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

19: Building Trees

I was fortunate that I had begun the 3-dimensional figures at the end of my time in Chicago.  It was the body of work that was the most creatively stable, that could weather this big disruption of being uprooted. I was excited about developing them further.

Neptune    ©1984 LSAuth

Neptune ©1984 LSAuth

In Princeton, these figures became my largest body of work. Drawing and painting, although always important, were not my main focus in those 3 years. I am not sure why this was so, because my canvases  were so vital in Chicago. But now, in such a different nature-filled landscape, I found it more difficult to paint inventively, and the mixed-media assemblages seemed to come more easily. Creative blocks are inevitable, but always so difficult & frustrating to go through.  When they occur, I have always been able to rescue myself with another medium. My canvases had to wait until I was ready to reconcile them again.  Works in various stages of completion were set aside for what seemed like an interminably long time.

PrincetonSketchbook: In the Corn    ©1984 LSAuth.

PrincetonSketchbook: In the Corn ©1984 LSAuth.

Into the Woods    ©1984-5 LSAuth.

Into the Woods ©1984-5 LSAuth.

Tree branches filled every view from every window dormer in our attic apartment. There was a very large window in our bathroom that dropped down to a roof overhang that looked out to the treetops. In the afterglow of twilight, Michael and I would step out onto this landing and lie back to watch the little brown bats, not that high above us, in a beautiful display of flight & feeding. It was like being caught up in this arabesque of movement between bats & insects against a backdrop of intertwining branches and leaves. To experience this frenzied dance was pure joy. Such moments were my most profound source of creative inspiration.

NightWindow    ©1985 LSAuth.

NightWindow ©1985 LSAuth.

I decided to create my figures in the spirit of all the folklore that I loved and remembered from my youth, from mythology to fairy tales. As I mentioned earlier, our apartment was like a treehouse, and the the woods were part of my daily walk.

It therefore seemed totally natural to build more trees.

Here are some of the first ones from left to right: WellWisher, Giver, and CrownBearer.



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.

17: A Brief Flight to the Present

StarlingNight ©2018 LSAuth. 36” x 48” oil.

StarlingNight ©2018 LSAuth. 36” x 48” oil.

One of the motivations for starting this blog was to go back and organize years of my work so that I could reflect on the themes that have remained constant over time. It also gave me the opportunity to post old work as a visual backdrop for viewers to see how I arrived at my present.  

I think StarlingNight has been in the making all my life. The image of the starling has significance to me on so many levels starting with my childhood.  Even as an 8-year-old, I knew many people detested this flock bird, and my father was no exception.  He loved the cardinals that frequented the feeders he so faithfully filled.  The starlings would swarm in occasionally, chasing the polite & lovely songbirds away.  My brothers were instructed to shoot at "the black devils" with their BB guns. Before they could set their sights I would run outside and scare them away.  

I always thought starlings were beautiful—not really black but magically iridescent, with sprinkles of turquoise, ochre, and alizarin crimson, like holiday cookie decorations.  And in the winter, the markings became white polka dots like heavy snow flakes and distant stars.

WinterStarling    ©2015 LSAuth.

WinterStarling ©2015 LSAuth.

Later at age 20, in a summery 3000 mile drive across the country, I witnessed my first murmuration somewhere in the Midwest.  I was transfixed — I thought I was seeing a tornado, only the darkness lifted off the ground and swarmed in magnetized clouds of swirling designs.  It was as if the sky had become an immense Wooly Willy backdrop and some invisible force was holding the magnetic wand. These formations were in continuous movement which never repeated in design until it floated away out of my field of vision.  It still ranks as one of the most spectacular natural wonders that I have ever experienced.  

When I realized that this is what starlings do,  I felt even more validated for loving them for their beautiful plumage.  Why murmurations occur and how they perform in such seamless perfection is still not precisely understood by scientists.  It remains a mystery. Even when the why of this event is fully known, it will remain magical.

Murmurations    ©2015 LSAuth.

Murmurations ©2015 LSAuth.

In StarlingNight,  the 14 starlings are iconic of my parents, my 11 siblings, and me.   Even as a child I felt very protective of them — of the starlings, as well as my family.  We were like a flock of starlings — noisy, noticeable, & numerous. 

I wanted the landscape setting to be suggestive of the present walk I take almost every evening, even though it is generalized to represent all the tree-lined streets I hold in my memory. Past & present, birds and setting, are interwoven by the network of dabs & strokes of opacity & transparency. This painting was difficult for me to say: You are finished, release me. 

I have often thought that my life can be measured by the number of miles I have walked, especially in the moonlight. I have never ceased to marvel at the everyday natural world and its fragile & sometimes, malevolent, balance. There is so much beauty in the ordinary, and the continuous movement of all living things sweeps me along in the knowledge that I must keep moving & changing also. In the process of living, I often lose hope & inspiration which I need desperately in order to be productive. But then, sometimes, I discover something serendipitously— like seeing that a black starling is full of color & light—or that on a fortuitous, star-filled walk, all my feeling for life can be distilled into one smoky & luminous night.

TransitionStarling    ©2015 LSAuth.

TransitionStarling ©2015 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.

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.  

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. 

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.