Author Archives: Elizabeth Busey

A Visit with Emily

Emily Carr must have been quite a woman.  She smoked a pipe and sometimes swore at her art pupils, ran a boarding house and bred dogs to earn money, and spent her life learning and growing as an artist. A Canadian artist who lived between 1871 and 1945, she is well-known for her work documenting the people and totems of the First Nations of the Canadian Northwest.

Much has been written about Emily Carr, from various biographies to the somewhat fiction of Susan Vreeland’s The Forest Lover. Carr wrote prolifically herself, from autobiographical works to a hilarious book of cartoons chronicling a trip to Alaska with her sister. The facts of her life are a bit of a mystery — she sometimes contradicted herself in describing her incredible life. These are fascinating reads to be sure, but what I love about Emily Carr are her trees. I had an opportunity recently to go to Vancouver, B.C. and see some of Emily’s trees in person.

Emily Carr, Abstract Tree Forms.

Emily Carr. Abstract Tree Forms, 1931-32. Oil on paper. Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Emily Carr Trust.

Capturing the feeling of the forest

The Vancouver Art Gallery has a substantial collection of Emily Carr’s works. Her immersion in the forests themselves came during the last part of her painting career, after she spent many years painting the totems and villages of the coastal Northwest.

Small cedar tree growing on a larger stump

Rare November sunlight backlights a young cedar tree, determined to grow on the stump of an ancient ancestor. Stanley Park, Vancouver, B.C.

If you have ever visited a forest in the Pacific Northwest, you will know that they feel intrinsically different from the forests of eastern North America, and distinct still from the dry mountain west. These forests have plentiful water and lush vegetation. During Emily’s time, their isolation from logging meant that she was able to experience the overwhelming green presence of the forest as its own living, breathing entity. This is what she captures in her earlier forest paintings.

Part of her success in capturing these feelings comes from her unorthodox use of materials. She was constantly economizing so that she could continue to paint prolifically. So that she could go paint on site in the forest, she invested in manila paper as a substrate and made a cardboard hinged portfolio that was easy to carry. She used “good quality white house paint thinned with gasoline” so that her oil paints flowed like watercolors and dried quickly, but were also opaque and felt substantial.

Emily Carr. Scorned as Timber, Beloved of the Sky.

Emily Carr. Scorned as Timber, Beloved of the Sky. 1935. Oil on Canvas. Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Emily Carr Trust.

Emily Carr as environmentalist

The appetite for raw lumber in British Columbia was voracious, with much of Vancouver Island being decimated by clear cutting during her final painting years. Thus, Emily’s later work becomes an environmental commentary. She anthropomorphized trees, calling the tree stumps she captured in her work “screamers.” Last week, the State of Indiana unnecessarily sold nearby older growth forest land for clear-cutting, so her characterization resonates with me.

Emily Carr. Above the Trees.

Emily Carr. Above the Trees. 1939. Oil on Paper. Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Emily Carr Trust.

One of my new favorite works of Emily is Above the Trees. As a result of her painting logged forests,  she became more aware of skies. My non-flash image does not do this work justice — the intensity and activeness of the blue sky makes me think of a heavenly fingerprint above tree spirits.

Emily Carr is now a celebrated artist both in Canada and beyond. She has a school of art named after her, and her life is now the subject of much scholarly discourse. But throughout her life she was mostly alone and unappreciated, living at the edges of a society that did not support women as artists. For her tenacity in every day life and for her dogged pursuit of her vision, I am eternally grateful. Nice to see you in person, Emily.

 

 

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Accepting the muse that shows up thanks to Big Magic

Finding your next great idea — or maybe you would call it connecting with your muse — can be difficult. I wonder if Georgie O’Keefe had self-doubts about her transition from dark cityscapes to colorful desert landscapes. I’m still mulling over what to do with my recent eclipse study, but have been recently captivated by the topographic map bookmarks we made at my recent Open Studio.

topography inspired bookmarks

These bookmarks continue to inspire me with their undulating line work.

I created the drawing for the second block from a real topo map of the Red River Gorge in Kentucky. I have hiked this area which is part of the Daniel Boone National Forest. It is filled with unexpected formations, from gorges to natural bridges, all noted by these squiggling lines. Back in my studio, most of my work does not depend on line work specifically, but I continue to be drawn to these topo lines.

topographical hiking maps

Topographical maps are not only essential when hiking, but aesthetically inspiring as well.

Topo maps are helpful and beautiful…

We have a collection of hiking maps from our travels in North America and Europe. In our recent trip to the Pyrenees, my husband and I relied heavily on a topo map to get us safely down from an exposed trail during an afternoon thunderstorm. The lines told us that yes, the scree-filled avalanche chute was in fact the way down.

I find these lines aesthetically pleasing as well. After the Open Studios tour, I now have time to get back to work, and kept thinking about these lines. The bookmarks we created were colorful and visually active, but perhaps not complex enough for larger work. This is where Big Magic comes in…

Elizabeth Gilbert's Big Magic

Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic is essential reading if you are a creative person who sometimes puts too much pressure on your creativity.

Big Magic is essential reading

If you are a creative person of any type, you should get a copy of Big Magic and read it. I refer to mine so frequently that I don’t loan it out to anyone. In the book, Elizabeth Gilbert, author of several books including Eat, Pray, Love, discusses how to live sanely as a creative person. One of my favorite parts considers how we mistreat our creativity in our quest for fame or remuneration.

“But to yell at your creativity, saying, “You must earn money for me!” is sort of like yelling at a cat; it has no idea what you’re talking about, and all you’re doing is scaring it away, because you’re making really loud noises and your face looks weird when you do that.” (Gilbert. Big Magic, 154)

I am guilty at being unkind to my creativity when I demand to know before I start whether my next endeavor will be worthy of a frame — or a possible entry for a prominent show — or my next sale. When I yell, so to speak, nothing goes well.

So I’m back in the studio with two blocks, pushing topographical lines into new contexts. Will it work out? I have no idea. But grooving to my Spotify throwback list and rolling our fresh ink made for a memorable day. And there was no yelling…

 

 

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Sometimes it is smart to start small

Sometimes it is important to start small. I have a tendency to be impatient. I want to create an image on a LARGE scale. Unfortunately, I have some works that are large and problematic. If I had just taken the time to do a smaller study, I could have foreseen things that would go wrong later, but with much less heartache and with fewer sore muscles.

This year’s eclipse has been on my creative mind for a while. I spent the event deep in the woods, watching crescent moons dance across a dry shale creek bed. I have been wanting to capture the feeling of this experience, and tried out a few ideas recently.

 

Study of eclipse

A 9 x 12 inch study of eclipse moons on Thai Unryu paper.

When looking my eclipse photographs, I noticed two things. First, the crescent moon shapes weren’t sharp, but rather were soft, and didn’t meet at points. Some were larger than others, some more complete. The variation came from the different pinholes made in the forest canopy as the light came down. I wondered if I might distinguish between the shapes with different transparent colors, even though my experience and my photographs were mostly black and white.

Second, because it was not completely dark, you could see some of the tiny leaves and detritus that was on the creek bed. This provided some important 3D cues for the image. To address this issue, I decided to print on Thai Unryu paper. Sometimes called cloud paper, this is mulberry paper with thicker, longer fibers included. I wondered if the long fibers would show through in a way that might suggest the texture of the creek bed.

sample of thai unryu paper

Thai Unryu paper has longer fibers embedded in each sheet.

I’m glad I did this 9 x 12″ test print, because I think neither of these experiments was completely successful. Even while using very small changes in tone, the crescents separate in confusing ways. And when I printed the final darkest tones of the eclipse, the thin paper was completely saturated with pigment, and the long fibers are difficult to see.

I think I will do something I haven’t done for a long time — create an image with only one color — perhaps with only two or three passes of the same color. I will stick with my trusty Rives BFK as well, as the Thai Unryu paper became saturated and began to stretch out of shape as I repeatedly printed on it.

Learning on a smaller scale. It would be great if we could approach other things in life this way!

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When your passion becomes work (and what to do about it)

I had a conversation recently with a friend who is a professional musician. She mentioned that she doesn’t listen to music at home. “It feels too much like work,” she admitted. She usually opts for television or non-music radio.

This observation resonated with me. There are times in my life where I need some sort of creative distraction to relax and alleviate stress. Because my visual art practice is what I do for a good part of my day – and is sometimes the source of my stress — I have been looking for other ways to be creative.

glimpses of the elipse

I am thoroughly enjoying reading poets who write about the natural world, and trying my hand at some writing as well.

Trying something different

I recently signed up for a writing circle with a local nonprofit writing group called Women Writing for a Change. The topic of the six-week Thursday night writing circle is “Listening to Mystery: Writing, Presence and Poetry.” Each week, we begin with a poetry reading from various spiritual traditions and have a time of meditation. We do “fast writes” where we write furiously about whatever comes to mind. Sometimes we share our writing in small groups, and sometimes we read to the entire circle.

I am thoroughly enjoying the experience, in part because it is a creative practice that I am doing just for me. For two and a half hours my cell phone is silenced, and I am present to myself and my circle-mates. I have no ambitions to become a published writer. Creation for creation’s sake is a gift.

This class has also encouraged me to have a morning ritual to get myself into creative time. For years I have fought against the Morning Pages of Julia Cameron. Thanks to my writing circle, I have been beginning my creative time by emptying my monkeymind on the page and writing any thoughts about what I want to accomplish in the studio that day. Then I read a poem (my favorites are Mary Oliver and W.S. Merwin) and spend some time writing about something I hear in the poem, or something the muse brings me. After that, I am in a place to begin my studio time.

cat on fabric color chart.

My cat Gingersnap relaxes on a color chart from custom fabric printer Spoonflower. Apparently she has a fondness for purple.

Dabble in something practical

I have also begun dabbling in designing fabrics using some of my patterns that I have simplified. I have no idea where this practice will take me, but I will at least reupholster my sagging dining room chairs and get some new pillows.

I find that with these new additions to my creative life, I am finding my studio time to be more energized and fruitful.

What do YOU do to enhance your creative practices?

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Hanging System for your home … an indulgence?

We’ve been redecorating at my house this summer. Redecorating is not for the faint of heart. You change one thing, then another. Suddenly you are down the rabbit hole of what we call “home change” — and there is no end in sight. But there is one thing people can do relatively quickly, without new paint or subway tile… and that is rearrange your artwork.

At this point people (gasp!) People seem to assume that art placement in their house is something sacred, that can never be changed unless they move. I think this is a recipe for personal stagnation. But I am sympathetic to these feelings, in that I have a dear spouse who is convinced that everything I hang on our drywall walls requires a screw and an expansion bolt. I stand before you today and say – that is simply not true. You either need some different nails (more about that later) or better yet, your own hanging system.

living room artwork hanging system

My living room with its new hanging system. Everything is hung appropriately, with no unsightly holes.

My birthday present from 2016 was a hanging system for several walls on our main level. It took until the summer for repainting to be completed, and then I ordered my system from Systematic Art. Some details:

•  Four white metal channels are now installed on three different walls, just below the ceiling.
•  I chose stainless steel cables, because I have had experience with the clear nylon cables getting nicked and worn.
•  Self gripping hooks with safety guards were my choice for hangers.
•  I made sure to order enough cables and hooks so that the work could be hung from the D-rings on the back of my frames. This helps to hold the work close to the wall, and resist shifting when someone slams the mudroom door.

A hanging system requires no hammer and no math. Just your keen eye, an assistant and maybe a level.

artwork hanging system

I love being able to change the artwork above my drawing table.

Now it is easy to change the decor of the majority of our living space without nail holes and pesky measuring. A delight!

Admittedly this system wasn’t inexpensive, costing about $250. But since I was hanging heavy work framed in glass, I was willing to invest a bit more in something that will probably be installed long after we no longer live here.

What can you do if you can’t make this investment? Get some OOK nails from the hardware store. These nail and hook sets are easy to use, and twist out when you want to remove them. They leave a small hole that will need to be filled, but don’t require removal with the claw of a hammer which then further damages your walls. I used them to hang my gallery show in April, and they were flawless. Be sure to use two for very long horizontals so your frame doesn’t shift constantly.

So please, do your home a favor and mix up the artwork. It is much cheaper than moving.

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How do you make creative work in a time of chaos?

This blog post is a long time coming. Stuck in my throat for months, today is the day when the not writing becomes more painful than the writing.

How do you make creative work in a time of chaos?

I’ve been asking myself this question for the better part of nine months, without coming to any conclusions. Over the past months, I have felt my energies pulled in areas where I am deeply concerned, but powerless to affect in an immediate sense. I have felt this from my audiences as well. It takes energy to engage with artwork. When you have spent your emotions for the day by calling your elected officials, or trying to engage with your racist cousin, you want nothing else than to sip your purchased wine and stroll past art festival booths without going in.

Great Unknown, a linocut by Elizabeth Busey

Elizabeth Busey. Great Unknown. Reduction linocut on Rives BFK. 18 x 18 in (image size), ed of 21.

I get it. I feel that way as well.

Instead of throwing myself into my materials and the swirling worries of the day, it is easier to numb my brain watching energetic people flip houses in thirty minutes to an hour. If only a fresh coat of paint, some exposed shiplap and a new backsplash of subway tile would wash away the horrors of each day’s news headlines.

Making things new. Making things better. These are valid, even valuable goals to have. But what if what I “do” now seems superfluous, even vapid and shallow? Should I create more? Should I press on with my body of work and wait until the skies clear?

Some would argue that your work should speak to the times. How I envy people whose artistic vision can dovetail seamlessly and speak directly to all of the pain, fear and anger that has arisen in the United States. Perhaps my work is an antidote to all of these feelings, but right now that does not seem to be enough.

How do you make creative work in a time of chaos?

I visited the Catalan region of Spain this summer with my husband. We spent time in the cities of Barcelona and Girona, and hiked in the Benasque region of the Pyrenees. I saw the works of the native sons of the region — Picasso and Miro. I’m not a devotee of either artist, but it was illuminating to see their progression as artists at museums that housed their work.

What was more illuminating in this trip was learning about the Spanish Civil War. Both cities still had public bomb shelters that were now contained in city parks. Plainly said, these shelters were built to protect the citizens from the bombs of their own government. Both Picasso and Miro escaped to France during the Spanish Civil War. Picasso painted his famous protest painting Guernica in 1937 in Paris, a protest of the German bombing of the city of the same name.

Some people today will create work in the vein of Picasso’s Guernica. That will be valuable. Yet most of us would not like this image to greet us daily on our living room walls.

Is creative work that is calm, peaceful, rejuvenating, or even hopeful appropriate today? Necessary?

I would like to think that it is.

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In Praise of the Traveler’s Sketchbook

My husband and I are on walkabout in Spain — our first vacation together since our daughter was born 22 years ago. Traveling with my children has been among the most memorable times I have spent with them, and I wonder what it will feel like to travel without them.

As I was preparing for my trip to Spain, I was looking through the travel journals I kept during our trips to Europe when my children were 7 & 9, and four years later when they 11 & 13. The notes and the watercolor sketches tell the story of our travels and my artistic journey as well.

Young children and a novice artist make for a humorous journal

On our first trip we visited provencal France and the limestone mountains of northern Italy, and then spent a few days in Paris.

Our first holiday home, many years before AirBnB made this sort of travel accommodation easy to find.

I carried a small Windsor & Newton watercolor set, waterproof pens and a multi-media sketchbook with us everywhere. At the time I used a hiking backpack, as the water bottle holders on the sides were perfect for the two baguettes we required each day.

Water and snack breaks when hiking allowed me to capture some of the scenery.

Some of my sketches show my inexperience in composition… Although the Dentilles de Montmirail translate as “teeth” I probably should have adjusted this drawing to look a little less phallic.

Sometimes the writing is hilarious to me as well. We have a penchant for traveling to France over their national holidays when all of the stores were closed. “Finally got fresh fruit” is a common entry. I wrote about some of the not so nice parts of travel. One day I wrote: “Tom wanted the quintessential rural French hotel experience — and he got it!” I go on to describe a hotel with only one toilet for all of its guests, but curiously a bidet in each room. Further, I wrote “the beds felt as if they were made of gelatin — where they move in several directions at once.”

Gelato stops in Paris were the perfect opportunity to practice capturing the city.

 

The view from our hotel window in Paris. I haven’t nailed down shading and perspective yet, but when I see this sketch I remember the fabulous narrow deep European tub that soothed our tired bodies and feet.

The passage of time shows maturity for children and the artist

Four years later, we again ventured to southwestern France, northern Italy and the Mosel area of Germany. My children are now 11 & 13, capable of longer hikes and wanderings, and therefore I have fewer sketches. My writing is often done each evening.

The ruins of a castle in northern Italy that we reached after a walk through terraced olive groves.

The back of this notebook has some phrases that remind me of how my son got lost coming down from this castle. “Mio figlio perduto — my son is lost.”  “Dieci anno — he is ten years old.”  “Giallo camicia — (he is wearing) a yellow shirt.” It is hard to take a photo of someone being lost, but this brings the memory and all the emotions right back.

I brought back leaves from our hike to explore printing with them.

My painting skills are improving. I’m no longer relying on a pen sketch to create the image. I’m also using text and shapes to explore ideas when there wasn’t something special to paint. On this day (below) we visited the Otzi, the man from the Copper Age who was found frozen in a glacier. A fascinating experience, but it did not seem appropriate to paint an ancient dead human.

Sometimes I used the sketchbook for calculations. In this case, we try to figure out just how hot the hot springs were to decide whether we should pay the entry fee. At 95 degrees F, we thought it wasn’t worth it. Plus the guys did not have the requisite Speedos.

It is hard to understand my sketch here, but if you read the text you might be able to decipher that warm water was supposed to be gushing from the rock. As spoiled Americans, we did not think it was warm enough.

It amazes me that trips that I took nine and eleven years ago become vivid once again when I see and read these entries. I remember that I painted this sketch of a hillside hermitage while squatting on a trail. My family had gone exploring, but I had to kindly chat with each hiking party as they passed with only my poor traveller’s French.

A hillside hermitage is a challenging subject for an watercolorist, including me.

Why some journals get filled, and others do not

I did find a journal from our trip two year’s ago to Amsterdam and Berlin. My children were 18 & 20. I only wrote on the first page, perhaps in the airport or on the plane. Our trip this time was punctuated by almost adult children wanting to venture off on their own — developmentally appropriate, but stressful for me. Strange hours, poor sleep and the ambivalent feelings of an older parent meant I spent no time with my journal.

This trip I am determined to sketch and write each day. I have a sketchbook that is small enough to fit into my purse. I will send my photographer husband off to take some photos while I lounge beneath a tree, or on a rock, and try to capture the sense of my surroundings.

Art and writing provide us with a muscle memory that photography alone cannot. Time to flex those muscles…

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Staying Inspired When You Can’t Create

How do you stay inspired when you can’t create? Maybe your studio has been flooded by a wet spring. Perhaps the tendons and muscles in your thumbs demand rest. What if you are forced to be on bed rest to recover your health? Two on-line series provide me with inspiration, even when I have my feet up…

Dried ink -- up close supporting bar on my rubber roller.

When I can’t create, I look for unexpected images with my Iphone. This one is the supporting bar of one of the rollers in my studio.

Netflix’s Abstract

Netflix’s new eight part series Abstract is an absolute delight. Each 45-minute episode profiles a different design professional. We learn where their ideas come from, how they began, and most importantly how they go about creating.

Episodes include:

  • Christoph Niemann: Illustrator
  • Ilse Crawford: Interior Designer
  • Tinker Hatfield: Shoe Designer
  • Paula Scher: Graphic Designer
  • Platon: Photographer
  • Bjarke Ingels: Architect
  • Ralph Gilles: Automotive Designer
  • Es Devlin: Stage Designer

I used to have favorite episodes, but after seeing all of them, I would recommend watching them straight through. I find watching people create a calming yet stimulating experience, as well as a hopeful interlude while you wait to get back to your own creating.

Illustrator Christoph Niemann

Illustrator Christoph Niemann is the genius behind many notable New Yorker magazine covers.

Craft in America

Craft in America is a PBS series created in conjunction with the Craft in America Center. While most episodes focus on three -dimensional or low-relief two dimensional work, they do include printmaker Tom Killion in an episode on process. On the Craft in America site, you can search by episode theme, location and even medium. I could lose myself in this site for days.

Craft in America artistsCraft in America artists are fascinating to watch, and tell inspiring stories.

 

So whether you are cooped up by circumstance or weather or health, there is always something you can watch to stay inspired.

What are your inspirations?

 

 

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What does HOPE look like?

I love art installations. I have yet to create an installation purely of my own work, and so I turn to my greater community for help. Thankfully, the congregation at First United Church in Bloomington, Indiana is tolerant of my needs and gladly participates when I ask.

This winter, I was obsessed with finding hope. I asked the congregation, as well as the community groups that use our space, to send me images of hope from their cell phone cameras. My comment to them was that unless it was an image of their grocery list or the book they wanted to read, the content was probably something that other people might find hopeful.

wave of photographs on blue paper

An installation of photographs on blue paper creates a wave of hope in the hallway of First United Church, Bloomington, Indiana.

Assembling the wave of hope

Over the course of a month or so, I received 120 images, which I downloaded and sent off to be printed. My challenge was to combine these images in a way that made a statement, but did not require expensive framing and could be displayed easily on a painted cinderblock wall.

A few years ago, I had seen an installation of solar printmaking using cardboard and small loose-leaf binder rings. I decided to augment this idea to create what I was seeing as “A Wave of Hope.” I purchased four colors of blue scrapbooking paper — thick enough, but not too heavy — along with 500 1/2 inch binder rings. With a newly acquired ATG tape dispenser, I mounted the photos in either a landscape or portrait format on the blue paper. I drilled holes through the stacks of paper, and took the entire set to the site for assembly.

 

The challenge of the actual installing

With the help of my daughter Hannah, we created a makeshift armature out of dowel rods and the hanging system in the art hallway. We formed chains of imagery, linked with these rings and attached each one invisibly to the armature with fishing line. The chains moved up and down as if they were waves, but were attached to one another so that they did not twist and the entire piece had a bit more stability.

I don’t hear huge exclamations when people pass the installation, but they slow down and seem absorbed in the imagery. I think that is what hope is like — it will sneak up on you if only you are open to receive it.

If you are so moved– why not attach a hopeful image in the comment section?

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Making the Invisible Visible

Clouds move. They may appear static, but they are really being driven by wind — a force which we cannot see.  In my latest linocut, I play with repetition in the form of a diptych to think about cloud movement as an illustration of that that illusive wind.

©Elizabeth Busey. Revealed by the Clouds … a Gust of Awakening. Reduction Linocut Diptych. 12 x 12in each image size, 22 x 21 in framed size each, edition of 16.

Repetition and two images are the key

As I noted in a previous blog, a diptych is a pair of images that are created to be displayed together. Here I chose to stagger the same long cloud formation, where part of it is somewhat repeated in each image. I was not concerned with making this repetition apparent, so you can only see the actual repetition in a few places. What I wanted you to see is your eye perceiving separate frames, like Eadweard Muybridge’s famous running horse demonstration.

(more…)

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