Friday, July 3, 2020

Lies My Teacher Told Me

A few years ago, I took modern art history, and it changed my outlook on life. Art history is very much a survey of the enlightenment of humankind. Through it I became interested in the collective consciousness, and began an informal study of Jungian psychology. I have been wanting to express my own ideas about consciousness, which are relatively complicated, but not, and haven't been sure how to do it.

A short time after I took art history, I put out a challenge to The Universe to play a little game. (It wasn't supposed to be War Games! I was kidding!) I waged a bet that the reason that “There Are No Great Women Artists,” in the words of Linda Nochlin, is because women are still doing the majority of emotional labor for humankind. I know that because I spend much of my days helping others with their anxiety and health issues. Even if I didn’t know all that I know, that would still be my job, because I am a mom. It takes a lot of my time to offer the right advice to encourage independence. In the wider world, I gave away my professional knowledge with no expectation of remuneration or credit. I did it believing that not only was it the right thing to do, but that if it was, it would eventually come back to me.

It’s been difficult to be an American mom. I certainly didn’t go into it with any sort of adult understanding of the hardships of life, which I had been mostly sheltered from by the school system. Out of that I had arisen as a young adult, bright-eyed and optimistic, only to be faced with substandard pay and hazardous working conditions. It felt dystopian, since I was raised to believe I could do anything I put my mind to. Then, I thought it was a problem that was inherent only to my situation, so I decided maybe I could contribute more to society by trying to raise kind children. I really wanted to try to be the change I wanted to see in the world.

After taking art history, I also became greatly inspired to try to express my ideas about American life. I started dreaming up a body of work, and I wanted to at least try to create a few of the pieces someday. One of my ideas was to recreate a moment in my memory that I felt was life-changing to me, and was to many people in the United States, and probably the world. I felt like the memory was crystal clear, but as I get older, I am finding my memory is not as great as it once was.

Back during the era of the artist academies in Europe, it was considered a work of mastery to be able to paint something of “academic size” and in the style of the masters. For my presentation in history class, I chose to study Alphonse Mucha, because I have always been drawn to the way he depicted women like goddesses. Because his work was popularized originally in print media and is reproduced to this day on small items, I did not understand the scale he worked on, even as a printmaker. The original posters he designed that catapulted him to fame were life-size depictions of a famous theatrical actress. But those, in his mind, were not his greatest accomplishments. That regard went to a series of 20 paintings called the Slav Epic, most of which were approximately 26 by 20 feet and depicted the struggle for liberation of the Slavic peoples from serfdom. Much of the story of the Slav Epic in its painted form revolves around finding places to keep the monstrous creation throughout the many wars in the area; although the work is made to decry the effects of oppression on others, it requires access to great resources just to store it.

This is the thing I always wondered about becoming a successful artist. To become a successful artist, a lot of time is needed to develop one’s technical skills, calm is needed to develop one’s way of seeing, and a great deal of space is needed, too, for the creative activities, materials, and finished products. I know quite a few very productive artists who go through giant tubes of oil paints, the cost of which would choke most people I know. Very few people in the world have the resources to store canvases of that size. Furthermore, the painting techniques required by the academy to paint like a master involve many layers of transparent glazing which can require months to dry. I got to learn this technique in college, and it captivated me because I grew up the child of two glass lovers. My father grew up near Steuben, NY and so my memories of visiting the Corning glass museum and the prismatic color there influenced me greatly as a child. My mother was an educator and an artist, so when I was very young, we often took community art classes together. One of the things we did was learning to make stained glass when I was eight; this led to my mother creating a glass and pottery studio in our basement where we both designed and made our own pieces for several years.

When I was a kid, I was given a lot of opportunities to learn skills which others may not have seen as developmentally appropriate. I loved these experiences, and they were an important part of making me who I am. I received focused one-on-one attention from adults which was not something most of my peers got. Plus, these experiences were in collaborative and creative settings, which affected how I learned to relate to people. Relating to adults in the context of being creative and collaborative is so different from what I experienced at school. It gave me a different bar for human relationships.

When my mom started working, we didn’t do these things together anymore. I think she was too tired. She originally went to work because she was bored and lonely at home with my sister and I at school. I don’t think she had the time available to paint the Slav Epic while I was at school or anything; my point is that the little time a woman has around housework and taking care of children is barely enough to restore herself, let alone perform a job or paint even one academically-sized painting and figure out where to store it.

A few years ago, I picked up two large 4 foot by 5 foot canvases during a sale, and hoped to make a diptych for my living room. I had lots of crazy ideas, including male and female tardigrades playing on the moon; one could be male, wearing argyle socks and golfing into a moon crater; another could be female, reclining like Olympia on a settee with grapes and the requisite black cat. But then something turned my mind to working on the body of work I had conceived shortly after taking art history, and I decided to recreate that life-changing moment.

On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was nursing my nearly 5 month old son down to sleep for his morning nap, while watching The Today Show on NBC. There was a distinct way the sun came through the window every morning next to the entertainment center where we had our 19” television, which I had been lugging around with me since college. At that time of year, the fireplace would have had just some family photos in frames on it, rather than the decorations that I chose to depict. I thought for a long time how to achieve a dreamlike quality in the painting, or something reminiscent of looking through a rainy glass window or eyes full of tears.

The first hurdle I had to overcome was that I simply could not afford to work in oil at that scale and use solvents, because of my health. I happened to have a lot of acrylic paint around because several of my artist friends had been involved in painting fiberglass heart monuments to place around the city, and one of them had shared with me the type of paint they were using that was easy to work with and held up in the sun. Because I bought it in huge quantities, so I could share with the kids (kids and acrylic, right?), I had plenty to use on my large canvas.

I had taken acrylic painting in college and won a major award for my work, but didn’t really care to work with 26 years later, because of having to reacquaint myself with its character. That would be an important part of the process of working on this painting. As I struggled with knowing what to do with each layer, I kept myself busy with other smaller works, which would then inform the larger painting. I developed an investigative process.

Any layered painting starts out with something called an underpainting. I have used underpainting techniques in most of my other works, no matter the media. When I first got involved in the artist community in my town, I had a dialogue with several different artists about the techniques of the old masters, and in particular one of the friends I made was keen on developing an underpainting technique using charcoal, but in such a way that the charcoal did not vanish, but lent value to the painting. At that point, we were working in oil, and with my son, and ended up fixing the bottom layer with spray Damar resin (which imparts a hard glassiness and is an important ingredient in glazing techniques) before applying thicker coats of paint over the top.

In my own self education as an artist, I studied a lot about the archival properties of various materials, and so settled on working with the best materials in my own practice. It means that I worked with museum quality materials, and I have done so since I was a child because the importance of working with decent art materials in avoiding frustration is paramount. I have also for this reason procured only the highest quality materials for my kids to learn to make art, too. In any case, there are rules for working in layers because of the chemical properties of media, to avoid peeling in the future. The works of many masters have had great damage to them from age or mishandling (removing canvas from support and rolling it), so anything I can do as an artist to prevent premature aging of my work, I try to do.

I did not want to spray anything in my studio, because I knew I would be sensitive to it. But I also had this enormous image to transfer over to the canvas. In my mind I wanted the underpainting to be kind of vibrant. Underpainting in contrasting colors can give a life and vibrancy to a painting that just sticking to “what one sees” just doesn’t. So, I conceived of this idea to paint the photographic negative of the image as the underpainting, starting with a charcoal value study. I divided the canvas into a large grid and copied my sketch over.

I had made the photographic reference for the sketch by going through all of my photos from that time of our home, knowing that I had tried to take some photos of my son nursing from my perspective. I had taken some photos of how I decorated, some on film which were scanned in years ago, and some digital, many close enough to the vantage point of where my chair was, so I had a few to work with. I printed them at different sizes until they made sense when I cut them out and put them together in a collage. I had a photo of my living room plainly decorated with nothing on the mantle and my final acrylic painting project from the class I took over the mantle. I had one that had the entertainment unit from the right vantage point, but the fireplace was cut off and skewed, and then I had another with the fireplace mantle from the right angle, but with my hand-quilted Christmas covering, and homemade felt stockings in it. Although in September it was not Christmas, I ended up realizing that in my mind materialism and Christmas are very much in bed together, and tied to the reason why we felt it necessary to engage in war for the last 29 years, and that I had an opportunity to make a statement. I figured I would go in later and put in the nativity and family photos once I could get them just the way I wanted.

After successfully creating the collage, I scanned it into the computer and put grid marks on it before importing it to my phone where I created a negative image using an app. I then had to send it back to my computer so I could print out my finished reference.

The underpainting at first was quite crude, and I made the mistake of trying to remove the grid lines with a bit of turpentine, because I couldn’t get them off with just an eraser. This removed the gesso that had been factory applied, so then where I went over my drawing, it was darker. I thought it was totally borked until I summoned up the energy to put my trompe l'oeil (French for "fool the eye") skills to use, which took some time.

Picasso said that every act of creation is first an act of destruction. So sometimes when I am at an impasse with my work, which I thought I was with my powdery charcoal underpainting and no way to fix it to the canvas safely, I will try to channel a state of artful berserk to see what happens. I seriously didn’t know how to fix the drawing onto the canvas, and so I did a child-like test piece with an automatic drawing in charcoal as an experiment. I went over the whole thing with painterly-applied gesso. It had a very dreamlike quality, so I decided to go all in on my big piece, and to my surprise, the result was like looking through tears.

I thought at that point, maybe it was done. Sometimes art is about knowing when to stop. But after a week or so, something was bugging me, and I realized it was that the painting could be interpreted as racist if I didn’t do something to change it. I am actually very worried about being racist, and so I spent a fair amount of time thinking on what I needed to do to fix it. I thought about starting all over again, but what if sometime in the future someone decided to X-ray my painting and interpreted what was underneath as racist? So then, I thought destroying it might be the better option.

I moved it off the easel and into the little room off my studio where I keep my personal library. I listened to music and stared at that painting for a long time. Then, one night I put on some led oscillating color lights, and the painting took on a new life. I tried to imagine how I might share the experience I had with another viewer, and so I created a digital representation of what I saw. But requiring special lighting would be cumbersome to set up in any of the galleries I used to frequent. Not that this painting would fit in with any of the other works there. There’s simply too much pain, and the places I showed my work concentrated mostly on selling the work of more traditional art, not academic art.

But then I realized if I just continued working on it as an underpainting to what I had originally imagined, the possible racism would no longer be an issue. So, I started applying glazes of color to make it look just like the photographic negative I had created digitally.

As the holidays rolled around, I was becoming progressively more and more sick as I worked with the acrylic and tried to manage the holiday stress. On the mantle in the painting, I had intended to put family pictures, but would have had to go to the trouble to find them, change their aspect ratios and whatnot and convert them to negatives of the right size. I was becoming increasingly detached from my family through the process. My aphasia was getting significant, my husband was having to work extra hours, and he had emotional obligations to his extended family, so between my holiday preparations and painting, I had become a ghost. Nobody seemed to miss me or care, so I decided they didn’t need to be put in my painting, and another layer of meaning was added to my painting through the absence of content.

Lies My Teacher Told Me, Acrylic on Canvas, 4' x 5'

Unfortunately, I became too sick to finish it, and this will have to be its completed state. The surface area is just too big to work on safely with the amount of formaldehyde and VOC I discovered is emitted from acrylic paint indoors. Working outdoors is unsafe for me currently because of my skin sensitivity from erythropoetic protoporphyria, which has worsened either due to my current body burden of toxins or age-related decrease in melanin, which once protected me.

To work safely with acrylic at any size, an artist needs to be in a well ventilated space, and it would be very costly to create a residential basement studio that was truly safe for that media, or any media that requires good ventilation. This has to do with how home HVAC systems work and the way homes are pressurized through the pulling in of air from lower levels of the home. I know a lot of artist studios end up in basements, and hobbyists in general end up working in a lot of unsafe conditions. It was, realistically, ridiculous that I ended up in the situation of becoming ill from my hobbies because I should have known better. I have witnessed other hobbyists developing fatal illnesses in my community from failure to consider the hazards of their hobbies, and so I decided to write a book about it.

In this painting, I wished to express the disintegration of the American Dream for me and future generations by the effects of materialism. What I saw when those planes hit the towers was not an attack on America; I saw it as an attack on our misplaced values. I saw it as an attack on a system that grinds poor people into dust through espousing worship of monuments to men. After my tangle over chemicals, remodeling and infectious disease with my extended family, I opened Thoreau’s Walden, which I had read in college philosophy, to the following pages one morning:




Removed from my paint, I switched back to pen and ink, watercolor and gouache for a time while I recovered my language abilities through writing a book about living with mental illness, which I plan to share on this blog. In it, I explore the idea of what mental illness is from the outside and the inside and my own thoughts on healing.

Soon, I hope.

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