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.

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.

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.