Dear Reader, These are thoughts from week 2 of a six week residency at the Mendocino Art Center. (scan down to find Week 1). Residencies vary widely in content and scope, but all have in common the goal of creating protected time and space for creative activity. In addition to studio time, I’m taking this opportunity to take long walks and to read and write about art making.
The modern world thinks of art as very important—something close to the meaning of life…Despite the esteem art enjoys, its importance is too often assumed rather than explained…What if art has a purpose that can be defined and discussed in plain terms?
—Art As Therapy, Alain de Botton and John Armstrong
So reads the beginning of Art As therapy by Alain de Botton (The Art of Travel, How Proust Can Save Your Life) and John Armstrong (The Secret Power of Beauty). I’m reading this book as an exploration of how art may function in the wider world.
These two philosophers imagine art as a tool with multiple functions: remembering, hope, sorrow, rebalancing, self-understanding, growth and appreciation. All this is inducing a bit of whip lash in my studio work, but I’m finding myself focusing on “rebalancing”
I’ve been in a “not this, not that” frame of mind lately, looking for things that can be eliminated— or at least composed—in life and art. This residency has created a spare simplicity in daily routines. Now the rebalancing notion is leading me to question why I’m drawn to certain art pieces—and by extension, certain solutions in my work. I’ve always thought that a big part of why we artists make what we do is that we just want to see it, but what is the “it” we want to see?
Here is a corner of a large collage I’ve started working on. At this point the whole piece is stuffed with monoprinted and drawn “parts” glued to a painted ground with cut and stripped lines. There’s a lot going on. Part of me wants to keep it all; part of me can’t wait to move in with obscuring tissue and more paint.
Art can put us in touch with [what is] missing…in our lives, and restore an equilibrium to our listing inner selves. —Art As Therapy, “Rebalancing”, de Botton and Armstrong
What is Art For? 1/26
One of the unexpectedly important things that art can do for us is teach us how to suffer... “Sorrow” — AAT, de Botton and Armstrong
I have continued working on collage-drawings and paintings, planning for the February Painterly Collage workshop. I started five small pieces recently—two have been headed in a good direction; the other three have been essentially going nowhere.
I decided to clean up the studio this morning and in the process over turned a full bottle of black ink. Looking at the puddle, I impulsively soaked the ink into a sponge brush and blackened the three troublesome collages, watching the surface alternately repel and absorb blackness, depending on how well covered areas were with Varathane. When they dried I sanded everything—what a miserable looking group of pieces!
I have been thinking about an artist friend who has been gravely ill. Looking at those dark, ruined collages, I realized that I had been exploring what de Botton and Armstrong describe as art’s function to create “an..engagement with sadness”. Working abstractly always brings up thoughts and feelings that may have been subdued or ignored until they are revealed by the unconscious processes of art making. I’ve added white oil stick to the black pieces. White, in many cultures, is the color of mourning. White is also the color of the white water and foam that ceaselessly washed over cliffs and rocks during the latest storm—the action of erosion a reminder of the poignant beauty of impermanence.
Solitude is required for the unconscious to process and unravel problems. —The Call of Solitude. Ester Buchholz
I’ve realized, belatedly, whether by intent or accident, that I’ve never lived alone. The prospect of living by myself during the residency felt important. I’ve always heard that art needs solitude.
Some residencies encourage group dynamics and communal living, but at the Mendocino Art Center residencies are organized around the individual. Each artist has an apartment, private or shared, depending on preference and costs. Artists pay an inexpensive apartment rent and studio space is free.
Each artist is assigned space according to her medium—painters, who bring their own tools and materials, have individual spaces furnished with sinks and work tables; jewelers share the jewelry lab—space and equipment—and the ceramic artists seem to share everything—studio space, clay, glaze, wheels, slab rollers, tools and a variety of kilns. We each have a key to our studio, and we can access our space at any time of the day or night.
Self Understanding and Growth 1/29
We are not transparent to ourselves. —“Growth”, AAT, de Botton, Armstrong
So, life is perfect, Yes? Alone with no set schedules, beautiful surroundings and a place to work. In the middle of all this perfection is the presence of the nibbling nag of expectation. I’m remembering the old Fred Babb cartoon tee shirt instruction, “Go To Your Studio and Make Work”. Well I am going. Everyday. And I am STRUGGLING to make work.
I came here with the idea of continuing to explore landscape. Truthfully, I’ve never been a big fan of landscape painting as a genre. But I do love the land—the improbable, profligate beauty of nature—the places I know—flat, stretching Central Valley farmland, snaking waterways of the Delta, impossible vertical ascents of the Sierra Nevada, and the North Coast, where I am now, remote, moody and passionate.
The question has been and continues to be how to transform this felt landscape into painted panels that resonate with these feelings. I have had some successes over the past year, but they seemed to have come from the great god-knows-where. There is no formula, no particular process that will lead to a good outcome.
At the back of my mind, I am hearing Pablo Neruda, “And it was at that age that poetry arrived in search of me…” And so I’m painting, failing, and painting more, hoping that patience and good faith will allow poetry, in the form of art, to arrive.
I am courting the unconscious with a pad of Arches oil paper and a collection of soft R&F pigment sticks, watching colors and shapes arise from scribbling, drawing and finger painting. I’m not sure there will be a breakthrough—or that I’ll recognize it if it happens. I’m content to let those expectations go, to work with what shows up.
Dear Reader: This inaugural journal entry covers a lot of territory—the first full week of a recently undertaken residency at the Mendocino Art Center in Mendocino, California. Future entries will deal with art and ideas in the hope that we can start some conversations. Please read on and catch up with my North Coast adventure to be followed by shorter entries in the future…
Preparing To Leave 1/8-1/15
Artist-in-residence programs…exist to invite…creative people for a time and space away from their usual environment and obligations. They provide a time of reflection, research, presentation, production and immersion into a new culture…
In the week before I was to leave for Mendocino to begin a residency at the Mendocino Art Center, in addition to all the small, but essential ordinary time demands, I cracked a tooth and had to have it extracted; I installed an exhibit showing fifteen artists; I hosted an art fundraiser for California Fire Relief, and the sweet, gray cat, whose health had been failing, died. I was more than ready for “time and space away”.
Mendocino is roughly a four hour drive north and west of Davis. The road dwindles from flat, efficient freeway to state road 128 through vineyards and redwoods to California Highway 1, which narrowly twists and turns cliff side along the coast. I had loaded the car with as much of my studio as I thought I could deal with along with creature comforts for the small apartment where I’d be staying—blessedly alone. I didn’t know exactly what I planned to do. When I read over my proposal, it felt like someone else had written it—someone, who, in summer, at the time of the application, couldn’t remotely imagine what arriving in rain, fog and silence on the edge of the northern California shoreline would be like.
The Mendocino Art Center Artists in Residence (AIR) Program…provides dedicated studio space and furnished studio apartments. The program provides the freedom to develop at your own pace and pursue interests in other disciplines.
The Mendocino Art Center was founded in the 1950’s—the dream of an enterprising artist couple—Bill and Jennie Zacha. It’s a wonderful, sprawling place, just up the road from spectacular cliffs and crashing waves at the Mendocino Headlands State Park. Studios and small apartments for
artists and students surround a coastal garden blooming with enormous echevaria, flag white calla lilies and assorted sculpture. I’d taught summer workshops there, but this would be my first winter at the center.
There will be hours of studio time, of course. I have proposed some writing. I also plan to go for long walks everyday, rain or shine. And I have brought books—some chosen myself: Diebenkorn: Beginnings, The Paintings of Joan Mitchell, Arshille
Gorky Landscapes and Alain de Botton and John Armstrong’s Art As Therapy. Others have been given to me by friends: Amy Parker’s Beasts and Children, Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City and Anne Truitt’s Daybook. Anne Truitt will be my guide into these first days of finding out what on earth I am really doing here.
Moving In 1/17
An individual is allowed to explore their practice within another community; meeting new people, using new materials, experiencing life in a new location and potentially integrating elements of that experience into their art.
I moved into the apartment last night—a clean, simple space—kitchen tucked into a corner, a bed, a chair, a table—and two large windows facing the exuberant winter garden. I made it cozy with my bedding from home—soft linen colors of earthy gray-brown and watery blue-green, five magic candles (battery operated—turned off and on by remote control), and a large clear bowl of fairy lights.
Today is studio move in day. The studio is spacious and bare, furnished with large covered work tables and a few chairs. There is also—grand surprise—an etching press along one wall. I paint flat or vertically—on tables and walls—so with a few screws and nails, my boards are hanging, ready for work. The west wall is a big sliding glass door with a smaller window to the south. Thin curtains diffuse the afternoon light; at night the space glows with floods and overhead light bars.
With the beginnings of a studio in place, I’m taking advantage of late afternoon sun to walk out to the cliffs to investigate meadows, rock and sea. Although I have been here in Mendocino and at the art center before, this is different—it is now my new place, a temporary home. My work is directly dependent on my environment—I am a peripatetic artist. Walking around is the way I find myself in the world.
The lawyer and doctor practice their callings. The plumber and the carpenter know what they will be called upon to do. They do not have to spin their work out of themselves, discover its laws… —Anne Truitt, Daybook
In addition to the unfinished nine painting project I’ve been painting off and on for the past two(!) years, I have brought a stack of large wood cradled boards. This first full day in the studio is all taping and priming. White gesso for three boards and black house paint for the others. I have forgotten to bring house paint (how is this possible?) and Varathane. I want to get some collage bases going in anticipation of the painterly collage class I’ll be teaching toward the end of the residency, so I am off to look for both. http://www.mendocinoartcenter.org/Winter18/Post.html .
Mendocino Hardware is tucked behind and to the side of Mendoza’s Harvest Market just off Lansing St—a quarter mile down Little Lake Street from the art center. Its narrow aisles are surrounded by shelves densely packed floor to ceiling. Everything you could want is there. The store clerk tucks paint openers and stir sticks into my bulging bag and I’m out the door. both of us knowing I’ll certainly be back.
I love the mindlessness of prep work. Tape edges, then paint and sand, repeat as necessary. I take time off to draw a little, conduct printmaking experiments with acrylic paint.
After working in the studio most of the day I’m off for a long walk—this too, is working. Some artists start their projects with a vision—a full blown idea of what they want to accomplish. The closest I’ve ever been able to come to that is a vague interest or notion of what might be wanting to happen—I know right now I’m interested in landscape—specifically landscape which shows traces of human presence or intervention—like this decaying fence on the edge of the cliff secured by a bright new yellow rope.
Settling In 1/19
A community as yet mysterious to me…We are all drawn together into a kind of tacit intimacy by being artists, which we handle in different ways…gently curious about each other as if we all had the same disease…AT p 16
Today I met Linda and Linda—two of the other fine arts residents who are here at this time. Linda Cloonan works in watercolor and Linda Ryan in poured acrylic. I have relatively little experience with watercolor and poured acrylics are completely new to me. Since each of us have private apartments and studios, we will have to go a little out of our way to make contact. Right now, I’m still embracing my need to be alone, to think, act and feel without much input from others. I’m layering grounds for paintings and collages, making drawings and exploring the shoreline on foot. Trails crisscross the headlands—when faced with a crosspath, I choose the one that heads out to the edge of the cliff. I’m out for a couple of hours—long enough to see the new moon setting toward the west.
…to keep abreast of household routine in order to set myself free for clean concentration in the studio. AT p 58
Eventually, everyone has to run errands. I need dish soap and garbage bags. It’s a good excuse to explore. I drive up the road to Fort Bragg—the first time I’ve been in a car since I arrived.
Fort Bragg is arranged along a long strip of commercial development. My favorite stores are Racine’s Art and Office Supply—emphasis on art and really well supplied—and the Hospice Thrift Store—described as a “hidden gem…small store, well organized, fantastic prices”. I find it amply stocked with the various, sometimes surprising, often interesting discards of Fort Bragg. By the time I get back, there’s only time for a couple of drawings—indulging in the considerable pleasures of art graf, watercolor pencil, ink and pan pastel
It is a joy to be here, set free, anonymous within a shelter. AT p 16
The north coast is well known for fierce winter storms—this blustery driving rain is the first of my stay here. In spite of best intentions, no walk today—scuttling from the apartment to the studio has soaked my raincoat. Instead it is a fine studio day, Puccini blasting from the tiny Mars Boy speaker, all lights blazing and the heater doing its job.Working on the nine piece group. Walking without walking, Mendocino is having its effect. I’m seeing the earth here—textures of ice plant, pebbles, rock, sand, puddles and scrappy vegetation. I realize that I’m seeing similar patterns and lines everywhere
—on the ground, in the sky, on the water, in the lines of my hand. A few years ago, I made a painting of a shell—expanded, enlarged to the edges of the board. Many people thought the patterns referred to galaxies, to the universe—I believe they may have.
I’ve Been Here A Week 1/22
Training in art is, then, a demand that…[artists] increase the consciousness with which they employ techniques that are, in themselves, ordinary. AT p 134
The rain stopped last night; dense fog late; bright sun this morning—a day when the desire to be outside is almost irresistible, but I’m waiting until afternoon because right now I’m working on what my ceramics instructor, Don Bendel, used to call “parts”—grounds, prints, drawings, pages of marks and lines—everything that has potential to be involved in collaged paintings.
I love making “parts”—it’s an invitation to experiment, to push the river, to end up in trouble and to learn a lot. I often struggle to be just that brave with “real” work. Technique is great—really necessary—and skill. But both need to be in service to a bigger, scarier idea. Where’s the balance? Or is balance what I’m looking for?
I snagged a bottle of ink, but no pen—finding that twigs and sticks are even better.
I’ve also gotten out the plates I brought and am loading them with acrylic paint (forgot the etching inks). Since the paint drys almost instantaneously, there’s no time to second guess anything. Just roll paint on the plate, maybe add some brush marks, a spritz of water, a dribble of liquid acrylic—Kazam!