Category Archives: Creative Process

“The Seine, Outside Paris” — Frank Boggs

The Seine, Outside Paris by Frank Boggs caught my eye on my first visit to the Hunter Museum about fifteen years ago. Since then, I go see it on most of my visits, and, like an old friend who never fails to charm, I always come away thrilled at its mastery of means and usually vow, with varying degrees of success, to emulate its immediacy in my own artwork.

Frank Boggs--"The Seine, Outside Paris, 15 x 22, Oil on canvas, 1885

Frank Boggs–“The Seine, Outside Paris”, 15 x 22, Oil on canvas, 1885– The Hunter Museum of American Art

When I first discovered this work I knew nothing about the artist but that mattered little. I avoid reading the information card next to a painting when viewing it for the first time, trying instead to let the artwork tell me all it can about itself, or at least as much as I can understand on a first viewing. So what can be deduced from this small canvas?

It was painted in the second half of the 19th century; the subject matter and the style make that clear enough. The relatively small size and the freedom of the brushwork suggests it was almost certainly done plein aire. Earlier in the century the development of paint packaged in tubes combined with the invention of the portable easel (still called a ‘French easel”) freed the artist from working exclusively in the studio. By the 1880’s it was a freedom that many younger artists increasingly relished and a common practice with painters such as Monet and Pissaro. Further suggesting its plein aire origins, this image has been painted on a tan colored ground, which can be seen in the foreground and behind the boats. Working directly on a toned ground, which is allowed to appear in the finished painting, both facilitates the visual cohesion of the image and speeds up the time necessary to capture the subject–not a small consideration when working outdoors with changing light conditions and environmental distractions. My guess is that this painting, almost an oil sketch, was 99% finished on the spot with very minor touches added in the studio. Great care has been taken by the artist to keep its spontaneity intact.

The economy of means and the freedom of technique are supported by a simple and effective composition. The darks are spotted judiciously, which, when combined with the swirl of the steam and clouds form lines, give the whole a vigorous rhythm and energy. Essentially, the darks along the horizon line are crossed by a second ‘line’ of visual energy that begins with the white of the river water on the lower left and moves into the picture plane to the lower clouds behind the boast. These compositional lines cross at the boats, and given the boat’s position in the painting and their dark tonality, make them the focus of the work. But Boggs goes further. By utilizing the swirl of steam and clouds above his primary subject, which he has placed on an unusually low horizon line, he gives the painting additional energy.

Of course I eventually read the information card and made the acquaintance of Frank Myers Boggs. I had not heard of him, but there are many fine artists who are not household names. When I got home an Internet search provided the following:

Frank Myers Boggs was born in Springfield, Ohio, but left Ohio in 1876 for study with Jean-Léon Gérôme at the École des Beaux Arts in Paris. He lived in Paris and New York, residing the last thirty years of his life in Paris. In Paris he won wide recognition for his atmospheric paintings of the ports of France and the quays along the Seine. His works were exhibited frequently in France. Between 1879 and 1916, his work was also shown in the United States, most often at the National Academy of Design, in New York, and at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, in Philadelphia.

Known as a master of plein-air painting, Boggs delighted in capturing the fleeting effects of the constantly changing skies of northern France and southern England. With lush and broad brush strokes, Boggs created rich and spacious paintings, orchestrating a subtle and restrained palette of grays, deep and dusty blues, and earthy tans. Although his palette is more subtle and tonal than that of the French Impressionist Claude Monet, Boggs’ paintings demonstrate clear affinities with the early French Impressionist school. Like his fellow Impressionists, it was the transitory aspects of nature, as well as the documentation of everyday reality, to which Boggs was keenly sensitive.                                                                         –Keny Galleries- Columbus, OH)

So there you have it. The Seine Outside Paris is a small painting made by an American artist not much known today. Yet it contains much of value and, almost like a visual haiku, says much within the confines of its simplicity.

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“The Arrest” — Jack Levine

We are living in a time of increasing friction between law enforcement agencies and the citizens they serve. Violent confrontations between the police and members of minority communities have been recorded by bystanders. The resulting videos have quickly captured a national audience, causing the formation of groups such as ‘Black Lives Matter’ and leading to civil unrest. Though it was painted 32 years ago, Jack Levine’s painting “The Arrest” is more topical than ever.

Levine, who died in 2010 at the age of 95, has been described as a Social Realist, and his paintings, often crowded with satirically characterized figures, display his questioning of traditional authority and his uneasy relationship with contemporary culture. Openly hostile to the abstract styles of art dominant in the second half of the 20th century, Levine hearkened back to satirists such as Honoré Daumier and William Hogarth. “The Arrest”, while somewhat comical and obvious in its subject matter, is actually a tangle of questions about the nature and use of authority—questions that have been evolving with increasing urgency in the years after WWII.

Jack Levine, "The Arrest", 1983

Jack Levine, “The Arrest”, 1983 The Hunter Museum of American Art

This dramatic  painting contains three figures. On the left is an almost featureless white policeman whose powerful grip on the arrested person is both prominent and dominant in its determined act of control. Indeed, it is this figure’s muscular right arm, not his facial expression, that defines him. On the right a more shadowy policeman emerges from the background. He might or might not be African-American, and, though still an agent of the state, he exercises control in a less obvious way. Finally, and most prominently placed, is the faceless, genderless, raceless prisoner—a mysterious “everyperson” caught up in the net of social authority. This prisoner takes up almost half of the picture area and is thrust forward in the picture plane enhancing his or her visual prominence, but despite the compelling placement in the composition, this is a person controlled by powers that literally have grip on him or her. A difficult and emotional moment for anyone, but a bag with bizarrely shaped eye holes conceals the face. It is this bag, this mask covering the reality of feeling, that gives the prisoner a look of wry bemusement, as if saying, “of course this is happening to me, what did you expect?” It is a moment Franz Kafka would understand.

Norman Rockwell-- The Runaway 1958

Norman Rockwell– “The Runaway” 1958

However in mid-century America, not too long before Levine painted “The Arrest”,  such questions about civic authority were restricted to left wing journals and “radical” publications. In 1958 Norman Rockwell painted a magazine illustration called “The Runaway”. It is far removed in its sentiments from “The Arrest”. In Rockwell’s image, the powers of society are responsible and understanding. Likely the man running the diner called his friend the policeman upon seeing the young runaway. The policeman, for his part, is using gentle persuasion to guide the boy into choosing to return home. And finally, the boy clearly accepts and respects the authority of the adults around him. The body language of all the participants is benign and caring. It’s a beautiful world in its innocence and social connectedness. No doubt it was also one that rarely existed outside the longings of the Saturday Evening Post readers, but one that Americans, at least most middle and upper class white Americans, chose to believe.  (For a recent satirical view of Rockwell’s iconic image seeMad Magazine.)

If Levine’s painting presents a different world, perhaps it is because much happened between 1958 and 1983. The Vietnam War alienated many of America’s youth. The “police riot” at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago was televised to a shocked nation as viewers watched Mayor Richard Daley’s political machine use its power to crush political protest. “Don’t trust anyone over 30” became a common refrain even before the Watergate hearings showed that criminal and self-serving behavior ran all  the way to the White House. In many quarters public authority became looked upon as mere social control at the beck and call of a political and financial elite that had little interest in administering evenhanded justice.

Jack Levine-- The Feast of Pure Reason 1937

Jack Levine– “The Feast of Pure Reason” 1937

The country may have been surprised by the events of the 1960’s and 70’s, but they led us as a nation to a perspective on authority that Jack Levine had long held. Certainly his distrust manifested itself early enough. A half century before, in 1937, he painted “The Feast of Pure Reason”, which depicts a policeman, small businessman, and rich capitalist meeting to use their resources to their advantage. Their faces are well fed and complacent. Their selfish empowerment is banal and self-satisfied. Levine, who was born poor and whose first studio was in a slum neighborhood in Boston, had little reason to think that the game wasn’t rigged. In his world the rich and powerful have the law, the police, and the courts to enforce their will.

“The Feast of Pure Reason” tells us much about how we might view “The Arrest.” The police depicted in the painting use force (though by today’s standards it is quite restrained), but they are also rather neutral and detached in the process of doing so. They offer no sympathy and show no outrage. Who are these men? What do they think? What is their stake in this moment? It appears that they are merely agents of control, pure and simple. The three figures–the prisoner in the foreground, the policeman on the left, and the policeman on the right–each recedes further into the background, suggesting that somewhere in the darkness behind them, someone else is in control. Someone for whom this moment is a desired outcome. Someone not unlike the men in “The Feast of Pure Reason”.

But what of the anonymous prisoner? Has this person committed a heinous crime?  Could he or she be a violent criminal that society must lock up for its protection? Or someone much less dangerous, a petty thief perhaps? Or a political prisoner? Is the crime merely being who or what he or she is? We don’t know and the policemen don’t seem to care. They do what they do for the people who tell them to do it. This lack of feeling extends to the behavior of the prisoner. Regardless of the force in the policeman’s grip, the body language of the prisoner is completely neutral, too. There is no struggle. And because the bag masks any facial expression, we don’t see anger or resignation or, for that matter, any emotion. Indeed, the covered face suggests the mask we all wear when facing compelling and controlling authority. To reveal true feelings at such a moment would be to give away the little dignity you still possess.

In Jack Levine’s “The Arrest”, there is force and there is submission. That is all. Right and wrong are not present.

This essay is part of the Thinking About Paintings series.

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“The Circus is in Town” — Edith Cockcroft

Edith Cockcroft- The Circus is in Town-- 1912

Edith Cockcroft, “The Circus is in Town”, 1912 , The Hunter Museum of American Art

Edith Cockcroft, though not well known today, was an established and successful artist in her time. “The Circus is in Town”, part of the Hunter Museum of American Art’s permanent collection, is one of her paintings from 1912, done when she was 31 years old. In it, a circus has come to a small New York town and the locals have turned out to view the parade announcing its arrival. It is, no doubt, a regional circus, a mere shadow of the splendor of Ringling Bros. It’s probably been to this little town on more than one occasion. Still, though all but the youngest townsfolk know what to expect, it’s a bit of a novelty in its way and something to be welcomed. A cursory glance tells us we have a bit of Americana here, a display of the innocent joy of small town living.

Perhaps. But I think more is going on if one looks carefully and is aware of the context.

To begin with, Edith Cockcroft is painting in, what was for the time,  a modern and controversial style. The idea of a turn of the century circus arriving in a small town suggests sentimental nostalgia– a motif beloved by the illustrators of the time. She, however, approaches her subject objectively and with a technique that is rough, spontaneous, and dynamic.

William McGregor Paxton, "Tea Leaves" 1909

William McGregor Paxton, “Tea Leaves” 1909–Metropolitan Museum of Art

Just four years earlier, in 1908, a now famous exhibition by eight artists, later dubbed by critics “The Ashcan School,” had been staged at the Macbeth Gallery in New York. At that time, it was the only gallery in the city that showed contemporary American art. Presented by the artists Robert Henri, John Sloan, George Luks, Edward Shinn, William Glackens, Arthur Davies, Maurice Penderghast, and Ernest Lawson, the show was roundly condemned by critics for its  unacceptable and unpleasant subject matter (streetlife, tenements, etc.) and coarseness of style. Though massive changes in art had already occurred in Europe, most notably in France, the American art schools still clung steadfastly to a narrow academic style that one challenged at one’s peril. The academics set and maintained very conservative standards, and, as the twentieth century began, America was largely an artistic backwater.

The show mounted by the eight artists of the Ashcan School was a direct challenge to this state of affairs. Edith Cockcroft would  have understood and sympathized with their cause. Certainly, the young Ms. Cockcroft possessed artistic sophistication.  Born in 1881 in Brooklyn, NY,  she went to France in 1898, spending the next several years in the art colonies of Pont Aven and Concarneau. While living in Paris, she studied with Henri Matisse and exhibited at the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts and the Salon d’Automme. Returning to the United States her work was exhibited at the National Academy of Design from 1910 to 1915, as well as at the Art Institute of Chicago, the International Art Union, the Salons of America, the Pennsylvania Academy and the Corcoran Gallery. Hardly someone with a narrow or provincial mindset, Edith Cockcroft was an artist who had her finger on the pulse of the avant garde.

So what is she up to in this painting of small town American life.

Cockcroft detail 1

“The Circus is in Town” (Detail)

To my mind, this painting is a sly critique of contemporary American life and culture, somewhat akin to that in Sinclair Lewis’s 1920 novel, Main Street. Her use of such a rough, spontaneous technique would, to the viewer of the time, be a bit like our hearing the Rolling Stones do a cover of “A Bicycle Built for Two”. The paint surface contrasts with the subject in a way that underscores the provincialism of the setting.

And there is further evidence of her intent.

Look at how she uses her palette. All the color is centered on the circus. Cover the lower quarter of the canvas and the remainder goes utterly lifeless and bland. The orange figure on the elephant demands our eye’s attention. More color dances along along behind, but almost no color is given to the houses or the people in the small town. They may be the bedrock of the nation, but they are also empty, static, and drab. Color, movement, and excitement must come from elsewhere.

So is it too much of a stretch to go from there to wondering if the circus just might represent the new young artists and their work? Artists and ideas she knew were coming that would utterly change American art forever. Edith Cockcroft had been to Paris, had met the avant garde, had seen the future. Was she subtly telling the rest of her country that they would soon experience it, too? All of the speculations above are obviously my personal reaction to her painting. We will never know exactly what Edith Cockcroft’s intentions were, but I would like to think that is exactly what she was doing.

Edith Cockcroft spent her entire adult life as an artist, not giving up her career for her husband (very common at the time), though she married and lived in New York City and then in Sloatsburg, New York. Her husband, Charles Weyand, was a stock broker who was ruined by the stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing Depression. It was Edith who then supported them with her pottery, jewelry and fabric designs.

Let us savor that for a moment—an artist supporting a failed stockbroker! For that alone Edith Cockcroft deserves to be remembered.

She died in Ramapo, NY in 1962.

 

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The Art of Bryan Rasmussen

 

Bryan Rasmussen Studio (10)

Bryan Rasmussen in his studio

 See more of Bryan’s art at: Bryan Rasmussen

For interviews with other sculptors see: Turry Lindstrom / Maria Willison

As a sculptor, Bryan works primarily with steel and his studio, designed around the manipulation and fabrication of that metal, has an almost industrial feel. “I’m here most days, all day,” he says, “except for ‘relationship days’ that I spend with my fiancé, Christine. After my morning run I come in, put on some music, crank the volume up, and get to work.” Music is important to Bryan and his tastes are eclectic. He spent a few years after high school in the Chattanooga music scene where he played bass for several punk rock bands as well as being a photographer for various groups.

Growing up in the small north Georgia town of LaFayette, Bryan Rasmussen had one goal, and it wasn’t making sculpture—he didn’t want to work in a factory when he grew up. As a boy he was often drawing and his family, particularly his grandmother, encouraged him. In time he got a camera and became interested in photography. As his interest in that medium grew, he left his bass guitar behind and enrolled at the University of West Georgia as an art major with a specialization in photography. He was the first person in his family to go to college and get a degree and it was there, in the UWG art program that he discovered his artistic path.

“As part of the art program I had to take a sculpture class and I became very involved with the techniques for metal casting. The immediacy of the work appealed to me. In photography I could shoot two or three rolls of film photographing some object, then spend eight hours in the dark room and come away with a pounding headache from the chemicals and maybe a few prints I thought were really good. On top of that, it was the late 1990’s and photography was rapidly going digital. That, too, made it less appealing, since the digital process seemed almost surreal to me as an artist. On the other hand, with sculpture I would spend the day working and feel like I’d made some real progress, say building a mold or finishing a casting I’d done earlier. The physical labor was good; it gave me a sense of satisfaction. My hands would be dirty, maybe I’d have a cut, but there, at the end of the day, was the evidence that I’d done something. I found a reality in sculpture that was missing for me in photography.”

“I like to think of my work as objects of contemplation, that is, when placed in a space, they create a charged area for meditation and contemplation.”

With this early exposure to sculpture, he didn’t abandon photography immediately. Rather, he sought to incorporate a sculptural feel in his photographs and he began cutting up negatives and pasting them back together, forming what amounted to sculptural collages and making prints from the manipulated negative. Eventually a photography professor told him, “you’re not really doing photography any more, you’re trying to make sculpture with photography so why don’t you go do it for real?”

And Bryan did. He began studying with the sculpture professor at UWG, Kevin Shunn and it was an important formative experience. “He allowed his students to follow their ideas in a way that was unconstrained by his own preconceptions. Some teachers try to produce young versions of themselves but he didn’t. In addition, we were always free to explore the more conceptual aspects of sculpture and not just focus on object making. He was a great resource on technical matters, too. Mr. Shunn always seemed to have a lot of knowledge about any medium that you might want to work in.”

Echo maker Steel brass copper

Echo Maker– Steel/brass/copper

In 2005 Bryan received his BFA with a double concentration in photography and sculpture, but rather than go on to graduate school for an MFA, Bryan worked for next two years as a studio assistant to Carrollton, GA sculptor Gordon Chandler. In 2007 Bryan moved to Chattanooga, TN, where he was hired by the internationally recognized sculptor, John Henry (www.johnhenrysculptor.com), as a studio assistant. Bryan spent the next six years doing the hardest work of his life fabricating, delivering, and assembling John Henry’s designs on site.

“It was a really hard job—very intense and physically demanding. We worked in all weathers. Sometimes it was cold but the worst was when it was hot. Remember we don’t do anything to cool metal down, it’s the opposite, what we do, welding and all, just heats it up. You have to get used to burned hands and blisters. Then, after working for eight to ten hours it’s time to go to your studio and do your own work.”

Yet his time with John Henry was not without benefits for the young artist. “I’ll always keep what I learned about construction, engineering, and fabrication. Plus, I made contacts in the art world that would have taken me much longer any other way, and I really had a chance to learn the business side of the process.” A friend, the established sculptor Hank Lautz, advised him to learn everything he could in this area as it would be essential for his professional progress.

John Henry also helped Bryan by giving him a critique of his work. Bryan showed him several of his most recent pieces and John Henry, after looking the body of work over carefully, said that all of it was good, but each piece looked as if it had been made by a different artist. He saw no cohesiveness, no unity of vision. “I could see the links”, said Bryan, “but he couldn’t and it caused me to rethink my approach.”

51 elle se tient Steel

Elle se tient– Steel

“I stripped everything away and asked myself ‘what am I trying to convey through my sculpture?’ I want a sense of contrast and I want the feeling that something is being revealed, that something is coming apart.” His new work became more visually simple and direct. “I thought, what’s the simplest most direct thing there is? For me it’s the line, and to convey a line sculpturally I turned to square tubing. Then I made a cut and had the tube (or line) come apart to reveal the unseen. I added contrast using color both flat and glossy. Having the work stripped down to its very ‘seed’ allows it to grow in any direction and become more complicated and different.” But it is complication that is defined and controlled by the essence of his vision.

Bryan’s early sculpture was never painted. “I believed you needed to let the properties of the metal show and that you could get a sense of color through things like patina and rust, the natural oxidation of the metals.” Seeking additional textures he included such things as beeswax and cotton in his work.

With time and experience he changed his mind about the idea of paint and he now sees it as another tool, something to catch the eye and draw the viewer further into the work. “I don’t let paint overpower the piece—the form is important, indeed, the most important thing. That’s why I don’t put any text on my work, because I feel it then becomes about the text and the sculpture becomes just a sort of canvas. I want the form of the sculpture to be the most important thing.

Bryan’s use of color is carefully measured to get the necessary visual impact with an economy of means that harmonizes with his elemental shapes. He uses complementary colors but seeks subtly in their use, for instance employing near complements such as a rusty orange with a powder blue. “Complementary colors, if they are balanced right and lit correctly, are going to vibrate and catch the eye.” In seeking interesting color harmonies, Bryan utilizes everything from a close observation of nature to seeking out the color combinations seen in fashion magazines. His metal working studio must be one of very few that has back issues of Vogue magazine lying around.

Bryan’s approach to developing all aspects of his art is a methodical one. He keeps carefully written journals of his thoughts on art and sketchbooks of future projects. “I like to write about things, collect ideas, and even gather natural things like seed pods or the vertebrae of small animals that can inform my thinking. It’s very important to the evolution of my work.”

Bryan Rasmussen Studio (23)

Notebook, sketchbook, and reference materials

That evolution now includes works in both large and small formats, though larger formats are a newer and less comfortable thing for him. In the past his use of such materials as beeswax and cotton precluded outdoor display. “I think of my work as objects of contemplation and for that they don’t have to be big. I find that sometimes with bigger pieces the size is more impressive than the concept. Of course you get more recognition because your large work is out in public, but smaller pieces can be more personal and immediate.”

Rasmussen #2

Untitled No. 3 Charcoal/pastel

 

In addition to his main focus on sculpture, Bryan also works with two-dimensional media drawing images, which he describes as being, “what my sculptures would be if they were drawings”. Yet even with these drawings, requiring as they do techniques so different from those he employs with his sculptures, he has an approach that rises out of his work with metal. After a base image is created he uses a sander with fine grain sandpaper to work over the surface of the drawing, thereby creating a subtly varied surface.

And as for the future?

“I’m working on making my shapes more complicated in order to give my work more interest. I guess you could call it enhancing the visual terrain. I want any piece I make to be the most interesting thing in the room. I’m always seeking to push to the next level.” And that search for the next level is an unending process for Bryan Rasmussen. As he says, “I am an artist. I don’t feel like I could truly be anything else. Nothing else would satisfy me. I’d rather do this than anything.”

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A Conversation with Maria Willison

Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Maria Willison moved to Bristol, Tennessee when she was six years old, upon her father’s taking a position at King University. Her interest in art began in high school, where she pursued painting and drawing, though she didn’t learn much about technique in her classes. “It was all about expressing yourself, without much mention of how to do it,” she says. After graduation she enrolled in Covenant College, graduating with a BA. Currently she works as a studio assistant to Cessna Decosimo and has taught at the Townsend Atelier. She has had work in several shows, most recently at the 2014 Four Bridges Festival in Chattanooga, where she received a grant as an emerging artist. In October 2014, her sculpture was featured in a joint show at The Northshore Gallery of Contemporary Art, “Figuratively Speaking”, which also included the paintings of James Tucker.

See more of Maria’s art at:  Maria Willison

For interviews with other sculptors see: Bryan Rasmussen / Turry Lindstrom

Maria Willison photo

Maria Willison (photo: Samuel Burns)

 So how did you find your way to sculpture?

I took a sculpture class during my sophomore year at Covenant College and thought: this is exactly how my brain works! This is exactly how I can express myself! Sculpture became my passion.

Did you have an art professor who was exceptional and who triggered this reaction or was it the medium and its possibilities that so excited you?

Both. The messier I am the more fun I have, and with clay you’re basically working with mud (laughs). My teacher was Kayb Carpenter– her married name is now Joseph–and she was trained in classical sculpting techniques in Florence, Italy. She has a deep knowledge of anatomy and figurative sculpture. I just fell in love with that approach and put a lot of effort into anatomical studies. She was very inspiring and really pushed me a lot. At the beginning of her classes we would often have quizzes on anatomy—the muscles of the arm, the back and so on. We also built a sculpture muscle by muscle. In addition to that, I took an anatomy class in the Biology Department to add to my knowledge base.

Esther

Esther

Why does the human form attract you so much?

Throughout history it has been a subject that really draws people in. You can work directly with human emotions, and people understand that because, after all, we’re all human. I love that. There is also the complexity and the challenge of it. The human body is a really hard thing to sculpt well, and I’ve set myself the goal of mastering it. I mean, really, if you can sculpt the human form you should be able to do anything else. The human form is exciting because it is so complex, but also it can be posed in meaningful ways that allow me to work with complex negative spaces around the figure.  Often I don’t see all the implications right away, but I’ll come back to a piece after a while and it will just hit me: ‘ Wow, that side form was really what I was looking for!’

In an artistic statement you wrote, you said that negative space, dramatic line, and the dichotomy between peace and tension were what you thought about when making a sculpture. Can you elaborate on that?

Well, I’ve already talked about negative space, but that integrates with the line of the form. Negative space is defined by the empty spaces around the sculpture, whereas the dramatic lines lead the eye through the sculpture. The human figure, with its limbs and lines of muscle movement, gives you the chance to really point the viewer’s eye where you want it. It’s a cool way to work with the viewer and draw the viewer into the work. By establishing the pose, I can both define the figure and move the viewer mentally through the work.

My piece, ‘Grace and Disgrace’, is an example of what I mean by the peace and tension dynamic. The rising figure is almost the very essence of tension. It’s a pose that is almost painful to look at and would be impossible to hold, and yet, if you look at the face, there is a sense of peace and joy. If you look at the other pose, which is that of a person crouched and hiding herself, it’s physically peaceful, but it has psychological tension. It is the face of anguish and sorrow. A further dynamic comes in play because the two figures have to work together, pushing and pulling each other.

Grace & Disgrace

Grace and Disgrace

 

Do you have a preference for working with the male or female figure?

I do more female figures, I suppose because I connect with a female’s emotions more. From a conceptual point of view, I tend to think more in terms of the female figure, but I really enjoy working with the male figure, too. I like working with both. I usually choose male or female figures based on which one best helps me get my ideas across. In really simplistic terms, I suppose you could say that the male presents a more powerful muscular form and the female a more graceful, poetic one. Frankly, though, sometimes it’s just who is available as a model!

Vertigo

Vertigo

Why realism? We live in a world that is obsessed with being modern. It’s almost a fetish in some quarters to be continually on the ‘cutting edge’. Do you worry about your style being perceived as passé?

I just see the world that way. I find great beauty in the way in which the world, and particularly the human body, actually appear. I take great joy in rending it as it actually is. I enjoy helping people see what’s already in front of them, what’s already there. And I love the challenge of taking and working with what’s already there, but shaping it and molding it to make it my own.

That brings up an interesting idea. To what extent is your work not realistic?

Art is about personal expression, so I do emphasize certain things, but the distortion is subtle. Usually I try to pick a model whose appearance is close to what I want aesthetically. If I have an extreme pose, one that a person can’t hold long without hurting themselves, I might push the pose beyond where the model actually is, based on my knowledge of anatomy. Since I’m working in a realist idiom, the figure has to ‘read’ as correct, and that is, of course, my goal, but often there are small exaggerations made to better express what is inherent in the pose.

When you have an extreme pose like the ‘Grace’ figure in ‘Grace and Disgrace’, do you take photographs to shorten the posing time for the model?

I do take photos for reference, but a method I often use in that situation is to have the model do partial poses that she can maintain. For instance, in the ‘Grace’ figure I had the model sit in a chair and bend backwards as I worked the top half of the of the figure.Then I had her kneel and bend backward in a less extreme way that I exaggerated in my work, so her body was consistent with the more extreme bend when sitting. The hard part is making sure you have the rhythm of the overall flow of the body when working from partial views. That’s tricky, but it’s essential. It’s all in handling the transitions correctly, and I’ve gotten better and better at doing that.

Where do your ideas for new sculpture come from?

Usually they come from my own life experiences or those of the people around me. I think there’s a lot of anguish in my work, though people may not see it. In ‘Enervare’—that comes from a root word that means ‘enervate’ or drained of energy—the concept is about someone who has done something wrong and has done it over and over, becoming completely drained of energy, wondering, ‘why can’t I stop?’. When I have an idea, I try to figure out what it would look like visually. In this case, what it would look like if you were utterly exhausted.

Enevare-- in progress

Enevare– in progress

Evevare-- finished piece

Evevare– finished piece

You’re saying that you begin with an idea and then work out a physical expression of that idea?

Sometimes, but not always. There are two basic ways I approach making a sculpture and that’s one of them. Sometimes I work in the opposite way. I wonder if it wouldn’t be cool to have the model pose in such and such a way, you know, an intriguing and visually interesting pose, and then I work to give that pose additional levels of meaning. I may begin with beauty for beauty’s sake, but I rarely end there. The knack for brainstorming a concept is a work in progress for me. That wasn’t the focus of my training, so it’s something I’m learning to do now.

After you’ve got the beginning point of a sculpture, how do you turn this idea into an actual artwork? What are your methods as you proceed from that point?

I’ve started doing some preliminary drawings. I used to not do those, but I’ve started finding them useful. I draw four or so different angles to think through the pose. Then sometimes I do a maquette, which is like a small three dimensional sketch, just to be sure my thinking is solid enough to carry through. Then I build the armature, which is the wire framework that gives strength to the clay. One of the things that I love about sculpture is that there are parts of the process that are very mechanical, and since I’m a very mechanically-minded person, I find that stuff fun. Once that’s done, I move on to getting the pelvis and the ribcage situated correctly. That’s got to be right. It’s not unusual for me to work on that aspect even before I engage a model. Once I’m satisfied with that, it’s just a question of building the work on out: first the figure is roughed in and then it’s defined and the transitions are smoothed out.

Willison-- Drawing #4 Willison-- Drawing #3 Willison-- Drawing #2

I’ve read that you work with both clay and plasticene.

Yes, I use both, and they are rather different. With traditional water based clay, you have a limited time to work on a piece. Though there are ways to keep your work from drying out, the drying can’t be delayed forever. You either have to fire the piece or make a mold from it while it’s still wet. And of course, once a piece is fired you can’t change it. Plasticene, which is oil based, never dries out. When the sculpture I’m working on is ready, I make a mold and then take a casting from the mold. At that point the casting becomes the finished piece and the plasticene image can go back in the tub to be used over and over. The torso I had in the last show at The Northshore Gallery of Contemporary Art was made that way.

Do you have a preference for clay or plasticene?

I really don’t. I tend to work in one until I get tired of it and then I switch. Water clay allows me to go really fast. I like the speed and immediacy, and it really shows the process because it’s so sensitive to the touch. You can get that appearance with plasticene, but it usually means working on the surface with tools. It’s easier to get that look with water clay. Also, plasticene is harder to control with just your fingers and often my hands get really tired when I’ve working with it. However, with plasticene there is no time constraint, which encourages a push/pull, add and subtract exploration process that isn’t hurried. You can leave a piece for a long time and then come back to it

Graphite Female Torso

Graphite Female Torso

Female Torso

Female Torso

 

How did you do the finish on that torso? The surface had delightful quality about it.

I use a wax finish. I brush it on and it hardens pretty quickly. Then I polish it until it gets a nice sheen to it. I love that wax and use it all the time. That particular finish shows the marks made in the process of making the piece, which I think gives the work a warmer more immediate feel.

You use a variety of finishes: gray and bronze, among others. Are those your color signatures for a given sculpture? Are they meant as an immediate draw for the viewer’s eye?

I suppose so, though the best patina emphasizes the form and doesn’t call attention to itself. The ideal is to have the patina catch viewer’s eye, drawing him to experience the form and the dynamic tensions in the piece.

What artists have influenced your work?

Rodin, of course. His poses are really amazing! He’s very exciting to look at. And Bernini. The detail of his work is fantastic. I’ve only seen photos of his work, but in September I’m going with my husband to Florence, Italy, and I’ll finally get a chance to see the real thing. The movement in his Apollo and Daphne is amazing. He gives you visual motion and an incredible level of detail, but keeps it all subordinated to the needs of the piece.

You’re at an early stage of your career; where do you think your art is headed?

That’s a good question. I can see it becoming more abstract in time. Historically, that seems to be how it goes with many sculptors. I can see me breaking down the human form and manipulating it more obviously. My way of working is getting increasingly internalized, and my muscle memory has really developed to the point I’m often working without having to think everything through. As the process gets more automatic, it can get more creative.

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A Conversation with Josiah Golson

At 27, Josiah Golson already has definite accomplishments to his name. A graduate of the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga and the University of Texas-Austin law school, he recently began practicing real estate law in Chattanooga. He is also an artist. He is involved with arts groups and has done live demonstrations at numerous events.

Josiah Golson]

See more of Josiah’s art at: Josiah Golson

For interviews with other painters see: Ellyn Bivin / David Jones / James Mckissic / Renel Plouffe / James Tucker / Larry Young

How did you become interested in art?

My mother is a trained artist, in fact an art teacher, and she was both a teacher and an early inspiration for me. When I was six years old I remember making drawings that I imagined being in motion and even then I was trying to tell a story with pictures. I made little comic books and so on. I’ve drawn all my life but I wasn’t serious about sharing my art until my second year of law school, when I was dealing with some issues around whether I wanted to continue in that field. I’ve always had an interest in the arts, from drawing to film making, and as a diversion I began to draw pictures in the style of a film strip, what I call ‘frames’, and began to create story lines and to illustrate them.

So your approach to drawing evolved as an emotional experience based on a love for a variety of visual media?

Yes, I think it was an attempt to connect with my youth and with things that inspired me.

Can you describe your approach to making your drawings and how you arrived at it?

I didn’t have any real formal training, such as working from a live model and that sort of thing. Most of my drawings come from my imagination. I see the image as if it was in a movie and then I draw it straight from that. A big influence on my work is cinema and the process of cinema, particularly the making of story boards. I like story boards because you know there is a story being told but there is not necessarily a need for perfection. That allows me to just go with the flow of the ideas that I’m getting. It gives me the freedom to draw in a way that’s quick enough to where I don’t lose momentum. Usually I’m moving at a pace that allows me to get the image down that is in my head while it’s fresh and vital. I don’t want to start over-thinking it or muddling about until I lose the inspiration that caused me to choose the visual idea in the first place. I’m seeking a rhythm, almost a musical quality in my drawing.

You certainly have a very ‘live’ line in your work. To what extent do you pre-plan these strips of related drawings?

I do most of my planning in my head, waiting until I get to the point where I can see where I want to take a piece. To the extent that I do that sort of planning it’s usually only for two or three images at a time. For instance, one of the pictures I have in the Graffiti show is called “The Fall of Rock” and it centers on the punk rock scene. For that drawing I tried to think of images that were not stereotypical but have a powerful element to them. Sometimes I draw a quick sketch on a separate piece of paper but most often I work directly by placing key images on the paper and then working in other images that complement them.

Golson--The Fall of Rock -L
The Fall of Rock 18×24 Conte Crayon on paper

Let me walk back through what you’ve just said. You have a basic structure in your head when you start out but the exact nature of an individual image is left to the moment as you work.

Yes. That’s right.

Your two black and white drawings, “The Fall of Rock” and “Crossroads Chronicles” are done in an obvious ‘film strip’ style. However, “The Living Flag”, another of your drawings, is clearly telling a story but not in a sequential way.

Golson--The Living Flag
The Living Flag 18×24 Pastel on paper

I’ve actually done several “Living Flag” pictures. In those pieces my goal was to present the American experience, the spirit of America, as it is represented in the meaning of the flag—the ideas of freedom, justice, equality, and the sacrifices that people have made for those things. I could have put them in a scene by scene format but those facets of our lives are so intertwined with the idea of America and with each other, so emotionally connected, or in some cases opposed, I decided to have them collide, as it were, on the flag itself. I tried to relate the individual elements to the colors of the flag, which I felt intensified the visual experience.

You have a fourth drawing you’re showing, “Reunion”, that takes yet another approach and doesn’t, at least to my eye, seem to tell a story at all.

Yes, in that one and in some other of my work there’s not a clear narrative. It’s just a scene. It doesn’t have a specific story. It’s pure action. That’s what motivates the piece.

Golson-Reunion
Reunion 18×24 Pastel on paper

I chose the title “Reunion” because I felt as I was drawing the different characters and individuals that there is a sense of unity. However, at the same time there is sense of diversity and difference. So I think there are linkages, but at no time was I going for a narrative as you’d find in the other pieces we’ve been talking about.

At 27 you’re at the beginning of your career in art, but do you have a sense of how your work might be evolving?

I do. Well, a little bit, anyway. I know I want to move forward with the narrative style. I think that’s where I’m strongest. I’d like to see how far I can take it. In our society we rely on cinema so much as a way to process experience. It’s become so much a part of our culture it’s now all pervasive. Even though people don’t go to galleries and museums as much as they see film and TV, I think that can work in favor of the plastic and visual arts because the imagery of the cinema can be utilized to enhance visual art. I’d like to tell more complete stories, not to the point of graphic novels, we already have those, but I’m moving toward doing more complete stories that may not be as explicit as a graphic novel, but will have a compressed richness to them.

What artists have influenced you?

Well I do have people I feel influence how I think about art, but not all of them are artists.

So tell me about them.

Well, music certainly has a huge impact on me and is a very important part of my life. Among musicians, I’d have to say that one of my biggest influences is Bruce Springsteen—his whole narrative of struggle in life, his themes around the American landscape and the endless unfolding of American self-discovery. His way of making beauty out of life, the little things in life, are an inspiration to me.

There’s also a film maker, Julian Schnabel. I found him when I saw a movie on Jean Michel Basquiat, who is a painter I like. Schnabel’s film, “The Diving Bell and the Butterfuly”, feels like a painting. I mean as a film it’s made in a painterly way, where it’s not using all the traditional cinematic techniques, but idiosyncratically tells its story in a powerful way. I love the way he juxtaposes images—old film, old pictures, old iconography—and mixes everyday things and lush European landscapes. In a sense, he made a painting out of a movie, which has inspired me to make movies out of drawings.

As for artists, two come immediately to mind. The drawings of Picasso had a big impact on me. Despite his being on a pedestal as THE 20th century artist, I love the drama and freedom in his work. The way he transformed life into image, even something as horrible as “Guernica”, helped to free me up to draw stories as I evolve them in my mind. Seeing his work allowed me a freedom I doubt I could have found in a more classical approach to drawing. The other artist is Matisse, because of how he combined a linear approach with color. I love his color. Sometimes I find the more color I use in my own work, the less linear it becomes. I love exploring how color impacts my basic approach.

Beside your drawings, are you working in other media?

Yes, I am. Currently my favorite media, as you might guess, are conte crayon and pastel, but I’m also working with acrylic paints. They’re not as natural for me as pastel, but the work is coming along. I still feel more comfortable with the drawings but I’d like to develop as a painter because I think there is more I can do with that. I can push my art further.

Josiah 2

Quartet in Color No. 2 20×30 Acrylic on paper

Josiah 3

Welcome to Stankonia 20×30 Acrylic on paper

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Art of Renel Plouffe

Rien ne se perd,
Rien ne se crée,
Tout se transforme!*

— Antoine Lavoisier 1743-1794
(Note on Renel’s studio wall)

*Nothing is lost,
Nothing is created,
All is transformed!

Renel in front of paintingArtist Renel Plouffe

www.renelplouffe.com

French Canadian artist, Renel Plouffe, throws herself into the moment of artistic creation, glorying in the act of painting. Her passion is readily visible. Surfaces are roughly, almost violently, textured. Pigment is applied lavishly in color combinations that range from an elemental clash of primaries to an almost mystically subtle variation in shades of analogous colors. Her art is a profound and primary means of communication for her. It is an art that does not make compromises.

“I break down the subject to its visual essentials—light, dark, color, tone, movements, and textures. Each canvas is absorbed by color brushstrokes, and a textured background. The result is a reflection of my true essence and outlook on life.”

Creating series of paintings around a common theme is central to the way Renel approaches her art. She has used a variety of such themes over the course of her career, systematically exploring ideas that have meaning for her. At any given time she is mining two or three such thematic areas. The paintings in her current show focus on two: ‘city’ and ‘water’.

“I’m a city girl,” she says. “You know when you go in a big city and everything is moving—I just love the electricity in the air. I used to fill my city pictures with people and cars. That was how I presented what I really love about urban life, the craziness and the energy of the city.”

                                                                      Traffic        Heure de pointe                 

   Traffic  20×16    Oil                         Heure de Pointe   30×15   Oil

“When I paint something like ‘Traffic,’ I feel like I’m telling a story. In this painting you can feel the tension and the anger, but you have to smile because it’s just ridiculous. I mean everyone is angry and the panel van is just happy to be there and that makes everything over into a joke.”

However, her city ‘theme’ is a continually evolving and has changed in significant ways in the work she has done for her latest show. “I don’t put people in my city paintings any more” she notes, “It’s just buildings, which I suppose is sort of silly in a way, since even at night it’s impossible to have a city without people. I used to do buildings with people in them. I stopped. I don’t know why.”

esperance_lowress

         Esperance      30×30       Oil

I think the city represents my more rational side and yet I love the seeming randomness of nature and the sense freedom it gives me.”

 Another theme she is currently working with is ‘water’. “My nature painting is more minimalist,” she says. ” Painting water is peaceful. For me it’s almost like meditation. I’m very loose when I do it and I’m very free. I don’t think so much.  I play more with the texture as compared to line. For me nature is color and texture and subtle revelation. I think the city represents my more rational side and yet I love the seeming randomness of nature and the sense freedom it gives me.”

Eclosion_lowress

Eclosion   30×15   Oil

She makes no secret of the fact that the themes and subjects she chooses reflect where she is in her life mentally and emotionally. “I’m always struggling to have balance in my life. I can be pretty extreme in the way I approach things. Right now, I think I need these two types of images. My art is the mirror of who I am. Maybe I seek balance by moving back and forth between these sorts of images. However, for some reason my themes of ‘water’ and ‘city’ are coming together stylistically. I suppose to some extent the categories are beginning to merge.”

“Painting is my speech, my playground, my reality”

Born in Gatineau, Canada, in the province of Quebec, Renel first pursued psychology and mathematics upon graduating from secondary school. However, her early and powerful love of art soon won out over her mathematical and scientific gifts and she changed direction. “My parents always traveled a lot. We spent time in Europe and went to many, many museums. They had a big interest in art. My mother painted and from when I was a little girl, I did too.”

She received her degree from the University of Hull (Canada) in fine art and graphic design, while also doing additional work to gain certification in both 2D and 3D animation. She then moved to Montreal, a city known for its art scene, to launch her career. Starting work with a company that made video games, she soon discovered the truth about an industry many believe to be glamorous. “It’s not what people think,” she says. “What you have to understand, is the gaming and movie industries are very, very difficult, tough, worlds. And they are a man’s world. You work a lot of hours and compared to the U.S., the wages are low. I didn’t have a life.”

Yet, Renel was unafraid of the hard work.  Despite her long hours and difficult schedule, she found a way to further her artistic development, choosing to attend evening classes at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. For two years she took painting classes from the Russian artist, Nikolai Kupriakov. “Kupriakov was very strong in teaching the fundamentals. And he really showed how to deconstruct and interpret a subject and I found that fascinating.”

“I can, be pretty extreme in how I approach things,” she says, with little appreciation of her understatement.

She liked Montreal and was making progress, becoming established with Montreal galleries and doing commercial design work, when her husband’s company transferred him to Houston, TX. “That was a very strange time for me. In Montreal I’d been working 60-65 hours a week and had gotten to know a lot of people in the art world there—all that was suddenly gone.” Unable to work in the United States without a work visa, she threw herself into a full time schedule of painting. “I found a good dealer and was selling well. I was doing a lot of work with the figure, particularly with nudes.” Over the course of the next four years she established herself as both a fine artist and, when her work visa was granted, as a commercial artist in the Houston area. Then her husband was transferred again, this time to Chattanooga, TN.

Nuit sur ville_lowress

Nuit sur Ville      30×30      Oil

Embracing a schedule that would crush a less driven artist, Renel is at her easel every morning at 7:15 when she returns from taking her twin daughters to preschool, and she works until around 1:00 in the afternoon. With her family fed and her children in bed, she often returns to her highly organized garage studio to work, “until 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning or until I find myself getting impatient with what I’m working on. I can, be pretty extreme in how I approach things,” she says, with little appreciation of her understatement.

Renel always starts a painting in the same simple way.  “I just start. I don’t do preparatory sketches. That’s not as aimless as it sounds. I almost always work in series around central themes so I have a good idea where I want to go with a painting. I have an image in my mind when I start. Frankly, I see the painting I want to do in my mind and I just do it.” And since she works in series, she is usually working on more than one picture at a time, switching between them.

As she works, Renel focuses her attention on two aspects of painting that are of particular concern to her: surface texture and color.

“Paintings should be like people. People are multi-layered and only give up their layers and secrets over time. A painting should do that. I paint in layers and then scratch or otherwise work my way back to expose those layers to a greater or lesser extent.”

When I started out, I used to do very flat almost liquid surfaces on my paintings. Then I began playing with texture about ten years ago, and I loved the depth it gave my work. Often I put a color down, paint over it, and then remove part of the surface layer to reveal an underlying contrasting color. I use brushes when I paint, of course, but I also paint a lot with the palette knife, which I also use to scratch the dry or partially dry surface for additional texture. I love a rough and rich texture on my paintings. I’ve even developed a method of stressing the surface with braided wire of varying gauges that I have unbraided at the end. The wire strands make fine scratches on the surface. I scratch into both wet and dry surfaces, though working into dry surfaces gives a finer, more subtle effect. Usually I work into the surface to create texture but there are times when I use texturing agent such as acrylic medium mixed with sand to alter the paint itself. I also use modeling paste. Really, I’m willing to do anything to get the surface texture I’m looking for.”

Color is also of crucial importance to her art. She always starts with a set of colors she will use  and her choices are intuitive. She sees the colors in her mind and, “I just naturally know which ones I’ll be using. It’s rare for me to do a painting without at least an accent in red. It’s my signature color, I suppose. Red for me is really intense. I love red. My dad loved red. He always bought red roses for my mom. “ Sometimes she seeks dramatic color combinations, juxtapositions of complements of richly colored pigments. At other times the effects are  more subtle, but always her color is dramatic and personal.

Facade_lowress                Evasion_lowress

Facade  24×12    Oil                        Evasion  30×15     Oil

With her ever evolving themes, where do her ideas for new work come from? “I keep images—photos, things I cut out of magazines—really anything that I find visually interesting. If I thing they will really be useful, I paste them on the wall. These images are not there to copy, but they spark ideas. I look at them all the time and they suggest things to me. But when I start painting, they are of no use to me, by then the image I want is in my head—a palette of colors, the textures—all that I imagine before I start.”

Painting is a way of expressing myself and communicating with others. And when I paint, I can stop the conscious stream of thought in my mind and access a subconscious flow. That’s the only time that happens for me. I paint because I need to paint.”

Does she have any sense of what lies next in her artistic journey? She greets the question with a classic French shrug of her shoulders. “I don’t know,” she says. “I never really know.  It goes with what I’m feeling and what I’m living in my life. If I look at my art from 15 years ago it’s completely different, but I was a completely different person then. My art of the future will depend on who I become as a person.”

 

 

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A Conversation with Turry Lindstrom

Fractal Vortex with Artist Heavy outline

Turry Lindstrom

 See more of Turry’s art at: Turry Lindstrom 

For interviews with other sculptors see: Bryan Rasmussen / Maria Willison

 Turry Lindstrom comes from a family of artists: his father and sister are professional portrait artists, and another sister is a talented vocal artist. Turry’s  own early artistic efforts came in junior high school working with clay. He won an award for his work, but found he did not really enjoy that form of sculpting. In 2007 he learned to weld at Chattanooga State College and realized that he had a  love for the process of cutting, shaping, and welding steel.  When working as an assistant on an ornamental iron project, he began to tap into his artistic leanings  by creating human and animal figures from leftover scrap metal. He enjoyed every  aspect of making these small figures for family and friends, and began to  experiment with different means of fabricating art objects in metal. In the spring  of 2013 he took the leap into the world of art, building a small studio at his home  to work full time producing metal sculpture. His work has found a very positive reception, selling in Atlanta as well as at the 2014 4 Bridges Art Festival in Chattanooga. He has a one man show at Graffiti Gallery, also in Chattanooga, and has then been invited to show his work at the Gallery DeRubeis in Key West, Florida.

Where do your ideas for your sculptures come from? Do you keep an idea book or sketchbook in which you evolve your designs?

No, I just keep ideas in my head. Lots of ideas cycle through my mind constantly and sometimes one will stand out, but it’s rare that I’ll ever start working on it right away. I usually have to stew on an idea, working it out for days, if not weeks, in my head. Sometimes it helps to do things that help trigger the creativity, like listening to music with my eyes closed as I play with various sculptural images in my mind. I read that Thomas Edison used to doze in a chair with BBs in each hand so that if he left the half-awake/ half-asleep state and began to sleep more deeply, he’d drop the metal balls, and the noise would bring him back to a half-awake state. That was when he was at his most creative, letting his subconscious do the work.

Saguaro 2

Saguaro

  How long do you “stew” on an idea before acting on it?

It varies. Eventually the idea becomes so complete and so compelling that I have to create a work of art. The energy just builds and builds until I almost feel like I’m being shot mentally and physically out of a giant slingshot. At that point I’m really manic in how intensely and rapidly I work. Even though an idea can take weeks, maybe even longer, to come to completion in my mind, it’s usually executed in just a few days of really intense work. When a piece is finally complete, sometimes my arms feel like wet noodles and I’m utterly spent. I’ll get a cup of coffee and sit down to talk with my wife and just fall asleep. It sometimes takes a few days to rest up after I finish a sculpture.

The fact that you plan your work without any aids beyond your mind and memory amazes me since it’s not simple in concept. For instance, in your appropriately named piece “Complexity”, you’ve created a spiral shape that loops around to create a sense of a geometric shape, a circle, that seemingly arises out of a Dionysian vortex of lines.

Complexity 2

Complexity

Well, I’m not saying my way doesn’t have some disadvantages. It’s like my ideas are in folders in my mind, but I’m sure there are some ideas that get lost. That’s just the way it is. The things I see in my mind I can’t get down in a meaningful way in two dimensions. That’s just not in my nature; it just doesn’t work for me. My ideas go straight from a mental state to reality expressed in steel. Of course, there are happy accidents that happen while I’m working on a piece, and those get included in the finished work, but I pretty much know how a piece will look before I begin. Planning the way I do, in my head, is the only way I feel comfortable. For me there’s just a disconnect between the 2D and the 3D worlds—the 2D/3D divide. 2D just does not work in my world. Frankly, when I’ve reached the point where I could model a piece, I might as well just make it. Doing drawings and making models will just sap the energy I try to bring to my work and which is essential to its existence.

Well, your work is all about energy. Each piece almost crackles with energy and movement. Do you feel the immediacy of your process drives this effect?

Absolutely! As I said, I don’t want to use mental energy on anything but the sculpture. That other stuff would just clutter things up. All that stewing on an idea is to lead me to the slingshot moment when the energy is released and the idea becomes the work itself.

Let’s imagine that the slingshot moment has arrived and you go into the studio. What happens next

Well, as you know, I work with steel plate. I’m restricted on size at this point because I have a really tiny studio—I can touch both walls with my hands by holding out my arms going one way, and the other way is about ten feet. It’s okay, I manage, but it’s more like a welding closet than a studio. The steel I use is ¼ inch thick, 12 inches wide, and as long as I need it. For the realization of my ideas at this point that’s just fine. I can see a time when I’ll want to work bigger but my studio size prevents that right now. Still, I’m really excited by the work I’m doing even with these physical limits.

What happens next?

Well, I’ve visualized the finished work, and as part of that process I’ve visualized the cuts I’ll have to make on the flat piece of steel to get the shapes I’ll work with later. I guess you might think of the steel as my canvas. Anyway, then I start to cut.

Radial Convergence 2

Radial Convergence

With what?

A plasma cutting tool. It weighs almost nothing. I’ve known older steel workers who find it’s too lightweight. They want an acetylene torch that’s heavier. The plasma tool is like a little plastic whip and I can just fly with it. It allows me to come at the work from different angles and just keep moving. The energy flows from my mind, through the torch, and into the steel. Some of the cutting can be repetitive at this point. Normally I hate anything that’s repetitive. When I was punished as a boy and was made to write something over and over, I was, like, just beat me and get it over with! But when I’m making art I just get into a rhythm and it’s okay. I’m planning future steps even as I’m cutting. I work really intensely and really fast at this point. I move so fast that when I’ve worked around other welders I make them nervous and they start saying, “slow down! slow down!”, but that’s just my natural way of working. It’s just the speed I need to go. I know my boundaries and I know I’m safe within them.

 So you’ve cut out a shape, but it’s flat. Then what do you do?

Well, at this point in the process the hard work is done. Now the real fun starts. It’s my reward for doing the construction part: the planning, the layout, and the cutting. It’s where the really creative stuff happens. I use an acetylene torch to heat and bend the plate I’ve cut into the larger shape I want. I just keep the torch going and the metal glows red and idea flows out of me and into the metal. In “Complexity”, the torch never went off for 45 minutes as I bent and twisted the 6 foot long piece of steel I’d cut into the sculpture. I was so fired up with my idea for that piece I bent it all up in one go.

How do you bring a sculpture to its finished ‘gallery ready’ state?

I didn’t say it earlier, but I smooth the edges of my cuts before I start bending. In my work, there isn’t a lot of finishing I want to do to my work. I like the viewer to see hints of the process that made the piece, the color changes that result from heating the metal and the marks of the tools. I just take a wire brush and get off the flaky white stuff that oxidizes on the hot metal, then I put on a clear coat. Sometimes I use color, but more often it’s a clear coat. There’s a lot of me in every one of my sculptures: all the music, and movies, and thinking, and just my life generally. I can see it all there. That’s how I know if a piece is any good. I can see me in the work—see me looking back at myself from the finished piece.

In looking at the pieces you have on your website, it seems to me that your work falls into two broad types: a style that is almost a fevered evocation of energy, and another where that energy is somewhat restrained by more geometric elements. Do these two realizations emerge from a common theme?

 (To see a larger image, please click on a picture below)

                      

Yes. I think I’ve been wrestling with bringing a more structured, ‘engineered’ aspect to my ideas. You might say I’ve begun to play with the idea of harmonizing energy and structure. It’s not easy. I thought over Fractal Vortex longer than any other of my works and in the end, when it was about half finished, I had a sudden insight and took it off in a very different direction than I thought I would go.

Your work has so much movement and energy—we keep coming back to that word—that I have to ask if you’ve considered making mobiles?

No, I don’t want to go that route. It wouldn’t work for me. Kinetic involves as much engineering as anything else. It’s very different from the much more spontaneous way I work. Even so, I think the ‘kinetic’ aspect of my sculpture, its appearance of movement, is important. I like it that people touch my sculptures thinking they will move. I take that as a compliment.

I know you’ve told me about the constraints you have with your studio size but will we see some larger pieces coming from you?

I’d like to work bigger someday, but I also want to remain an artist working in metal and not an engineer assembling and erecting big things. Frankly, at this point I don’t see how I can harmonize my way of working with the lengthy process needed to make something really big. Luckily, I have a lot left to do working in my current studio and with my current materials.

What artists have influenced your work?

I have people who I think have influenced my work but it’s not really other sculptors. I like Jackson Pollock and his free and unrestrained approach to the process of art. Otherwise, it’s mainly people working in the movies, H. R. Giger, James Cameron, and Stanley Kubrick. I really admire Kubrick’s attitude. He didn’t make his movies for anyone but himself. He didn’t repeat himself, and he put his soul into every one of them. He shot many takes of just about every scene. He once said, “I don’t know what I want but I know it when I see it.” I understand that.  I really only look to myself for the source of my creativity. I explore myself. I challenge myself to keep innovating, keep expanding, and never to repeat.

 

Turry at 4 Bridges

Turry Lindstrom at the 2014 4 Bridges Art Festival

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A Conversation with Bradley Shelton

 The following interview was done with Bradley Shelton just prior to his show “Please Seat Yourself”at The Northshore Gallery of Contemporary Art. This photographic essay explores the world of Chattanooga’s Zarzour’s Cafe. A tradition in Chattanooga, Zarzour’s Cafe first opened for business in 1918, and has been in continuous operation at the same location and run by the same family ever since. The show closed at the end of September, 2014. 

See more of Bradley’s art at: Bradley Shelton

For interviews with other photographers see: Art Nomad

Brad Shelton self portraits-5

Bradley Shelton

You’re a practicing architect here in Chattanooga. How did you also become a photographer?

Back in 1996 I went to Auburn University and majored in architecture. During my sophomore year I took part in the Rural Studio program. That’s a program that sends students out into the community, in my case Hale County, one of the poorest counties in Alabama. In the Rural Studio program the students design and build community based projects. The program required us to read the James Agee and Walker Evans book set in Hale County, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, and I loved the Walker Evans photos. When I returned to Auburn, I had an elective I could take. So a buddy and I decided that we would take a photography class. We assumed it would be a breeze and take up little time, since we were focused on our studio work. Turned out it we were wrong; it turned out to be a lot of work — and fun. We shot in black & white using T-Max, a high contrast film made by Kodak. The class was based on the zone system and the goal was to teach us the basics of how to plan, to take, and to develop a photograph. As we matured as photographers, our professor began to teach us the more mental side, like how to pre-visualize a shot. Michael Robinson, an Urban Planning professor, taught this photography course at night. It was during that course and the long nights in the darkroom that I fell in love with the process and complexities of making a photograph. I got a grasp on how to handle the tonalities, and I soon began to pre-visualize how I wanted a photo to look before I snapped the shot.

What equipment did you use on “Please Seat Yourself”?

My camera and equipment are all Nikon, and the camera I use is a D-700. But I don’t get too hung up on equipment. As they say, the best camera is the one you have with you. There are several images in the show I took with my cell phone. You can get a great photo with a cheap camera, and a crappy one with $10,000 state of the art equipment. In the end, it’s about the ability of the photographer and his artistic vision that make all the difference. I not saying that using good equipment isn’t important–it’s a huge part of what I do–it’s just not the essential part.

Zarzour

Zarzour’s Cafe

Do you still use the methods you were taught in film even though you’ve moved to digital?

I definitely continue to rely on the zone system — the 12 zones of gradiation from solid black to solid white. Of course, digital photography has changed the way you pre-visualize. With film you really had to plan carefully in the camera: “the sky is going to be in zone 9 and the tree is going to be in zone 2”, that sort of thing. You still have to capture the right exposure, but the majority of the tonal decisions are made in post-processing. Shooting digitally frees you to focus more on composition, because with the proper exposure, the tonalities can be set during the development process. This equates to less time behind the camera, more time developing in Photoshop.

So today Photoshop is the equivalent of the dark room experience?

Yes, it’s very similar in a lot of ways. Some of the terminology is different, but from an artistic standpoint it’s essentially the same process. I think it was Ansel Adams who said, that when you click the shutter, it’s about capturing information. Art is what happens in the dark room as you work with that information. If you think of it that way, then digital and film are very similar. Of course, with sheet film you have more limited chances when shooting. A roll of 35mm film might give you only 36 shots, and I can take 1,000 in an afternoon with a digital camera. Adams also said, photographs are made, not taken. Snapping the shutter is only half of the process of making a photograph. You’re trying to capture all the information you can,in the camera.  Whether it’s in the dark room or on the computer, if you have the information, you can make the image you want.

What film editing programs do you use?

I use Photoshop and Lightroom. Sometimes I use Apple Aperture for certain things, but mostly it’s the first two.

Why do you favor black & white?

I think my interest in black & white comes from my study of form—that’s what draws me to architecture. There’s something about black & white that seems to abstract form, I think, more so than color images. Black & white kind of distills everything.

So you visualize and shoot in black & white?

I typically visualize and develop in black & white, but I shoot in color.

Why?

Most digital cameras have a black and white setting, but much of the tonal information is lost so I never use it. With color there are 256 variations and when shooting in the camera’s black and white mode it will only capture those 12 or so gray tones.  So the camera is interpolating how to condense 256 colors into 12 shades of gray [laughs]. That would make and interesting book title.  No, I want control over the tonality of the image and I want all the information possible. I want to control that conversion to black and white.

pork and dressing

Pork and Dressing

 

Are you thinking of the 12 zone system when you set up a shot, even if you’re shooting in color?

Sure. There’s an image in the show I call “Pork and Dressing”. It’s an image of a plate of food I was about to start chowing down on, but I saw a beam of light hitting the plate, making it lighter than everything around it. So I thought, ‘I really need a photo of that!’ Now because of the way the light was hitting the plate, it needed to be in an upper zone, brighter than anything else. The surrounding area would be in a lower darker zone. So you see, the zone system is a way to visual the structure of the photo as well as something to use later in Photoshop. It helps you understand and analyze what you’re seeing and where you’re trying to get to.

Well, you certainly get blacks and grays that are rich and compelling. I liked that when I first saw your series, “Pig Roast”. How do you get that kind of tonality?

You have to expose the photo with that in mind. We’ve talked some about the differences between film and digital, but another of those differences is that in film you expose for your darks, trying to keep as much detail in them as you can. If you get those right, you can handle the highlights okay. With digital, it’s the opposite. You expose to give detail in the highlights. If you don’t, they will wash out and you lose that information.

Now, in both “Pig Roast” and “Please Seat Yourself”, the theme was about people and everyday things. Both required a lower key approach tonally—a deeper, richer look. For me, low key imagery and those subjects go together. So that was driving my desire for  rich dark tones. Still, there are exceptions in the show, like ‘Pork and Dressing’, where the image is in a higher key. I felt that particular situation warranted an overall lighter tonality. Still, at the point where I’m taking the picture the technical aspect is about getting the exposure right. This allows me to focus on the composition of the subject. I think what I’m saying is that I want to make the shot in camera as close as possible to the finished image.

halfway done

Halfway Done

That surprises me. I just assumed you cropped your way into the wonderful compositions your photos have.

No, that’s not my approach. There are occasions when I see something in the development stage that surprises me—something I didn’t notice when shooting and cropping is necessary. Sometimes an image is made better by a healthy crop, but I don’t enter into the process with the mindset that I can just crop later to get a good image.  Most of the time the final composition is what comes out of the camera.

Tell me about the experience of doing this project on Zarzour’s Cafe. It was a long term commitment, which is quite different than, say, doing an afternoon shoot studying the changing shadows on an old building.

Yeah, it was long term. I worked on “Please Seat Yourself” for three years—I thought it would take six months (laughs). Most of the images in the show come from my last two years of shooting. I’ve done the kind of afternoon shoot you’re talking about, but with “Pig Roast” and “Please Seat Yourself”, the idea of the story was just part of the subject.  With “Pig Roast”, we were having ayearly pig roast, and after taking pictures for several years, a story with a timeline emerged. The same thing happened with Zarzour’s, but with an added dimension. I hadn’t worked on that series long before I thought, these are great people! They are real salt of the earth kind of folks, and it is their story that drove the project. It made me want to invest the time and effort to make them proud. I got to know them as people and as friends. I came to find that being there, just talking with them and showing them some of the pictures, had another dividend. I became in a way invisible, well, maybe not invisible, but everyone was comfortable with me shooting and it allowed an honest view of things. I gained an acceptance and an ease of access that made the story deeper.

the crew

The Crew

Why Zarzour’s Café? How did you decide on that subject?

The photographing ofthe yearly pig roast led me to the idea of working on a series done over time. I wanted to tell a story about a place through images.  To be special it hadto gain deeper insights than you could hope for on an afternoon shoot. So from there it was not too big a step to Zarzour’s. I’ve been eating there since I moved to Chattanooga, eight years ago. Chattanooga is lucky to have great places like Zarzour’s Cafe, or Nikki’s Drive-in, or Griffith’s Hotdogs. Places that are long established and have incredible character. So many of those places are gone, driven out by the big chains, and that’s sad. You don’t go in a chain burger joint and chat with the waitress about how her kid did in his baseball game. In places like Zarzour’s, you become part of an extended family. So anyway, I’d been eating there for a while and one day I walked up to Shannon, who now runs Zarzour’s, and showed her my pig roast photos and said, “You mind if I take some pictures around here?” and she said, “Sure.” So every couple of weeks I’d come in and take some pictures. If I got one I liked, I’d print it and show it around to the folks there. I got to know everyone and it just felt more and more natural. One morning, I met Mary at 7:00am and photographed her as she prepared food for the day. It reminded me of my grandmother’s kitchen, how she prepared food, and that’s kind of close to my heart. So I guess that’s how it happened. I showed up one day and said, “I want a roast beef plate and I want to take some pictures.” They are great people and damn if they didn’t let me do it [laughs].

Tommy_las vegas

Tommy– Las Vegas

To what extent were you shooting to a prior mental narrative, one you carried with you through the door, and to what extent did your narrative just evolve from what you were seeing and photographing as you tried to make sense of it?

The only plan I had when I started was a notion that it would be great to document aesthetically what the place looked like. I mean allthe pictures on the wall are their family and close friends. Hell, Charles Zarzour’s immigration papers are hanging on the wall. Amazing! The imagery of the space is what attracted me to take the first pictures. Then from that, the urge to tell the daily story of the place emerged. What makes Zarzour’s is that particular family. They’ve run it for four generations, and over time the place has become a portrait of them. But you know, I recently noticed another thing. After three years of taking pictures, I realized you can also read this essay, not onlyas a portrait of the people, but as the story of one day in the life of the restaurant. “Please Seat Yourself” begins with a closed café and ends, after all the activity, the same way. The show could have been entitled, “A Day in the Life of Zarzour’s Café.”

Do you have plans to do additional essays like “Please Seat Yourself” on other local cultural landmarks?

I don’t know as I’ve made that decision yet. I would like to. I think the focus of any project of this nature would be the people involved. Could I do a Barber Shop? There’s potential there. Griffith’s Hotdogs have been around a long time and it has a certain character that is unique in Chattanooga, It’s different from Zarzour’s Café but it’s the same, too. I don’t know what the future holds. I don’t know where the camera will take me.  I think whatever I work on next, it’s important to me that there be an element of Chattanooga in there—that the places be in Chattanooga. These places are important to our culture. They have survived. How did they do they do it? I think it has something to do with the people.

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The Art of Ellyn Bivin

Ellyn Bivin’s paintings are by turns colorful, whimsical, thoughtful, and mysterious. Nuanced surfaces, painted with analogous colors, provide the background for local images that appear to dance in their relation to each other. The viewer immediately sees the artist’s joy in playing off visual ideas against each other. Those elements, things such as children, birds, houses, feathers, dogs, and cats can be dramatically present, partly hidden, or subtly disguised.

Ellyn in her studio

Ellyn in her studio

See more of Ellyn’s art at: Ellen Bivin

For interviews with other painters see: Josiah Golson / David Jones / James Mckissic / Renel Plouffe / James Tucker / Larry Young

Ellyn’s studio, located in a small cottage that once belonged to her grandmother, is just a short walk from the home she shares with her husband, Ken, along the Tennessee River in Chattanooga. It was in this neighborhood, that Ellyn spent her childhood years. The main room of the cottage/studio is well-lit and airy, with several of her recent paintings, in differing states of completion, resting on easels. In the center of the room are a couple of tables where she teaches painting. Student work, a recent assignment based on a still life of lemons, is on the wall. In an adjoining room is a painting by Ellyn’s daughter, Mamie, who is currently an art student at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga. Indeed, both of Ellyn’s children, Mamie and her son Robbie, are artists and have shown work with their mother at Graffiti, a gallery in Chattanooga.

“I started as a little girl drawing horses because that’s what little girls do. Over the years my subject matter expanded,” she says with a laugh, “but I am often drawn toward children and animals as subjects. My subjects, however I handle them, are people or animals that mean something to me.”

Ellyn has been a fixture in the Chattanooga art scene since the 1980’s when she showed with a group of artists who formed the collaborative group, Square One. “Ann Poss, a noted regional printmaker, bought a house on Oak Street here in Chattanooga that she divided into artist studios. Ann had studio downstairs as I did, Alan White, the UTC professor, was  upstairs as was Joe Helseth, who is now a professor at Chattanooga State. We were putting on shows around Chattanooga and we decided we needed a name for the group, but we could never agree on one. It always seemed like every suggestion would get rejected and we’d have to start over—we were always going back to square one. So finally someone suggested we use Square One for the name. That group lasted a few years and sort of became part of the origins of the Association for Visual Arts. The Hunter Museum had a show of our art at one point. We called it “Two x Two,” and it traveled to our sister city, Wuxi, China. They sent their art here and we sent ours over to them.”

“I don’t want to nail everything down for the viewer. I want them to use their imagination. I want my pictures to have a bit of mystery about them.”

Ellyn briefly attended the University of Tennessee Chattanooga before transferring and earning a BFA from Virginia Commonwealth University with an emphasis on printmaking and art education. “I took a beginning course in printmaking as a freshman at UTC and really loved it. When I got to Virginia Commonwealth, it was great. VCU had a printmaking department and absolutely amazing equipment. I just fell in love with the whole process of making prints, particularly intaglio, because I love to draw. I did a lot of lithographs, too, because of the drawing.”

Ellyn Bivin 'Betsy' Intaglio

Ellyn Bivin ‘Betsy’ Intaglio

Ellyn loved drawing, but she had no desire to be a painter. “I never got into painting much. I just took painting classes because I had to  fulfill my requirements for a degree, but I wasn’t a dedicated painter at all. I was a printmaker.  I was even kind of snooty about it, ‘Painter? I’m a printmaker!’”

Returning to her home town she enrolled at UTC to take additional course work, though the school did not offer an MFA. “George Cress, the head of the art school at the time, let me use the equipment. At first I’d pay for a class to make it official, but after a while he decided I didn’t have to pay if I was helping out around the department. In addition to more routine jobs, I printed editions for the professors. They would design the plate and I would print it.”

It was at this time she became interested in monoprints after previously focusing her efforts on intaglio and lithographs. These processes have differences that would become significant to Ellyn’s development as an artist. When an artist draws with a waxy crayon on a stone as in making a lithograph or cuts into the surface of a metal plate to make an intaglio, both processes are used to produce multiple copies. With monoprint, as the name implies, only one impression is produced, either by painting or making a collage on a block. Monoprint is the most ‘painterly’ method among the printmaking techniques, and, for Ellyn, it stood as a bridge between pure printmaking and her embrace of painting.

Bivin- Farmer's Dilemna

Bivin- Farmer’s Dilemna

“When I began doing the monoprints, I used to lay things down–torn strips of old phone book paper, for instance–and roll ink over them. I would lift that up, maybe roll back over it, wipe some ink out, and then use stencils. I started working in black and white and I remember the first time I saw the image the ripped paper had made; I thought, ‘Wow! That’s a landscape!”

It wasn’t long before she was using color in her monoprints and her move toward painting was under way. “As I worked with increasingly complicated imagery and used more colors, the monoprints took more and more time to produce—really, they were paintings.”

“I move elements around on the surface,” she says. “It’s all about balance for me—playing one thing off against another. My imagery is always moving around.”

Ellyn soon found herself doing more and more painting, but in a style that echoed her experiences as a printmaker. She loves the way the monoprints look and seeks to rediscover those effects in her work. “Right now,” she says, “I’m trying to ‘print’ my paintings. By that I mean I’m doing them in layers like I did with the monoprints. I’m trying to use the whole process I used to use doing my monoprints.”

Though she paints on both canvas and rigid supports, she often prefers to work on rugged surfaces like Masonite, which can stand up to multiple reworkings of the surface. Indeed, she says her method of making a painting remains fairly close to the way she produces monoprints, but with the difference that, since the surface isn’t used to make an impression on paper, the image isn’t done in reverse and is the final statement of the artist’s intentions.

Her approach to nearly every aspect of painting is deeply influenced by her time as a print maker. “My backgrounds are often based on analogous colors with offsetting highlights. I suppose because of my printmaking background, I just naturally exploit the flatness of the surface plain. Analogous color is a useful part of doing that.”

A new painting that is going into her next show features the figures of two girls. The pose of these figures, replicated in different sizes, are unusual and the shadows they cast form a strong compositional element but are, from a commonsense perspective, impossible and contradictory. Such considerations don’t matter to Ellyn. She uses all means at her disposal to create a visual world that is at once familiar and ambiguous. “I want to make pictures that cause you to use your imagination. I don’t want to nail everything down for the viewer. I want them to use their imagination. I want my pictures to have a bit of mystery about them.”

Ellyn Bivin 30x30 Green Leaves Acrylic on canvas

Ellyn Bivin 30×30 Green Leaves Acrylic on canvas

As for her subject matter, Ellyn chooses elements from her everyday life, which she celebrates in paint. “I draw my own designs from source materials,” she says. “I like to work with the human figure and with animals. Often I develop ideas from old photographs. I draw my designs and cut out stencils. After putting several layers of paint on a gessoed ground, I then begin moving the stencils around, seeking a balance composition. That’s the great thing about stencils — they allow you to establish composition, which I can embellish or not, depending on the picture’s needs.”

It is this process of carefully working out her composition by manipulating various drawn and stenciled a basic elements against a background painted in layers that gives a dynamic, almost rhythmic, quality to her paintings. The fact that these elements can have unexpected relationships, only adds surprises for the viewer. In the detail of her painting, ‘The Immigrants’ we see several figures, some readily apparent, some drawn in silhouette, some barely suggested, and some seeming to emerge from the background presenting, as the title of the painting suggests, the ambiguity of the immigrant experience. This deft use of apparent and concealed meaning reappears in many of Ellyn’s works. 

Ellyn Bivin 'The Immigrants' 24x30

Ellyn Bivin ‘The Immigrants’ 24×30 Acrylic on canvas

The Immigrants (detail)

The Immigrants (detail)

Constant Companion

Ellyn Bivin– Leading by a Nose 18×30 Acrylic on panel

Whenever one sees one of Ellyn’s paintings, one also sees her whimsical sense of humor at work. “I definitely have a sense of humor that I like to bring to my work,” she says. “I even like to give my paintings kind of silly titles sometimes. I had a painting where I used a dog as an important visual element and I couldn’t resist naming it, ‘Where the Nose Leads, the Tail Follows!’. When I was taking a sculpture class I did a series of tongue-in-cheek pieces such as one entitled, Chest of Drawers, which was a human torso with drawers in it. I don’t think art has to be dead serious to be good.”

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