The Miniaturist’s Challenge

When my family and friends were conscripted to help install the artwork for my master’s thesis exhibition, they could not help but note that it would have been a kindness on my part to specialize in something a little more manageable, say, postage stamp illustration. Hanging murals of up to nine by thirty feet in dimensions is admittedly more unwieldy than mounting a bunch of tidy little framed life-sized insect portraits or installing a series of elfin sculptures made from shirt buttons and walnut shells. Alas, though I did segue into much more portable forms in later years, it was not soon enough for my loved ones’ sakes.

My verbosity is a similar burden on my circle of acquaintance, as I am not famous for knowing when to shut up any more than I am known for limiting my opinion to those who have actually asked for it. But just as I have learned to appreciate and work at smaller and less physically demanding visual media along with my enjoyment of massive and messy kinds of art, I have a fondness for smaller and less epic essays and poems, too, and have been known to craft these with similar avidity. While scale in no way guarantees quality or lack thereof in any medium I know, it is sometimes a relief to me as much as to my friendly audiences when I get my kicks by producing petite expressions of my inventive urges.Graphite drawing + text: Movements in Miniature

Raised Eyebrows

There have been many times when people looked upon me with raised eyebrows, if not utter disbelief. I am, of course, not only accustomed to it but somewhat proud of it, being an artist. If I never surprised or seemed a little off-kilter to anyone I would think it called into question my credibility as an inventive person altogether. So I’m happy to report that my assessment by others has been heavily salted and peppered with expressions of doubt, disdain or possibly, diagnoses of delirium.oil pastel drawing 1988The artwork above (four feet high, for your contextual reference) came from a period in my artistic development wherein I might have been forgiven for thinking there was a form of communicable facial paralysis among my contacts that left them all perpetually wearing masks of such disbelief. I had meandered through the three years following my undergraduate commencement, while working for my uncle’s construction company, barely producing a discernible body of small artworks the while, and still had opted to go off to graduate art studies. I had made a pitiful showing in my first quarter of work there, simply extending the slow, unproductive approach I’d had during the previous three years to cough up a tiny handful of pleasant but utterly unimpressive artworks without any particular evidence of having been changed or challenged by my reentry to the educational environment. But after the embarrassingly lackluster critique session that closed that quarter, I was perhaps uncharacteristically motivated to break out of the doldrums and sail in a new and more daring path, in hopes of visiting uncharted territories of worth.

Changing my approaches to media, techniques, subject matter, scale and speed, I found, all contributed to my discovering new sides of my artistic self. I became in some ways quite the opposite of the person I’d been previously in the studio, and while I never lost my love for the various characteristic media, techniques, etc, etc, that had defined my former self, I certainly never regretted having broken the mold I’d set that self in so firmly. An inordinate number of options and opportunities previously hidden from me by my insular fear and ignorance and self-imposed narrowness of intent and expectation suddenly seemed both possible and appealing, and I have continued to gallop around after them with abandon, sometimes with a hint of obsession and often quite tangentially, so I’ve grown to simply expect the raised eyebrows around me and relish the thought that they mean I’ve not settled too far into my former predictably fixed self again.

That, I think, is encouragement enough to keep me moving forward.

This Business of being an Artist

mixed media process montageThere’s been an interesting, if hardly new, thread of conversation taking place in one iteration via LinkedIn, where a Mr. Duane Bronson posed the eternal question thus: “Does an artist have to have a recognizable ‘STYLE’ or a cohesive body of work to be of interest to a gallery and marketable?” My short answer would be a resounding Yes, but I couldn’t resist expanding on what is for me a perpetual problem. I said:

A good, thought-provoking read here! I have experienced much of what is discussed by the various commenters who precede me and think that all have some valid points for our consideration. My own answer to Mr. Bronson’s original question is that I might state it a little differently: to be of interest to a gallery as what it/they would consider marketable. Anything is marketable, if you put the right seller and buyer together under the right circumstances, but galleries, no matter how much they might pride themselves on being ‘in it for the love of art’, are businesses, and (logically enough) are not particularly interested in anything they don’t think is a relatively easy sell. [Commenters] Messrs. Bruland and Moore are absolutely right in recognizing that art does sell–at the confluence of the right forces. Figuring out what those are and how to orchestrate their intersection is the big magic trick that few of us can of mural [with artist]I was approached by gallery owners when I was finishing my undergraduate art degree; one of them (the more successful in business, not surprisingly) met with me mainly to encourage me to produce a larger body of the same kind of work so that he could later represent me; the other, being a fledgling in the business, was willing to take what little I had already produced at my young age and give it a go. Of course I was inexperienced and had no concrete plans or prospects, so I opted for the latter, with the predictable result that that gallerist, with such limited experience and connections, was too busy simply trying to work out the logistics of her own business to actually represent any of the artists she hoped to promote. Thankfully, I’d only agreed to half the proposed trial period as part of that ‘stable’ of artists and retrieved my entirely unsold (and as far as I could ascertain, also virtually unseen) work and go forward at the end of it. [And only a year or two before it was also the end of that particular gallery, as far as I could ascertain.]photoIt wasn’t until many years later, after working in construction for a few years to save up for grad school (I suspect I’m of the same vintage as Ms. Senn, having had many similar experiences 30 years ago in that field of work) and then going through the grad program and then teaching for a couple of decades, that I could afford the luxury of devoting real time to focused practice and larger productivity of my own artwork. Along the way, however, I had continued to produce smaller quantities of work. As I’m quite sure many of the artists commenting above have experienced, what pleases me most in my own practice is to do what inspires me at the moment, to experiment, and to follow the serendipitous occurrences that happen along the way, resulting in a recognizable character in the works but not a whole lot of terribly similar subjects, media, and techniques. So I, too, have been told by many a gallerist that he or she thinks my work is terrific but, no thank you, they don’t see how they can possibly ‘package’ and market collageThe upshot of all this is that I can only echo what others have already said or intimated here: keep doing and being what is right for you, but know that you’ll likely continue to labor in obscurity unless you simply find that combination of luck and resources and persistence coming into perfect confluence. I must assume that all of us are here because making art of whatever sort matters enough that we will do it endlessly, whether it profits us in any way other than inwardly or not. Hurray to being successful, financially of course if we can, but if not that, then as wildly successful in satisfying the artistic urge as we can manage to be.I will add to this that I am no more going to stop making art because I don’t come close to making a living at it than any of the millions of others who can’t ‘get by’ doing what they love best would quit their passions. You might, just possibly, have noticed that I’ve been hanging out here in the blogosphere for some time just churning out art of the visual and written kinds and handing them out daily like free candy. But like many others, I also keep the business side of art on my radar, looking around me to see if there are any connections and opportunities I have overlooked or ways to introduce my work to others who may find something in it that speaks to them as well and (miraculously!) be willing to pay me for it. I guess this is simply my love letter to any other unsung heroes reading this, saying that we’re all in this together and yes indeed, also that I have no plans to leave off pursuing my dreams any more than you have. Might see you at the bar later, though. Everybody needs an outlet, whether it’s on LinkedIn or in the studio or somewhere else entirely. Cheers!graphite drawing

How I Learned to Love the Dreaded P Word

[No, shame on you, not that P Word. Practice.]


Apparently I was napping when the expected dose of wisdom was being handed out . . .

Is it somehow backward to say that if I learn by doing, the only way to learn to love doing something is to do it? Maybe it just proves that I’m kind of backward myself, for having taken such a large long chunk of life to figure out that that’s how it works. I’m not only a late bloomer in a multitude of things, I’m late in getting around to figuring out that I’m a late bloomer. Dang it. Tautologies and conundrums galore! (Wow, sounds like an imprecation to be screeched by a mediaeval-looking cartoon villain.) All I’m trying to say is that it took a lot of practice for me to learn to love practicing.

No doubt this self-evident truth dawns slowly because most of us are (I certainly are) born with a predisposition to (a) despise and evade anything that seems compulsory, and (deux) only experience can teach it to us. Talk about an irritating logical loop.

It is generally only out of desperation that I will finally buckle down and do something I’ve been artfully putting off, denying the existence of, and otherwise refusing to accomplish. I’m so busy worrying about making blunders that I refuse to even try. I’m so fond of being glued to my gilded divan and being fed chocolate-covered miracles by my adoring fans (okay, sitting on my backside, half a-snooze at the kitchen table, and licking the ice cream spoon until the finish is coming off of it) that I hate to break up the scene by becoming <shudder> an active and productive citizen. I’m resistant to change, stubborn and ornery, and always–like most of my creative compatriots in the arts, I gather–pretty well convinced that every artwork I produce is my last ever, that I will have lost the power to imagine, let alone do, any further works, and that even the stuff I’ve so far produced is only marginally non-heinous.


I let the tools stare at me balefully for a goodly while.

Then, happily, I snap out of it. What a load of hot steaming hooey, I say to myself. [Roughly translated for your delicate sensibilities.] Most of the time I am actually able to do all of the foregoing in a shorter span than it takes to regale you with it. But there was that time in grad school . . .

Now, I’d even, driven more by economic reasons than good sense (but what the hey, it made a good substitute in the instance), taken three years off before grad school when my undergraduate studies concluded with my emergence clutching that wonderfully engraved Testimony to my glorified uselessness to a needy world: a Bachelor’s Degree in Fine Arts. As a matter of both principle and fact, I can honestly state that Art is indeed truly and meaningfully useful in the deepest of ways. Not, however in the way of, say, lining up salivating employers eager to avail themselves of my fabulousness in exchange for the quantities of money required for paying off undergraduate loans and frivolousness of that sort. Nor, while I’m being truthful, in the way of my improving the world greatly by waving around my magnificent diploma, no matter how sweeping and balletic the gesture (and whether physically or metaphorically).

Given my intellectual–oops, I meant academic hiatus, how very Freudian of me–you might think I’d come bombing into my graduate studies not only itching to get to work but stocked up with a mile high mushroom-cloud-in-the-making of spectacular new arty ideas and plots. Partly true, that. Unfortunately, I was still the same insecure, change-impervious, action-free action figure as ever, so what did I really do on arrival? Same old same ol’. I got straight to work making verrrrrry slow progress at producing a dainty little handful of drawings pretty much like all the drawings I’d done in the previous, oh, four years. Not exactly making me want to bound gazelle-like over to my first quarterly critique session and wow my prof with this pusillanimous production. I knew that the only sensible response to the presentation would be, in the words of the great art critic Clement Greenberg, “Yikes! Are you kidding me?”

Okay, I made that last part up, but I’ll betcha dollars to donuts that he was dying to say it from time to time.

My continued ability to collect graduate assistant cash to pave my way to another commencement party being dependent upon my actually doing some Graduate Studies, I sucked it up and went in for the fateful critique. Well, it’d probably be fairer to call that session therapy, or maybe just a brisk boot in the posterior, than a critique session, given that the art in question was not only rather questionably art (being sort of ripoffs of my own earlier work) but nigh unto negligible in numbers. Didn’t take too long to peel through with the insightful commentary, if you know what I mean.

But there was, wedged somewhere into that compact transaction, the seed of an idea. My mentor-advisor-prof mildly indicated that this evidence of my not having thought of or attempted anything other than what I’d done many a time before was just a little . . . unimpressive. Verging on enervating. Wrapped up in a stale tortilla. She was a gentle as could be, but didn’t sugarcoat it much. Great lady.

Without resorting to actual tantrum throwing, I got in a funk, a sulk, and finally, a fit of disappointed melancholy tinged with sulfurous ticked-off-ness. Reexamining my self, my work and my motives a bit, as you might hope. I know that old adage about the definition of insanity/stupidity/unrealisticositudinousness being Doing the Same Thing Again and Expecting a Different Result. Oddly, it had not entered my skull before that this might apply to the making of art, indeed to making art in an academic setting with the expectation of being evaluated as an artist worthy of an advanced degree. Silly me. At least it did come up at this late juncture. Better than never!

Knotty problem, simple solution: since doing things the usual way obviously wasn’t working, try doing things in an UNusual way. Me, I had to reduce it to a syrupy-thick extreme to test its full effectiveness (or mine), so I set myself the task of trying to do as much as possible that was the clear opposite of what I’d been doing. No point in being wishy-washy about it anymore. I’d been working strictly in black and white for a long time. So I worked all in color. My works had been small or moderate in scale, so I headed for larger formats. Slow work meant few finished pieces, so look-out-world, I was going to work fast (no avoidance, wasting time, or overthinking while in progress) and make More Stuff. Subject had been mostly still life with a twist, and definitely inanimate object-oriented. Time to try all figurative. Heck, I’d always avoided faces even when I did figurative work, so I decided to do variations on head shots pretty much exclusively. And so forth.

The upshot, as you can imagine, was a true shakeup of my predictable world. I had to come into my classrooms after hours and take over the space because there simply wasn’t enough room in the allotted grad student studio hovels, let alone my rented digs, for pinning up pieces of paper that were fast heading toward 4×20-foot, then 9×20-foot murals. The instant I determined to Go Big it was almost impossible not to get in a fever of production, drawing at all hours, with and on anything I could get my hands near. I raided the end-rolls at the local paper production plant and made trips to the big city to buy photographers’ backdrop rolls and strap them to the top of my old station wagon for the 2 hour drive home, rain or shine. I used up all of the pastels, pencils, pens, crayons, used cosmetics and condiments I could find to make marks and stains with, and then started drawing in a drybrush ink-wash style with house paint. My studio allotment did come in handy, because there was no possible place to cram all of the drawings I was making into my normal storage hideaways. I used any and every tool I could find at my disposal and grinned like a madwoman (as a madwoman?) over the wild newness of it all. Of me.


When everything is called into action, everything becomes both worn and beautiful . . .

I’ve gone on long enough that you can easily guess the conclusion. At the end of the second quarter, my critique in the same 20×36-foot gallery that had been the site of that dispiriting time spent trying to read some interest into the small handful of pitiful drawings the quarter before–well, accounting number two found my teacher and me perched in the same room but with the four walls all plastered floor to ceiling, end to end, with new, colorful, living art. All great? Hardly. But all invigorating to me? Oh, yeah. My mentor really did look a little faint when she came in and I’m sure was looking for the correct room, since this was obviously the work of a different person. And it was.

It didn’t make me into an instant superstar, able to leap tall easels with a single bound and more powerful than a museum-full of Old Masters. It made me, instead, into someone able to remember why I’d felt compelled to make art in the first place, and aware for the first time that there were a multitude of methods, techniques, tools and concepts I’d barely known let alone tapped. It also made me into a very slight persona non grata in my immediate circle of family and friends when they all got called into service to install these monsterpieces with me for my thesis exhibition (“Ever thought about being a miniaturist?” “You want me to get on what ladder and hold up the side of a piece how tall?”), but that’s a story for another day. The story here is that the act of practicing on a grand scale truly woke me for the first time to that incredible frisson of adrenaline + joy that real practicing can give. That puts all of the bad days of unsuccessful practice right into the shade.

Everything Old is Nude Again

show poster

Old ideas can still stand naked in the light of a new day

What? Is tradition dead? Are the audiences for all-things-old-school mere cobwebbed shadows of the past? Thanks to a cycle of nature-induced and human-brewed disasters over the last decade or two and the sullen worldwide economy that has followed, every arts org and artist worth any salt has been kvetching and querying endlessly on the questions. At last glance, I haven’t noticed that fiscal fears and convictions of doom have done much more than renew what is, honestly, the eternally pessimistic or at least worried conversation of artists across the galaxy to its current iteration. We’ve always been convinced we were going to Hell in a Kardashian Kollection handbag.

That said, I notice that as ever, those who were operating opportunistically or on a whim are shimmying down the lines and flinging themselves bodily off the stern while the determined and/or stubbornly stupid prefer to let yet another wave of direness smash on by overhead and cling to Happy Thoughts. I share just enough DNA with Pollyanna to blissfully stick with my intended life-as-artist (meanwhile always keeping an eye peeled for safer income sources to support my habit).

The whole idea of dealing with insecurity by dumping the one part of my merely mortal skill set that gives me the most challenge and joy is ridiculous. Similarly, the last thing I’d contemplate is throwing out the foundational tools and techniques that press me to be more able and artful in my work. So while I’m always hoping to put my own spin on things, I’m happy to do so by retooling the classics: still life is–despite its cheery French name–not dead; landscape can be bland or it can open a window into enticing new worlds; and if the time comes when we lose interest in admiring ourselves enough to keep making marvelous artworks featuring the nude figure, I guess I will have to pack up my pencils. And no, despite my fling with “colorizing” myself in grad school, I’ve never lost my love for good old black and white and I’m currently going through a big spree of graphite-only stuff yet again.

This piece is an older one, too, but if you notice that it’s from a poster illustration for a production of ‘Arsenic and Old Lace‘ you’ll see that I chose to apply the old-fashioned approach of a still life to a long-known play’s promotion in what I hoped would be a slightly new and surprising twist. The idea was that people seeing the poster around town and thinking it at first glance a bland image would on approach find it a happily unexpected thing after all. I flatter myself that the number of posters that were subsequently stolen and required replacement before the production opened indicated some success with this surprise element. My life has certainly never lacked for elements of surprise for me, so why not share it with others.

Growth Spurt

Shades of Remembrancedetail of oil pastel drawing (face)

Mural detail

I’m going to see if I can’t put up a post every day for a while now. Some days I’ll just post an image or two (old, new, any medium) and other times, if actual thoughts or ideas occur to me I’ll make a supreme effort to get them into text before they vanish utterly like so many puffs of pixie dust. In honor of that concept, today’s drawing post is an older piece that represents a period of welcome growth that was spurred by my disappointment and frustration when I met with my chief studio adviser in grad school after a counterbalance of deadly dry time left me with little to show her beyond a handful of insipid scrawls that were mere ghosts of old ideas rehashed. In response to her admonition to ‘try something different’ I had a semi-hysterical bout of throwing out baby, bath water and tub all in one fling, deciding that the desperate measures I desired were a school of opposites. I’d been drawing 16″ x 20″ and smaller fussy (and excruciatingly slowly executed) surrealist still lifes in graphite pretty exclusively, and the exclusions came to include imagination and fun as I spiraled into frustrated ennui.

My solution: work large, explore a multitude of drawing media, work faster than is comfortable, draw subjects unfamiliar and intimidating, and quit critiquing unproductively midstream. It’s one thing to make small adjustments along the way, another to be immobilized by constant critical interruptions obsessing on the imperfection of my technique and execution–practicing past which was really the whole point of my doing graduate studies, after all. The result was that in the same several weeks it had taken to do the previous sad-sack batch of four or five drawings, I filled a gallery with walls about 5 meters in both directions from floor to ceiling with drawings, any one of them filled with greater energy and sense of adventure than the previous set combined. Not necessarily championship material every time out, mind you, but the mere act of pushing my productivity was a healthy kick in the keister for this would-be artist.

It’s entirely possible that my family and friends would have appreciated my taking a slightly less exaggerated approach to the change-up, since it resulted in massive amounts of large-scale (including a number of up to 9′ x 15′ and 4′ x 20′ murals) works that led, at the end of their assisting me with the installation of my thesis exhibition and lugging said works hither and yon, to whispers among them wondering why I hadn’t opted more kindly to become a skilled miniaturist. Or found less overworked relatives and friends, at least. But in the end they were all incredibly supportive and enthusiastic about my starting to learn how to manage my life in art production, and I learned perhaps the most important lesson I’ve fallen into yet, which is that the Muse requires equal ass-kicking; inspiration rarely happens without the regular pressure of constant and assiduous practice. If I think I’ve gotten to the point of needing no more practice to improve, I’ve clearly lost my last brain cell and should just lie down and rid the world of some ‘surplus population’. The mass-production approach to making art is, while a great boost via mere numerical odds to the number of possible “keeper” artworks, also an expensive enterprise, one that made me a much more devoted recycler in the process, to be sure.

Still, I wouldn’t trade this one essential atom of wisdom for all of my other education–anything worth learning and doing is worth practicing. I’ve had fallow periods aplenty since then, of course, but when I get the itch I know full well that the best way to scratch it is to dive back in and practice on a constant and vigilantly pursued basis. So many have written and spoken so eloquently of this in the past and continue to publish brilliantly on the topic, but until I stumbled on the experience in my own naive way I had no real appreciation for the power of this one prized truth.

This mural is one of several of the 4′ high by 20′ wide oil pastel on paper pieces that were part of the big life-changing project I tackled in those enlightening days of yore. This post is the first of my attempts at every-day blogging to bring the next degree of change to my life as an artist. Onward!

mural of faces

Oil pastel on paper, 4'H x 20'W