Monday, December 06, 2010

A Hot Time in the Cold Town Tonight

So I think I've finished the encaustic piece I introduced you loyal 2.3 readers to a couple of posts ago, although I may not have ... I'm not sure. There's a lot of conceptual heaviness and confusion that go with this work, although being so used to conceptual heaviness and confusion at this point, I'm not terribly stressed about it. In art, as with other things in my life, if I don't understand it now, I'm pretty sure I'll understand it later. It may be brilliant, or it may be another "growth opportunity," but it's okay, I don't have to know which it is right now to get something out of it.

Anyway. I started this piece a week or so ago. It features a dissected stamped image on paper, a crouching woman cut into three segments. She's got a red thread emanating from her heart. Half of it trails off into the ether behind her, and the other half goes up, into her hands, through her grip, and off the top edge of the panel. She could be doing a lot of things, holding that thread in her hands; I'm not blind at all to the many potential implications of it. And I know it was important to me to get the thread exactly right, whatever that means. (An earlier, more experimental version of this wound up being a "growth opportunity" largely because the thread wasn't right, nor was the motivation, which was not only transparent but temporary.)

Still more important, however, were the deep channels I cut into the wax overlying the white strips of board where the segments separated. I knew something would go in them, a color. At first, I thought of crimson. Then I thought, no, crimson is obvious. Well, loyal readers, here's a news flash. Sometimes something is obvious because it's what you're supposed to do.

Once I understood what the color had to be, I knew I had a choice between painting into the channels with oil paint or using a technique I'd never attempted called "overfill." Overfill is a very straightforward name for what the technique actually is: you overfill the channels with pigmented wax, then scrape off the excess until you "find" your line. This seemed very mysterious to me and I was dubious about how it might work, but I decided that nothing I did would "ruin" this piece, that I'd just let it become whatever the materials suggested, and take it all in stride. So I fired up my fancy thrift store encaustic set (electric frying pan and cat food cans, now labeled for the colors they hold with orange sharpie, plus $2 paint brushes from the hardware store), and overfilled my carefully cut channels with crimson-pigmented wax.

At first, I was a bit unhappy. The wax was blobbish and bubbly and obliterated my carefully-cut channels, my pretty straight lines. I didn't see what paring it down was going to do. But I let the wax cool for a day or so, and started using one of the flat blades on my Speedball Lino carver (which has never even seen Lino, much less cut any) to slowly scrape away the red wax.

This went on for hours and was spread out over a couple of days. You use a light hand when scraping away overfill, and I didn't want to mar the rest of the piece, so I used utmost caution. I began mixing up my tools, sometimes using my fine-bladed Xacto or one of the surgical blades I have in my collection, sometimes picking bits of wax away from the surface with my needle awl, sometimes using my thumbnail.

Suddenly, to my enormous surprise, a hint of a crisp line emerged. I had found the edge of my channel buried underneath all that wax.

I kept working until I had revealed both lines, crisp and sharp, to my satisfaction. I had accepted the piece with the strange blobby gloppiness of the wax lines, and now I was rewarded with my originally-planned beautiful crisp lines highlighted with red (not to mention a much more clear understanding of the technique). I admired the piece in this state for a couple of days, and then decided it was done and ready to finish off.

Hope is in the Body
3" x 5"
E. Marie Robertson, 2010
Tonight I fused the piece, adding in a few bits of metalic leaf to the red channels. But my fusing made the wax liquid again, and some of it flowed outside the confines of the channels. It's no longer crisp and sharp, but it's far from being as messy as it had been, and now it looks more right in this state, somehow. Maybe I had to go through the whole process to find my crisp lines and see how they looked, admire them and appreciate them, to understand the way the looser wax flow works with the piece. But I think I actually like them the way they are now, a little bit loose but still constrained. Overall, not my crisp sharp lines, but still more "intentional" than the gloppy mess I was met with before my days of paring away the excess.

Of course, if I change my mind, all I need are time and my Speedball cutter to take them back to their crisp state. This is simultaneously one of the biggest advantages and confounding elements of encaustic--even when you think you're done, you still have the option of not being done yet. It is a real exercise in self-editing.

The piece is called "Hope is in the Body." I don't know why, and I don't know where it came from. It was just in my head one day, trying to get out, and this is the result. I do know that, like my photography, it has a story to tell me, that it's explaining something to me that earlier versions of it failed to convey. I'm not 100% certain I know what that story is just yet. But like my photography, I'm sure that eventually it will come to me. And in the meantime, my psyche--and the psyche of anyone who looks at this particular piece--will have a story embedded in it, waiting for the time when it needs to emerge. This, to me, is one of the most wonderful things about art--when at its best, it leaves a story (sometimes a hidden secret story) in your head. And better still, the story it leaves in my head may be--and probably will be--completely different from the story it leaves in yours, with neither being more important or more grand or more right.  Really, what could be better?

Friday, December 03, 2010

ArtLife After Teaching Art

" ... I might turn into a unicorn!"
--Martha M., Art 3536 student

So the semester has come to a close, and I not only lived through it, I loved it. I'm talking, of course, about my first semester teaching at the Very Nice College, which you will already know about if you're one of the 2.3 regular readers of this blog. As it turns out, it may be my last semester teaching at the Very Nice College, for even as nice as it is, they could only offer me two classes for spring and a schedule that had me leaving Boone at 7 pm at night. Which is fine during the fall, but Boone is up in the mountains, and in the winter that means dealing with a sometimes substantial amount of snow and ice and sleet. Between time, money, and fear of death, added to the great unlikelihood of being made full-time (much less full-time tenure-track), I felt like I had no choice but to call into play that great euphemism, "elect to explore other opportunities." Which means I'm back to living off my savings and looking for work closer to home.

I was a little bit weepy on the last night of class; many of these students feel more like friends or family rather than strangers I just met a few months ago. I really want to keep up with them and watch their progress in the world, even if I'm not a big part of their lives. This is the cool thing about teaching college students; you can see who they are and who they can become, the seriousness of them, the specific flares of potential and talent and capability. To me, it's far more exciting than working with children. (It's all a matter of perspective, I supposed, but from my specific point of view, all I can say is that I'm not here to mold unformed lumps of clay, I'm here to help travelers already on their way see the paths before them.)

I still have lots of grading to do, but an interesting thing has happened. All semester, my thoughts were entirely consumed with teaching and my students. I was grading, planning classes, pondering how to help my students get more out of our assignments, thinking about issues with particular students, wondering if I was doing a good job, etc. etc. etc. I really only thought about school all semester long. Classes are now over and I'm sad about it, but my brain has changed.

Suddenly, all I can think about is art. My art. And my intense longing to get back to it.

While I have all this grading to do, I have to avoid my studio. Even walking into it means I will lose track of time, my dinner will burn, the horse will go unfed, the downstairs will grow dark and cold as I sink into planning and thinking and wondering and feeling my way though creation. I want to start half a dozen new projects. I have calls for entries to no less than five upcoming shows on my desktop. I attempt moderation, just an  hour or two here and there, but it is futile. My teacher mind has stepped back into the shadows, my artist mind has come roaring to the forefront. It is as if I have become some mythical and barely remembered creature; it is, as my student Martha once said, competely apropos of nothing and utterly without context, as though I have turned into a unicorn. And as much as I love teaching, as much as I adore my students and will miss the time I got to spend with them every week, I can hardly wait for the transformation to be complete.

This blog entry is dedicated to Rachel, Martha, Addie, Alex, Jenna, Genna, Jennifer, Larissa, Jon, Eric, Natalie, Shay, Stacey, Keegan, Arika and Nick from 3536; to Katie K., Katie W., Whitney, Shay, Kelly, James, Ashley, Kathryn, Carly, Annie, Sam, Cristina, Rachel, Jennifer, Garrett, Nick, Daniel, Bailey, Abigail and Jackie from 2022.