At long last, I completed this portrait of my fiancé holding a giant bundle of dried flowers! This painting is part two of a set – each work depicting one of us in the courtyard of the residence we stayed in on our first trip to Oaxaca, Mexico. This was such a fun project – we staged these poses, made sure the lighting was just perfect, and I worked from the photographs trying to blend realism with a brushy and colorful dynamic. The result is satisfying for me… The subtle smiles on our faces, the high contrast and depth drawing you into the scene, mixed with a somewhat more unreal use of color and focus – these all contribute to intriguing portraits in a style that is all my own. I became more adventurous with the color palette in this second piece, and I had to go back and saturate the first one more with burnt sienna, deep blues and greens, in order to make them come together more.
Self-Portrait (Oaxaca). Acrylic on canvas. 18″ x 24″
Matt Portrait (Oaxaca). Acrylic on canvas. 18″ x 24″
I began this piece at about about a year ago – I can’t believe it took me this long to finish it! Reflecting on 2019, I realize how little new art I had really made. I have a way of getting down on myself for this, feeling like I’m shortchanging myself if I don’t create new art prolifically. Instead of painting, I was working on the house, volunteering for a gallery, becoming obsessed with gardening and landscaping, spending time with friends and family, spending time with our new dog, playing Magic: The Gathering with my buddies, not to mention my busy job as a hospital nurse. With all of these interests, it’s easy for art to slip to the wayside.
I’m trying not to let it bother me… We can’t all be as prolific as we’d sometimes like. For one, I have found that I simply can’t force myself to paint just out of pure obligation to my identity as an artist. I have to have an idea I’m excited about, or it just doesn’t flow. In the meantime, I’m appreciating more that many of the things I do involve creativity, and there is an “art” or generative nature to just about everything I spend time on. I’m shifting my perspective, trying to re-frame the issue: how can I encourage the creative impulse flow through all the channels of my life instead of confining it to visual art?</p
One thing I’m focusing on in 2020 is actually finishing projects when I start them, instead of letting them drag on for a year. This way, when I do have the time and the inspiration for new pieces, I can hold onto that lightning and follow it all the way through, focusing on quality instead of quantity.
Despite taking me forever (almost two years altogether!), these portraits were really fun, and gave me an opportunity to practice figure and realism, areas I have not explored much. I’m getting ready to move on now to some exciting new territory, having promised some new abstract art for our walls.
In Fall of 2019 I participated in the “Changing Horizons” exhibit at All My Relations Arts and Two Rivers Gallery in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The show’s concept challenges the popular notion that art by Natives should conform to stereotyped ideas about what Native American art is. The submission guidelines indicated the show was open to all indigenous artists living on Turtle Island (or North America). Being partly Dakota, I decided to submit a few pieces from my “Coagulation Studies” series. However, I did not want to misrepresent myself; By “blood quantum,” I am 1/8th Dakota, and I did not grow up on a reservation or within any appreciable Dakota community. There are two tribes associated with my Dakota heritage, but I am not enrolled in either. As such, I felt obliged to indicate in my submission that I am not an enrolled tribal member and have a mixed background, 12.5% of which happens to be indigenous.
A few weeks after my submission to “Changing Horizons,” I was notified that all three of my submissions were accepted. I was excited for the opportunity to participate in a show with such a salient theme and hear what other artists had to say about how their heritage shapes their work. I had conversations with curators Angela Two Stars (of All My Relations Arts) and Tamara Aupaumut (of Two Rivers Gallery) about how awkward it felt to quantify my Dakota blood in my application. Why did I assume it would be an issue? Interestingly, this question reflected somewhat on Changing Horizons’ central theme: the complexity of “Nativeness” in art, and how it impacts the work of Native artists. I agreed to participate in an artist talk about the show in late October, which prompted me to write this essay as a way to organize my thoughts. For years, questions and insecurities related to my Dakota ancestry have been swirling in my head. Changing Horizons gave me a tangible reason to examine these thoughts and explore my Dakota heritage as it pertains to identity, belonging, and how I think about Native art.
Let’s start from the beginning: my ancestors were either already here in Minnesota, living in villages along the lower Minnesota River or came to North America from Norway and Finland by various means. The Scandinavians eventually settled in Minnesota and later South Dakota. On the Scandinavian side, my forerunners were farmers, shipwrights, pastors, doctors and nurses. They came to the Midwest seeking prosperity, just as many European settlers did during that time. Along the way, my great-grandmother Rose Taylor (née Niemela) married a full-blood Dakota by the name of Ephraim Phillip Taylor (Dakota name: Looking Eagle). On the Dakota side, my ancestors were hunters, warriors, spiritual workers, pipestone quarriers and artisans. My father is enrolled in the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe (FSST) near Pipestone, MN where my great- and great-great-grandfathers carved traditional ceremonial pipes in the pipestone quarry. Their works of art and labor to preserve the sacred quarry site are enshrined at the Pipestone National Monument. The families belonging to FSST originally came from a Minnesota band called the Mdewakanton (Dwellers at the Spirit Lake), whose ancestral territory included the river banks, woodlands and prairies of Southern Minnesota. Some of the Mdewakanton Dakota resettled in Flandreau, SD after being exiled from Minnesota in the events following the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. The present day Mdewakanton Dakota are represented by the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community (SMSC), located in Prior Lake, Minnesota.
Generational research has helped me engage with and take pride in both my European and Dakota heritage. I am interested in finding patterns within our heritage, learning about what was important to my ancestors and how this relates to my family and community today. For example, I was not aware until recently that I could trace my Dakota heritage back to the Twin Cities area, where I have made my adult home. Having moved here at the age of nineteen, and having purchased my first home near the sacred Dakota site of Bdote (Meeting of the Waters), I am in wonder at the irony that my sister and I unknowingly retraced our Dakota ancestors’ steps backwards, from resettlement in Flandreau to genesis in present-day Minneapolis. In another example: the fact that both Dakota and European ancestors had deep spiritual lives helps me understand my natural curiosity about metaphysical frameworks for understanding the universe. Finally, as an artist and a nurse, I am fascinated by the amount of health workers and artisans in our family history. Without always knowing it, I have followed in their footsteps in more ways than one. The stories of individuals and family groups illustrate our narrative and inform our understanding of ourselves. These same stories, placed within the context of history and global events, help us understand the story of humans on a longer arc of time and space. This journey of self-discovery through generational research has been fascinating and enlightening, and continues to keep me engaged.
The Experience of Heritage
Growing up, we had no lack of opportunities to engage with our Scandinavian heritage. We went to a Lutheran church with predominantly other white Scandinavian families, who also mostly populated our western Sioux Falls, South Dakota neighborhood. At Christmas, we ate lefse, lutefisk and krumkake. Mom told us fairy tales and ghost stories drawn from Norwegian folklore. I read and re-read a large picture book detailing the Norse mythologies and all the capricious gods in their endless conniving. My parents made sure we engaged with our Native American heritage as well. My parents took us to indigenous craft fairs. We went to powwows, and my sister and I ate heaping fry bread tacos with ground bison and participated in hoop dances. We attended the Hiawatha Pageant at Pipestone, MN with our Dakota relatives a few times. When we were born, my parents had our umbilical cords sewn into beaded animals, a Lakota tradition. Mine was a snake, and my sister Stephanie’s a turtle. These amulets symbolize the link between phases of existence – before and after birth – and are thought to encourage long life.
For multiple reasons during my childhood and early adulthood, my Dakota heritage was infinitely more interesting to me than my European heritage. For one, we were surrounded by other Christian, Scandinavian families, and those traditions and stories permeated our lives. As an alternative story, our Dakota history was more interesting, more wild and unique. Admittedly, this was a child’s fascination with the plains Indian caricature created by Hollywood (read: Dances With Wolves) and popular media. As an adult, I have come to appreciate and revere the aspects of our shared European and Native heritage that are based in reality: my ancestors’ stories of migration, exile and resilience, rich spiritual tradition, and relationship to the land which we occupy and depend on.
The evolution of my spiritual life has also encouraged me to identify more with our Dakota heritage than our Scandinavian background. As a young teenager in confirmation, I was told by a Lutheran church leader that being gay was not compatible with the bible’s teachings. With my rebellious phase in full swing and little patience for intolerance, I found zero ways to reconcile this. Instead of suppressing my sexual orientation, I dropped out of confirmation, gave up on Christianity and began exploring different spiritual systems. Since then, I have become familiar with principles from Universalism, Buddhism and indigenous philosophies – something that may account for my pride in our Native heritage today. Like my blood, my spiritual constitution is mixed, incorporating bits and pieces from here and there. Interestingly, my great-great-grandpa Joseph C. Taylor had a similar experience with spirituality. His life is chronicled in the historical-fiction novel Under Two Heavens by Wes Dakota. Born into the local mayhem of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, he was brought up and trained as an Episcopal missionary. During the course of his life, Joseph tried to bring Christianity to bands of Natives throughout the Great Plains, but ultimately gave up missionary work, returned to Pipestone, MN and began answering a “different spiritual calling” as a Pipestone quarrier and artisan. My grandpa’s experiences resonate with me: his spiritual journey echoes my own in some ways; his life of navigating the space between Native and white cultures is related to the ambiguity I write about here, and the confusing space many Natives find themselves in today.
“You Lost It In Your First Nosebleed” – Mixed Blood, Tribelessness and Identity Complexity
Intermittently, I have met resistance to the assertion that I am part Native. Usually, this has been based on assumptions about how Natives are supposed to physically look. From time to time, others will say “I can see it!” remarking on the subtle ways my sister and I “look Native” based on these assumptions. My father and I share a somewhat darker skin tone than my mother and sister and many other Scandinavians. We have high cheekbones, strong nose bridges, dark hair. Aside from this, we don’t physically read as Native people by popular opinion. My sister, also 1/8th Dakota, ended up with wholly Scandinavian physical traits – fair skin, white-blond hair and bright blue eyes. Not looking Native enough to satisfy others, or not “passing” as Native, generates an insecurity of identity and poses several interesting questions about identity and appearance on its own.
In other conversations, the reactions of others have seemed to reject our Dakota heritage based on our lived experience. Yes, we may be genetically Native, but we did not grow up on a reservation or immersed in an indigenous community. The experiences of my sister and I have largely been of white European privilege, and we certainly owe a lot to this fact. The result is a feeling of disconnect between our Native heritage and a lived “Native experience,” but again, in a country with over 500 federally recognized tribes, with hundreds of thousands of full-bloods, half-bloods, one-fourths, one-eights, one-sixteenths, one-thirty-seconds, in year 2019, what does a “Native experience” really mean? My research into the lives of my ancestors on both sides, Native and European, has revealed experiences that are far from privilege. Their struggles have brought about our privilege in surprising ways. I choose to honor them through generational research and celebration of multifaceted heritage.
All this complexity, and we haven’t even gotten to the topic of blood. “You probably lost it in your first nosebleed,” one Native acquaintance told me as a teen, referring to the apparently minuscule fraction of blood in my body that qualified as indigenous. Blood quantum rules, or the system of quantifying Indian blood imposed on Native populations by the federal government, overlays yet more identity complexity on Natives of mixed ancestry. It’s incredibly easy to feel “not Native enough” when a system of exclusivity turns your living blood into a pie chart that others use to decide things about you. The highly controversial tool of blood quantum is used by many tribes to determine membership, and sometimes poses a significant conundrum for those of mixed-blood status. The FSST of South Dakota maintains a blood quantum rule. One must have at least one quarter Dakota blood to be an enrolled member. Because the Dakota in Flandreau, SD originally came from the Prior Lake, MN area, I suspected and confirmed through research that we can trace our Dakota lineage back to Prior Lake, the geographic center of the SMSC. SMSC’s rule indicates anyone, regardless of blood quantum, can be enrolled as long as they can prove lineage back to a tribal member on their books (called lineal descent). Our ancestor, Oceti Duta (Place of Red Fire) was Mdewakanton, and was sentenced to hang at Mankato, MN for participating in the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. This event ended up being the largest mass execution in U.S. history. Ultimately, he was spared. Despite our familial trace back to the Mdewakanton, we have been unable to petition for enrollment in SMSC. For the last several years there has been a moratorium on new enrollment claims. Phone calls and emails to inquire why have not been returned.
In summary, at several junctures, I’ve encountered an assertion that my Dakota heritage is simply “not Native enough.” Not Native enough to identify with our ancestry, and certainly not Native enough to belong to a tribe. A question that comes to mind: to what degree have blood quantum policies resulted in a crisis of identity and belonging among all Native people, and how have they inadvertently stifled or damaged families and communities because of it? The double standard here is interesting to me – it has never mattered to anyone that we are not 100% Norwegian or Finnish either. We are not 100% white, Native, or anything. Who is really 100% anything in the larger picture of human existence on planet Earth?
Shifting the Focus: Identity Versus Belonging
So here we stand – mixed Norwegian-Finnish-Dakota people, tribeless, living in the heart of ancestral Dakota homelands. As I have asked myself many times, why does any of this matter? The identity question is messy, fraught with complexity. So much of the above ambiguity is based on how others view us, what they decide about us. What kind of recognition or acknowledgment are we looking for, and what difference would it make? Why are identities so fragile? I believe that identity is a construction of the mind – one’s own mind and the minds of others. As such, the constructed identity or ego becomes a distraction from who we really are, a distraction from the deep understanding of our true being which is separate from names, labels, and artifices. Still, at times I have been frustrated, especially that we are unable to be formally acknowledged by either tribe as belonging to their story. What would tribal membership even mean for us? The ultimate benefits of enrollment remain unclear. Nonetheless, there exists a persistent inner discomfort that comes from this “tribelessness.” As I write, it becomes clear that this uneasiness is not necessarily based on the precarious construction of identity, but rather on the deeply human need for belonging. Belonging to something larger than ourselves.
I am learning: what matters more than identity validation is seeking belonging where it counts. Formal membership in a tribe is not necessary to cultivate belonging, to honor and experience our heritage. What does it even mean to honor and experience our heritage, or even to cultivate belonging? Perhaps it means contributing to our community in whatever ways we can, participating, forming bonds with others, learning a language, carrying on meaningful traditions, spending time in the places where our family story unfolded, or allowing our ancestors’ stories to teach us something about ourselves. These are all things that can be done without anyone else’s allowance or recognition. Indigenous people in North America have survived through war, famine, smallpox blankets, systematic destruction, and exile. Our ancestors’ struggles and resilience made our own lives possible. In Tommy Orange’s 2018 novel There There, Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield explains to her grandson: “Don’t ever let anyone tell you what being Indian means. Too many of us died to get just a little bit of us here, right now … You, me. Every part of our people that made it is precious … You’re Indian because you’re Indian because you’re Indian.” Opal’s point here is that acknowledging one’s Native heritage is almost a duty, not to validate ourselves, but to respect our ancestors’ fight for survival – even the survival of just a little bit, even 1/8th of a little bit. Ultimately, the reasons identity and belonging matter to each of us are complex, and cannot be resolved in a single essay. Rather, these questions are explored through a lifetime and the “answers” evolve with each new phase of the journey.
Changing Horizons: An Exploration of “Native American Art”
As I have stated above, the search for identity and belonging are lifelong explorations. As an artist, I see the creative process as a similar exploration. Generally, the themes and ideas contained in my paintings actively explore concepts rather than seek to make a statement or resolve a question – especially the more abstract pieces. My art practice is a journey which brings discovery, poses questions and challenges, and leaves the viewer with something to consider as well. The “Changing Horizons” exhibit at All My Relations Arts and Two Rivers Gallery exhibit gave me a platform to use my art to explore questions about Native art as well as my own story with Native identity and belonging.
First, what does “Native American Art” mean? To me, this category can be described as art by and of Native Americans, usually reflecting culture, values, beliefs or stories that are unique to the indigenous experience. Often, viewers seem to expect a more historical or cliched experience to be reflected – these are the experiences of colonization, conquer and dispossession. Indeed, the Encyclopedia Britannica’s definition of “Native American Art” offers an almost anthropological characterization using the past-tense. It’s no wonder “Native American Art” from a colonizer’s perspective has not flourished in the mainstream – it would be too depressing.
By contrast, today’s Native art often reflects a living contemporary experience – an important counterpoint to the popular notion that indigenous culture and communities have been erased. Native communities exist today, in urban environments as well as in rural communities. Likewise, “Native American Art” does not exist only in the context of history. Today’s indigenous painters, poets, novelists, sculptors, actors, rappers, dancers, craft workers, journalists, weavers, animators, designers, artists of all stripes are here to stay, and they have a different story to tell. These stories are messy, complicated, beautiful, funny, tragic, nuanced, uncomfortable, transformative. Theirs are generational stories of strength, pride, staying power, even stories that don’t have anything “Native” to say at all.
Through my participation with Changing Horizons, I learned about George Morrison, a celebrated artist whose avant garde artwork was often labeled “Native American,” though not much of his work actually contained any overt “Native American” themes. In fact, the majority of Morrison’s work can be described as abstract, modernist and decorative with only subtly recognizable forms, such as landscapes, horizons, water or other organic shapes. It is argued that Morrison’s categorization as a “Native American” niche artist may have limited his exposure in the larger art world. Contemporaries and acquaintances Franz Kline, Jackson Pollock, and Willem de Kooning all experienced celebrity while Morrison remained relatively obscure. It is possible that critics and art enthusiasts excluded Morrison’s work from the contemporary cutting edge due to the assumption that “Native-ness” belongs to uncomfortable, misunderstood narratives of the past. The stereotyped images of Native Americans and “Native American Art” seem to have no place in the metropolitan, sophisticated and nuanced world of visual art.
This leads us to the question – what do non-native folks and the public expect about “Native American Art?” Must it be generated by a physically Native-looking artist, depict traditional dress or ceremony, include animals, landscape, feathers, or other stereotypically “Native American” elements? Viewers are so comfortable with this narrative and its symbols that they will go out of their way to participate in it. For example, the “Coagulation Study” pieces I submitted to Changing Horizons were purely abstract with colorful, vaguely organic shapes connected by an underlying network of geometric marks. During the opening reception, one viewer remarked on a blob of red paint in the center of my composition: “Perhaps it’s just because I’m here, but I can almost certainly make out a painted horse or a buffalo right there!” In this exchange, it became clear that the viewer was striving to connect with familiar images that have persisted in popular media – visions of buffalo, horses on the prairie, Indians fighting cowboys. They also revealed that their perception was biased by the setting – a gallery dedicated to Native art. Now, I’m not saying there was anything really wrong with this association – only that it’s fascinating how desperately people want to connect with the comfortable, popular symbols of “Native-ness,” rather than search for something unique.
Participation in the Changing Horizons artist talk, I was asked to explore how my artwork relates to ideas about “Native-ness.” As I said above, the pieces I submitted are mostly abstract. They include tiny chips of paint scraped from pallets over the years, which are layered into a mixed media matrix arranged in a somewhat geometric and organic-looking shape. As I work, I try to maintain a balance between planning and intuition – the underlying grid has been designed to be mostly symmetrical or aesthetically formatted, however decisions about placement of certain elements are made with a flowing, “stream-of-consciousness” sensibility. This tension between defined aesthetic frameworks and intuitive “play” is key – I view it as an extension of creative processes found in nature such as growth, development, iteration, accident and mutation. The use of old, dried paint simultaneously with new, shiny and supple paint juxtaposes similar materials at different “life stages,” and explores the idea of salvage or regeneration of refuse, dead material. The connections between the mixed media elements recall food chains, thought webs, family trees, ecosystems, and remind the viewer how all the elements of the composition are connected to the others. Mitakuye oyasin, Dakota for “all my relations,” is a concept in Dakota philosophy which underscores the relationships connecting all living things. While I was not explicitly thinking about this during the creation of these pieces, its reflection in the work is fascinating to me. George Morrison maintained that there was nothing particularly Native American about his art practice: “I have never tried to prove that I was Indian through my art. Yet there may remain, deeply hidden, some remote suggestion of the rock whence I was hewn,” he said. Here, Morrison illustrates the idea that we all have a deep inner nature passed down from generations before us. Certainly these inner natures carry the energies of our ancestors, their history and memories and perhaps also their dreams, their trauma. I suspect there are many other ways my ancestry, Dakota or European, subconsciously affects my life and art practice.
For indigenous artists and art appreciators, know that there is not one single story of Native Americans that defines us. The perspective and voice of each and every individual is precious beyond value and contains within a gift that only that perspective can offer. When engaging with Native art, try to look deeper and avoid the clichés of the past – these Hollywood silhouettes of conquered people. Search for the universal – what is being shared in the context of global human experience, human consciousness, human vitality and survival. Open your mind to the story of Today, and consider what looking forward, toward the changing horizon, may offer.
Genetic Memory/Congenital Gifts is a new mixed media piece that explores the shared living structures common to all forms of life. The abstract vascular shape featured here is shared by all living organisms, and the canvas can be flipped to suggest the shape of a spreading tree, a foundation of roots, an angiogram or a bronchial tree. Floating shapes in the negative space represent cellular organization during early development – a human embryo and a meristematic growth surface are remarkably similar. It’s my way of exploring how organisms seem to “rehearse” evolutionary history on fast-forward throughout development and differentiation
I’ve been on a bit of a hiatus with visual art this summer as I have become increasingly obsessed with gardening and landscaping! However, I’ve come to think of this as another form of art, and it’s easy to see how the art of planting, growing and cultivating overflows into my other artistic practices, such as with this painting. Hoping to catch up with more painting and visual art this Fall and Winter!
I added the finishing touches on “Resonance” today, a unique acrylic and ink commission for a friend that began as a simple homage to Kandinsky and ended as something else entirely. This “process piece” relied heavily on the grid at first, but through phases of revision/negotiation transformed into something painterly and spatial, full of music and movement. I’m not surprised at the direction this took, as I intentionally worked while listening to composers Brian Eno and Christina Vantzou, trying to translate complex layers of sound into shape and light on the canvas. Creating this painting was somewhat automatic, intuitive and even meditative – an experience I’m beginning to explore more deeply with regard to abstraction.
Final thought: it’s amazing how “art thinking” can change from day to day. In two consecutive days working on this painting, the first brought me to a frustrating impasse where I couldn’t work out the puzzle of balancing this composition. On the second day, I was able to “see it” with renewed vision and decided how to finish the painting almost instinctively. What a lot of work a good night’s sleep can accomplish!
While I was not able to make it to any Hawaiian coast whatsoever during this summer’s vacation, I WAS able to live vicariously by painting one featuring this couple! I’m just wading back into my art life after being entirely consumed with purchasing a home, moving, and getting set up since mid-April. My studio only just came together one week ago! This was a fun portrait project to help get back into it after a long vacation from art. It also allowed me to deepen my skill in painting full-figure humans (versus dogs) in a natural setting.
Most enjoyable was the painterly, atmospheric background of clouds and waves in contrast with the meticulously placed daubs of paint here and there to capture the likeness of the subjects. I worked with a limited primary palette to mix all the colors, which I think lends a certain “pure” feel to the overall tone. This was the first painting completed in my new studio space, and I’m eager to move on to many more projects currently floating around in my head!
Check out the instagram posts below to see how this painting developed:
C’est fini! This picturesque scene developed as a commission piece for a family member who requested a French countryside/cottage image for her dining room. This assignment led me to review one of my favorite landscape painters, Gustave Courbet. Courbet liked to present himself as a “man of the countryside,” and generated a plethora of dramatic natural scenes depicting rolling hills, cliffsides, trees, animals, little towns and people of the era recreating within it. What I admire about Courbet’s work is the stark contrasts, the bold use of color, and the painterly technique/style imbued in his work. Courbet often used thick impasto mark-making, palette knives and even transferred texture using rags to create heightened detail and depth in his subjects.
As I began this piece with a deep burnt umber underpainting, and developed up the layers, I referenced dozens of Courbet landscape paintings to inform my composition and decision-making. I tried to emulate some of Courbet’s techniques, to great or little extent, especially the use of texturing with the knife. What was challenging with this piece was not having one single photo reference for the composition. Instead, I had to mentally stitch together several photo references (cottage, cow, landscape, rooster, tree, etc.) and make it all work with regard to perspective.
I haven’t posted much in the last few months as we have been completely consumed with the process of purchasing a home. That does not mean that I have not also been busy with painting! Over the next few days I’ll post a few of my recent painting milestones.
Our February trip to Oaxaca, Mexico inspired this self-portrait. The open-air courtyards familiar to Spanish colonial architecture were the perfect place to capture dramatic lighting. Many of the plants and cacti in our courtyard were wild and unruly, giving the haphazard space an “ugly-beautiful” feel, splashes of color surrounding us. From a technique perspective, I tried hard to paint in all the lights and darks, creating deep contrast, before I began working with color. Process pics below to see how the layers developed. Soon, the counterpart portrait of my devoted traveling partner will surface, but it’s still lingering in my imagination for now :)
Finally turned a corner on this abstract piece yesterday. I’m feeling more comfortable with abstraction and developing confidence with unique ways of working. A common response to abstract art from my circles: “What is it?” Rather than stumble through a rote interpretation of what’s going on here, I thought I would post my working notes below:
Traction in Abstraction. Painting Abstract Aerial Lake. The Shape of Life. Geology. Depth study. Geese flying, goose guide. Bold, vibrant color.
Difficulty > (what am I doing? non-representational, no reference > endless options) (What do I do next? > endless options, breakthroughs, leave and come back > allow brain to breathe) (Where does my mind go? > [Solve creative “problem” > aesthetic “problem”] How to balance > How to disrupt?)
Geese in flight or chromosomes bending in suspension OR analogous geometric/genetic experiences in biology
Pure abstraction? Figuration with goose? Content – why pure abstraction? Abstract totem, invokes what I cannot avoid saying.
Land matters. Depth matters. space matters. Sub-paintings in space > figural totem, geese flying, Icarus, chromosomes, experimental spaces
I started this portrait of my live-in, unpaid studio model on the Winter Solstice, intending to compose a painting that looks forward to warmth and growth during the cold, bleak Minnesota winter. I thought about styling this as a somewhat abstract, cubist composition, but was lured into classical representation instead. While this type of portrait is not necessarily my forte, it has been a fun and challenging project so far, and I’ve frequently found myself lost in the long moments of focus/meditation on careful color mixing, delicate glazing and developing depth. In the end, I want the subject to have a glowing, warm feel radiating from the center of the composition, in stark contrast with the hard, chilly light of the surrounding seasonal blues. As I work, I’m trying to channel portraits by Degas and Manet, to name a few. At this phase of the painting, I’m ready to break from reliance on the photo reference and deepen some stylistic elements, embellish the scene and let the visual poetry play out.
“It is all very well to copy what one sees, but it is far better to draw what one now only sees in one’s memory. That is a transformation in which imagination collaborates with memory.” – Edgar Degas
Snapshots of three postcard-size collages I submitted to this year’s Art 4 Shelter benefit. The event is an opportunity for art-lovers to snap up original artwork from emerging and established artists, with proceeds going towards housing and advocacy efforts for people experiencing homelessness. Excited to participate in this dynamic event! This year I’m focusing on work that relates to environmental justice – this was a great way to start off on the right foot! For these pieces, I thought about the global environment as life’s universal “shelter,” and how we must do what we can to protect it or suffer the consequences.
Incubation. Gestation. Uterus/Heart. Growth & Development. Ripening. Maturation. Evolution. Vessels & Hollow Organs. Heart/Uterus. Impulse. Creative Stream. Universal Generativity. Revival. Resurrection. Resuscitation. These are a few of my favorite things! And/or the wayfinding words I was jotting down in my project book/journal as I set out to rework a ten-year-old self portrait that just needed something more.
The former painting, a half-baked figure drawing of myself lying in semi fetal position, came from the tail end of my art school years when I was working on expressive figure sketches, mostly in rote, frothy charcoal and muddled with bright, concentrated color (see “Imaginary Figures”). Working through how to transform this piece into something I could be proud of was an interesting process. In many ways, I felt like I was having a conversation with my younger self, recognizing what I was trying to do 10 years ago, and letting that dialog with today’s sensibilities, changed as they are. I found that several of my old tricks and practices have endured and perhaps matured over the years. The same joy in speed and gestural energy is there in the old and the new way of working. I have a better grasp on color and inventive palettes now, something I really missed ten years ago.
As I worked through this painting I began thinking more deeply about what it means symbolically to come full circle on a self-portrait. I came across my desire to reinvent without fully destroying this object that my 22-year old self made. I’m reading a biography about artist Jasper Johns, and I was intrigued at a part of Johns’ career where he systematically destroyed his older work after he found his creative niche, erasing the traces of his incremental growth. I have certainly had the impulse to obliterate old paintings, but I so value the idea of ritual transformation that I find inspiration and meaning in the process, the traces leading up to a certain point in time. I like to see the arc of things. Perhaps I really am a “big picture” thinker – my partner mentions it frequently. I remember how lost I felt at 22, facing graduation and the bleak world outside art school, and I wonder if that uncertainty contributed to the savage, transitional quality of the original image. I wish then I could have seen the long view and trusted it. It sounds so sentimental…I tried to have a little overdue self-compassion as I helped this old portrait find a way out of confusion. The result is a somewhat spiritual (if not a little corny), surrealist affirmation of our constant state of change and transformation, a theme that is ever more important in my art practice and my perspective in general.
“I think that one wants from a painting a sense of life. The final suggestion, the final statement, has to be not a deliberate statement but a helpless statement. It has to be what you can’t avoid saying.” – Jasper Johns
I’m closing out 2017 with this playful painting of Lepomis gibbosus, the Pumpkinseed sunfish. Also known as pond perch, common sunfish, punky, sunny, or kivver, these freshwater fish of the Centrarchidae family can be found in many of Minnesota’s lakes and streams. A coworker of mine has a fishy theme going in her baby’s crib room and asked for a fun, fishy piece to go with it. I decided to channel the Pumpkinseed’s likeness for its playful colors and goofy, chunky shape. Fun fact: the Pumpkinseed uses uniquely adapted teeth to feast fancily on escargot!
Beyond fish, 2017 has been a smashing year of art progress for me. Reviewing the last twelve months in my art journal reveals so many successes. So much having happened, I felt the need to reflect on the year in a blog post to capture all my thoughts in one place. In my formal art practice, I have achieved my goal of working with higher contrast, more risk-taking and experimentation with color, and creating the illusion of depth more effectively than ever before. I explored ways of working that I was not entirely comfortable with (cubism, landscape, realism), challenging myself and interrogating my own assumptions along the way. I showed new and old work in three different exhibitions. Additionally, I crushed my previous records for commission earnings, having finished ten distinctly unique pieces of increasing size and complexity. Lastly, and most valuably, I became a member at Vine Arts Center, and joined a committed and dynamic collective of artists working to bring art to the Twin Cities community in a variety of fashions. This has allowed me to more fully submerge myself in art dialog and discourse, an energizing and renewing process. A big factor contributing to this progress is at long last I have the right work-life balance required to generate new art and keep up with marketing it. Thanks, nursing school! Finally having a dedicated studio space is also a mega factor in the equation, not to be overlooked. Most importantly, there are people around me who support my art, come to my shows, ask good questions about my process, and get excited about what I’m making next. Art is a conversation – I am deeply appreciative of everyone willing to have that conversation with me.
Alongside these successes, there were a few goals I did not meet. I had good intentions to participate in community art events and collaborate through shared projects. I ran out of time! Moving into 2018, I hope to ratchet up my arts involvement by participating more in community art events. I also may have worked too heavily on commissions and not pursued my own creative projects fully enough. With many ideas floating around in my head, I’ll be sure to find a way to get more of them onto the page, paper, board, canvas, or what have you in 2018. Another goal I have for 2018 is to find a way for my art to add value or perspective to the conversations happening all around us in our social institutions, our media, or political theatre, our environment and universe at large. With all this in mind, I must remember to stay humble, to focus on the core of what energizes me about art, and to keep talking about art with anyone and everyone.
Oh, and one more non-art-related resolution: to get out there and eat all the escargot I possibly can, preferably with some uniquely adapted teeth.
Some fun facts about Denali: the mountain is the highest peak in North America; the name “Denali” was given by the Koyukon people, who have lived around the mountain for centuries (the name was recently changed to “Denali” from “Mount McKinley” in 2015). Thanks Wikipedia!
I recently finished this small painting of Denali for a client. This was a fun, short little exercise in landscape, a subject area I don’t generally work in. This year, I’ve finished two paintings featuring mountains and lakes, so I’ve definitely gotten my feet a little wetter. I find that I actually enjoy painting landscapes, which is not surprising given my preoccupation with the abstract shapes and repetitive yet spontaneous patterns of the natural world. “Denali” also allowed for a little more formal practice on creating depth, something I’ve been working on throughout the year. I managed to pump out this painting over two sessions, which says to me my process for paid projects is becoming more efficient. This definitely helps build my confidence as I look forward to more commissions in 2018.
A still-life of prismatic containers divides cold winter light into rainbow jets of color, filling my studio space with a brilliant playfulness that leaps away from November’s funeral pall. My assignment was to rework an old watercolor sketch based on a dream about water basins. It became a meditation on the warmth, love and trust inherent in my art practice.
In October I began volunteering at Vine Arts Center, a local community-run gallery in my neighborhood. During one of our exhibition discussions, another artist discussed his view of people in the world as “vessels,” each in a varying state of being filled, empty, or something in between. Vessels can be reservoirs for anything we can imagine inside them. They can be a potential space or a void. They can be man-made or naturally occurring. Vessels can be filled with physical matter or the intangible. Vessels can be broken or leaky. They hold valuables or transport. Vessels can protect. In short, vessels do a lot of work. I frequently find myself pondering this metaphor as it relates to art and the human condition – I have been curious about how to incorporate it in my work.
With this commission, I decided to start with a simple composition of arranged “vessels,” the various containers, plastic jugs, mason jars and empty fruit cups repurposed for paint that litter my studio. I “filled” or imbued the skeleton drawing of the piece with the “core” of my own formal artistic sensibilities: expressive color and brushstroke patterns, heavy contrasts between muted, cold tones and vibrant, living hues, struggle between linearity and ambiguity, representation and abstraction. Throughout the process, I paused to examine my thoughts and actions, took notes, looked inside to acknowledge the intuition that guided my hands, something I have rarely done on purpose. In this way, Vessel Work feels like a deliberate meditation on the spiritual, inner aspect of art creation and what it means to me personally.
Warmth and radiation of light are treated with paramount importance. The elements in the working space are tied together and interconnected by their participation in light, their energetic vibrations in the field. The work is related to love – making a painting about (simply) what I love to do is freeing and spontaneous without constraints of any kind. And yet there must be constraints, that tension between rule and misrule, which mystifies and generates beauty. And through this sensibility comes trust. Trust that the work will become what it will – I am reminded of Schmendrick the Magician from “The Last Unicorn,” yelling “Magic, do what you will!” as he grasps at the reigns of a force he can’t control. I cling to trust that in the end, the painting and the artist (and yes, the client) will be satisfied if I play to my strengths, challenge my skills accordingly, and take risks in the creation of the illusion. Trust that in painting no act is final, and the painter therefore has relatively less control than it would seem.
“Coagulation Studies” is an ongoing series of abstract work utilizing old paint and automatic ways of working. Salvage and collage of old materials such as paint chips, solidified or “coagulated” media, and remnants of product labels addresses the concept of time by juxtaposing media at different stages of transformation or life cycle. Formal aesthetic decision-making is minimized by using archetypal, automatic compositions and a palette limited to the leftover paint from other projects. Additional themes explored in “Coagulation Studies” include the nature of various media, physiological processes and shapes, interconnectedness and complexity, and creative systems.
Coming in the midst of a furious week of art production, here is the formal result of my recent research into cubism! This commissioned piece moderately deconstructs three poses (one model – unharmed in the production process) and the studio space around them. I treated this subject with all of the cubist sensibility I was able to scrape together from online searches, a visit to the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and biographies of the likes of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braques. My final composition borrows heavily from Picasso’s bold “Demoiselles d’Avignon” and samples the palette of Picasso’s blue period, Braque’s somber spectrum, and adds an iridescent gold flare because decorative art!
This being my first relatively abstract, non-photographic commission piece, the ideas and prototypes came together through consultation. Trading pictures of murals, famous paintings, and devising color schemes, we carved out a shared mental model of the painting to come.
I began working on this piece by reading and observing. I was curious to find out what my giant art history textbooks, the internet, and our local free museum had to say about cubism. I was surprised to find that certain aspects of cubism were similar to what I was trying to do with “time-lapse” figure painting in the latter half of my art school years, so picking up that line of work felt a bit like coming home. Read more on what I found out about cubism’s “greater context” here. Once I had determined how cubist sensibilities could fit into my style, I invited over a friend to model for some gestural sketches. These loose and expressive sketches helped me form the basis for the figures and I built up the geometric environment around them. From there, the challenge became walking a thin line between decorative, calculated abstraction and representational figure painting, my client preferring something in the middle. See process snapshots below.
I could go many directions from here in order to fully invest in this way of working. Some cubists section off the surface in such a way that objects and bodies are barely recognizable, obscured by geometry and the conceptual/perceptual notions of cubism. Which to me is less interesting as I am still in love with drawing and painting the human body. Another idea is to fully push the idea of poses changing through time. I recently attended a figure drawing cooperative at a local art academy, and wondered how I could incorporate all the 5, 10, 15 and 20 minute poses over four hours into the same composition. The final result would probably be something quite abstract but also quite recognizably human. Overall, I have befriended cubism and feel like I’ve grown a bit as an artist after examining and producing in this way. I’m eager to get deeper into the water.
Waking up one morning shortly after the recent Charlottesville, VA riot, I read a headline about Baltimore, MD’s confederate monuments being removed by overnight work crews. Gleefully scanning through the report, one particular photo in the article caught my eye and I immediately wanted to make a painting after it. In the image, a hulking Robert E. Lee and mount are lifted by a crane and balanced by work crews as they are carried away from a public-facing pedestal. Onlookers line the background snapping photos with their phones as the piece is hoisted up and away, towards a consuming yellow light at the top of the frame.
For some time I have wanted to challenge myself to paint in a traditional/classical style as a way to exercise my formal drawing, composition-building, and glazing skills. The Romantic movement painter Eugene Delacroix’s work has been a particular favorite of mine, with deep contrasts, expressive brushwork and attention to narrative drama and intrigue in his choice of subject. The snapshot of General Lee’s flight from public presence in Baltimore brought to mind several epic paintings of horses and social struggle rendered by Delacroix. Below is an example I chose to guide my work on this piece.
A revelation in working at this style has been the liberal use of dull gray tones, something that is fairly alien to my regular practice. The muted earthy hues contrast sharply with areas of color to help direct focus and create drama, a use of color I am beginning to more fully understand. In order to achieve the lush, complicated surface in Delacroix’s work, I’m working at glaze layers and attention to detail where I want the viewer to focus. At this point, I’ve blocked in most of the compositional elements and contrasts, and the surface is ready for finer treatments of the overall atmosphere, details, and stylistic features. Lastly, I am intrigued by the conceptual interplay of painting in a “historical” style while calling into question the notions of history, justice and public space currently in debate.
Here is a preparation piece/study for an upcoming project I am doing for a friend. I had another friend model and tried to render the figures in three separate perspectives using a cubist sensibility in my analysis and reworking of the visual field. I am so satisfied with this composition and treatment of the figures that I am considering making a full-size painting out of it, but perhaps it is best left alone as a study.
I started reading about cubism in the past couple of weeks to understand the theory behind this distinctive style. While I have not always been a fan of the blocky, dead-feeling paintings of Georges Braque and Jean Metzinger, the cubism of Picasso really speaks to me, perhaps because it seems almost decorative in the same vein as Gustav Klimt, alive with color and movement. What I found in my reading described the cubist’s attempt to portray a greater sense of reality by presenting a subject from many sides/perspectives, and in turn creating with the visual field a “greater context” around the subject for the viewer to have a fuller experience of the art. Within cubism’s paradigm is also a theme of temporal shift, with a subject changing slightly through different points in time. This last idea struck home with me as I recognized my own interest in early attempts at “time lapse” painting, which I termed “progressive” painting at the time. What I find fascinating about cubism is the attempt to imbue the static media of paint with the inherent transitional qualities of living structures in time and space.
Working and thinking through cubism comes at a time when I try to find a “greater context” for myself, both in my art and life in general. My RN job is challenging but I’m finally creeping up the learning curve and trying to get more involved with our unit. I’m reaching out my feelers for arts organizations to volunteer and contribute in meaningful ways, instead of painting in obscurity. As Summer fades, I feel a slight pressure to get more irons in the fire to keep me busy and warm through the long Minnesota winter.
Here is a painting of my cousin’s little girl wading into Holland Lake, a favorite swimming spot nearby our family’s cabin in northwestern Montana. The Swan Valley and locales along highway 83, located between the Swan and Mission Mountain ranges, hold special significance for our family. Many generations of kids have swam in Holland Lake or hiked to its falls, collected its thimble berries and careened at high speed on a giant inflatable crocodile over its mini whitecaps. I was excited to take up this project because the composition marries majestic landscape with figure work, and works easily with all the expressive brushwork I love to do.
I started this piece with a simple grid to transpose the image basics, then filled in everything with a rich pink underpainting that manages to shine through even the final layers of paint. The Swan Mountains are known for summer forest fires, and the smoky haze can bend the evening sun in such a way that the horizon flushes the same deep pink of a cutthroat trout, washing everything in this dramatic rose tone. I wanted to channel that fluorescence in a subtle way without the final piece appearing too dream-like. Find process pics here: https://www.instagram.com/atelierzjt/
The most vexing part of this work was the sky and clouds – it was difficult to make them “fit” with the rest of the painting. Clouds in most reference photos are not exactly aesthetically pleasing. I could benefit from doing some plein aire cloud studies to get a knack for this. As usually happens with my paintings, there were several points where I wanted to stop and leave the surface alone because I saw a particular vibration or movement that I did not want to overwork or blunt. My sense for when this occurs is getting keener because I am beginning to understand what exactly is exciting for me in this media. For work like this, the key is finding the intriguing balance between stylization and realism, tension between abstraction and representation.
Returned from the mountains I recognize something
Unlocked inside me. Deep in my core
As if my parts and the gears of my mind have aligned. And
Yes now the universe eddies up through my vacant gates:
Eyes, ears, mouth, nose, skin, ventricles, foramina, lodgepole spine. And
All corporeal channels.
With a satisfying click and thud, the river key turned. And
I am centered, weighted and primed.
I realize this at the gymnasium today
Sprinting uncharacteristically through my 1.25 mile run.
Legs not tiring, spring-like, reed-paddled. Yes
I run like a river unleashed
Around banks, parallel fish, and the rocks
Something unlocks inside me. And
When it is over my un-dammed watersheds eject
A river of brine brewed thick in my season of trouble
Soaks my shirt and shorts, my socks
Free flowing now to the unknowable air, drying salt flats on my cheeks.
And yes, I ran like a river
Ran for who I am, was and will be
Ran for the ones before and the ones that are now. And
Mostly, I ran for the land.
“Hello, I’m Jerri Blank and I’m a 46-year-old high school freshman. For 32 years I was a teenage runaway. I was a boozer, a user, and a loser. My friends were dealers, cons, and 18 karat pimps. But now I’m out of jail, picking up my life exactly where I left off. I’m back in high school, living at home, and discovering all sorts of things about my body. I’m finding out that though the faces have changed, the hassles are just the same.” – Jerri Blank, Strangers With Candy
This immensely fun portrait of Jerri and her white Japanese silky “Suki” has been a great exercise in portraiture. I was glad to pick up this project for a friend, as I have always been inspired by Ms. Blank’s story of turning your life around and also recognizing that change is hard (no matter how hard you try). Jerri is also a master of transforming salacious, immoral natural weaknesses into personal strengths. In Jerri’s own words: “I’m dealing with this the same way I dealt with my own alcoholism and drug addiction… with lies and delusion.”
My favorite part of this piece was working on Jerri’s startling, charming face. Her tired, experienced eyes reflect her time in Florida’s “harsh” penal system, glassy from all-night benders in X trailer park. Her cracked and quixotic smile with spastic lips from years of eating glint and whatever else was unlucky enough to meet her mouth. Finally, her ornate floral blouse adds to her crooked splendor in this definitive portrait of Ms. Blank and Suki the Japanese silky.
Seriously though – this represents my first true attempt at straight portraiture of the human species, although my friends originally considered this their pet portrait! Poor Jerri. It’s amazing how the slightest alteration or shift in a facial feature can completely throw off the recognition factor or make something look odd. I discovered that human portraits require a great deal more precision than animal portraits. Another process I worked through was building up the skin in layers. There are so many colors and tones inherent in the skin, and not all of them are distinct yellows, reds, tans, etc. If you look at your own hands now, you will see the majority of your skin reflects a transitional gray tone, depending on the lighting. Finding the balance between tone and depth in Jerri’s face and hands was a challenge. I’m excited to take on more portrait projects so I can keep exploring how to paint human skin.
Returning to figure work with this study of a certain live model in my partially re-packed apartment a few weeks prior to moving. It is beyond exciting to come back to the classic and familiar gestural sketch of art school, and then combine that sensibility with my slow but eager, semi-abstract exploration of figure in relation to space and place. I’m trying hard to transmit how the sunlight filtered by the tree outside my window washes into and fills up my living room, now rendered a “transitional” space as recognizable domestic shapes are packed up and stacked in boxes and piles to the right. Transition or “interval” is central to my exploration of the time inherent in painting. This piece reminds me of an older figure study, but my risk-taking with color has certainly evolved. A time of change is ripe fruit to crack open, let the creative juice flow.
My latest project, a portrait of my second cousin Anna’s pooch Schatzie, is now finalized! This was an incredibly fun piece to work on, both for the larger size, the opportunity to play with color, and the detailed brushwork that such a close-up demands. In this portrait, I continued to tease out color nuances and “transitional” hues between distinct color stations, as well as creating a sense of depth, an overall goal in my painterly development. Throughout this process I also dove deep into the rich complexity of the color blue. Particularly, I worked with ultramarine blue – a sober, stoic blue who does not want to be green or violet, and would much rather fade to gray than roll with change – and primary cyan, an energetic, electric blue that readily mutates but has a naive quality that is somewhat related to finger paint. As I worked through the phases of this portrait, the intriguing synergy (yes, synergy!) between these blues became the primary focus.
Overall, the pet portrait projects have blasted off. So far this year I have had four commissions, and there are a handful in the pipeline, including portraits of two-legged (read: human) subjects. Through these portrait commissions I have begun to carve out a unique style, deepen my understanding of color theory, practice classic techniques such as layering and glazing, and also develop my business sense as an artist – something I certainly did not learn in art school. They also help me escape from puzzling over my recent abstract work when I get in a rut.
In other news, tonight is the opening for Norseman Distillery’s first juried exhibition. My older painting “Tuberculosis” will be featured alongside the work of 34 other artists selected for the show. If you can make it, I would love to see you there! Make sure to follow this blog for updates on upcoming shows, or simply if you are interested in the cracked insights of a 30-something-artist-geek-nurse-by-day/eve/night-animal-lover-freak-of-nature ;)
Working on this pet portrait commission in the hours between three consecutive night shifts! A vibrant underpainting and loose, expressionist style is giving me ample room to explore simple depth and intermediate tones. I’m trying to mix color quickly and intuitively to avoid the traps of overthinking. The result is so far quite beautiful and reminds me of Van Gogh or Paul Gauguin palettes.