyche.  They are now part of my DNA, like it or  not. Anytime I view or experience video footage, audio clips, photographic montage of that day bring on horrific nightmares, so I need to consciously avoid venues like this.  So, after viewing a couple light boxes in Disposition Matrix, I waited for Bill in the hall.

I must say that most works on the lower floors blurred one into another, except for a fabulous abstract film I enjoyed enormously entitled, Synchromy #4 Escape by Mary Ellen Bute which she made in the 1930’s.  It is an abstract cartoon set to classical music.  Just a few squiggles, lines and a few geometric shapes in primary colors on a black background dancing to the music.  I loved it.  Having been raised on Disney’s Fantasia it’s just what I see in my head when I hear classical music.  The rest of the floors were kind of a bust for me.  There’s just so many times I want to see a Jeff Koons. Don’t even get me started on the art of the 1990’s.  I just don’t see the point of it, other than the fact that is coincided with the commodification of art and the market was suddenly driven by investors looking to make a buck rather than a collector wanting something of aesthetic value.  But hope springs eternal, I like DuChamp’s Fountain don’t I?

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Breakthrough and A New Assistant

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Not a bad weekend shut in the studio, for a change!

As the saying goes, “don’t give up just before the miracle.”  All the clay I touched for the past month wound up in that endless cycle of wedge, throw, reclaim, wedge, throw, reclaim.  Sigh.  Whether my efforts made the clay just a boring blank cylinder with no spirit, or a structural failure, everything just kept going into the damn bucket.  In bygone days, when I was young and had more ego than brains or skill, I thought every single time I touched clay had to be a masterpiece.  Runs like this would be crushing and I’d leave the studio and walk away from clay for a good long while.  Now I just persevere.  I realize that nothing worth creating comes easy.  There is no antidote to this situation but hard work.  I also realize that my absolute worst day in my studio as a full time artist equals my best day when I was stuck in an office driving a desk for 23 years at a job I had grown to loathe.  Audio books and a new puppy helped too.

Enter Mel.  Our teenage Treeing Walker Coon Hound who we adopted on February 2, 2016.  Mel was rescued from a neglect situation in West Virginia, fostered while he got shots and neutered then sent to a kennel in southern Pennsylvania to adopt out.  We managed one week without our dear Petey who died with us here at home then we realized the house was too empty and clean, the studios too quiet and our lives without that happy canine chaos that gives us our energy.   He’s a big white warm soft bundle of love requiring us to change his name from Boomer to Mel, short of Marshmallow Pie.  He’s very good in the studios, he even has his own cubicle.

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Mel , our new studio assistant, in his studio cubicle reporting for duty.

After about a month of fruitless labor, things started happening.  More shapes were coming off the wheel to be put in the wet box instead of the reclaim bucket.  I wasn’t happy with them as is, but no matter.  I kept throwing.  All of a sudden I could see shapes for my commission project that had me baffled and clueless for months;  I could see sculptural infrastructure that could be assembled from forms coming off the wheel.  Suddenly these cylindrical forms, so lifeless and lackluster were blank canvasses for me to alter and add texture to make them come alive and sing.  Hmmm!  All of a sudden I’m dragging out my Haeckel books and hunting for ideas, making slip and filling my decorating bag.

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My current treasure troves of ideas and inspirations

 

And suddenly, here I am, breaking through to the other side, busting out from craft into art.

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Functional forms given spirit and life

 

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3 plain bowls demanded to be assembled and turned into a sculpture

Glass was happening in the studio too.  My students are wonderful.  They make thoughtful, deliberate, creative work.  They are putting alot of care and effort into making elaborate creations so output is slow.  I took advantage of the empty kiln space and made some work of my own.  Aside from incorporating it into sculpture I don’t work with glass as a primary medium, but every now and then it’s fun to make a tray.  It’s straight forward “what you see is what you get” manner helps clear and calm my mind in between elaborate clay projects or when working in clay is more of a wrestling match than a productive, fun pursuit.

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Jewelry bits, trays and coasters are nice palate cleansers in between clay projects

Now when I sit at the wheel I feel more back in the saddle.  Glazing here we come, yee hah!

Studio coming and goings, January 2016

7 blank canvases screaming for decoration.

7 blank canvases screaming for decoration.

Being away from my studio for long periods of time feels like holding my breath underwater for way too long, only instead of my lungs, I feel like my soul is going to burst.  Life has had me out and about, selling at holiday craft fairs and on line, spending time with friends and family for the Christmas and New Years holidays, resuming my teaching gig in glass fusing at the museum, and doing the big time suck known as working on the computer.  I finally got to throw some clay around last week.

Usually even though I’m away from clay, projects are fermenting in my brain.  I’ve been trying to work out another sculpture for my Ex-Voto series in my head, with not alot of luck.  So I just went into the clay bin and got busy on the wheel.  Sometimes that’s all it takes to get unstuck.  I took a workshop over the summer and was so impressed by everyone else’s prowess at the wheel that I resolved to hone my skills a bit, so my first exercise was bottles using 3 to 5 pounds of clay.  It was fun and I got 7 out of 8 balls for my troubles, not bad for a long drought.

I put them in the wet box and let them keep to ponder the next step.  I have some new raku glazes that I think would look great on a bottle, but, these were just too plain, like blank canvases begging to be painted!  So I saved a couple and decided to spice up the rest.  I’ve got a glaze pallet of really wild runny glazes that break and change color depending on where they run and pool, so I broke out my texture tools, made some slip and went alittle wild.

The barnacle fairy visited the studio yesterday.

The barnacle fairy visited the studio yesterday.

I’m excited for the next step and my wheels are already turning for more forms and styles.  I hope to raku or luster strike fire as much as I can, because I’ll be teaching a raku workshop at Peters Valley the first weekend in June and I want to practice.  It’s so nice to be in the clay again, I feel like my soul can breathe again, phew!

Like I said, I’m teaching glass fusing again at the Montclair Art Museum Yard School of Art.  I have a wonderful group of students this winter, a mixture of returning students, advanced, intermediate and beginners.  It’s a thrill to see what they do with the glass and I try so hard to fire everything with care.  I have a gremlin that lives in my kiln that loves to play tricks on my firings, from sprinkling kiln wash on the glass ware while it’s molten to over or under firing very reliable firing schedules.  I’m happy to report that rather than ruin my student work, the little scamp only ruined 2 of my own trays.  I swear I could hear him giggling behind the kiln when I lifted the lid.

The kiln gremlin attacked my cheese trays- blisters and bubbles where sparkles should be, little scamp!

The kiln gremlin attacked my cheese trays- blisters and bubbles where sparkles should be, little scamp!

Finished student work, at least they escaped the mischief of the kiln gremlin!

Finished student work, at least they escaped the mischief of the kiln gremlin!

Student work about to be slumped into dishes and trays.

Student work about to be slumped into dishes and trays.

Oh it’s great to be back in the studio, it’s going to be a wonderful new creative year!