In Search of New Metaphors: A Response to COVID-19 and Other “Wars”

Tao Te Ching / 46

When a country is in harmony with the Tao,
The factories make trucks and tractors.
When a country goes counter to the Tao,
Warheads are stockpiled outside the cities.

There is no greater illusion than fear,
No greater wrong than preparing to defend yourself,
No greater misfortune than having an enemy.

Whoever can see through all fear
Will always be safe

Unnamed 2020. Mixed media on canvas. 14″ x 18″

“Waging War” on COVID-19

As I start writing this essay, on March 29, 2020, the novel coronavirus pandemic has claimed 30,000+ lives worldwide, and health officials in the U.S. expect 100-200,000 deaths as the crisis unfolds. New York City and other major metropolitan areas are experiencing local outbreaks that have overwhelmed health system capacity and resources, further endangering communities and the workers that care for them. Here in Minnesota, we have a relatively controlled situation, but experts expect a surge in illnesses and deaths. Today, Minnesota has only lost nine people to COVID-19, but that number is expected to grow exponentially in the coming weeks. In response to the fast-spreading pandemic, cities have instituted measures to slow it down: social distancing, lockdowns, health care facility visitor restrictions, business closures and much more. As such, the economy has come to a grinding halt as governments attempt to “flatten the curve” of infections, or at least delay the spike to allow our fragmented health care infrastructure time to adequately prepare. This moment has resulted in job losses, resource scarcity, and widespread suffering – everything about how we live contemporary life is being redefined. Needless to say, it’s a fraught, challenging time.

The words “unprecedented” and “uncertainty” seem to bounce around much more than usual these days. During times of great uncertainty, Americans have often relied on the metaphor of war for inspiration. The war on drugs, war on crime, war on poverty, and even war on chronic disease are examples. This moment of COVID-19 is no exception: you hear every day of community members, patients, doctors, nurses, health officials, politicians, trying to “fight” the pandemic, declaring war on COVID-19. President Trump has invoked the Defense Production Act to manufacture a therapeutic arsenal: ventilators and protective equipment. Simultaneously, the humongous military hospital ships Comfort and Mercy approach our eastern and western shores, and hospital systems fortify their wards for the coming onslaught of the sickened. Meanwhile, the public “shelters in place,” subjected to the grim 24-hour news cycle, with its images of overflowing hospitals around the world. Infection rates and death tolls climb, horror-stricken people hoard food and, yes, toilet paper. It’s a moment that, filled with fear, anxiety and uncertainty, feels very much like war. In order to fight this “war,” many of us have had to withdraw from our social networks, our families and our livelihoods – the very elements which give us strength. We are asked to operate at a safe “social distance,” to quarantine, and not to leave home. In other words, it’s not an active fight. Most of this feels like passive action, an almost Buddhist “doing by not doing.” So one has to wonder: in the absence of a way for individuals to truly “fight” against this pandemic, and acknowledging the compounding effects of fear on the problem, is the tired and convenient concept of “war” the right metaphor for this moment?

It’s no surprise that the war trope pervades contemporary society. At every stage of our history, the human race has proven its propensity for violence and destruction. Despite our evolutionary trajectory, or perhaps because of it, we are a warring species who, particularly in America, identify with a gritty, fighter-warrior attitude when it comes to adversity. Framing problems as “wars” may serve a purpose by drawing mass attention to a greater cause (the war effort), inspiring political, economic and social will to collectively mobilize. In previous wars, the government used crisis as a pretext for broad powers and control over critical resources. Finally, the invocation of wartime stirs up an American nostalgia for the golden post-war periods of the 1920s and 1950s, times of sacrifice followed by relative prosperity – the “good old days.” At best, characterizing the COVID-19 pandemic as a war may appeal to American’s fighting spirit of survival, encourage people and companies to work together, and pave the way for broader government control of a rapidly evolving situation. Despite our millenia of experience with war, I worry about the metaphor’s implications for our collective psyche. In the words of Star Wars’ Master Yoda: “To answer power with power, the Jedi way this is not. In this war, a danger there is, of losing who we are.” In thinking of national and global challenges such as COVID-19 as wars, what of ourselves do we stand to lose?

Imagining our challenges as wars necessitates the creation of a monolithic, semi-fictional “enemy” that deepens our sense of fear. Fear leads to a dynamic response by our sympathetic nervous systems commonly called “fight or flight.” Our response to fear can be organized and appropriate, but often it results in frenzy, panic and insane behavior. The news, while keeping us informed, commands our rapt attention to often unsettling developments, and the far corners of the internet propagate the darkest stories. The isolation from our routines, friends, families and communities, the missing sense of purpose that work brings to our lives, and the insistence that we are fighting a war also compound uncertainty, increasing our fear. As fear mounts, so too does the likelihood of insane, individualistic behavior: hoarding food and resources, extreme isolation and refusal to engage with the world, promoting negative rumors and mistrusting and/or resenting or blaming those around us. Throughout the outbreak, we have seen steadily rising rates of domestic violence, mental health crises and suicide. These negative outcomes fanning out from fear, this collateral damage, confronts us: how do we address this crisis without adding other unnecessary suffering in the process?

Searching for the Bigger Picture

If we are to fight a war against COVID-19, then logic demands the novel coronavirus must be the enemy. Not to forget the other “enemies” that become scapegoats in the “war effort.” The creation of such an enemies increases the illusion of our separateness from Nature and each other, cutting us off from the natural rhythms and cycles within which we are born, live and perish. Much of our human experience, the built environment, our faith traditions, our scientific practices and our assumptions about the world serve to separate the human from the rest of Nature, and sometimes from each other. We create categories, walls, boundaries, borders, limits, quarantines to identify, divide and keep difference at arm’s length. Whereas the individual is the “self,” all else becomes “not-self:” other humans, animals, plants, fungi, bacteria and viruses become the “other,” the “foreigner,” the “invader” or the “enemy.” These artificial degrees of separation make us forget that We (all species, all beings) are all connected in a complex web of interdependence. Just as humans are manifestations of Nature, so too are each living and nonliving formation in the universe – and we are all related. By emphasizing our relationship to the virus instead of our resistance to it, we may creatively explore new strategies, new ways of thinking about how to adapt.

This is about the big picture. In the Planetary Collective’s short film Overview, astronauts describe the “overview effect,” the experience of viewing Earth from orbit, as a whole. From such a vantage point, our imaginary boundaries and national identities vanish, our constructed differences dissolve. Only the truth of the big picture remains: We (all life) are residents of “spaceship Earth,” a living, breathing superbeing in which we all participate, within which all our destinies are woven. Global crises such as COVID-19 or climate change have the power to change our perspective in a similar way, but only if we let them – it is a choice. As unpopular a notion as it may currently be, viruses and all microscopic pathogens figure into this vast family of Earthlings, these expressions of Nature. Is waging war on fellow Earthlings – parts of the larger Us – really the best way forward? Especially when the “enemy” is invisible to the naked eye, spreads rapidly, infects insidiously? At best, waging war on oneself is useless or insane. At worst, it is gravely self-destructive.

One might argue that our very bodies “wage war” or “fight” against foreign invaders. The metaphor of war has often been applied to the work of our immune systems against pathogens. The assigned language for immune responses includes “attack, defend, kill, neutralize, dissolve, etc.” Specific cells have been given intimidating names like “natural killers, macrophages (big devouring cells), cytotoxic (cell-toxic) cells” and “antibodies.” War may be a convenient way to characterize the behavior of the immune system, but it’s more complicated than that. As we look further into immune responses, it becomes apparent that pathogens are not only disarmed and dissolved, but their protein marker components are incorporated into our own immune cells, effectively merging with them to allow room for coexistence. In one way of looking at it, our bodies seek to increase our sameness with other life rather than increase our difference. Simply put, when faced with a challenge, our immune systems seek to transform rather than eradicate.

Unfortunately, in our imperfect reality, humans and pathogens cannot always coexist harmoniously in a dance of balanced adaptation. As we overprescribe antibiotics, we create “superbugs,” resistant to many of our cures. As we mistreat the land, encroach on animal populations, and generally live out of balance with the natural world, we encounter “novel” viruses that jump from a reservoir species to our own. When the immune system response fails or overreacts and treatments for disease run out, we acknowledge mortality as a result of infection. Until very recently in the human story, infectious disease killed most humans, and much earlier than most humans live today. Death by infection was commonplace and a near-expectation, part of the human condition. When our fragile bodies succumb, we are reminded that infection and death are a natural part of our life cycle. Imagining our total separateness from infection and death only reinforces the lie, prolongs our suffering. When physical and psychological suffering become inevitable, I suggest we are in need of new metaphors for our health, wellness and survival – metaphors that inspire growth, adaptation and connection instead of metaphors – like war – that increase fear and, in turn, lead to further suffering.

Alternatives to War: Growth, Adaptation & Transformation

As a registered nurse, I naturally look to nursing theory to gain perspective on such questions. Nursing theory gives us concepts, frameworks, models and metaphors to help us understand the complexity of human health. One theory I have come to appreciate is Sister Callista Roy’s Adaptation Model, which characterizes the human health experience as a series of successful or unsuccessful adaptations. In this model, the nursing process focuses on increasing the subject’s capacity to adapt. Growth and adaptation can be enveloped into the concept of “transformation,” which I think is an ideal alternative metaphor for overcoming crisis. Transformation implies that something about us can change in response to the changing external circumstances, in this case COVID-19. In Roy’s words: “Health is not freedom from the inevitability of death, disease, unhappiness and stress, but the ability to cope with them in a competent way.” Instead of resisting or “fighting” an enemy, the disease, we have the opportunity to cope by transforming.

One opportunity for adaptation is a change in how we perceive ourselves in relation to Nature. Since the industrialization era and exponentially since, we have become more and more separate from Nature, walled off and protected from its rhythms. As evidenced by environmental activism around the climate crisis, this has begun to change slowly. Understanding that both humans and vectors of disease are part of Nature’s great wheel of renewal may help us overcome our fear. Indeed, viruses and humans have some key similarities: we overtake and manipulate resources to ensure our survival; we seek to reproduce ourselves; our true motive is not necessarily to kill, but nevermind that killing happens as a result of our expansion. Discarding the pretense of “separateness” from viruses, from disease, and realizing the need for coexistence (through vaccines or herd immunity) can help us accept this fact and overcome the pervading fear that causes us to run, hide and fight.

We need to cope with and adapt to COVID-19, and realistically that means enough of us contracting it – very gradually – so that our fragmented and limited health care resources are not overwhelmed, and the vulnerable have a place to receive treatment when needed. To achieve this, we are asked to cultivate separateness, however temporary, from each other. Social distancing, isolation and quarantine are now everyday, household terms. These passive actions run counter to the war metaphor, which involves “fighting, killing, eradicating,” – yet more evidence that war is not the right metaphor for these times. Withdrawal into our homes and internal, private lives represents an opportunity to transform: changes in the pattern of our days, changes in the pattern of disease spread, and perhaps changes in the pattern of our hearts and minds. Instead of fighting wars for us, these actions, these passive forms of non-resistance are Zen-like in their quiet powers: to protect, heal, and to reveal to us something new about ourselves.

Even as we separate, we must remember that separateness is merely an illusion made more tangible by these “unprecedented” and “trying” times. During this time of social distancing and isolation, we can learn from the Dakota concept mitakuye oyasin, or “all my relations,” which reminds us of the intrinsic ways we are all connected to each other in an endless web of relationships. Each being in the system plays a part connected to all the others, exactly like an ecosystem. We see this reflected in the economic challenges we face, the supply chains, the social networks, and our own family communities. But where crisis exposes failure and weakness, it also unearths tremendous potential for growth and adaptation. People are finding ways to preserve connections, or reach out in new ways: mask-making to protect others, virtual hangouts and happy hours to stay connected with friends and family, drive-by parades for kids, food drives, the list goes on. These examples provide hope that we can grow and strengthen through participation in our social-ecological roles, even during a time of fear and crisis.

Conclusion: Choosing the Right Metaphor

We are all part of the bigger story of Earth – the boundaries we create that separate species, people, and nations are all imaginary. Many of the lines we draw to divide and categorize us are drawn as a reaction to fear. COVID-19 doesn’t believe in all those lines, and neither should we. Instead of fighting wars from behind our constructed barricades (physical or imaginary), we must seek to cooperate with our fellow Earthlings, understand our role in the greater ecological picture of Earth, love each other, help each other, and grow and adapt creatively through the course of this crisis.

We have choices to make. Fear is real: fear of isolation, fear of scarcity, fear of ourselves or loved ones dying alone in a hospital, fear of the unknown. With this essay I ask: what do we do with that fear? What do we take away from the COVID-19 pandemic? What damage do we risk to ourselves by fighting this as a war, letting this very real fear control us? In the words of Richard Rohr, “Love alone overcomes fear … We are in the midst of a highly teachable moment. There’s no doubt that this period will be referred to for the rest of our lifetimes. We have a chance to go deep, and to go broad. Globally, we’re in this together. Depth is being forced on us by great suffering, which as I like to say, always leads to great love.” Through love instead of fear, we grow and adapt. By reaching out to others in inventive ways, promoting the health and safety of others in the daily decisions we make, we shift our focus as a nation from the individual good to the collective good.

As I finish this essay, on August 17, 2020, 1706 Minnesota residents have succumbed to COVID-19, the vast majority of those living in congregate settings. As a state, we appear to be climbing a (hopefully) smaller curve of infections as we reintegrate after sweeping shutdowns. As a nation, we have lost 170,000 people to COVID-19, the worst national death toll in the global community. How can a rich global power, awash with funds and technological prowess have such poor COVID-19 outcomes? This question is a topic of fierce debate. Rather than pin the blame on any one cause, I suggest we look back to the defects in our relationships with each other, the natural world and the universe.

I would be remiss not to mention the the additional challenges/opportunities 2020 has brought to the table. With the backdrop of a global pandemic, we are also living in the time of George Floyd’s killing, social upheaval around race relations, deep disruptions to our work and school lives, lack of coherent national leadership, and a bitter election on the horizon. These are liminal times; I hear again and again: Our society is unraveling. Our culture is being canceled. Times are changing. Things might actually change this time. It’s time to rise up. It’s time to move to the country and build a bunker… It seems we all agree we are on the verge of something new. How can we avoid approaching this moment with fear and war in our hearts, and instead approach it with love and openness? How can we harness the transformational power of this era and emerge from crisis with greater understanding of ourselves, each other and our relationships?

Turbulent times, and more loss, surely lie ahead as we re-integrate, as we grapple with all we are currently faced with. I believe we can do this: if we put as much energy, ingenuity, political will, money and effort into this as we generally put into fighting wars all over the globe, I have no doubt we can meet this challenge and emerge stronger than before. But we must not lose the opportunity here, the choice: do we choose the path of fear and resistance – the path of war – or the path of love? The path’s end may not end up being more consequential than what we became along the way. We must allow this moment to be our teacher, to help us grow stronger, as we adapt and transform as a species. We have the power to choose love over fear; life over war.

Unnamed. Mixed media on canvas. 14″ x 18″

Oaxaca Portraits, Quality Over Quantity and Holding Onto the Lightning

Matt Portrait (Oaxaca). Acrylic on canvas. 18" x 24"
Matt Portrait (Oaxaca). Acrylic on canvas. 18″ x 24″

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.

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.

Genetic Memory/Congenital Gifts

Genetic Memory/Congenital Gifts. Mixed media on canvas. 36″ x 36″

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!

Resonance

Resonance. Acrylic on canvas. 24" x 36"
Resonance. Acrylic on canvas. 24″ x 36″

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!

Summer Vacation

Portrait of Men on a Hawaiian Coast. Acrylic on canvas. 8" x 10"
Portrait of Men on a Hawaiian Coast. Acrylic on canvas. 8″ x 10″

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:

Dans La Campagne

Dans La Campagne. Acrylic on canvas. 30" x 40"
Dans La Campagne. Acrylic on canvas. 30″ x 40″

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.

Me voilà!

Self-Portrait (Oaxaca). Acrylic on canvas. 18" x 24"
Self-Portrait (Oaxaca). Acrylic on canvas. 18″ x 24″

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 :)

Formation v. Migration. “What is it?”

Formation v. Migration. Acrylic and ink on canvas. 18" x 24"
Formation v. Migraation. Acrylic and ink on canvas. 18″ x 24″

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

Winter Solstice Portraiture

Mr. Jobe Surveying his Winter Orchids. Acrylic on canvas.
Mr. Jobe Surveying his Winter Orchids. Acrylic on canvas.

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

Resuscitation Rite (Self Portrait)

Resuscitation Rite (Self Portrait). Acrylic, ink and charcoal on canvas. 36" x 48"
Resuscitation Rite (Self Portrait). Acrylic, ink and charcoal on canvas. 36″ x 48″

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

Ending the Year with a Splash

Lepomis gibbosus (Pumpkinseed Sunfish). Acrylic and ink on canvas. 12" x 16"
Lepomis gibbosus (Pumpkinseed Sunfish). Acrylic and ink on canvas. 12″ x 16″

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.

Denali Project

Denali. Acrylic on canvas. 11" x 14"
Denali. Acrylic on canvas. 11″ x 14″

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.

Vessel Work or “Paint, Do What You Will!”

Vessel Work. Acrylic and ink on canvas. 18" x 36"
Vessel Work. Acrylic and ink on canvas. 18″ x 36″

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 Study (Golden Ratio)

Coagulation Study (Golden Ratio). Mixed media. 12" x 16"
Coagulation Study (Golden Ratio). Mixed media. 12″ x 16″

“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.

Three Gold Figures (Essay in Cubism)

Three Figures. Acrylic, ink and charcoal on canvas. 24 " x 30"
Three Figures. Acrylic, ink and charcoal on canvas. 24 ” x 30″

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.

(Monumental) Work in Progress

Flight of General Robert E. Lee. Acrylic on canvas. 18" x 24"
Flight of General Robert E. Lee. Acrylic on canvas. 18″ x 24″

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.

Removal of a Confederate Monument at Baltimore, MD, or Flight of General Robert E. Lee (working titles). Acrylic on canvas. 18 x 24.
Removal of a Confederate Monument at Baltimore, MD, or Flight of General Robert E. Lee (working titles). Acrylic on canvas. 18 x 24.
Eugene Delacroix. Collision of Moorish Horsemen (1843-1844). Oil on canvas. 32 x 39.

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.

Bather at Holland Lake

Bather at Holland Lake. Acrylic and ink on canvas. 24" x 36"
Bather at Holland Lake. Acrylic and ink on canvas. 24″ x 36″

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.

Portrait of a Boozer, a User & a Loser

Portrait of Ms. Blank. Acrylic on canvas. 18 x 24.
Portrait of Ms. Blank. Acrylic on canvas. 18 x 24.

“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.

Figure Study: Spacing, Tracing, Placing, Human Face-ing

Figure & interior study. Acrylic and charcoal on canvas. 18" x 24"
Figure & interior study. Acrylic and charcoal on canvas. 18″ x 24″

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.

Schatzie, Synergy & Blasting Off

Schatzie. Acrylic on canvas. 11" x 14"
Schatzie. Acrylic on canvas. 11″ x 14″

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 ;)

Schatzie Progress 1
Schatzie Progress 1
Schatzie Progress 2
Schatzie Progress 2

Night Shifts and the Amazing Technicolor Yellow Lab

Stewie. Acrylic on canvas. 11" x 14"
Stewie. Acrylic on canvas. 11″ x 14″

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.

Traction in Abstraction and the Budding Shape of Life

Flying Shapes (working title). Acrylic and ink on canvas. 18" x 24"
Flying Shapes (working title). Acrylic and ink on canvas. 18″ x 24″

Making abstract art is difficult. Trained mostly as a representational painter, I have always found navigating the ambiguity of abstraction a murky, sometimes arbitrary task. However, that foggy negotiable space is crucial to what I admire in painting, and factors into the creative process I’m developing. I’m often seeking a particular balance between real and unreal, objective and subjective, visual equivalents of prose and poetry. Thus these days I have committed myself to explore terra incognita and foray into non-representational pursuits when I’m not painting a cute doggie.

Why is abstract painting so challenging? [Start stream of consciousness on the subject of abstraction.] Without a reference, there are endless options, and I’m repeatedly puzzling over the questions: what am I doing? Why am I doing that? How does this relate to the concept I am trying to convey? Should I even be thinking about this so hard? What is life? What the f*ck? Mostly, I end up sort of making progress on a general concept, and then find myself working through several aesthetic “problems” that I try to address using my creative process. The biggest question here is “what do I do next?” When I’ve hit a rut and I’m thoroughly in the weeds, I’m usually trying to find an interesting way to create visual balance or break through that particular point in the painting’s creation. The tricky thing is finding a solution that makes sense with the original concept and so forth, which may in turn create another aesthetic “problem” to be solved. The second tricky thing is going through these cycles in a way that is not something trite or [insert distasteful word here]. Maybe I’m not sure how to describe what I’m specifically avoiding. Probably kitsch. There are more unmentioned tricky things.

As you can see, I still have not fully jumped off the cliff. The “abstraction” above involves some very recognizable shapes: craggy peaks, a glacial lake from high above, water reflecting the sky, some distant road networks. The chevron-esque shapes invoke migrating birds, hang gliders, proteins folding into themselves, or chromosomes. This unfinished piece is somewhat related to a concept I have been working on called the “shape of life,” or critical, redundant shapes and patterns in nature that iterate at microscopic and macroscopic levels and carry meaning. More to come on this at a later time.

Oreo the Prismatic Poochon

Oreo. Acrylic on canvas. 8" x 10"

Today I am wrapping up this colorful portrait of Oreo, my coworker’s adorable bichon poodle (Poochon?) I began this piece with a standard grid and built into a loose, colorful underpainting. From there, I made small adjustments until the colors were just right to match my colleague’s home decor, jumping off the canvas in high contrast sage, rust red, sunny yellow, and umber-stained cerulean. As I have done in previous work, I developed a color palette using Adobe’s Kuler tool with input from my client, then worked within those tones as I layered using the “heavy over lean” technique.

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Beagle Beneath Blanket

Beagle Beneath Blanket. Acrylic on canvas. 8" x 10"
Beagle Beneath Blanket. Acrylic on canvas. 8″ x 10″

I received this portrait commission a few days ago, and had fun with the composition and colors! The most challenging aspect was converting the neutral gray tone of the uppermost comforter into more visually appealing hues. The lines and shapes of the drapery challenged me to concentrate on the drawing through all stages of the piece. While putting on the final layers of paint, I actively worked against my instinct to preserve thick, dark, illustrative lines around everything. This tendency is evident in many of my other paintings, and I believe it originates from my “comfort zone” of line drawings. Other considerations: working on creating the illusion of space and depth, as much as a zoomed puppy close-up will allow. See the underpainting below.

Beagle Beneath Blanket Underpainting
Beagle Beneath Blanket Underpainting