Tuesday, November 29, 2011


"The Last Time I Went Fishing"

I've sold another encaustic piece, and it's bugging me.

If you're one of the 2.3 regular readers of this blog, you'll know that this is not normal behavior. Usually when I sell anything, I'm thrilled. And of the encaustic pieces I've had up at Local Color over the past year, the ones that have sold are the three that I think are the best. Sure, it's been a little hard getting used to the idea of something selling and then going away forever--with photos, at least you get to keep the negative, so you always have your favorite pieces--but my painter friends have helped me get my head around that.

What's bothering me is the fact that I've been working in encaustic for a bit less than a year. My work is all over the place. I'm still experimenting with techniques, trying out different approaches. I've at least limited the pieces for sale to those that had an actual conceptual underpinning, the pieces that at least felt the most like "my art" to me. I guess I believed, on some level, that the approach that "worked the best" would be the one that would sell. But each piece that has sold has utilized a completely different approach. It's all still experimentation with technique and form.

"Textures of Fall"

It doesn't have a clear point of view; it hasn't yet become my work.

This is unlikely to make sense to any nonartists out there. You're probably thinking, "you made it, so of course it's your work." That's both true and not true. I made it, yes. It is something I handcrafted and brought into being. But it's missing a consistency, a voice, a recognizable connection with me, an ability to see and portray and represent and comment on the world in a particular way that is not nominally mine, not superficially mine, but emphatically and unarguably mine. In photography, I recognize my work. I capture an image, review it, and immediately know if it's "mine" or not. I have not reached that point with encaustic, although I can feel it getting closer. I am already far enough along to recognize that certain techniques and approaches are not for me, even as I'm working with them.

But there are still things I haven't tried that I'm not sure about. I'm drawn to more three-dimensional approaches, to integration and representation of natural elements in a more elegant way than I've seen in most mixed-media approaches. I'm interested in subtle markmaking and fascinated by the process of revealing surprise hidden elements by using heat to draw back the layers of wax. I'm interested in pure abstraction, and I'm interested in approaches that are near-replications of more formal painting techniques--something I've quite literally never done, largely because I doubt I have the patience to learn. (I made a noble attempt at watercolor painting in graduate school, and it lasted all of one academic quarter--I couldn't get past the total frustration of not being able to master techniques fast enough to transfer what was in my head onto paper.)

"Hope is in the Body"
The encaustic pieces that have sold include one inspired by (and implementing) oil painting techniques, one inspired by mixed media and graphic design, and one textural abstraction. All three of these pieces meant something to me, they "felt" right when I did them and I made myself stop touching them the instant I "knew" they were "done." From that perspective, I am content that they are art, and are a reasonable representation of me. But at the same time, I worry about that lack of a clear point of view. Maybe its absence made the work less encumbered and more accessible to the people who purchased it. But I have a hunch that those pieces could all have been stronger, more impactful, had the point-of-view been clear and consistent, even if the techniques were different. At the end of the day, it doesn't matter to the people who bought the art; they liked it, it spoke to them, they found it worthwhile and are happy to have acquired it. But it will always matter to me ... because artists are just like that.

Friday, May 20, 2011

... and, We're Off and Running ...

If you're one of the 2.3 regular readers of this blog, you'll already be possibly nauseatingly familiar with my ongoing narrative of being jobless. Well, I'm pleased to announce that the narrative has changed. Not only do I have a job, I have a great full-time job that pays real money and has fantastic benefits, at an organization that isn't going anywhere anytime soon. My sincere apologies to my Tar Heel and Wolfpack friends (and most of the rest of the Atlantic Coast Conference), but I have accepted a position at Duke University. I are a Blue Devil now. (To the friend who asked if I could feel myself starting to hate UNC's basketball team yet, the answer is "I don't have to." During the offseason I am permitted merely to be dismissive of them, elevating that stance to rooting against them during the regular season. I am not required to hate them as a condition of my employment until the ACC tournament.)

I'm posting this on my art blog not just because it means I will be able to afford art materials again (and there IS an enormous deeply-cradled wooden panel and about 80 pounds of encaustic medium in my future), but because of how people responded to me during what is a fairly normal part of the interview process ... the musical question "why did you move to North Carolina?"

I've answered this question a bunch of times in a bunch of different ways, but it was only when I was talking with my friend from the Triangle Land Conservancy that I really figured it out. I knew it had something to do with money and with California starting to disappoint me in a lot of ways. I had thought about it from the perspective of what the move allowed me to move away from, but not ever about what it allowed me to go toward. A kind of perfect storm of events seem to have occurred over the past few months that made it all make sense. To make a very long story a little bit shorter, those developments are these:

* The idea for the Free Atelier, and the personal commitment to make it happen.

* My involvement with Local Color, the gallery co-op in Raleigh.

* My small web updating project with Triangle Land Conservancy, that turned into a separate special project creating a video for them, and that hopefully will turn into the larger art project I've envisioned.

* The understanding that I am an artist, that artmaking and helping other artists is an enormous part of what the counselors call "life satisfaction" for me.

* The understanding that I need--on a lot of different levels--to make my own money and enough of it to do an effective job of supporting myself and that having job security is an important part of my creative verve.

A lot of these things are outside the "artist" stereotype. I don't want to live in a garret and starve, I'm not made more creative by suffering or insecurity. I don't regard money as a necessary evil, or as any kind of evil at all. But I've never been the super-ambitious, money-motivated go-getter they liked to see in Silicon Valley. And finally when the first person at Duke asked me why I moved to North Carolina, I knew the answer and said it straight out: work-life balance.

I lived for 18 years in a place where many organizations really thought you weren't committed if you weren't having dinner at the office at least twice a week. I worked for organizations where some of the employees (programmers, usually) actually slept under their desks from time to time. I had the distinct feeling in job interviews there that, when asked "where do you want to be in five years," if I didn't tell the hiring manager I was gunning for his or her job (or better yet, his or her supervisor's job) I was losing points in the hiring race.
As expenses rose in California and my pay shrank, I knew that to stay I would have to either have the kind of job that eats you alive and consumes you entirely without leaving room for anything else, or (possibly AND) work for a company that did things I was not proud of, didn't agree with, and couldn't embrace. And I didn't want to have to be a broke artist, or dependant on someone else, or a person who only had work and no room for anything else in their lives. Just. Not. Me.

I don't know if it's just different times we live in, or that it is such a different place, but every time the words "work-life balance" came out of my mouth, everyone at the table nodded sagely and not only looked like they understood but frequently actually said something to assure me that This Job Was Not Like That. This means the Free Atelier can go forward and I don't have to worry about making it pay. I can continue to experiment with encaustic and work big and work often and not have to worry about how much money I'm spending on "learning." I can sign up for pole-dancing class and go out for drinks with friends and meet new people and do goofy things (like dance all night in ridiculously high heels on the uneven outdoor patio at Tony's Bourbon Street Oyster Bar) and know that no one will be angry that I'm not spending Friday night at the office.

It's not just a job, it's a release into all the things I wanted, all the things I need to keep doing. I don't have to give up anything that I've come to love. It's a beautiful perfect wonderful situation, and I damn well deserve it. We all do. And I think the trick is finding that point of view that lets you see what you're moving toward that opens the doors and lets it all pour in.

Friday, April 08, 2011


If you're one of the regular 2.3 readers of this blog, you'll be aware that I am sadly unemployed at the moment (in terms of a job that pays money). I finally followed up on one of the organizations that caught my interest shortly after moving here: the Triangle Land Conservancy. Being a nonprofit, I figured they might not have very much in the way of money or staff, and checking out their website I discovered that their communications person clearly wears about 500 different hats and appears to have little-to-no help.


I decided to email them and see if they could use a volunteer with my impressive and slightly insane professional skillset. Good opportunity, right, to continue to add to my portfolio and build new connections in the nonprofit community. Long story short, they were thrilled to have help, and I'm embarking on a project to update a cute little web series they started but abandonned on ways to play on Triangle Land Conservancy-protected space. I'll be updating the writing, but in order to make sure that the various activities they mentioned are still available, I'll be traveling around to a variety of locations throughout the area. I'll get to explore nature and surrounding communities, making discoveries and highlighting all kinds of things. I got permission to rearrange the web pages a bit to accomodate photographs, and started to feel pretty pleased with the whole thing.

Then I had an idea.

Back in California, where I lived for 18 years before moving to NC, there was a nifty little local TV show called "Bay Area Backroads." The host, an engaging jeans-clad local celeb named Doug McConnell, every week drove his Jeep to some of the interesting, amusing, and lesser known pleasures and delights of the Bay Area. The show featured beautiful drives, adventure activities, lovely unique little places to stay, artists, restaurants, farms, and peculiarities of all kinds.

Now I'm not a TV producer, nor have I played one on TV. But I know my way around a video camera and an editing suite. So I threw the idea out there for TLC; how about a little bit of video on these adventures they've already identified, posted to a special YouTube channel and promoted on the web site as a regular feature?

It went over super-well. So that's a go.

And then it hit me.

Photos. Video. Visits. Journal notes. This isn't just a volunteer freelance job, it's an art project.

So I'm announcing it now, the birth of this multimedia art project built around TLC's protected holdings. It reminds me of what I did at Pt. Reyes while I was in graduate school. There will be photographs and video pieces. Books and a web site and found objects. Journaling, mapping, and K-12 curriculum. An interactive component. It's not just a project, it's a show.

To be continued ... !

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Drifting Into the Zone

If you're one of my 2.3 regular readers, you'll know that I am kind of hard to impress when it comes to art instruction, and encaustic instruction in particular seems to be a challenging arena. Nothing has been more painful than reviewing the encaustic "instructional" videos on the generally-hapless Expert Village channel on YouTube. The class I actually paid for in encaustic was good for seeing a little bit of basic technique demonstrated and getting a chance to play around with some warm wax, but since the electrical capacity of the room couldn't actually handle the draw from the heated palettes and the heat gun simultaneously without blowing a fuse, other basic techniques were just sort of ignored or glossed over. The first book I purchased on encaustic was a great introduction ... to the specific encaustic style of the author. Searches for information online produced an awful lot of the same stuff over and over. Not surprisingly, yelling at the screen that I didn't WANT to do Xerox transfers or see how to use collage materials AGAIN didn't make any difference.

So I started looking at the web sites of encaustic artists, and found some who were doing work I found compelling and interesting. I followed up on any references or links those artists offered. Eventually I found an artist who had written a book, and when I looked at the book I loved it. It was full of other artists I found fascinating, and in investigating those artists, I came across more workshops and reference materials and descriptions of technique.

Most of the workshops, sadly, are where I used to live instead of where I live now, a difference of about 3,000 miles. A number of them are exhorbitantly expensive and probably designed to appeal to the ro/md crowd (that's Retired Ophthalmologists/Monied Dilettantes, for those of you who aren't regular readers), because after all most artists can't make a living making art, so teaching is the next best thing and teaching other artists or actual college students is also notoriously unprofitable. But I did discover that one artist I particularly admire had recently produced a DVD on "advanced encaustic techniques," and given my response to her work, I kicked down the $60 and ordered it.

The DVD is "Wax Twist" and the artist is Cari Hernandez. Like me, her deep background is photo and video, and also like me she's drawn to sculptural forms and abstract renderings. Her work is not graphic-design based, and although she uses mixed media, it doesn't reference collage. Almost the first words out of her mouth were "we are not going to cover Xerox transfers." Already my $60 felt well-spent.

If you're interested in encaustic and have passed the basic stage of instruction, and like me find yourself on the other side of the country from Cari Hernandez, this DVD is a good buy. I learned a lot of new techniques, as well as ways to refine techniques I'm already working with. She expanded my thinking as to what's possible with encaustic. But the best moment in the DVD had nothing to do with technique; it had to do with what being an artist is all about.

She was in mid-demonstration, having layered an article of clothing onto a waxed panel. She used her tacking iron to form the wax in different ways around it, talking about how useful the tool was when working with tight spaces and flammable materials. But as she spoke, you could see her slowly leave the "real" world and become engaged by the piece in front of her. It was speaking to her, she was hearing it, she studied it and smiled and tweaked her and there, and her disengagement from everything else in the world was palpable. She was in the Zone. She was no longer making a video on encaustic, she was making art and the process just happened to be in front of a camera.

After just a minute or so, she recognized her own absorption, and laughed, saying something along the lines of "before I get too carried away with this piece ..." and continued to make her instructive point. I appreciated not only the lapse into ArtMind, but also her acknowledgement of it, and the fact that she left it in the DVD for all the rest of us to see.

I've tried to explain this state to non-artists; they don't quite get it. It's not about thinking, really; but it's also not about not thinking. The most accurate description I can find is that word "hearing." The piece is speaking, telling you what it wants to be; there's a mesh with your conscious understanding of what you want the piece to say and what it wants to say, and you begin to respond to the piece, to the materials, instead of to any kind of "plan" you might have for it. This doesn't mean we don't plan, or that what we do in the Zone is intuitive; there's a strongly intellectual component to it, it's almost like you have to be thinking clearly before you can hear the voice of the work come through. And then you have to be technically able to execute, but the approach you choose to execute ... well, that comes to you from what a former professor of mine (not an art professor, interestingly enough) used to call "a different way of knowing."

At the end of the DVD, Cari talks about the difference between technique and vision, how easy it is when you're learning something new to become fascinated by technique and forget about what you're trying to say and whether those techniques are appropriate. My own opinion is that the only thing to do, really, is to make a LOT of work. Some of those pieces will just be explorations of technique, you instructing yourself through experience. But some of them at unexpected moments will begin to speak to you, you will hear them, and at that point you will find yourself in the Zone, making art--and ultimately that's where we all want to be.

Learn more about Cari Hernandez
Learn more about her DVD and instructional web site, "Wax Twist."

Saturday, March 26, 2011


So it's been sort of a shitty-ish day. That means this post probably is not going to meet the expectations of you, my loyal 2.3 readers, in terms of creative brilliance. It's going to be a little bit more like a rant.

Contributing to the overall tone of the day is a little problem I had with an art piece earlier. I decided to make one very last final tweak to an encaustic piece I was very very fond of, and managed to destroy it in the process. I liked this little piece so much because it was small and cute and sweet in a way; I was thinking about my awesome former students in Boone when I made it, and it was one of those magical little moments when a little bit of experimenting and flailing results in something even better than what you were trying for. I'd already signed it and named it, I liked it so much, and I was trying to come up with a strategy for framing it for presentation.

And then I screwed it up.

"No More Snow"
3.5 x 4 inches
no longer available
because I ruined it
This really, really upset me for several reasons. The obvious reason is that I crapped up something I loved, followed closely by the fact that I knew better than to touch it again after I'd decided it was done and yet I went and touched it again, so the blame for the destruction was entirely mine. A third factor: it underscored how far I am from really being able to work my new medium and command my new tools, heightening my frustration with the process of gettting what's in my head out onto a panel.

The fourth: it heightened my interest in and desire for some form of in-depth instruction from someone who has a process and/or produces work that I resonnate with, who seems to work in a way that would actually inform my own.

This is a problem, because that instruction is available. Two artists I admire very much are holding a four-day workshop in the San Francisco area at the end of May. This is a location I know I will have no problem getting around in, nor any difficulty in finding a cheap or possibly free place to stay. I looked at airfares, and they are not as high as one might imagine if you're willing to take the reddest red eye ... and for this I would be. The problem, even though this is being promoted as both an encaustic technique and practice workshop and a sort of "self-confidence building" workshop FOR ARTISTS who are serious enough about their practice to want to commit themselves to it full-time, is that the workshop "early bird" registration fee is $899, and it goes up to $999 after April 1. This fee includes lunches, snacks, materials and instruction. Lodging, dinner, breakfast, incidentals and getting around are entirely on your own.

The refund policy basically states, "we don't refund your money for anything."

I'm sure the organizer would say "It's your LIFE! It's your WORK! Isn't it WORTH that kind of investment?" Why, of course it's worth that kind of investment. I'm sure every serious artist I know would be more than happy to invest $899 in the futherance of his or her career ... IF WE HAD THE MONEY TO BEGIN WITH.

Yes, the organizer is an artist, and a very good one. I like her work. But she has mentioned in the past that she makes six figures as an artist. And she came into that place of being from making six figures as a physician. Is she perhaps a bit out-of-touch with the reality that the rest of us live in?

This is why founding the Free Atelier has become so important to me.

I'm tired of looking at "residencies" that sound wonderful until you get to the inevitable statement in the description that runs something along the line of "You pay us $500/week for the privilege of living in this empty cabin on our swampland and making art. No stipend. Meals extra."

News flash: I can sit in my own house on my swampland and make art without a stipend, and my meals are included, and it's NOT going to cost me an extra $500/week.

I'm sick of "opportunities" to focus on your work as long as you don't focus on the fact that you're still paying your rent at home and yet you're supposed to feel privilged and special because you've been selected as the lucky new payee--er, I mean, artist in residence--for some organization that owns a loft attached to a thrift shop that will let you have the run of the place as long as you pay them $300/week and for any "materials" you happen to use from the thrift shop, work one shift downstairs at the cash register (unpaid), help install the next show (unpaid) and keep the kitchen clean (meals not included).

I'm pissed off by "workshops" that sound like they offer things that would truly be helpful for real, practicing artists, but are priced more to appeal to retired ophthamologists and monied dilettants. (In case you haven't experienced this, monied dilettants may not be the best critique partners to have.)

So, this workshop ... $899 x 30 slots / 2 instructors = $13,485 for three-and-a-half days. (Yes, encaustic materials are expensive. But they're not THAT expensive.)

Bring me a monied dilettante or two, who love the art they do and just want some honest critique and are willing to pay for it, and some artists who have a typical artist's income but would relish the time to spend a week thinking, eating, breathing and dreaming art. I bet Free Atelier can do them both one turn better.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Still More Hot Stuff

encaustic, paper, wire and
stamped image on
encausticbord and
3x5 inches
I'm putting a lot of time into my encaustic pieces lately. I recently was accepted into a small local gallery co-op, so there's a tiny piece of wall space in downtown Raleigh with my name on it. Right now I have a couple of black and white photographs up, but they just kind of get lost in the space. I think the encaustics will pop and draw people's attention because they're familiar and painting-like, but obviously different somehow. I have one piece I was going to give away, but I think I'll frame it and put a price on it and see what happens. I have two to three others that are also likely candidates. The panels will all get similar framing treatments; I'm still not 100% certain what to do with the cradled birch pieces yet. In theory, they mimic canvas on stretcher bars, but I am reluctant to just paint or wax over the edges and leave it at that. I recently saw the work of another encaustic artist who took her cradled pieces and mounted them to pieces of slate tile and painted the cradle edges to match. I loved the effect, and am considering something similar, although I haven't really settled on anything specific.

The Last Time I
Went Fishing
encaustic and oil paint
on canvas panel
6x9 inches
 I spent about 3 hours in my studio this afternoon, working on probably five pieces at once. It seems there's a lot of flailing around that has to happen before I start producing things I like. I'm beginning to understand that my "signature" approach blends both wax and oil paint. My favorite piece from this evening, which I started a few nights ago, basically went from nothing to something in a few minutes when I applied some pigmented wax to the top half of the piece then followed that up with some oil paint, which I brushed on. Fusing the oil into the wax is a required step (the oil paint will never dry if you don't), instead of just heating the wax enough for the oil paint to set into it, I overfused it and when it became liquid, I began working it with a brush. As a result, I have several brushes that are crudded up with both oil paint and wax. I'm sure cleaning is going to be an adventure, but I'm so happy with the results that it was definitely worth it.

I think the next step is probably learning more about brush techniques. I've been toying with the idea of taking an oil painting class, even though I have no interest in ever approaching oil painting in the "traditional" way. I've ordered a book on brushwork and found a class that starts soon that is for absolute beginners in oil paint, but I would hate to spend the money on a class and wind up having someone trying to help me paint a cow or a tree in something approaching a realistic fashion.

Walk with Me
encaustic and oil paint on
canvas panel
6x9 inches
(in progress)
 My one concern is that I still haven't come up with a way to combine encaustic with my photography. Perhaps the secret is a sort of hand-coloring approach using wax and oil paint combined and worked with a brush. It sounds likely, but figuring out how to actually make that happen may be a little more problematic than I anticipate. I've also had some thoughts recently about creating pieces that are about skylines, and given my level of drawing ability (as in none), that may be a chance to test this particular approach as well.

The other thing I've been thinking about a lot recently is the idea of the Free Atelier. If you're one of the 2.3 regular readers of this blog, you'll know I not too long ago performed a guided meditation that resulted in a Big Idea. A lot of people seem to think it's also a Good Idea. The next phase of it, though, is figuring out how to do other similar things that can actually fund the Free Atelier; maybe adding several weeks or weekends per month where it's not free and not limited to serious artists, possibly adding classes, art tours, mentoring sessions or help with conceptual development. The gallery co-op has access to a teaching space and I'm already being encouraged to set up some classes there; I have plenty of room in my home and property as well. It's a lot to think about, but definitely worth thinking about. There are still a lot of questions, but it's looking more and more like something I'm going to have to try. If any of you are sitting on lottery winnings and would like to invest in an art and creativity development program, here's your chance to get in on the ground floor.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Spoonflower and Other Distractions

The Box, packed full
of fabric. Plus ribbon.
Some of you may know that I have a fabric jones. I don't sew (too fiddly), I don't do fabric collage (too crafty), I don't seem to use it in any way whatsoever, but I love a gorgeous piece of fabric and I have an extensive fabric collection: end pieces, remnants, quilters' quarters ... you name it. I have never had any idea what I wanted to do with my fabric ... I've made some of it into bookcloth for special projects, but other than that, what I want to do with it is a mystery.

Recently, I've found a wonderful outlet for taking some of the other artwork I'm doing and turning it INTO fabric. This feeds both my fabric jones and my artmaking jones without actually increasing the size of my already massive fabric collection. It's called Spoonflower, and it allows you to upload patterns and configure them into a design that you can then purchase as a fabric swatch, sample, or full-on bolt. The upside is, after you "proof" you design by ordering a sample to make sure the colors and so forth are to your liking, you can make your designs available for purchase by other people.

A sample of what's in
The Box. I have probably
a hundred different fabrics
The process couldn't be easier: upload design, tweak size and arrangement, order proof, make it available for sale. Spoonflower handles all the details, including printing with eco-friendly processes on a variety of high-quality fabrics and order fulfillment. You (the designer) receive 10% of sales of your design.

I've uploaded six different images, some from my adventures in encaustic, some from my experiments with oil painting, and one photographic image. I love the crazy 60s pattern they make when printed in mirror image, although I'm sure it won't be to everyone's taste (maybe not to anyone's taste). They aren't for sale yet, but you can see my designs here. Here is a screenshot to further entice you. Make sure to click on each one to see the fabric presentation this way, which is how I envision it.

Spoonflower screen shot ... my designs
I hope to upload a couple more design experiments from my existing artwork and then order proofs and make them available for the general population. I'm obviously not so skilled a fabric designer that I anticipate making big bucks from this venture, but it's fun to see my artwork take on a new form and it feeds my fabric jones in a nice way that keeps me from acquiring more fabric for my hoard.

If there is a fabric freak in your life, send them over to Spoonflower. There's lots to see if they just want to buy or browse, and it's free to sign up if they want to become the Next Great Fabric Designer.

Friday, February 25, 2011

No Expectations: Giving the Inner Art Critic the Week Off

When was the last time you made art without the contraints of expectations? Without an idea of "where it would go," without any reference to the "right" techniques and approaches, without a "goal" in mind? Do you remember the high of unanticipated success? The way you were able to appreciate things purely, without picking apart tiny flaws or disappointing results here and there? The energy and pure fun of letting the medium work you instead of the other way around?

I'm in the middle of an explosion of this kind of artwork, taking enormous pleasure in my results, appreciating them purely on an "oh that's COOL" kind of level. I know, in the back of my head, that this means something; but right now, I don't feel a need to know exactly what.

Hipstamatic App, CAMERAtan App
and iPhone 3
 It started with encaustic, and continues with it, to a certain extent. I have a lot of experiments going on, but I'm running low on materials so I'm being a little less abandonned with it at the moment. Meanwhile, a few days ago a good friend and fellow photographer reminded me how much fun it is to goof around with my iPhone and its photo apps. We share a particular fascination with an app called Hipstamatic, which approximates a huge host of different film, flash and lens types, mimicking all kind of classic and cult cameras and shooting techniques. (I blogged about Hipstamatic back in June 2010.) We're also both very serious fine art photographers--we both own big honking Nikon DSLRs with all the bells and whistles and know how to use them, along with the usual selection of analog photo equipment in various formats, all of which we are able to command and ride like tired mules.
The Sky Overhead
Hipstamatic App and iPhone 3

Not surprisingly, then, the thing we both like the best about Hipstamatic is its "random" setting--you fire up the app, shake the phone, and a random combination of film, lens and flash fall into place; the only choice left to you is whether or not to "fire" the flash. You don't know what you've gotten until you make the photo and the image "develops." It's a little like Russian roulette with a camera phone. If you are just shooting randomly it's wonderful, but if you're responding to something specific that's making you want to shoot the scene in front of you (like color or shadow or contrast), you might find that thing negated by the random combinations.

Interestingly enough, though, the random mix shot often finds something in the scene in front of you that goes beyond what you saw and responded to with your eyes. And the one thing that seems consistent with every Hipstamatic combination is that it seems to make the most mundane things extraordinary, and infuses the images with a kind of aura that can only be described as otherworldly. The walkway in front of my house becomes a magical portal; a pretty blue sky with fluffy clouds takes on an ethereal monochrome glow.

Hipstamatic App and iPhone 3
I spent a few hours playing with Hipstamatic and making images, then playing with other iPhone filter apps and manipulating them even further. The best thing about it was, I wasn't thinking. I was selecting a filter, hitting "apply" and saying "hey, I like that!" My favorite app for this is a wacky little thing called CAMERAtan. Its effects, available in three different patterns, have names like "Umeboshi" and "Latte." Even better, it also has a "random" option in each pattern. It's a wonderful time-killer and generates some wonderful results.

My other recent obsession, after decades of repeating in a robotic fashion "I am not a painter,"  is oil painting. I started out smearing oil paint on panels and wax as part of my encaustic endeavors; now I'm smearing it on canvases and even sometimes using a brush. I know almost nothing about oil painting, so I'm reacting 100% to what I see when the brush loaded with paint hits the canvas, and I'm learning how to control the brush enough to vary the effect. I'm working very very small right now, 3x5-inch canvases and canvasboard, a couple of 6x9's.
oil on canvas
3x5 inches

I don't know whether what I'm doing looks as cool as I think it does; it's entirely nonrepresentational and abstract, but it has feeling and motion in it, and it's clearly what I need to be doing right now. I'm almost always my own worst critic, but for the moment, I'm giving the critic the week off, and just enjoying doing things that aren't planned to death and then dissected because of my perception of their shortcomings.

oil on canvas
3x5 inches
oil and encaustic on birch panel
8x8 inches

Ground (in progress)
oil on canvas panel
6x9 inches

Monday, February 21, 2011

Dreaming Big

I've been out of graduate school for almost five years now, and have thought a lot about what "success" should look like for me. I'm pretty sure I'm not going to be pounding the pavement looking for gallery representation in New York or LA, although I intend to pursue some options locally. I'm guessing I won't be on the "short list" for the handlers of the rich and famous, although I hope to develop some loyal and interested customers over time who appreciate the richness and quirkiness of my work. I'm relatively confident that I will not be appearing on Oprah as The Next Big Thing, but I would enjoy doing the local public radio art broadcast, and maybe following that up with my own BlogTalkRadio episodes. But I also know that none of this is set in stone.

So, basically, I've been thinking mostly in line with being a medium-sized fish in the pond, kind of to myself over here under my lillypad of choice, swimming quietly in the cool water and popping up to the surface every now and again, just to see what's going on, and keeping an open mind for anything else that might appear. Making and showing art is the baseline for me, the non-negotiable point. What happens after that is pretty much gravy.

I recently did a visualization exercise where I was asked to Dream Big. "Think of your life in 10 years," said the leader. "Go beyond the most ideal thing you've ever dreamed about. What does this life look like? Where are you? What are you doing?"

That's when I saw it. Or rather, me. Standing in the sunshine at an easel, with a paintbrush in my hand, on a broad tiled patio in front of a huge beautiful Italian- or Mexican-style home. I was looking out at the sea, and smiling at the sunlight dancing on the water. The brush moved across the work on the easel in short sharp strokes, flecking rich blue sweeps of wax with pricks of white-gold oil, approximating the effect of the sun on the sea. The wax was slightly soft from the heat of the sun, and I used the handle of my brush to dimple it in places, then highlighted the dimples with color.

I knew that this was my home. But more than that, that it was a special place for artists to come and work and study and be mentored. The word "atellier" whispered through my head.

I have often talked about the need for artist residency programs that don't suck money out of artist's pockets, programs that are not designed for well-to-do dilletantes but instead for creative, serious people who are beyond their student days but not yet successful or known or celebrated. I've also thought a lot about how artists continue to need mentoring and feedback throughout their careers, and how difficult it is to re-create the supportive community feeling of graduate school once one is out in the world and trying to get by, possibly in a field of endeavor that is not art but that pays. This is the place they can come to and immerse themselves in art for a week or two weeks or even a month; to study and learn and work and discuss. And it's not $3000 or $5000 or $7000; it's the same cost as a decent vacation, and scholarships are readily available. It's something someone who works in an office and teaches yoga on the side can afford.

The other part of the visualization is what I knew--that my work was popular and well-received and sought-after, that I made enough money from the art to pay for the beautiful big house overlooking the sea and that my connections and friends and supporters keep the atellier reasonable in price and the scholarships available.

So that's the big dream. It's hard to write down and is going to be even harder to publish. I'm not sure why; maybe I'm afraid to want it to turn out that way, maybe I'm assuming disappointment before it occurs. (That's a long-standing problem of mine that I'm trying to work my way out of.) But here it is, my big dream. And sharing it with you all somehow makes it that much more real.


Thursday, February 17, 2011

Deep Analog

I've had a lot of ideas over the last few days, despite being sick (or maybe because I'm sick and I'm not actually leaving the house for anything other than feeding the horse), and I've gotten several new pieces into production. I am working on probably six different things right now; they're in various stages and represent a huge range of techniques, approaches, concepts, and goals. Encaustic is one of those artistic pursuits that involves a lot of waiting, interspersed with periods of hyperactivity ... kind of like chemical (as in, old school analog) photographic printing, actually, which is another one of my favorite things to do. One piece I loved, then ruined, then saved, then ruined again, but that's okay--I have a pretty good idea of how to re-save it, and because I'm working in encaustic, re-saving is in fact possible. Encaustic is kind of magical in how it permits the artist to undo what's been done up to a certain point; aside from oil painting, very few working media have this characteristic, and it's a quality I as a rank beginner really appreciate.

Even though I've always been primarily a photographer, I'm having trouble finding a way to combine my images with encaustic that feels "right" to me. I am still in the early stages of this investigation, and there are so many variables that it's mind-boggling. Slowly I'm lurching toward something, although it's still a process heavily in the "trial and error" phases.

More appealing to me, as you'll already know if you're one of the 2.3 regular readers of this blog, is the combination of oil paint with encaustic. I am not painter and never have been; I can't make a decent line with a brush on canvas, but for some reason using my fingers to apply oil paint onto surfaces or wax and then applying more wax (or more paint) is incredibly fulfilling. The paint, especially if you're using cheap oils, does amazing things when you fuse it into the wax; the pigment and oil separates somewhat and the liquid quality of the wax as it heats lets the paint move and flow into strange and interesting patterns and pathways. Higher quality oils will still run with the flow of overfused, liquid wax, but resist the interesting separation that creates such odd patterns within the painted sections. So I am using a blend of high quality and student-grade oils, with the cheap stuff where I want interesting scumbling and patterns and the better stuff where I want the paint to maintain its integrity when it is fused with the wax.

So far my favorite surface is a raw birch panel made specifically for use in art. I like being able to see the grain of the wood through the wax and feel the texture, and there is also something appealing in the idea that I'm using a host of organic materials in this process: pigmented oils, beeswax, wood, natural bristle brushes. (Certainly some of these organic materials can be wildly toxic, but that's nature for you.) And I'm also using my hands a lot, because that just seems to feel right. When you get right down to it, I have gone deep analog with my artmaking, and at the moment, it's incredibly satisfying.

Here are a few works in progress which I like, in various stages of development:

working title: Pink
Encaustic and oil on acrylic panel

This acrylic panel is transparent, so it will be interesting to see what it looks like when I remove the backing. I think I will probably apply one final overcoat of medium and overfuse to a smooth glasslike surface, then buff to a high shine.

working title: Rorshach
Encaustic and oil on cardboard canvas
 This piece started out as a pure experiment, but now I'm thinking it's a study for a much larger piece that I'll produce in the future. (This is 6" x 9".) The  black is applied wax, which I allowed to cool, then added some simple lines with student-grade white oil paint. I then fused the paint into the wax by heating the surface until it liquified. I think to complete this piece I'll add some high-quality crimson oil paint to the line at right, and fuse lightly to preseve the integrity.

working title: Woodflow
Encaustic and oil paint on wood panel
 This last piece I feel is almost finished, although it needs one more thing ... I am not sure what that thing might be. I enjoy being able to see the grain of the wood through the paint, and the way the white paint (the student-grade paint) has separated a bit and started spreading in the middle of the panel. You can see here how the gold paint (artist quality) retained its integrity even though it was fused at the same time and to the same degree as the white.

I know there are a lot of little details in this new artistic practice that I need to get better on, like cleaning my brushes and paying better attention to safety details. Although really, I've spent so much of my life up to my elbows in black and white photo chemicals, if I'm going to be poisoned by something there's a good chance I already have been. And I might one day learn how to actually deliver oil paint to my surfaces with a brush. But right now this slap-dash, experimental, deep analog place I'm in feels just right to me.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Looking At Process

In tandem with my last post, I thought I should offer myself and the 2.3 regular readers of my blog a little roundup of the encaustic practices and processes I'm gravitating towards. This is, obviously, not going to be an all-inclusive list, and in reality it's just a little reminder to myself of the techniques I've tried that seemed to "work" for me very quickly. There are plenty of others that I imagine I'll find more appealing once I become better at them.

Here's the short list:

* Using paper to provide color. A sheet of really interestingly-colored paper used as background (either across the whole surface or in a strategic part of it) adds controlled color and brightness. This works best when I'm not planning to put a lot of layers of medium or other colors on top of the paper; the added wax soaks into the paper and dulls the colors or makes it take on the colors of whatever is layered beneath it. If you're using colored wax underneath the paper and planning for this effect, however, it can yield quite interesting results.

* Stamping on paper and integrating this into the image. Can either be a small piece of the image or the full background.

* Applying oil paint on the surface with my hands before augmenting it with pigmented wax and clear medium.

* Applying oil paint on the wax itself with my hands, and "sealing" it by fusing. I can't paint on canvas with a brush, but for some reason I can paint on wax with my fingers.

* Mixing up the application of wax and medium to the surface, so that some areas have wax and other areas are bare down to the surface (usually painted).

* Very simple straight carving into the wax, overfilling with an accent color, and scraping back to find the line.

* Moving pigmented wax around by overfusing it and letting it run on the panel.

* Using heat on a wax-dipped brush to spread pigment thinly.

* Adding scrapings of different colored waxes to the surface of pieces and expanding them in fusing.

* Overfusing generally.

* Burnishing the finished pieces to a glasslike shine.

* Creating diminsionality with a build up of layers of wax.

I haven't yet figured out how to use my photographic images with encaustic ... that's one of those things that I can already anticipate needs to be a bit thought out. The image and the wax have to make sense together, t enhance each other in order to make a cohesive statement. I'm working on this, though, and I don't think it will be long before I hit on an approach that makes me happy. I have a feeling I might enjoy working with colored inks also, and much more translucent colors. So far I've only used bristle brushes, but I'm reading about artists who use foam brushes, pouring techniques, and splatter approaches to distribute wax on the surfaces they use. In addition, there's a whole world of surfaces that I am anxious to try, and my investigations of those will most likely change the way I work.

I'm glad to have found this medium. There is something about working in it that feels right to me, in the same way photography and video did at the beginning, but also includes the hands-on aspect that I find so appealing about book arts. Maybe I did actually always want to be a painter ... with encaustic, it feels like maybe I am.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Looking Past Process

I'm one of those people who just can't stand next to their own work at a show. And if it's a solo show, I'll kind of slink around trying to look like I'm paying attention to what people are saying without really paying attention to what people are saying. I think this is fairly common; it's not that I don't like to talk about my work or that I can't talk about my work, I just don't like listening to what other people are saying about it. I've heard some weird comments about my work (one woman once said "It's too bad they're not airbrush.") and some vaguely dumb comments about my work (one guy once said "I just kind of don't like things that are out of focus."), but no one's ever said anything really bad about it. I just become nervous about what people respond to, and how they respond; it feels as if I'm evesdropping on something personal. And actually, that's not a bad thing.

I recently put some more images of encaustic work up on Facebook, and that apparently got a lot of people to look at the whole album. And people started leaving comments and noting their favorites. No one said anything bad, because my friends wouldn't do that, but I was a little bit surprised at which pieces particular people seemed to like.

The first issue is that my favorites, which I consider the most in the style I think I'd like to follow, got very little commentary. A couple of others, which I do consider successful, got some very positive responses. I have one artist friend in particular whose work I just love and I admit that I have her paintings in my head when I'm making encaustic work--for some reason I have this idea that I might be able to approach in wax the magic that she makes in acrylic. Interestingly, the work that she responded to most positively was the piece that to my mind was the furtherest away from her own style of working.

But that got me thinking about what  people were really commenting on, and really seeing. The specific comments were about content and meaning--what the image was about, and what it said to them--not about the colors or forms or approach. At the end of the day, that's really what I want. When people don't see the process but instead see a message, specifically a message that seems tailored to them, that's when the artist has truly done his or her job.

And it's also illuminated what's so frustrating to me about the work I'm doing now; I'm mired in process. Because I don't have very much experience with encaustic, I don't know the impact of different approaches and techniques and I don't really know how things will look. So I have to go very slowly, and instead of being able to let the medium speak, I'm still working at how to understand it at all.

Sometimes I can enjoy the idea of pure experimentation, but it's so frustrating when I start to see a direction and then I flub it up with inexperience or some technique doesn't turn out the way I thought it would. And there are so many more processes and practices I've yet to try. But I'm so anxious to find my voice in this medium and make things, wonderful things that speak to people, and get them out into the world. I don't think I was like this with photo or video or even installation. Maybe I need a mentor. Or maybe I just need to keep going, until eventually I can as the artist look past the process and see the meaning inherent in my practice of it.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Expanding and Contracting

I've been out of hand the last few weeks. I'm experimenting now with blending photography and encaustic, trying a lot of different things and looking at a lot of artists. My encaustic world is getting bigger very fast, and it's at once confusing and exciting. The one very clear thing I've learned is, there are as many different processes for encaustic as there are artists who use it, and almost every "rule" I encountered in my first experiences with it (you can't work big, you can't use gessoed board, you can't use inkjet prints on standard paper, you can't use unmounted paper as a base ...), has turned out to be a "rule" only for the person who said it.

I've seen videos of artists who painstakingly use tiny brushes and precise strokes, painting and etching the wax with great care; I've seen videos of artists who "paint" with irons and tacking tools. I've seen the careful and exact application of wax to completed photographs and oil paintings, I've seen an artist carefully position a wood-mounted black-and-white photograph in the middle of a metal tray and proceed to dump (literally) an entire pan of melted wax medium onto it.

I've seen encaustic that references other mixed media work, graphic design, and collage. I've seen encaustic that simply uses wax instead of paint to produce works ranging from abstract to photorealistic. I've seen encaustic work that was specifically (and wonderfully) only about shape or color or texture or flow; I've seen equally-wonderful work that was about impressionistic landscapes or portraits of faces. In short, any kind of artwork that existed out there, has been accessed, referenced, and redone by someone working with wax. Slowly, as I experiment, I'm beginning to figure out who I am as an encaustic artist, and starting to recognize differences and similarities between her and the artist who uses the camera.

I knew early on that I would not be constructing collages per se with this medium; there is something too "craftish" about the work I've produced in this vein, and although I like some of it, it doesn't seem to mean anything. I've done a couple of pieces that referenced or were inspired by specific experiences or sights, but this hasn't felt quite right to me either, although I'm fairly happy with the work. I've done some pieces that began as oil "paintings" (for lack of a better word), and these feel the most interesting and most authentic to me, and the most solid ... again for lack of a better word. They don't incorporate stamps or embedded objects or transferred images, they aren't specifically recongizable as anything from the real world.

They seem to be about the world inside my head instead of the world in front of my eyes, and this is an enormouos departure for me. My photography is confrontational and initially asks the viewer "what do you really see?" followed by "what do you think?" My encaustic work takes a more transformational tone and seems to aim for a place inside the viewer, asking instead "what do you really feel?" followed by "how deeply do you feel it?"

Like all my other artwork, I don't really care what the answer is. I simply want people to have a visceral uncalculated response to the work, and I want it to stay with them, at least on some level. But it's interesting to see how I'm coming at this. It's from a different place in me, and I'll be excited to learn more about that place and shine a little light on it for my own edification.

Some recent work which I consider "finished:"

untitled #4, 2011
5" x7"
encaustic, oil and paper on canvas board
(the half-moons at the bottom are not part of
the piece)

untitled tryptich (working title: Dawn to Dusk), 2011
3 panels, 6" x 6" each 
encaustic and oil on cradled birchwood panel

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Left-Brain Loop: Meaning

This happens to me occasionally; I get tangled up in what things mean. Specifically, I get tangled up in what the artwork I'm making means, and instead of listening to the materials, I start listening to that other side of my brain--the part of me that wants to plan and strategize and analyze and understand everything before I even start. This is a pretty useful thing in the business world, and even in hybrid business-creative endeavors like web site development. But in pure artmaking, it brings along a host of issues. Paralysis by analysis is a very real thing, and a lot of work goes unmade while the maker ponders whether it's "right" or "fits" or "supports the thesis."

I'm trying to work my way out of this by remembering that everything means something to someone. Additionally, I know full well that anything I make has meaning for me, whether I see that meaning immediately or not. I know that I just need to make my work, and then let it tell me what it's saying. But right now I'm in a headspace that wants certainty.

Perhaps this is a natural reaction; I'm introducing a lot of uncertainty into my artistic mix with my choice of materials these days. If you're one of the 2.3 regular readers of this blog, you'll know that I'm working with encaustic, which is still quite new to me. I've recently introduced oil paint to that mix--another substance I've literally never worked with before. Why I've become enamored of hand-smearing oil paint onto wood panels and painting them over with wax I don't really know; I can't fathom why using my hands to work the colors is so much more satisfactory than using a brush, which I am resolutely refusing to do because it feels wrong. I also seem to have become enamored of working with multiples--things seem to want to come out of me in threes. This is puzzling to me as well, as I've also never felt compelled to work in multiples before.

It's probably no surprise to people who know me that my immediate response to all this confusion is to try to analyze my way out of it. What am I saying to myself? What am I trying to achieve? What in these things is appealing to me, and what might that suggest? Where is this going? Where should it go?

I know that part of the reason I get trapped into this left-brain loop has a lot to do with the kind of artist I am. I don't want to be a person who makes something and puts it out into the world with "I'm pretty" as its only function. I think more highly of art than that, and my concern is if I don't know what it means... does it mean anything other than "I'm pretty"?

Although I understand that sometimes even that has a deeper meaning. There was a fair amount of pictoral or neoclassical  "I'm pretty" artwork made in Europe in the aftermath of World War I. Europe emerged from that conflict "exhausted, horrified, and forcibly modernised," and thoroughly soured on images that were cold, unflinchingly technical, and heavily deconstructed. The Futurist movement, so intense and explosive prior to the war, lost its momentum (and nearly all of its founding artists) as a result of the fighting. Surely the prevalence of "I'm pretty" artwork created the breathing space artists and the art-viewing public needed to be open to what followed, and in that sense it had a meaning that was far greater than the sum of its parts.

But I cringe when someone calls themselves an artist, yet doesn't attempt to venture beyond the surface of what they make. To me, the quest for meaning and the sheer fact of work that goes beyond personal aesthetics to a broader universal connection is what differentiates art from hobby. I don't want my work to be just pretty, I want it to be right.

My left-brain wants me to go into a discussion now about what the word "right" means, and how that can be diluted, diffused, determined, evaluated. My right brain wants me to go up to my studio and start playing with some hot wax and not worry about how it comes out. Neither brain is going to win completely, that's just who I am. But for the time being, I think I will go make a little something that follows no rules of anything, purely and only for the experience of doing it.

And I'll think about it later. :)

**Just to update my last post ... Ellen Fader is the artist I referred to, and although she doesn't have anything on public display at the moment, she does have a web site. Check her out at ellenfader.com.**

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Encaustic and Me: Ambiguity in 3D

I haven't been doing much encaustic over the last couple of weeks; I was pretty deep into my Holiday slugfest and the last project I started was not working out as conceived and that always throws me off track a bit. (Yes, yes, I have pictures, but I'll post them later after I fiddle more with the piece.)

I have been looking at a lot of encaustic, though, and thinking about where it seems to want to take me, and I'm pretty clear on one thing: the sort of crafty-collagey graphic designy approach to it is really not what I'm interested in. In one of those fortuitous moments, a friend of mine from my MFA days posted a picture on Facebook of her newest work, a gorgeous evocative interesting piece even from just from the photo. Others commented extensively on what a great painting it was, but I knew right away it wasn't just a painting. There were elements of painting, yes, but what it was, was encaustic.

This artist and I were in crit together back in 2003 when she showed some of her first encaustic efforts. Most people in the class either didn't quite know what to make of them or commented on them as if they were paintings, which was not entirely inappropriate, but also not the most helpful. I remember being really struck by how free they were, how the wax lumped and piled and swirled, how the colors blended and layered. I remember telling Ellen they were wonderful, "bllissfully free from the strictures of knowledge of technique" (because so many artists are perfectionistic in some way or another, once we know "how" to do something a lot of us get hung up on doing it "right." It's a hard, but very rewarding, thing to break out of.)

She's come a long way since then, and her current work blends encaustic with oil painting in a way that really adds an air of mystery and strangeness to the work. If you're one of the 2.3 regular readers of this blog, you'll know that mystery and strangeness are two elements I respond to fairly consistently.

In addition to just appreciating her work, thinking about her piece really made me consider what I like about encaustic--both the pieces I've done and the work that she does, and other work I've seen in galleries. I like the fact that it can have a kind of "Magic 8 Ball" quality to it, layered and complicated and revealing only bits and pieces of itself to the casual observer, in ways that are ambiguous enough to be interpreted differently by each person who sees them. If you're a long-time reader of this blog (I think there are 1.4 of you), you'll know this is one of my primary conceptual underpinnings. The idea of making a statement that appears concrete but really isn't, a kind of brain-tag with the viewer ("Look! I'm showing you everything! Except I'm not!"), is in almost everything I do.

The other thing I remembered finding striking in my friend's first encaustic pieces was their dimensionality--executed on a flat panel like a painting, but with all the texture and 3D impact of a mixed media construction or a sculptural piece. I've recently seem some encaustic artwork that takes this notion to an extreme that I was already thinking of as something to try, and for once I'm inspired by this rather than being discouraged that someone already thought of it.

So, I'm approaching my next two encaustic pieces with these elements in mind. The piece that derailed itself may have derailed itself for a reason, and I can already envision its transformation now that I'm more conscious of my concepts. And I'm working hard to hang on to "beginner's mind," not focusing on "how" but instead on doing, and letting the materials speak beyond the notion of what is correct technique.