Sunday, November 8, 2015

All Work and No Blog

The title says it all. Between working, returning to northern Michigan for fall colors in October, a quick run up to Madison to visit with friends and paint outdoors at Picnic Point, as well as a making progress on a number of portraits, it hasn't left a lot of time for writing.

So, I'll share what I have accomplished.

Scarf and Blazes
11 x 14, Oil on Panel
11 x 14, Graphite
Study, Summer Waitress
11 x 14, Graphite
Model R. - Quick sketch
8 x 10, Graphite Sketch

Picnic Point, Madison, WI
8 x 10, Oil on Panel
Pumpkin Harvest, Manistee, MI
11 x 14, Oil on Panel

Monday, October 5, 2015

Crystallization - Part 5: Postscript - In Memoriam

Marilyn Milam, August 21, 2015. 

While writing the Crystallization series and coming to the decision to channel my creative energy towards portraiture, I received word that my Aunt Marilyn who I had mentioned in the second installment had passed away.

My early memories of her work and that of her husband at the time, who painted in a surrealist style, are still lodged in my brain decades after seeing them as a child. It was in their house where I gazed up at canvases on the wall that I first realized the power of the painted image to move.

I dedicate the Crystallization series to her and it is my fervent hope that I can carry the torch forward with the same passion that she did throughout her life.

Below are two portraits she did of my grandparents, Cora and Gordon, sometime in the late 1950s or early 60s.


Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Crystallization - Part 4: On being the “Seed” of Change.

So we know what “Aha” moments feel like but is there a way to get them to happen more frequently or is it just something random? 

Grisaille Study in Oil
In the previous three posts I described how I arrived at a decision using a process called insight, which is distinctly different from linear or other non-distributed modes of thinking. Research conducted at Drexel and Northwestern Universities states that “although the experience of insight is sudden and can seem disconnected from the immediately preceding thought, studies show that insight is the     culmination of a series of brain states and processes operating at different time scales.”1 Mark Jung-Beeman, a cognitive neuroscientist, has devoted over 20 years of research into this type of thinking using fMRI and EEG technology and has discovered a specific series of changes in the brain that precede insights and that you can prepare yourself for them to happen more frequently.2 

What can you do to foster insight?
There isn’t a sure-fire way to cause “aha” moments but there are steps you can take to facilitate the process. Normally it takes some type of question and the bigger and more complex, the better. In my case, it was "what's next professionally/artistically--what is lacking in my life"? to start the process. The next requirement is to be open to possibilities, both internally and externally, and to consider ideas well outside your comfort zone. This will require you to also be aware of the subtle currents of your thoughts and emotions and how they manifest within the body as you feed in different stimuli, be it music, images or experiences. Consider the concept of Fear/Joy mentioned in an earlier post and the role it may play as well. 

Give it time and be optimistic. Don’t give up if it feels like it is taking too long. You may 
need to either take a break from trying to solve the problem or nudge the process along by make a smaller decision or trying something new. Take up a hobby you’ve been thinking
Bust - Grisaille Study
Lavender Studios Reference
about, take a class, join a social group, get out of the house, away from media. Walk in nature. Get active if you are not; you will be amazed at the difference in your thought processes before and after a good workout. Consider getting out and talking to someone that already does what you are thinking about doing. There is a body of research that suggests that you can’t solve tomorrow’s problems with the same thinking/emotions that you are feeling today. In Stumbling Upon Happiness, author Daniel Gilbert describes the imperfect process of how we make memories and if we base tomorrow’s actions on these memories and today’s events, we’ll end up with less than satisfying results later.

Journaling is a great way to track progress as well as how you feel about certain experiences. Whether paper or electronic, make sure to paste images and words into an organized fashion so that you can review them occasionally. I am not great at day-to-day journaling, but over the course of a year will have made enough notes in a variety of places that I can see what I was thinking or feeling over a given period of time. 

Plane Study for
Summer Waitress
And lastly, you can use the technique I described in the second post, meditation. It isn’t complicated and though it can be learned online or by reading a book, I’d strongly recommend taking a class as it can be difficult to start on your own. At its core, meditation simply involves sitting still long enough to become aware of your thoughts and feelings while viewing them in a non-judgmental way. It has been said that “the mind makes a wonderful servant but a terrible master” and by leveraging meditation you no longer are a slave to your mind and its random thoughts. This will leave you clearer and more present, allowing these insights to emerge more freely. 

Given all these factors, eventually, something/someone will trigger the change within you. The more you prepare and the harder the struggle, the greater the capacity for a single trigger to ignite the process. 

So in closing this series of posts I ask you: 
Plane Study for
The Carpenter
What pain are you feeling but are ignoring out of convenience or comfort that could be a sign of where you need to go next? 

Have you ever been the seed of change for a situation or someone in particular? Have you stopped the conversation in your own head long enough to hear what the other person was truly saying and asked a well-placed question that helps clarify their need or desire? Is there something you could have said or done to bring about change but didn’t out of fear or some other hesitation?

And since it takes preparation for this state change to occur, are you committed to keeping your mind open to the world of possibility around us, forcing skepticism and doubt far enough aside to give the small place within each of us time to settle and become still, so that when the time comes we are transformed by some random fleck of awe?

The Bishop - Sandan
Study of Methodology

Portraits from Life - Sandan
Since this is an artistic as well as philosophical post, I’ve included a number of recent studies completed to continue the development of my portraiture skills, though unrelated to the subject above. 

Article References

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Beyond Words

While working on the fourth installment of the Crystallization series, I returned for the weekend to northern Michigan where the earlier set of posts took place. Have you ever had the feeling that your soul was drawn tight, keening for the caress of the rosined bow of reality to set it vibrating in some holy chord, your body an instrument of the divine? When words don't work anymore?

That's the way I felt walking down the beach that day. The result is the image below. 

Beyond Words
11 x 14, Oil on Panel

For a desktop background version of this painting, click on the image below to enlarge it, then right mouse click the image and save it to your computer. Then update your background image with this image. It is sized to fit most horizontal monitors. 

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Crystallization - Part 3 of 4: Transformed

John R Powers once wrote in his book The Unoriginal Sinner and the Ice Cream God that “Life is a lousy spectator sport.” Whether you are 5, 25, 50 or 75, the difference between living and existing is the belief that the actions we take today will affect the outcome of tomorrow for ourselves and others. And to take it upon ourselves to do something about it. Each of us has to listen, and sometimes struggle, long enough to realize that we indeed have a hidden dream that necessitates taking action regardless of the potential for unsettling consequences. We know that once the ticket is purchased and the seatbelt cinched firmly across our lap, the amusement park ride that is life unfolds in ways unimaginable.  

Watercolor and Pencil,
18 x 24
Many years ago, I remember when I had a dream; that my work as an artist could make a difference in some way. As I was changing careers after working in a field for which I had gone to college and struggled to enter and then had practiced for more than five years, I was a bit uncertain about making a change after so much commitment. A sign, if there was really such a thing, came one afternoon in the form of a cicada that alighted on a window screen in our newlywed apartment long enough for me to take pictures, study it and then let it go. This moment in time was captured in the illustration at right-the first portfolio piece for a studio that I started and ran for over 19 years. It resulted in work for a variety of companies and institutions, some of which still can be found on the internet today almost two decades after their creation. But the dream had since faded, the business closed a while ago due to a number of issues none of which had sealed its fate but in concert brought it to an end.

I had returned home from the trip to Michigan and mourned the loss of the previous week; the closeness with family, friends and the new people I had met and the general concept of returning to “reality.” But the sadness was quickly replaced with the realization that something big had also just happened. I just wasn’t sure what it was so I kept thinking about this internal process taking place, distilling, churning, clearing and while the last of the expanding crystal spread outwards, reaching to just below the skin.

I kept thinking about the carpenter that spent seven months restoring a historic structure on the grounds of the resort, the care taken to rebuild it and shore it up for future generations. The cook that drives many hours round trip once a week to again be a member of the “family” of resort workers which she has been a part of for many years. Or the guest that studied philosophy decades ago, a passion she shared with her husband over the course of their long lifetime together. All framed by the beautiful faces that shared these stories with me. Maybe I was meant to have stayed the full week to experience the pain in the beginning while those I met and interviewed empowered me to realize . . .  a dream.

Portraiture and storytelling. Capturing the essence of those around me and their stories. 

It was there, all along, simply waiting for the crystalline moment to open up the path to my next artistic endeavor. I had been practicing it, toying with it, but never really giving it serious consideration. Since returning home, I’ve completed no fewer than five sketches or paintings, met with a mentor/instructor that I’ve worked with for a number of years and mapped out the next four to five months of effort. In the coming months, I’ll share where I am at on the path. On the one hand I am thrilled to have this direction but on the other I’m terrified because I know what a long road I have ahead; art doesn’t bow to any specific time frame. I guess we’ll just have to see what happens next - I hope that you’ll join me on this trip. 

The Cook 
Pastel on Paper -
In Studio Study
The Carpenter 
Pastel on Paper -
In Studio Study

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Crystallization - Part 2 of 4: Something Has to Give

Lower Herring 
Oil on Panel, 8" x10" 
Crystallization - Part 2 of 4

Actually the solution was . . . to do nothing. Being a long time meditator, I was all too familiar with the phrase “don’t just do something, sit there” to gain clarity on a situation but normally don’t “practice” on vacation because, well, I was on vacation . . . .  . . . from everything. But not today. Grabbing a beach blanket, I walked down to the end of a string of cottages away from the fray, stopping in front of a unit being rented by my brother-in-law. I went inside and grabbed a couple of pillows, placed them on the blanket and settled into a folded leg position on the ground overlooking a lake canopied by a brilliant blue sky and let my mind settle. The wind was gusting with enough force to rock me gently back and forth, with trees rustling white noise and waves beating the shore at the base of a bluff 20 feet or so below me. Dropping my gaze towards the ground I quickly slipped from the sticky bonds of thought, anger evaporating, leaving me in an internal space to contemplate what was actually going on. It is hard to say for those that don’t meditate what happens next, but it is a lot of nothing, demarcated by thoughts and feelings, followed by a larger expanse, followed by more thoughts. Wash, rinse, repeat. Sometimes boring, painful, exhilarating, terrifying but never predictable.

I don’t remember how long I remained in place but I eventually stood up stretching my legs now long fast asleep and walked slowly back to the cottage. As I did so, in the empty space that I had created in my head a pattern started to emerge. I was feeling fear around something, but what? It was something I really wanted to do, but didn’t feel equipped properly to do it. Stopping along the path, I mused further and realized it had to do with drawing, specifically portraiture. I was pretty sure at that point I had uncovered a previously undiagnosed case of fear/joy. If you are not familiar with the concept, think of the name Fear/Joy; it is exactly what it sounds like. A situation where you really, really need/want to do something but there is a larger than normal dollop of fear straddling it, in some cases completely obscuring the fun object. And unfortunately, to the best of my knowledge, the only cure is to push through the fear. Crap.

In my case the Fear was approaching people I didn’t know well, or at all, (not normally an issue for me) and asking them questions, taking pictures and then perhaps doing a sketch of them which was the Joy. A sketch that somewhat resembles them to be considered a “success”. I’ve done my share of drawing people but always in a studio setting or capturing someone when they aren’t aware of it; quick sketches on a plane or at a bar or while out somewhere public but nothing where I had to make it look like the person sitting across from me. My Aunt Marilyn, a childhood art inspiration to me, was a master at creating portraits for tourists on Jackson Square in New Orleans for many years.  I have some of her work in a flat file at home, portraits of my grandparents she drew years ago. There is an effortless quality, a sparseness of detail, yet enough is captured to ensure the viewer knows who the person is in a thoroughly authentic and non-caricatured way. This is an extraordinary skill of which I had virtually never practiced.

Being that this was Wednesday morning and the tennis tournament, the predominant activity of the day was getting underway, I decided to take a chance. I threw some drawing supplies into a backpack and headed to the courts to see what might inspire me. First up was baby Eloise, the latest addition to our extended family, all of seven months old - perfect. I could take as many pictures as I needed since she wouldn’t complain, with the added bonus that she wouldn’t know if I drew her poorly. Downside; she was a tough interview subject.

From there I sketched one of the many cousins in the family who was herself drawing and after snapping her picture, went in search of other prey. I pounced on one of the cooks grilling ribs behind the Inn in anticipation of a barbecue that evening. I have to laugh as I think back on the fact that I blurted out that I wanted to do her portrait and she was the one that wanted to “interview” me first. Note to self: modify how you approach your subjects. We spent a fair amount of time talking, after which I took some photos and was on my way. And so it went over the next couple of days, covering a range of guests and one of the carpenter/handyman on staff. All in all not so hard to overcome my initial trepidation and a lot more fun than I had ever imagined.

My last interview was with the waitress that had been serving us all week in the dining room of the resort. She agreed to meet with me between work hours, so we met up Friday morning after the breakfast tasks had been completed and walked out to a picnic table under a couple of shade trees out behind the Inn. While taking a couple of reference photos, she shared a little about who she was, where she was from and a bit about her family. As I struggled with the sketch (I find it hard enough to try to draw someone precisely not to mention carry on a conversation at the same time) we talked about what she wanted to do upon graduation and other future plans, including grad school followed by the possibility of being a museum curator. I continued drawing as I shared a story about a friend that I knew who had curated an art museum in Kohler, WI where I had just visited with my wife a few months before. Over the years, during my time as a science illustrator, I’ve had a number of opportunities to go behind the scenes to conduct research for projects of some sort or another and have always loved museums and research institutions in general. We continued to talk for a bit as I finished the sketch which had a passing resemblance to her.

We parted ways and I watched as she headed back to the kitchen while the idea of museum curation still rattled around in my head. I turned back to the sketch and continued to refine it while I smiled to myself, remembering the smell of moth balls that emanated from the trays of insects in the entomology department at the Field Museum in Chicago so many years ago. “No one goes into something like that these days; how cool. THAT was a Dream with a capitol D”.

A dream . . . . . . .  

In the warm summer haze, my hand sticking to the paper as I drew, I could feel a small piece of awe landing in the supersaturated liquid that was my being. Crystal began racing outward in all directions.

A dream . . . . . . .

Up Next: Transformed

Friday, August 28, 2015

Crystallization - Part 1 of 4

Behind the Johanna
Watercolor 11 x 14, 2014
Have you ever struggled with a decision for a period of time where you were not sure what direction to take but then, in an instant, “knew” what to do? Where confusion and opacity were replaced with a feeling of unity or a clear path to follow? One moment you didn’t know and the next you are certain?

And afterwards did you ever "wonder what just happened?"

While most of my personal decisions of any magnitude are done through careful (some would argue agonizingly obsessive) deliberation, I have also had those “aha” moments where everything snapped into place and, without a doubt, I knew what needed to happen next. Over the next four posts, I’ll share a recent experience characterized by this type of awareness as another example of how the creative process manifests itself.  Hopefully I will be able to provide you some insights on how to prepare for the same type of transformation.

There is a concept in chemistry called “instantaneous crystallization,” which is a rapid state conversion from a liquid to a solid crystalline structure in supersaturated liquids. This takes place when a small particle or “seed” is introduced into a solution that contains a higher concentration of a particular material. An almost instantaneous change takes place in dramatic fashion and reacts much like lightening striking. However, in this case it serves as metaphor with a universal truth: small things can precipitate great change due to incredibly powerful surrounding forces. Think Rosa Parks sitting on the bus refusing to give up her seat in the supersaturated environment of the deeply segregated South in 1955. Rosa is the seed that started a crystallization of the Civil Rights movement and equality rulings across the country for years afterwards.

I can only wish that my actions had the pertinence of a human rights movement. It might strike you as a bit smug or pretentious to assume similarity between such an important historical event and my “state change” but when such a shift occurs internally (and since we are all at the center of our own little universes and experience everything first from the standpoint of YOU*), it can take on similar importance. For some, the change may be so profound that it causes physical effects such as disorientation or taking your breath away. Note: as stated in infomercials - “individual results may vary”.

Supersaturation for me took on the form of many years of delaying gratification of one type for the delivery of another. I had a family to support, kids to help through college, an IT/design career that allowed me to do that and a variety of other things that helped to interfere or refine what it was that I was supposed to be doing with my life. And honestly, those were the things I needed to be doing at the time. No regrets, just backwards observation of the path that had passed beneath my feet while fixing my gaze forward. All the while, I had been learning oil painting skills along with portraiture (see earlier posts for some results) for a number of years, dabbling at it, moving through the process intuitively banging at walls trying to learn skills in a hit or miss fashion on the side. It wasn’t until I was on vacation recently that I had an opportunity to reflect on just how neglected certain aspects of my creative being had become, allowing my internal mix to reach a critical level.

To provide a bit of background, this is a vacation like no other. My daughter described it as “not a vacation but an event,” one from which we all need another vacation to recover. Relatives and friends from around the country converge for one week of get-togethers, parties, organized competitions, and events all set in a gorgeous northern Michigan environment. Introverts beware! It really is a great time for the most part but I’ve found as I’ve gotten older that it all gets to be a bit too much by the end. And since it is everyone's vacation. rather than be a buzz kill, I chose to find other pursuits and stay out of the fray but as the week approached its halfway mark I felt I had reached my tipping point. Waking one morning with an "anger" hangover, I realized this was no longer a vacation but an endurance test. I had to do something . . . .  

          *Thank you David Foster Wallace for this analogy. Kenyon commencement address, 2005.

Up Next: Something Has to Give