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.

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. 

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

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.


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.