Them Bones

How long was she supposed to wait? How long was long enough to know that she’d been cured of her phobia of death?

He could wait all day. He could wait forever, in fact. Well, forever meaning until his bones finally crumbled apart, became just calcium and not bones, in the way that boulders became pebbles over time. It all decays, after all – all that is physical – and that was exactly why she was here for this treatment.

Mary Frances’ fear of death was pervasive. She wasn’t simply afraid of her own death or of the deaths of her parents or spouse. She was afraid of all death, of all change. Any evidence of time passing rendered her inert, full-stop. She no longer could go to doctor’s appointments downtown because of all the change happening there. Too many new apartments! Too many new parking garages! All of her landmarks were gone, well, all save for the Krispy Kreme and Sitar, the Indian buffet. They thankfully never changed and still had actual parking lots right next to their buildings. She wondered how long it would be before some developer snatched them away.

Even the season’s change through her for a loop. She dressed for the weather she wanted and not what was forecast. Her friends were always listening to her complaints about how hot or cold it was, and their efforts to get her to dress more appropriately fell on deaf ears.

Her friend Theresa heard about a new treatment for people who were afraid of change. It was based on something that young Buddhist monks had to undergo as part of their novitiate. They had to spend several days with a corpse to learn non-attachment. She talked Mary Frances into the program by saying it was a fashion show. She was told she’d take all off her clothes and be measured as precisely as possible, and then bespoke clothes would be produced for her. Everything would finally fit perfectly for a change. This sound like a grand idea even though it involved an alteration of her rigid routine. Even though going to this appointment was a change, in the end it would mean no more change – no more having to go to the shop to buy clothes, then to the tailor to have them altered…it was a great trade-off.

But things hadn’t ended up as she had planned. She was welcomed into the office, with its stiff high-back old-fashioned sofa. Mary Frances finally identified it as a camelback and not a Chesterfield as she had first suspected. It was a bit drab but serviceable. She noted that the window was high over her head, like at the gynecologist’s office.

After she removed her clothes in the attached bathroom, she was instructed to return to the room with the sofa. She was disconcerted to notice that there was then someone else in the room – or at least the remains of someone else. By the time she recovered herself the door had been locked. She was stuck with the skeleton. She beat upon the door with her fists but to no avail. All the therapist would say was “It is for your own good”. Over and over she repeated this, regardless of the question from Mary Frances.

After an hour of pacing the room, Mary Frances needed to sit. However, the only option was that couch. There was no way she was sitting with a skeleton! And propriety also demanded she not sit on fabric while naked. That just wasn’t hygienic, and certainly not ladylike. It was two hours later when she finally sat, after a small tray of food was pushed through a low slot in the door. She’d not noticed that before. Why would she? She hadn’t suspected she’d be trapped here.

The therapist made sure she wanted for nothing. The temperature was a pleasant 74° and there was a half-bath attached to the room. Mary Frances considered hiding out in there initially but thought twice about that idea. The room was cold with its porcelain tile and really just too small for staying in very long.

She finally decided to sit on the sofa anyway. If they didn’t care enough about her to provide her with an alternative, they deserved what they got. But there was still the matter of the skeleton.

Something shifted in her after she finally got settled. The skeleton started to look less intimidating. Her years of making art became the way out of her fear. She started to observe the skeleton, not as a reminder of death but as a sculpture, a collection of lines and shadows. She started to look at it – really look at it – and see how beautiful it was. She became an observer, no longer possessed by her fears, but now able to be objective and present.

When the therapist finally opened the door she found her client contentedly gazing at the skeleton, instead of recoiled, huddling in the corner. The treatment was a success.

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Time to make art?

People sometimes ask how long a piece I made took. This usually is in reference to beaded jewelry, but I soon expect it to happen for my collages. I’ve not been creating in that manner as long, and I’ve not started to try to seriously sell them, so I’ve not had this happen yet.
Why does it matter how long something took to make? Does that devalue it if it didn’t take the artist very long? Does it mean that it should cost more if it took more time?
How long does it really take? When do you start the clock? When you first had the idea? When you bought the materials? When you started putting paint or ephemera onto the canvas? Or does it start before that – with classes and study, learning how to use the materials?
There have been plenty of times when I’ve realized that the only way I could have learned how to make the piece I just did was to have made the twenty other ones that the potential customer does not see. Sure, this one took two days to make. But in reality, it took two years of trial and error to learn how to do this in two days.
If a necklace took twenty minutes to make, does that mean that it shouldn’t cost $45, because you only make $15 an hour? What if the same customer would spend $30 on a meal that took ten minutes to cook?
Food is a good analogy – the raw ingredients have to be raised or grown or processed (chicken, asparagus, pasta). All of these things take time and skill – before you even get to cook them into a meal. Learning how to cook takes time and a lot of practice.
Making art is the same. The materials used have to be created and / or purchased. The expense (time and money) involved in just the materials alone must be considered, as well as the time it took to learn how to prepare it.
Perhaps artists should start saying the real time it took, starting with when they first had the idea for that piece or bought the first supply that was used. or when they first learned a technique they used in that piece. In some cases, that would be 20 years for me.

Hidden messages

Hidden messages 031116

The base of how to do this was inspired by Nick Bantock in his book “The Trickster’s Hat.” My library system did not own this so I used the “suggest a book” feature and they ordered it as an e-book for me. I read it on my device and enjoyed being able to copy the exercises I was interested in trying onto a Note so that I could save them for later. This particular exercise involved tearing out color images from magazines (I used a travel magazine from AAA) and gluing them down. Bantock recommended using only blue and green (with no yellow-green), and then using blue paint to cover up the torn edges. I did this, but wasn’t happy with it after looking at it for a few days. I dabbed titanium white mixed with glazing medium to it to soften it. I like how it looks like fingerprints, because I usually use my fingers when painting, but not this time.

The “filler” paint used was a mix of acrylic – light blue, permanent green, phthalocyanine blue, and white. It was just too bold to blend in with the existing images, but the color mix was excellent so I’ve used it in two other projects I’m working on. I learned in a project from about a year ago that I get excellent and random results from putting the paint blobs on my palette right next to each other but not blending them. I dab the brush between them, picking up random mixes of color. I also enjoy doing this with a brush that is a little beat up, with some bristles missing. This produces unexpected shapes in the painting, depending on the angle I hold the brush.

(detail)
Hidden messages detail

I then added words from Tim Holtz’ “Idea-ology” line along with and paper pieces I created. They are from a previous experiment, using card stock, Distress stains (vintage photo, peeled paint, mermaid lagoon, cracked pistachio) that were then sprinkled with water from a free toothbrush from my dentist. I added gold paint mixed with glazing medium. Once dry, I cut up the art into strips. None of that was intended for this project – I was learning how the stains worked (not like I thought or hoped) and I’d needed gold paint for another project and had some left over and didn’t want to waste it. I picked the best card stock test and added the gold to it.

Projects are not linear. One influences another. Sometimes to complete one, you have to stop it and learn (or discover) an entirely different technique on a separate project. What seems hopeless or at a dead end often just needs to sit aside for a while and be looked at again later with new eyes. Keep working. Keep experimenting. Also, art materials don’t have to be expensive. You can be a “starving artist”, but still be a good one. In fact, a little difficulty/disability/oppression/resistance helps with making art. Contented people don’t make art, because they are happy with things the way they are. Artists show how things can be, but they often have to do that from a place where things aren’t great.

Created 3/7 through 3/11 2016 Base is a Strathmore Visual Journal.

On modern conceptual art.

I read a post on an artist group page that wondered what was wrong with modern conceptual art. The video that was used to spark discussion had a commentator that said that it was all crap, and showed recent examples to prove his point, some of which was in fact fecal matter. No, I’m not being euphemistic. It was actual fecal matter, used as “art” and hanging in a museum. There were other examples that were equally bizarre and unsettling.
What I found most interesting was that the people who commented in defense of the “art” said that at least it provoked a reaction. To them, simply making someone react was proof that the artist had done a good job.
However, the issue is that the reaction isn’t a healthy one, or one that inspires. It is a reaction of confusion (what is the artist trying to say?), or anger (how did this random paint smear get into a museum/get bought for a million dollars?).
Perhaps the reason so many people like modern conceptual art is because it reminds them of their own feelings. It is “misery loves company”. People like things that remind them of who they are. Deep down they must be very lost and confused and broken. Therefore they like art that is also lost and confused and broken. This art is a reflection of a feeling of loss, of anger, of destruction, of violence, of hopelessness. This art tries to show us how meaningless our existence is, how random, how pointless.
Madeline L’Engle, the author of the “Wrinkle in Time” series, said that art should elevate and make us feel better. Art should point the way out of the bad situation. Art should remind us of our inner strength and point us towards hope.
Art that is purely used to express rage and destruction and violence and anger can be useful as a catharsis. It can be a way to get out those feelings rather than letting them bottle up inside. It can tell other people that it is safe to have and express those feelings. But the problem occurs when we get stuck with that kind of art, when we are only shown the darkness of the world or ourselves.
At that point we are idolizing pain. We are making a fetish of our failure. We are saying that loss and destruction is our lot in life and where we must stay.
There must be another way. Art should be a rope ladder rather than a noose. Art should inspire and encourage and enlighten in the truest sense of the word. It should shed light on a dark situation and reach that small part of ourselves that wants healing, that knows how to heal.
Rather than being a passive thing where we expect others to save us or heal us or help us, art should remind us of our own inner healing nature. It should be a map to the center of our being that shows us how to get out of the hole we are in. Art that is only about loss and violence and anger cheats us, because it speaks only to itself and does not point beyond.
Consider this – poetry that is purely descriptive, that details for us what is right now isn’t poetry. It is merely a news story written in verse form. True poetry elevates and points beyond itself and hints to other and greater things. True poetry guides us back to the best parts of ourselves. Likewise, art that only shows the ugly side of life is not art. It is a photograph that happens to use paint or collage.
True poetry, like true art, can speak about the horrors of life, but to make it poetry or art, it has to show us a way out of it. Art and poetry have to be doors that are open. They show us that while we are on one side of the door, there is a way out of it to another place.

Use your words (a meditation on making art)

Parents tell children to “use your words” when they are feeling frustrated. But what if they don’t have words? What if the problem is that the things that they are experiencing are too large for words? It is important to give children as many different ways of expressing themselves as possible. Consider this – studies have proven that babies who are taught sign language before they are able to communicate verbally show a greatly reduced level of frustration.

I think that learning many ways for self expression is the cure for everything. Everyone needs to learn different ways to communicate. Sometimes words fail us.

The arts provide us with many other ways to communicate. Dancing, singing, playing a musical instrument, drawing, painting, knitting, beading – the list is endless. It is only limited by your imagination. Whatever you try is good.

Plenty of people are upset that the public schools are cutting their budgets and eliminating the arts. You don’t need to go to school to make art. In fact, school can’t teach you how to make art. You already know how to do that. Children do it without thinking, and this is the best way. Just have fun playing and you are on your way.

Not having a lot of money is also not an excuse. Crayons and paper are cheap. You can find used musical instruments at a thrift store. You can even create your own tools to create with.

I used to write a lot before my parents died. After they passed, writing was too much for me. Every time I tried, too much would come out and it would get tangled up. My feelings were too big to be expressed with words. Thankfully, I had beads as a form of self-expression at the time. I would string together beads like I had strung together words. They had rhythm and feeling. There was an internal logic to them. Did others know what I was saying? Not always. But that isn’t always necessary. In that instance, it wasn’t important that I communicate an idea to others. It was essential that I got those feelings through and then out of me.

These days I work on visual arts such as painting and collage as well. I find I can process deep emotions this way, handling them in a safe and healing way. Some things that come up while I’m making art were so buried that I didn’t even know they were there. I’m grateful for my practice of making art as a form of self-healing.

Art doesn’t have to be “good” to be useful. It can be more abstract than representational and still do the job. Nobody else has to even see it. In fact, not thinking about an audience usually means that you’ll do more and better work because you aren’t trying to edit it to make it “safe”.

If you want to use images and you aren’t good at drawing (yet), you can cut out pictures from magazines. Don’t have any? Ask your friends – someone has a few that they would normally throw away. Not good at mixing paint? Buy art paper with pretty designs and cut it up and glue it on. Consider having an art-supply swap meet, where everybody brings materials that they are tired of and switches out. You’ll find new ways to express yourself with new supplies.

Remember that anything you want to do well takes time and practice. Nobody is a Rembrandt overnight. Have patience with yourself, but most of all – play.

Layered art experiment (part one and two)

I decided that I wanted to try to make art like Nick Bantock does. I still don’t have image transfer down, so I’m using several of his other techniques in the meantime. You can learn a lot about collage and layering art from many other sources, but Mr. Bantock has two different books that will give you an insider’s look into his personal process. They are “Urgent 2nd Class: Creating Curious Collage, Dubious Documents, and Other Art from Ephemera” and “The Trickster’s Hat: A Mischievous Apprenticeship in Creativity”.

Here is the first bit, which actually has two layers – paint and ephemera such as foreign money, stamps, and maps.

A1

Closeup of top left
a2

Top right
a3

Bottom right
a4

Bottom left
a5

Middle
a6

It took two days to get to this point. Then it took a few more days of looking at it to start painting over the areas that still needed work. I wanted to darken it at first, but then I decided to work with the colors I had. I mixed together copper and olive paint with some watered down white and got a mix kind of like camouflage and worn American dollars. I started to apply it and then added more of yellow and black to adjust it. It wasn’t the colors I’d used at all, but it was a nice alternative than just painting black.

This is what I got.
b1

When doing the cropping of the photo I decided to enhance the colors a bit digitally to see if I can show what they really look like in person. This is a little much, so you’ll have to kind of imagine that it is a little less than this, and a little more than the previous.

b1b

The idea of continuing to work on it is to make it all good. There are always areas that are better than others when you work on a collage or painting. Keep those, and add to the areas that aren’t so good. Keep editing until it is perfect.

I’m not enjoying this process as much as I’ve been enjoying the art journaling. That is faster, certainly, but it also seems to produce strong emotions and memories while I work. That in itself is the reason to do it. This is not producing many feelings, other than a desire to stop working on it to preserve it as is.

I’m learning that I feel very attached to the layers as I make them. I’ve not wanted to paint over any of it, even the so-so parts, because I don’t want to lose anything. This is the mindset that makes some people keep old things stored away in their basement with the idea that “one day” they will need it. I’m trying to work with and around that, so that is why I decided to take pictures as I work on this.

Here are the detail photos from the second set. There are two to four layers in each photo.

Top left
b2

Top left (enhanced)
b2b

Top right
b3

Top right (enhanced)
b3b

Center left
b4

Center middle
b5

Center right
b6

Bottom left
b7

Bottom center
b8

Bottom right
b9

I’ll add further pictures in a separate post as this progresses.

—-Materials used (so far)—–
Stretched canvas
gesso
Acrylic paint
tissue paper (some with Distress Ink on the underside)
matte medium
stamps
Asian map
photocopies of foreign money
“crushed glass” glitter

tools – fingers, paintbrush, sponge brush, tissue paper

Poem – What gets you up?

What gets you up?
You have to have a reason
for getting up in the morning
and for making it
through the day.

Children? Work? Art?

What brings you joy? Do that.
What does the world need? Do that.

Can you get paid for it? Even better.

But even if you can’t,
do it anyway,
because it will feed your soul
and that kind of nourishment
can’t be bought
in a store.

There is no nutritional supplement
for a soul deficiency,
like there is for scurvy.

Rumi says: “Let yourself be silently drawn by the strange pull of what you really love. It will not lead you astray.”

Buechner says: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”