Archive for July, 2010

how does it happen?

Friday, July 30th, 2010

I think my painting period is coming to a close.

I say this because the paintings are becoming less about paintings and more about process and narrative, and there are some bits that make them more three dimensional or techniques that make them ultra two dimensional and its becoming tricky to manage to call them paintings at this point.

What I’m calling process pieces are less about the process of making and more that they include some element that is responsive to something other than the brush and paint. I enjoy this because I don’t control it. I do try to cajole it most of the time. Trying to convince it to make a graceful arc, or a convincing knot. But by and large, the material makes up its own mind about what to be…and then I try to find the next act…”well if you’re going to be like that then I’ll put this next to you” …and then the “this” takes on its own will and I look for the next move…its like a game of chess I try to outthink the material, but the material usually has its own way, and at some point, I agree with it and try to help it become more of what it is.
ordinary life and knots

This is a good example of what I’m trying to say. The wood fibers have their own history. Drought, solar access, injury, nutrition, all have shaped each set of cells that make up the fiber. This history affects the fiber’s ability to make a tight turn, or stand straight, or curve gently or tightly. It took me a while to accept this, and a while more to be able to offer the fiber some discrete assistance.

The wood fibers move a lot, because they are largely unrestrained, and because the humidity here varies quite a bit. So each day on the wall, each time I relocate the piece (i don’t have too many walls that are receiving parallel light) its different in ways I can see and appreciate. It could be that if my eyes were better educated, I could see the difference in color, shadow and texture in the other paintings throughout the day too. But the nuances are too difficult for me to see. It could be a question of patience.

All this is to say today I started cleaning up the painting place in the living room. Not the way most people would clean…I thought I’d try and put most everything that was on the table, onto a canvas…but not all at once!

So today I was making a spot for some silver wire and brass rods that were leftover.
brass rod place
And like usual, there was paint leftover, so, waste not want not…I took another canvas and the nearby mixing bowl, outlined the bowl and began working the leftover indigo and gray into the edges of the circle, pulling to center. The darkest paint went to the center and the overall effect was…uninspired. So, given that this piece was shaping up poorly to my eyes, I took bits of wood fiber that were laying about, and cut them over the top of the painting. As the fibers fell into the acrylic they made their own pattern which I realized was a function of both what i was cutting with the scissor, and where I stood to cut it. I moved to the second side of the painting and cut some more. The pieces fell as they might. There was some ribbon that I had gesso’d into to a canvas months ago, the pulled out to leave the line subtracted in the surface. It had red paint and gesso on it and so sometimes fell heavily when snipped, sometimes floated down. I noticed that when the air conditioning came on the ribbon moved on the air currents until I hit a gesso spot, then it fell heavily.
unexamined frags

So there is a lot that I’m not controlling specifically in this one, and I’m not sure how to hold the fragments more or less where they fell. I’m thinking of a gesso pour over the whole thing to try and hold all the bits. What do you think?

The last stage of this might be for me not to control the title. You’ve seen the captions get long and maybe too convoluted or cryptic. Partly I’m not sayin’ what i’m thinkin’ when I make these paintings and things, and partly the naming is a reaction to the photo more than the painting itself. Regardless, I was thinking it would be interesting if you named this one, if you’d like, if it strikes you…

I’ve been giving paintings away lately and hope whomever gets them takes the opportunity to rename them…mostly i hope they don’t end up in the trash! If nothing else paint over them to recycle the canvas and stretchers!

Anyway, time for work.

Take care of each other. Enjoy the beauty of things you can’t control, and try not to control too much..

words and music

Wednesday, July 28th, 2010

I’ve written a bit about song lyrics in the past. Some days certain words or phrases just seem to jump out and grab your attention.

The last few days, a few lines that I’d wasn’t able to hear clearly during the performance caught me.

The song is “Another Day” from the broadway show “Rent.” Its got a few good lines;
“forget regret”
“or life is yours to miss”
“no other road”
“no other way”
“no day but today”

I think of this in the context of the speed of life today. There’s always a text waiting for answer, an email waiting, a facebook post to respond to…and when we’re forced away from the smartphone or the computer, we rush, and in rushing around, we miss things, miss people, miss moments that are all around us.
The wind here has been blowing out of the southeast lately. It pushes a lot of moisture up from the gulf so our afternoons and evenings are filled with flashes and booms and torrents of rain. I’m pretty isolated from it in my concrete office building, but the roar of downpour is unmistakable. Yesterday after the roar ended, and the spritzing was still in the air, I walked from the office to the car. Its about two or three blocks but its not a walk through a neighborhood, its mostly through other parking lots. My eyes were drawn to the little clusters of leaves blown out of the trees, the swirling sand at the curb, the storm drain in full gurgle. I’m not sure why. Maybe the noise or the presence of curved things in the rectangle-ruled world of a parking lot caught me.
Either way, it slowed me down.
I’ve been carrying a camera to help me slow down and see the world around me and I found I had to work a bit to take it out of my pocket and take a photo of … what? … sand? … a storm sewer? It seems odd, things that are not especially photogenic and we walk by, but the camera asks us to actually look close, to SEE it, and try to frame it, to BE in the sun (in order to get the sun where it needs to be for a good photo) and it turns out, it slowed me down. I forgot all about linked learning outcomes, about impending layoffs, all sorts of things that weigh on us all, disappeared into that picture…which turns out was not a keeper!

Which is all to say, it probably is true, life is less about the destination, and more about the trip.

One other line from this song;
“give in to love”
“or live in fear”

That one I can’t connect to the parking lot.

But I think its something we all dream about.
Take care of each other.
Use that smartphone to take some pictures between here and there, it’ll help you to slow down for just a few minutes.

a quiet time

Sunday, July 18th, 2010

It was cool this morning, under 80 anyway, and not too humid. I woke up to a strange sound…quiet! I noticed my airconditioning wasn’t running, neither was my neighbors…I thought “power out” but a quick look to the alarm clock showed the power was still on. But it was very unusual for a July morning here in Texas.

As I drove to the office, I had windows open, sunroof open, and the radio off. More quiet. Its kind of peaceful really. I think we don’t know how much “noise” is in our lives until its not there. Then all of a sudden one finds themself trying to reach for the volume knob to turn down the frogs and cicadas. The constant whir and woosh and squeaks of air systems, email beeps, radio, pandora, itunes, kind of builds a level of nervousness in a person and it reduces the “calm reserve” that we need to get through stressful times.

I spent yesterday reading. A little Aquinas, a little Levy-Strauss, some Heidegger and Crichton too. It was a good quiet way to spend the day after a week of getting thumped every other day, I was ready for it. I couldn’t understand how the caustic emails I was getting were so acutely tuned to what I was doing. And Friday it hit me…facebook! I had been posting artwork and some chatter, responding to peoples posts…the usual things one does to tell friends “We’re attentive to your life.” And I hadn’t thought anyone else could see those, but somehow my torturer did, and each day would send between one and seven emails to reach inside and twist at an old wound, and do it with language that was way too current. So I’m toning down my facebook participation, which is too bad because it really is a good way to attend to friends and former students, but until the courts rule on my torturer, I’ll lay low, stay quiet, read and enjoy the silence as much as I can…I recommend it to you all too!

Now if I could just turn down those Cicadas!
Take Care, be safe

figuring, figural, figure, disfigure

Tuesday, July 13th, 2010

Its been a month of struggle so far, Frank and I were invited to make a proposal for a book, about construction and ornament which, as usual, I think too much about and somewhere inside feel relates to life in general. This is likely not the case, but as is true for all these blog entries, I’ll make a start, see where it goes and try to wrestle it to a conclusion before my few readers click away to something more interesting.

A book about construction and ornament is a curious thing in our time. Ornament has largely been abandoned by architecture since 1908 or so when Adolph Loos thought we needed a break from using it, because the ornament, that thing added to utility to make something more beautiful, had become applied and meaningless.

I thought about ornament and life today, looking at jewelry. Some jewelry is precious in its own right, some very ordinary in terms of its substances, but meaningful in an associative way.

I’d seen a necklace in Chicago this summer, one made of a simple loop of a woven fabric, and hanging from the loop was a sort of rectangular (not geometrically perfect) bit of bark from a Birch tree.

The piece struck me immediately. Maybe it was the bark itself, which I strongly associate with summers in Minnesota where we peeled Birchbark from the trees that fell the previous winter and stored the bark in the tinder box next to the stone fireplace. Mom and Dad would take us to the big city, Grand Rapids from time to time when a part was needed for the outboard, and all six of us would get to walk through the big northwoods souvenir store. A place filled with moccasins, boxes made from aromatic cedar, and all things birchbark.

I like the history of birchbark in Minnesota. Dad once took us to meet a fellow who made birchbark canoes on the banks of the Bigfork river. He was really old then, maybe in his 60’s, but he took time and explained the whole process to us, a process he had learned from the Chippewa Ojibwe Native American tribe. They’d drive stakes in the sand on a flat beach to outline the gunwales, and using split spruce roots, tie spruce and steamed cedar together to form the ribs of the canoe, then overlay the rib structure with large sheets of birchbark, lace them onto the ribs using spruce root, and paint over each joint with pine tar. There’s a great description of a Smithsonian recreation at this link

As he spoke, Mr. Hafeman would pick up a bit of root that he kept in a barrel of water, split it with a knife at the end, and pull the entire length in half. I remember the swampy smell of the barrel of roots (you just HAVE to poke your nose in things when you’re 12) and pull some cedar from under a tarp billowing steam to show us how to split (same knife) and form it, and the heated pine tar pot that at least one of us poked a finger in and smeared all over our “good” tee shirt.

He told us the birchbark was an essential part of the Ojibwe life, and that it was disappearing. For many years I thought he meant the birchbark, but now i realize he was speaking of a way of life, where raw things were refined by hand with the benefit of years of traditional knowledge passed on with story and demonstration, just as he had done that day for us. Birchbark had been transportation, shelter, food storage, and a way to preserve the sparse history of each family.

In the souvenir store I had thought the black gridlines on the toy canoes were just a pattern, an ornament, something optional. But that afternoon, Bill Hafeman taught us that those lines were a critical part of the process of making the canoe…without those pine pitch lines, the canoe would leak, and be useless, or worse, dangerous.

I’ve been back and forth to Weiss College at Rice University this past week. To observe and photograph the surfaces of the dormitory. Marcel was good enough to come along and teach me a bit more about digital photography, perspective correction, and exposures for deeply shaded spaces. Early in the week I’d scouted the complex with my point and shoot camera, seeing the curious treatment of mortar joints, the staggered window pattern, distinctive projection of the window head flashing beyond the windows and the exposure of certain supporting lintels.

Instinctively I believed there was something to all this. The surface was too carefully worked to just be a pragmatic solution. Certain things were changed, made more visible than usual. These were all necessary things to be sure. The lintels were needed to support the brick between columns and above windows, flashing needed to protect the lintels, control joints needed to prevent cracking and associated water intrusion…but until just now, I didn’t realize I was looking at the canoe. The raised prow at the front and back decorative but has a role in wave breaking, and gives the Northwoods canoe its distinctive figure. The canoe builder’s knowledge of surroundings, knowing where the large birch trees are, becomes visually apparent looking at the canoe. One with few pitch lines used large bark, one with many used the bark from small birch trees, and more joints means…more leaks down the road…

Somehow I’m trying to think of people in all this, because in many ways, we are the objects we make….or the things we make-make us…I think Churchill said that. “We form our spaces and thereafter they form us” or something. So what is our ornament? Is it just a necklace or a watch? Is it part of us or something we can take off or put on without it changing us? What other outward visually apparent signs of our knowledge (or lack of) do we carry?

I wonder about this because I’ve carried a mark of my carelessness around this week, prominently displayed on my nose!

Last Sunday I was working in my garage/shop/storage space and had stood some square edged (now I know why they “ease” or radius the edges) oak boards that I was going to make into sculpture bases. I was kneeling down, plugging the saw into my improvised electrical center and tugged a cord…that ran under some plywood…that had some pine leaned against it…that was next to the oak…that had the square edge.

Can you see the outcome? I tugged the cord, it shifted the plywood, but my focus was on the cord and on not getting my fingers across the terminals of the receptacle (hey i know THAT much about electricity!) i heard the pine shift but it was a ways away from me so I didn’t look but then (suddenly) i heard the oak next to me (a distinctive oaky sound) and looked up just in time to see the board inches from my face. I closed my eyes, turned my head, but still got smacked with the oak, its square edge neatly scraping most of the skin from the tip of my nose. I was unahppy with the oak, but holding my nose and after some first aid and a nap (don’t work with power tools when you’re tired or grumpy!) went back, cleaned up the fallen cascade of wood, and finished the project…but now a week later, the nose is healing but not pretty. So I mostly hide out here at home, sitting and typing about ornament, birchbark, and meaningful figures and patterns….

The moral of the story…he who has not arranged things neatly (in life) is likely to suffer injury at the hand of his improvisations.

or something

Take Care, be well, watch out for falling oak!