A Story About My Art
My husband and I just did NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) together last November, and it was a real learning experience. In particular, I learned that we work differently.
When one completes NaNoWriMo, which involves writing a 50,000 word book, one gets quite a bit of writer-related encouragement from the organization saying that one can now think of oneself as a writer. I could probably have said that before my first NaNo, but there was something about putting together a cohesive story that made it feel more official, I suppose. For me the transition to be able to keep up writing came from the feeling of relief I get when I purge my brain.
My current internal battle with writing this is that what is prompting me to write is an awareness that the amount of information I have hoarded is threatening to overcome my attention and use up all my time. That being said, I generally hold onto things if I have a gut sense that it is important, so going back through my old files, notes and belongings is weird because I find just what I needed for whatever is going on in my life by “coincidence.” I often find what I need just in time, even when I am not looking for it. Now I kind of see that the gut sense that drove my desire to keep something was really a connection with my higher self.
|Credit: Central Intelligence Agency, Analysis and Assessment of The Gateway Process via Vice|
I wrote a blog post called “Reconciling Materialism” just before the pandemic, and it’s one of my more popular posts. I don’t get a lot of comments on my blog, but I do pay attention to what posts are trending, and there’s always some weird synchronicity in that. It came into my consciousness again recently when I was looking for the image to go with a title card I had printed out for a painting called “A Day in the Life.” During the pandemic I was not showing physical copies of my work, so I often used digital photographs of it to break up what can grow to be a lot of text in my writing, and I often chose a price for it at that time, but did not write it down anywhere else. It seems now the pandemic is easing for people in my family’s age group, so I decided it was probably time to revisit my inventory. Additionally, a friend’s father passed away recently and he was a lifelong artist and so she is going through his inventory with the thought of publishing a book of his work, and it made me think about the potential mess I was leaving behind for my loved ones if I didn’t dot my “i’s” and cross my “t’s.”
On the first pass through my blog, I typed up title cards, and never thought I would forget what title went with what painting, but alas, that’s what happened in my mind with “A Day in the Life” perhaps because I have a couple pieces that title might apply to, because my work is about that in general. So, I was searching my blog for that title, and had to go through the lengthy results, and the “Reconciling Materialism” post was one of them. I had to read through quite a bit of my past writing, and that is a process that helps me see general truths about myself and life. I see that even though my life has seemed somewhat chaotic to me, there was actually an order and a purpose to it.
The thing about objects of thought, is that like physical objects, they take time to curate. Every *thing* we have in our lives represents something that takes time to manage. So one of the challenges of being an artist or a creator is managing all of one’s creations and figuring out how to leverage them so they get seen by an audience. Because otherwise, if a tree falls in the forest and nobody heard it, *did it really happen?* Before getting to that state, one is in the process of building a body of work. I was trained as an artist as a kid, so I was familiar with the concept of life being a work of art, but I don’t think I really understood what it meant to do something from inner desire because my life was still very structured and I was often being observed by a parent or a teacher. Nevertheless, I think I kind of looked at things through an artist’s eyes from the time I was very young. So I am easily motivated to make art, but I don’t always finish projects and my health affects how much energy and attention I have for all of it. I never know if it’s something I really want to do when I am in the middle of my projects. They feel like they are mine when I conceive of them and when I feel like I can confidently call them finished, though, but the middle part is often a struggle with the perfectionist inner demons of my youth, the voices of my well-intentioned mentors.
|A Day in the Life, 8”x8” Inktense on Paper|
Then there is the whole issue of getting “out there,” and the fact that “getting out there” means putting your work in shows, which costs money. And framing it, because many galleries want that. And the frame value is often a lot more than the work itself, so that is an additional frustration. And what if you choose the wrong frame, deterring potential patrons? Because the frame is so much of the cost, that can sometimes be a real issue. So creating that initial body of work to get started in shows can be pretty costly, unless one learns to work with what they already have. I jumped through a whole bunch of hoops and never got turned down that I can remember, so I ended up spending a lot of money on show entry fees, materials, and framing, and it all looks lovely in my home.
Good sense would tell me just to continue, but I couldn’t afford it with that method. Those efforts didn’t pay off in the material sense, but because of what I did, now I have a decent-sized body of work and am confident about my ability to jump back in. It was a learning process in trying to minimize waste and effort for the maximum effect, and some mistakes were made. For instance, I got into a well-established prestigious national show, drove to another city to drop off my work and experience the opening, only to find that the gallerists somehow figured out a way to put my piece in a location where very few people would see it, and then returned my work to me with the frame damaged. I can’t be angry about that because many of these events are run by volunteers. I was always worried about doing that to someone else’s work when I was volunteering. It might surprise people to know that many prestigious shows are run by volunteers.
There’s a lot of effort to get artists to come out to raise money for nonprofits. The argument I always heard for this was that it would give me “exposure,” well, after a certain number of experiences, I began to think, “Exposure?! People DIE of exposure!”
I don’t think one should have to suffer for their art, but I see people around me suffering for their art.
|Memorial for Loyalty, 2019, Inktense and gold leaf, paper mounted on cradle board.|
Notwithstanding the great irritation I feel with the necessity to commodify my life, one thing I particularly like about writing is that it can be sustainable work. I like that the way I do it does not require me to have to manage a lot of space-filling inventory, although it does require me to have to manage a lot of attention-filling inventory, which gets rather difficult after a certain point. One of my hangups about being an artist is eventually I am going to run out of space to hang things up. Hahaha. It’s a big house, but I know an older artist who has a whole room where she keeps her plein air paintings on shelves vertically like a library, and my house would not be able to accommodate all that art and the people who may need to live here in the coming years. The first thing I thought when I saw this experienced artist’s inventory was, “Okay, I cannot use stretched canvas, because each piece is too thick, then. And gallery wrapped canvas is a space luxury I can’t afford at the level of production I am maintaining. I’ll probably never be able to store that much art.” This of course has made me less inclined to make sculptural pieces, although I have. In any case, another artist warned me that when using stretched canvas, there is only a matter of time before someone takes the painting off the stretcher bars and rolls it up for storage, and that can lead to the paint cracking, so I decided to work on panels.
As with everything I do, I researched the heck out of it from the standpoint of cost and archival properties, and after experimenting with a selection of different pre-fabricated panels, I settled on making my own using pre-finished linen, heat-activated adhesive, aluminum panels and a mounting press I purchased used from a retired photographer. I worked out how to get the optimum number and selection of standard-sized panels from a 4’ x 8’ sheet of aluminum sign material, and I got that and other framing materials wholesale. I also purchased a mitre saw and in a hurry before a week-long plein air competition I secured framing remnants for cents on the dollar from a local framer. So I reduced these costs significantly, because what I paid for all those supplies amounted to the framing costs for two large paintings. When I did not have time to make a frame, I relied on a small library of ready-made frames, some of which I purchased as seconds from a local framing manufacturer. I met a lot of framers. I think that’s sort of funny because in the neighborhood where I grew up there was not much retail, but at the end of our block was a framing business where my mother had my art framed when I was a kid taking private art lessons, so thinking about framing and the presentation of my work is not new to me.
I was relatively free during those days when I was participating in gallery shows because I was not driving my son to community college yet. I was plein air painting and generating a lot of work in a short amount of time, so I realized storage problems would be a consideration if I continued my art practice like that. Ultimately, I couldn’t keep up plein air painting on that kind of scale when community college became a part of my kids’ lives, however. I suppose that was kind of a gift because of my metabolic sun sensitivity. I needed to find a way to make art fit around the rest of my life, as well as my health. Before the plein air painting, I had participated in a weekly nighttime figure drawing group, and it was from my work there that I got my first featured artist recognition in a show in Fort Collins, Colorado, and also later our group had a show at the Loveland Museum.
|Pensamientos, 2013, Pastel on Paper, $480USD|
This began the need to present my work for galleries, which started a period of a lot of volunteerism for the local artist collective. At some point after starting plein air painting, I figured out that going to the figure study group was negatively impacting my health. It wasn’t a traditional figure study group in that people were using all sorts of media, but specifically there were several oil painters and naturally we were working inside. Nobody used acrylic, but there were also some pastel artists. I never witnessed anyone using personal protective equipment beyond gloves, and knowing what I know now I look back and find that troubling. I did help my mentor at the time rid her studio and teaching practices of toxins and improve airflow because I was feeling unwell after classes, and a neuropathy she was developing in her feet improved. It took quite a while to figure out how to fit art into my life and around my health, and I did have to kind of fight for my art. I feel like what I learned in my process with respect to how traditional artistic process affects my health and mental health has surprising implications for the way art therapy is used.
Happy Little Clouds…
One of my closer artist friends used to cheerfully say that “art is less expensive than therapy,” but I can attest that at least the way I did it, that was probably not the case, for a few reasons. I am also not sure it was always good for my mental health, especially in the way she practiced it herself. The first reason I can think of is that because I had extensive training in my youth which they must have recognized, my artist peers encouraged me and mentored me to be a professional artist. They were particularly giving with their time and advice. I am not sure I understood what art was about for myself when I started this journey, however; my relationship to art as a business might have been a bit different if I had understood the importance of making my art work around my life and health earlier. But this is probably something lacking in general from artists’ philosophies, I have learned. Generally, the work is organized around the ego, and there are myriad factors related to the desire for success which cause this to happen.
|Be Your Own Guru, 2017, 8” x 8” Inktense on Paper.|
When an artist opens a business related to making art, they’re doing so ostensibly because they have gotten feedback from others that their art is desirable and marketable. But there was this law the IRS had for businesses stating that they must turn a profit within 3 years, or they could be sued by the IRS. So this happened to an art professor, but the Supreme Court ruled in her favor that she demonstrated the intent to sell her work. She had shown in galleries all over and even won awards. I was kind of on the verge of going somewhere with my art when I got sick suddenly in 2019 right before the pandemic, but even though I registered my art business in 2013, I have never turned a profit. So all of the work that goes into trying to sell my art was not something that was possible for me specifically because of how the art I was making was affecting my health. But I was still making art, and still putting it out on social media until I got sick. So the way the IRS works with home business expenses is that you can deduct expenses and depreciation for the square footage of your home that is used for your work. So, you know, hopefully if you’re participating in capitalism, the expenses you deduct related to the things you create in that space are for goods that will be available for sale. So I decided to put prices on my work in my home, sort of as a commentary that capitalism makes me have to treat even the people I love as potential customers, but also to be in compliance, but more on that later…
As an artist it is difficult not to affect the lives of the people around me with my work, because it uses so much of my attention and resources if I am not careful. I got the sense early on that there were “art widows” out there - partners of artists who sacrifice a lot of time and money to support the artist, and that the relationship might not be mentally healthy for them. It certainly bordered on unhealthy in my case. Suffering for one’s art is not a new idea, but I had no idea the barriers regular life and the art world put in the way of developing a sustaining art practice, and how the artist, especially ones who are mothers, have to fight for and sneak art into our lives in calculated ways to make it happen. It can definitely equate to suffering, which doesn’t always equate to better work. It takes a lot of willingness to go with the flow and be willing to get caught with your pants down a bit in your self expression. I feel like the perfectionist in me really took a beating.
|Crabapple Blossoms, 2015, Oil on Panel.|
I saw a fortune teller in 2018 who intuited that I was an artist and told me that I had the freedom to either sell it or make it for myself. She also said I was a sea captain in a past life. I have no idea if this has anything to do with the dream my husband had where I shot him in the chest with a blunderbuss on a pirate ship. Now, when she said that, my gut was telling me that it was most important for my art to be meaningful for me and my mental health, so I needed to be making it for myself first and foremost. I have a cousin who works for a very large famous gallery, and who deals with many many successful artists, and he told me that the sooner a person realizes that art needs to be for them, the happier they will be. I mean, I am paraphrasing, but I am certain that was in my head when I saw the Tarot card reader. At the time I was also studying Tarot. The blunderbuss dream did not come until later.
In the years before that, one of my more recent mentors had introduced me to lots of different artists who had various relationships to the idea of production and how personal their work was. I met one person who had been working for a big art house, and she told me that she had to reliably turn out 15-10 pieces of art per week, which sounded insane to me at the time. She had been doing that successfully for years and had a stable income from it. But when her husband passed away, she found herself no longer inspired. Now, a person in that situation doesn’t need to concern themselves with the value of each piece, because that is determined by an art house. So if you are not working for an art house, you have to have some idea of what your work is worth.
I had another person tell me with respect to sales that people buy work that resonates with them, especially if the story of the artist resonates with them. So, that kind of helped me open up about myself on my blog and social media, even about the more melancholy aspects of myself. So, with respect to how to price things, another artist advised me of a formula to determine a price per square inch for paintings. When I asked any artist how much time anything took, there was a general observation that their efforts for each of their pieces had the effect of valuing their time at far, far less than minimum wage, and also that it made them sad. So there’s that. I was advised not to think about that too much.
|Reclining Nude, 2016, Digital Art|
My business has been established for about 10 years, which is coincidentally the same amount of time they say it takes to become an expert on something. I had started a business before, so I was not afraid of that process. In the time since I first registered my business, I have had experiences making art in public with other artists not just in my hometown, but neighboring towns, in other parts of the country, and other parts of the world. It has been a real journey! I learned from a lot of people! I think one of the reasons I don’t talk about that too much is because I am worried I am going to leave someone out, and everyone was important. Also, if I keep it anonymous, I feel like I can give honest feedback that won’t necessarily harm my highly-intentioned mentors. I do realize this puts me in the awkward position of not being able to advertise for them, because of the seriousness of what I learned about how art impacts mental health negatively from adopting their processes. I learned something from everyone I met. I learned something from every show. I learned something from every piece of art I made, and that typically informed the next piece. So my body of work is a record of a lot of memories, in addition to being a record of my development as an artist, and the growth of my consciousness. I mean, that’s what a body of work is. It tells the viewer something about the artist.
|The Artist Takes a Selfie, 2018.|
Around the time we moved to Loveland, Colorado in 2006, I took a few short trips to the Santa Fe and Taos areas in New Mexico with my in-laws. They were interested in futurism such as hydroponics and also sustainable architecture, so on one of those trips we visited the earthship community, and I learned a bit about how to leverage things like passive solar to reduce our energy consumption. When I was shopping for our current residence, one of the things that drew me to this house was that the windowed part of the house is southwest facing and there is a largely unobstructed roof area that is just about the right size to install solar. So it is something we have talked about quite a bit, although our city is not participating in buy back, so the benefits aren’t as great as they are in other cities. Furthermore, there was a decently-sized garden-level basement with good light that I envisioned would make a great art studio someday. And that is where my art studio is and was even before I became a disciplined artist. But in any case, because of having that experience before purchasing our home, and then because of the people we ended up becoming friends with, we have been at least somewhat interested in futurism and sustainability.
My husband and I had a competition with each other early on when we first moved here to see who could make the best hydroponic setup for bell peppers. While it was his mother who had the original interest and always wanted to run a sustainable farm, they were simply working for the man, on the road, and remodeling too much to experiment year round, but we were interested enough to make the time to experiment around working for the man. I think real homesteading which frees one from the system requires a significant amount of staying put, and also a lot of attention. I think it requires real sacrifice, judging from what I learned from the farmers and other homesteaders I have met.
In those days I was home with the kids by myself most days, so hydroponics doubled as a homeschool science experiment. There was a post on my blog for some time about a Green Space in my town which we visited on a field trip some years after our own experiment, and it was one of my popular posts. I took it down because the Green Space folded. For our set up, we used the regular sunlight coming in a bay window for our experiment because we didn’t have a lot of cash to throw at it. Furthermore, the hydroponics supply companies locally were just getting off the ground at that time, and some of the supplies like lights cost a lot more back then. In lieu of expensive proprietary equipment, we adapted our equipment from storage containers available at most stores. They ended up being polypropylene and food safe, but I don’t think we were concerned with that when we made our choice, and that it was just a happy accident. Who knows. We were often wiser than I remember us being. If I remember correctly, my husband used a drip system, and I used a bubbler approach. In the end there was no perceivable difference in the crop yield between the two approaches we used, and our pepper plants were over 5 feet tall. I do not know which method used less electricity. They grew for three years continuously and I ended up having to take them down because they attracted little flies (but also a praying mantis!). I grew up in the city and did not have a vegetable garden, so I didn’t know until someone gave me a tour of their garden how unworldly our experiment had become. I have tried multiple times to grow peppers outside, and was only successful once because of difficulties with my irrigation system. I learned through my experimentation and also talking with other gardeners that they require a lot of sun, and because of the way our home is situated on our lot, there is only a small section of land that gets full sunlight all day. And that’s where I can grow them. Because I cannot move them around, I have to enrich the soil, and I am just getting around to implementing that more regularly through the use of compost in my gardening. So the hydroponic pepper experiment was pretty legendary and gave me confidence that if I really needed to, I could grow my own food, even inside. Actually, I swear it was easier inside.
|I drew a lot of Garfields when I was a kid. Our household likes Jim Davis.|
I did successfully cultivate two cannabis plants from seed early in the pandemic. “Successful” is a relative term, because what I ended up with was fairly lurfy (more stem and leaf than flower). Where I live it is legal for an adult to have six cannabis plants on their property. I haven’t been motivated to try again, because even though the kids are adults now, they weren’t out of the house, yet. Note that neither of them have really been interested, and as far as I know only my son has tried it, and it was with my supervision in the context of helping him through some pandemic- and existentially-related anxiety. They have both reported to me that people on their campus use it, which I expected. I wanted them to know all about it before they got there so they would “know what they were missing” and also about what it does for consciousness instead of having to figure that out on their own in the context of navigating adult relationships which is odd on its own. Anyway, the last time I tried to start things from seed didn’t go very well because I was not well when it was time to transplant, so many things died. I used to have a lot more body pain and inflexibility than I do now, even though I was more active, due to chemical exposures from my materials, detergents I was using, and also a backdrafting water heater. My flexibility seems to have much less to do with how much I exercise, strangely enough. Of course, exercise helps, but not nearly as much as avoiding those things, or even what time it is in my cycle.
I did grow some tomatoes in 2022, but I got seedlings at the nursery instead of starting them from seed, and I didn’t get around to pruning the suckers, so there were fewer tomatoes overall than when I grew them from seed before. Growing things takes a lot of time, and it’s important to keep an eye on the outdoor temperature, and protect things from hail. These are all issues that creep up in the fall, and if one doesn’t keep an eye on the crop, it’s easy to lose a lot of yield from one mistake. That being said, I did stock up on vegetable seeds at the beginning of the pandemic and bought some little grow tents and lights. The tents needed a lot of time to offgas. My transplants weren’t very successful in 2020 because of problems with my irrigation system in the outdoor garden that I was unaware of until it was too late. Also, I never figured out how to get the nutrients and pH right in the hydroponic setup because that was the year my cognitive issues were the worst before we had the backdrafting gas water heater removed and got COVID and then long haul COVID before doctors really knew anything.
If you’re getting between the lines that I felt a lot of pressure to be the perfect mother, you’re correct. But the twist here is that I was aware that especially in the case of motherhood, “perfect” really just meant “good enough” and so I knew when to give things up. Not needing things to be perfect, and forgiving myself when they weren’t was key for me, but I think others may have perceived that I had higher aspirations than I did and thought I was a perfectionist. I am not beyond waving both middle fingers in the air at unfair expectations, and I am absolutely not going to conform to what others consider to be perfect to fit into their mentally unhealthy social norms. I am, however, going to do whatever I need to do to survive and teach my kids to do the same, and I would never ever hide the truth just to remain acceptable in the eyes of peers who are blinded by vanity. I would put a picture of my rectum here, but then I would feel compelled to come up with some crazy price to sell it as an NFT in order to retain ownership rights to my own ass, and I don’t feel like doing that. And what I feel matters, because I only get one shot at this corporeal existence.
I’ve heard it’s purple. LOL.
|Meta Mookalala, 2023, Digital Art.|
I think sometimes I have anxiety about doing technically difficult things because of what was going on with my cognition back then, and that it kind of feeds into my PTSD because those things took so much focus and I had so many interruptions. I really didn’t used to be such a perfectionist, but when you’re working with limited resources and trying not to waste anything (haste makes waste, after all) it’s difficult to not become a little neurotic about wasted effort, and that kind of extends to how interruptions affect the quality of one’s work. I have a lot of projects around here that are 80 percent done, and my husband used to say of me that I gave up at 80 percent. What I figured out is not that I lose interest, but that the conditions of my life as a mother prevented me from finishing a lot of things, but absolutely did not prevent me from dreaming. On the outside, this might look a bit like ADHD to a professional, but that professional, but that’s not exactly what it is. I think very deeply about things; I just get interrupted. A LOT. So on some level I am always kind of expecting an interruption and don’t want to be taken too deep into figuring something out, because being stuck in a perpetual cycle of not being able to take things to completion is kind of stressful, since in the U.S. my value is tied to my productivity, and as a mother I do not make money from any of it. It was frustrating not being able to focus and/or not being allowed to focus due to people needing things, and so sometimes I just gave up and had to make do. I feel like I am married to the ocean in a way, and that my efforts can easily be futile because the tide in my particular ocean is (or should I say was) unpredictable and determined by other people’s industrial and vacation schedules. This is probably a lot like what it feels to be a high end sex worker, which is a strange realization to have. Is being a stay at home mother or female executive assistant like being a sex worker psychologically? Is it possible to avoid being used when it is your job to be available all the time to manage crises for people with more perceived capitalist potential than you?
|How does one innovate this into a business? Stonks?, 2012, Pencils on Paper.|
I need to clarify here that it was not the demands of my husband or children themselves that were the problem. It was the stuff they had to deal with, often unnecessarily, in the course of being part of the capitalist system. It was the things they had to deal with because of the greed and fear of death the system engenders in the course of its time-stamped march toward each holiday and new pair of shoes. It was the chain-smoking, coke-snorting Bvlgari class at the top that made my life one of constant struggle. They can just throw money at less privileged people like me and get them to do whatever they think themselves too good to do. They make sure they don’t pay enough that their servants could afford the same freedom, unfortunately, so it is a double loss for those servants. The loss can be even greater for the people at the bottom who have to spend time applying for government programs. The only thing I was left with to cope with the constant, unreasonable and dramatic attention demands were the ability to be grateful for the non-material and enjoying my own body in order to slow down my perception of the torture.
But seriously, I realize my husband’s 80% comment isn’t fair at all, because there were so many things I completed beyond 100% - they just weren’t things for myself. I do admit that after socializing with other people too much I am seized with a feeling that I need to complete something that I can call my own, to remember who I am. I do this to remember that I existed and to put a material pin in the mental map of my life so that when I die there is something left of me beyond how I made needy people feel okay about themselves. I am very aware of this angst, and I think it has contributed to a general disdain for talking. This is because people do not consider what they say, and miscommunication causes a lot of wasted time. I think a lot of what goes wrong in the world can actually be sourced to miscommunication sourced in lack of discernment, and that loose lips really do sink ships. Plus, a lot of the socialization I have experienced in the upper class just amounts to a constant marketing effort on the part of capitalism to make us consumers. It is sort of odd to see poor people envious of this soul-sucking lifestyle, but alas, even famous artists like Warhol, Cerny and Kanye West successfully worshiped the ambitions of our oppressors if success is becoming just like the imperialist enslavers humanity has been fighting. Is the final reward in the Valhalla of the United States to lose one’s soul and become Plastic Incarnate? It seems so. I suppose I had no idea how my husband’s and my efforts to remove marketing from our lives would make us so aware of how our friends’ minds were hijacked, and how much time they actually spent imagining how to acquire symbols of success instead of appreciating what they already had, including their friendships.
|Pop goes the world… See what big heads produce?, 2023, Credit Business Insider.|
It was particularly difficult fitting into the art community for this reason. My professional artist friends did not collect FunkoPop, because they were utilitarian types, generally speaking, but I do have a few myself because apparently they were to be part of my learning process about my own values (I have a Queen Elizabeth with Corgis for sale, but I am holding on to Mr. Rogers and a few others). I feel a little bit disenchanted by art and art therapy, actually, because I feel like its spirit is somewhat compromised, if its purpose really is to be a humane therapy. I feel like there is an illusion to the public that local artists are actually able to make a living without giving up their day jobs, and I feel like I bought into that illusion in ways that may have been harmful to my family and my own mental health. It is difficult to be a fine artist without some sort of dedicated patron, and if you have other mouths to feed, it is even more difficult. So for a city to promote the work of dilletantes is disingenuous. I didn’t *have to* sell my work, although it certainly would have been helpful to recover my material costs since I do not otherwise have an income. It would have been nice to be able to repay my husband for supporting me during that time when I was sacrificing myself for the art world, but when people only value my work at $4/portrait that becomes quite difficult. Someone in the elite class offered me this for 300 portraits, which was mortifying, especially considering how we were already oppressed by her and her husbands’ expensive taste and tight fistedness.
There is a lot of pressure to put oneself out there, essentially providing free entertainment to the community, and getting very little in return. My family grew wary of it fairly early on, although they didn’t want me to stop making art. As a fine artist, there is constant pressure to donate one’s work for auction for charitable causes, too. I was particularly discouraged to see that in early 2020 when the pandemic was bearing down on us, there was still this pressure to give ourselves away for exposure. I was surprised that anyone who lived through the post 2008 art sales slump was eager to “expose” themselves at that time. There’s some myth out there that if you get enough exposure, eventually you’ll make it big, or find a collector or something, and I now recognize it to be a grooming process for martyring oneself in the name of something pretty evil - anarchocapitalism.
|Butterfly, 1999, Colored Pencil on Paper.|
I suppose it’s similar to the reality of being an athlete; even if you’re pretty talented, the chances are that the more people believed in you, the more disappointing it is when you end up just being a regular person like everybody else, still struggling to put bread on the table, when so many provided such eager encouragement. In America we vote with our dollars, and I wasn’t able to market myself enough to get the votes I needed to stay in the “professional artist” world in the context of my health problems. I saw plenty of other commodities get votes when I was whoring myself for art, though, so I am aware that patrons are more likely to use their money to go on vacation than purchase another adornment for a home they are either tired of being in or are only in when they are not at the office.
I am absolutely certain that my experience affected my kids’ feelings about fine art and artists, and probably not in good ways. Perhaps if they had not witnessed their mother martyring herself for the art world, if they had seen some of her work pay off in ways that made their lives better, and if they had not all been poisoned by her media, they might have felt more supportive, too. So yes, I take issue with the idea that “art is cheaper than therapy” and I do not think it is healthy to promote the use of some materials, especially acrylic paints or odorless mineral spirits with children. My own use of toxic media started rather young due to this idea that art is therapeutic for children combined with a desire to educate, and I am pretty sure it has to do with the neurodiversity issues I still experience today when I am exposed to those media. I wish I had realized these things before I enrolled my kids in classes with artists who rely on these media. Those classes didn’t really work out because my son became sick working with the odorless mineral spirits. I didn’t realize that was what happened at the time; both the instructor and I thought it was allergies. My daughter had taken acrylic classes with an artist when she was 7 or 8 and didn’t like the music he played, but I am wondering if she was experiencing sensory issues from the paint, knowing what I know now.
Another artist I met who coordinates an artist group warned me that working with artists is like herding drunken cats. Not just cats. Drunken cats. I had always said that working with homeschoolers was like herding cats, and so now having worked with artists as well, I can say that he was sort of right. And they might actually be kind of drunken! A teacher I met who was trying to reimagine education had spoken with many people and decided maybe society would be better off if we all learned how artists lived and tried that. So I suppose I kind of did that. But I also, I think, kind of learned why people, and especially artists, don’t get along by doing this. I also think she didn’t spend enough time communicating with the art community to see how it was not the utopia she thought. The Van Gogh story is quite interesting because he’s famous for cutting off his ear and potentially having committed suicide (although there is another theory that he was shot accidentally by some children who were playing with a revolver nearby, which is just as disturbing). Going your own way or being difficult to get along with is sort of like metaphorically cutting off your ear. Ghosting people is cutting off your ear. Being curt is cutting off your ear. I read elsewhere that some artists think that Van Gogh wasn’t really a schizophrenic, but that he was just poisoned by his media. Well, I am fairly convinced that schizophrenia and other mental health disorders are often symptoms of poisoning, even in non-artists. After all, the difference between a “brilliant mind” and genius is often just fear. In my experience, most of the artists I met had some sort of neurodiversity or mental health issue, and while like me, those issues probably predated their artistry, I suspect from what I know about the toxicity of certain media, that their art process is probably a contributory factor.
Never gonna fall for modern love. - David Bowie
I recently ran across information from Monona Rossol’s 2001 Arts, Crafts and Theater Safety (ACTS) organization which explained that the nontoxic certification of art supplies ceased that year because of suspected corruption. In that article she proposed that California’s Prop 65 be used by artists to determine the safety of their materials. This is particularly concerning considering this article published in the March 1997 issue of the AAOHN Journal listing all the health risks of working with various materials, including acrylics, which nobody I met in this “art town” considered to be unsafe or felt required personal protective equipment. Generally, people I met in Colorado consider Prop 65 warnings to be tyrannical rather than good advice, so it makes sense that people would be less careful about exposure if we are expected to just use Prop 65 as guidance. In the article it only says acrylics generate trace amounts of formaldehyde, but what I learned from using a formaldehyde meter is that every acrylic product I tested produced unsafe levels of formaldehyde nearby in the air. When I used acrylic, I experienced issues with cognition, panic attacks and pain. I do not think they are safe to use with children or in homes where children are living based on my experience.
Furthermore, the levels of formaldehyde I detected were much higher in fluid acrylics, but still unsafe for me in heavy body acrylics. I recently had a reaction to chalk paint, which is marketed as no-VOC, and I learned that it contains vinyl acetate emulsion (VAE), and that vinyl acetates and ethoxylates are what make paint into paint. If you have been paying attention to news in the United States, then these words might sound vaguely familiar. The February train crash in East Palestine, Ohio contained vinyl chloride which is related, and there are areas considered “sacrifice zones” in the United States where ethylene oxide emissions from manufacturing plants have contributed to cancer epidemics. So my complaints about these things aren’t just me being selfish, they originate in honest concern for everyone in the path of artwork and other products generated using these chemicals. Every time I was exposed to drying paint from another family member’s acrylic work I struggled with those same mental and physical health issues. I did meet two other female artists my age who primarily worked in acrylic who experienced significant health effects (stillbirth and skin lesions) which I believe may be related to their use of acrylic. I do not know how you tell someone that, though, and these women were particularly talented with that medium, so maybe it would be difficult for them to give up. And as we learned from COVID, not everyone wants to have to wear a respirator, either. I happen to like my respirator, but I am also concerned about how the production of my materials affects the workers who make them and the communities where the factories are located, and of course how they affect anyone impacted in the supply chain, even in the transportation of the materials at any point.
Anyway, what an amazing body of work Ms. Rossol has!
One of the goals of art therapy is to help heal the psyche so one can get along better with oneself and others, and I feel like the exposure to toxic materials undermines that effort. So part of my writing the story of my body of work is to show how this happened to me over time, and to caution others. I have heard a lot about inclusivity, but it is not something I was ever impressed with the way it was practiced, because it never considered health or neurodiversity issues, which are central to mental health issues. I feel like my city’s arts program has a responsibility to educate our citizens about informed consent with respect to the arts and materials safety that they may not have considered as an important part of their program. I feel like there were members of our community whose deaths and chronic illnesses may have been prevented if this information was made more widely available, but I also understand that the regulation of materials has been spotty and clear information about what precautions should be used with art materials isn’t always readily available. I think it is the responsibility of any town calling itself an “Arts Center.” Furthermore, from what I learned reading Casarett and Doull’s Toxicology, I think this awareness would help prevent the development of alcoholism in our community, because alcohol can block some of the side effects of other volatile compounds, and I think the body intuitively knows this. I think this underlying intuitive desire to drink alcohol to protect oneself from aldehydes and other VOCs is why artists often have issues with addiction. Cannabis may provide additional protection, despite the aldehydes in the smoke. Furthermore, the chronic pain and attention issues these materials can cause put artists at risk of both opioid and methamphetamine addiction, and this geographical area is an area where those things are a significant problem. We have also been in the grips of a major suicide epidemic.
|Nan Goldin is Super Woman! Respect! We are fighting the same fight!|
To not educate art students about these things is a great oversight. As a scientist, I had OSHA training, but it was focused on the risks I would encounter in the course of my scientific research. I think art students need the same training in order to prevent them from harming themselves and others with their work, and I know because my daughter was an art major for a little bit that this is not discussed even with people desiring to dedicate their careers to art.
On a more personal level, I was disappointed by the way the art community continued to push forth social engagements early in the pandemic. I never felt like there was consideration for health or the spread of disease by that part of our community, and it made me feel like I couldn’t trust people, or at the very least that that part of my community was led by people with the misguided notion that encouraging social mixing rather than online sharing was a socially responsible recommendation. It was particularly disturbing to see that people I once trusted who had chronic health issues were so eager to sell out, or perhaps how many of them were conservative- and/or capitalist-minded and worst, potentially science deniers, or were people who would manipulate the interpretation of science in a way that hurt large groups of already marginalized people. I had given a lot of my time to that community, too, just to learn that they generally believe personal protective equipment is unnecessary for either contagion or working with dangerous media. Why any of the people I knew chose to enable that consumptive form of economic posturing by conservatives when lives were at stake I will never understand. But let’s just say I lost my faith in them to light any sort of path to consciousness, and I am going to have to see some major changes before I entertain participation in any of their risky games.
Our entertainment is never more important than others’ lives, even if the IRS sanctions it.
If I have learned anything at all, it is that grace is an elevated form of consciousness, and while I wish to be graceful, that’s not always how things come out. Especially when I have been poisoned or perceive that I have been manipulated. The best way to protect oneself from these things is distance. I am trying to distance myself from a poisonous, manipulative culture that threatens my mental wellbeing, and I am disturbed that I am surrounded by it. But I cannot discern, because of the toxic effects on my own cognition and health, the difference between ditziness and maliciousness, and it is not my place to excuse it in either myself or others. I wish to hold myself and others to a higher standard, because that is the only way things change. And why would I support behavior that is at the root of mental health issues, in an area where the suicide rate is so high? According to the CDC, in Colorado it is twice that of California where they take poison seriously! Why would we encourage behavior that leads people to feel anxious, confused, depressed or needy when we could encourage and show people how to create independently and reliably for themselves which is sufficient for mental health? I could not live with myself if I knew I was potentially making people sick with my choices, and I am not sure how other people can.
With respect to being able to operate interdependently, we recently watched the documentary about the Mars Rovers and I am so impressed with how well the teams persevered, but also how absolutely awful the Mars climate is. In Colorado, the changing of the seasons is a major force to be reckoned with, especially in terms of growing things. I can’t imagine what it’s like in Canada and other places closer to the poles. Mars just doesn’t look that hospitable for life from my viewpoint. We complain about the Earth, but we haven’t let technology take us to the kind of desolation that would merit considering Mars or the Moon a better place to live. Thank goodness. I think we need to at the very least have a successful biosphere experiment here on earth. The way it is looking, a bunch of us are going to get left behind while the Darwinists head off leaving us in their trail of jet fuel. I just don’t understand why we can’t collaborate on making this place better to live in the way the people at NASA collaborated to explore Mars. Is it because living with so much unaddressed poison makes us mentally ill, compulsive, perpetually lonely, self-serving, and unable to conceive of a way to get along without currency, meritocracy, and moats? To me, saving the Earth seems like an easier mission, but I think to do that we need to move away from this insane mindset that the show must always go on, and that life is a show, and that heroes throw themselves on toxic fires in the interest of keeping the show going.
|Daddy Said The Perfect Is The Enemy of The Good, 2018, 3-D Print and Manufactured Plastic. Collaboration with L. Lewark.|
It could be argued that there is simply too much hatred and violence here to save this place. In that case, I think we need to understand the origins of it so we do not take it into space with us. We need to understand what causes a billionaire business owner to fire employees of an important public communications platform when he is jealous that more people saw a world leader’s tweet. I am concerned that what is currently driving the space program is actually a xenophobic desire to escape people we think are “stupid,” especially because we continued the push during a pandemic, and that we will take this xenophobia into space with us if we do not learn what causes it, and in the process bring a war like we have never seen before upon ourselves while we are unprepared.
Last week I feel like the theme in the collective kind of became “how do you graciously communicate with people who are new to your perspective?” I also got a clear message about dealing with “humorless intellectuals” and also how we all need to learn how to take criticism more graciously. This is something we need to understand. We need to understand how to make first contact or we may bring death upon ourselves. We need to learn to have humility, and we have not yet conquered our population-wide Dunning Kruger. We have to understand that as it is, we are sending ambassadors into space from a planet where the dominant species hates and poisons itself and others, and spends a fair amount of time arguing to protect its access to poison, and that a more advanced species is going to know how to leverage that against us so we just wipe ourselves out. We continuously demonstrate how short-sighted we are. We are not ready for prime time in space. No way. Our politics is a window to our dysfunction; our leaders are too proud to admit their own faults in order to build bridges for each other or for the people they represent.
|Just for you, Mr. Cerny. To all the Fucking Years and… “Freedom.”|
Working en plein air was an interesting experience for me because the local group I painted with was so friendly and positive. Tired moms can be grumpy (newsflash!) which is something I sometimes had to deal with in the homeschooling community, so the change was noticeable to me, hanging out with mostly retired people. It was easy to want to run out and paint the beautiful areas near my home with these interesting people, but I was not as driven to try to catch the first morning’s light or paint in the snow, and I think that’s because I knew that pushing myself too hard risked the energy I had for the things I did not have a choice about in my life. I did have an experience where I got sun poisoning after painting at mid-day, even though I have an umbrella and wore a hat and all that. Anyway, I was laid up after that, and I had some cognitive issues in the week after that. I haven’t been able to tell if chemical exposure affects erythropoetic protoporphyria, which I carry, like it does other types, but I think I have experienced reactions from being outside for too long on quite a few occasions.
One aspect of plein air that I enjoyed learning about is all of the ways different artists put together portable outdoor studios. It is pretty satisfying to be able to have a studio in a backpack and be able to capture any transcendental moment. It is a very healing mindspace to be in. But for me, it wasn’t the solution to my mental health problems, and it wasn’t the solution for Van Gogh’s, either! Nonetheless, it got me thinking about making my art portable and doable, and specifically about the benefits of connecting with the moment and with myself through art, even if I must do it indoors.
I suppose I sort of went to a village art academy. I guess at one point there was an art academy of sorts in this town which had regular figure drawing sessions, and there have been various other attempts at creating adult learning cooperatives in the arts here. There were several regular nude drawing studios hosted by local artists, which were only known by word of mouth. At the time I was participating in the plein air group, I was also regularly practicing figure drawing with a nearby group of well-respected artists. It was fairly easy for me to slide into these activities as a student because I had so much formal training when I was young, but I admit it was intimidating to be working alongside people who were able to make their living as artists. These people often were respected teachers, and that was the real story of how they were able to survive as artists. I thought of these people as my friends, and I learned a lot from them. I am very thankful for those experiences, even though I have had to part from that lifestyle for health and mental health reasons.
|They say people with schizophrenia see eyes on everything and hear voices. I can’t imagine what it would be like to have no internal dialogue. Is that what it’s like to be a lonely material girl? Credit L. Lewark|
I feel like I probably invested a lot more than what was necessary to be successful as an artist, but sometimes learning is like that, I guess. It is not like there weren’t money-making opportunities; I just don’t know if they were the right fit for me. I was solicited by several community members to teach, but I did not have the energy for that at the time. It was also suggested by a woman artist I met that I might go into scientific illustration, and I had someone ask me to illustrate a children’s book. The person who approached me about doing the children’s book wanted all the artwork up front, and then wanted to split the profits from the sale of the book in half. It was another argument for exposure. At the time I was trying to keep a gallery happy, and that meant a lot of time and investment in each piece I made. I had a lot of investment overall and wasn’t getting much financial return on it. That is still true. On top of trying to maintain my own art practice, I also volunteered as the newsletter and social media outreach person for two well established art organizations, and also helped plan and run shows.
But in any case, when I was asked to illustrate a children’s book, I was concerned about getting into a situation where I was not able to translate this person’s visions into art to their satisfaction, and wasn’t sure how to protect myself as an artist, so I asked another artist who had illustrated children’s books at my gallery, who recommended a contract which specifically laid out how many pieces were needed and included some starting money. Later I learned there are organizations which have come up with fair prices and arrangements for this and other types of creative work and guidebooks to help artists from being exploited (much like there are guidebooks regarding the safety of materials written by Ms. Rossol). Some of these organizations even suggest putting limits on how often things can be reworked. I really was concerned about having to do a lot of rework and not being able to paint what I wanted, because after all, the whole thing started out innocently enough with me wanting to paint for my mental health. Like many things that get ruined by capitalism, I feel my art was ruined by capitalism, and that I am fighting to retain my enjoyment of it while being forced to commodify.
|I had no intent to commodify myself. I was simply responding to a request for mothers to “get out from behind the camera.” I actually like it behind the camera.|
Before I got back into private art lessons in my late 30s, I used to make art as gifts for people because it was my love language. Once in private art lessons as an adult, however, I was advised by several people not to give away my work, and also not to undervalue it. I have never been a miserly person, but I feel that art turned me into a duplicitous miser. I even charged my family members for art... I cannot even begin to describe the amount of work that goes into getting a piece ready for a gallery, and then promoting it, or the amount of anxiety that leads to a person charging their own mother and sister for their work… the very people who drove me to the art lessons which helped me get to where I am now. So it’s relevant that I was advised not to think too hard about how much work and money each square inch of painting represented, because it would be depressing.
Fortunately, I took art history and learned that great art is really about self-expression and capturing the human experience in a way that other people can identify with, and that helped me separate my enjoyment of my own work from its marketability. It was at this point I stopped trying to participate in the local show cycle. Art is also a way to send messages about injustice. So now, when I make art, it is art for art’s sake, but I put a price on it which reflects what I need to actually be able to put food on the table and also in the portion given to charity what I hope the purchaser will realize I wish I could do with money if I had the money they have. If I have no choice but to play this capitalist game, I might as well use my pricing structure to make art, too. Besides being advised not to give my art away, one of my more recent mentors also reminded me that everything has its price. This was in the context of putting art I wanted to keep for myself because of its meaning in shows. So I have built on that philosophy, and my prices also reflect the amount of risk I felt with each as an artist within the capitalist system either for the ideologies I put forth in my work or the way I used the work to question classism and meritocracy in the United States and the broader world, or the way I felt it made me compromise my private thought to create it. Each one of my pieces is a record of my experiences in time with the process of learning and making art, as well as the process of learning about myself. My art is the story of my own dialogue with the collective unconscious, my family and my community. When I look at my art, it reminds me of all the context that went into its creation, beyond what other viewers might see. It is a phenomenological record which serves as a memory aid for me. Truth be told, if I actually sold my art, I would probably miss it, because each piece is unique, purposefully not exactly reproducible, and impregnated with my memory.
Some of what inspired my approach to trying to make my art not reproducible was that my husband and his business partner considered making a machine that could copy any artwork at the time I was really involved in the art community. Yes, there were engineers dreaming up threats to human creativity from machine intelligence even back in 2013. I thought the idea was kind of sick and twisted, although I did go through the process of offering giclee prints of some of my work, which similarly accomplishes some dehumanization and commodification of my work. I guess the thing that rubbed me wrong was that I had no way of expressing to them the mental health benefits of the process to the artist, and it saddened me to think they would want to automate something so inherently and historically human, something that represents the proof of a human’s existence. However, through the process of trying to make accurate giclee representations of my work, I realized it would be quite difficult to make a machine that could imitate any artist’s style, as that is kind of like a fingerprint, but additionally it would be difficult because groundbreaking art is an exploration of the possible alchemical properties of different materials but also the magic of process, and machination would have significant limitations in this regard. If there is ever a machine invented that could accurately reproduce my entire body of work, I would be surprised, because my explorations are predicated on breaking rules with materials in order to achieve results that would be difficult to capture with a camera, but also to make a commentary on sustainability and mental health. That also makes it difficult to show all the attributes of my work with photography, and makes it difficult to market online. So my relationship with capitalism is naturally frustrated as my inherent sense of self worth is at odds with commodification but fed by exploration.
|Just like that river twisting through the dusty land, 2017|
Initially when I had a piece I wanted to reproduce, it was quite large and so I took it to a local framer who also was a photographer who offered reproduction and print services. The initial digital capture was very expensive. I had this person do several pieces for me and then realized it wasn’t going to be sustainable. This place did happen to have a business location that was not in a residential area, and so probably a lot of what I was paying for was the rent and also employees. I asked one of the other artists in the area who I met who makes most of her money off reproductions of her work, and she introduced me to someone who ran a reproduction service out of their home for many years. I used that person’s services until they moved across the country and then since I was also into photography, which is not something I generally talk about in the context of my life as an artist, but which is probably important, I figured out how to do good color-corrected reproductions of my own work. It was a good deal of effort, and it is not the part of the art process that I enjoy. That being said, good digital captures of work is important in this day and age to demonstrate an effort to participate in capitalism to the IRS. So, I still do that, sort of, although I do not intend to provide print reproductions of my work, and I don’t care to number them. I’d rather commodify my images onto useful objects if I am forced to share them with a wider audience because of authentic demand, and let the originals be originals. I’ll do numbered prints if I get into lithography or something, because the intent of that is to generate multiple copies. But the way I do art, it’s not currently toward that end, and for my own mental and physical health, without a team of people working to bring my art to the public, that’s the way I need it to stay.
Some time before I started taking lessons again as an adult, I had found a blog post by Noah Bradley about how to train oneself in the arts without going to art school, and I suppose maybe I was investigating some of those possibilities. Getting so involved in the arts community took a lot of my time, and I kind of burnt out around the time I started driving my son to community college twice a week in another town. I still kept a finger on the pulse of what was going on in the local arts community and kept in touch with my mentors. I did take some art-related classes while I was out in Greeley which changed my approach to art, including sculpture, modern art history, and 3D printing. Still I was concerned about keeping up my 2D art production, but I was often tired from running around when I was finally at home, so I had to develop something portable I could keep in a bag in case inspiration struck while I was away from home.
One of the things I learned through plein air workshops is that some artists like to work with limited palettes, and that they develop their own limited palettes which influence the character of their work significantly. When I was taking art as a child, we spent a lot of time on color theory and my teacher did not allow the use of straight black pigment in our work, (unless we were doing value studies). So I got very good at matching color, only using red, yellow, blue, white and brown as a child. This is all to say that while I was on the road when my kids were in community college, I carried a very small setup including some graphite pencils, three Inktense pencils in cyan, magenta and yellow, a black fineliner marker, a waterbrush, and a small square hot-pressed watercolor pad. I carried the first piece of art I started using that process around with me for quite some time because my intention to work on it was often derailed by networking while I waited on campus for my son to complete his classes. Yes, let’s call it networking… LOL, but not for the purpose of taxes. I did not claim my coffees as business expenses, FWIW, because I thought I was just making friends. In any case, once I pushed through and completed my first piece using this process, this became my preferred way of making art even when I returned to my studio for a few years.
|Saint Rabbit, 2019, Inktense and gold leaf on paper mounted to stained cradleboard.|
Once I began staying at home more in 2019, I became interested in using larger supports for these little square Inktense paintings. Like many other artists I knew, I had started out in my adult life studying watercolor, and then transitioned to pastel (some people made this transition through recovering bad watercolors by making them mixed media) but the framing expenses made that unsustainable. I found ways to reduce those expenses as noted earlier, but that involved getting the materials to frame my own work wholesale. I knew other artists who would find thrift shop frames. The only “rules” the galleries really had was that they wanted the frames to go well with the work, not have any scratches or dents, and have a wire rather than a sawtooth hanger. So choosing Inktense, which is permanent, has a higher colorfastness and is more brilliant than watercolor, allowed me to experiment with sealing my paintings with UV protective lacquer (using a respirator outside) rather than having to pay for expensive museum glass. But you know what? When my neighbors do projects like this outside and it drifts into my home if I have the windows open, it makes me sick, so now I don’t like to use things like that, and I plan to find safer alternatives.
Another important mistake I made was investing in museum-quality materials for my initial works and reproductions at a substantial cost that was unnecessary, and I had to develop a less expensive way of pleasing galleries if I was ever going to participate again in that manner, unless the galleries loosened up a bit. Some of my work pokes fun at these ridiculous requirements in light of famous artists whose work would not conform, and so I am taking pages from their playbooks. Anyway, despite the fact I said there were minimal “rules” around art presentation, those few but somewhat traditional values about work presentation make it difficult to imagine how work such as Robert Rauschenberg’s would be received by them, so eventually my work incorporated more assemblage in that spirit. Some artists were incredibly poor and couldn’t afford, time- or money-wise to change out the sawtooth hanger, and relaxing their expectations would have been helpful on a number of levels, including exposing the community to work opportunities without such a high economic and environmental barrier to entry.
With regard to materialism’s effect on my work, I had a struggle early on developing a reliable at home practice due to lack of inspiration because I felt like I was surrounded by stuff I didn’t want, and definitely didn’t want to reproduce in my art. Over the holidays, I felt like the stuff poured into my house at an alarming rate, and that much of it represented the unfair commodification of real human lives. There were a few people in my family who tried to find sustainable gifts either handmade or fair trade, and perhaps not ironically, they were the people who had worked in humanitarian professions like teaching and healthcare. My daughter is currently an art major and shared with us recently that she has sniffed out the subtly capitalist sorting hat that is being implemented in her design class. I had suspected that folks who were channeled into design had different priorities than those who went into other fields of art. Anyway, the problem of inspiration was fixed by leaving my home to do plein air and figurative work, and now that I have worked through a lot of our unwanted possessions, I don’t have trouble generating ideas. While somewhat difficult to sell and riddled with practical problems related to painting with others in enclosed spaces or outside, both figurative and plein air work were great ways for me to learn the ins and outs of the artist and gallery world and also develop a nice decor in my home which brought the outside areas I love so much into my home. I wish the experience had been safer for my health, though.
Ultimately, the problem I ran into in the art world is that the galleries which were supposedly in existence to support budding artists still have significant pressure to sell, because they have to feed patrons and pay the rent. That unfortunately makes art in this country less about encouraging self expression and good mental health, and more about supporting capitalism. Furthermore, our paintings were placed alongside photography in our community gallery, and in that particular context I think that made for a hyper realistic expectation for artists’ painting abilities subconsciously in the minds of all of us looking at that juxtaposition. Very few artists’ paintings sold during the period I was involved in local galleries; what did sell was photography, prints, cards and pottery, and not in enough quantity to pay the rent on the spaces the organizations I ended up working with had access to. My gallery experience is why my husband used to say that to choose to be a fine artist was to make a conscious choice to starve, and I wonder if that maybe was the subconscious reason behind his motivation to make a machine to replace me. That was a rather discouraging place to be in my head, even though I had won many awards. It is one thing to be appreciated by your artist peers, and yet another to be able to sell your work, and even my artist peers know this. I didn’t really care to see any of my old friends as potential customers, but was nonetheless grateful when they came out to support my work. Well, grateful, but I also felt frustrated because there was a lot of pressure on me from the galleries to advertise to them and have them submit to further advertising from the galleries. This was actually one of the more unpleasant surprises, because one would hope that a gallery would support an artist in bringing them an audience and not putting pressure on them to come with one or convert their community support structure into a customer base. Yeah, that made me feel really icky. Art that is for mental health should not leave the artist feeling icky.
|Aquarian Projections, 2018, Digital Art.|
Before I converted our basement into my studio, I used to have my computer up in the office with the rest of the family, because we were homeschooling. We had a sort of command center there, where the kids and I would hang out when we weren’t on field trips, hikes, the library or friends’ houses. My kids got to do whatever they wanted, and they generally chose to spend time with us and on their computers. As children, my husband had been used as unpaid labor by his stepfather and I had been coerced quite a bit with structure and heavy surveillance, so we were trying to protect our kids from those forms of thought control because we were certain that thought control was a big reason we struggled with happiness. So while we were home, our kids grew up playing Minecraft online with their local friends, and then also contributing to the Scratch Community at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Sometimes we would listen to podcasts or audiobooks. Of course when they were young I read them quite a few books.
During this time I was doing a lot of volunteer work online in forums, where I made quite a few friends from around the world. I also did my accounting in the office we shared. My husband did his engineering consulting work from the same office. The kids and I had to evacuate for meetings or if he needed to focus intently on a project, which was often enough. He was on call and fielded a lot of questions everyday. The questions often started around 5 AM our time and ended in the evening, but he had a big chunk of the middle of the day when our clients were sleeping where he didn’t have to worry about being available for work. I guess he kind of worked a morning shift and an evening shift, and that probably explains his sleeping habits. He also did some gaming, with and without the kids. The effect of having his day bookended the way it was, his work was always on his mind, and he was essentially on call all the time, so we were really making the most of a not great situation. If our kids had been enrolled in school, he would have had difficulty connecting with them while working for our Asian client. I feel like most people are trying to make the best of not great situations, but our reality was a little different and unpredictable. We could have probably had a more time-zone corrected life if we had agreed to move across the world to work for our clients, which was an option presented to us which would have required us to give up what support we had and also freedoms we enjoy in this country. What they did not understand at the time is that we weren’t homeschooling specifically because American schools are messed up; we were homeschooling because educational pedagogy is messed up everywhere, but luckily we had the freedom to homeschool here. There are still many places homeschooling is illegal, because the state needs to be assured its members do not challenge its authority, or at least if they do, it is done through the proper channels.
One audio book we listened to as a couple was The Second Machine Age, by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, two economists who say that in the future because of automation there will not be enough work opportunities for our population. They estimate that there will be some growing pains as people figure out how to spend their time, and as our governments figure out how to deal with businesses providing fewer work opportunities. Right now, something that is fairly clear about the tech industry is that they continuously overspeculate on vision and market and that keeps us beholden to these boom-bust cycles which rock our communities. I wonder if that might change if those leaders were capable of being more aware of what is around the bend. To weather their borderline behavior, it has become necessary to participate in numerous efforts to “batten down the hatches.” But anyway, part of that effort is training people how to entertain themselves, because a lot of living sustainably amounts to identifying sustainable ways to pass the time and still feel fulfilled when one is deemed “not useful.” The economists predict that not everyone will be able to work in the future; it will be a privilege for people who earn it. Will I be one of those people? I don’t know. I have sort of made it my business to figure out how to keep myself busy without disrupting others and being mindful of how I use others’ attention, and perhaps we will need people who are paid to demonstrate such examples.
Some of what I have learned in the process is how to do sustainable work and survive in a harsh climate, which is something we need to learn on a population scale before we can go to space, too; it will not be inert desk workers who colonize it, no matter how many machines are brought along. We will simply not have the energetic excess to support something like Wall Street on Mars, for a very long time. There simply will not be enough resources to support unwieldy corporate structures on Mars, not for a long time. Anything one can do by oneself is more sustainable than that which relies upon systems; the rest of us could help both the effort to save Earth and the one to colonize Mars by imagining how we might live more peacefully and sustainably and making a sincere effort trying to do it. So I’ve been trying to help us be more autonomous and less consumptive. Yes, some of it did grow out of the need to be frugal, even though I am surrounded by people making various inspiring efforts to live more sustainably.
|A love note for the world, from Lloyd Dobler and Pete Seeger.|
When I returned to my home studio in 2019 from taking community college classes and began a regular practice of making art in it, the first thing I did was figure out how to mount my Inktense works on cradleboard and seal them with the UV lacquer I mentioned. Additionally, I have always liked sparkly things, so I learned how to gild my works with gold leaf. It is not easy to reproduce gilded works with regular printing techniques. In the sculpture class I took, there was a subtle focus on environmentalism in the curriculum, and I have been thinking about the potentially negative effects of valuing archival quality in art on the environment more than I used to because of it. But also the instructor laughed at me when I said I was concerned about archival work in painting, because… well… iron and stone. LOL. It’s like talking to someone about trying to make your tissue paper last forever when they are trying to figure out what to do with their body of work that will persist well past an event horizon. Then, because of my chemical sensitivity, I happen to need to use materials that do not put my health at risk, and coincidentally those are the things that are also more environmentally friendly, so the class rehabilitated my process just the way I needed right when I needed it. So my process has since been evolving to use up the materials I have, and then I anticipate it will continue to evolve to use more of a transcendental process.
I have not lost my mind so much that I think everything I create needs to have a purpose. I think that’s probably a risk of delving into sustainability and design ideology and having limited resources, and that it can remove a lot of humanity from the creative process.
Sometimes I got irritated with my family members because they interrupted my work, and I felt conflicted about asking for space because I don’t like turning them away, but I have yet to be paid for what I do which adds to my feeling of urgency, and also my confusion. And it’s not their fault I haven’t been successful. My husband is after all the person who was able to sell his intellect to free me to pursue my purpose, and for my mental health I do need a fair amount of connection with him, but also with myself. So of course it would be advantageous if we were working toward a similar goal, and if we were similarly disciplined in those approaches. Our working styles are different, though, and so are some of our hobbies. His hobby is gaming, and he doesn’t have difficulty making time for that, whereas for me, the things I enjoy doing are things I was once educated to do and which I was encouraged to pursue professionally, so there are layers of extra dark psychology for me to process when I do the things I do which are also “fun.”
Also, I think sometimes because crafting makes something in the physical world, that its overhead with respect to time and cost sometimes keeps me from following through. In the end, if something doesn’t sell (and I haven’t sold a lot), I am going to either have to curate or destroy it. I generally don’t like to destroy things, and it made me uncomfortable to hear that artists often throw away work they don’t like. I try to find ways to salvage even that, perhaps because my grandmother grew up during the Great Depression, and so my mother does the same. I feel like large items and three-dimensional art without functional purpose is kind of a luxury to possess in that regard, so whatever I make now is a pretty big life investment. So much of my existence involves management of the economics of our space, and so that necessarily affects the kind of art I am privileged to make. I don’t have a staff to help me handle inventory, a shipping person, a cleaning lady, an executive assistant, an agent, a marketing person, or so many of the privileges artists who have become successful often have. That stuff kind of hurts my brain. These are all things I have done in smaller capacities in my academic and paid professional lives, but I am only one person, and my priorities have to be to be true to my children and my community, not to become famous. It is unfortunate that capitalism puts us at odds with ourselves like this.
|Three Ring Circus: An Illuminati Production, NFT, $333,000USD, $300KUSD to my new agent/manager/chef/laundress.|
I can crank out creations like nobody’s business, but to stay in that mode I would really need someone else, like a manager or agent to deal with what I produce. I think maybe then I wouldn’t be so overwhelmed by my own creations. To be honest, even though I put forth effort to sell, I was rather attached to my original works, and that is why I offered prints. I had been out of the art world for so long that I was surprised at the level of work I could create after so much time. I guess that is a testament to my childhood teacher’s processes. That being said, my husband doesn’t consider himself a salesperson, and like me, he also has trouble getting his myriad ideas into physical form because he also gets frustrated with practical limitations, so he is not about to solve the great problem of what to do with my body of work, either. He has experience in the manufacturing world, however, so it’s not so much a matter of not knowing what to do, but being realistically overwhelmed by the knowledge of the effort it will really take and desiring not to destroy our enjoyable lives by being a big eyed production monster.
This doesn’t seem like rocket science.
I have met lots of people over the years in Colorado who either identified as Democrat or Republican, but I think underneath it all, no matter what they felt they needed to check on their voter registration, they were largely anarchocapitalist. I would definitely argue this about some of the Libertarians, too. This is really not a good thing, because what causes systems to fail is the inability to provide mutual aid. In anarchocapitalism, there is a belief that capitalist systems are better than governmental social systems, and there is a focus privatization of property and avoidance of taxation. Regardless of the demographics of the current voting population, this is the exact thoughtform that is creating the greedy hamsters in our society. On the right and the left, there are strong beliefs about how social aid should be managed, and the thing they have in common is the belief that it should be outsourced to either a nonprofit corporation (Republicans) or the government (Democrats). The belief that we should help our neighbor is not one that is held or acted upon by most people. I do see how these beliefs protect us from being exploited. However, I think that if we had a basic (some people are arguing for “thriving” instead) minimum wage, there would be less of a need to argue over who needs to help those who are non-producers, and everyone would be free to work or not as they desire and their bodies and minds require. Some people will not be able to garden and other people will not be able to work on their own cars, and it does not make those people worth less. But living in a society where we are basically alternately abandoned and exploited by greedy overlords is certainly not doing us any favors in the mental health department overall, so it would be good if they might consider how their inventions were on some level energetic black holes for society and do something to pay the rest of their human community restitution.
Despite the gesticulating from the corporate types like Musk about our need to “get back to work,” I am pretty sure even they believe there are such things as “bullshit jobs.” I don’t think they want to have employees who do bullshit jobs. But they kind of end up having those employees because their visions get larger than their attention can manage, and also because having more employees gives stockholders the illusion of productivity. However, kind of like when playing Fallout or The Sims, once it gets too complicated, parts of their creations can become idle and break because the human capacity for attention is limited. If we are going to have an oligarchy run by self-proclaimed Gods, it would be nice if they could at least be benevolent and mindful and not so prone to verbal and physical violence. It would be nice if they could educate themselves about financial abuse in relationships and how their decision making and behavior encourages this kind of abuse in society. Their hypocrisy is simply not sustainable or humane.
|Twilight of the Foxes, 2018, Gouache on paper.|
Instead, we are left with a situation where our streets are filled with homeless people and these billionaires’ bloated bank accounts enable them to buy up more of the resources we tried to make to support ourselves to squeeze more money out of others of us. I think, by definition, over a certain amount of income, and especially over a certain amount of tax dodging, one is no longer a member of this republic, but an anarchocapitalist. I would argue that every billionaire is an anarchocapitalist, subconsciously interested in swallowing up and privatizing as many resources as possible in order to rule with their own dynasties.
So, my art helps me think about all these things.
It is also a way for me to work out my frustrations, which have been plenty. I suppose that after working through those cradleboard pieces in my studio, I was eager to take advantage of the ability to make bigger pieces, since I was working in my studio, finally. Some of what determined my process was what supports I had lying around. I had the 8” x 8” cradleboard pieces because I had several left over from an attempt I had made to satisfy our local Art Association’s request for 8” x 8” pieces. I also had materials that would work as supports in my garage, including some leftover Hardibacker on which I used encaustic to experiment with encaustic and color field work.
Before working on the large piece of Hardibacker, I experimented on a smaller piece of Masonite, but the results aren’t worth sharing. I’m only mentioning it because I used that to warm up and practice the technique of accretion, which is where a dry brush is used to gradually increase the numbers of layers of pigmented wax, creating a dithered look, which was interesting on the textured side of masonite. In both my test piece and the Hardibacker piece, I used oil stick and layers of encaustic wax to make a color field. In both pieces, I explored the use of mica powders to create shimmering effects. I played around quite a bit with mica powders, because I saw how they create a visual allure which is difficult to capture on camera, and this helped me achieve works that would be difficult to reproduce with conventional reproduction techniques. I found that meditating on that piece was a bit like watching a television, with the way the subtle pigment variations interacted with the blood cells in the vessels behind my retina, so I called that piece The Universal Television. It now hangs over my fireplace.
|Universal Television, 2019, Encaustic and oil stick on Hardibacker.|
When I was doing this experimentation, I felt creative and free, much like I did when I was a little girl and I would make potions with things from the bathroom and kitchen. I think it’s the same feeling of freedom some people get from cooking, but because I was constantly otherwise doing the sort of work which leaves no permanent memory, I craved having that feeling while working on something that might outlast me, using a process where I had some degree of control over when the results were needed. I have often been under time pressure for things that I might have enjoyed more if they had been on a more sustainable time schedule. This is actually a big reason I decided not to work within the confines of a class or gallery schedules anymore. If I learned anything important from taking art history, it was that the most successful artists see the world with a childlike sense of wonder, and bring that into their process. So my challenge as an artist has largely been to turn all the fundamental skills I have learned into something that helps me play and express my feeling freely in ways I couldn’t when I was trying to kowtow to adult desires.
In other words, I learned the rules in order to intelligently break them. To intelligently break them, however, meant understanding something about physics and materials. Since I have a background in science, that was potentially easier for me than it might otherwise have been. And of course many of the “rules” have to do with archival qualities, which means as an artist I have to decide where my values with respect to leaving my mark on the environment ultimately are. When I was oil painting, I wanted to use the most archival materials, but then when I moved to watercolor I realized that fighting entropy was probably not sustainable. Now I don’t really worry about things being archival quality, because I think there are important works that are transcendental, and also some works interact with and are changed by their environments in the process of aging. Bronze works, for example, change color as they are weathered by the outdoor elements and being handled by viewers. Unless it’s transcendental or fully biodegradable, I think it makes sense to make my work to last a few lifetimes, but not too many.
At this time, I also had materials left over from making a few 2’ x 4’ cradled mountings with masonite. On one, I had made an assemblage for my community college art class about nature and technology, and on another my daughter and I made a Rube Goldberg machine for a different assignment. I had one more panel, so I decided to dedicate it to an encaustic piece on body image.
In years prior, I had gone on a photo shoot with another member of our figure drawing group at a local privately-owned sculpture park with one of our regular nude models. I was actually pretty into photography from having taken pictures of my family and was eager to test my chops with a human in nature. I had a digital SLR with multiple lenses and liked to work with fixed focal length lenses because I could not afford the better glass on the multifocal ones. For years, I didn’t know what to do with the photos, and I did not feel like I could edit them when the kids were around. My artist friends seemed curious about what I would make of those photos, but unfortunately it took me a long time to get around to editing them because of my concern about what my kids would think. The photos weren’t pornographic in nature, and in fact the kids had even seen drawings I did of this model, but there was something about photography that made me less comfortable pouring over the images. I do have a daughter after all, and I was learning about the etiquette regarding avoiding exploitation and modeling myself through this process. I feel like I have learned that if someone finds out your real identity when you are a model, that your security can be at risk, even if the person taking your photos is honest and considerate. So I am glad I did not dive head first into editing those photos or even modeling myself, because there are sharks in those waters.
While my family was up in the mountains at a retreat without me, I was finally free to go through the photos and find one to incorporate with a collage that was a meditation on body image and self worth.
|Ophelia, 2019, Encaustic on panel.|
It is only possible to work with encaustic seasonally because ventilation is required. I made Ophelia in September, so after that I moved on to working with acrylic, which I did by trying to translate my CMYK approach to transparent fluid acrylics, which I assumed was safer to do indoors without ventilation. Oops! What a lesson I would learn about how my neurodiversity issues were affected by acrylic paint in the late Winter and Spring of 2020 while working with fluid acrylics! While doing all of the work in my studio from 2019 onward, I used the Tarot for all my decision-making, and I got my ideas from the world around me, including my interactions with the collective through technology. So the work is actually a record of my supernatural and spiritual experiences during that time, which included a “dialogue” involving my musicophilia. That’s why the titles of my written and artistic works often involve song lyrics or titles. As I worked, I often found deeper meanings in the songs that played in my head or streamed from my computer, much like Wassily Kandinsky.
My first acrylic experiments were small, and then I scaled those up. I did not really start noticing cognitive effects from working with acrylic until I worked with large quantities, but that doesn’t mean that they weren’t there. They may have just been too subtle for my self awareness at the time. That self awareness is something I am always having to work on, after all, and a certain amount of my self awareness simply wasn’t there before this journey. My symptoms were also worsened by exposure to our 3D printer, especially when using ABS. I’m going to say “especially” there, because I am still sensitive to other plastics we have used.
Before this journey, I did not connect feeling flustered, angry or anxious to the inability to find words, but it absolutely was in my case. Being able to wait or calmly reply to requests and criticism is something that is a lot easier when one is not suffering from chemically-induced language issues. If I had developed this self awareness outside of the context of controlled chemical exposures, I do not know if I would have become aware of that causation, but that is absolutely what it is, and I am fairly certain it could be tested and replicated in other people with aphasia.
Among the more interesting experiments I did making use of transparent applications of acrylic pigment were playing with charcoal grisaille underpainting, and also creating patina effects on wood. I did these after treating a 3D sculpture I made with a patina I intended to look like the night sky. I tried using different methods for applying acrylic paint like dry brushing and using sheets of plastic bag to do sort of a monotype print application, and was able to produce some visually exciting effects with my experiments.
|What Would Jung Do?, 2019, Acrylic|
Ultimately, when I figured out the acrylic was making me sick, I retired all these works to the garage until they were done offgassing, and then some of them I worked on more with other safe water-based media, including shimmering watercolor, markers, and finally a “paint” I made with school glue, water and mica powder. It turns out school glue still has volatile compounds detectable by meters, but not in the quantities I experienced from other materials. I am still sensitive to it, but not in the quantities I use. I think it is probably safe enough to use in classrooms the way it is usually used, but maybe not pouring large quantities of it, like I did in one experiment. The thing about toxicology is that the dose makes the poison. I have some clear school glue and that was one of the most volatile compounds I opened in my studio after getting my meters. Just opening the bottle and waving it in front of the sensor gave me symptoms. I am particularly sensitive. I do not think it is safe for use with neurodiverse populations, even in small quantities, and personally would not let neurotypical children use it either, which is kind of a big deal because it is used in slime recipes.
My first experiments with my school glue “paint” were abstract, and I used it in combination with marker and squirted ink to create a Pollock-inspired painting, which is interesting at different distances. I do like to riff on famous artists’ techniques! After all, art is a dialogue, just as much as science is. Anyway, these works are all part of a series I call the “Paste Eater” series as an homage to other people with neurodiversity issues who have had to deal with the stigma of not being able to keep up with the pace of capitalism. I did eat some paste in kindergarten, and sometimes I liked to paint my palms with school glue, roll it up and then eat it. So I come by the “Paste Eater” moniker honestly, even though I was a good student.
I did try painting a still life using this “paint” I made and a limited CMY palette. The paint can be reworked a little bit like encaustic can, and it also dries faster than oil. So it avoids some of the problems of acrylic.
|Memento Mori and All That, 2022, School glue, water and mica powder on watercolor paper.|
So obviously, after all of this frustration with toxicity, I started thinking about ways to make art which were more sustainable.
Sometime around or after that, I decided that I needed to spend more time making art that used materials that would otherwise be discarded. During that time I was still considering issues of commodification, politics and sustainability. I am fairly well tuned into the political dialogue and am particularly intrigued by Democratic socialist efforts in this country, so much so that I can lose myself and forget that no matter which side “wins” we all lose if life is not fun. So to that end, I started something I call the “Trash Panda” series, by painting a quick gouache and gold watercolor painting entitled “Karl Learns Not to Take Himself So Seriously.” This is hard for me to remember, because I am a workaholic.
|Karl Learns Not to Take Himself So Seriously, 2022, Gouache and watercolor on paperboard.|
Over the pandemic I put quite a bit of effort into writing, which is of course an art. I also made some videos which I plan to eventually share, which show me experimenting with my state of consciousness using cannabis. I did a lot of this in my garage in order to preserve the air quality for my family. Out there we have a refrigerator and deep freezer. Since I was often meditating on how current events were affecting my life out there, I drew some graffiti on them as a general protest. As I did this, I took photos and put them on this blog. Initially, I was pretty sure I was going to die during this pandemic because nobody seemed to care, so I instructed my husband to put my body in the deep freezer with some red wigglers, encase it in epoxy, and send it to a famous artist if that were to happen. I don’t know if any of my readers are regular because they are from all over the world, but I challenged them to recreate the top of the freezer from my drawings and the person who comes closest will be eligible to purchase the freezer for $200, without my body in it, of course.
|This is on the fridge, but you get the point...|
I spent quite a bit of time writing and talking about current events, which helped me see how I could use art to process my ideas about the things I was reading. I also played with the idea of how to use art to communicate complex ideas, and I used a lot of that on this blog. Some of the ideas I explored were about male and female gaze and body autonomy, as well as self love and respect. Most of my ideas about sexuality and health I kept in my writing as to not unnecessarily sexualize my image. This is a difficult line to walk because I am a scientist interested in the health benefits of sex, pleasure and somatic awareness, on a personal and professional level. But I have a private life with a sexual partner and I want to keep it that way and not be exploited. I do not mind having nude photos taken of me, but as I alluded to before, I do not like or think it is fair how such photography can make a person a target for sexual predators and religious fanatics alike.
Anyway, I had a lot of fun taking my picture for a while, which was a real change in pace from being the mother who didn’t want to be in the picture. I feel like there are enough photos of me, honestly. I started taking them as therapy for maybe something like body dysmorphic disorder. I have never had a problem with photos I take of myself or even how I see myself in the mirror, but for some reason when certain people would take my photo it was so unflattering. So I sort of needed to seize control of my own image, I think, for my own mental health. I am not the first female artist to do this. I feel like I learned a lot about how my body naturally changes over the course of my cycle and also how others might subconsciously react to me differently based on various physical attributes of mine that change. It has made me a little wary of contributing to unhealthy and inequitable beauty standards with my own behaviors. I do see how coloring my hair and doing my makeup give me an advantage over gray-haired makeup-free me. Sometimes I feel like that advantage is as much of a trouble magnet as it is an advantage, though, and frankly, I get tired of the drama and empty platitudes that being made up brings.
|My husband is my test audience.|
The “end of the pandemic” brought with it an empty nest and some time to re-envision how I might make my house more conducive to art-making. So while I’m still finishing up with that, I do intend to do a project that covers my body of work more completely. But honestly, I have a lot of irons in the fire, and I am not sure that is the first one I should be working on, so for now, this act of resistance will just have to do.