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Archives: May to August 2010

what if I try this with hind leg feathers
Musings because of a microraptor

Evolution is amazing stuff. I truly do not understand why some folks are afraid of evolution. It’s nature, it’s process, it’s proven science. It’s fascinating. We were watching a show on microraptors the other day. Evolution, while being nature’s way of adapting to the ever-changing environment, is also a huge force of infinite creativity.

What if it has blue feathers, what if the tail feathers are really long, what if those feathers curl, what if it has another pair of legs, what if there are four horns in a row behind the ears, what if those horns are really soft and tipped with fur, and what if it’s eyes are orange? I’m not quite sure what I just created there... but the nature of creativity, whether in the natural world or in your studio, is one of constant variation, based on what has come before. Evolution.

Jesters by Alexandria LevinI wrote something about apples once, or more specifically, about being an apple painter. Now, this could be someone who paints the surfaces of apples, or more likely someone who does paintings of apples. Let’s say this artist paints pictures of apples; the three or four varieties found in the average supermarket. The apples are sitting on a table, maybe on a plate or in a bowl, but there is at least one apple sitting there on the table itself. Maybe that apple is cut open, but has not yet oxidized. And there you have a standard apple painting. But after awhile... meh. Time to evolve!

If you are an apple painter, then go for it. Go to the farmers’ market and pick up some new varieties. There are hundreds, because nature loves creating variety. Paint them anywhere but on the table. Line them up in new ways. Play with pattern in the background. Abstract them to varying degrees. Paint a single apple as iconically as possible. Pair an apple up with something else that brings new meaning. Use all the wrong colors. Use all the wrong painting tools. Ask yourself; what if I try this, what if I try that, what if I try these other ideas? What if apple pie is involved?

The painting above right is called Jesters and was painted a few years ago. Silly gourds.

stupor sunday
The show above the window seat

Mysterious landscapes are appearing on our bedroom windowsill with great frequency these days. Wooo. There are hilly cityscapes, arched bridges, fields and meadows with trees in the distance. Lovely oil sketches on little panels, like the kind I paint on, portable and efficient for tight spaces.

I’ve tried plein air painting a few times, and never say never, at least not in this case, it’s not something I see myself picking up again anytime soon. I seem to have much more of a problem with gravity outdoors than I do in the studio, where things rarely fall to the floor. In the wilds of a field or a sidewalk it’s all about wrestling with bugs, fighting the wind, ignoring the passing commentary. I always feel rushed when painting outdoors. I’m better off taking notes.

This is one of those Sundays when I feel like napping all day. I couldn’t convince myself to crawl out of bed for the longest time this morning. And I have nothing to not look forward to today, so was it one more day of foot pain, one more day of relative immobility, one more day of the same old same old that kept me glued to the pillow? Both restless and stuck at the same time. Not a good place to be.

I need to ask my feet what the problem is. I mean I know what the physical problem is, and I can see some slight improvement there, so that is good. But I don’t know about the other part, what the contributing factor is. As said before, all I want is to move forward, and now just moving a few steps forward hurts often enough. Something is up. Must get to the bottom of it, so the bottoms of my feet can be their true happier selves again.

Many of the plein air paintings on our windowsill were painted in Valley Forge. I haven’t been there yet. But I need those landscapes, I’ve been looking for them; the rolling hills, the varied foreground and distant lines and shapes and colors. I have a digital camera, we’ve got a car to borrow, we have the time, everything we need is there, exept for my ability to walk far without pain. But I am willing to try. I need those pictures. If it’s in the stale indoors and not of the fresh outdoors, what would post-photograph memory-induced painted landscapes be called?

thatsa lotta paintings
Taking inventory

It wasn’t on my to-do list for today, not at all. I was on the verge of making sense of the mess on my desktop here, the mess in the folder called ‘new ptgs’. My messes are well organized, yes. Like my sock basket. All socks go in the sock basket. And they do. But once you get into the basket, it’s a free for all. But that’s where the socks, and only the socks, are.

About a year ago, about the same time this blog was in its final planning stages, I put aside the paintings with faces..., and also stems. There’s either a face or a stem in almost anything that isn’t a landscape that I’ve done until about a year ago. I am going back to faces and stems, I miss them, but probably not until a few more months have gone by.

I am trying to organize the images of all the abstracted paintings I’ve painted in the past year. I’ve got two folders now; one of azaleas, all beautifully scanned, and another of everything else I’ve done, the folder called ‘new ptgs’. It’s a mess. Did I mention that? It’s got a few original scans, a bunch of photographed images, a few of which are cropped, but most are still raw. And I thought that maybe first I ought to list the paintings I’ve completed since last September, just to get a handle on things. So I decided to open my inventory list.

Okay, maybe I’m obsessive. How many artists do you know that keep an inventory list? I remember fellow students at SFAI getting on my case because I organized my paint tubes – But only into two categories; large tubes and small tubes. That was just too much organization for them. But okay, maybe I’m not obsessive.

In the past year I’ve painted 42 small paintings on panels, not including the half dozen or so I began, said “yuck” out loud, and then painted over. Since 1980, I have names on a list for 398 paintings. This does not include experimental mixed-media pieces, works on paper, a few plein air paintings, things I’ve forgotten all about, and paintings I’ve done between 1975 and 1979 — of which there were quite a number, including the two years I spent at Mass Art. So I would say I’ve easily done about 500 actual paintings to date. I think that’s a magic number. Five hundred.

creative fun from almost nothing
The cardboard composition window

Composition is about editing. This would be signified by the edge where either a form or a picture plane ends. You can use a window like a cropping tool to visually edit larger forms and/or to isolate them from distracting surroundings. This will work for anything that is viewed either in two or three dimensions, or anything that will be translated into a two or three-dimensional art form.

Take a regular piece of cardboard and cut a window into it. The cardboard should be about the size of notebook paper. Cut a rectangular window, about 3” x 5”, into the middle of it. You would then have a nice border around the window, about 3” all around. This will help you edit what you see. You do not want your vision to get too cluttered. The window will help you focus in on a composition. You can hold the cardboard at different distances from your eye to change the size of the composition that you are viewing. The window works as though you are seeing something through a camera viewfinder.

Place tracing paper over the window and trace what you see. Even better, get a piece of clear plexiglass, about the size of the cardboard. Use this to back your tracing paper, so that it will be easier to draw on. Masking tape will help hold the tracing paper in place. You now have a window-tracer for recording compositions that you see around you. You could take actual photographs, but this will allow you to concentrate on the composition itself and nothing else. To find plexiglass, go to a plastic supply store. Look in the yellow pages under plastics. Most cities have at least one plastic supply store, and they usually sell plexiglass scraps pretty cheap.

Take your window-tracer and find interesting compositions everywhere. Trace the placement of things by making outlines of what you see. You could start with small, two-dimensional things. Hold the cardboard window up to magazine pages and other pictures to make smaller, maybe abstracted, compositions. Try using your window on other flat things like older exterior walls where surfaces change frequently. This will force you to seek out interesting details in paint, brick color, cracks, texture and so on. Hold your window up to some scenery and trace the three dimensional world. Shift the window ever so slightly. How does the composition change?

View lots of compositions. Trace only the ones that appeal to you. Don’t feel like tracing? Just look. And look and look and look. You can make other cardboard windows that are about 4” to 6” in size, just to see the possibilities, explore and find new ways to look at things. You could also try any of the following shapes for your cardboard window; square, circle, oval, trapezoid, triangle or any other polygon that you can imagine.

Simply by seeing all kinds of compositional possibilities, you will be inspired to set up your own visual arrangements in a new way. You can also take the outlines or silhouettes you have traced and use them in an abstract composition. You may want to try working with “multiple exposures”, tracing one composition and then tracing another over it on the same rectangle of tracing paper.

There you go. Whole new worlds have just opened up for you. Now, go out there and have some fun, compositionally speaking.

Every month a new creativity lesson is posted. See the archives for the full series. See September and October 2009 for further explanation on how to use the exercises.

Go to Painted Jay Publishing for the whole book:
www.paintedjay.com

from a little piece of hell
Spinning the color wheel

I’ve been trying to paint the heat. The advantage of not having gallery representation is that you have no one to disappoint. There are no demands, no expectations. You can do what an artist is meant to do; explore, experiment, push your own boundaries. For me that would be pure abstraction. I’ve got the surrealist thing down and I can paint as representational as the best of them. Pure abstraction can be difficult, but I love the challenge, and have found it to be a place I can go without much trouble. Abstraction like this doesn't fight back, but it does pose issues I enjoy sinking my teeth into.

Painting my periods, with all the cramps and blood and stabbing knives, was the good kind of struggle. Stepping a toe into painting other states of being, such as being in a twist, is not too hard, and I will return there once the exterior thermostat gets turned down. However, painting heat is exceptionally tough. It doesn’t flow. unhappy dover sun

Heat like this is a solid mass. It is layered, both opaque and translucent. It weighs heavy, hangs like ancient drapery, drags old dry lumber ripe with splinters down long dusty roads. It is both headache bright and queasy dull. Or maybe it is consistently dull with spare moments of a sharp stabbing sort of brightness. I want to paint yellows, all kinds of yellows, but I am not sure if yellow is quite right. Maybe orange. We think of red and orange for heat, with cool colors being blues and greens. There is sense to that, but it is not the whole picture. Heat brings mirages, visions, fever dreams. What color is that heat-induced headache that has been my frequent companion these recent summers?

Yellow transverses both summer and heat. Summer colors were once crisp white, citron, a sweet orchid violet, the cool aqua of tropical seashores, the clear blue of a good sky. I miss those summers. Heat like this is a dismal beige, a blaring yellow-orange, a tired shade of red. In some cases it is heavy and opaque, in others transparent and scratchy. Sometimes heat is colorless. How do you paint that?

I know this much: The only way to get to the crisp cool of autumn is to crawl, muddle, hobble your way through this insipidity as best you can. Half of life is a mirage anyway. It shouldn’t be, but at times like this it feels as though it is.

netroots station
Vegas, baby

I’ve never been to Vegas. Oh, I’ve been to Las Vegas all right, the one in the northeastern quadrant of the state of New Mexico. Las Vegas is a sweet little town about an hour sort of north of Santa Fe on I-25, where the Sangre de Cristo Mountains meet the prairie for breakfast. I even thought of moving there once upon a time. But I’ve never been to Vegas.

I’ve seen Vegas from the air at night, back in the days when I would frequently fly between Albuquerque and San Francisco. It was lit up like a carnival, the midway of the great American desert. Back in the days when I loved to fly, my face pressed against the window looking out at everything. Back in the days when I would travel with some regularity, and I didn’t feel the need to reinvent myself every few months in the name of survival.

So, now I am a blogger. And Netroots Nation is taking place in Vegas where it’s 180 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade and I swear everyone else, well probably almost, is having a much better time than I am. Because I am somewhat bored and they are probably not. But anyhoo, as I was saying, I would rather be at Netroots Nation right now, because among other reasons involving fun, I want to become a better blogger.

In the past, before I began reinventing myself with such regularity (instead of traveling so much as I once did), I would wait until I was closer to perfection before setting out on something. “Oh no, I can’t do that, not yet” was my faithful tagline. Not so much anymore. Because the one piece of advice I have held dear to my heart, or any other handy body part, that I have gleaned from way too many pages of self-help books that I have long since abandoned, is to not wait until you have achieved perfection to do something.

And so I write my imperfect blog, poor thing still without a reliable comment process, no socially mandatory bells and whistles, just a bunch of lonely words, and again, poor thing, so terribly unpublicized. But still I write. Because in another two months I will have been dedicated to this baby for a whole year. And as time goes on, I will continue to have all this material behind me. And I will get better, as anyone who dedicates themselves to anything naturally will. And a year from now, when I am attending Netroots Nation 2011, wherever it’s going to be held, I will be there, a full-fledged blogger. An artsy lefty original blogger. A better blogger.

The last time I saw Las Vegas, the one in New Mexico, was from the train. They have an Amtrak station. Next stop Raton. Next stop Netroots Nation 2011. Next stop take my own dang advice and figure out what else I can be imperfect at that will move things forward.

a topical heat wave
We're having a heat wave

Philadelphia recorded its hottest June on record last month, and this July looks no better. Of course it's hot in July in places where it usually gets hot in July. But record heat is another thing, as opposed to regular or average heat. We just had two days of unusual rainfall and flooding sandwiched in-between heat waves number four and five. It's a good thing my feet hurt and I'm better off staying inside, going nowhere. Or maybe not.

Heat Wave by Alexandria LevinI'm one of the lucky ones with two working air conditioners and an apartment small enough to stay reasonably comfortable with just that. I'm also one of the lucky ones with an easel and panels and paint. I've been doing these small abstracts based on states of being, and I suppose before summer is out, there will be heat wave paintings. Right now they are about feet and heels and restlessness... but crazy summer storms and heat will be portrayed before August is out.

From 1975 to 1985 I lived in the Boston area. Every summer there was one guaranteed heatwave. It would last about a week, until some raging thunderstorm finally gave it the boot. And that would be it for the year. I painted the painting in this entry in the early eighties in response to the annual Boston heatwave. It's about 30 inches across. I can't wait to paint that size again. I can't wait for cooler months and a bigger studio. They are both on the horizon. They are not a mirage. They can't be.

creative fun from almost nothing
Hybrid-words

This monthly feature on developing unlimited creativity is best referenced from the two original creative fun from almost nothing entries from the archives; September and October 2009. Read those two entries, and the entry below will be all yours. In honor of all things peculiar...

Hybrid words are any two words joined together with a dash to make a new word. One example would be scarf-dog. This could be a dog that always wears a scarf, a dog that scarfs things down (like most dogs) or a scarf that is the companion pet of another scarf. Take any two things you see, any two actions going on nearby, or any sensation or exclamation you randomly choose. Mix nouns, verbs, adjectives or any other kinds of words together.

If you cannot think of any hybrids off the top of your head, begin with any of these examples:
1. box-stripe
2. pillow-fish
3. drawer-blue
4. carpet-phone
5. sky-lime
6. table-hey!

• Create something in any medium or style based on your interpretation of any of the above hybrid words.

• Do a split-comparison piece, where half is about the scarf and the other half is about the dog. This is actually quite a common approach used by artists, usually to make some kind of a statement. Think about any meaning you might wish to convey, or if it is purely about random thought and nothing else.

• Make a truly hybrid piece of art, not only inspired by a hybrid word, but hybrid also by mixing your use of materials, approaches and/or artistic styles. For example, sky-lime could be a mixed-media piece mounted on a small board. The sky could be painted realistically with blue and clouds, and the lime could be an abstract in different shades of green glitter and sequins. Sky could be on the left and lime on the right side of the board, or the lime could be placed coming through the sky. The lime could also be portrayed on the front of the piece, with the sky on the back. Maybe the sky could be made of fabric pieces glued to a large wooden lime. The possibilities are many. Strange, but many.

• Make a chain of hybrid words such as: snorkel-sofa, sofa-mouse, mouse-tomato, tomato-pond. You can loop the chain with pond-snorkel, if you like. With these hybrid words you can create an intertwined series of pieces, like an accordion-fold book or a giant domino set. Brainstorm and see what ideas come.

Every month a new creativity lesson is posted. See the archives for the full series. See September and October 2009 for further explanation on how to use the exercises.

Go to Painted Jay Publishing for the whole book:
www.paintedjay.com

beachless summer
Sand, sanding, sandpaper

For a girl who wants to keep moving forward, this has been a tough time. My feet hurt. My feet are hurt. Both. I seem to have developed a case of plantar fasciitis. Don't get it. It's no fun. It hurts. It's also healable, so that is where I am headed. On hurt feet. Ouch.

My feet spend too much time being pounded into concrete, while I carry heavy loads that add significantly to the weight my feet have to bear. I wear good shoes, so that is not the issue. Everything else is. So we are working on working around that. Being an artist means you get to be creative about all kinds of things.

My feet want sand. They love love love to walk naked on sand at the beach; at that exact spot where wave meets shore. It's their ultimate happy place.

Beaches are diminshing. Beautiful white sands of the Gulf, now literally tarnished. Most Atlantic beaches are hemmed in by development, so the natural ebb and flow of shoreline gets crunched by real estate. The Pacific — oh so far away at this point in my life.

I recently did two small paintings on panel; two different trees that just did not work out. They were dull little pieces, and my paintings deserve better. So I sanded them down with a superfine grit sandpaper, leaving most of the image there as a ghost shadow. I have just discovered that these make for wonderful base paintings for abstracts. Oooh, so now I am going to dig out the work that I am not so thrilled about and sand them down too.

Pressure. Scraping. Pounding. Sand. Evolution. Move forward however possible.

transition time
Flux, or maybe not

It’s interesting how the word flux keeps coming up in my head. I just looked it up, and like most things, some definitions fit in an eerily perfect way, and other meanings, not so much. I thought I was in a period of flux, but I am going to have to find a better word. Although, period and flux have an awful lot to do with this one body of work. Funny. But in retrospect only.

I had written about this ten-painting series when I first started this blog (link to come). This was when I began painting for the first time in a purely abstract manner, using only a state of being as my point of reference without any objects tossed in for good measure. I finished them recently. I now call them Period Pieces. Period Piece 10 by Alexandria Levin

The painting to the in this entry is the last one I completed from this series. These paintings are too big to fit on my scanner. Scanning paintings is the best way to get a high-quality image. For a few years I had been pestering my brother to take photos of my larger than 8x10” paintings, but out-of-state brothers can only be pestered so much. Being the DIY type, I tried myself, now having that sweet little second-hand digital camera... but this is the only successful image I got. I came out really red, way too red, but I added a little cyan in Photoshop, and the colors adjusted themselves very nicely. The boyfriend has a paint-covered tripod that I am going to borrow for my next session. It seems I can’t hold my hand that steady after all. Artwork needs a tripod.

I thought I was going to return to the semi-abstracted trees for awhile, and I tried, but I think I need to paint bigger tree paintings and my current studio won’t allow for bigger anything, unless I want to work on one at a time and then have the finished pieces disappear into some warp in the time-space continuum, because really, I don’t have the space to store them here on earth. Not at this very moment anyway.

A lot of time is spent visualizing my dream studio, along with the rest of my dream house located on my dream grounds, with mountain views. The dream compound; studio, house, greenhouse, gardens, guesthouse. There is lots of storage space. Really nice organized cabinets and shelves and racks for paintings. You would think I would be visualizing collectors lining up at my door, so that storage space would not be so necessary. Okay, shift gears. Again.

I am painting more states of being. I am having fun with this abstraction thing. I am also missing the fine representational painting, but I can feel the direction shifting and that too is churning inside my head. I thought flux was a transitional phase, because my work is going through a transitional phase, and I want a word for it. Next...

creative fun from almost nothing
Synesthesia; which certainly explains some things

This monthly feature on developing unlimited creativity is best referenced from the two original creative fun from almost nothing entries from the archives; September and October 2009. Read those two entries, and the entry below will be all yours. Use the concept of synesthesia to inspire new ways of perceiving things. And for more synesthetic inspiration from this misfit, check out the illustrated lyric-poem; Synesthetic Melody. Don't forget to roll over the images.

For as long as I can remember, each letter of the alphabet has had a corresponding color. So do numbers, days of the week and months of the year. For example; 2 is yellow, T is black and Wednesday is a warm tomato color such as cadmium red light. I think of a number or look at a letter, and I automatically see the color in my mind’s eye. This was not anything I ever questioned. I always though it was normal, and it is normal for me.

letter graphicThis is the curious condition called synesthesia, which concerns the natural synthesis, or combining, of different senses. The most common form of synesthesia involves letters and numbers having colors. Less common forms involve the connecting and crossing of sounds, smells, tastes and touch. Hearing a certain sound may stimulate a certain smell or color to one particular person, and something entirely different to someone else. These are not conscious decisions. They just are. Synesthetes (people who have synesthesia) don’t consciously assign colors, smells, shapes or anything else to other things. These odd descriptive qualities for things are inherent.

We each have our own individual systems for perceiving certain things. My letter R may be a deep red, but for another synesthete the letter R may be a cool pale green. Neither of us is right or wrong. It’s all individual perception.

Only some people have synesthesia, a very small percentage of the population. Don’t despair or feel less creative if you don’t. If you don’t have the preconceived notion that the letter F is blue and the numeral 8 is brown, then you are more free, and it will be easier for you, to portray them in other colors as you choose.

A few synesthesia-inspired things to do:

• Make an alphabet chart with each letter portrayed in its own color. If you have synesthesia, use the colors you already see. If not, or for synesthetes who want a challenge, then you can assign colors according to any system you choose.
• Do the same thing as above with numbers, geometric shapes, names of states, or any other system you would like to categorize by color.
• In any medium, get very elaborate with your first initial or any other letter. Give it a color, a texture, a visual sound or scent. Give it a whole back story.
• Think of one of your favorite songs. Assign colors to the notes, the instruments used, or the letters in the title. Use those colors in a pure abstract piece (nothing recognizable) to describe the song.

Every month a new creativity lesson is posted. See the archives for the full series. See September and October 2009 for further explanation on how to use the exercises.

Go to Painted Jay Publishing for the whole book:
www.paintedjay.com

so there
I am a successful artist

In a recent entry I wrote that lately it seems the art world views acquiring an MFA as proof of being serious about your art. Would that be; serious about your art or serious about your career? Because it’s really not the same thing. It’s like labeling someone as a successful artist. But what does success mean? I have always thought there were three definitions of success for an artist. You can have all, or some, and the levels of each may vary at different times in your life. The boyfriend adds a fourth to the list, something he considers very important. They are as follows:

1. Career success This would be having a nice full resume with lots of juicy items on it such as solo exhibitions and positive magazine articles and inclusion in museum collections. It is the exterior measure of your being an artist. It is outside approval. It also means the opportunity to get your work out to a larger audience than those who already know you personally. Career success is positive for both the artist’s sense of achievement and the greater cultural good.

2. Financial success as an artist I would define this as earning enough directly from your art to support yourself in a comfortable manner; having what you need with some extra to put aside for a rainy day; when money ceases to be a concern. This does not include money you earn doing something else, even if it is art-related, but only what you earn creating exactly what you would create if money were not involved.

3. Success in the studio to me, this is the most important measure of success, and one you can only truly answer for yourself. It is a measure of growth, exploration and dedication. If your work is evolving, if it is challenging to you, if it improves over the long haul, if you are having some fun along with all your hard work and you are involved in some pretty good conversations with your muse in the process, then you are doing just fine in this category. If the bad starts and the not-so-good finishes don’t get you down, you learn from them and they are arriving with greater infrequency, and the ideas are flowing then you are doing very well. And if the work you were doing twenty, or twenty-five years ago is all the rage right now, but you are way past that yourself, well honey, know that you are way ahead of the curve.

4. Being an inspiration to other artists. Whether you teach your skills to others, extend your hand in any way to help another artist, or inspire by being a living example that the life of an artist is well worth living despite all the stupidity and frustration – then yes, this is a high measure of success. (Because well, hey, there is plenty of stupidity and frustration to go around no matter what you do, so you may as well chase your dreams.)

4a. Of course... When your artwork itself gives inspiration Whether it is inspiration to other artists as to what the possibilities are, or as inspiration to the general public in terms of any message you hope to get across... If your work has a strong positive affect on an audience, consider that a success.

Blue Ear Dog by Alexandria LevinCareer success; I was there, I had it, I was on a steady upward trajectory and I still want it. However, it has become elusive at this time. The quiet voices tell me this is temporary, it’s a Delaware Valley thing and it will pass. Financial success; I was halfway there before moving here. Now, the only way I can go is up. There is no further down. Studio success; In my tiny little studio on my tiny little budget I am on the verge of whole new bodies of work. Perseverance, creativity, it’s all there. This is the one category I never ever doubt. Being an inspiration; This was a surprise to me, it wasn’t in the plans, but I guess I am there too. And it’s pretty cool. I like helping members of my tribe, the artist tribe. Most of us are good people. Inspiring artwork; It’s been awhile since I have been able to guage this since I have no real public career at this time. But I have been in places where this was a common occurance; it was clear for many years in both San Francisco and New Mexico and I know it will come again.

Are you with me on this? Smooth the ruffled feathers a bit. Lick your wounds. Put on some loud music and get in there and create. Define your own measure of success.

The painting in this post is called Blue Ear Dog. He is a warrior. He stands tall.

keep ‘em begging for scraps
A memorial to affordable education

I received my BFA from SFAI 21 years ago, and these days I receive email announcements from the alumni listserv. Yesterday I saw a listing for a short film nearing completion called 'Default: the Student Loan Documentary'. The link is here.

I touched upon this subject in an entry called “My very favorite graffiti ever” in the December archives (link to come). Like so many folks in this country, I am constantly searching for how to better my situation. And we think, as we’ve been told over and over again, that a higher degree will get us there. As I wrote in the entry below, I am in competition with so many who have graduate degrees.

Why don’t I have that MFA? Looking back 20 years, maybe I should have made graduate school a priority. Of course, with this gift of hindsight in advance, I never would have agreed to move to Philadelphia either. These two things get relegated to the very short list of regrets I have about my life. I applied to grad school twice. The first school, after receiving my application and then turning me down, let me know that their only reason was because I had not traveled the 2,000 miles to interview in person. They made it very clear to me they were keeping my application open for two years, no changes needed on my part. But in those few short months between application and rejection my life had changed sufficiently and I was involved in numerous art events and communities in San Francisco, this being 1990, and I had decided to stay in the area for the next few years at the very least. I applied to a Bay Area school soon afterwards, the one that made the most sense, and I was rejected again. However, this time it was for being overqualified. I had a great portfolio, sterling recommendations from two of their notable graduate alumni, a grade point average of 3.7 (which was well above what they needed for the art department in those days) and unusually high GRE scores. But then I began financially supporting an elderly parent. Economics got in the way. Interest in graduate school faded for the same reason I was rejected from the second school; I was molding myself, I was teaching myself how to be an artist, and I was doing very well until moving to PA in 2002.

And I think maybe it would have helped having the MFA when we moved here, and maybe it would help now, this very minute, but it is so out of the question. It used to be that life experience, professional experience, years of proven work was more than sufficient. Not so much anymore.

But then just try to advance yourself! If you are going to school for enrichment, take adult education classes and pay as you go. Spend a lot of time at the library or online. Take workshops. Apprentice. This is how you get a real education. If you need a degree, make sure it is actually worth something, that it leads to a well-paying job and not ballooning student loan debt.

I don’t have an MFA and I don’t have student loan debt. I guess I am even. The art schools and university art departments are turning out way more MFA graduates than there are jobs for even a fraction of those graduates. What happens now?

When I went to SFAI, and the community was wonderful, and the classes ranged from useless-and-annoying to very-well-worth-it-indeed, and I have no regrets going there (because I did actually learn how to draw later on in New Mexico), the one thing I didn’t understand was how unpoliticized artists can be. And I was doing mostly political work. Hell, they weren’t all that big on subject matter of any kind when I was there... I even wrote a paper on how the political affects all of us no matter how insulated we may try to be. I think this may be changing. I am hoping this is changing, because the student debt situation, as it stands now, is one more huge nail in the splintered coffin of the American Dream of a better tomorrow. Or even a slightly less worse tomorrow.

if this, then that
Sometimes I paint what I see in my head

Not a minor chip on my shoulder. Not a beef. It’s bigger than that. It’s a big ol’ hairy mammoth standing on my foot and it won’t let me go without a fight. So why do these things bother me? I am so very particular. Words have meanings, and I want those meanings to mean something substantial. It came at a crossroads. It came about during a conversation between artists concerning graduate school.

It came about when that one dusty light bulb flickered on; and now, seemingly all of a sudden, graduate school attendance is proof that you are serious about your art, an MFA is a requirement for being taken seriously by the art world, for getting anywhere decent in your career, for being counted. Twenty years ago all an MFA was necessary for was having that piece of paper so you could teach on the college level; something I thought even then was part of a self-perpetuating system, and does not by itself produce the best possible teachers, let alone the best possible artists.

They changed the rules in the middle of the game. They changed the rules after the game was over. Not everybody is allowed to play the game anymore. It doesn’t matter how good you are, how skilled, how creative, how original, what you have to say, your one-of-a-kind way of saying it, how visionary you might be... Which led me to thinking about the current definition for visionary art. I wonder how that had changed, and why?

Wikipedia has it right in their various explanations. It’s what I suspected. That, being ahead of the curve and listening to your inner muse above all else. So when did Visionary Artist come to mean an unschooled artist? And what, then, becomes the value of the BFA? If having a BFA means you are not a visionary, but are trained to some middling extent, and yet are still not serious enough about your art to get an MFA, what does that say?

Too much, way too much these days gets way too easily labeled and unfairly categorized. If it’s this, then it must be that. Forget looking around, doing a little research, considering something else that might be the case or that there may be some exceptions to the rule. Or that the rule itself may be nothing more than a flimsy assumption. Forget fairness. Forget merit.

Is it sheer laziness on the part of the person doing the labeling, the deciding, the judging? Or has a whole ‘nother generation gone by being taught what to think, instead of how to think. Standardization. It’s just so much easier.

we owe nature everything
Oleaginous spring

I’m upset. I’ve been out of sorts. There’s too much going on, and it’s not the good stuff. Restlessness brought a much needed road trip this last weekend, a fun and wonderful weekend visiting family in southeastern North Carolina. There’s been a lot on my mind lately. My brain and I... We took a few days off, sort of.

We all went to visit the ocean one day; a hot and windy adventure in being sandblasted while combing for pieces of shell as smooth as beach glass. My city feet loved walking in the wet sand. The water was gorgeous and loud. It was the perfect shade of medium sea green, with wave after wave rolling in with a sweet ferocity. The water was beautiful. And clean.

Over the course of the weekend we visited rivers and bays and inlets and creeks and lakes and ponds. And swamps. They start naming the swamps as you drive south. All these waterways, all relatively clean. Maybe not drinking clean, but clean enough nonetheless. These places are home for birds and animals and bugs and fish and crustaceans. They are for us too; for recreation, for transportation, for beauty and respite.

I heard somewhere the earth is bleeding. There is a cut deep beneath the Gulf of Mexico. This wound cannot be licked. It is bleeding red and orange and black, colors that belong elsewhere, but not the sea.

Spanish mossYou look into the waterways and watersheds and you see how complex they are, even on the surface, even from a distance. It’s not like you can wipe off a smooth counter top with a wet paper towel when the oil starts oozing in, when the oil decides to become permeated and saturated and is setting up shop for the long run. The fluid lace of Spanish moss becomes a million funereal veils, dripping from every tree.

You want stupidity and ignorance? Read here about how the booms are set all wrong for containing the oil, but are just right for appeasing the media and certain politicians. You want something you can do? You want to know more? Click here.

One of my teachers at SFAI told us something way back when – That if you ever need inspiration, refer only to nature. And looking back, while all the other students were searching in the school library for books about famous artists, I was in the science aisle, looking up whatever nature I couldn’t already find outside in San Francisco. A few days ago in North Carolina I was pondering reeds and egrets.

A few days ago and elsewhere they were on the verge of a prolonged and brutal suffering. This disaster in the Gulf of Mexico is only just beginning, and I fear for much. I have been painting swamps from my trip to Florida last fall. These paintings are going to take a turn for the dark. I have no choice. I have a lot on my mind.

creative fun from almost nothing
The element of line

This monthly feature on developing unlimited creativity is best referenced from the two original creative fun from almost nothing entries from the archives; September and October 2009. Read those two entries, and the entry below will be all yours. Use a simple and basic element of visual art to get your creative motor humming along.

Feeling linear, moving forward...

Line is wonderful stuff, and can be quite beautiful on its own. Line is visual poetry. Line is musical. You will find both actual and implied line in such things as edges, borders, creases, twigs, string, paneling, corduroy, stripes, kitty whiskers, leaf veins, markings on shells and cracks in the wall.

Sitting just where you are, write down a list of twenty or more different lines that you see around you. Write short descriptions of each of these lines. Be either poetic or pragmatic about it. Or poetically pragmatic if you choose.

Make an abstract or semi-abstract piece, either in two or three dimensions, using a minimum of four of the line qualities from your list of twenty types of lines and not much else. Drawing or painting lines can be easily done. For sculptural works, you can use wire, sticks, yarn, cord, glass rods, coils or any other linear material. You can also cut paper, fabric and many other things into lines that you can use for your linear piece.

Think about the direction of a straight line. Choose a scene or set up a still-life with 80 to 90% of the lines going in one direction, and the remainder all going in another. Or do an abstraction as such based on directional lines that you have observed.

Create another piece; pictorial, abstract or anything in-between, using only fluid, curved, curly, zig-zag types of lines. If you need to, limit yourself to no more than three main colors for the piece. First, make up a fun title such as; “The Zig-Zag Epoch of the Firefly Days” or “Boomerang Bustier”. Then you can make the piece fit the title, which would be more of an interesting challenge.

Every month a new creativity lesson is posted. See the archives for the full series. See September and October 2009 for further explanation on how to use the exercises.

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