Photo Credit: Ben Carsley
However, I think it's safe to say we build because it is certainly one of the things humans do best. In fact, I would go so far to say that human beings are today and always have been a "maker culture." So it is curious to me that it takes a somewhat eccentric, and obscure little music and arts festival to draw attention to our very own nature. But, isn't that after all part of the purpose of great art, to call our minds and hearts to reflection about who we are, how we live and what we can become and how we can possibly be? For me, great art opens one's eyes more and increases our perspective. It evokes wonder, makes us laugh, catch our breath, and become present to the moment of discovery and experience. No, I didn't attend Burning Man on the New Mexican playa, but I did have the privilege and good fortune of having much of the experience come to DC to share just some of its extravagant wonder and exuberance. I encourage you to experience it as well!
This exhibit is on display now at the Smithsonian's Renwick Gallery until November 18th, 2018.
Once you have been bitten by a book worm, there is no cure. You are forever addicted to The Book, that container of the written word and window to Other Worlds. At the risk of sounding trite though, I really only like books with lots of pictures, particularly hand drawn or etched pictures. My apologies to my photographer colleagues. My true favorites are books about the natural world. I love out of date natural history. In fact, the older and more inaccurate a book is, especially if highly illustrated, the more I love it. I am particularly fond of illustrations where it is clear that the artist did not see the specimen first hand, in other words the picture is by a guy, who knew a guy who saw the animal Or the artist did not have the opportunity to see the animal very well or very long; as in the case of Albrecht Durer's ill-fated, re-gifted, Rhinoceros.
(for more on that story visit https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/D%C3%BCrer%27s_Rhinoceros)
However, there are those books that are simply beautiful. And as a devotee of botanical art, it is difficult to beat botanical guides! Last week I attended a tour of the Rare Book Collection at the Smithsonian's Natural History Museum in Washington, DC. I visited this collection with my colleagues in the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators. During this visit I learned a great deal about the construction and history of the book and of printing. Much of what I learned summarized in the photo below from my sketchbook. It was a day of superlatives:
The Oldest Book: P.A. Mattioli's Senensis Medici, from 1529 with amazing woodcuts
The Most Exciting Brush with Greatness: A tie between Maria Sibylla Meriam's (one of the great illustrators and first woman) Metamorphosis insectorum surinamensium dated 1647 and Pierre Paul Redoute's Jardin de la Malmaisson dated 1803.
Most Interesting: J.J. Rousseau (of French Philosophy fame) La Botanique, 1805
Most Beautiful: Mrs. E Bury’s Selection of Plants from the late 19th century.
Picasso's Boy and Dog, 1905
Potentiality is defined as the state or quality of possessing latent power or capacity capable of coming into being or action. It can be a thing in which this is embodied, particularly in the field of physics. Whereas potential is defined as that which is possible as opposed to actual. It might be splitting hairs grammatically, and although the two words are basically synonyms, I believe there is an important distinction from the point of view of an educator. As an educator, it is part of my job to see and draw out the potential in students. And to help them see it themselves. Potentiality on the other hand seems to imply a kind of belief in possibilities from within. That belief can come from within the person themselves or can be projected upon a person or object.
I began to think about potentiality and potential as I spent the past few weeks in the world of middle school and elementary art summer camps. The skill building with regards to the visual arts focuses on the fundamentals of the elements and principles of art coupled with developing motor skills and building student self-confidence with these age groups.
One of the defining artists of the 20th century, Pablo Picasso, was quoted as saying, " Every child is an artist, the problem is how to remain an artist as we grow up." For Picasso, all children naturally act as artists and see themselves potentially as artists. Alas, my recent experience making art with children tells me this is not necessarily true. Often children from a very young age explicitly define themselves and their interests. This is evidenced by the simply answer to that oft asked question, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" Most children readily offer an answer and despite being wholly engaged and enthusiastic in the arts, seldom is the answer, "An Artist." What I believe Is true however, is that children more naturally and with greater ease use the visual arts to express their ideas, dreams, and feelings than we do as adults. What I think is unfortunate is that this activity of expression in our endlessly labeling society has become exclusively the realm of The Artist as adults, instead of simply another tool of communication and contemplation, a way of interacting more deeply with the world around us. In this view, art becomes the conduit of potentiality both within ourselves and within our world. We see more deeply and anew. This is not art for art's sake, but art of our own sake, for everyone's sake. For when we see more deeply and the world anew we are connected, engaged and alive, as children are everyday. The artistic work is the product of the artist, but the artistic journey, which may or may not yield a tangible product, is available to all.
When one focuses on the potential of things around us, especially in the act of making then the everyday can become the unexpected and even the extraordinary. The world of elementary school art offers many examples of this. As a substitute teacher, I had the benefit of working from the syllabus of a professional elementary school art educator. Daily I was amazed at how someone saw the potentiality within coffee filters to be jelly fish, and paper bags to be puffer fish. Too often as adults we are limited by our expectations of ourselves and limited perspective of what surrounds us. In construction paper, children see robots. In stained paper bowls, a coral reef. Perhaps, that is what lies at the heart of Picasso's hope. That we keep the open eyes and heart of the child and simply create.
Up to now this summer, I have offered various more traditional creative prompts by sharing my journey in field sketching, line art and printmaking. This week it is my suggested challenge to you to make the everyday unexpected, maybe even extraordinary. You make the choice of object, and media, just create.
This week I spent my class time working on a final sketch of what my block would be, transferring it to the block, and carving away the area of the block that in the final work would remain the background color. This is where the true meaning of a "reduction print" became clear to me. I am literally "reducing" the block by carving away material each time I add a different colored area. The finality of this seemed a bit daunting. And although I have always heard and thought I understood the term "limited edition," I am not sure that I ever confronted the reality that it is not limited by a choice to make no more, but by the very nature of the process: there can be no more. I made six background prints. That is all there are going to be in the end, at the most, assuming all goes well.
For details about process and specific materials, see my Works in Progress page on this site.
I'm finding it a bit hard to work with the reality of a limited edition because I love to experiment and reinterpret different images in various color ways, compositions, orientations, and even techniques and media. The good part of this is that it forces me to deeply consider my options a head of time and then commit. A different way of working for me, but always good to work on new skills. All this being said, I was thrilled when my teacher said that we needed to also begin a relief print project. This is to insure that there is always something to do basically during the extended drying time of the oil based inks (up to a week!). So below you can see the sketches of a project I was considering for a linoleum block project. The kingfisher, with its barred patterns and strong crown and beak, I thought made an excellent subject. I have worked with this subject in a different composition in silk painting so I am hoping that experience will inform this one.
Lastly, you might recognize the herons from the coloring book project. I believe I will be making them into a relief print as well. However, I will be experimenting with the composition in order to create interesting negative spaces within a symmetrical composition. I find it a fun challenge since symmetry can be static and boring. My hope is to find a way to enhance movement through line and the negative spaces, yet maintain a symmetrical composition.
“When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Perhaps to be too practical is madness. To surrender dreams — this may be madness. Too much sanity may be madness — and maddest of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be!”
I have always been fond of this quote from Cervantes' Don Quixote. It reminds me that life is about balance and that dreaming is a necessity in that balance. As an educator and working artist, it is easy for me to slip into bad habits all in the name of efficiency and lose my balance. The loss of balance always means to lose time creating. I find myself kidding myself that I can "make time." Rushing from activity to obligation, thinking that the more boxes I check and the faster I check them that I will somehow "buy" myself more time in the studio. Growing fatigued in body and spirit are always the telltale signs that I need to slow down and be more present to my work and life in general. In my efforts to hit the reset button, I often find the structure of a class helpful. Thanks to a generous grant from my employer, I was able to reset myself creatively this summer by taking a class in woodblock printing at the Torpedo Factory in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia.
My fascination with printmaking began about three years ago after seeing some amazing works of Japanese wood block in exhibits for artists' books at both the Freer Gallery and the National Arboretum in DC. I begin exploring this new medium by reading old books on relief printing that had been gathering dust on the school studio shelves, experimenting with studio leftovers, and watching DIY videos on You Tube. Here is one of the videos that I found particularly interesting and inspirational:
All great resources, but working on your own can only take you so far. Eventually, you need guidance, critique, and creative dialogue. This is just what I have found in my print making class!
Our first project is a reduction block print. Below is the first step, the background. As I understand it we will progressively carve away at the block in order to create our image.
Working in a class with a fellow artists and folks who are completely new to the visual arts has been amazing. All new to the medium and techniques, there is a fun and freedom that is renewing to the spirit. Nothing turns out as I expect it, but that's better, it forces me to think beyond my usual perspectives. A natural lover of realism, my table mate is a devotee of abstractionism. His vision and "go with the flow" attitude helps me see beyond familiar patterns and be more open to experimenting with and celebrating simple elements most especially shape and color.
Stay tuned for updates on my printmaking experiences throughout the summer.
The Death of Seneca by Peter Paul Rubens 1612-1615
This quote is often misattributed to Michelangelo and occasionally to Ralph Waldo Emerson. Even the American illustrator, Norman Rockwell, is sometimes said to have said it first. Interestingly, all of whom were believe to have said it later in their careers. The quote is actually from Seneca's 76th Letter to Lucilius published in 65AD during the last year of the author's life when he was almost 70 years old. When one considers the age of the author in this letter advising a younger man it is a startlingly humble and at the same time, a heartening revelation. Learning is both difficult and wonderful. And the discomfort that comes from learning is less welcome as we age. Yet life's experiences teach us that to stop learning is to stop creating. It is fitting too that this quote is associated with Michelangelo. It is safe to say that he was one of the most influential and significant artists of Western Civilization. He was born in the small town on Caprese near Florence on March 6th, 1475. He was a renown sculptor, painter, and architect in his own day. And had he not had a famous legacy for his works in the fields of the visual arts, he surely would have been remembered as one of the most significant poets of the High Renaissance. Michelangelo created the iconic Pieta at the age of 23, worked as a designer of military fortifications for the city of Florence for whom he also carved The David. Mid-life he painted the Sistine Chapel and designed large portions of the Vatican complex. There are over 800 works of art and over 300 poems attributed to his hand.
Like many artists I find his work an inspiration, but reading his personal letters has had an even more profound impact on my spirit as an artist. Michelangelo's perseverance, and work ethic would shame any Puritan of the early American colonies. Despite experiencing financial success and great fame in his own lifetime, he lived humbly and simply. He avoided society and sought out time and space for contemplation and his creative endeavors both of which for him provided a deep connection to the Divine. His letters reveal a practically mind man of the world, and a romantic dreamer who was intensely interested in spiritual matters. An introvert by nature, he did not reveal his heart easily, but had the joy of several deep friendships that lasted a lifetime. In his letters he was just as likely to describe a sunset, or the nature of the human soul as he believed it to be, as he was to complain about the cost of pigments and slow paying clients.
His dreams, philosophical musings, as well as day to day business frustrations resonant with freshness today despite the passing of the centuries. Just as his work and the strength of spirit and commitment to excellence which shaped those works continues to inspire today. Michelangelo never stopped working, dreaming, wondering, problem solving, or learning. In his example, I find hope on those more difficult days facing my own work in the studio.
Interested in reading more?
Check out Michelangelo Life, Letters, and Poetry translated by George Bull and edited by Peter Porter