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

20: "...You can never go home again..."

And he never had the sense of home so much as when he felt that he was going there. It was only when he got there that his homelessness began.” 

Thomas Wolfe, You Can Never Go Home Again

“The only journey is the one within.” 
― Rainer Maria Rilke

I lived across the street from the Gothic architecture of Princeton University, which was very beautiful & serene but I also needed my gritty urban fix to create enough of an opposing force out of which to create. The train station was a short walk down the street from our apartment and I would try to visit New York once a week, spending a full day in the SoHo and Village art galleries.  I would always end my day at Pearl Paint in Chinatown and savor every minute while there, studying the organized chaos of new stock items, breathing in the turpentine, and talking to the employees who were always some brand of artist.  I still miss the informative social interaction that kind of store provided, which was so much more gratifying than the gallery scene.  

Pearl Paint on Canal in Chinatown around 1985 NYC.

Pearl Paint on Canal in Chinatown around 1985 NYC.

I walked everywhere in NYC and felt at home there as much as I did in the woods of Princeton.  But I think I loved the train ride between the two destinations the most.  It was always dark when I headed home, just like in Chicago times, and my legs & feet were tired.  I saw & learned so much in one day. The amount of visual stimulation in NYC was always overwhelming and I would jot down my reflections in my sketchbook-journal on the way home.   Everything seemed possible when I was moving, and I always equated train rides with hopefulness and freedom.  I must have realized (didn’t I?) that those feelings were an illusion, that train rides were more of an escape from reality — the reality that no one really cared about art but the artist who made it. I always had a mini-emotional let-down the day after these trips because it was always clear to me that there was so much good work hanging in unpeopled rooms, unnoticed, unappreciated, and unloved. Why did the world need another artist?

But then I would get back into my studio the next day, with my new brush or tube of paint, and focus in on the pieces I had to finish and the new ones I had to start.

The Princeton “Dinky” around 1985.

The Princeton “Dinky” around 1985.

On October 29th, 1985, after 17 months of living in Princeton, I went back to Chicago to exhibit my mixed media figures.  Concurrent with this show was a 6-week "workation" as a resident artist at Ragdale Foundation in Lake Forest, Illinois — 30 miles north  of Chicago. Michael & I loaded up a roomy & reliable one-way rental car with my carefully packed works, art supplies, and clothing, and drove for 2 days to Chicago.  When we unloaded my work at the gallery, I felt like a visitor rather than a returning native.  I missed Michael already as I left him at the airport for his flight back to Princeton.  I returned the rental car and hopped on a train to Lake Forest.  Through the window I watched the city buildings quickly metamorphose into trees.  My new surroundings looked more like Princeton than Chicago and I walked the short distance from the train stop to Ragdale, eager to meet my fellow residents and share my first dinner with them.

This was to be my home for the next 6 weeks.

Portal to the Ragdale grounds

Portal to the Ragdale grounds

Ragdale was such a gift at the right time in my life.   It provided a beautiful setting of woods and autumn foliage for my self-imposed limbo.  After drawing all day in the studio, I would leave the grounds in the late afternoon for a quotidian walk to Lake Michigan.  It occurred to me that my life was not all that different than the Princeton one that I had temporarily left behind.  The primary difference was that I did not feel as solitary because almost everyone at Ragdale was an artist — even many of the staff and maintenance people. This collective connection was comforting to live around.   We shared an enormous respect for each other’s needs of time & space.  At night we all came together to sit at a very long dining table for supper and conversation.  We talked  about everything —  except our work.  Often it was the only time I spoke to anyone for over 12 hours.  It was a true break from our inner demons and we laughed easily. After dinner many of us would go back to our private studios for a few hours and then meet back around the fireplace to listen to readings by the resident writers of their works in progress before going to bed. 

Ragdale quarters.

Ragdale quarters.

Several of the residents came to my Chicago show which opened a couple weeks after I arrived in Ragdale.  The reception was very festive and my co-exhibitor, Alex, & I were elated to have such a large crowd and enthusiastic response to our work.

Night of the Chicago opening November1985.

Night of the Chicago opening November1985.

( Below are some of my works included in this show: Barabbas, Vesta, Cornstalker, and StarGazer. .  

Of course, there was the late night train ride back to Lake Forest, and then the letdown the morning after the show.  I learned that if a body of work that took several years to create gets you a party and an audience for 3 hours, then that may be as good as it gets in terms of recognition.  I was back in my studio the next morning, facing lots of virgin white paper tacked onto the walls.

I am grateful to Ragdale and the people I met there.  This particular residency provided me with the security of belonging to a community which I thought I needed at that time, to tacitly affirm that I was real.  When I moved away from Chicago, I had not been confident that I could create totally on my own, every day, away from a particular locale, and away from other artists.  I had not realized that I had already developed beyond that fear.  Ironically, going to Ragdale brought me farther away from Chicago and closer to Princeton and other towns I would live in subsequently. Everything I needed was within all the layers of myself — not in a geographical location. 

I had been making a life as an artist all my life.  That is what I realized at Ragdale.  

In The Wake Of Clouds    ©1985-6 LSAuth. oil/linen

In The Wake Of Clouds ©1985-6 LSAuth. oil/linen




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.  

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.

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.