Beauty and Communion

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A work in progress inspired by Aimee Herman

I have been hard at work building an homage to memory and a physical space to examine emotion. It’s been perhaps more challenging and more of a heavy experience than I expected. Although, of course, I should have expected exactly that.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about life,” I tell my mom with a sigh. She says, “Of course you have. Your exhibit is called, ‘Life, Examined.’ What else would you be doing?”

I find a note from an ex-boyfriend. He wrote to me, “I wish I felt the same kind of attractions you feel. They seem overwhelming, like you have no control. I don’t think as strong as you feel things. You are a pretty powerful being. So be careful.”

It’s a delicate balance — being careful, but not living in fear, wanting to have passion, but not to be out of control with emotions. Not having a choice about being emotional, I at least want to be around people who can be open and loving and go on a courageous journey with me.

My friend Stan came to town to see the show and as usual we talked about the world’s problems and our proposed solutions. We spoke about art mostly.

One reason that I stepped back from the art scene was because of all the huge egos I kept encountering along the way. (And still encounter often). I don’t think that art should be about your ego, the self, your identity.Who you are, of course, gives you a unique perspective of the world — and if you live authentically, and openly, that will allow you to produce real and effective art. But I believe that art should be bigger than just an exploration of the self.

There was a great article about Chuck Close in the Sunday New York Times by Wil S. Hylton. The painter has also become a bit of a recluse lately.

Hylton has spent a lot of time trying to understand Close. In the article, he describes the art:

What you are seeing isn’t really there. You are no longer looking at the actual surface of the painting, but some apparition hovering above it, a numinous specter that arises in part from the engagement of your own imagination. Through the painting, Close has accessed the perceptual center of your mind, exploiting the way we process human identity: the gaps of knowledge and the unknown spaces we fill with our own presumptions, the expectations and delusions we layer upon everyone we meet.

By painting these portraits, Close is tapping into something bigger. He’s not just showing us who he is — he’s helping us understand who we are and why how we perceive and presume matters.

Hilton writes:

It seems to me now, with greater reflection, that the value of experiencing another person’s art is not merely the work itself, but the opportunity it presents to connect with the interior impulse of another. The arts occupy a vanishing space in modern life: They offer one of the last lingering places to seek out empathy for its own sake, and to the extent that an artist’s work is frustrating or difficult or awful, you could say this allows greater opportunity to try to meet it. I am not saying there is no room for discriminating taste and judgment, just that there is also, I think, this other portal through which to experience creative work and to access a different kind of beauty, which might be called communion.

“Empathy for its own sake” and “a different kind of beauty, which might be called communion” are what I’m after too — exactly what I want to create.

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Lengths to go

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Untitled Painting in Progress

A couple of weeks ago I read an article in the New York Times entitled “Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Gloria Steinem on the Unending Fight for Women’s Rights.”

The premise was that the two friends sat down and reminisce about the past in Ginsburg’s office. The women — both now in their 80s, talk about not being able to rent apartments without a male signer, how women used to go to college to find husbands, how  women had to justify taking a spot from a man when applying to law school. Steinem talks about how Gay Talase told her once, “Every year, a pretty girl comes to New York and pretends to be a writer. This year, it’s Gloria.”

I was thinking about how recent of a past this window of an article opened up. These are realities that my grandmothers, aunts and mother faced — and I believe are still prevalent today in a number of ways.

I believe that the art world is still a boy’s club.

When I started painting, I wanted to create portraits of strong women. I wanted to paint women who looked like they were thinking and feeling — not just posing as objects, not just a body to be sexualized. I wanted my women to look courageous — like the women in my real life, the ones who inspired me every day, my grandmother, my teachers, my family, my friends.

I noticed that when I had my first shows, women reacted to the paintings and thought they were beautiful. Most men did not.

Often men would say to me, “How can you paint such sad pictures when you are such a happy, pretty girl?”

It infuriated me. These guys didn’t know me. They didn’t know  my emotions, my thoughts, my story. But even more importantly, I felt that if I had painted portraits of pensive men, they would not have thought twice about it. In our culture, the image of a woman thinking is so rare that we equate it with sorrow.

There have been several times that men in the art world have openly criticized my work at a show — and I would be willing to bet that they would not have been so forthright if I were a male painter. Once, my ex-boyfriend’s patron said to me that I was much like the drawings of flowers I was creating at the time — very pretty, but without substance. And fleeting.

More shocking to me, however, was the time an older woman printmaker came to one of my shows and said, “There are women who are talented — and then there are those artists who are just pretty girls who get a lot of attention,” while she gestured around at my crowded exhibit.

It took a long time for me to build a core of supportive women artists in Houston. Luckily, I eventually had regular lunches with Angela Dillon and Maria Queta Hughes, who encouraged me and showed me another way we could treat each other — not with jealousy but with respect.

In the New York Times article, the author Philip Galanes writers, “Rejection is the best thing that can happen. It pushes us forward.”

I think that the conversation between these two women is a great reminder of strides we have made, the importance of banding together, the need to continue this dialogue and the lengths we still have to go.

Here’s a link to the story — http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/15/fashion/ruth-bader-ginsburg-and-gloria-steinem-on-the-unending-fight-for-womens-rights.html?_r=0

And a second article about behind-the-scenes —

Looking for a little inspiration

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Laura from Aurora, Nebraska

Sometimes the best place to go for a little inspiration is simply out of town. My friend, a brilliant illustrator, Annie Brule said, “Being out of your usual context is almost always good for you.” She was telling me a story over a glass of wine in West Seattle about a weekend trip that gave her clarity.

When I boarded a flight to New York a few days later, I had no goals of seeking anything out or looking for perspective or anything like that. I just wanted to go have fun and see a few friends. Instead, I got inspiration in spades.

There were late night conversations with Aimee about love, life, our past struggles and our future daydreams. There was the instant comfort of a conversation with Selina. There was chatting at the Museum of Modern Art with Raluca about her trip home to Romania and her progress on her novel.

My friend Laura stands out the most. It was her first trip to New York and she took it all in with an unusual finesse and zest, pointing out the smallest of details and asking questions galore as we walked around the city. We all met Laura on maybe our first day at the Art Farm in Nebraska. She popped into the house, explaining that she lived in the next town over and gave us her phone number in case we needed anything. She soon became a dear friend.

Laura is a real Renaissance woman. She works with cows all day in a research project for the university. She can tell you everything about antique tractors or the Nebraska prairie. She’s also an artist, crafter and musician, who writes her own songs and plays guitar.

Over the summer, she told me stories about her Native American roots, her great grandmother who wore long skirts, kept a gun at her hip and could roll a cigarette with one-hand. In New York, she sang a song in Aimee’s living room with such courage. When we complemented her voice and her poetry, she admitted to having sung opera in the past and playing saxophone.

Laura-from-Aurora is who convinced me to take the trip east — even though I was reluctant to make a break in my routine. While we were crossing the Brooklyn Bridge, I thanked her. I said that she is that rare type who follows through on daydream plans — and that’s the type of person who I like the most. She couldn’t imagine being any other way.

On my last night of the trip, I drank spiked apple cider from a nearby orchard in Connecticut with my friend Stan and my cousin Lauren in her new house. We sat on Lauren’s screened porch, watching the sun set and bearing witness to the changing temperatures of a cool fall night. I talked about the uncertainties of my life, my struggles finding enough work to keep myself afloat and my desires to see my art go somewhere one day — whatever that means.

Stan offered to help in whatever ways possible. Lauren encouraged me to open a gallery. We all told stories and laughed as it became dark, then moved inside. I am grateful for the people who have recently become part of my life, for knowing Aimee and Trae, Selina, Raluca and Annie, and Laura. I feel like it would be so easy to have never met them, to have never gone to Nebraska and just turned my car around. I am grateful as well for the people who I already know who continue to push me forward. I feel like it is easy to want more — and perhaps more difficult to recognize that what we want, we’ve had all along — courage, love, inspiration, wild hearts, sympathetic minds and phenomenal beings all around.

Hitting the Pavement

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My friend Ian Anderson

Every morning at 6 a.m., my friend, the talented painter Ian Anderson, loads up his bicycle with art supplies and heads to downtown Houston. He sets up and waits for the sun to emerge and highlight the buildings — and then he paints tiny landscapes of the skyline with a limited palette of a colors.

I spent some time with Ian in his studio recently and leafed through the piles of paintings on paper. He said that he hopes to have a show of the works one day, but in the meantime, he’s glad to be painting as much as possible. And, more than anything, he really enjoys what he is creating, every aspect of putting brush to paper and every pedaling adventure in the early morning.

Ian also showed me his failed ideas — the things he started working on but no longer wants to pursue. For a painter who once had trouble getting motivated to create, he seems to be on a hot streak.

Before heading to Ian’s, I popped into visit my other super talented Houstonian artist friend, Kevin Peterson. His studio was also full of new works, which means tons of time spent at the easel, for someone who paints every realistic detail in his fantasy pieces of children walking through the detritus of a city with wild animals at their heals.

I always have liked to spend time with Kevin and Ian, not only because I love the paintings they create. They are hard-working, dedicated and critical in a way meant to promote progress. I think it’s important to surround yourself with people who have a work ethic and dedication that you would ideally like to share.

A lot of people will agree that talent is secondary to putting in the hours of work required to create something great. But then again, few people actually will sit down and toil until they reach a breakthrough. I really do believe that it’s all about hitting the pavement and being dedicated to taking the journey, spending years trying to get better and constantly striving.

When I was in college, one of the visiting photographers came to our classroom and said, “Look around you. Some of you are already talented photographers and some of you are just learning. The ones who are already good will never be great. The ones who are just beginning will have the potential to be great photographers. They’re the ones who will take rolls and rolls of pictures to try to get better. They’re the ones who will learn daily and push themselves harder. The ones who are already good won’t feel the need to try as hard — and consequently will remain where they are today.”

“Continuous effort – not strength or intelligence – is the key to unlocking our potential.” — Winston Churchill

The Company We Keep

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Yesterday, I met my friend Andrew for coffee. He’s a religious person, a former preacher who now focuses on music as ministry. He talked about “the void” and “the glory” — that vast unknown that is reality and the emotional transcendence that is on the other side.

He said that most people think of the two as opposing forces, but instead he believes people must traverse the void, live in it, face it fully — to find God.

The idea hit home to me. Andrew and I talked at length about how we have to face hardship to grow, to die to be reborn. Andrew said the void is the only thing that’s real — everything else is a creation, a distraction from reality, which in actuality, is chaos, the unknown. He said that we have to face “death” as we constantly evolve on our journeys.

Sometimes, we find ourselves feeling lost — and we long for change, renewal and growth. To get there, we might have to suffer, to pass through a rough spot, to let certain go of certain past traits, experiences and people. We have to let part of our old selves die to become who we will be in the future.

Andrew said that to get through the void, it’s essential to have faith — to believe that you are loved and that there is a purpose. For him, that comes from religion. For me, love comes from family and friends.

“When you agree to be someone’s friend, you are basically saying, ‘I allow you to shape who I am as a person,'” Andrew said. “We are giving someone permission to help shape us in our continual transformation.”

He cautioned about letting the wrong people in. He said we should be careful about the company we keep.

My friend Mac Scott said, “When you are around extraordinary people, you will learn extraordinary things. Let this be a lesson — pick your friends wisely.”