wait…. is this work really complete..?

imagesHave you heard the oft-repeated phrase about the viewer being necessary to complete the work of art?   “…the viewer completes the conversation.”  “…the work doesn’t truly become complete until it is out in the world”.

 At a workshop once, I found myself having a visceral reaction to this statement, and finally had to respond, which probably shocked most people in the room.   Why do people keep repeating this notion… why do they think it’s patently true?  And what exactly is this amorphous quality that the viewer is supposedly adding to the work?

From what I see in museums and some galleries nowadays, their cell phone is having the actual interaction with the work.

What, if any kind of dialogue is such a viewer having with said piece? How, exactly are they completing this piece of work, if there is no obvious interaction taking place?   Are they completing it by taking a “selfie” with it? or saving an image of the work in their phone before moving to the next shiny bauble after 5 seconds?

It’s not like some awkward passage down in the lower left corner was waiting for this passerby to take brush in hand and make the stroke that resolves the matter…and it’s also not often the case that you get to have any meaningful dialogue with someone who is really looking at the work. You see little discussion, argument, or thoughtful gazing.  (there are exceptions to this, and when you are present as the artist, you can gain insights into what the work might be conveying – I say this as someone who has exhibited my work in plenty of galleries and other public locations over the years.)

Art gallery openings are often a schmoozing, networking and sales opportunity. People are there to support their friends, and admire the work at hand. All this is good and often celebratory.  We should celebrate the effort and hard-won results of artists.  (And a chance to be amongst humans again after months thrashing around in the studio can be enjoyable.)  Does this complete the artwork?

Why is a conversation between the artist and the work any less important, or less complete, than a crowd of people in a gallery “looking” at the same work?  If you are living with and experiencing the piece, being challenged by it, feeling a sense of completion when it all seems resolved, when it teaches you something….why is that not enough?

To put it as simply as possible – and this is a simple answer, not a total answer – I know when a painting’s finished when I understand why I wanted to do it in the first place. “(James Elkins)

Does having the work in a more public location, in a more rarified, or approved air add validity to what has already been accomplished? Are we giving ourselves more credit as viewers than we deserve?

Here’s an idea…
Let’s start to question the tropes repeated again and again…… and make up our own minds.  Instead of implying that the work of art needs the audience to complete it, I would offer another possible truth.  Maybe it’s the viewer, (and I include myself in this demographic) who might be incomplete until they  have an opportunity to interact with beautiful, challenging, technically accomplished, emotionally resonate work.   The viewer has more to gain from the exchange, not the work.   Perhaps by being experienced and appreciated, the work can live on in a way that resonates through time.  Completely.

The song is ended
But the melody lingers on – Irving Berlin

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Brick by Brick


Working in the basement on a rainy day seems like good cause for ruminating, while I keep myself on task.

Author Daniel Pink says he believes in the simple action of showing up- working brick by brick. .. how taking small steps every day becomes a cumulative effect.  This is an experience I can attest to, since my paintings often evolve over the course of weeks and months.  (Even the tiny ones- geesh!)   But since I am not replicating reality or a photo of reality, there’s often no real reference points except what I find interesting or compelling.  And often I can’t see that until I am well into a conversation with a piece.
Waiting for inspiration is lame-  we’ve oversold it and been undersold the PRACTICE. But part of the practice is being able to respond to a thought, idea or impulse that may only present itself for a split second.  Is this inspiration? or just the clarity that comes with wrestling with a problem for long enough that your mind is working behind the scenes.   Sometimes when you’re going for a walk, sometimes when you’re talking with a friend, sometimes when you go downstairs to glance at the painting on the wall for 10 seconds at night on the way to shove some laundry in the machine.

The hand and eye working in response to how you specifically think and feel about something  (idea/subject) takes more time and effort… or practice. The result can be abstract/non-objective or representational or ?  But vapid sloppy work can also be the result.


 As Dave Hickey so aptly put it- “A frenzied, vague, emotional response just means your hand is moving in a pleasantly abandoned fashion.”  (ie: Art as “therapy”)

And this results in the kind or work that I remember being discussed in grad school as the sort that you could just “peel off the canvas”. . . emotionally thin or sloppily conceived or not dense enough to have been thought about very much.  It relies on gimmickry or facility or satisfaction without labor.  Things of which I am still wary (the Protestant work ethic is, after all, part of my genetic makeup) …. so… brick  by  brick  by  brick


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Curating a Studio Life

There are plenty of magazine articles constantly advising us on how to rid our lives of clutter- it feels good- it lightens our mind and soul to feel free of things no longer relevant or useful or needed.
So, I’ve been making some progress towards that end in the studio….to wit….getting rid of:

so long....

so long….

1. Too many small paintings that have been lingering around- like guests at a party who seem to keep nattering on -even though you’ve started to load the dishwasher.
2. Less than inspiring drawings/prints things done on paper in the drawers of my flat
file…  if they weren’t the best examples of that theme or period of time- b’bye!
(Half done)
3. Larger medium weight stretcher bars- will never use them again, so why hang onto them when a nearby student can get a very good deal. (Done!)
4. Frames that I will never use again. Sold at a deep discount to another artist. (Done!)

the slasher has been here

the slasher has been here

How is it that I am willing to weed out (and not the first time, mind you) various artworks from my stash in the basement?   Some pieces are definitely better than others…. how do I know this?

“wait, don’t throw that out, I’ll take it if you don’t want it!” 

At this point, I don’t really have to lament the lost time- it was so long ago, who remembers the hours spent laboring over something? And chances are, something in the clunky ones served something in the work that came after.   Also- the sad truth about most galleries/juried shows is that if something isn’t hot off the presses in the last year or so, don’t even bother showing it.  I know there are exceptions, but barring the potential ‘retrospective’ show, many of my older paintings/drawings are not going to see the light of day again, unless they find a home through my efforts.

Well, this is a good thing to do-  getting over the preciousness of what we make- realizing that perhaps there is intrinsic value only if we are truly satisfied with what we’ve done;  that it resonates well over time, speaks for us and enhances our life.
I told some friends,  “if I die tomorrow,  I don’t want anything sitting in my studio that I wouldn’t be proud to leave behind.”

So here I sit on the floor, ripping, slashing and generally have a good old time.  Recycling the little stretchers for the wood stove, feeling lighter and better about what will happen as a result.

Ahem-  on another note I’d also like to make disappear the burgeoning business in wine & paint “parties” where adults are encouraged to turn out wretched copies of badly done copies of paintings that I wouldn’t even want on the refrigerator if my kid did it.   Plus I think the drinks cost extra!   painting+wine=fun …..  but not art.

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In praise of craftsmanship

IMG_0260On a recent trip to Philadelphia (almost the home of my childhood- which was nearby in Oreland and Glenside), I got to play art tourist.

What a lovely city for walking around, and making beautiful discoveries everywhere.

Historical districts, architecture, public art, murals,IMG_0345 beautiful museums and an art school or two, were all enough to keep me occupied for several days.  And even though painting is my main occupation, I often find myself being totally inspired by work in other media.

Sometimes I’ll go into a gallery and be wowed by photography, or art glass….and yet just as often, I am disappointed for what passes for contemporary painting, including the lack of a certain level of craftsmanship and a unique personal vision-  which I believe is possible in very contemporary/abstract/conceptual work.

What struck me in Philadelphia,  walking around and soaking in various venues, was the celebration of a high level of craftsmanship.

From the fountains and sculpture in public plazas, to the beautiful architecture of the boathouses along the river, to the immense and impressive murals, to the ornamentation and craftsmanship of objects in the museum.

One of the last places I went to was the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art,IMG_0417 and on wall after wall, there seemed to be a confirmation that painting was and continues to be an important pursuit.  Contemporary students’ work, alumni work, displayed near William Merrit Chase and Winslow Homer, Eakins, etc etc.  All the work beautifully inspiring and alive.  In one of the most beautiful buildings I’ve been in.  Recommended if you are ever in that city, and have an affinity for great painting.

I got a kick out of this painting of a painter in action!

"A Motion Picture", Margaret Foster Richardson, oil, 1912

“A Motion Picture”, Margaret Foster Richardson, oil, 1912

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Does this painting make my studio look big?

IMG_0172As mentioned in the previous post, my next project was a commission for the soon to be finished Exempla St. Joseph Hospital in Denver.   Earlier this year, they accepted submissions from artists for 10 very prominent large spaces on each floor of the building.

The thought of doing something that large (to fit a 14 foot niche) was a bit daunting, but I charged ahead. My idea used blue vines of various shades that swooped up and down across the expanse of 11 feet.   When the large committee had finished voting, my idea was in the semi final round, which meant there was a good chance that I would have some kind of art included in their project. It turned out to be the big one!

So, after some official correspondence, I ordered up some nicely made birch panels, and set to work.   Fortunately, I had some lag time to think about what my strategy would be for working on something this large-  would it fit on my wall? (Check!), should I mix up mass quantities of the major colors ?(check! cat food cans with those handy plastic lids), and would I have enough time to develop all these things in layers and not feel rushed? (check!).     So, here’s a very time lapsed view into how all this went down.  “Blue Vine Dance” to be delivered by early December.

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I’m glad I challenged myself to do something that was new and a step up, and very grateful that it will be in a setting where lots of people will experience it, and hopefully find it relaxing and engaging.

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falling into working. . . into Fall


this blank wall at the Kaiser building was looking for a painting

The last month has kept me busy.  Aside from the usual veggie and flower garden and healthy body upkeep, there has been plenty of activity in the basement studio.

Just as my summer intern and I were winding down our time together, I received a  surprise commission from a former client – Kaiser Permanente – and on a short deadline.  As in about three weeks from knocking the stretcher bars together until completion. (slide show below)

Then came lots of work for a local non profit’s Field to Fork picnic, then a visit to see my 93 year old mom in California, (where I succeeded in finally convincing her to wear her hearing aides- Go Mom!)

And next up…. another commissioned piece for Exempla Saint Joseph Hospital as a result of a proposal I submitted earlier this year.

The St. Joe piece will measure 3 x 11 feet, and I’ll be using three birch panels – for practical reasons mostly. Easier to handle, they will actually fit in my car, and the image swoops up and down in essentially three sections, so will work well in those successive formats.

In all these years of painting, I’ve never done a work on commission before- assumed at worst it would involve pleasing a fussy or indecisive client, and at best finding a balance between friendly collaboration and protecting my own interests. Now, I’m starting my second within a month.  Goes to show you never can know what is around the corner.

Here’s a look at the various stages of the “Arapahoe Vines” painting. I began with very vague set of guidelines, and went from there.

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And now I’m planning some specific strategies to help make the next big one go even smoother.  One good thing is that I’ll be working from a specific pre-existing proposal that the client wants. I know the color choices in advance, the composition, etc….  and for the first large broad layers, I am going to use a roller commonly used in inking printing plates. And…. I have more than three weeks to get ‘er done.
It’s a good thing to be handed a challenge that makes one step outside of routine, or comfort.
And I feel very gratified that both of these works are in public locations, where patients and their families can interact with and be enriched by them on a daily basis.

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A case for nostalgia

Several things  this year have caused me to look backwards in time.
Reconnecting with someone I knew decades ago.  Seeing what local artists are up to at the beginning of their careers and thinking back 20 years to what I was doing.

that's my mom as a baby in the front photo

that’s my mom as a baby in the front photo

Sometimes, it’s encountering an image of the kind of work I used to do.
Way… back… when.

How many times does anyone, apart from visiting an elderly friend, actually look through old photos or slides….?  You know, the things that we hold up one at a time, and say, “wow, I remember this” or even, “I had forgotten this.”

One of the pleasure of this summer, has been having a young intern in the studio with me, a couple days a week. The main task involved scanning the hundreds of slides I’ve taken of paintings, drawings and prints…. dating back to 1968.
As painful as it may be to look at clumsy, early efforts; every now and then, I see something that makes me feel satisfied with my skills, and empathetic towards my younger self trying to figure out “what to paint.”
Nothing I was doing seemed substantial or weighty to me at the time, but yet now I look at them, and see the joy, the connection with the landscape or whatever the subject.  I was looking at the world. My world.
Painting lots of still-lifes, small landscapes, people in my life, my daughter after she was born and in my painting studio much of the time. In a very direct way, I was painting or drawing my life. Much like capturing images in pixels today.
And each time I moved, as an itinerant academic wannabe, I needed to go out and paint the new place in order to try and find some connection to it, to find the qualities that close observation and rooting around could reveal.

It’s interesting that after I’ve settled somewhere for 20 years,  I began the process of internalizing what I was seeing and re-imagine and inventing what came as a result.  My work became more of a fiction that gained a life of its own. And in turn, I became much more intrigued to explore those worlds. The images could become metaphors for a life.

And now, as we capture even more images so easily, so casually, and store them away or fling them out onto the beach of the internet, will we have that same tug of nostalgia in coming upon them again? Indeed how will we come upon them again?
Probably not by holding them in our hands.

In a recent New York Times piece, nostalgia (which has become a field of study in its own right) has been shown to counteract loneliness, boredom and anxiety. It makes people more generous to strangers and more tolerant of outsiders. Couples feel closer and look happier when they’re sharing nostalgic memories. On cold days, or in cold rooms, people use nostalgia to literally feel warmer.
Nostalgia does have its painful side — it’s a bittersweet emotion — but the net effect is to make life seem more meaningful and death less frightening. When people speak wistfully of the past, they typically become more optimistic and inspired about the future. And some research has shown that people who regularly engage in nostalgia are better at coping with concerns about death.”
You can even find out where you are on the nostalgia scale….by doing the questionnaire here.

Nostalgia used to be considered a mental illness, an unhealthy preoccupation with the past. But maybe not so much anymore.

To me, it’s a pause in the constant rush towards the next task, a way to appreciate where I’ve come from, what brought me here and what I’ve experienced along the way.  That’s a true body of work.

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a virtual studio tour

This past weekend was pretty busy in my small Colorado City.   Depending on what part of town you were in, you might have been hitting up a Brewfest, a Garden Tour or the Fort Collins Studio Tour.   Since I was one of the 60 artists doing the latter- I was greeting people upstairs and down, and having some lovely conversations with my visitors.

In just one weekend, it’s impossible for folks to get around to even half of the stops very easily, so….. in case you missed mine, I’ve got a virtual tour for you.

If I do this event next year, I hope to see you if we didn’t connect this time around.  And please stay tuned for periodic updates on what’s in my mind and on the wall in the coming months

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Out of chaos, comes wonderful surprises

a whole lot of matting going on

a whole lot of matting going on

It’s been a busy couple of weeks multi-tasking and checking things off my to-do list to get ready for this weekend’s Fort Collins Studio Tour.  To some, this may look like chaos personified, but I have a certain talent for staying pretty calm in the midst of a lot going on. So I know that everything will eventually find it’s wall space, and be ready for the weekend.

Last year was my first time participating, although I’ve lived here for 20 years.   But it was a very enjoyable experience to connect directly with appreciative visitors and collectors. And, as I go through my racks and flat file drawers, I’ve discovered some long lost treasures from years of prolifically working away.

postcard and notecard selection taking shape

postcard and notecard selection taking shape

“Grasslands”, the latest series of paintings / mixed media pieces I’ve been working on explores grasses and their environments. Mostly from a bug’s viewpoint, or someone lying on their stomach.

But truthfully, looking back, I’ve always had an interest in things tangled and layered.  I used to be quite the knitter as well!

I want to have lots of affordable pieces available

I want to have lots of affordable pieces available

Looking forward to a great weekend. You can see more information and a map here

I will have lots of very affordable work priced at $100 or much less!

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Celebrating 20 years making art in Colorado…me, a cat, and a non-profit.

Image 3.5 x 3.5, ink, pastel, acrylic, pencil. If you fill out a short survey at any studio tour location, you might win this little gem. A monotype, w/ mixed media, by yours truly. I have 8 more all unique, framed and ready to go that will be on my wall if you visit my studio.

Image 3.5 x 3.5, ink, pastel, acrylic, pencil, matted and framed.
If you fill out a short survey at any studio tour location, you might win this little gem. A monotype, w/ mixed media, by yours truly.
I have 8 more all unique, framed and ready to go that will be on my wall if you visit my studio.

So- this is the longest I have ever lived anywhere in my life.  20 years!!

I still remember our frantic 3 day trip out here, looking high and low for a house to rent or buy for our impending move from Maryland.

Last month, I helped a local land trust celebrate their 20-year anniversary of working on land conservation in Northern Colorado.  And I’ve been thinking about my own history as well.  Having a helper in the studio scanning slides that go back more than 20 years ago; preparing for the annual two day studio tour, and contemplating what treasures I still have hidden away in drawers and paintings racks must have set off some sort of nostalgic chain reaction in my brain.

At the same time, I’ve been realizing many artist-types I know in town are up to 20 years younger than me. Woah!  and because of this, there’s a dissonance between what I want to accomplish now in my career  and what other artists do.  It’s just that we are at different intersections, looking at different destinations on the map.

I came here with my family, after bouncing around the country for a few years.  First, finishing grad school in Iowa, heading out to Washington state for an informal residency at a former professor’s house, then teaching at colleges in Kentucky, Virginia, and near Washington, DC….. I got an offer to head west, and another round of packing and moving ensued.
I ended up teaching full time in the drawing area of Colorado State for 6 years, and then decided that tenure did not call to me, so I quit. Yeah I know, !!!??? throwing long term security down the tubes?  But in a rather soul-crushing environment, I’m convinced my work would have suffered.  (I did go back for a few terms of part time teaching, because that was the part I did miss.)

When I quit teaching full time, it was great weight off.  I had more time to paint finally. I think it was a great time for my work, and career. There was a quirky little space behind a used furniture store that was my studio.  I exhibited in several commercial galleries and universities, was selling work regularly, did visiting artists gigs, won competitive arts fellowships, even tried my hand at the Cherry Creek Arts festival.

But…while I wasn’t looking, some things were shifting.
First- dot.com bubble bursting, (bad news if your primary gallery is in Seattle) then galleries began closing, recession-induced malaise began creeping in.
Previous to this, I had not been interested much in having anything to do with the local public art walks, open studios, etc.  That changed a bit when I rented a space in a (then) vibrant art space, and suddenly had access to other local artists and people walking through the building every First Friday. I began selling my own work. Over time, I ended gallery affiliations, and began a process of re-tooling.
Now, I’m happily “self-representing” my work, learning and using new skills. I try to find good homes, whether public or private, for what I create.  I ponder having too many pieces of art work lingering around when I check out. I don’t care about gallery representation. I paint what interests me, but don’t have to churn out an arbitrary number of pieces each year to ship off to an unknown future.

If I get old enough, I may put a sign out by the curb…..”free art to good homes”, or have a really colorful bonfire, or put them up on the walls of a skilled nursing facility.   The work will have already served its purpose, which is taking me on my own visual journey.

Oh yeah.  The cat?  Our 20 year-old Lily, who hangs in there, despite kidney disease and 6 years of daily infusions to keep her functioning.  Together, we make adjustments, we have set-backs, we take naps in the sun, and we poke around in the dirt.

Come see us June 2 and 23rd during the free Fort Collins studio tour, and help us celebrate 20 years of being here.

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