Reflections

My workspace in the studio.

My workspace in the studio.

Reflecting on my year of weekly collage-making, the one realization that I keep coming back to is this: When I am too tired, too busy, totally lacking in inspiration or over-whelmed with too many ideas at once, I just need to sit down to work, and something will happen. I must simply pick up the pen and move my hand across the page. It’s like turning on a tap and waiting for the water to warm up; it always does. Learning to trust in this process has been the greatest gift to myself. Just begin. Take the first step, then the second, then the third. Baby steps evolve into long strides, then big leaps. At the beginning of 2012 I asked the question, “What is achievable in tiny increments over time?” To answer this question it was necessary to make a commitment to create each week, every week. This process continues for me, and commitment is the foundation.

Hold On, 2009, oil on panel,12 in x 12 in

Hold On, 2009, oil on panel, 12 in x 12 in

Another important challenge of the project was to open up my subject matter to the real stuff of every day life. My previous body of work portrayed imaginary landscapes that provided me a kind of escapism. A small boat navigated a world of high seas and safe harbors, open vistas and dark caves, dense forests and lonely islands. These paintings were my vehicle for exploring different ways of being in the world, and creating visual metaphors for a continuum of emotional needs: the desire for community and solitude, contentment and ambition, safety and risk. In my collage series, I wanted to confront these themes more directly, pulling back the curtain on the imaginary landscape and allowing myself to find imagery directly from the details of everyday life. The imaginary landscapes had no cul-de-sacs and tidy yards, no family members or week night suppers. But this suburban landscape was the reality behind my invented worlds, and their true source of meaning. I wanted to get closer to this truth and see what I might find.

Detail, Everyday Miracles, Week 35

Detail, Everyday Miracles, Week 35

Once I had decided that anything in my everyday life was potential subject matter, my days became infused with a new curiosity and constant observation. I experienced incredible joy in allowing myself to be fully present long enough to capture an image in minute detail. I became enamored with the practice of painstaking drawing. It could be something as mundane as a pile of laundry, or as beautiful as a rose blooming in my garden. I began noticing spider webs and mushrooms, birds nests and clouds, and I couldn’t wait to draw them. I began thinking more deeply about the people I love, and the kaleidoscope of color and imagery that each person conjures for me. Everyday routines like reading to my son at bedtime became as precious and important as recording events like birthdays and holidays. I gave myself permission to explore both humor and sentimentality, allowing the cute and the silly to sit comfortably with more serious and even melancholy themes. This attitude of openness and curiosity brought a new breadth and richness to the playing field of my work, where all emotions and all parts of myself were allowed to play.

Detail, Winters Past and Present, Week 8

Detail, Winters Past and Present, Week 8

As daily observation became an habitual practice, I found myself more able to enjoy being in the present moment, rather than constantly fixating on the past or worrying about the future. At the same time, however, I continued to explore my long time interest in the role of memory in image-making. A close observation of the present often brings with it vivid memories of the past. Allowing themes from the past to bubble up into my work enriched my experience of the present. Images from my childhood surfaced throughout the year, and took a place right beside the images of our present life: my sled and my son’s sled, my childhood home and our home now, my late mother and my own motherhood, and of course, the Christmas ornaments that each tell a story from a different time. Similarly, images of the future were conjured: the black gum grows big enough to hold the swing I dream of having for my grandchildren, and the fantasy of a hot air balloon ride in July becomes a reality in December.

I extended my attitude of openness and inclusion to stylistic choices as well. I allowed myself to make things that I enjoy making, freely combining aesthetics from such divergent genres as scrap-booking, painting, design, and children’s book illustration. It was important for me to break down those divisions and allow all of my influences to come together in my own way. I embraced my love of picture-making, inspired by such diverse influences as Islamic Miniatures, 14th century Sienese painting, Bonnard and Vuillard, Miró, Bemelmans, and E. H. Shepard’s original illustrations for Winnie the Pooh. Collage was the best medium for me to explore the layering of diverse imagery and multiple techniques, fusing the parts into a unique whole.

Grid installation in the studio.

Grid installation in the studio.

The most dramatic change over the course of the project was my idea of how the finished piece would look as a whole, and how it would be presented. My original intention was that the 12 x 12 inch panels would be displayed in a large grid, four panels high and thirteen panels across. I planned on a tightly controlled palette that would read as vertical bands of color that changed with the seasons from left to right as the months progressed. But as I got deeper into the project, I began thinking less and less about the appearance of the panels all together. Each panel became its own intricate world, and I allowed myself to fall deeply down the rabbit hole of each work. Creative decisions were made more in service to the needs of each small panel, rather than forcing it to fit into the larger scheme of the grid. The imagery became so tiny and detailed, I realized that the top rows would not be sufficiently visible if displayed four panels high! Each work begged to be seen close up and at eye level. It became more about viewing each panel at close range and less about how the group appeared from a distance.

Detail, Holly's Escape, Week 38

Detail, Holly’s Escape, Week 38. She makes many appearances in the collages throughout the year.

While the concept of the giant grid fell by the wayside, new ideas about continuity emerged. I still thought of the 52 panels as essentially one large work that needed to be seen together, like a collection of short stories that could be read individually or even out-of-order, but would have the most impact when read from beginning to end. Visual motifs emerged that would be repeated throughout the series: the Lego Spaceship, our dog Holly and Olivia the cat, the mockingbirds, the wild geese, the dogwoods and the rose bushes, my husband and child. I found different ways to make the individual panels relate, connect, and lead the viewer through the narrative, by repeating motifs, extending color palettes across multiple panels, or by using the same textures or collage materials multiple times throughout the series.

Whether displayed in a grid, hung in small groups, or spaced out singly along a wall, the fifty-two collages tell a story that reveals itself slowly, over time. When I look at the panels all together, I quite literally see a year of my life. I see my child growing up and my life evolving. I see moments that I will never experience again. I feel grateful that I have managed to “capture” this year of my life, and yet I also feel more able to accept the passing of time. I know exactly how long a year lasts, in a way I did not know before. I know how many hours of art-making can be gleaned from seven days. I know how the seconds pass when the tiny point of a pen touches the paper, stretching into hours and days, weeks and months, square foot upon square foot, adding up to a whole that is larger than the sum of its parts.

Week 18: The Path of Roses

Roses drawings, scanned and re-scaled on the Mac

Inspired by the blooming roses along my front walkway, my creative process for this piece began with simple ink drawings done from life. Drawing is not just a means to an end, but an activity that opens up opportunities for new understanding through careful observation. I noticed that the blooms on some shrubs have three rows of petals while others have five. I saw exactly how the petals are shaped, and how they whorl together in a spiral. The fuller flowers are more lush and visually exciting, but have almost no fragrance, while the simpler flowers have a gorgeous scent. This was an interesting discovery, considering how often I have walked down the path to my own front door, and just now really noticed these differences. Maybe I did notice all these things when I first planted them, but had since forgotten… Drawing gladly brought it all back to me. The fragrance seems to hang in the air along the passage way between the tall shrubs, so that stopping to sniff an individual flower has become almost unnecessary, especially when one is hurrying along to the next task. One of the goals of this project was to allow my art-making to lead to a more intimate knowledge and appreciation of the simple things around me in my daily life. I have been reminded to stop and smell the roses.

Beginning the collage with ink drawings

After completing a small group of ink drawings, I scanned and vectorized the images in Illustrator using the Live Trace function. I could then re-size each element, scaling them up and down to create a variety of forms for the collage. The re-sized drawings were then printed on Gampi, my favorite natural fiber collage paper.  Here is a photo that shows an original drawing (colored with india ink after scanning), collage pieces printed on Gampi paper and torn into individual shapes, and the collage in process with paper elements and acrylic paint.

Palette for Roses

I mixed up a palette of rich magentas, reds, and purples, complimented by deep earthy greens. I wanted to both capture the intense color of the roses, while also allowing the ink drawings to express the exquisite detail of the flowers in black and white. The color adds the weight of atmosphere and light, while the black ink line tells the story of intimate observation or unfettered imagination. The imagery evolved beyond a literal depiction of my front walk, and became an expanded glimpse of my personal experience in this place. Something magical happens along this path. Everyday reality converges with imaginative leaps: I walk my dog calmly across the street while a riotous rose bush bursts forth, like a scene from Jack and the Beanstalk. A cat crouches in the shadows. I follow a garden path that ends at a front door. But to where does that door lead?  (For insight into the meaning of the secret doorway, please check out my post, The Woods with Secret Doorways.) Here is the finished work with details of my favorite passages:

The Path of Roses, acrylic collage, 12 x 12

Detail of collage in process: Ink drawings with acrylic paint.

Detail with crouching cat.

Detail with Secret Doorway

Detail with the Dog Walker (that’s me and Holly!)

Transience

Two things happened this week that got me thinking about transience.  Early one morning as I was taking my dog Holly out, I was stunned to see a rainbow arching over the end of our cul-de-sac! (I can’t even remember the last time I saw a rainbow in real life.) A light misty rain was in the air, barely perceptible, and the morning sunlight was just starting to stream out from under a heavy bank of clouds.  I was so excited, I ran inside and yelled for my son to come out and see it before it disappeared. I must have sounded hysterical because I startled him in the middle of a spoonful of cereal and for a second he thought something was wrong. He quickly joined me outside in his bare feet and we took a few minutes to marvel at the rainbow before rushing back inside to get ready for school. By the time we came back out to jump in the car, it was gone. Why is it that the representation of a rainbow has become such a cliche, synonymous with Care Bears, unicorns and everything trite?  When seen in real life, there is nothing more grand, more magical, more intensely pure.  Would it even be possible to put a rainbow in my artwork without being either ironic, sarcastic, comical, or naive? I might try that.

The second transient thing that has overwhelmed me this week is the flowering trees in my neighborhood. Whoever planned the landscaping here had a wonderful idea: each street has a different type of spring-blooming tree lining the sidewalks, and they each bloom in succession.  It begins with the pinky purple cherries on the court up the street in mid-March, which I painted two weeks ago. Now it is time for the pale pink and white cherries. Next the deep red-pink cherries on our street will begin to open. I have been walking Holly twice a day up to this spot to enjoy these wondrous blooms. The flowers were very crisp and white when they first came out about a week ago, then slowly became fuller and more billowy, developing a hazy pale pink cast. I was curious about this and looked very closely at the individual flowers to see that there is now a deep pink splash in the very center, while the outer petals are nearly white. I noticed how different they are from the Bradford pears, which have a more greenish white color, due to their yellow green centers. In fact, the pear trees are almost done flowering and the fresh green leaves are beginning to take over. Soon the cherries will also be ending their once a year show.

My human nature wants to hold on to these things, grasping to keep something that is inevitably slipping away. The rainbow and the cherry trees bring up all these emotions for me: the fear of losing something (or someone), the anxiety of not having enough time, the desperation to own it and keep it safe, the disquietude of forgetting. This is part of the reason we take photos and make images: to hold on, to freeze something in time, to tell our stories before they fade away… before we fade away. Can I let go of all this? Can I simply enjoy each moment, knowing that the impermanence is what makes it so special? Can my artwork celebrate each moment, or recall the past, without holding on so tightly? Or does the act of making the image somehow set it free, allowing me to move on? Can I put down the heavy suitcase of the past and carry my memories with a light hand, like a bouquet of helium balloons tied to my finger?

End of March, ink and colored pencil

Week 11: A Time for Everything

I collected some bits of inspiration while we were cleaning up the yard this week. While raking out the beds, I picked out some interesting shapes of Fall leaves, then saved a few of the long dry curling reeds from trimming the ornamental grasses. I noticed some cute little pods when pruning the crape myrtles. While snipping away at the wild branches of butterfly bush, I saw the silvery new growth mingling with last year’s dried flowers, browned and crumbling, but still with a hint of purple.  As I hauled away the bags of the crinkling crunchy dead leaves and trimmings, new growth was bursting out all around: blooming Cherries, Camelia, Bradford Pear, and Daffodils. I puts bits of all these things, the old and the new, on the same plate, and took it down to the studio to draw and observe.  The beautiful fresh Camelia blossom nestles with the dry old oak leaf.  Each has its place in its own time.

This week I challenged myself to clear out some old ideas along with the old leaves. One of my most limiting old beliefs is “There is not enough time for all my creative projects.” It’s true that I am attempting a lot. Along with writing this blog and making my weekly collage, I am also designing patterns and illustrations on my Mac in a serious effort to launch a second career in surface design. Sometimes it all seems a little crazy, as I struggle to balance my creative ambitions with work, family time and the everyday necessities of life. There are days when it all seems impossible. But I am trying out a new belief: “There is always enough time and a time for everything.” I decide what I am going to work on, and stop worrying about all the other stuff while I am focusing on the current task. Then I take a break and work on something else, allowing myself to be fully present for the next activity. I managed to have a pretty great weekend using this approach. I enjoyed working outside in the yard.  I devoted a lot of time to my design project since I had some new ideas I was excited about. I spent a long time drawing and less time painting this week. I made pancakes for my family Sunday morning and lingered around the table instead of rushing down to the studio first thing in the morning. It is 9:30 pm Sunday night, but I finished my collage.  I’m not entirely happy with the colors, but I’ll put it aside for now and look at it again tomorrow. I’m starting to see there is a way to live a full life while not feeling frantic all the time. Let go of the drama and let it unfold.

There is Always Enough Time and a Time for Everything

Waiting for Spring

It is early March. The daffodils and crocus are blooming along with the early pink cherry trees.  Warm days surface in between the cooler ones. There is that certain freshness in the air. I notice neighbors clearing out their flower beds and think about tidying the garden at our house: cutting back the dry stems and swaying seed heads on last year’s cone flowers, pulling off the blanket of fallen leaves to find the green and pliable new shoots underneath. My mind races ahead to putting away the winter coats and buying new sandals. I dream of a rainbow of baby beets, carrots and swiss chard in my vegetable garden. It seems like Spring has arrived. Then we wake up Monday morning to falling snow! School is closed and my son runs outside to play, bundled up in snow pants and winter gear, having just worn shorts a few days ago. Nature reminds us to be patient, to expect the unexpected, to have faith and let things happen in their own time. The Spring will come, just as it does every year, but each year it arrives a little bit differently.

These are things I need to keep in mind. I am patient with my child, with other children in the neighborhood, patient with a new account at work, patient with friends, patient with strangers, but entirely inpatient with myself.  I am hardworking and disciplined, I commit to doing things in specified time slots. I am organized and ambitious. I want things to get done on a deadline. And too often I expect my creative work to conform to these parameters in order to be successful.  Yes, art requires discipline and commitment, but it also requires patience. What I really require is open-ended time to think, dream, experiment and muddle along– activities that seem suspiciously like doing nothing. I work at this every day, trying to balance these two sides of myself, both controlling and improvising, pressing forward with all my will and my intellect, while trying to remain open and receptive to different rhythms and unplanned ideas.

I sit down to write or to paint. I look at the clock. I tell myself I will finish this post and paint this painting within a certain time block, then I will complete that spreadsheet for work, do the laundry, run that errand, and be home in time when my son gets off the bus so that I can help him with his school project, do some design work on my Mac when he goes out to play, then make dinner and relax into a family evening. Things rarely go as planned. Sometimes the writing does not flow, jerking along while I procrastinate by reading other people’s blogs. Sometimes the painting flows so much that I lose track of time. Hours pass while I cut out tiny shapes with an X-acto blade and layer color over color over color. Maybe it works, or maybe it doesn’t and I will have to paint over the entire thing. My schedule is now way off. There is no time to run that errand. The spreadsheet will have to wait. Tomorrow I will have to carve out time for the design project.  I will make time for my son now. His company softens me and makes me laugh. We talk about our day and my rigid To Do List fades. Maybe his dinner comes out of a mac and cheese box tonight. (I get away with this only because my husband is working tonight.) But I do steam him some fresh broccoli. There’s just enough time to snuggle on the sofa and watch our favorite show, Cupcake Wars, then it’s up to bed for story time and sleep. I think about staying up late to work in the studio, but I am exhausted. Tomorrow is another day.

This morning I took my dog, Holly, out for a walk, intent on photographing those blooming cherry trees in the neighborhood.  As I excitedly approached and steadied the camera, zooming in on those gorgeous blossoms, Holly yanked my arm that was holding the leash, a gust of wind blew the branches wildly about, and the sun went behind a cloud.  This went on for several minutes as I became more and more frustrated. Then I had to laugh at myself. These pictures are about patience.  I took a deep breath, waiting for the sun, the wind, the dog, and my mind to be still. I stopped looking through the camera lens for a moment and observed the intricacy of the flowers, the nuance of pinks. I heard the soft exhale of the breeze in the branches. This is what I really came here for.

The Morning Walk

Holly: Zen Labradoodle

The Morning Walk is a daily ritual of My Suburban Life.  It may appear that I am just walking my dog, Holly, but the walk is for my benefit as well as hers. Although she is always with me, it is a time when I feel alone with my thoughts. It is my time to worry, complain, plan, and dream. Sometimes I may mull over a difficulty, other times I will reflect on what is good, or plan for what is possible.  It was during one of these walks that the whole idea for this project kept bumping up against my thoughts.  I resisted it for months, but then decided that I either had to stop walking the dog (not an option) or surrender to the idea.

I usually allow my mind to wander through its habitual patterns of re-playing the past or worrying about the future. Sometimes an idea or solution will rise to the top and I take this little gift home and into my day. But I learned that sometimes it is important to let go of the inner dialog, and just experience the walk for what it is– a sensory delight of fresh air, sights, smells and sounds.  It was Holly who taught me this. On work days, I am in somewhat of a hurry, needing to get the walk over with so I can go on to the day’s tasks. My mind churns ahead to my To Do List, and replays the detailed litany of things not to forget. I walk briskly and with an intention on the finish line.

Then Holly stops. I tug on the leash and she does not move.  She is transfixed, staring silently into a grove of trees. Annoyed, I tug again. Finally, I give up and stop to see what she is looking at. The incessant conversation in my head quiets, and suddenly I hear the birds. They are so loud I can’t believe I didn’t notice them before. I peer into the woods and see the subtle movements of the dry leaves in the wind, the sudden flicker of a squirrel’s tail, the patchwork of dark and light shapes among the branches. I smell the dead leaves and the cold air. I notice my breath and the weight of my limbs and remember that I am alive. We walk home and I am grateful for the walk, for Holly, for my life.

Welcome to My Suburban Life

In a strange twist of contemporary life, the voice of the artist does not always come from the counter-culture, or the intellectual elite.  Nestled near the end of a cul-de-sac, in the suburbs of a small Virginia college town, I live my life and make my art.

I left Brooklyn in 1999 to live in a small town where I could see mountains and trees, have a backyard with big dogs, and be with the person I loved. We got married, had a baby, and settled down in the ‘burbs.  My life is less lonely and more comfortable now than it was in Brooklyn in the Starving Artist days.  It is filled with family meals, the joys of parenting, and the deep happiness of a wonderful 10 year marriage. (Not to mention the big house and the giant televisions.) But despite the comforts, my life as an artist is challenging, and I fight each day to maintain a choppy momentum in my studio. I work a day job 30+ hours a week to help contribute to our chosen lifestyle, care for our young son, and juggle the usual daily commitments of family life. I plan my precious blocks of studio time around my family and try not to feel guilty about taking time away from them, despite their ongoing encouragement.  Few people in my neighborhood know I am an artist, and I miss the stimulation and community I once had in New York.  Sometimes I feel oddly out-of-place here in the ‘burbs, and second guess my life choices.

I am plagued by a curious ambivalence about my suburbia, as a place to live and as a backdrop to art-making.  I love the home and the garden we have created over the years.  I love knowing my son can play outside and ride his bike in a safe place, and attend a good public school.  I love living 5 minutes from Target and 15 minutes from our small historic downtown. I especially love my studio in the finished basement with the window looking out to the backyard and the woods behind our house. At the same time, I am bothered by the mandates from the Neighborhood Association that tell me to erect a lattice fencing to conceal my garbage can. (I have not yet complied.)  I am irked that I need permission to change the color of my front door, and wonder why I must have the exact same mailbox as everyone else. There is conformity, consumerism and waste here. (There are endless gallons of water used in the pursuit of perfect green lawns, although we do have the latest technology in single-stream recycling.) There is also security, natural beauty, and some really nice neighbors. It’s not artsy or hip, but it’s home.

Recently I walked past a mosaic on the side of a parking lot retaining wall. I have parked in this lot a thousand times, but never happened to be at the right angle to see it until that moment. It said: “Everything you need in life is streaming towards you.”  This unsolicited message pierced my consciousness in a way that made me re-think my life situation.  Can I see my life with more gratitude and realize that I already have everything I need to make my best work?  Can I escape my own stereotypes and see myself and my neighbors with more compassion? Maybe I can stop complaining about what is preventing me from making enough art or my best art.  Maybe I can let go of the insistent thought that I will never have enough time to make the art I want to make. Maybe I can stop dreaming about a time in the future when I will attain the perfect life circumstances to paint all the time and finally be a REAL artist. Maybe I don’t need to lose 5 lbs or quit my day job or live in a loft in New York to be the person I really want to be. Maybe I can shift the trajectory of my future by living more fully in the present.  Maybe there is a way to change everything without changing anything at all.

And so, I devised a new project for 2012:

Art happens for me in between life’s moments, as well as during those precious hours of studio time.  I draw a lot throughout my days, in sketchbooks and on scraps of paper, at the breakfast table, at work, and in the car. Every week, for the 52 weeks of 2012, I will collect these little drawings. At the end of each week I will collage them together onto a 12″ x 12″ panel. I may use text as well as other found items. I may go back to re-work a previous panel, but cannot jump ahead to the future.

The panels will be arranged in a large grid, 4 panels high and 13 panels across. I will employ a restricted palette that may change with the seasons and the colors experienced in and around my home and neighborhood. The final piece will be complete at the end of 2012, a record of the many small creative moments of My Suburban Life.

This project will explore what is achievable in tiny increments over time, by committing to small consistent actions and an attitude of openness to what is here now in the present. There have been times when I felt like a failure for having left New York and its opportunities, even though I have continued to make art ever since moving to the ‘burbs. What if this is exactly where I was supposed to be all along?