Category Archives: Inspiration

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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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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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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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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A creative life well lived

The world lost a creative soul recently. Donovan Walling was an example of someone who truly embraced every facet of his innate creativity. He was an educator by profession, one who traveled during his lifetime between the classroom and the scholarly world. But all the time, Donovan found the time to create.

I had the pleasure of touring his home once in search of artwork for an ekphrasis (writing about art) project I was doing with our congregation. The home he shared with his husband Sam is filled with paintings he created throughout his life. Earlier works were more geometric — including one above the living room fireplace that is six feet tall and was created on his garage floor. More recent work, such as Peace Like a River, are looser and more flowing. Donovan was never afraid to try something new. “I can always paint over it,” he insisted.

Donovan Walling. Peace Like a River. Acrylic on canvas. Installed at First United Church, Bloomington, Indiana.

Donovan wrote about his inspiration for Peace Like a River:

Peace Like a River was inspired by the hymn of the same name. My sense is that peace is a complicated concept. From a distance, the stylized blue river in this painting is a placid stripe against a neutral background. But when you look closer, the river of peace flows across a backdrop that is nuanced and chaotic, just as every life, close up, is more complex than it seems from a distance.

He wrote poetry, fiction and non-fiction. Because of his professional work, he developed publishing skills which he used to produce self-published volumes that he generously shared with his friends. Last fall he invited me to co-produce a volume focussing on justice issues with the congregation of First United Church, Bloomington. (You can read my contribution in this post.)

His creativity was fueled by every part of his life, some of which I had the pleasure of learning more about during his convalescence at home. Donovan was creative is the best way. He didn’t consider whether something he created would find a home with someone else or not. He was compelled to create as a way of sharing the honest details of who he was as a person, inviting others into his life. His was a creative life well lived.

 

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Finding the reset button means getting focused and motivated

April has come and gone, and so has my solo show. After the flurry of art making and promotion, I find myself in that strange place of limbo, not knowing exactly what to do next. No wonder authors of a successful books find it hard to write their next book. How do creative people go about finding the reset button?

This situation happens to me occasionally. Complicating matters, my quiet house/studio will be changing soon with the arrival of my young adult children who are home for the summer. So planning and motivating are crucial before my house becomes noisy and my schedule challenged.

The blessings of a road trip

As an environmentalist, I am chagrinned to admit that I love driving. Spring in the Midwest is intoxicating — where you are enveloped with every color of green and the clouds are unimaginably spectacular. On this particular road trip, my destination was Cincinnati, Ohio (about 2 and a half hours southeast) because I wanted to visit the non-profit gallery Manifest.

large storm clouds over fields

Rolls of storm clouds press upon me as I travel east.

Fantastic waves of storm clouds rushed me east. At Manifest, I was delighted to see work by my former relief printmaking professor Ed Bernstein in a group show entitled Drawn. At lunch, I was treated to a fast moving torrential downpour, followed by azure skies and staggering cumulus clouds. I began to ponder doing some small tonal studies of cumulus clouds, perhaps making use of mica powder. A new idea begins…

heavy clouds over Woodburn neighborhood in Cincinnati

Heavy clouds over the Cincinnati hills soon release their moisture.

Church spire seems to touch the rapidly moving clouds.

Churches are everywhere in Cincinnati. This one in the Woodburn neighborhood was so high it felt like I could almost touch the clouds rushing by.

Libraries are candy for the soul

This morning brought a Facebook post entitled 11 Nonfiction Books All Artists Will Want to Read. If I am honest, I often retreat into the world of murder mysteries, which are diverting but not very challenging to me and to my art. A quick visit to our local library yielded these beauties:

two memoirs by artists and writers

Two memoirs by artists and writers.

A quick stop in the science area, and I picked up some more inspiration…

books about weather and clouds

I am fascinated by the highway of clouds that flow above me and wonder about the science behind them.

Now for the real planning by getting focused

One danger with all this inspiration is that I buzz about my home studio, having lots of ideas but not accomplishing anything. I learned the value of planning at least six months ahead from Alyson Stanfield, so I grabbed a sheet of Stonehenge paper and started writing down categories of activities. The details — the to do’s — followed.

my own six month plan on paper

Emptying my brain of all of the goals and to-do’s helps me focus.

I love a good list, but acknowledge that without saying WHEN something will be done, the list is useless. With the exception of actual deadlines, I shy away from putting specific dates down. So I began circling things that needed to be done immediately in red. Other colors followed: end of May, end of July, end of summer. Today I will create goals for May, and every Sunday night I plan out the week. I’m posting this poster nearby to remind me of where I’m headed.

How do you reset and get motivated?

 

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Change the color and change the meaning

A few blogs ago I shared some images of the altocumulus undulatus clouds I snapped early one morning. While I loved the shape of these clouds, I don’t find their white to light blue coloring terribly compelling in an artistic sense. As I mentioned in my last blog, I was steered toward the blue greens when printing over orange and yellow. The final result is Harbinger in Teal.

Elizabeth Busey, Harbinger in Teal, Reduction Linocut, 18 x 28 in, edition of 24, $450.

Altocumulus undulatus clouds result from wind shear — an abrupt speed or directional shift that signals a change in the weather. Where I live, a weather change is often brought about by violent storms, and some people link strong storms with blue green clouds. So I embraced my uniquely colored clouds as an illustration of how the world feels to me at times.

Things are unsettled, changes may be coming, and it is not clear if they will be disastrous, or merely different. All we can do is watch the clouds, and hang on.

Hanging on while looking for hope

I took a break from the studio recently to visit Asheville, North Carolina and the surrounding countryside. With the radio turned off and a ban on reading the New York Times on my phone, I was able to capture some images that I found hopeful…

 

 

Hope really is an action, not just an emotion. Continuing to be hopeful in the face of the alternatives takes perseverance.

Keep looking for hope, and if you find some, please share it. The world needs lots of hope.

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Beauty of Beginnings

Ideas for new linocuts are all around me — in the sky, in my phone, in my sketchbook. I go through quite a process to determine if something is worthy of a new linoleum block. Many ideas don’t make it very far. Luckily I was treated to an incredible sight a few weeks ago that was perfect for my next linocut. Here is a quick recap of how I began:

Inspiration after perspiration

One Thursday morning I was walking out of my rowing class and was treated to this site. They are called altocumulus undulatus. I filled my phone with imagery from all angles. At home, I printed out some of these images on 11 x 17 inch photo paper so I could get a better sense of how the pattern would look if it was larger. Some patterns expand well, and others lose their appeal.

Prismacolor helps my planning.

From here I laid out all of the photographs and did some sketches, including some with colored pencils. Although I am not using the pencils in the exact layering technique that I will with my inks, the pencils do help me think about what colors are possible. I love Prismacolor pencils for this task because they have rich pigments and blend together on the page.

Almost ready for the first marks

After I created a final drawing, I used a large sheet of tracing paper and an 8B pencil to create my own carbon copy. Here I’ve transferred the darkest part of the clouds, but I still have to judge which part will be the white area. If I carved away all of the areas that are without graphite, the linocut would have too much white and would appear only two-dimensional.

New color and an old friend

Pygmalion’s Art Supply in downtown Bloomington, IN has a new custom color created each year by their staff, and the proceeds from the pigment sales go to a local organization. I have just a bit left of last year’s Saffron, and use it with a touch of Red Rhino Red to create the glowing orange for the first layer.

I admit that printing light orange over the entire block is a bit daring in a linocut that will also feature blue. But that is all part of the adventure of printing…

I leave you with my very first video filmed with my new Iphone tripod. As February turns to March, my thoughts turn to the Good Humor truck and an icy Dreamsicle. (Don’t drool on your keyboard or phone…)

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