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.