On Being a Flâneur

The other evening at dinner, I remarked to Tom, “Well, today I really felt like an artist.”  He gave me his “I-don’t-know-where-this-is-going-but-I’m-willing-to-follow-you-there” look & waited for me to continue. 

Here’s what I explained:  During my studio session that afternoon, I had experimented, observed, documented, jettisoned, recommenced & practiced, all the while enjoying the thrill of discovery & a blissful freedom from expectations.  I had entered the studio at 1 PM with an idea, a willingness to explore it & a bit of trepidation; at 5 PM I departed with a pleasing sense of accomplishment, a clear trajectory for my project & happy anticipation for my next painting session.  In short, I had engaged in typical, felicitous, art-making behaviors.

This was all noteworthy because lately I’ve been feeling rather too workmanlike – or whatever the female equivalent is – behind my easel.  Maybe this is because I’ve been mostly using the same medium for the last decade.  Over time, as skills increase, the proficiency bar gets raised higher & higher.  Eventually, a quest for breathtaking technique can inadvertently supersede a project’s raison d’être & become an end in itself, an implacable goal to be achieved at any cost.  Life in the studio then becomes much less felicitous & rather all too tedious, or at least it did in my case.

Fortunately I found a remedy:  It was to become a sort of flâneur – or whatever the female equivalent is – in my own studio.  Flâneurs are, most popularly, figures in 19th C. French literature who spend their time strolling the streets of Paris.  More than mere idlers, though, they observe closely, delighting in & analyzing all they see & it’s specifically this quality of “detached engagement” that served me so well the other day:  Instead of holding on to preconceived, joy-sapping goals, I was able to freely move about, so to speak, riding the wave of new-found creative energy, regardless of where it took me.  And where it took me, plain & simple, was straight back to my passion for making art.

If life behind the brush or in front of the easel ever becomes plodding & dull again, I will summon up the metaphor of the 19th C. flâneur & roam freely along the streets of my creativity once more.

(This blog is dedicated to Charles Baudelaire.)                   

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On Pattern, Shape & Form

Last month some friends & I went to the Chicago Flower & Garden Show, an annual event strategically timed to free me from the iron grip of Seasonal Affective Disorder & to offer me a welcome respite from the sight of my winter-weary backyard where last year’s coreopsis resemble tumbleweeds & my favorite flowerpot, once shiny, jaunty & orange, now sits in a puddle of its own shattered glaze, victim to the merciless hard freezes of January.

Although the tulip displays are typically my favorite part of the show, this year the bouquets of Italian ranunculus utterly captivated me.  Seen in profile, these flowers have a pleasing lenticular shape but it’s their full-face view that is so fascinating:  As they unfold, the knife-edges of their whisper-thin petals overlap to create a pattern of tightly packed, concentric circles that catch the light in a most beguiling way.

I’ve often marveled how one shape or form is so much more visually appealing to me than another & how a particular pattern can fill me with joy each time I see it. Favorites, though, can occasionally be replaced.  For decades I was enthralled with spirals, whether in the context of a flower, a seashell or the design on a pendant but nowadays, concentric circles speak to me more, which probably accounts for my quick obsession with Italian ranunculus.

Perhaps this is because the spiral is less of a metaphor for my life now than it used to be.  Maybe the idea of a fixed point generating an endless, outward-curving line or, conversely, the idea of a line winding inward until it reaches a fixed point, no longer serves me as well as that of a series of perfect circles, each with no beginning or end, echoing out from a stable center like the ripples in a pond created by a dropped pebble.

Whereas the spiral implies a journey, either from a starting point or to a destination, concentric circles imply no such thing.  Instead, they suggest to me different states of being where, like an electron jumping from one orbital to another, either absorbing or emitting energy, one is free to be more expansive & encompassing or less so, but where any state of being at any given time is continuous & perfect.

I’ve experienced a sort of spiritual sigh of relief since I replaced the spiral as my metaphor for life with the image of concentric circles.  There seems now to be a soothing lack of emphasis on finiteness & on toil.  Whether I’m navigating an orbit close to the center or one at the farthest reaches, life seems once again to be more joyful, more beguiling, more captivating…a bit like the Italian ranunculus that inspired me last month.

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On Courage

Scattered about on a bulletin board in my studio are several brief-but-pithy quotes attributed to artists, such as To see is to know (da Vinci) & Drawing is the fountainhead & substance of art (Michelangelo).  I’ve relied heavily on these two in particular, internalizing them assiduously when I first started making art & then sharing them with my students when I began to teach.  Perhaps a more widely-known quote, though, is one by Henri Matisse:  La créativité demande du courage, usually translated as Creativity takes courage, although I prefer Creativity requires (or even better, calls for) courage.

It would be nice to know in what context Matisse made this utterance but maybe its very generality accounts for its appeal.  Personally, my first reaction to it was a quiet little jolt at the unexpected juxtaposition of creativity & courage.  While I had certainly experienced boundless fear & uncertainty during the early years of my art-making journey, it had never occurred to me that my perseverance could be deemed courageous.

I suppose Matisse could have been referring to the courage required to choose a life in the arts over easier, more lucrative endeavors or perhaps he meant that it takes courage when artists reveal the fruits of their creative labors to the world at large.  Both are certainly true.

But then the other day, when I was working on a painting (my quaint euphemism for “struggling with” a painting), it suddenly occurred to me that Matisse must have been referencing those day-to-day acts of courage that take place in the privacy of the studio, the ones that call for a psychological squaring of the shoulders & a mental stiffening of the spine in order to make some character-building decision like, say, changing the entire background of a painting halfway-through because, deep-down, you know it will give a much better result.

Unlike the noble displays of courage typically extolled in the public arena, there is nothing the least bit interesting, heroic or thrilling about the sort of courage that the creative process requires, which is just the gritty work of scrupulous honesty, unremitting self-awareness, a commitment to authenticity & a willingness to take risks. Courage is required because we make tough decisions inside our heads & behind closed doors:  We must be our own consciences if we want to realize our full artistic potential. After all, no one else will know if we decided it was too risky to put an ink wash on a drawing we slaved over for days, even though it would be the pièce de résistance if we did.  No one else will know if we gave up on a project because we got frustrated.  And if we do take the risk or put in the extra effort, no one will recognize that, either…Well, no one but Matisse.

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On Freight Trains

Tom & I are currently staying in the area where I grew up & on our first night here, a freight train went through town.  We had arrived late; it was almost midnight before I was ready to tumble into bed.  For me, travel days are always fraught with an overabundance of sensory input, so I was rather enjoying the utter silence of the neighborhood as I washed my face & brushed my teeth.  Out of this stillness came, unexpectedly, the raucous call of the freight train’s horn.  It conveyed its usual sense of urgency – Out of my way!  I’m coming through! – but it also delivered to me an equally-unexpected pang of sadness. 

This I quickly chalked up to nostalgia for I had grown up seeing freight trains & hearing the noises they make.  When we were kids, my brother Paul & I loved to spot them running along the tracks that paralleled Highway 99, seeming to be in a tight race with the family car as we headed south to visit relatives or spend a couple of weeks at the beach.  And anyway, weren’t the horns & whistles of trains, especially when heard in the dead of night, positively notorious for evoking feelings of poignancy?

Yet when another freight train came through the next night & its horn again left me vaguely disquieted, it was time to put some effort into discovering precisely what it was that this sound was awakening in me.  So, much like the narrator of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time when a morsel of tea-soaked madeleine suffuses him with an exquisite sense of joy & he tries to find its source – I alternately concentrated on, & then deliberately distanced myself from, the sound of the horn.  Sure enough, an image sprang to mind:  It was of me, standing by the bedroom window of my first apartment, watching a freight train go by in the darkness & listening to the exigent call of its horn. 

Back then, I was fresh out of college & not living under my parents’ roof for the first time in my life.  Tracks ran near enough to the apartment building that I could see the trains, across some empty fields, from my window.  At dawn or during the night, something in the sound of their horns gave voice to the conflicting emotions I always seemed to be experiencing, chief among them an intense longing for… I knew not what.  Another memory floated up:  From time to time, I was inclined to buy random art supplies for no other reason than that I just wanted to have them, even though in those days, despite my perennial love of art, the idea of making it couldn’t have been further from my mind.

Fast forward many years, several apartments & a couple of cities later:  One day I went to an art supply store to buy a poster frame.  There I was simultaneously overcome by a heartbreaking sadness & a wrenching desire to know how to use every item on every shelf in every aisle of that store, by which I mean, every tool & every brush, every piece of paper in every single tablet & the contents of every jar, bottle & tube.  And the not knowing presented itself as both a physical & a spiritual pain.  Shortly afterwards, I enrolled in art school.

If our deepest, most mysterious emotions seek a voice, then mine found it long ago in the sound of a freight train’s call.  All it took was a few blasts of a horn the other night to reconnect me to memories of my lengthy & circuitous path to art-making.  Now I feel lighter, as though this process has exorcised from my being the remnant of some old & unhelpful baggage.  And this, in turn, has given me back an unequivocally happy memory of freight trains – that of Paul & me sharing the excitement of spying them as they rolled along beside us on our way to the beach for summer vacation.

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On Dutch Art

One of the great joys of our recent trip to Europe was seeing the 16th & 17th C. Dutch art that has thrilled my soul since adolescence.  Standing a few, trifling feet away from the very paintings that I had once pored over on the pages of books was, to say the least, a memorable experience, akin to finally visiting long-time friends in person instead of on Skype.

In Amsterdam, The Hague & Brussels, Tom & I enjoyed face time with the Bruegels (Pieter the Elder) & the Brueghels (Pieter the Younger & the two Jans), the van Ostades & the van Ruisdaels, the Rembrandts & the Frans Hals’ of my youth, so to speak.  It seemed to me as if the walls of the Rijksmuseum, the Mauritshuis & the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium were having one huge Dutch Baroque party & everyone was invited – frolicking peasants, Captain Cocq’s militia, the girl with a pearl earring, even Paulus Potter’s cows!  As for food & decorations, the banquet tables couldn’t have been more sumptuous or the bouquets of flowers more exquisite.

After all, these are the paintings that revel in their own technical brilliance.  Here’s an example:  Frequently the lemon in a still life is depicted with one end sliced off & half of the rind unfurling in a spiral over the edge of the table. This cunning visual device not only demonstrates the artist’s ability to render the exposed pulp convincingly enough to pucker your mouth, it also shows command of the textures of both sides of the peel – the white, pithy inside & the yellow, waxy outside.  Rest assured that with the Dutch Masters, pewter will always look cold & hard, & oysters will be properly slimy.  Fish scales will glisten, succulent grapes will nearly burst their skins & paper-thin wineglasses will be impossibly transparent.

These are also the paintings of cozy interiors & the frigid outdoors, of low horizons under dramatic skies & of high horizons over village fêtes.  They are complex, innovative, charming but never trite, secular but not without implied homilies &, above all, easy to love.  In fact, it’s safe to say, these are among the best-loved & most-admired paintings in the world.

Undoubtedly this is so because they are effortlessly accessible to the viewer.  Three & a half centuries of history may separate us from Rembrandt, but when we look into the painted eyes of one of his self-portraits, we feel the connection of shared humanity.  These paintings may be windows onto a world we never knew firsthand, but who doesn’t sense the frozen stillness of the air in Bruegel’s Winter Landscape with Skaters & a Bird Trap?  And afterwards, aren’t we delighted to take shelter & refreshment in one of Pieter de Hooch’s tidy rooms?

Just as a novel uses words to create an experience for the reader, the Dutch Masters used pigment & a 2-dimensional surface to achieve much the same thing for the viewer.  In fact, I was probably responding to that storytelling quality when I fell in love with these paintings so many years ago.  On some level, maybe the Hendrick Avercamps represented to me the visual equivalent of Hans Brinker or the Silver Skates or perhaps I spotted something slightly Dickensian about Adriaen Brouwer’s cast of pub patrons.

Well, at any rate, what I certainly discovered in September was that the Golden Age of Dutch Painting has lost none of its appeal for me & I anticipate with pleasure any future opportunity to spend more face time with these marvelous old friends.

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On Renoir

At the end of September, Tom & I drove to Les Collettes, the estate where Pierre-Auguste Renoir lived for the last dozen or so years of his life.  A 3-hour drive from our rented apartment in Arles, it is located up a narrow, winding road in the town of Cagnes-sur-Mer, near Antibes on the French Riviera.  Wedges & swaths of the Mediterranean Sea can be spied from the highest reaches of the extensive property, which is lush with olive, citrus & palm trees.  Apparently Renoir moved here in the hope that the southern climate would ease his severe rheumatoid arthritis, but it’s hard to imagine that being surrounded by all of the beauty of Les Collettes wouldn’t have lifted his spirits as well.

On the second floor of the house is Renoir’s Grand Atelier (large studio), a truly large room with hardwood floors & pale yellow walls.  A fireplace is at one end & a huge window at the other.  In the middle is Renoir’s easel with his wooden wheelchair rolled up to it.  The wicker back of the wheelchair has a sizeable hole in it.  Of course, we don’t know exactly what caused it – general wear-&-tear, careless handling, mildew? – but I like to think it was Renoir’s long hours behind the brush.

And speaking of Renoir’s paintbrush:  It is time to retire the somewhat sinister notion that someone had to tie it to his hand in order for him to work.  In reality, the strips of cloth that can occasionally be seen in photos of an aged Renoir at work were actually there to prevent skin irritation.  While it is true that someone was needed to place the brush in his hand, Renoir was always able to hold it & propel it himself.

Our journey to Les Collettes was something of a pilgrimage for me, a way of paying homage to the artist whose work has thrilled my soul for so many decades:  His juicy, sumptuous reds & blues, his lilting brushstrokes, the way he renders a white dress or tablecloth with every color imaginable but you can still tell it’s white…  Then there are the specific paintings I never tire of looking at, such as Luncheon of the Boating Party or the still life of strawberries in a fluted dish that I got to “visit” again in August at L’Orangerie in Paris.

For me the biggest take-away from an experience like this is a fresh infusion of inspiration.  In the past week, I haven’t stopped thinking of Renoir & that wheelchair pulled up to the easel, paintbox to the right, palette to the left.  No doubt I will carry a mental image of Renoir’s studio at Les Collettes with me when I return to my studio a couple of weeks from now.  And whenever my attention span flags or my right shoulder begins to cramp or I feel stymied on a section of my painting, I will call up the image of Renoir sitting in his wheelchair, paintbrush in his hand, busily wearing a hole in the wicker.

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On Not Being an Artist

When I was in the 4th grade, on random – but mercifully infrequent – Friday afternoons, we would “have art.” Paper was distributed, crayons were exhumed from the bottom of desks, & an LP was put on the turntable. The mandate: Draw whatever the music, be it classical, jazz or pop, made us “feel.”

No assignment could have been more excruciating for my 9-year old perfectionist, bookish self. For one thing, I didn’t know how to draw & the idea of making arbitrary, expressionistic marks never occurred to me. Furthermore, since all I was feeling was panic, it was difficult for me to listen to, much less channel, the music. So I would sit there, silent & paralyzed by shame, & console myself with the thought that, even if I was a complete failure at “art”, at least I made the best grades in class.

Out of this experience arose two personal convictions & one general misconception that I held closely for the next several decades:

• I had no imagination.
• I had no artistic “talent.”
• One could be academically-inclined or one could be artistically-inclined, but one could not be both.

More’s the pity, since a scant 3 years or so later, I fell in love with the visual arts.

Fast forward to today. Given my 4th grade experience, perhaps it’s no wonder that I have mixed feelings about calling myself an “artist.” Oh sure, for the purposes of filling out forms or cutting to the chase during casual chitchat, it’s a useful word because it’s concise. But beyond letting people know you engage in some kind of creative activity, it really doesn’t reveal much. In fact, if truth be told, I suspect that many people are, well, suspicious of those who call themselves artists because, after all, anyone can, right?

So when someone asks me what I “do,” I prefer to say, “I paint & draw” & “I teach painting & drawing” rather than, “I’m an artist” & “I’m an art instructor.” In my blogs & on my website, I also refer to “making art,” “art-making” & “sharing everything I know about making art.” I love the way these phrases & sentences cut through much of the historical, cultural & societal baggage associated with the word “artist” as well as the way they place the emphasis on doing rather than being, on process rather than outcome. They even suggest that there is a collaborative element to making art: We may each be toiling away alone in our own studio, but sharing experiences & insights about the creative journey is helpful in achieving our common goal of enhancing the human experience.

After all, there may be a little red-haired 4th grader out there somewhere who needs to hear that drawing & painting are skills that can be learned, not special “talents” that are bestowed at birth. And oh, yes…that there is nothing wrong with wanting to celebrate the beauty of the world by making one’s paintings & drawings look “real.”

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On Inspiration

The other evening – specifically, a gentle June evening blissfully free of wind & high humidity – Tom & I sat out on our patio, gazing at the sky & enjoying what the French call l’heure bleue, “the blue hour.”  If you’ve ever wondered, this is the same thing as “the gloaming.”  Whatever the season, it is unquestionably my favorite time of day, although Midwestern winters render it much more enjoyable from the warmth of, say, a cozy restaurant with generous windows.  Nevertheless, for the consummate l’heure bleue experience, all you really need is a cloud-free sky, an obstruction-free view of it & a comfortable place to settle for 45 minutes or so.  (A glass of something lovely is not out of the question, either.)

Technically, the gloaming happens twice each day, but since I’ve never been a morning person, I prefer the one that occurs just after sunset.  Even more technically, the whole thing is the result of the geometric center of the sun being a certain distance below the horizon & the fact that blue wavelengths are shorter than red…or something like that.  Apparently, atmospheric particles & latitudes matter, too, but all I know is, summer or winter, we have fabulous gloamings around here.

Speaking strictly non-technically, during l’heure bleue, the sky offers up a panoply of blues:  From a luminous, scrubbed, cool blue around the rim to a dense, velvety, warm blue at its dome, the range is seamless & stunning.  Couple that with the blue hour’s reputation for being mysterious & magical, poised as it is between day & night but being neither one nor the other, & you can understand why it has been referred to in countless movies, songs & books, not to mention restaurant & bar names, throughout the years.

As far as I’m concerned, everything they say about the blue hour is true for it never fails to put me in a mood.  Invariably as I watch it play out across the sky, I experience that poignant depth of feeling, that impulse to create, that tingly anticipation coupled with optimistic curiosity, that is my definition of inspiration.  The result of this is a desire to copy Nature, no matter how inadequately, as a method, I suppose, of making it my own & no amount of telling myself it’s impossible to duplicate with pigment what can only be achieved by photons stops me from trying to memorize the sequence of celestial colors or from plotting out a palette in my head.

But then I remind myself that it’s not always necessary to act on every instance of inspiration.  Sometimes it’s enough to just feel inspired…. & to know that every 24 hours, Earth will rotate on its axis until the geometric center of the sun is below the horizon.  And when it does,  inspiration will again be only a lawn chair & a glass of chardonnay away.

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On Detours

Every now & then, as I’m leaving the gallery where I teach on Saturdays, I take a short detour downstairs to spend a few minutes in front of what I refer to as “my wall.”  This is the spot where, at any given time over the past 10-plus years, a half-dozen or so of my most recent paintings & drawings are being displayed.  Which is not to say that this is all necessarily recent work, mind you.  It’s just my most recent work for, due to its nature (highly-detailed), my creative process (painstaking) & everyday life (multi-directional), I am far from prolific.    

Even so, over the last decade, this wall has been the backdrop for an ample succession of my original work & I have the stack of consignment forms to prove it:  Graphite lotuses & pastel pears; crashing waves & tranquil harbors; blossoms in situ or in vases; a village street, a country road; portraits of things instead of people – a gargoyle, a rowboat, a 100-year-old barn.  All have occupied a time-share on this wall.

I’d like to think I visit my gallery paintings because I miss them.  In truth, I do it because I want to see if my perception of them has changed with time & psychological distance.  You see, as an art instructor, I’m very familiar with the phenomenon of changing perception.  Here’s how it works:

A student experiences difficulty with a painting or drawing & finishes class feeling frustrated & disappointed with her efforts.  A week goes by.  She returns to class with varying degrees of dread, enters the studio, gazes at her project in amazement… & – only half-jokingly – accuses me of having worked on it in the intervening week.  After pointing out – gently but firmly – the absurdity of such a notion, I explain to her the phenomenon of changing visual perceptions, a sort of “forest/trees” thing:  Time & distance alter our perception of our own work, usually for the better but, unfortunately, sometimes for the worse.

And so it is really my curiosity which drives me periodically, late on a Saturday afternoon after everyone else has left, to enter the gallery by the back door & stand before my wall.  Like an anxious child searching a parent’s face, I scrutinize each painting to reassure myself that all is still well or, conversely, to see if old disappointments have been erased with time.

The outcome of all of this is a sort of “good news/bad news” thing:  The paintings that have always pleased me, still do & the ones that have never entirely pleased me, still don’t.  No, the phenomenon of changing perceptions apparently has a statute of limitations and it has now expired.  I realize that my ritual detour has devolved into a sort of “magical thinking” thing. 

It’s time to leave the gallery, get into my car & go home.     

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On Not Making Art

I once read a quote attributed to Pierre-Auguste Renoir that said something like, “I have painted every day of my life.”  I remember feeling tremendously impressed by this statement but also vaguely disconcerted for it simply sets the creativity bar, the passion bar & the industriousness bar way too high for the likes of me!  Of course, I also didn’t start drawing on the walls of the family abode at age 4 like Renoir reportedly did, either.  Nor would I have been rewarded with art lessons, as he supposedly was, if I had.  No, I would have been rewarded with a sharp rebuke & a damp sponge.  But the point is, even allowing for the fact that I came to art-making decades later in my life than Renoir did in his, I simply do not engage in it Every.  Single.  Day.

On the other hand, if I’m away from my easel for too long, I do begin to experience a series of escalating & unpleasant sensations (impatience, frustration, anxiety, even sadness) with their concomitant unpleasant behaviors (prickliness, pettiness, the desire to shriek at strangers.) Gone is the feeling of well-being, of centeredness, of pure joy that I get from moving pigment around or making marks.   

When, for whatever reason, I simply cannot spend time in my studio on art-making, I’ve learned to get a creativity fix in other, albeit small, ways.  Sometimes doing something as easy & quick as arranging a bouquet of flowers, making a batch of scones or taking some pictures of clouds can restore at least a degree of equanimity & stave off that feeling of alienation from myself for a bit. 

When Tom & I are traveling, though, arranging flowers or whipping something up in the kitchen may not be options.    And while travel itself is very centering when one stays in the moment, it also tends to stimulate my creative juices even more.  That being the case, I manage to retain my sangfroid (& my sunny disposition) by taking lots of reference photos for future projects & by writing blogs like, “On Not Making Art.”  Here’s why:

For me, reference photos are more than just records of our journeys:  They are reminders that I’m an artist who is constantly on the look-out for images & that traveling is a way of widening the search. 

Similarly, writing blogs about the creative process, like how to stay connected to one’s creativity so as to not take some innocent person’s head off, fulfills both my need to express myself & my need to achieve something tangible, something not-fleeting, something that can be revisited & re-experienced.   

That is, at least until I’m back in my studio in front of my easel.

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