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

18: Walking Back

"A man's work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened."

-   Albert Camus

All But the Blue Heron    ©1985 LSAuth.

All But the Blue Heron ©1985 LSAuth.

My Princeton life was somewhat monastic—at least in the first year of 1984. After filing several applications for teaching positions in various local art centers, I set my focus on creating a body of work for an art show which was scheduled to open in Chicago the following year of 1985.   It was to be a show of my 3-D figures.  I had  also received a 6 week artist residency  30 miles north of Chicago which spanned the time of this exhibit.    As I looked forward to these events in the ensuing months, I was acutely aware of how much I missed Chicago.

In the Clearing    ©1985 LSAuth.

In the Clearing ©1985 LSAuth.

In the the meantime, nature beckoned outside my studio window.  Princeton had these  dark & lovely, leaf-lined paths through the Institute Woods, and I walked into them almost every day.  This is when I saw my first GreatBlue heron wading in a pond in the clearing, and many songbirds of  which I was to learn the names  over the next few months.  Families of ravens & herds of deer were always indignant over my coming upon their thievery in the fallow corn fields where my woods walk terminated.

Princeton Crows & Corn ©1985 LSAuth.

Princeton Crows & Corn ©1985 LSAuth.

Reluctantly, I had to  turn around and go back home to work.   Often, I would find some treasure that caught my eye lying on the understory:   a fragile  chrysalis,  or  a whitened, sere & delicate, animal bone, or a perfectly gnarled tree branch.   I would take these gifts home with me — models to draw & paint or to incorporate into my figurative assemblages.  Although I was often solitary, I was never lonely.

Keepers of the Corn    ©1985 LSAuth.

Keepers of the Corn ©1985 LSAuth.

16: Princeton

Map of a World    ©1980-1984 LSAuth. Collagraph, collage, acrylic.

Map of a World ©1980-1984 LSAuth. Collagraph, collage, acrylic.

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. 

Princeton Home 1984-87.

Princeton Home 1984-87.

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 this change in location would have on my creative process.  

Princeton was a very self-contained & 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. Against the backdrop of this historic town, the trees had no competitors for my attention. They became my spiritual sages, steadfastly pointing to my past & its relevance to my present. Just by being a rich source of detailed imagery, they helped me find a path to productivity . I began to feel less alienated and ready to build a new body of work.

Princeton Trees

Princeton Trees

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.   

“…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.”

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.

9: Painting...large.

My first paintings were small—often not more than 14"  wide.  I was working in a variety of mediums with prints, drawings, and paintings, so I chose a smaller format as a constant — it was a practical way to create a larger body of work.

When I started to paint exclusively, I moved upstairs to the painting department and had my own 12 foot square studio space.  One of my mentors said "why don’t you scale these up in size — you might not get another chance to paint this large for a long time…"

For the remainder of my time at the Institute, I did just that. The tools of my trade were large brushes, lots of oil paints, and a step stool to stand on.  I built my own stretchers in the wood shop.  I stretched, primed, & gessoed my own canvas.  I learned so much from my colleagues and reading Ralph Mayer’s The Artist’s Handbook (the bible).  I also had to work totally differently— I could no longer sit but had to stand and walk back & forth just to see.  And as my working method changed, my imagery evolved.

 

These, BeverlyRevisited ( 4’ x 6’), and Firefly ( 90" square) were a couple of my first smaller, large  canvases. 

8: Painting

I started my artist life thinking that I wanted to be a printmaker.  This idea took root 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.

6: Patterns

It took about 2 years for Chicago to feel like home.  In this period of time I produced many small works on paper as paintings, drawings, and silkscreens.  My technical approach of layered & obsessively thin lines with small brushes and delicate tools matched the hermetic introspection I was experiencing as a newcomer.  But now my new world was expanding and I instinctively needed a larger scale and different approach.   I started cutting out paper images of fish, birds, and other natural objects, and interwove them with bits of sewing notions such as ribbons, hooks, pins etc.  I also dyed my own transparent rice papers to cut up and collage with these other objects.  These resulting works, some examples shown here from the CutOutSeries, were an important growth spurt, pushing me to try bigger brushes & larger fields of canvas,  and  oils—for the first time. 

5: Threads

I knew I wanted to create a body of work which was essentially about landscape. The pieces here are from a series called  "The Lake is Not the Ocean".   As I worked,  I imagined flying over all the places I had loved and tracked my movement with a vocabulary of marks--wavy & straight lines, verticals & horizontals, dots & dashes.  I used a paintbrush like a pencil, and the works were small & intricate.  Chicago & Virginia melded together into unique places.  Looking back on these & other works like them from this time period, I realize that my technical approach was not unlike the sewing & needlework projects  of my teen years.

3: Chicago...

The immense and vibrant city of Chicago and the close-knit, secluded life of art school were the two poles of my world for the next 7 years.  Each had an immeasurable influence on my work.  My map drawings, like those shown in the previous post, developed from colored pencil & conte materials into oil paintings.  I thought of these as internal travel logs and I developed a personal vocabulary of mark making which became a legend for all the landscape maps I was to create for the next body of work.  The natural landscape that I left behind on the East coast combined with the architectural footprints of my new city life.  

2: Preparing for art school...

After leaving university I set off for Chicago, with a conviction that I wanted to study art. How I would enter a great institution and with what means, was still rather vague.  I worked odd jobs and, for the first time in my life, rode trains every day.  My point of view changed. From the elevated train windows I was starting to see the world from an oblique angle often looking down — a bird’s-eye view. When the trains went underground I became acutely aware of the difference between blackness and night. When we shot out of the subterranean tunnels, the night sky was luminous.

Over the next 2 years, I created a portfolio of works on paper to submit for graduate school admission.  These works started in black and white and evolved into color. I assuaged my homesickness for the Virginian Blue Ridge by intertwining the soft, graceful curves of their hills with the pulsating dots of city lights and the lines of the Midwest plains.