My Chronicle as an Artist

We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.

T.S. Eliot

16: Princeton

Out the door in ’84 was our moving slogan to get motivated to clean out 7 years of accumulated stuff in our spacious apartment.   Michael received the call from Princeton University to be on their faculty in the coming fall term. Knowing that our next apartment would be much smaller, the necessity of downsizing was mandatory.  The flurry of activity helped me to bury the aching feeling of loss over leaving Chicago — emotions I knew I would have to deal with later.

We embraced our dear landlord-owners, Roger & Dorothy, who had lived below us on the 1st floor, and knew we would probably never see them again.  They waved us off in our loaded up ’74 AMC Matador, recently purchased from a car garage mechanic for the sum of several hundred dollars, and we drove the 800 miles to a new beginning.

Exodus

The drive back East felt more like driving back in time to my Virginia girlhood.  It was May and all the trees were in their full springtime glory. The Midwest endless & changeable sky sunk below softly rolling curves of earth.  Gone was the urban, vertical, cityscape which had overwhelmed & scared me 7 years before.  I wasn’t sure I wanted to be back in a place that made me feel like Chicago had only been a dream.   I felt rootless & disconnected. 

Our garret-style apartment on the 3rd floor of a Victorian house was romantically idyllic with its sloping dormers  and 4 large rooms, one of which was my studio.   Tree branches and dappled light were the view from every window, and it felt as if we were living in a tree house.  My work’s imagery would eventually respond  to this environment.  How do I transition from where I thought my work had been?  This was the first time that I was fully conscious of how big an impact a change would have on my creative process.  

Princeton was a small & rather sleepy college town back then, and when you got past the University, you could walk a long time and never see another person.  I started walking at least 5 miles a day, stopping to draw portions of what were becoming my favorite models—the huge, ancient trees.  As a child, I loved to play in the woods and trees were always necessary to any game of strategy or make-believe.  I had forgotten about them in Chicago because there was too much urban newness to absorb.  And to my eye, Lake Michigan & snow eclipsed all other forms of Mother Nature.

I filled my sketchbooks those first 6 months.  As natural and druid-like forms in a historic town, the trees had no competitors.

   Princeton Trees

Princeton Trees

15: Leaving Chicago

The time remaining, 1982 until May of 1984, was productive for me.  I exhibited in several shows and was creating some of my best work, free from the constraints of art school.    I was happy to sell many of my 3-D figures and some paintings as well.  I had even found a terrific buyer for 4 of my very large canvases — an entrepreneur who wanted them for his new restaurant that he was about to open in Chicago.

And then tragedy hit hard.  AIDS.  It became the plague of my generation.  So many colleagues, especially those in the arts, were affected—either by developing the disease themselves, or having loved ones who did.  I lost a beloved cousin and many childhood schoolmates.

The restaurant that was to be home to my large works never opened.  They were rolled up and put in storage.  To this day I think of them as shrouds for those who did not survive to celebrate their business adventure.

I left Chicago with the memory of an image that I had created when I had first arrived there 7 years before as a youth with goals and desires.  My Nocturne in Black & White was now a visual elegy for those who had died —  hope had gone full circle to meet up with sorrow. 

  Nocturne in Black & White    ©LSAuth 1978.

Nocturne in Black & White ©LSAuth 1978.


14: Interiors

So it is now 1982.  I have my master’s degree.  I taught a life drawing class & am now teaching a painting class.  I also have a part-time job working for a dentist pouring plaster models in his lab.  I am painting every day but the days are never long enough.   My beloved studio companions, a parakeet & 4 canaries, are often my models — and when they are, I travel inward, to a quiet but endlessly expansive world.

I kept numerous sketchbooks at this time. I knew that my days remaining in Chicago were probably numbered — Michael was finishing his doctorate and would soon be interviewing for academic positions at universities all over the country. I wanted to document my neighborhood surroundings as much as possible, from inside & outside. I was to have 2 years in this home & studio after leaving art school, and I wanted to take note of every day before saying goodbye to my beloved Chicago.

13: Unglamorous but real...

After moving my work space out of the Institute into my apartment, I managed to complete two 10-foot long paintings by tacking them onto the available wall space in my home studio.  These canvases completed the body of work I created during my first 5 years in Chicago.  These years were the foundation upon which I built my convictions about how to keep learning what I needed to learn—what I needed to keep, what I needed to change or reject, what I needed to seek out.  Besides learning from visual artists, both the living and the dead, it was the poets who gave words to my feelings back then --and now.   

“ and every attempt

Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure

Because one has only learnt to get the better of words

For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which

One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture

Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate

With shabby equipment always deteriorating

In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,

Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer

By strength and submission, has already been discovered

Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope

To emulate—but there is no competition—

There is only the fight to recover what has been lost

And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions

That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.

For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business

Excerpt From: T. S. Eliot. “Collected Poems, 1909-1962.”

As my new work environment changed from an urban & more public space to my more private living space, my vocabulary of images grew to incorporate recognizable objects— wax bird statues on my worktable, rooftops from my studio windows, trees at the end of my street.    I became more aware of particular interior spaces, and specific places & objects in my more local surroundings.  These images became my sources of inspiration for my next body of work.   For practical reasons, my paintings became more moderately sized  ( 4-5 ft as longest dimension).  Here are Anchored Spirits, Portal, Birds of a Feather, and Nests of Waves.

11: Waiting in the Wings (when I was not painting...)

I had large skylights over my studio at the Institute, and I would get downtown early in the morning to take full advantage of the natural light.  Oil paint comes alive under filtered daylight.  Cold winters and darkness were long in Chicago.  When light left my downtown studio, I would pack up to train home.  I still had some time at night to work so I started creating 3 dimensional figures.  I had been collecting tree branches for some time in my apartment and started assembling characters according to what gesture the branches suggested.  I added objects to my figures by carving wood and molding clay.  I would also layer tiny mosaics of painted rice papers to create a vellum-like "fabric" to make structures such as wings.  Many of my first inventions referred to the Greek & Roman myths (still some of my favorite stories).  For the most part, these are detailed and intimate works, created in the quiet nights of my home studio—an interlude before the noisy day started.

Here are Birdman, Hermes (back), Hermes (detail of front head), Daedalus, and Icarus.  These photos are old but my only record of them.  Only Daedalus is still in my possession.

10: ...and Larger.

I had to use the full length of my wall space.  BreakingThrough is roughly 9 feet long and BlueWave is over 10 feet.  

8: Painting

I started my artist life thinking that I wanted to be a printmaker.  This love started as an art history undergraduate, writing a research paper on 2 Picasso etchings, which I just loved( The Frugal Repast & The Dance of Salomé).  My professor suggested that I take the one & only studio class in printmaking (at that time) so that I could more fully understand Picasso’s works from the artist’s point of view.  Her suggestion was life-changing.  From that first studio class on, I dropped the idea of becoming an art historian in order to devote full time to making art.

I loved learning the magical technical processes of revealing and building an image.  As I mentioned previously, printmaking felt so analogous to my tailoring and needlework projects.  But the technical process didn’t sync well with my visual needs, which were still at an incipient stage.  I knew that I needed to start with more open ended chaos and then find my way to a unified ending. For me, it always felt more natural to start a work with an idea which developed intuitively throughout the entire time of its making. In printmaking studios, I felt increasingly frustrated because  my technical skills were more orderly, & more linear, than my rather circuitous creative process.  I envied some of my colleagues who started their etchings or silkscreens with a finished prototype, the color and tonal issues fully worked out, and then went on to complete their editions perfectly, just like their original model.  I tried working like this, more methodically, but most of the time I ended up dissatisfied with the end point.   Too often, I could not arrive at the right balance between technique & finished image.  Although I began my Chicago studies in both printmaking & painting, I gave myself permission to let go of becoming the MasterPrintmaker.

7: Printmaking

Today, when people speak of prints, often they really mean reproductions of original art, in any medium.  But when artists make prints, each one is an original,  no matter how large the edition.  Before I started painting exclusively, I was making a body of work in the printmaking shop. Some of these were woodcuts, linocuts, etchings, & lithographs. I loved each one for its unique properties & process, but my real focus was silkscreen.  Like painting, silkscreen is a layering process of color over color, shape over shape.   At the time, it most suited my way of seeing and building an image.  Initially I made my stencils by cutting numerous marks into tracing paper, but I soon switched to a photographic stencil method—which was still tedious but much more stable and expedient. I learned so much about mark-making and building a surface in printmaking, technical issues that I carried over into my painting.  But after several years, painting stole my time...totally.