Saturday, October 27, 2012

You Must Honor Illness

(a Spiral Dance essay)

I've felt pulled off-balance for so long, off-center and not-grounded, and for good reason. I had been ill for twenty years, although it hadn't been diagnosed as what it was till near the end of that time. Then the cure had its own pulls off center, a genuine cure but it comes with its own set of problems, changes and re-creations of what was and what can never be again. I still don't know what the new normal is. If there is one. If there will ever be again a sense of stability and direction.

I spend all this long day waiting, a day where nothing bad happened but I just couldn't get rid of that sense of darkness and void lurking just behind everything you see. Out of the corner of the eye the fabric is ripped away and the play is revealed for what it is, a painted backdrop over nothing. If you turn your head too quickly, the paper rips and you see through the world into that emptiness behind all manifest things.

And that's why I often feel off-balance and fogged out and ungrounded lately. It's just that I don't have any maps any more. All the old maps are useless or incomplete. When you've drifted this far out to sea, there's no sense of which direction to go to find land again. It's water heaving all around, and no smell of shore.

So in the past few days, after a summer's long pull down towards the smiling void, I find myself turning, or returning, to those sources that have given me a sense of center before, a center from which to extend. And so this morning I read, out of nothing that could remotely be called a coincidence, words that linger with me all this long day. Words that come back to me as I fail to find my center and extent once again this late night:

You must honor illness. It gives us time for reflection. As hard as it is, it helps us sort out our priorities. I know there's nothing worse then someone telling you, 'This illness of yours is a gift.' No, it's painful and discouraging. It's not a gift, but it is a time to pull back and take a closer look at one's life.

—Father Sergei, quoted in Mary Swander's luminous book The Desert Pilgrim: En route to mysticism and miracles.

I have tried hard, many times, to honor my illness, and my recovery. Illness has not been a gift. It's been a passage that more or less removed any chance of meeting whatever ambition I had felt years ago for purpose in this life. This doesn't mean there was no direction, but such maps as there were were never more than puzzle codexes in a lost language leading you away from treasure island. Illness sent me adrift and astray. The beneficial knowledge that comes from hindsight about this illness is knowing that in fact my failures in life, so labeled when they occurred, were not a failure of will, not a personality defect, nor a lack of focus. The life-force truly had been sucked out of my blood, blood which tastes like a lost ancestral ocean. I was neither too lazy nor unambitious, I was in truth waylaid by gravitational tides fully veiled until this recent complicated cure.

Still the recovery has been a time of reflection. My priorities, after almost dying, were reshuffled into a new configuration. I know what my purpose here is now, and I know upon reflection what I'm for, what I do best: I am a maker, a bard, an artist, who's really not very good at much else. Self-knowledge is not all roses and lilies, though, as I have discovered I lack any patience for idiocy that would further leech my essence. I know my mortality from the inside out, having almost lost my ability to live. I have a lot to do, and don't want to waste any more time doing it.

So that's the necessary distinction: My illness was no gift, yet it did provide me other gifts. Of self-awareness, of self-confidence in knowing what I'm good at and what I'm supposed to do with it. I'm still recovering. Not what was lost, but what I never had but dreamed. A dream wherein a map guides me no land that ever was, but an island come into being as one discovers it. There's nothing on the other side of those mountains till you cross their range and see what's there, the act of vision itself what solidifies void into form, light into mass. That effortless conversion of energy into matter.

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Friday, October 26, 2012

if you let that silence in

Feeling really inward this evening. One of those times when you just want to sit and watch the changing of the light, as the evening sky goes from afternoon to sunset to the indigo of night. Reading until it's too dark to see anymore. That sort of mood. Wanting everyone to just go away and leave you alone, even though it's not that you want to push people away, just that it's hard to be around people when you're in that mood. This is exactly how depression and PTSD alienate: you don't feel like you can connect with anyone, because you're in a different universe than they are. Nothing connects. E.M. Forster's epigram and key phrase from his novel Howard's End was "Only connect." But at the end of his greatest novel, A Passage to India, there's a scene between two of the main characters that raises the doubt that we ever can connect. That it might just not be possible. We try hard but there are always rocks and hills that get in between us, get in our way. I feel on the other side of the mountains from everyone, in these evening moods. This is the ceremony of the changing of the light. No light to see by, till the carriage lights turn on and the sky tries to fill with stars. Which it won't tonight, because of clouds and cold. I need to get out and go grocery shopping, just a few odds and ends, but I don't want to move at all. I wrote a poem some years ago in this mood, and it had some legs, even got published. "La Madonna." A young wife's interior monologue, as she sits in silence, in a quiet moment between the flurry of her usual day. "In a minute," she says, before the poem ends. She'll rejoin the world in a minute. Sometimes you just want some time to yourself, to be still and silent and by yourself. One thing that experience has proven is that extraverts never really understand introverts; they never comprehend why we need to be still and silent for part of our day, how it recharges. I also feel in no rush to be around people these days, as they tend to be noisy and clueless and overbearing. PTSD for me means I get easily overstimulated. It just gets too loud and overwhelming sometimes. I get the sense that lots of my friends really don't understand that. I doubt few of them have even read this far. How do you get a quiet message through the personal and cultural noise? The voice of the divine isn't loud, it's a still small voice, a voice you must listen for, and it's easy to miss. Too much noise, not enough signal, that's the state of the world. It's mostly noise, very little signal. I've had friends marvel at the fact that when they come to visit, I don't have the TV on, or the radio, or even the stereo, using background noise to cover over that silence, that void and gap in conversation and communion that most people seem to be deathly afraid of. Geese are passing over, there's only a thin line of light on the western horizon, everything else has gone blue and grey. People are afraid of silence. We've all gotten so used to the loud noise of cultural that people are afraid of even gaps in conversation. We're so used to fast editing in the entertainment, sharp cuts and jerky camera shots and editing for maximum adrenaline stimulation, that people don't know what to do with themselves if the moment is too quiet. I have friends who are incapable of sitting in silent companionship, saying nothing, just holding space, just sharing the silence. The minute there's a gap in the noise, they try to generate signal. But it always comes out wrong. They stumble. But I'm afraid of the silences and gaps in fellowship. I'm comfortable with silence. The void is a longtime companion that I have come to know very well. Whole worlds can drop into those silences. When I'm driving across the loneliest two-lane highway in the world, a hundred miles from anywhere, out in the desert in Utah or Nevada, or on the unpaved roads of the northern Great Lakes backcountry, I sometimes pull the truck over, turn off the motor, get out, lean against the hood, and just listen to the silence. An hour of the total silence of the desert is worth a month of talk therapy. Things settle in place. Life stops. There's nothing but the present moment, nowhere to be, nothing to do, and most importantly nothing that needs to be said. I know a lot of very smart people who are incapable of silence, who process everything in words, whose lives make no sense to them until they talk it out or think it in their minds in words, till they fill the void gap with their own words. I know writers and poets who never shut up, and don't know how to. But I also know musicians who know the value of a long rest, of the fermata, of the breath-pause in between phrases, that tiny moment of absolute stillness that an entire world can fall through, between the end of one phrase and the beginning of the next. No words there, and none needed. The words fail us at that point, and that's where the bard and shaman know that poetry begins. Purple and grey band of light under the soft lip of steel clouds behind forks of bare trees as the wind stills for long enough for you to hear something in that evening silence that can feel the world. If you let it.

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Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Rural Skies in Infrared

Recently I drove the back roads around my small town, which I often do when I need to get out and clear the cobwebs out of my head. It's like a camera walk, the purpose of which is not to make art, but to do a kind of meditation: to just walk, to see what is there, to see rather than just look. You make images with the camera, but the focus is on the process rather than the product. Sometimes I get only one good image from a camera walk, sometimes I get several. Driving around with the camera is similar, just with a wider range of opportunities.

Open prairie skies, endless sea of grass. . . .

I ended up at one of my favorite local county parks, photographing the brilliant autumn colors. I also set my other camera on B&W and made some infrared photos, and also some drive-by photos of farm buildings and fields as I drove. This photo is the best of the drive-by photos.

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Autumn Colors at Their Peak

A few days ago, taking a break from working on projects, I went out for a drive in the afternoon, just to change gears for awhile. That's always a good way to clear out the cobwebs in the head. I wound up driving out to one of my favorite local county parks, where the autumn colors in the trees were at their peak. A stunning display.

Autumn colors in the local park. No one about. A gentle breeze in this sheltered valley becomes a stiff and howling wind on the open farm fields outside.

Stillness in the valley, except for the trees bowing in the wind above the high hill. Stones of memory and silence, embracing entwining encompassing encapsulating. Where the river runs out to dry the stone begins. Wind becoming an ending, a beginning. Becoming light. Always into light.

Bluejay in a golden maple. Thin haze between blue sky and still=green lawn. Spruce bearing fruit that on second glance is little brown birds, and a female cardinal.

The road covered with glory. Leaves by the ditch brilliant with light.

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Friday, October 19, 2012

Spontaneous Brush Poem

Not quite insomnia, just that you have difficulty falling back asleep after waking up in the very early morning hours. Read for a bit. Then without thinking about it too much, pull out the digital brush and start painting and writing.

Finish and save one panel, erase and being a new panel, rinse and repeat, till the poem tells you it has come to an end. As poems do. The energy changes when a poem has told you it's at an end, like the water going slack when the well stops pumping.

The title is arbitrary, just what comes into your head at that moment. The brush poem says it wants to be "no. 4" so you agree to it. Nothing more than that.

The back cover title page wants to be different, as if the poem were bound in a hand-stitched Japanese notebook. Small, pocket size, bound in papyrus or hatched brown paper. Maybe that's in fact just the way the poem wants to be bound. Poem in a sketchbook, bound for glory.

An artist is one who responds to experince by making art. Even if it's just not-quite-insomnia in the middle of the night.

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Thursday, October 18, 2012

Heartlands CD

News flash!

The Heartlands CD is finished and available for purchase. (Assuming you haven't already pre-ordered it.) As the composer and lyricist of this work, I am incredibly pleased at the completion of this CD release project. At some point, I will have more to write about it, and more to announce. For now, though, I just want to announce the news of the release itself.

You can acquire the Heartlands CD via the Perfect Harmony Men's Chorus website.

I also did the illustration and typography, layout and design for the CD and booklet. Here's the track listing the 19 pieces that make up Heartlands.

So, the completion of the major musical composition project of my life for the last year or so. I am incredibly pleased at the completion of this project. I'm also rather exhausted, and I've had some post-partum depression since our last concert performance of this music. But what matters is that this is only the beginning of the life of this CD. And that is the continuance as well as the beginning of the next phase of life for this music, for Heartlands. I hope to have more performances of this music, and also to be given the opportunity to write more in future.

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Saturday, October 06, 2012

Autumn Arrives

Moonrise over fields, September 2012

Illustrations and illuminations. It's good to celebrate the turning of the Yearwheel. Mabon is the Autumn Equinox, in the old religion on the old calendar. Continuing with explorations of art-making on my digital devices, creating digital paintings and illustrations, and panoramic photo-montages.

Mabon Blessings 2012

Last year I gathered leaves falling from the trees out back in a wicker basket and did a photo shoot with them. This year I took one of these images and painted over it on my iPad, to make this illustration for celebrating the equinox.

I also used some clip art found on the Interweb to make this illustrated poem for the autumn equinox. Fires and memory. Burning piles of fallen leaves. The harvest moon. Cold nights, clear days. All those things that mean autumn in the temperate zones.

Then I went back to my original illustration and made some typographic art from it.

Autumn is arriving early this year. It's been an extraordinary year for weather, with a drought and a summer full of record heat, and this fall all the leaves are turning a full month early.

The fields are already harvested; due to the strange summer weather the corn crop was stunted and unhealthy, and partially failed, never growing very tall except in some scattered fields. Now are already brown, or plowed, the hay mown and gathered, and everything ready for winter.

The maple trees are already turning bright colors, although some other species are holding on to their green. Until the dryness in the air turns them directly to brown, with no moments of splendor. The fall colors are already half-over though they've barely begun.

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Brother of Clouds

Knives in the eyes of the dark. These hapless watchers
ask you to tell them about it, but don't really want
to hear. Darkness frightens them. Flail and whip of
wanderer to them is but a horse long lost and foundered.
They you ask how you are but don't really want
your answer. To know is to make too real. Politeness' sake
is a ramp down to strata where ears have fossilized,
hardened of hearing, filled with cemented sand.

Silent snow falling on darkest green pine boughs
along the foot of cloudhidden mountains.
Cloud-hidden, whereabouts unknown. The old mountain
sage evaporates into mountain mist, leaves behind
a ceremony of blossoms whitening the trailside meadow.
Nowhere to go but up, unless it's out and suddenly
down. Down by way of being rejected by even land's law.
Grains of petals at the foot of his sandals. He waits
a long time for you to find yourself and return.
Stories the world is made of. Story the elements.
Single candle flame becomes a silver vase, hanging
in the darkness. Where's that lantern when it's hopeless?
What sign? A tarantula-dance of shadows shot with lightning.
Nothing hear but the last echo of hooves. Sinew
makes a bond that only bone can break. Rolling in
whitened fields of dry old bones, a single wild rose.
Where did he disappear to, the ancient one? Snow,
belling elk, alder branches, the fall of light
on a frozen water cascade. Spark and glint. Now winter.

We all fall down. All fall. Down into everything
that falls. Under what's fallen is compost and cinders.
Moss into rock-crumble, lichen into rusted bowl.
Nothing left of this battlefield once deemed so
important but empty eye-sockets of caved-in armor
where crickets live. Long thrum of rarest of locust.

If you say it enough perhaps you'll come to believe.
Convincing yourself comes after. Believing before saying
is tongues of gypsum crusting into still small sands.
No meaningful residency. Why this mountain? Why this sky?
This long road. This dusty trail. Marks of a walking stick
left behind even after the wind washes all else
to another valley, another desert lake. Walking stick
pocks in tempest sand. Ancient marks of a lost path.

Flailing at the walls of the conventional. Pull back
from that cliff-edge, heart hammered into silver leaf. What
non-mystics never understand is gods-seeker's necessary
solitude. Whether mountain sage or respected diplomat,
apparently lost to the world or apparently lost in it,
each quiet solitary iconoclastic mystic needs to
to hear that still small voice. That voice drowned
in worlds of convention and rite. You almost lose
any ability to hear it when you spend too much time
in the marketplace of the mundane. There are no substitutes,
accept only the real thing, and we'll tell you what that is.
Even when you sink and fall again into cool relief of

          Always a risk to believe that words can save you. Always
tempted to record your journey in words, as though words
could contain any journey. You know they don't. You know
the unsaid, unknown, unspeakable, is more real, more true.
Mountain sage can go four months without saying a word.
When he comes down for a few days of gathering and harvest,
out of his lips comes an unstoppable wind, a raspy clear voice
with no words shaped, but meanings clear and graspable
as painted icons on stone cave walls. Nothing could be plainer.
Literally: nothing.

Get back up, from where you've fallen. So they shot off
your leg, so what. Bind the blood and walk anyway.
If you have to pull yourself along even when will fails,
bleeding a trail behind you from that belly wound,
you've found the right track. Nowhere near what
you think you're owed. Nowhere near inherited guides or maps.
Far off to the side of hard times and bitter fruit.
Pull yourself together even when each atom flies apart.

You have to come to stillness to see his trail-markers.
They are subtle, almost silent. Markers known
more by absence, by what is not there, what has been
removed. Look for the void in things. A single milkweed stalk
in a field of yellow daisies. An angled stone removed
from a pile of shingle beside a switchback. Fallen horses
could not be half so serene as this eaten grass. Look on
those days when closest to the edge of despair and self-death
for a marker towards which the wind is drawn, nature
abhorrent of vacuum, magnetic field in place of mineral.
Look. Here's where a stone once rested. Only an outline now.
So someone has been here, and left a sign.
Find it's absent shape in the dark damp stillness
where the wind replaces sense in the desperate night heart.

Lose your mind, just leave it by the trail.
Where you sat down to eat just forget to pick it up
and carry it any further. It will get along just fine alone.
Gradually quieting. Just forgotten. Why it ever mattered
no one anymore knows. Be absent-minded by intent.
Here's a gap in a row of aspen quaking with absence.
Higher up, a crag you can't see, veiled with unfallen rain.
Thunder's distant rumble almost as though clearing his throat.
Nothing could be plainer.

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Thursday, October 04, 2012

Painting: Digital

Another aspect of painting that I've been exploring is digital painting, using various apps on my iPad. I find this to be very rewarding, in part because I can work quickly or slowly, save and come back later if necessary. There are some paintings I've been working on for awhile, some others made with the quickness of a Zen lightning flash across the mind.

At the high end of software apps I'm using, with amazingly flexible and editable tools, are ArtRage and ProCreate and ArtStudio, all of which allow you to create full art on your tablet. Another couple of favorites, which are a little idiosyncratic and less purely about painting are Flowpaper and ZenBrush. I have several other drawing and painting and sketching apps, but I find myself using this group most often. ArtRage and ProCreate in particular are the ones for painting using my own photographs as reference images. A lot of the images I'm creating are sketches, just five-finger exercises. I don't consider many things here to be finished art. Although a few are, particularly those new paintings I've made from existing photographs.

This style of painting, of painting-over, of making art based on photographs, is something that strongly appeals to me. I make new art from existing images, not by reproducing them but in fact by refusing to reproduce them exactly; rather, by creating a new version that is more abstract, more painterly, as if a plein air painting done on the inspiration of the place and time where I had made the photograph. Many landscape painters have used photographs as references for their paintings. In my case, I am using photos as reference, but also in some cases as source material: painting over the painting itself, sampling the colors, and working the image till it evokes a more abstract mood and style. A fresh painting made in a new mode. I feel that this mode is the best, most actually artistic, of what I'm doing with digital painting for now.

Moonrise, 2012

A completely different kind of visual art that I'm doing is combining writing, calligraphy, and drawings of various types. Little visual haiku. Precedents in Japanese haiga, which are paintings with haiku, not really illustrations but a combined artform. Brushwork on painting, on photography. Blending media. Layered imagery and words.

Haiku are a quick form of poem, something that happens spontaneously and with clarity of mind, out of clarity of mind, or not at all. Likewise these little visual haiku.

Since the ZenBrush app is specifically designed to emulate Japanese brushwork and writing, I find myself doing that with it. It's good for sketching, but also for writing a haiku, then combining that with artwork in a painting app. ZenBrush has some flexibility in terms of brush size, opacity, ink style, touch sensitivity, and so forth; it also has a wide range of virtual papers on which to write or draw. As usual, I often start a brush session by warming up by drawing enso.

An enso can then be erased, drawn over with new layers with different opacities or types of sumi-e ink.

Another app I use regularly converts visual images into images composed of words and type. This is fun to play with on the brushwork and Zen fronts: adding layers of meaning by adding randomized type-casting to the brushwork image.

Here's an example of a sumi-e style drawing, which I then experimented with in terms of both type and painting. Several different versions of this one idea yield different, even playful variations.

river, carry me home, 2012

A completely different kind of feel can be made with the same process in the same apps. (These were drawn on the smaller screen of the iPhone.)

The aesthetic of this kind of calligraphic painting/drawing, even though it's done on the latest type of computer, is ancient in feel. I made that explicit with this morning poem.

These are all examples of the process of painting, calligraphy, and drawing using virtual paint on a tablet. They range from serious fine art paintings, using the high end painting apps, to small morning poems and drawings done quickly and simply. Different aesthetics for different moments and different ends. But they are all digital painting. I'm doing a lot of this work right now. I'm drawn to it, in part because it's something I can do during my morning meditation time. Not all of it, as I said, is anything more than studies or exercises; yet I feel there is a great deal of potential here for creating genuine art, real illustration, and more.

To be continued. We'll see where the road takes us next.

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Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Kandinsky: Concerning the Spiritual In Art

One hundred years ago, artist Wassily Kandinsky wrote and published a small book called Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1911). It was translated into English and published in the British Isles in 1914.

Here is the complete text of that translation online: Concerning the Spiritual in Art. (The first page is the translator's preface, which is an interesting historical document for its context, although reading it almost a hundred years later, some of the big arguments about Modern art in this preface have long since been considered settled.) And here is a downloadable etext of the book from Project Gutenberg.

Kandinsky was Russian-born, lived and worked in Germany, and is considered by many to be the first abstract painter of the Modernist era. He sort of started the whole abstract painting project. A lot of what followed, including the flowering of Abstract Expressionism in the USA in the 1950s, flowed from what Kandinsky had started. At some point, every abstract painter needs to deal with his ideas.

The key point in all this for me is the word "spiritual." After a century of Modernism and Postmodernism, and more, the one part of Kandinsky's contribution to ideas about art is the spiritual aspect of art. This remains entirely unfashionable. I have written before about mannerism and decadence, about the re-enchantment of art. The spiritual component of art, so important to Kandinsky, is the main thing that the past century has worked hard to ignore or dismiss. Not all contemporary artists agree with this, though; the spiritual in art is beginning to return to the notice of artists and critics alike.

For example, a recent article by Taney Roniger: Beyond Kandinsky: Toward a New Sense of the Spiritual in Art. I have on my shelves next to my art-making part of my living room creative corner a small collection of books that look at this very topic. This isn't just art therapy, this isn't just psychology, there's more to it than that.

Creativity Beat website boils this down to a nutshell in a post on Kandinsky, and I quote:

In his introduction Kandinsky says, “The nightmare of materialism, which has turned the life of the universe into an evil, useless game, is not yet past; it holds the awakening soul still in it grip”. A little over one hundred years later these words speak succinctly to our current state of crisis. The world financial crisis, global climate change, escalating violence and high-tech wars, all point out the destruction brought on by the greed of excessive materialism.

In Kandinsky’s time the vast majority of museum goers and art lovers could only understand art that represented reality. And even though modern and post-modern art have opened us to new ways of seeing, the gate-keepers of the art world currently have very little room for art with spiritual content.

But today, there is a great awakening, a re-membering of our soul’s connection; more and more people from all walks of life are responding to the spiritual in art. As an artist I take these words of Schumann to heart. “To send light into the darkness of men’s hearts- such is the duty of the artist.”

Let me repeat a key statement from that: The gate-keepers of the art world currently have very little room for art with spiritual content. I can attest to this personally, as an artist whose visionary and shamanic art has been rejected more often than not. Something about my artwork seems to scare people and attract them at the same time. Perhaps due to its often archetypal contents. I've written about this before, and I've thought about it a long time. So Creativity Beat accuses the gatekeepers of the art world as being hostile to spirituality in art, I can only nod my head in agreement. I do think, though, that Kandinsky would have been dismayed by this hostility's ascendance in contemporary arts culture; although he may not have been surprised.

For myself, I find new resonance in Kandinsky's words of a century ago, because as artists we are right back where he started from, a century ago, finally addressing these issues of the spirit in art after having denied their existence for so long. Or perhaps addressing seriously for the very first time.

Here are some quotes from Concerning the Spiritual in Art that I find worthy of contemplation.

There is no form, there is nothing in the world which says nothing. Often - it is true - the message does not reach our soul, either because it has no meaning in and for itself, or - as is more likely – because it has not been conveyed to the right place.. ..Every serious work rings inwardly, like the calm and dignified words: ‘Here I am!'

All means (in painting) are sacred when they are dictated by inner necessity. All means are reprehensible when they do not spring from the fountain of inner necessity.. ..The artist must be blind to ‘recognized’ and ‘unrecognized’ form, deaf to the teachings and desires of his time. His open eyes must be directed to his inner life and his ears must be constantly attuned to the voice of inner necessity.

The artist must have something to say, mastery over form is not his goal but adaption of form to its inner meaning.

In a composition in which corporeal elements are more or less superfluous, they can be more or less omitted and replaced by purely abstract forms, or by corporeal forms that have been completed abstracted

The artist must train not only his eye, but his soul.

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Although I am, if I do say so myself, an experienced and even award-winning visual artist, I have never thought of myself as a painter. I did paint with acrylics in my youth, as well as do drawings with technical pens. I always preferred acrylics to oils because they are less toxic, and I also their overlap in technique with watercolors. I enjoyed painting, but it was purely an amateur hobby pursuit.

Last year I rediscovered a cache of some of those old paintings, and was interested to notice that some of the same themes I still pursue in my visual art were already fully-formed: transformation, shamanic and archetypal themes, cosmic imagery, mountains and moons. It is always interesting to learn that some of the themes that you thought you'd grown into along the way were in fact there from the very beginning.

I still don't think of myself as a painter, and probably never will.

Nonetheless most of the art I've made over the past month or so has been: painting.

Kandinsky's Poem, 2012
Collage, papier-maché, altered books, acryclic painting, brush calligraphy, photography, on watercolor paper, 30"x40"

This is a piece I made to donate to a fundraiser being done by the local public library to support literacy education in the community. Literacy was something both of my late parents felt strongly about—our family when I was growing up was a family of avid readers who were not averse to pulling out the dictionary or encyclopedia even while at the dinner table to answer a question—and both of them volunteered to teach literacy at the local public library. So, for me, when I was given the chance to donate art for a literacy fundraiser, it was a chance to connect to my parents, and also to a cause I myself support.

I made this piece to be donated. But as I worked out what I wanted to do, I realized I wanted to start with an acrylic underpainting. Bright colors, that would show through the papier-maché layer, which consisted of prints of my own photos and pages from an old two-volume dictionary. I highlighted the key words on the pages torn from the dictionary using Japanese brush calligraphy materials.

The altered books aspect of this collaged piece was in fact the central aspect, and the origin of the project. The call for donations from local artists, for the library fundraiser, was specifically about altered books. This is a form of art-making using recycled materials that I've been interested in for a few years, but never worked in before. An altered book is essentially an artwork made from an existing bound book, or its pages, or form, or materials. The creative possibilities are endless. I remember seeing examples of books a few years ago from the Berkeley Public Library, books that had been vandalized or damaged, and were given to local artists to make into altered books. In other words, to be given new life. That was spirit of this local library literacy fundraiser, and books were provided by the library, but you could also use your own. I used this old two-volume dictionary that I found at the local thrift store for almost no money at all. And no doubt will make more art from these volumes, as well as some others I have set aside to work with.

After finishing this large collaged piece, I continued to feel an urge to paint with acrylics. So I went and got a few more large sheets of fine printmaking paper, and have been painting. I am almost done with one more large painting, which is purely a painting. I've been working with large swatches of paint, teaching myself both saturated color and dry-brush techniques. I've been reading books about acrylic painting in the public library, and making notes. I've been thinking about putting more art on the wall over my bed in my bedroom; and what better thing to put up there than something I made. I don't care if anyone thinks it's narcissistic, but most of the time I'd rather make art to put up than buy it. I don't call myself a painter, but I am an artist.

As I've been working on this large painting, I've been making photographs of it as I proceed. Both to document the process, so I can retain what I've learned by doing, but also because I had the idea to make detail photographs (detail, meaning close-ups of sections of the artwork) for the purposes of stock photography. Such abstracted forms could be used in future for stock backgrounds, as elements of illustrations, and more. I have worked on this large painting over two or three sessions so far, and have one or two more sessions to go before I reach the point that I have envisioned in my mind.

One reason I referenced painter Wassily Kandinsky in the collages piece I donated to the fundraiser was that Kandinsky, as well as being one of the founders of Modernist abstract painting, wrote extensively about his theories of emotion in painting, about how he wished to reduce representation in painting to pure emotive form, to tell a story in an abstract way. I've written here before about abstract realism in photography; now I approach the topic from the direction of painting, as influenced by Kandinsky.

What I am intending to do with this artwork I am making, despite refusing to label myself as a painter, is brushwork that evokes emotion.

Brushwork can refer to calligraphy as well as painting, writing as well as representational art. Indeed, in Chinese and Japanese art history, brushwork refers to all of the above; because writing in those cultures is ideogrammatic rather than alphabetic, and done with a brush and ink, there are even literary forms that reference the brush in their definitions. So, for me, brushwork includes more than painting.

I am interested in Kandinsky's ideas about how abstraction can still evoke emotion. Almost in the same way music does, not through specific image but through form and mood and color and rhythm. Abstraction that evokes feeling. Which of course is what the American abstract expressionists were pursuing in the middle of the 20th Century. But they were painters, and I'm not.

So, since I work in multiple media, it's only natural that I would import my paintings into the digital realm and work with them there as well. I've been experimenting combining text and illustration, for example.

Storm Coming Near, 2012

I go back and forth between digital and actual painting in this work, which to me seems entirely natural. Paintings will become elements of digital illustrations, be used in stock photos, and will influence art made directly in the digital realm.

One of the most interesting parts of this ongoing exploration has involved painting on photographs, both actual and digital.

What I am exploring now is painting digitally on my tablet computer, my iPad. I am using several apps to paint digitally on the tablet, both in terms of making original illustrations and calligraphic pieces, and also in terms of painting on photographs.

Taos Home

I am particularly enjoying making paintings from some of my best photographs of the Southwestern United States, photos made on recent roadtrips. This is a process of using the photograph as a reference for making an original painting.

Vermillion Cliffs, NM, 2012

Sometimes I start by painting-over a photograph using digital painting software. I can sample and replace the colors in the original image, or I can go wild. I can make the forms and elements of the piece realistic in one area, and completely abstract in another. I find myself usually preferring to veer towards abstract realism.

I have no real desire to learn how to paint or draw photo-realistically, but that is what most instructional books emphasize. If I want a photo-realistic image, I make a photograph, because I am a professional photographer. I have those tools and those skills. I am much more interested, in drawing and painting, in loose realism, or abstract realism.

As with photography, I often begin with a landscape, a place and a time, a mood, an evocative moment. In making a photo, I often wait a long time for the light to be perfect, before I release the camera shutter. Photography can be an art that teaches you extreme patience. You learn to look at your subject a very long time, to see it, before you make your image. These are often the kinds of images I choose to make into painted versions.

Moonrise, 2012

Shapes and forms. Elements of color. Mood and feeling. Abstract realism. Emotion and music and lighting and those times when art takes you out of your mind and into your larger self.

That's what I am seeking as someone who has been painting lately. I am not a painter, and don't want to get stuck in that definition, which limits and skews as often as it liberates. I'm aware of art history, but I'm not dwelling on it. I'm just making some paintings.

This trend is continuing and growing. I am also making little illustrated visual haiku, calligraphic illustrations, sketches and drawings and little scraps of ideas. I'll write more about that later.

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