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

20130803_070209

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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the studio tour approaches- better get those elves busy!

Special events volunteer job finished – check!
Finished helping a former student with her 5th grade art students’ “trash animals”- check!
Garden pretty much planted – check!
Studio intern on board – check!

studio tour painting, Nanci Erskine, grass paintings

a peak at a corner, before this one got stretched. This piece will be in the Studio Tour exhibition at the Lincoln Center in Fort Collins, opening June 14th

Now, on to getting paintings finished, framed, perhaps some pastels drawings….maybe some prints made… (just met a printmaker from MO, who can show me a new non-toxic process)

I’m lucky this year again to be sponsored by Legacy Land Trust for the FREE weekend artists studio tour. June 22 and 23rd.
AND I’ll be donating 10% of the proceeds from the weekend to the land conservation efforts of this small but mighty organization.

And…I am looking forward to having some help with studio/documentation/database tasks.
If you come by for the tour weekend, you will meet my intern, the amazing Ali. If you speak Mandarin, she will also make you feel right at home!

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Paintings off the Wall- Don’t try this at home

This falls in the “arghhhhh” category.
Sometimes we try things, and they don’t prove successful.
Back when I was feeling a need to recommit to painting again, I thought I’d go big, and get out of a rut. I had just seen some gallery shows where work was displayed directly on the wall, in various ways, unframed . Suspended, from an artful rod, attached with magnets, attached directly to the wall..etc. The result was, I began to think that perhaps I could conceive of doing some paintings that wouldn’t begin with the usual process of banging stretchers together, stretching canvas, and priming it.
It was kind of liberating to just staple a large expanse of canvas on the wall and work directly on it. I thought of perhaps binding the edges in some way or sewing tabs on the top edge, hanging it from a unique rod of some kind.
But, somehow, the scale of these pieces, didn’t work flat on the wall.
So, after the fact, I decided to stretch already existing paintings. Not my favorite thing to do. But in the end, it will be a better result.P1020689 Too bad some of the P1020691painting is now wrapped around the edge and no P1020692longer visible- but I’m going to remedy that.P1020693

Perhaps some time in the future, I’ll work on paper and/or do something creative about hanging or displaying them. For now, this seems like the better way to go.

P.S.  Frankly, I feel somewhat annoyed that I couldn’t make this work in some new way, and it’s a nuisance to stretch an already existing painting.  They just don’t like being bent around a 45degree angle. It doesn’t look as finished as if I started out stretching plenty of canvas to wrap around the back.  So, now I have to slap on a frame or something to make it look  finished.  Next time, more deliberation, or leaving a bigger margin all around! Silly me.    What have you tried that didn’t quite pan out?

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Brick by Brick… Am I easily distracted or do I just have lots of good ideas simultaneously?

bricksI’ve been working in my home studio for about 2 years now- and enjoy several things about it.
•No rent.
•More space.
•Obviously closer to home-  I can go work anytime- for hours or 15 critical minutes.
•I can do the studio tour more easily.
•Everything is stored in one location.
•I have separate work areas set up for painting, drawing, printmaking, and desk work.
ah….. it’s the last one that might be a mixed blessing.

Desk area Ever the multi-tasker. Listening to a lecture by Daniel Ariely while reworking some monotypes with various media.

Desk area
Ever the multi-tasker. Listening to a lecture by Daniel Ariely about Irrational behavior while reworking some monotypes with various media.

Drawing Wall Lots of pending ideas, and a couple pastels up on the wall.  Finally using that black paper that's been in  my flat file for years.

Drawing Wall
Lots of pending ideas, and a couple pastels up on the wall. Finally using that black paper that’s been in my flat file for years.

Painting Wall Warpping up the large grey one, and several 8x10's coming along.

Painting Wall
Wrapping up the large grey one, and several 8×10’s coming along.

Because when I have several ways to work, of course I have several things going on at once. And they all interest me. And they are all mere steps away from each other.
uh oh
but over the years of working this way, I have become used to this  – everything eventually gets done… even if they all stagger towards the finish line at different speeds.  Being able to trust this is important. The author Daniel Pink says he believes in the simple action of showing up- working brick by brick-  how showing up every day becomes a cumulative effect.
SO… perhaps waiting for inspiration is lame-  we’ve oversold it (part of the mystique of the ‘artiste’?) and been undersold the PRACTICE
Or as Dave Hickey so aptly put it- “A frenzied, vague, emotional response just means your hand is moving in a pleasantly abandoned fashion.”  This is art as therapy.

The hand and eye working in response to how you think and feel about something  (idea/subject) takes more time and effort.

Being able to live with ambiguity and incompleteness- knowing that all the little incremental steps do add up to work that is resolved and also has a deeper history. That’s a tougher task.

brick by brick  –  that’s just the way I roll.  If you keep adding enough bricks- pretty soon you've built something substantial!

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Care for a bath of artistic self-esteem?

perhaps a la this guy?  thought not. (apologies to Senator Al Franken aka Stuart Smalley)  If you’re old enough,  you might remember back in the 80’s when we were all being told to look in our respective bathroom mirrors, and feed ourselves self-affirmative statements. believe-behave-become.. ta dum ta dum ta dum.

the graveyard of self-esteem baths

the graveyard of self-esteem baths

The theory was that if you repeated it enough then it became true.  This was also the age when kids were given medals just for showing up and having a pulse.  Everyone was doing a “good job!”  just by trying.  Can we please not go there again?

I was recently listening in to an interview with Daniel Pink, author of  A Whole New Mind  and To Sell is Human among other titles. One thing he discussed was the difference between affirmative vs. interrogative self talk; how a bath of self esteem feels good, but is not as effective as interrogative self-talk in moving you along toward your goals.
“You’re going to be great!”  vs.  “Can you do this?”  The second will allow you to form a response to affirm the ways you perhaps CAN do it. You will be thinking about what you’re going to do or say, and why. Pink uses himself as an example: waiting in an office to meet with his publisher to pitch a book idea.  The interrogative self-talk helps him anticipate what questions or challenges he might encounter and what his response will be.

These questions elicit an active response.  If we challenge ourselves this way, we’ll be ready for questions from others, and I believe, more able to question ourselves.  And there is nothing negative about that.

(There also seems to be a change in thinking about the way that brainstorming should function in this regard as well.  The new theory – people challenging each other can create even better solutions than just affirming whatever anyone says.)

Dave Hickey wrote in his column “Simple Hearts” in 1999,
“This is my beef with the bulk of contemporary criticism: It presumes that a work of art is validated at its source- that if an ‘Artist’ made it and an accredited institution sponsored its exhibition, the work is, ipso facto, worthy of commentary. ” Hickey says this is to presume what must be argued – that the public’s responses to art don’t have to comply with authorial or institutional intentions.  So…in other words…Question Authority .
He’s for more talk- conversation about art- not spoken writing, but contentious argument and challenges.  “The cruel, brilliant, happy, brave, and stupid atmosphere in which art lives and dies is very noisy; its vitality is a matter of urgent concern, and I am all too serious about doing what I can to ensure it’s survival”

But let’s aim for more than mere survival. It’s beginning to seem that anyone can call themselves an artist- no extended years of practice or challenge necessary.  No thick skin built up over time.  But as Hickey points out,  … “Eyes and reflexes need training to understand how to see the world in a visual way  (not a literal way). So we can risk making lines that for a split second depend on the intelligence of our hands and arms to carry out the command of our eyes and our mental judgement.” ( remember Malcolm Gladwell telling us about the 10,000 hours of practice necessary to gain mastery.)

So, knowing from first-hand experience how filled with doubt most artists are, why would I advocate for even more doubt-inducing internal voices?  Don’t we want to be in a state where all noise, both internal and external falls away, and we are absorbed and totally engaged by what we do?  Sure.  But if we are only propelled by what feels good we might be missing some deeper mark.

There is also the time when we open the door in the morning, or go sit in a chair, and just look. And question, and say “what if?” or “why”…   Because working hard on something, wading through the awkward and frustrating passages, might just start to eliminate the derivative, the formulaic and the merely decorative.   I think Daniel Pink’s idea of Interrogative Self-Talk has something to offer individual artists.   A truly valuable response to what an artist does might involve more than just being a cheerleader or someone to supply the “good job” all of us are inherently seeking on some level.  Nice to be on the receiving end and when you feel it’s rightly deserved, but does it do anything to further the work?

English: thinking

Does it demean us as artists for people to just gush over everything we do, without also asking us to question or challenge our efforts as well?   If they don’t do it, then we must. Someone must. Perhaps this kind of questioning and self-talk will ultimately build more resilience, which is a more valuable trait than mere self-esteem. It’s a trait built on responding to challenge. And challenge will help us to elevate the work we do beyond feel-good stuff.

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