Over 10 years I’ve created 55 paintings in the Without a Net series, and last month I finally had the images made into a deck of cards. It was a marvelous and overwhelming moment to hold all that work in my hands for the first time. I had ideas for the deck, but the intentions […]
Tag / My Paintings
I was walking on a sidewalk at night and saw a cute skunk up ahead. It moved around a little, but did not get off the sidewalk. My common sense kicked in instinctively, and I stopped in my tracks. I marveled at how this cuddly, furry little creature commanded such respect. Even top predators know what a force the skunk is, and avoid it if they have any sense. Skunks know how to set boundaries. It occurred to me that I too was making space for myself and setting boundaries at that time, because I was on a silent retreat at a monastery.
I go to a monastery twice a year to partake in a self-imposed time of silence—usually a few days. There are monasteries of different religions, and most are gorgeous, out-of-the-way places where generations of practicing monastics have been praying, meditating and living for over a century. I most frequently go to the Benedictine Sisters Retreat at Sacred Heart Monastery in Alabama, but I’ve been to Magnolia Grove in Mississippi, a Buddhist monastery under the auspices of the Vietnamese monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, to Yogaville, Virginia, an ashram started by Swami Satchidananda, and Thomas Merton’s Gesthemane, a Trappist Monk Abbey in Kentucky. When I’m home I get asked by curious friends, “What do you do there?” The answer is, “Nothing.”
When giving a talk about my paintings, a member of the audience saw this piece and said, “ You’re not fat. How does this mind state pertain to you?” Before I could speak up, another person called out, “It’s about over-indulgence in general,” making me wish I had a co-explainer with me at all times.
While immoderation comes in many forms, I focus here on eating because it is one of my go-to pacifiers. I did another painting that portrayed food, as in cupcakes, but it referred to the concept of temptation. The hippo here has already succumbed to temptation. And has kept going.
In this painting there is a big round animal in the middle of a pile of food. This is one of the most literal paintings I’ve done, so there’s not much explanation needed. I wanted the overpowering pile to engulf the figure, so the food does not realistically recede into the background around the hippo. The perspective is skewed so that the food is as big and front-stage at the top as it is on the bottom. Looming, I wanted it to be.
I’d drawn the nude many times in classes and studio settings, but I’d never painted one. I’d certainly never created a finished piece of one. So this painting was a challenge on several levels. I wanted to portray the idea of exposure.
The process of making my Without a Net series requires exposure, and sharing it with others pushes it farther. In going forward with my artwork (and a few other things) I partly want to show myself and at the same time I want to hide. I chose the peacock to portray half of this idea because it popped into my head as a most showy of animals. And to represent the side of me that feels exposed, I could think of no outfit better than the birthday suit, and some feeble attempts to cover up the most private parts.
The act of painting the piece was, as I said, a challenge simply because for the first time I would be presenting a finished painting of a nude. I had plenty of reasons to be level-headed about it. My former training had given me a clinical outlook on rendering anything. My state of adulthood and its accompanied experience has given me at least the average amount of maturity in regards to showing the human figure. My years as an art historian have given me a thorough acquaintance with the nude represented in a thousand different ways. None of it stopped my childlike embarrassment about painting a naked lady for all the world to see! And boy, how that feeling was appropriate for the mind state I was depicting.
I love elephants. I see them as wise, intuitive, devoted, patient, and perceptive. I see these qualities in myself sometimes, and sometimes I just aspire to them.
Wisdom is big concept and an easily-tossed-around word. In the spirit of not over-thinking things, I sought to be in touch with a wisdom that an elephant might have. Mysterious, deep, timeless. It is not analytical or clever. Wisdom comes from a place deeper than my intellect and my emotions. It comes from a clear and eternal place within.
My paintings were originally inspired in part by animal deities of the Hindu tradition. I couldn’t help but call to mind Ganesh, the elephant-headed God, when I began this piece. At first I imagined my wisdom painting would depict references to ornate and colorful religious iconography, but the more I allowed the idea of wisdom to percolate, the simpler I wanted the imagery to be.
After I had done several paintings in the Without a Net series, I noticed a pattern. The traits I was depicting all represented some way I escaped or tolerated or managed a discomfort inside. They were all forms of armor, so I tried to imagine what I’d feel like without any protection at all. Right away the baby duck emerged as the winning candidate for the role in my painting. They are adorable and funny-looking, and quite helpless.
I decided to outfit the defenseless little duck with the amount of defensive covering I felt like I’d been using, an amount I’d only recently become privy to after getting real with myself through my paintings. My artwork had revealed to me how much of my behavior and motives were fueled by my protective responses.
My kid was getting picked on in school, and it made me very angry. It surprised me how riled up I got. I painted this piece during that time, and choosing the animal to symbolize my reactions was easy. I have a history with bears.
In Colorado during the time I grew up, bears were almost completely hunted out. Even my outdoorsman dad went many years without running into one. Even so, I had an overblown fear of them. When I was elementary school age I read an article in the Reader’s Digest about a man in Alaska who was mauled by a bear and had to crawl for miles without legs to get help. (Or some equally disgusting story.) I had nightmares for months, and was very shy about how far I would go into the wilderness alone. Since the wilderness was literally right out our front door, it made for some limited enjoyment of the endless natural wonders around me. I never lost my apprehension about bears.
I was 13 when I had my first bear encounter. I was not far from our house, and I was rounding up my horse to put him in his corral. I turned to see the bear, and I ran and screamed. I’d been trained for years about what not to do when you see a bear, and that is, do not run and scream. The bear came after me, but I got to the house in plenty of time. This was the first of many bear encounters, which tend to happen most times I set foot in the woods. Hippies would say I’m attracting them with my weird bear energy, and in the South they say I’ve “called it up.”
This piece started with the desire to portray something about the battle of the sexes. It’s hard to be a human and not encounter some misunderstanding and frustration with the opposite sex. I decided to explore this theme when my husband was annoying me enough that it brought up an age-old attitude to which I am no stranger. It’s the “men are a bunch of jerks” outlook. It’s easy to intellectualize my way out of this feeling. I can reason that it’s not a useful attitude, that men can say the same thing about women, that it’s over-reactive, over-generalized, and melodramatic. But sometimes I succumb to aggravation and fall into the habit of blaming half the population for being different than I am.
I chose the Ruby-Throated Hummingbird as my animal for a few reasons. At first glance they are delicate, lovely creatures—feminine and flowing in movement and line. But anyone who has a feeder knows that they are also territorial and aggressive. And another thing. Unlike most flock birds who help each other by flying in formations, tiny hummingbirds migrate 600 miles alone across the Gulf of Mexico from Central and South America in every kind of messy weather. They are considered the macho species of migrating birds. I chose to portray the male hummingbird in my painting, with its bright red neck. As is the case with many bird species, the male is the prettier of the genders. All of these incongruous and opposing traits touch on contrasting ideas of masculine and feminine.
Painting this one was difficult because I got hungry looking at cupcakes the whole time. I felt like the mouse in the center, wanting to resist something that looks so enticing. My intention was to paint temptation.
I painted a mouse because he’s small, with his object of affection looming large. And mice have mousetraps. Every successful mousetrap is evidence of the power of temptation. As for the cupcakes, my gallery/studio is right next to a cupcake store, so I see the prettiest, sweetest-smelling treats everyday, and had access to easily paint them. But my use of them here is only for symbolic and visual effect. They are not my treat of choice.
Temptations don’t start out being so irresistible. They can be a comforting way of managing or softening the effects of difficulties. It’s when I use them repeatedly as a coping mechanism that they get harder to resist. Eventually, if the same coping tool is reached for repeatedly, there comes the time when the object of attraction becomes an automatic habit so ingrained I barely recognize it. I make excuses for doing it. I don’t realize how important I’ve made it. It becomes a drug of sorts.
Around the time I wanted to start this painting, we had a cockroach infestation at our house. (This means I saw more than 4 in one day. The exterminator said this was by no means anything like a true infestation.) Nevertheless, I saw the cockroaches as disgusting, invasive, and impossible to get rid of. The roach became an easy first choice when I tried to come up with a creature to represent the critical, overly analytical thoughts I sometimes get while painting. They come straight from my art training in academia and have little to do with art or education.
In these messy encounters, a long list of considerations run through my mind that dissect my creative process, the end result of my work, the way I might sell it in the future, its relevance to art history, how it might be perceived by a wide-array of viewers, and whether it is important, poignant, smart, catchy, unique, or relevant. In other words, I pick my art to pieces. The cockroach represents those times when I allow those old “professors in my head” to make art a whole lot less fun than it should be.