Having a drawing book with one when out and about rewards, not only at the time as one hones drawing skills, but also later,.Then a drawing becomes a passport to remembering the sights, sounds and sensations experienced at that time. Yet, for me at least, I have realised that these drawings are a world apart from my usual metalpoint drawings. Does that matter? Who knows!Read More
Olive trees are an integral part of the Mediterranean landscape, and they have been a recurrent theme in many artists' work. Sacred trees since early Greek times, they are astonishing in inspiration, as well as generous in their fruit and oil. No wonder artists love to celebrate these astonishing and often very ancient trees.Read More
As I spent a magical morning in the Ridola Archaeological Museum in Matera, South Italy, last summer, I was enthralled by the freshness and complexity of many of the images on the Greek ceramic vessels on display. Since the Greeks had been coming to Southern Italy since the 10th century BC, huge numbers of ceramics have been found, often totally intact, in different archaeological digs in the area. Some of the pieces were imported from Greece, but many were created in Italy.
As I wandered, entranced, I remembered reading that many ancient Greeks, such as art critic and writer Philostatus, thought of art as a continuation of our world, the space within which we live and breathe. There were no boundaries between art and the world; the figures existing in contemporary art or on the pottery surfaces might have been imaginary, but they were as real to the Greeks as film characters are real and believable to us today as we watch a film. In other words, art was viewed as an extension of reality. No wonder so many of the figures, fish, birds and other creatures in dynamic movement around those red-figure vessels I was seeing in Matera seemed so arresting.
That long heritage, from the Greeks and from earlier artists working on cave walls, rock faces, in Mesopotamia, China, India or Egypt, has always involved realism in some fashion. Art has blurred the boundaries between the imagined world, the depicted world and the real world; man has always expected the viewer to have "leaps of faith". Today, artists grapple with the same issues. What a visual artist sees and experiences gets distilled and translated into images that go beyond the range of verbal description.
Noted artist Michael Klein was quoted as saying, "Painting realistically is a means to an end." What he is interested in creating is the visual image that was the basis for the feelings he wants to express - the boundaries of reality and art flow through the artist's brain and hand in seamless fashion. Developing a visual language implies that an artist looks hard and learns to see things for what they really are.
In the same way, according to sculptor and artist, Lee Ufan of Korea, boundaries between art and reality can be eliminated by "allowing the relationship among the viewer, the materials and the site to stand in for the experience of art" (Alexandra Munroe, Guggenheim curator, writing in Art & Auction, May 2010). Ufan makes the art object "disappear" so that the art becomes "a fluid and dynamic event occurring in real time and space".
Ufan talks of "the art of encounter". Mankind has been blurring the lines between reality and the art encountered since time immemorial.
The mysterious process of creating art never ceases to interest and amaze me. An artist's adaptability to circumstances is a vital ingredient in this mix, and one that tests the seriousness of resolve to create. Somehow this self-portrait by Rembrandt expresses some of what I am trying to say.
Depending on the circumstances, an artist can find totally different sources of ideas and inspirations for art. A simple example is when one is working plein air, versus working in one's studio and relying on very different sources than the outside world.
I did both of these pieces of art when I was working on Sapelo Island, one of the magical Georgia barrier islands fronting the Atlantic Ocean. They were done almost in reaction to that small voice inside my head, saying 'this is a scene which could be the source of a painting or drawing'. Of course, once that decision is made, then comes the endless actions, reactions and alterations that are part of my art-making. Working in the wind and sun, with changing conditions, an artist adapts according to the moment, trying to push through on the original idea and inspiration, and yet trying, at the same time, to end up with a respectable piece of art. Incidentally, both watercolour and metalpoint are rather unforgiving media for changes and alterations, especially when drawing in different metals (silver, gold, copper, etc.). It makes for interesting, if not challenging moments during the process of art-making!
By contrast to the concepts and reactions to working outdoors, en situ, there is the work in the studio, when an artist can draw inspiration from a myriad sources, in the head, from ideas derived from the wide world outside, from music, from reading, from films or television, from one's family and its history, from politics... an endless reserve of triggers that suddenly spark an idea for a piece of art. In some ways, the work created in the studio is far more controllable, even if it is complex to execute. Normally, you don't have to battle the weather, light constraints, travel, insects, etc. that you encounter often outside.
Perhaps the only "constraint" in the studio is cultivating what Paul Cézanne talked of: "genius is the ability to renew one's emotions in daily experience". You have to keep fresh, alive, thinking and reacting, to find that springboard to a new venture in art creation. How that trigger comes is often, to me, totally mysterious, but again, I find that that mysterious small voice at the back of the head speaks when one least expects it. Ironing, day-dreaming, a walk - meditative, repetitive jobs all help. Dare yourself to try another medium, another voice, another subject that you have not embraced before. Even an idea that is not perhaps initially the most inspired can evolve and become something special, something significant. Whilst sustained hard work can yield results, there are times when other considerations in life - family, illness or whatever - have to be factored in. In those cases, creating art can go on, even if only in your head, for a while. Allow yourself to follow different work rhythms at those times, for ultimately, you will get back to inspiration and art-making, perhaps with added depth and ideas.
These were two drawings I created in the studio, long after I had returned from an art residency in South Italy. The seeds were sown there, the inspiration came later when I was looking back at drawing books and notes I had made there.
Inspiration comes in such magically mysterious ways, often by different routes, but every artist becomes attuned to his or her paths to art-making. Trusting one's inner voice, believing in oneself and keeping one's antennae up high are all ingredients in these mysteries.
When an artist has just gone through a creative, productive time, he or she is on a high. But alas, as we all know, highs don't last for ever, and then the trouble can start. I found this true - again! - this week, as I returned from a stimulating and fascinating time in south Italy, where I had end my stay at an art residency by being beguiled by the beauty and interest of Matera, the home of the UNESCO-protected Sassi area. I came home full of ideas and enthusiasm to get right back to work.
Then there comes the first moment in front of the empty paper, in my case... and, indeed, Picasso has it right, albeit expressed rather dramatically. The creative energy seems to drain out of one, the little voice at the back of one's head starts to murmur about problems, and you end up thinking - oh dear!
So the only thing to do, I have found in the past, is to settle down, turn to more mundane studio chores, scanning art that you have done, attending to paper work, looking at drawings and notes you have made. You tell your subconscious to go on thinking and planning about the next work you want to embark on, how to go about it, what to try and say in it – and let time help banish the fright at the empty canvas or piece of paper.
I wanted to return to the feel of the area where I had been working, south of Noepoli, in the Basilicata province of Italy. Humans have walked in those mountains and valleys for so many millennia, and it is good, in dealing with my white paper fright, to think back to the things I want to remember about that area. Maybe these memories will ease me back into what I want to say about this amazing area of South Italy.
Whilst I have been lucky enough to have been given artist residencies in the United States in the past, my latest residency was in South Italy, a part of the world I had never before visited.
I have just spent two weeks learning about this wonderfully dramatic area of the world, where mountains soar in serried splendour from the Adriatic or Ionian seas and wide, rocky dry river beds speak of dramatic volumes of water hurtling down them during the winter rains.
As with most new parts of the world, it takes a little while to begin to understand the people and the landscapes. To get under its skin, learn about its long history and see how things work, you need more than a few days.
I had originally been allocated a two-week residency slot in June at the Palazzo Rinald, in the small hill town of Noepoli, in Basilicata province, in the instep of South Italy. The time had to be changed because of a family emergency, and so I went for ten days in early August.
My first reaction was – what about the heat? But no, despite one or two days of searing, dry heat, the evening breezes, nay - winds, that spring up make life possible – as long as you assiduously drink lots of water.
The actual residency set up at Palazzo Rinaldi is a family-run situation, and like all such situations, there are good and bad things.
For me, essentially a plein air artist, the immutable requirement that breakfast be available to you only at 9 a.m. was unfortunate – by then, the best light and the coolest temperatures have almost gone.
Whilst there are also artists from different disciplines – writing, photography, etc. – visual artists’ needs seemed not to be well understood, particularly if you work on paper which requires protection before you can exhibit. I got swept up into a Plein Air competition that was being run for the first time, and the ensuing exhibition for the townspeople had not been thought through at all and far more was promised to us than was delivered.
The best aspects of any such residency are that one is allowed to stretch and grow as an artist, in new surroundings that challenge one, and that one meets interesting artists with whom to interact.
In the Palazzo Rinaldi residency, the surroundings were indeed wonderful, with landscapes and village-scapes that were memorable. The atmosphere generated by the residency “management” was not always conducive to serene creativity, but my fellow artists were marvellous companions. I met several American-based artists my first days there, but the week I then spent with two Spanish ladies and one artist from Poland was indeed rewarding.
The Barcelona-based artist, Rosa Calull, who won the Plein Air contest with her luminous painting of an old village doorway, was my nearest neighbor in the Palazzo. Her fellow Spanish artist, Sargam, from San Sebastian in the Basque Country, was a talented, multidimensional artist, while the third of my companions was Anna Bocek, a dramatic portraitist based in Gdansk, Poland, but who spends time preparing exhibitions in different parts of the world.
All were highly intelligent, dynamic people, with a lot of experience of different artist residencies. They all concurred that a creative, supportive and knowledgeable infrastructure is vital for a good residency.
What every entity offering an artist residency – be it a state or national park, an artist colony, a non-profit foundation or whatever – should remember is that, de facto, the artist community is a small one, with very easy communication in this internet-connected world. Artists talk to each other, even when unknown to each other personally, and they evaluate residencies.
Are they good, do they support the artist? Are they expensive (if fees are required, as in the Rinaldi case), are there surprises like requests for donations that were not spelled out ahead? Are the people running them helpful and polite?
Pretty soon, unfortunate experiences get shared around and the residency’s reputation gets tarnished.
Conversely, good experiences are remembered and the residency name given to other artists. So those in the artist community gather a list of places to try to go to in the future, and other residencies to avoid or never return to.
Granted, the optic of an American artist may be different from a European artist, given the differences in culture, but nonetheless, at the end of the day, all artists want a positive, creative experience. That is what they travel many miles to seek, often with an expensive journey, to achieve a much-appreciated hiatus from their usual lives that allows them to expand their artistic horizons.
I am sure that a considerable number of members of the general art community around the world must have read with interest about the Pope's invitation to artists to a gathering at the Sistine Chapel this past 21st Nov. Whatever one's thoughts about such a invitation, the mere fact that one could sit, peacefully, and look at Michelangelo's ceiling in its brilliantly coloured restoration would make the invitation worth accepting, I suspect. About 250 artists of all disciplines did accept, apparently - from Placido Domingo to Santiago Calatrava and Zaha Hadid.
Since the Pope and the Vatican have quite a lot of fence-mending to do with the art world, in many ways, this was an interesting development. (Check out Edward Winkleman's comments too on the Pope's speech.) Whilst the Pope's announcement that the Vatican will participate in the 2011 Venice Biennale is a clear signal of involvement in the contemporary art scene, his speech seemed to dwell more on "beauty" and its potential pathway to the "transcendent". In some ways, his words resonate when he said, "In a world lacking in hope, with increasing signs of aggression and despair, there is an ever greater need for a return to spirituality in art."
Benedict XVI also said, "What is capable of restoring enthusiasm and confidence, what can encourage the human spirit to rediscover its path, to raise its eyes to the horizon, to dream of a life worthy of its vocation - if not beauty?" Moreover, "the experience of beauty does not remove us from reality, on the contrary, it leads to a direct encounter with the daily reality of our lives, liberating it from darkness, transfiguring it, making it radiant and beautiful."
Wonderful words, hard to define really, let alone put into practice. Especially when the Pope also talked of "the beauty thrust on us is (too often) illusory and deceitful. It imprisons man within himself and further enslaves him, depriving him of hope and joy." Frankly, that is a passage that leaves me wondering who defines the Vatican's version of beauty. I don't know enough of present Vatican cultural politics. Does anyone else who is reading this ?
Nonetheless, I find it refreshing to see such a figure as the Pope talking of beauty and its central role in life, spiritually and culturally. Not so very long ago, particularly in the United States, the word, "beauty" was very much out of fashion in the art world. We are all impoverished when beauty, in its many, many forms and versions, is not part of our daily lives.