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EMERGENCE OF VOICE IN ORIGINAL IMAGES
of the requirements for the degree
of Bachelor of Arts at Vermont College
Janice M. Stensrude
April 16, 1997
The decision to undertake studio art as a culminating study was as intuitive and synchronistic as the process that followed in the ensuing six months. Creation of original images, accompanied by a study of twentieth-century artists, followed on the heels of two studies that incorporated elements of social science research, psychology, and women's studies. An adventure into visual art was a seemingly vast departure from these earlier academic undertakings.
However, each of my previous studies have been highly personal—first, exploring the physical and emotional changes among hysterectomized women and, second, examining women's lives in the decades following the end of their reproductive years. Despite the very academic approach of these two studies, which included original research, statistical analyses, and examination of scholarly writings, both projects were born from somewhat esoteric origins—my deeply felt need to explore the meaning of being on both the individual and collective levels.
As this culminating study unfolded, it became clear that it was an extension into visual art of my exploration of the meaning of being. Following a Preface that describes my prior studies in ADP and the process and discoveries of my study of visual art, the body of my document is the artwork that I created.
I studied the basics of color and drawing, exploring a variety of mediums—gouache, tempera, acrylic, graphite pencil, charcoal pencil, color pencil, and lithographic crayon. I learned to draw pictures that looked reasonably like the subjects I was drawing. I learned to splash color across a surface and form a pleasing composition. I learned about value, volume, shade, tone, and tint.
I renewed my love of Georgia O'Keeffe's work and learned how it evolved over a career of more than seventy years. I discovered a passion for Wassily Kandinsky, who created a language of his own in richly complicated abstract compositions. Kandinsky described a "need" that artists must feel in order to produce meaningful work, and O'Keeffe explored nature, pushing deep into its connection to humanity. I learned that these two artists, as well as a legion of others, created their work for the same reason that I chose my study topics—a neverending search for meaning.
At the end of my study, I can say that I knew more about art than I thought I did, and there is more to learn about art than I thought there was. As a writer who has always painted pictures with words, I now understand why D. H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, Kurt Vonnegut, and many other writers have turned to visual art as a deeply personal expression of something within them that has no words.
The Happy Art of Frank Stella: Visits to an Art Gallery and Artist's Studio
From the beginning, synchronicity has been integral to my Vermont College experience. I had no sooner expressed a desire to resume my education than I saw a short piece about Vermont College's Adult Degree Program in Modern Maturity, a magazine published by the American Association of Retired Persons.
The hurdles dropped away with amazing ease. My admission application was accepted and my financial aid package was approved, yet I had not fully committed to attending. While checking airfare with my travel agent, the fates gave me the final gentle push. A five-hundred-dollar savings in airfare was available, but the ticket needed to be purchased within twenty-four hours. The decision was forced, and suddenly I was boarding a Norwich University van at the Burlington airport on my way to my first residency.
There were four of us in the van that day, all "women of a certain age." "I don't know what I'm doing here," we each said in turn. Despite such uncertainty, I am the third of our group to graduate.
I entered my first exploratory meeting with a list of thirty-five topics of particular interest to me. By my second meeting, I had tweaked the list to ten topics; by my third, to three; and by my fourth, to two. The enormous interest in one of my topics shown by three of the four advisors with whom I met became a strong motivation for selecting my first ADP study, "In Search of a Lost Menopause: Have women of surgical menopause been deprived of an important rite of passage?" Barbara DuBois became my faculty advisor, barely sixty days older than I and the survivor of both an advanced cancer and the radical hysterectomy that saved her life. Clearly this study, rooted deep in my own personal experience, would be an emotional journey of discovery for us both.
My reading was steeped in feminist history and methodology, and I learned of the history of academic feminism, a subject of which I was totally ignorant as I initiated my study. Paraphrasing an old joke, at the end of my study, I declared, "Six munce ago I didn't know how to spell woemun, now I are one." I felt a great impact at learning that the uterus is a powerful and important female body part intimately involved in the business of being a living being, far more complex in importance than its recognized singular role as the place to hatch new human beings.
My particular interest in the uterus not only produced a long research paper for my study, but resulted in the publicaton of "Necessary Losses?" in Uptown Express, a local health and wellness magazine. This three-part series on hysterectomy was subsequently edited and published in two parts in A Friend Indeed, an international menopause newsletter published in Canada, where it was noticed by Women's Global Network for Reproductive Rights (headquartered in Amsterdam), who has requested permission to publish it in their newsletter.
This first study created perhaps more questions than it answered, and these were questions of a higher magnitude—meaning-of-life questions. Thus, as something of a continuation of my first study, my second was "In Full Flower: Women in the Second Half of Life." Alice Eicholz became my faculty advisor, and, again, she being also a "woman of a certain age" (though somewhat younger than I), there was an added dimension to our student-advisor relationship.
I read of the life-stage theories of Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Karen Horney, and Erik Eriksen. Doris Lessing and Grace Paley blessed me with their wisdom in their fiction—Lessing with her novel, The Summer Before the Dark, and Paley with her poignant, sometimes surrealistic short stories. Betty Friedan and Germaine Greer informed and inspired me with their lengthy reflections on the deepening spirit in aging.
At the end of my second study, I had a personal, clear vision of the meaning of a human lifespan that lasts many years past the years of reproduction. Drawing clues from my reading of both semesters, I came to certain conclusions. The first of these is that human beings are designed to live from 120 to 130 years. Second, in agreement with authors I had read, the forties are the old age of youth. Third, departing from the theories I had been reading, midlife begins between fifty and fifty-five and ends in the mid seventies. And, third, with the seventies being the true youth of old age, it is important to prepare oneself for the important work of old age—a search for goodness. I changed the focus of my study to a philosophical exploration of humanity's search for goodness, with a minor art component to fulfill the aesthetic requirement for graduation.
As I sat in my first meeting with my faculty advisor, Lois Eby, and my new study group, the potential for exploring art as a subject in its own right seized me by the roots of my hair and tossed me into a frightening, exciting darkness. The words that had been my friend through all my reading, thinking, and writing were pushed aside, and I was awash in a world of color, line, and symbol. As I sat in that meeting, I wrote in my notebook:
You took my words away
"The idea of undertaking a studio art study scares me to death," I told Linda Wilson, a member of our group of four, who was to graduate that evening.
"That means that's what you need to do," she replied gently with her characteristic wisdom.
After dinner, I wrestled myself to exhaustion with writing my new study plan till I succumbed to a deep tiredness, turned out the light, and sank into bed. As I began to drift into sleep, D. H. Lawrence's essay, "Making Pictures," crept quietly into my consciousness. In his early forties, after a lifetime of competent copying of old masters, Lawrence discovered that he could make pictures of his own. Quickly, before the vision escaped with me into sleep, I turned on the light and wrote out my study plan. The faculty with whom I had discussed by plan to study the search for goodness were surprised at the twelfth-hour change of direction, but none were more surprised than I.
In An Art of Our Own, Roger Lipsey wrote, "Images, like words, are vehicles of consciousness; they allow us to think silently. They can be regarded as silent words, and words as speaking images" (52). I began my exploration of silent words—haltingly, timidly. My head was full with images, and my hand did not have the skill to pursue them.
Where would I find my answers? The reply was resounding: Everywhere.
To give shape to my work,I followed the exercises in Judith Cornell's Drawing the Light from Within. Cornell led me through the color scale, guided my exercises in mixing color, and taught me to see light in the gradations from white to gray to black. I had a place to start, and the beginning images began to emerge.
Just as each evening ended with the cleaning of my brushes, each morning began with reading—but a reading quite different from that of my other ADP studies. The pages of my books were dense with rich, color reproductions of the work of the twentieth century's greatest artists. At the end of the first month of this study, I thought, What better place to search for goodness than in the lines and colors of great art? I had not abandoned my search for goodness; I had only found another avenue of search.
In the second month of my study, with Cornell's guidance, I was immersed in color play, learning the basic combinations of primary colors that could create any color, and attempting to use them in compositions.
I had had enough exposure to artists to expect that some proficiency in drawing was helpful, if not a necessity, in creating paintings and other works of art. I enrolled in a short drawing course based on Betty Edwards's Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. Outside class, I worked my way through the exercises in Edwards's book, learning to engage my right brain by copying a drawing while viewing it upside down. Edwards was teaching me to draw exactly what I saw, freeing me from the biased perception of my left brain.
Simultaneously, I continued working with Cornell's book, and I tackled what was to be my major work in terms of time. The assignment was to create an artistic graphic presentation of the color wheel. For three weeks I painstakingly applied bits of color to the design I had created.
As the French Surrealist René Magritte had done, I painted in the dining room, but unlike Magritte, I did not clear away my brushes and paints when it was time to eat. My coffee table became my dining surface as my dining room was wholly turned over to my art studies. The walls were randomly decorated with images and bits of colored papers held in place with stick pins, and one end of the table held my lamp and the large piece of masonite propped to achieve a slanted work surface.
Each day's labor in my dining-room studio involved five minutes of careful color mixing for every one minute of painting. The smallest brushes were used to fill in the closely spaced lines I had drawn to mark the gradually changing tones and shades of color that filled the designated spaces on my bristol board. As the color slowly brought the design to life, I was in awe of the effect Cornell was teaching me to acheieve. Even my visions of what painting could be began to build increasing layers of depth and beauty as the carefully drawn lines of the color study came alive with the application of bands of colored light.
As I painted, I would clean my brush by first blobbing the remaining paint on my brush onto a clean piece of Bristol or other art paper, creating a random design with tones and shades of each color I used. These blobs of color were to become the color wheel construction that I devised at the completion of my painting.
At the end of each evening's studio session, I would empty my paint tray onto a sheet of watercolor paper, allowing the paint to drip and run across its surface. I began to appreciate artists who threw paint at a canvas in what always had seemed to me a meaningless effort. Standing back, appraising the random streaks, I would assess the effect and decide that tomorrow it would be necessary to see that the darker colors would dribble on one side or the other.
In my morning reading, I was immediately drawn to the work of Wassily Kandinsky. Kandinsky did for me what Monet's Haystack had done for him when he viewed it at an 1895 Moscow exhibit: My view of art and what I wanted to paint was radically transformed. However, unlike Kandinsky, I am not independently wealthy and will not be leaving behind my paying career to enter art school.
Kandinsky's earliest abstract works contained clearly visible objects (Fig. 1), and he repeatedly wrote that his goal was to paint so that no intelligible object remained. In the preface of the Dover edition of Kandinsky's Concerning the Spiritual in Art, Richard Stratton states, "In Monet's Haystack Kandinsky had first perceived the dematerialization of an object" (viii). Here it is clear that Kandinsky's goal was not the pure abstraction of nonobjects, but rather the dematerialization achieved by Monet—an optical illusion where objects in a painting are not immediately identifiable.
Before I had read Becks-Malorny's text describing Kandinsky's mature abstracts as pure abstraction, with no intellgible forms, I had studied his paintings with interest. I had seen in them many intelligible forms. I had immediately seen in Yellow-Red-Blue (Composition VIII (Fig. 3) was, to me, an even more clear depiction of his studio. His easel is indicated by a black-line triangle to the right of center, and an aerial view of a container holding three brushes overlaps its right side. One large, red-handled brush lies diagonal across the right third of the painting. Again, squares of color imply palettes, and the surface of a drawing table appears.
Large circles, such as the black and violet one that appears in Composition VIII, are in most of Kandinsky's works. In his earlier pieces, the circles are clearly the sun over a landscape. The continuation of this circular form with its similar placement suggests that the sun shines in most of Kandinsky's work. The forms of paintbrushes also appear with frequency. It is as if he depicts himself looking out at the world, with his tools at hand to record what he sees. A view of Kandinsky's linear drawings of a dancer (Fig. 4) supports the idea that his paintings frequently, if not always, contained objects and persons translated into an artistic language that he invented.
My ability to read the notations, as art historians call the images in a painting, was apparently emerging. As I read the description of Braque's Woman Reading (Fig. 5), I noted the curved shapes of the woman's profile looking to her right and read with surprise: "The woman's head is marked by a few curls of hair, but no facial features are added" (Cooper 50). I had to examine closely to find the curls of hair to which Cooper referred, and as I found them at center top, I also saw them coming down to meet an ear ornamented with a dangling earring. There was even a face of someone peering over her left shoulder.
I had seen what the book's author had not, and in this case, I was absolutely certain. The forehead, eyes, nose, mouth, and chin of the figure were unmistakable. And though the author had been baffled at what the woman may have been reading, I could see clearly a right hand holding the cover of an open book and a left hand turning its pages. The Cubist habit of using a descriptive title from which to discern the subject matter was most certainly my initial key to the painting—I knew what to look for. My confidence in being a viewer of art was bolstered, and I had a longing to create such enigmatic works.
The twentieth century's abstract painters began their progression to abstract form from a background of solid artistic training that included learning to draw and paint realistically. Their work is far from unskilled child's play. Yet abstract art is the friend of the beginning artist. Before skills develop, satisfaction can be attained through random color play, carefully selecting shapes to fill the inviting whiteness of a blank sheet of art paper. My abstract paintings during this period were little vacations from the time-consuming exercises that were training my artist's eye and building my skills. In these paintings, I relaxed totally into the artistic process, losing track of time and sinking into a deep relaxation as my mind lost all sense of linguistic expression. I understood Lipsey's description of images as "silent words" (52).
It was in Lipsey that I discovered the odd art forms that flourished in Paris of the 1920s, the most bizarre among them being chance art and readymades. Chance art was an attempt to remove the self from the creative process. A poet would clip words from a newspaper and allow them to fall randomly into place, the result being declared a poem. There were even musical compositions created by drawing musical notes from a hat and placing them on the music staff in the order in which they were drawn.
I was titillated at the notion of creating a chance painting. How would it be done? Color swatches dropped in a hat? What about the shapes? Drop them in a hat, too? It was in this process of attempting to conceive my own chance art that I understood that the chance artists had set for themselves an impossible task. It was impossible to eliminate choice—the choice of words to clip from a newspaper, the choice of musical notes to drop into a hat, the choice of colors and forms to be included in the random drawing. I abandoned my chance art project. Removing self from the project was impossible, and in the end, there was only Lipsey's wise assessment: "The chance artist's attempts to remove himself result only in using considerably less of his brain than is available to him" (128).
Chance, however, was not to be completely abandoned. As I saw the globs of color slide down my working surface, I delighted in the result. I began to play with direction and color combinations. Clearly I had allowed intention to enter my experiment. Again, Lipsey had predicted my response:
One of the conditions for great art is a delicate, mobile balance between chance and intention. Intention alone is cold and chance alone is irresponsible and vacuous. together, under the eye of the working artist, they are an immense resource. (128)
It is a temptation to describe modern art as childish scrawl—something anyone with a paint brush can do. I can testify from my own experience that just anyone can't do it. Even my attempt to copy Marcel Duchamp's readymades, where all I had to do was sign an object and declare it art, became a major search for the suitable object. It was somewhat reminiscent of my search for stockings that exactly matched a hot pink evening dress. Even once acceptable stockings were found after weeks of search, there was a dissatisfaciton that led me to look further. The artistic dissatisfaction results in a lifetime exploration of form and color, searching for the next piece of the puzzle. Even for Duchamp, who would find a rusty cup holder and declare it art, the search was one of the educated eye of the artist.
So why not just paint a picture as true to reality as you can? Twentieth-century artists have replied, "That's been done. There's nowhere to go." This response reminded me of my experience this past summer when I saw, for the first time, a series of reproductions by a photorealist artist. My response to the work was: Why not just take a photograph? I was left empty in viewing the work. There were none of the painterly brush strokes in oil or pools of color in watercolor. There was nothing to distinguish it from the scene that it depicted.
Many of the twentieth-century artists have gone further than simply doing what has not been done. Klee, Kandinsky, Rothko, Noguchi were not attempting to represent the external world that passes through our eyes. It was a vision of an inner reality that they sought to express. Kandinsky called it the "inner need."
Updike had his own views on the success of the great abstract painters:
Pollock painting is the subject of Pollock's paintings. Abstract Expressionism has the effect of glamorizing the painter, of making him, rather than the sitter or the landscape or the Virgin, the star. (115)
From the deeply personal work of twentieth-century abstractionists, I moved into the art of social commentary and social protest—Goya's Spanish wars (Fig. 6) and Biggers's urban wars (Fig. 7). In his seventies, John Biggers lives today in Houston, Texas, where he moved in the 1950s to head the art department of the newly created Texas State University (now Texas Southern University). It was because I anticipated an opportunity to visit Biggers's Houston Studio that I particularly included a study of his work.
A Los Angeles art critic compared Biggers's work to Goya's, and so I preceded my study of Biggers with a study of Goya, the Spanish master who died many years before the birth of the other artists I studied. I explored Goya's art to see what in it may have inspired a comparison with the dramatic and moving work of a contemporary African-American artist, a master in his own right.
The art of protest, which they share, is executed by both artists with the skill of a master, but not pretty in its subject matter. Speaking of the overt, sometimes violent segregationist policies of the U.S. armed services during World War II, Biggers stated, "I did some things that Pieter Bruegel and them hadn't done. I showed that whorin' den. I drew everything . . . I drew the whole damn mess" (qtd. in Wardlaw 33).
Both artists used distortion to evoke the emotion of their subjects, and both created a vast body of drawings, sharing a love of drawing. Goya's social commentaries were drawn and painted in his later years, his youth being devoted to promoting his ambitions as a court painter to the Spanish king. Biggers's most dramatic social commentaries were painted in his youth, beginning while he was a student of famous art educator Viktor Lowenfeld at Hampton Institute (and later at Penn State, where Biggers received his B.A., M.A., and Ed.D.) and continuing throughout his tenure in the U.S. Navy during World War II.
Goya bemoaned the abuses of royalty and the church and the destruction of war. Biggers mourned the loss of African-American lives in lynchings and their degradation in urban slums when they left their rural subsistence to find a better life in the city. Neither artist avoided depicting the ugliness of reality.
Another interesting similarity between the Spaniard from a background of minor nobility and the American black man from an educated, working class, rural Southern family is that they each came to artistic maturity far from the important recognized art centers of their times. Biggers avoided the art centers of New York, and Goya matured in a Spain that offered him no mentor and no followers.
It is Biggers's earlier art (Fig. 8) that most resembles Goya's later art (Fig. 9). It is the content and the passion for their subjects conveyed by these artists that evoke a similarity. Both artists took major new directions in their art after serious illnesses, Goya at forty-seven, Biggers in his fifties. Following illness, Goya turned to his art of social protest, Biggers to his art of spiritality. There is tremendous contrast in their mature art. Biggers's is one of hope and enlightenment, Goya's one of continuing dark satirical comment on life. Biggers says today that his goal is "the triumph of the human spirit over the mundane and the material" (qtd. in Wardlaw 106).
The theme of creation is found throughout Biggers's work of the last twenty-five years (Fig. 10). "The African woman in her divine creative capacity, motivated within me a desire to paint murals on creation from a matriarchal point of view," he states (Wardlaw 103). As I read Biggers's thoughts on creation, I remembered Kandinsky writing that the apex of a triangle meeting a circle is symbolic of the finger of God. I could see Michelangelo's finger of God sparking Adam's creation (Fig. 11), and I pictured the wavy blue lines of my graphic color wheel. When I painted them, I envisioned those lines as water moving into the center of a sun figure. Now I could see the universal symbolism. In my mind I saw the films of nature photographer Lennart Nilsson, showing the wriggling, tiny sperm swimming into the gigantic ovum, sacrificing its form to the act of creation as it was swallowed into the void.
From Goya and Biggers I entered the world of self-taught artists, looking at the works of Mary Anna "Grandma" Moses and eighty Southern artists featured in an exhibit at the New Orleans Museum of Art in 1994. Roofing tin, old doors, and grocery sacks are but a few of the found supports that these self-taught artists used to produce works of striking originality and interest. There are a number of common threads among most of these artists: interrupted education and undertaking their art during retirement. I felt an affinity for these artists who found little time for their artistic pursuits while they were in their working years.
Otto Kallir, the gallery owner who first showed Moses's paintings and is her official biographer and cataloger, made a very important observation about American art: "In contrast to Europe, no art schools had existed in America until well into the nineteenth century. People who painted had to find their own technical and artistic means of expression" (65).
It seemed quite natural tht I would proceed from the uniqueness of American self-taught artists to Georgia O'Keefe, the most vividly American of the world's great artisgts. Since O'Keeffe was alive during much of my adult life, it was with surprise that I realized she was contemporary with Kandinsky, who died in 1944. She read Concerning the Spiritual in Art when it was first published in English translation, and, in 1915 when she was teaching in South Carolina, she reported that she was testing herself against Kandinsky's aesthetic theory for he second time. It was here that I realized that O'Keeffe's words applied equally to my own experience, that my art—my writing, as well as my painting and drawing—"was nobody's business but my own" (qtd. in Eldredge 161). At this point in her career, she followed Kandinsky's lead, banishing recognizable subject matter from her work. She worked in charcoal, drawing shapes and ideas from her mind.
O'Keeffe's teacher, Arthur Wesley Dow, had emphasized balanced values of darks and lights as a basis for his composition system. Her work of this period reminded me of the exercises I had done following Cornell's instruction. Though I did not have the training and years of building artistic skill, as had O'Keefe, I returned to Cornell with O'Keeffe's words as my clear motivation: "to fill a space in a beautiful way" (qtd. in Eldredge 161).
Using guided meditation suggested by Cornell, I created abstracts with pencil. I accomplished a complete scale from light to dark by varying the pressure of the pencil against the paper and using the whiteness of the paper as light. The result was undulating lines and varied shapes, creating something that was quite simply fun to behold.
Looking for subjects for my drawing, I set up my old slide projector, and lacking a scrfeen or blank wall, I set a large drawing tablet on a chair, using its bright white surface as a screen. I drew a free-hand sketch from a picture of my cat lying in the garden, and then to test my sense of poportion, I quickly sketched over the projected image on the drawing-pad screen. It was a liberating experience to move the pencil in bold strokes across the large surface. Over the next few days, I painted and drew on the 18"x24" pad, experiencing a freedom and looseness that had not characterized my earlier efforts.
Over the course of the following month, I suffered a lingering illness, frequently feeling physically weak and mentally fuzzy. My work began to tighten. There was comfort in the free-form pencil abstract assigned by Cornell, but on this large piece, I was comfortable only with the small, careful detail required. The vulnerability of the illness had set me back; my very being had contracted into a smaller format. The small pages of my sketch book were comfortable, the large 18"x24" sheets insurmountable. I was reminded of my friend who has struggled with mental illness most of his adult life. His acrylic abstracts are superb renditions of color, movement, and texture, yet he is unable to work beyond a 5"x7" format. "I've tried," he told me. "I cannot work larger." As the illness subsided and my strength returned, I found that I could again make large, sweeping lines.
The last book I read, as I concluded my study, was Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut. I chose it because Vonnegut illustrated it himself and because I recalled having heard him say that he grew up in a houysehold where everyone painted, and it was an activity that he had kept for himself all his life.
Written on the occasion of his fiftieth birthday, Vonnegut dedicated his book to Phoebe Hurty, who hired him to write advertising copy for teenage clothes ads for the Indianapolis Times during the Depression. Vonnegut says Hurty taught him to be "impolite in conversation . . . about American history . . . the distribution of wealth, about school, about everything" (2). "I now make my living by being impolite," he adds. And so he does. Vonnegut is America's greatest satirist, and his black comedy is so skillful that one cries as one clutches society's faults closely to one's breast in affection.
Vonnegut's illustrations are deceptively childlike. His drawings contain, too, that genius to say much, humorously and sometimes painfully, in a simple straightforward way. His illustration of an "asshole" is a large asterisk drawn with a felt-tip pen:
As in his writing, he has said a lot with but a few strokes of the pen.
Vonnegut is at home with outrageous modern art. He is himself a creator of it. He writes things like:
A flying saucer creature named Zog arrived on Earth to explain how wars could be prevented and how cancer could be cured. He brought the information from Margo, a planet where the natives conversed by means of farts and tap dancing.
It was the writer D. H. Lawrence who inspired my adventure into studio art, and thus I had a great interest in writers as artists, artists as writers, and the relationship between verbal and nonverbal languages. Writing among artistis, I found, was not so rare, for many of them were philosophers—exploring the meaning of life and their place in it. Kandinsky wrote many pieces, the most famous and enduring being Concerning the Spiritual in Art, Metzinger wrote the first book on Cubism, On Cubism, and Klee's 1924 lecture, On Modern Art, published as an illustrated book, remains a classic.
Shapeless emotions such as fear, joy, grief, etc. . . . will no longer greatly attract the artist. He will endeavour to awake subtler emotions, as yet unnamed. Living himself a complicated and comparatively subtle life, his work will give to those observers capable of feeling them lofty emotions beyond the reach of words. (2)
One cannot deny the separate language of art. Thornton Dial, Sr., one of the self-taught artists repreented in the New Orleans exhibit, stated the case most clearly: "I can't read and spell but I got a mind and I can speak with any man. I might say something in my art that somebody ain't never heard before" (qtd. in Yelen 305).
It is difficult for me to see words, pictures, or sounds as innately superior to one another. It seems rather that they enhance one another as vehicles of communicaiton. It has been true for me that vboth music and art evoke emotion that is difficult to describe, yet nonetheless I have ttempted description. Words are necessary things in our communicaiton of ideas with one another. We may be moved beyond words by the artist's paint-layered canvas or the composer's lyrical notes, but it is with words that we communicate to others our experiences with these things.
Writer George Orwell advised putting off words "as long as possible":
The very origin and meanng of art is the subject of endless academic discourses in a multitude of disciplines. In 1970, behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner wrote that "early man had to free himself from a constant preoccupation with food, shelter, and safety before he could begin to decorate his clothing, his dwelling, his weapons, and his body" before he could "create things with no other function than to be decorative" (Solomon R. Guggenheim Found. 61). Skinner's notion that art is the result of free time is not original, and though on the surface it appears logical, science provides a convincing argument to the contrary. In The Social History of Art, Arnold Hauser suggested that aesthetics is built into the brain of all living things. He pointed to the bird's nest and the intricate patterns of the honey bee's comb. He defined this aesthetic sense as a natural stgriving to symmetry which is the basis of art. This scientific explaqnation is an echo of Mondrian's 1918 commnet: "Through painting itself, the artist became conscious that the appearance of the universal-as-the-mathematical is the essence of all feelings of beauty" (qtd. in Lipsey 71).
I view art to be as necessary as water, and, if Hauser is correct, as biologically basic as the need to feed oneself. I find offensive Skinner's assumption that art is solely a product of leisure. It is this reduciton of art to a pastime that haunts the dreams of aspiring artists who are urged by their well-meaning "practical" contemporaries to do something "useful." Embracing art as a way of life is not the path of a wimp.
Updike suggested that John Singer Sargent never reached his potential genius. Discouraged early in his career by criticism of a portrait he painted, Sargent withdrew to a place of safety, painting the more acceptable portraits that made him the darling of society and a very rich man. Sargent's sensitivity reminded me that some are too fragile to go on when they are not praised and that reaching for greatness is most often a hallmark of durable egos who struggle persistently against the tide of opinion. Where would twentieth-century art be if Cézanne, Picasso, and Matisse had succumbed to the disapproval of the popular notion of the art of their times? Clearly, the "inner need" to create art espoused by Kandinsky must be stronger than the need for approval of one's peers.
There is a deepening of the experience of art when a study of the lives and works of the great painters is undertaken. This in no way means that one ceases to say, "I know what I like." Even Georgia O'Keeffe, in her later years, when asked what she thought of a Jackson Pollock painting, replied, "Anybody can have it as far as I'm concerned" (O'Keeffe).
That was my feeling when I stood before a giant deKooning canvas at The Menil Collection. The merit that the de Menils must have found in it when they added it to their collection escaped me. Yet when I moved from the loggia where the four huge deKooning paintings hung and into the Surrealist Gallery, my mood quickly changed. Standing before a collection of Magritte's paintings, I stopped breathing for a moment in awe. No doubt the pleasant young woman stgrolling through the four rooms of surrealist art, cell phone in hand, would have moved swiftly to stop me had I reached out to touch, but I was that close. My face hovered inches from each painting as I examined every detail—then moved back to see it from afar. In an alcove adjoining the Magritte room was a bigger-than-life-size bronze sculpture of Magritte's famous man with a bird cage for a head. I circled it, studied it, allowed my breath to caress it. "Now this is something that I like," I mumbled to myself with pleasure.
It is inherent in a study that spans only six months that much more is left unexplored than that which is explored. My work was not always a work of serial sensibility, but often one of serendipity, spontaneity, and the happy convergence of sychronicity—materials, time, and ideas meeting to create what was there at the moment.
"Art is the child of its age" (4), Kandinsky wrote in On the Spiritual in Art, and I found this to be just as true for the individual exploring her own way with a paint brush as it is for all of humankind evolving century by century. All artists have their "periods." Picasso had his Blue Period, his Rose Period, and his Cubism. Magritte had his Nasty Period, as his friends called it, when he painted sweet Impressionistic pictures for a brief time in the 1930s. I lived many of my periods vicariously through the artists I studied.
Kandinsky, above all, inspired me to explore abstraction. Picasso and Braque seduced me with Cubism, Magritte converted my heart to Surrealism, Grandma Moses inspired my desire to explore primitivism, John Biggers sparked my interest in painting on a light-infused background of intricate geometric designs, Matisse drove me to explore flat, primary colors outlined in black. Even Duchamp's rusty cup holder, signed and declared art, titillated my artistic vision. I raced through the twentieth century, landing squarely on the butt of my limited skill.
It was with comfort that I read Klee's words, knowing that my lack of skill was not the sole reaosn for my inability to fully realize my artistic vision:
It was a vain thought that I would find my form and style in six months. The great painters explored for years to achieve their unique styles. And what difference does it make how long it takes? The art is only another means to describe the journey and explore it as the self unfolds. Cornell writes, "whatever brought you to the study of art was an impulse toward the deepening of your experience of life itself" (4).
I see now there has always been an interchange in me of words becoming pictures and pictures becoming words. I cannot write without first seeing a picture that needs to be described, and when I read words, they only attain meaning when translated in my mind's eye to a picture. Words are a vehicle to pass to another a picture that arises in the mind. And just as the painting is seen differently by each person who views it, the words conjure for each reader their own unique vision.
My work for my show is complete, but my art has just begun. I have been inducted into that mysterious world of the artist where ochre, alizarin, and magenta are as familar as green, red, and blue. I have learned that I knew more about art than I thought I did and that there is more to know about art than I thought there was.
[This section consists of three plastic sheets of pockets containing 36 images selected from the work I completed during this study. If you wish to view this work, you may click on the titles in the following List of Works.]
1. Charts of Shades in Green. Gouache and tempera on bristol mounted on paper. 15"x10quot&.
2. Primary Colors. Gouache on paper. 12"x18".
3. Illumination Exercise. Tempera on bristol. 6"x8".
4. Color Wheel. Gouache on bristol mounted on paper. 17"x14".
5. Leftover Paint. Gouache on paper. 8½"x11½".
6. Awakening I. Tempera on bristol. 13"x16".
7. Awakening II. Tempera on paper. 7½"x9½".
8. O'Keeffe. Pencil on paper. 6"x4".
9. Dribbles. Gouache and tempera on paper. 8½"x11½".
10. Orange. Gouache and tempera on bristol. 6¼"x13½".
11. Into the Void. Gouache and tempera on bristol mounted on paper. 17¼x15½.
12. Color Wheel Construction. Gouache and tempera on mixed papers mounted on mat board. 20"x22".
13. Sebastian in the Garden I. Pencil on paper. 12"x17".
14. Sebastian in the Garden II. Pencil on paper. 18"x24".
15. Greenery. Gouache and tempera on bristol. 17"x14".
16. Sebastian. Tempera on bristol. 11"x14".
17. Yellow Dot. Gouache and tempera on paper. 11"x16".
18. Brown. Gouache and tempera on bristol. 7½"x9½".
19. The Leap. Gouache and tempera on illustration board. 15"x20".
20. In a Slump. Pencil on paper. 18"x24".
21. Brown and Orange. Gouache and tempera on paper. 8"x11".
22. Garden I. Lithographic crayon on newsprint. 17"14".
23. Garden II. Lithographic crayon on newsprint. 17"x14".
24. Movement. Lithographic crayon on newsprint. 17"x14".
25. Symphony. Lithographic crayon on newsprint. 17"x14".
26. Outsider. Color pencil on paper. 9"x12".
27. Blue Bubble Hiding. Color pencil on paper. 9"x12".
28. Green Tomatoes. Color pencil on paper. 9"x12".
29. Composition in Pencil. Pencil on paper. 16"x22".
30. Another World. Magazine images on art paper. 14"x19".
31. Eye on Nature. Magazine images on art paper. 12"x15¼".
32. Blue. Gouache and tempera on paper. 10"x15¼".
33. Screaming in Color. Gouache on paper. 6"x9".
34. Apples. Ink on paper. 9"x6".
35. Serendipity. Lithographic crayon on paper. 11"x14".
36. Creation. Gouache and tempera on illustration board. 15"x20".
Even before I revealed to myself that I would do a studio art study, I made a sketch in my residency journal. The sketch looked like this:
At the top I wrote, ""In Search of Goodness." I'm not sure what the picture means. On the last page of Vonnegut's novel, I found his self-portrait. It looked like this:
I'm not sure what that means either.
Vonnegut wrote Breakfast of Champions at his fiftieth birthday. I was entering my fifties when I first became aware that I was looking for something. I called it "the meaning of life." I looked for it diligently for six years. I talked to a lot of people, read a lot of books, and had a lot of experiences, some of them quite unusual—for me at least. As I completed my studio art study, I renamed my search for meaning and called it a "search for goodness."
Vonnegut was interested in many of the things I was interested in. I suspect Vonnegut is searching for goodness, too, and that's what his book is about. I think that's what everything is about.
I think the metal talks to me more when I'm scrounging around looking for it, rather than when I'm looking for a specific piece. . . . The piece will tell me exactly what it is, what I want. (56)
Anything you pick up, somebody know about. You picking up the spirit of somebody . . . Leaves fall off a tree got a spirit in them. Cows, dirt, rocks, the whole world, all that stuff carry on life . . . That's what recycle is all about. When God died, he rose again. (57)
Paul Cézanne: The Man and the Mountain. Dir. Jochen Richter. Prod. Jakob Hausmann. RM Arts, 1985. It is a rewarding experience to be introduced to Cézanne through a "moving picture," one that represents reality in a way that he himself shunned. Using an actor dressed in clothes such as those worn by Cézanne, the film takes us to Aix-en-Provence, Cézanne's birthplace and the place where he spent most of his life painting. The giant mountain that overlooks the town is found in nearly all his landscapes. The countryside of Aix, filmed for the video, juxtaposed with his paintings—a jumble of rocks and trees, colors stacked—effectively alloows the viewer to see what Cézanne saw as he painted. By seeing the color and forms that he saw, the viewer can begin to understand what he was trying to do.
I made my first visit to the Menil Collection on a sunny Sunday afternoon in October. I knew a little about this unique private art museum before my visit. I knew that it came about as a means for Dominique de Menil to share with the community the extensive art collection that she and her husband, John, had acquired prior to his death. I knew that it is an architectural landmark that architects visiting Houston seek out. And I knew that Mrs. de Menil had negotiated to purchase all the homes that faced the museum building on three sides. One block of homes was cleared to create a large park, and on one corner fo the park, the Rothko Chapel was built. The homes and small apartment buildings left standing were all painted gray to match the new museum building.
I parked across the street from the main entrance, in front of a gray 1930s bungalow. The tenant was sitting in a rocking chair reading his newspaper amid a jungle of healthy tropical plants. It was an unusual setting for a major art colleciton. In the park adjoining the museum, a large modern sculpture broke the open expanse of green, and large trees lined the sidewalk that framed the park. A couple sat on the grass eating a picnic lunch, and a young man with back propped to a tree was reading.
I was greeted by a cheerful middle-aged woman seated behind a reception counter. She handed me a brochure, pointing to the room layout that was labeled with the names of each collection. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that, unlike the public art museums, there was no admission charge.
The first room I entered had the appearance of a foyer. One wall was floor-to-ceiling glass with large double doors facing the Menil Collection Store located across the street. A large round, upholstered bench was in the center of the room, and on the three solid walls were de Kooning paintings, gigantic canvases splashed with orange, pink, and yellow. Nice color, I decided after several minutes of contemplation, but not my style.
I went from room to room—the gallery of twentieth-century African art, the gallery of ancient artifacts from Siberia, Egypt, and Sumeria, the Surrealist gallery, and the gallery of contemporary art. Museum guards were not uniformed; they were in street dress and carried cellular telephones, carefully observing visitors.
A few days before my visit to the Menil, I had watched a video about the life and work of Surrealist painter René Magritte. Here, in the Surrealist gallery, I brought my face within inches of his paintings. In other rooms there were works by Duchamp, Brauner, Ernst, and Escher. Magritte had been a close friend of the de Menils, and as I later learned, the paintings on view were only a few among a much larger colleciton of his works that they owned.
I left in a high state. This was very unlike my visits to the large structure that housed the Museum of Fine Arts. The environment at the Menil was so inviting and so viewer friendly that I experienced an intimacy with the art that I had not previously felt.
A few weeks later, I returned to the Menil, primarily to see the Cy Twombly Gallery, a separate building across the street fromt he main colelciton. I also wanted to make my first visit to the Rothko Chapel.
Of the twenty or so Twombly sculptures and paintings, I liked two and tolerated perhaps four others. I was clearly not sufficiently educated to enjoy the gigantic canvases (one approached twenty feet high and forty feet long) splashed randomly with bits of color and punctuated by scrawled words. I did enjoy Twombly's choice of grafitti and thought perhaps if I knew more about the man, I might come to appreciate his scratches and splashes.
I walked across the street to the main collection to see the Mark Rothko exhibit that had just opened. In the foyer, the de Koonings had been replaced with Rothkos—three brightly colored canvases in the familiar square-on-square format employed by the artist. The work of contemporary artists that had hung in the west gallery at my first visit had been replaced by a colleciton of Rothko's dark paintings. With an average size of perhaps 20 feet by 20 feet, the paintings commanded attention. I could only wonder why a man would spend so many years painting the same thing over and over and why the colors were so dark that they drank up the light of the gallery.
I walked the block to the Rothko Capel, passing by the park inhabited by dozens of people enjoying the sunny Sunday. My eyes had to become accustomed to the dim light as I entered the small chapel. Simple wood benches were placed in the center, and black carpet with three black floor cushions were on the floor at the front. Each of the four walls were covered with Rothko's large, dark canvases. I did not stay long. As I sat on he bench in he silence, srrounded by the deathly quiet o the dark panels Rothko created shortly before his suicide, a well of emotion moved into my throat, and I quickly left to avoid dissolving into tears.
Later, I was to ponder my reaction. There was a hint of sadness at the bitter end to Rothko's life, but more than that, I was reacting to what I had just learned about the history of the chapel:
The Rothko Chapel was . . . consecrated to God on February 27, 1971 by eminent represenntatives of the Eastern and Latin Church, by Protestant ministers, by rabbis and Muslims . . . It is a place where the experience and understanding of all traditions are encouraged and made available.
In the Rothko Chapel's twentieth year, it housed a "Prayer for World Peace," led by His Holiness The Dalai Lama, and that year's human rights awards ceremony with Nelson Mandela as the keynote speaker. I saw photographsof these great events—both famous and little-known human rights activists from throughout the world receiving their awards.
As I reflected on the importance of the Rothko Chapel as a place of worship for people of all faiths and as a symbol of world peace, I realized how strongly my emotions were engaged by the significance of tis place in the history of humanitarian effort. It was the exquisite tenderness of the mission assigned to this small chapel that moved me to tears, not the tragedy of the artist whose paintings lined its walls.
A month after my visit to the Rothko Chapel, Dominique de Menil opened another chapel across the street from the Rothko, this one to house thirteenth-century Byzantine frescoes. The frescoes were stolen from their original home in Cyprus, and when they were recovered, they had been broken into fourteen pieces by the thieves. Mrs. de Menil acquired the pieces and supported the two-year process of restoration.
I entered the small contemporary buiding late on a Sunday afternoon. I passed through the small reception room and into the chapel. In the center of the dimly lit space was a glass enclosure, completely open on the side approached by visitors as they entered. Within the three glass walls were simple benches arranged in a semi-circle, and above the benches was an illuminated, domed ceiling on which a fresco had been mounted. On the back wall was the other fresco, and in front of it a glass pulpit on a raised platform. The feeling was one of a private family chapel—and anyone who chose to enter became a member of the family.
The benches were fully occupied, and I stood, peering up into the dome at the brightly lit fresco of Christ. The extraordinary compatibility between the six-hundred-year-old painting and its modern new home was striking. Directly in front of me, a young woman rose from her seat and bent over to speak to an elderly woman seated in a black sling chair placed at the corner where two benches met.
I realized that the woman in the chair was Dominique de Menil. She had come to spend the day with those who came to visit her chapel. It was not too surprising. I had heard that she frequently stood at the door of the Menil Colleciton museum to greet visitors as they arrived. In a television interview a few days before the new chapel opened, she was asked why she had opened her art collection to the public at no charge. "It's like having dinner," she replied. "You can gorge yourself alone, or you can have friends in to enjoy it with you."
I moved out of he chapel, into the reception room through which I had entered, and noticed a small hallway. I turned into it, and was rewarded with a small room with glass walls looking into a walled garden with a beautiful fountain.
The Byzantine Chapel has a quality shared by all the buildings in the Menil Collection: the feeling that I am in the home of a dear relative, where no special invitation is necessary, and the door is always open. At each unannounced visit, I am greeted graciously, lovingly, and with quiet celebration.
I left with a glad heart and a light step. A remarkable woman has given a great gift to her very large extended family.
Two months remained before the end of the semester, and the friend who had promised to arrange a visit to the studio of artist John Biggers was not returning my telephone calls. Since visiting an artist's studio was a requirement of my study, I knew I needed to quickly find another artist who would welcome me. I sat at my desk thinking through the problem when my friend, Nancy, rushed into my office. "You've got to go see this," she said as she tossed a colorful brochure on my desk. "I don't have time to talk; I have an appointment. But go see that!" And she rushed out.
It was not so unusual for Nancy to drop in on me suddenly, deliver some important advice or news, and rapidly depart before I could say more than "Thank you, goodbye." What was unusual was the content of the printed piece she had tossed at me. In big letters, the piece announced an art exhibit at the University of Houston's Blaffer Gallery: "Stella in Studio: The Public Art of Frank Stella, 1982–1997." In the very fine print at the bottom, I read:
Guided tours of the STELLA IN STUDIO exhibition and to Frank Stella's studio in Houston are available to groups of ten or more. In addition to guided tours, there will be open studio days at Stella's studio on selected weekends. Please call . . .
Stella was to paint the murals for the new music building on the University of Houston campus, and a special studio had been set up in Houston's downtown warehouse district, not too far from the UH campus. I called and learned that the studio would be open to the public on March 9 and March 16, barely in time to fulfill my requirement.
I marked my calendar to remind myself. If I did not hear about the promised appointment with Biggers by March 2, I would visit the Stella exhibit; and if I still did not hear by March 9, I would attend the studio open house. I had looked forward to meeting Biggers, whose work I had included in my study, and I had no particular interest in Stella. Though I recognized Stella's name, I knew nothing of his work.
March 2 arrived, and I had heard nothing about a visit to Biggers's studio. I invited a friend to accompany me to the Stella exhibit at the University of Houston's Blaffer Gallery.
As we turned away from the reception desk and entered the large main room of the gallery, we both giggled as we saw the large, brightly colored sketches hanging on one wall. The effect of gigantic neon cutouts with the appearance of doodles was quite plainly happy. It was simply impossible to look at them without smiling.
The row of sketches led to a display of architectural models. Stella had designed a number of public buildings, his signature being an unusual spiral-design roof. He designed buildngs as sculptures, and then he architects and engineers took over to make them workable.
The models gave way to small sculptures. Layers of swirls, curves, and straight lines overlapped each other, creating fascinating patterns in color, texture, and form. I examined them closely, trying to see how the amazing effects had been created. "Look at this!" my friend would exclaim. "Come here," I would say, "You've got to see this. How do you think he did it?" We were having a very good time.
When we moved into the smaller of the two gallery rooms, we were met by a gigantic sculpture that occupied the center of the room, leaving just enough of a corridor to comfortably view the art and photographs hanging on the walls. The structure had the appearance of a thick wiggly wall, painted with a continuous mural that curved around each end. It was more of the same thing we had seen on the smaller sculptures, but on a much larger scale.
Nearly an hour had passed since we had entered the gallery, and we were in sensory overload. It was unlike any other gallery experience. Stella's work engaged with such energy that I ferlt as if I had been running and playing, and I needed a rest. We walked out into the gallery courtyard and into the bright afternoon sun. The icy wind soon drove us back inside, and we returned to examine the remainder of the exhibit. When we left sometime later, our spirits were soaring.
The telephone call that did not come had led me to the discovery of Frank Stella's happy art.
The week following my visit to the Stella exhibit, I visited Stella's mural studio. The work was being done in one large, open space. Long tables had been set up close to the door, where visitors were invited to sit down and create their own Stella-esque constructions from colorful plastic, paper, sparkle, and findings. A dozen children and a few adults were taking advantage of the arrangement.
There must have been hundreds of yards of canvas hung on three walls, and about fifteen workers were painting, some standing on the floor, others on scaffolding.
Stella has a very high tech method for executing is murals. Colorful and intricate three-dimensional constructions are the first stage. The constructions are photographed, and the photographs are scanned into a computer. Sophisticated programs convert the photograph to a pixel image. Overhead projectors throw the computer-generated image onto the huge canvas, and the mural crew trace it carefully. Once the outlines are in place on the canvas, painters begin to fill in the color, making reference to a photograph of the image they are painting.
I slowly walked the expanse of the huge murals in progress, examining the work and talking to the craftsmen. Two of them had come from Toronto, where they had worked on Stella's ornamentation of The Princess of Wales Theater. Some of the painting was being done carefully by hand; some was being sprayed on after the area to be painted had been carefully taped. One small secitn of the wall was devoted to experimentation and testing. An artist was trying out a special raised effect, squeezing acrylic structural paint through a pastry horn.
The large warehouse doors were open to the afternoon sun, and large fans moved the unseasonably warm air as young artists worked diligently to create yet another energetic example of Frank Stella's public art.