New Digital Project: Facemask Drawings

I’ve been in a holding pattern since finishing my written exams on August 27 because I still need to complete the oral component, which is happening this Wednesday. In the meantime, I’ve been catching up on nonacademic projects that I’d sidelined while reading for comps. My main website, for instance, now features a brand-new page about my curatorial and academic writing in the main menu. On this page, I’ve not only included links to open-access materials published online, but also provided downloadable PDFs for all my exhibit brochures and other print-only materials.

Another important project that I’ve recently made available is more personal. This is the online exhibit Facemasks: Drawings of COVID-19 Face Coverings, the latest addition to my Digital Projects page, and it’s what I’d like to talk about today.

This exhibit is a collection of drawings I’ve made depicting various COVID-19 facemasks. I initially started making these drawings because sketching has always been an important way for me to process my thoughts and emotions. I initially had little desire to draw because I felt overwhelmed, but I finally took an interest in sketching again when I began taking a closer look at the facemasks in our house. Brandon had brought home several cloth facemasks made by employees working in the textiles department at Colonial Williamsburg, and over time, I became interested in their visual qualities. One day, I draped one of the masks over some pushpins I’d applied to the wall in my study, and started sketching. I liked this display method because it mimicked the effect of them being worn while also suggesting the appearance of pinned butterflies and other natural history displays. In keeping with those presentations, I decided to draw the masks in a naturalistic way, with an emphasis on their physical presence as conveyed through modeling and cast shadows.

I drew the masks using pen and ink with ink wash and paint, arguably my favorite way to sketch. In drawing the masks, I thought about them primarily as sites of labor and expression. I wondered about the choices made in fabric selection, the time needed to complete them, the labor that I had been spared by having these masks available for use, and whether I would ever find out who made them. I also thought about facemasks within contemporary American visual culture, and their associations with public health, individual freedom, distrust of authority, and personal expression. Through these drawings, in other words, I began to process my feelings about the pandemic.

The first mask I drew once I got the idea to start sketching them. This is Brandon’s alternate facemask. He doesn’t use this one as much because the material is thick and itchy, but I liked the marbling effect on the fabric.

Around the time I started drawing facemasks, I came up with the idea of an online exhibit. As a curator, I’ve been following how museums have reconfigured their collections through online exhibits, and while I’m currently not working in a museum environment, I wanted to use my previous experiences as a museum professional to explore new ways of sharing material. Since I knew there would be an online component to the project, I also decided to expand my collection by inviting my contacts on social media to send photos of their masks. I also encouraged participants to send any text they wanted to include about their mask in the form that worked best for them, whether as a caption, poem, short story, or something else. The captions that you see come directly from the users who submitted these images, and is used with their permission. 

This mask was sent to me over social media by Karen Strange, Brandon’s aunt. Since I was working from a photograph, the ties took on a more dynamic quality in jeeping with the original image.

Admittedly this took longer than anticipated. Soon after I conceptualized the project I developed tendonitis in my dominant hand and had to halt all creative activity for several weeks. As much as I wanted to get on with the exhibit, I knew working through the injury would only make it worse, so I reluctantly put the project on hold until my hand healed (for blog posts and comps notes, I actually switched to voice typing). I’ve since been able to resume my usual activities, albeit with greater attention to rest and stretching.

Once I finished my drawings, I turned them into high-quality JPGs using a fantastic portable scanner that Brandon had gotten me for Christmas a couple years ago (I also used it to create the PDFs on my writing page). I created the actual exhibit on Omeka because it’s a popular platform that I’ve been wanting to learn how to use. During a few afternoons, I figured out how to add items, create collections, and from those repositories, form exhibits. Like a lot of digital platforms I’ve used, I learned through trial and error, but between my own tinkering and the online tutorials available, I figured it out enough to create this project.

Facemasks in its current form is an intimate project with eight different masks and stories on view. I had initially hoped for more submissions, but I’ve also come to appreciate its small scale, given the importance of intimacy in digital humanities projects. As digital scholars such as Roopika Risam and Jacqueline Wernimont argue, small projects provide a crucial counterpoint to large-scale undertakings because they remind us that quantity alone is not the sole measure of quality or significance. Given the emphasis on big numbers with pandemic research, it’s important to counterbalance those statistics with more intimate data that highlight the humanity of the pandemic.

This mask, with its rainbow stripes, reminds me of a Morris Louis painting.

Not that the project has to end here. On the contrary, new submissions are always welcome. If you would like to participate, all you need to do is take a picture of your mask and email it to scwoodbury@gmail.com, along with any text you’d like to see featured alongside your mask. Submit your thoughts as a caption, a short story, a poem, a song, or any other form that suits you. You may also include any information you feel comfortable sharing about yourself, or remain anonymous. I’ll draw the photo you send me and add it to the site, along with any other information you choose to include.

I initially made this project to work through my own feelings, but as a space for sharing, I hope that it will also benefit other people.

Rediscovering Oil Painting

I know everyone is worried about Covid-19 right now, and for good reason. These are uncharted waters, and with uncertainty comes anxiety. Today then, we’ll take a break from talking about reading lists and take a look at a painting I did in January, because art is important, especially at a time like this.

Okay, first a little backstory. Brandon and I went to Florida in December to spend the holidays with his family. We spent most of our time with his parents outside of Pensacola, but we also spent a couple of days at Universal Studios in Orlando.

During our visit, Brandon’s dad gave us a bottle of his homemade pepper oil.

When we got back to Williamsburg, I kept finding myself looking at the bottle. Between the rich color palette and the subtle play of light reflecting off the bottle, I knew I needed to paint it. Over the next few nights then, I drew some preparatory sketches of the pepper oil bottle in a variety of arrangements.

I ultimately decided on the third composition below, the one on the right. As much as I like the bottle filled with shells in the second sketch, I found myself more interested in the colors and textures of the other objects. Having settled on my composition, then, it was time to bring our my paints.

For the last fifteen years or so, I’ve done canvas paintings in acrylic paints. When you live in dorm rooms or small apartments with no studio space, quick-drying, easy-to-clean acrylic paints make more sense than slow-drying oils. I’ve also never been a big fan of turpentine, so for many years, I’ve regarded it as a medium that simply wasn’t for me and got accustomed to acrylic paint.

Until I ran out of paint, that is.

I used up most of my acrylics for my year-long art project. Normally I would have just gone out and bought some more, but I’ve been trying to be better about using materials I already have, as I had done with last year’s holiday card. So instead of just giving in to my usual painting habits, I decided to see if I had any other materials I could use.

That’s when I remembered that I’ve been carrying around a box of water-soluble oil paints for the last several years, a hand-me-down from Shelburne Museum’s education department. I’d used them a handful of times for monoprints and linocuts, but had never tried painting on canvas with them. A lot of them were still in good condition, so I decided to give them a try.

And goodness, was this a fun project! After spending so many years getting up close and personal with oil paintings as a curator, it was really fun to try out this medium for myself again. If this had been an acrylic painting, I probably would have taken about a week because I usually work in thin glazes, but I had so much fun with this that I finished it in three days. I found myself enjoying the robust, buttery texture so much that I launched right into piling the pigment onto the canvas with thick brushstrokes. I even pulled out a palette knife and worked with that, a tool I never felt comfortable using before. Throughout the experience, I found myself working with the kind of loose energy I usually use for drawing. Instead of worrying about erasing every brushstroke, I let my mark-making be more obvious, as I’ve found that as a curator I personally enjoy looking at works that revel in the materiality of paint (for an example, click here).

After three days, I had this painting:

It’s not a masterpiece by any means, but I enjoyed myself while working on it, and could definitely see myself using this medium again in the future. And who knows, with social distancing being a priority these days, that could happen sooner rather than later.

Guided Creativity: A (Sort of) History

Since the beginning of the year, I’ve been making an effort to be more consistent with my artistic practice. After seeing that I could make something every day with last year’s abstraction challenge, I’ve tried to draw or paint something new several times a week. I often work on these projects in the evening, as a way of unwinding before going to bed, or on the weekends as a way of taking a break from work.

A key part of what I find enjoyable in making art is knowing that there will be an end result. Whereas academic work can take months, often years, for tangible projects to manifest, creating a new drawing or painting enables me to watch my results unfold more quickly. Making hatch marks or brush strokes is calming, yes, but there’s also satisfaction from seeing an artwork come to fruition. In other words, downtime feels worthwhile because it’s productive in a very literal sense. Even if the work isn’t for sale, just knowing you’ve made something, whatever its purpose, offers a sense of accomplishment.

A series I completed last month: Feathered Four Seasons, 2020. Cyanotypes with tempera, gesso, and ink on paper.

Since I’ve been making art more consistently, it’s gotten me thinking about the role of creative productivity in American culture. From adult coloring books to knitting circles, guided creativity is as popular as ever today. Whatever you choose to make, you’ll have something to show for all your downtime. In a productivity-focused culture where doing nothing is discouraged, despite its benefits, craft projects legitimize leisure by enabling us to show the tangible results of our relaxation.

Not coincidentally, crafting and its related activities are entwined with wellness. After all, what better way to affirm the necessity of the arts than through connecting them to physical and mental health: a quick search online will display numerous articles touting the benefits of arts and crafts on mental wellness. At William and Mary and numerous other institutions, craft circles have become an important part of the wellness curriculum.

A page from a coloring book I made in 2015. You can still find it on Amazon. What, did you think I wasn’t going to peddle my wares on here?

Not that this is anything new. Take a look at American visual culture and you’ll find a rich history of crafting and what I call guided creativity. When I was in Roswell, everybody was into ceramics (including myself). When my mother was a college student in the 1970s, macrame was popular. And let’s not forget about Bob Ross, whose positive messages of happy little trees and joyful mark-making have been experiencing a resurgence thanks to the Internet.

Image courtesy of https://www.britannica.com/biography/Bob-Ross .

Nor is guided creativity a recent phenomenon. Art historian Jennifer Jane Marshall has traced the popularization of soap-carving during the Great Depression. During the 19th century, theorem painting was a popular craft, especially among young women. These art forms may utilize different media, and indeed their very status as art has been questioned by both their contemporaries and subsequent historians, particularly when largely practiced by women. What they all share, however, is an emphasis on results. Whether you’re following a paint-by-numbers set or knitting a scarf, these techniques promise practitioners both the thrill of creativity and the security of guaranteed results. In short, their creative experiment is all but promised to succeed, rendering their time useful.

Image courtesy of https://www.richmond.com/entertainment/art/colonial-williamsburg-presents-theorem-art-at-abby-aldrich-rockefeller-folk/article_f5023f77-1dc6-5686-9c11-305b654a0c03.html

What drives this need for productive creativity? Some would argue that it reflects the capitalist nature of American culture, which places an emphasis on results and profit. That scarf or theorem may not be for sale, but it is the tangible result of work, so you have something to show for all the time you put into it. Indeed, entire industries have developed around guided creativity, with art supply stores offering coloring books, yarns, and other materials to stimulate one’s crafting prowess. Others would argue that guided creativity further enables the capitalist machine by distracting practitioners from the systemic economic and cultural dissatisfaction that permeates their lives. Who has time to rage against the machine when they’re preoccupied with knitting a hat? Still others would posit that guided creativity serves as a means of controlling creativity energy by funneling it into predetermined forms. You may be free to choose your own colors or patterns, but the basic structure and form of the activity you’ll do has been predetermined for you. In short, you can be creative so long as it doesn’t challenge the status quo when it comes to cultural forms. Color within the lines.

Not surprisingly, I’ve been thinking about guided creativity through the lens of the Community Art Center Project. In addition to hosting regular exhibitions, these centers also offered free art classes, with the intention of teaching adults and children alike how to paint, draw, or sculpt. As Victoria Grieve argues in her book The Federal Art Project and the Creation of Middlebrow Culture, there was a commercial element to this effort. The Federal Art Project didn’t expect all of its students to become professional artists, but it did aspire to encourage sales by instilling art appreciation into visitors through education. Making art, in other words, would not only enable people to express themselves creatively, but would also help them to appreciate art as a commodity they could purchase for their own homes, having learned how to enjoy looking at it through their classes.

Student with artwork, 1939. In addition to exhibitions, the Roswell Museum hosted free art classes that taught painting, drawing, sculpture, and interior design.

While I don’t disagree that there’s a commercial aspect to the Community Art Center Project, I also think there’s something else going on here, something more basic. Making art, in my opinion, is often a distillation of what we experience in everyday life. Not so much in subject matter per se, though that often happens, but rather in the process of experiencing the world through sensory means. We experience and change the world through our bodies. Whether we’re touching a blade of grass or chewing food, our bodies are our means of both experiencing our and changing our surroundings. What better way to assert your presence in the world than by making something, whether it’s with your hands, your feet, or your mouth?

Not coincidentally in my opinion, the significance of craft and the handmade surges alongside massive technological change. During the turn of the twentieth century, for example, the Arts and Crafts Movement developed in Britain and the United States in response to a perceived decline in manufacturing quality due to industrialization. By reviving the craft-driven, handmade traditions of medieval guilds and workshops, designers like Gustav Stickley and William Morris argued that they could produce superior designs that emphasized the human presence.

From left to right: Vivian Bevans, Fall Tree, watercolor on paper; Zulma Steele-Parker, Drop-Front Desk with Three Iris Panels, 1904, oil paint and green stain on cherry wood; Ralph and Jane Whitehead, selection of White Pines Pottery with textile created at Byrdcliffe Colony, c. 1915-1926, Ceramic; Zulma Steele-Parker, Byrdcliffe, No. 4, c. 1914, oil on board.

Nowadays, in a world where smartphones and other screens connect you to virtual worlds, you can still find people typing poetry on vintage typewriters or baking bread as a means of achieving what they consider a more authentic experience. That desire to exercise positive change through our bodies, to a leave a literal mark on the world, persists. It’s frustratingly ironic that the arts are the first to go when it comes to funding because they’re considered nonessentials, but history has shown repeatedly that they are in fact important to a sense of self and well-being.

So is guided creativity nothing more than a commercial scam designed to keep us complacent while the capitalist machine rages on? Perhaps, but I think there’s something else going on too. In making art, hope to leave a trace of ourselves in the world.

Regardless, I’m going to keep making stuff.

Edward Hopper and the American Hotel

I may not be actively curating shows at the moment, but I still visit art exhibitions, both for the often enjoyable content and to keep up with current installation and scholarly trends. One particularly fine exhibition I recently attended was Edward Hopper and the American Hotel, on view at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts through February 23rd. Today, I’d like to talk about the show and my impressions of it.

First, a little bit about Edward Hopper (1882-1967). He’s probably most famous for the painting Nighthawks, which was featured in the 1986 movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, but his oeuvre encompasses far more than that work. Born and raised in New York, he was a realist artist proficient in a variety of media, including oil painting, watercolors, and intaglio printmaking. His work often explores the loneliness of modernity, with his compositions usually highlighting isolated figures in movie theaters, automats, and other places that really only developed in the 20th century. His paintings, in particular, are often rendered in a tightly-painted, almost clinical style, and there’s definitely the discomfiting presence of the voyeur emanating from them. His work has endured with American audiences not only because of the relevance of his themes, but also because his works explore the tenets of abstraction while remaining grounded in representational painting. When you’re looking at one of his paintings, you’re never in doubt that you’re looking at a person or a house, but he arranges his objects in such a way that you can appreciate his use of line, shape, and color.

Edward Hopper and the American Hotel, as the title suggests, focuses on the role of hotels, and more broadly the travel and hospitality industry, in Hopper’s career. Curated by the VMFA’s chief curator in American art, Leo Mazow (who, incidentally, wrote one of the essays for the Magical and Real catalogue), the exhibition’s main thesis is that hospitality and tourism constitute a significant but overlooked part of Hopper’s oeuvre. To illustrate this argument, the exhibition then not only features works that include depictions of hotels, but documents the significance of travel, and by extension frequenting hotels, to Hopper’s oeuvre. The show then contextualizes Hopper’s travels within ongoing changes in tourism throughout the twentieth century, arguing that Hopper’s preference for the relative comfort and anonymity of hotels reflected broader trends in American travel and vacationing, with the automobile becoming an increasingly significant part of the overall cultural landscape.

The show includes an impressive array of materials dating from the late nineteenth century through the early twenty-first. While most of the materials focus on Hopper, the exhibition also includes work from both his contemporaries and more contemporary artists to situate his work within a broader cultural and aesthetic framework. In going through the exhibition, viewers get the sense that, contrary to his compositions, Hopper is not working in isolation, but rather is responding to ongoing changes in both technology and social norms. Stylistically, his work may not necessarily change all that much over time, but his subject matter does.

In addition to highlighting some fine examples of Hopper’s work, the show also cleverly uses multimedia features to both engage audiences and effectively illustrate how travel fueled his practice. The gallery spaces includes several covers that Hopper created for travel and hotel magazines, for instance, as he was initially trained as a commercial illustrator. The exhibition also includes several flat screens that allow visitors to retrace various road trips Hopper took with his wife, Jo. As they learn about each stop, the screen displays quotes the pair wrote about a place in their respective letters and journals, as well as works that developed out of those road trips. For those who are more analogically inclined, there are also several cases of postcards the Hoppers sent to friends, a feature that helps humanize these artists by showing that they were, in effect, tourists.

While work from other artists is sprinkled throughout the exhibition, a lot of it is concentrated in a gallery dedicated to contemporary work, demonstrating to viewers not only the persistence of travel in American culture, but the influence of Hopper himself on later generations of artists.

Throughout the show, there’s definitely an interactive element. Some of it was quite subtle, as is the case with this vinyl cutout based on one of Hopper’s sketches. The original drawing is only about 18″ x 24″, so seeing it rendered on a human scale gives the work a different kind of presence while also reminding viewers that Hopper’s art was very much based in humanity and modeled on real people (his wife Jo modeled for a lot of his paintings).

By far the most novel interactive aspects though, are the two built hotel environments within the exhibition. The two installations, a lobby and an actual hotel room, respectively, are meticulously based on Hopper’s paintings. Indeed, it was somewhat uncanny to look away from the painting to see its built counterpart nearby, giving you the opportunity to experience the composition in both two and three dimensions. You can even pay to stay overnight in the hotel room, further enabling you to vicariously relive Hopper’s travel experiences (though I’m pretty sure it’s booked solid at this point).

The interactive element of Edward Hopper and the American Hotel is not an isolated phenomenon. Immersive, participatory exhibitions have become increasingly prominent in museums over the last few years, reflecting the influence of theme parks, as well as social media and the ever-present quest for Instagram-worthy images. The most overtly participatory art experience I’ve been to is Meow Wolf’s House of Eternal Return in Santa Fe (though critics debate its actual art status), but more traditional museums like the Dallas Museum of Art have also embraced immersive experiences like Yayoi Kusama’s All the Eternal Love Have for the Pumpkins, on view in 2017 and 2018.

What I appreciate about Edward Hopper and the American Hotel, however, is that its participatory elements don’t feel like a gimmick, but instead provide insight into Hopper’s artistic practice. When you look into that empty hotel room, or presumably stay there, you get a sense of the isolation that he was trying to render in paint. When you look into the hotel lobby and see other visitors interacting with it, you can imagine Hopper doing the same thing, and perhaps envisioning how to best arrange the seemingly random influx of visitors into a meaningful and coherent composition. When you interact with the flat screen, you not only retrace his journeys, but can apply what you’ve learned to the paintings in the show, giving you greater context. The entire exhibition itself constitutes a kind of journey that takes you through Hopper’s career, with the interactive elements complementing and enhancing rather than detracting from the art’s travel-themed focus.

If you can’t tell, this exhibition resonated pretty deeply with me. Part of it was just me reminiscing on the curating experience (and envying the VMFA’s budget. Full-scale replicas of rooms aren’t cheap to make), but like a lot of the people in Hopper’s paintings, traveling and hotels have been an important part of my life. As a curator in New Mexico, I spent a lot of time in hotels due to overnight research trips or conferences, and am familiar with their weirdly generic quality. Hopper also painted a lot of places that I’ve personally visited, like the two scenes of Ogunquit beach above. In a lot of ways, Hopper’s paintings, though done many decades earlier, offer insight into my life, which is the overarching point of the exhibition.

But not everyone’s lives. The traveling America that Hopper paints is a decidedly white one, and the exhibition does address this. The labels for the magazine covers, for instance, discuss the role of black labor in enabling the travel experiences of white America. Some of the catalogue essayists also talk about the racial and class tensions underpinning Hopper’s work, specifically David Brody and Carmenita Higginbotham. A few of the more contemporary works on view also mention the Green Book and other themes specific to the black tourism experience. Yet I would have appreciated it if the exhibition itself had confronted the whiteness of Hopper’s oeuvre more directly, as that’s really the only way to challenge its status as the norm.

Overall though, I really enjoyed the exhibition. Mazow and the VMFA staff have put together a beautiful installation, so much so that I found myself getting a little nostalgic for my days in Roswell. It only seems appropriate then, that the exhibition ends with this painting: an old man looking out at a defunct railroad. As Hopper makes evident throughout his oeuvre, the past is in the past, and we can either grow old longing for it, or we can move forward. After a final look at this painting, I exited the exhibition ready to face whatever comes next.

My Goals for 2020

With the new year comes a time for reflection and new aspirations. Since I already did some reflection in last week’s post, today I’d like to highlight my goals for the coming year.

First, some academic goals:

  1. Complete my exams: This is probably the most obvious one, but getting through exams is the next big stage in my doctoral studies. I’m scheduled to take them in August, so get ready for future posts that talk about what I’m reading.

2. Write my prospectus: Once you’ve taken your exams, the next step is to write your prospectus. This is where you talk about what your dissertation topic is, the methodologies you’ll use to research it, and what intervention you hope to make in the field. Since I already know what I want to write about, I have an advantage, but I’ll still have plenty to do to get it ready.

3. Continue applying to (and ideally presenting at) conferences: Beyond sharing your work and having experience to put on your CV, conferences are a great way to network, so I definitely plan on continuing to attend them.

4. Continue networking: As an introvert, this is one of my biggest challenges because talking about yourself and your work to lots of new people can be draining. It’s important to get your name out there though, so my goal is to continue expanding my network here. I’ve started making inroads at Colonial Williamsburg, the Chrysler Museum, and the VMFA. This year I’d like to get better acquainted with people at the Smithsonian and the AHAA.

5. Start working on a DH project: Since coming to William and Mary, I’ve been envisioning a digital component to my dissertation, something that can be available to the public. Rather than idly think about it, I’d like to actually start working on it, even if it’s just sitting down with an IT expert and sketching out preliminary ideas.

6. Start looking for opportunities to get my writing published: I’ve been making lists of prospective journals to publish my work. As I get ready to start working on the dissertation later this year, I’d like to target some prospective journals for publishing future chapters.

7. Start inquiring about putting together an exhibition on art centers: Being a curator, I often think about academic projects as installations. Since the Community Art Center Project was all about exhibitions, moreover, I think it would be a good opportunity to curate a show around its history and materials. It’s a tall order, but it’s worth exploring, both to give another dimension to my work and keep my hand in the curatorial business.

And Just as Important, Some Non-Academic Goals

  1. Keep making art: I committed to painting every day last year. This year I want to keep that habit by working consistently in different media. I’ve already finished one oil painting and am getting reading to start a silverpoint drawing. I’d also like to get back into printmaking more seriously.

2. Get back into baking: Readers of my old blog will know I like to bake, even getting into sourdough during my last year in Roswell. I haven’t done a lot of baking since coming here, but I’ve been changing that by getting a new sourdough starter going.

3. Play music regularly again: Last year I played my flute in the William and Mary Wind Ensemble, but I didn’t join this year because I wanted to leave my schedule open for TAing. Unfortunately, I ended up practicing very little as a result, so this semester I’d like to be more consistent about my music, whether it’s in a group or on my own.

4. Write a memoir: I started writing a memoir when I moved here about my experiences in Roswell, as I’ve got a number of experiences and insights I’d like to share, particularly for anyone thinking of working in small museums. That project got derailed once classes started, but I’d like to have another go at it. Even if I only write a page a day, as I learned from my writing workshop, that will amount to a lot of text over time.

5. Exercise: I already do this regularly, but now that I’m no longer in classes, it’s important to get out and move consistently. Right now I alternate my days with circuit training, going for walks, and riding my back. I’m also looking into taking up swimming and getting back into yoga.

6. Get out more: I used to go stir crazy in Roswell if I didn’t get out periodically, and as much as I like Williamsburg, the same applies here. With my schedule being more flexible now with classes finished, I’d like to explore Richmond and other places, whether on my own or with Brandon.

7. Continue spending time with Brandon: We have a great relationship because we believe in open, frequent communication, and giving each other space. Brandon is very understanding about the demands my program makes on my time, but it’s also important I spend quality time with him every day. Now that classes are finished and my schedule is more open, I definitely want to make sure we get to enjoy one another’s company.

Those are my goals for 2020. It’s a lot, but I see these as ongoing goals for this year and beyond. So here’s to a happy, healthy, and productive year for everyone!

My Year-Long Art Challenge: A Review

Last month, I finished off my year-long challenge to paint one daily abstraction for an entire year. Every day for 365 days, I completed a 2″ x 3″ abstract painting based on something I’d seen that particular day, whether it was a landscape, a bird in flight, the cats at play, and so on. Whether I was traveling, studying, or running errands, I managed to creatively interpret my surroundings, eventually producing 365 paintings (technically 366, because I did two marbled pieces one night). Today, as we embark on a new year, we’ll take a look back at this project and see the finished works as a whole.

Colors of Williamsburg (and Florida), December. This was the final month for my year-long project.

After finishing the final painting, I decided I wanted to see how all of the abstractions looked together as a whole. Although I’d consistently photographed each month’s worth of abstractions, I was curious to see what the entire year looked like as a whole. On January 1st then, I closed the doors to my study, grabbed my bundles of abstractions, and spread them out.

After about an hour of fiddling, I had this:

A year in the life, 2019. Collectively, these works measure about 5′ long by 3′ high. Each row represents a month, with January at the top, and December at the bottom. My mother thought this would make for a nice quilt, and if I ever learn quilting, maybe I’ll make it someday.

What’s interesting to me are the changes that take place over time, both seasonally and stylistically. The overall palette has a lot more green in it than the color blocks I did in Roswell, which isn’t surprising because they’re two very different ecosystems. You can definitely tell when seasons like fall happened, which also isn’t surprising since that’s my favorite season and I’ve always loved autumnal foliage.

What’s most intriguing to me is that the compositions became more complex over time. The color blocks for January and February, for example, are basically color fields with dots, which is what I was doing in the New Mexico abstractions. As I got used to painting every day, however, I started experimenting with different kinds of compositions and styles, with the latter months being more intricate while maintaining a sense of abstraction. By the end, there aren’t really a lot of color fields at all, and there’s more emphasis on asymmetrical balance. Again, I think it’s particularly evident in the fall images, where I was rendering vibrant yet similar color schemes in different ways.

So what am I going to do with all these abstractions? While I’d love to exhibit them all together someday, in the meantime I need to store them. During the year, I bundled each month with a rubber band, but for the finished project, I decided to put the paintings in a photograph album so that I can consult them easily for future projects. I can also easily them out and compare them, which I wouldn’t be able to do if I had pasted them in a scrapbook.

So do I have any particular favorite? Not really, because there are too many to just narrow it down to one (Brandon’s favorite is the one with our two cats on the right). There are some that I like more than others though, either because I especially like the colors, tried out some new technique, or otherwise challenged myself to try something new. The gingko piece on the left, for example, makes use of yellow and purple, colors I normally don’t use but work well here. The piece in the middle took inspiration from a Cubist painting I saw earlier this year, which is a different style for me. The piece on the right is whimsical without being too cutesy, and effectively sums up our two cats’ personalities. The red background, in case you’re wondering, is a red blanket they both like.

Other abstractions I like because they’re connected to pleasant memories or events. The one on the left here, for example, is based on a Heathergem brooch Brandon got me for Christmas. The one in the middle takes inspiration from a tulip poplar leaf Brandon collected for me, as he thought I would enjoy painting it. The one on the right recalls the view from I-64 as we took a trip to the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk.

Indeed, a lot of my favorite ones are connected to Brandon, as he’s enthusiastically supported me throughout this project. He was the first one to see each abstraction as it was painted, offered suggestions for potential compositions, and even brought home materials that he thought I would like to paint. It only seemed appropriate then, to end this year-long project with an image of him. And since he especially liked the paintings that featured the cats, I included them too:

So that’s been my year-long art journey, and I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished. I’ve demonstrated to myself that small interventions can build up into a big artistic project, a lesson not unlike what I what from my daily writing workshop last spring. Some abstractions I only spent five minutes on, others forty-five or more, but they all contribute to a bigger vision. As a painter, I feel more confident working both abstractly and using different painting techniques. I’ll also be using these abstractions in future works for years to come, and already have ideas for new projects. All in all, it’s been a great experience, and I’m glad I challenged myself to it.

Good Tidings, 2019 Edition

With December comes the onslaught of consumption, debate, and cheer associated with the holidays (though let’s be honest, it starts much sooner and goes away much later, if it ever does). I’ve been up to my own holiday activities too, with the main one being my annual card. Today’s post will take a look at what I’ve been printing.

Every year I try to vary my printing process, both to challenge myself and to keep things interesting for the people who receive them. The one theme unifying all my cards, however (with perhaps the exception of the first one), is the use of local or regional scenery I’ve sketched. When I was in Roswell, I featured local plant life, animals, and famous New Mexico artwork. For my first year here in Virginia, I featured one of the buildings in Colonial Williamsburg.

For 2019’s card, I decided to highlight the giant magnolia flowers that caught my attention over the spring and summer. I’d seen magnolia blooms before, but they had always been the smaller varieties that come in pink or white. I hadn’t seen the giant ones in person before though, and their luminous, almost leathery petals and strong fragrance really intrigued me. I sketched them on multiple occasions while they were in bloom, and have been experimenting with printed versions, so it only seemed fitting that I include it on the card.

This study, itself based on a quick pencil sketch I did on a bike ride, became the basis for this year’s card.

As for the actual printing technique, this year was all about using leftover materials. Initially this approach developed from necessity: I couldn’t find the supplies I wanted at the local craft store and didn’t feel like driving to Richmond. What initially started out as a frustrating lack of access, however, became an opportunity to look at what materials I already had available in a new creative light. After all, a lot of the art I’ve made takes inspiration from older, long-forgotten sketch material or unfinished prints, so why not turn the same creative eye to the actual art supplies themselves? With that, I began rummaging through my art supply chest again, and found I already had everything I needed to make my cards.

I had some leftover relief printing blocks from a workshop I taught in Roswell a few years ago, so I used one of these. I had used these to make demo carvings for my students, but they’re not the kind of block I usually like to. They have a soft, eraser-like consistency, and tend to crumble if you try to add a lot of detail, but they’d work for a small, simple magnolia.

The tissue paper after I’d cut it up.

I was originally going to print my flowers on some marbled Rives paper I’d made back in Roswell, but I didn’t have enough sheets to make a full edition (I had gone to the craft store looking for new marbling supplies). A second look in my art chest, however, revealed a whole stack of marbled tissue paper I’d done with the intention of making chine-colle prints, but never got around to doing.

Getting ready to glue the tissue paper onto card stock.

Knowing the surface would be too delicate for a block print, I cut up the tissue paper into individual squares and glued them on to a white card stock I’d gotten for metal point drawings, using Modge Podge as the binder. Once the paper dried, I began printing. I initially printed the magnolia in white ink, but it didn’t show up well against the busy marbled background, so I switched to black.

Finally, I glued the individual prints onto some card stock I picked up last year, again using Modge Podge. Here are the finished prints:

A selection of the finished cards.

I think I did a pretty good job using what I have. I’m guilty of buying art supplies while ignoring the materials I already have available, so this card exercised my creativity in a different way. Rather than just automatically buy what I wanted, I looked at what was already in my box and finally put some long-neglected materials to use. I think we’d all benefit from that kind of introspection and purposeful reuse.

Good tidings, everyone.

Ongoing Art Project: Colors of Autumn

With only a few weeks left to go in 2019, I’m coming to the final entries for my daily abstraction project. As we continue working toward the winter months, today we’ll take a look at what I’ve been painting this autumn.

Colors of September. Still pretty green (and hot and humid), but you start seeing the hints of red or yellow.

By far the one subject that has preoccupied my attention has been the foliage. Growing up in New England, I’ve long been accustomed to seeing the trees turn bright red and yellow come late September, and watching that transition is what makes autumn one of my favorite times of the year.

Williamsburg area foliage, early October to late November.

Indeed, it never really feels like fall if I don’t see those kinds of color changes, and I’ll go out of my way to experience them if I can. When I lived in Roswell, for example, I used to drive 2+ hours to Cloudcroft, the nearest place with maple trees, just so I could get some autumnal color. Knowing that I can see those changes here in Virginia just by walking through my neighborhood is yet another reason why I like living in this area.

One major difference between fall color here and in New England is the duration. It doesn’t really pick up here until well into October, but it lasts well into November. From what I remember growing up in Maine, a frost or cold wind had usually stripped off the leaves by early November, but as recently as last week I could still walk along forest paths in Williamsburg and see them glowing with yellow or red.

Colors of October. The fall foliage is definitely becoming more prominent.

It may not be quite as saturated as what you see in New England, but I really appreciate how long it lingers here. Looking back through the abstractions I’ve painted these past few months, it’s fun being able to follow along as the season unfolds, with the various greens giving way to reds and yellows.

Autumn-themed bouquets from Brandon. The chrysanthemums on the right were especially fun to paint.

While foliage has been the most frequent subject in these recently color blocks, it’s not the only topic I’ve been exploring. Brandon, ever the wonderful person he is, has periodically gotten me bouquets reflecting the season’s palettes, and these have made their way into my painting. What makes Brandon so thoughtful is that he picks out flowers based on what he thinks I’ll enjoy drawing, and these latest bouquets have been no exception.

Whether they’re inspiring jack-o-lanterns or watching strange cats outside, Gustave and Iris never cease to entertain.

The cats have also appeared with greater frequency. With the weather getting cooler, they’ve been snuggling up with us more often for warmth, so I’ve simply been seeing them more regularly. As the foliage slowly falls away and the landscape becomes more dormant, they’re always there to entertain with their antics, whether it’s chasing each other around the house, pilfering my blanket, or having a staring contest with a strange cat outside, as they do in one of the abstractions here.

In terms of technique, I’ve continued incorporating the kinds of mark-making I’ve been exploring in previous seasons, such as splatter or scraping. The most notable new addition is my exploration of duration and time.

Same tree, different days and abstractions.

These blocks, for example, all show the tree outside my study window, but on different days. What started out as mostly green with flits of yellow turned increasingly orange, and finally brown. While painting these gradually changes abstractly is new for me, the idea of revisiting the same scene at different times of day or year is not. On my previous blog, for example, I described a project where I took prints I’d made of a silo in Roswell and painted the sky to show sunsets I’d recorded at different times of year.

Same sunset, different times. I used the tree branches I could see outside my window as dividing lines between the different sections.

What is new for me is showing the shift in time within one painting. With this sunset scene, for example, I divided the colors into sections, with each part showing how the sky appeared at a specific time. So what started out as a subtle peach sunset flared out into brilliant orange, then gave way to purple. Rather than limit the block to one time, I painted it over a duration so that I could render all of its colors. I didn’t do a lot of this kind of time recording but I may continue exploring it in December.

Colors of Williamsburg, November

Autumn technically lasts for a few more weeks, but Christmas decorations have already overtaken what foliage remains, so the cultural ether has already begun to shift toward winter. In the meantime, I’ll keep finding interesting things to paint as I round off what has been a most illuminating and enriching experiment.

Ongoing Art Project: Colors of Summer

As we head into autumn, I thought I’d show you some highlights from the summer edition of my daily abstractions project.

Colors of June

In some ways, summer has been the most challenging season for me to paint so far. After the rapid and dramatic transformations of the spring, with new leaves and flowers appearing practically every day, experiencing week after week of dense, green vegetation initially seemed a little monotonous. Nothing is stagnant, of course, so there were still plenty of changes, but they were comparatively more subtle.

Colors of July

The other challenge was the weather itself. With the climate being so warm and humid at this time of year, I usually only go outside during the early morning or late evening. As a result, I simply wasn’t noticing as many changes because I was only seeing the landscape during the times of day, when the sunlight is pretty limited. And when I was outside, I mostly noticed my discomfort rather than the landscape around me.

Our trip to New England brought new subject matter such as tide pools, family barns, and stained glass windows.

All that said, I still managed to paint something different every day. A summer trip to Maine provided new subject matter (and cooler temperatures) that revitalized my interest in painting, for starters. When I was home in Williamsburg, I looked to the morning or evening skies for quite a few sketches, but I also started zeroing in on details like tree bark, things I’ve noticed for a while but didn’t paint while all the spring flowers were in bloom.

Butterfly and birds’ wings are always good sources of inspiration.

Not that there’s any shortage of flowers. Colonial Williamsburg takes its gardening very seriously, so there have been blooms across the grounds all summer. The crepe myrtles have also been in bloom, providing delightful jolts of purple, pink, and white to a primarily green landscape. Their mottled bark has also been a source of inspiration, as they’ve been shedding recently to reveal fresh, new layers. And with the flowers come butterflies and hummingbirds, those delicate jewels of the sky, as some more flourish-inclined writer might say. During one visit to the Palace Garden, I managed to see at least three different varieties of swallowtail, in addition to painted ladies and other species, which was absolutely delightful.

Left: scene from the Windsor Castle Trail at Smithfield, which Brandon and I walked one day. Right: fields from the Virginia Capital trail, with the heads of deer peeking above the leaves.

I’ve also had plenty of opportunities to explore new places. Since moving to the Pointe, I’ve been taking bike rides along the Virginia Capital Trail, which provides all kinds of new scenes and subjects to paint.

Left: from a scroll of a koi leaping up a waterfall, on view in “The Life of Animals in Japanese Art” at the National Gallery. Middle: the Space Window from the National Cathedral. Right: The main sitting room in the tea house at the Japanese Embassy.

A trip to Washington, DC during the Keio program also took me out of my regular environment. While most of what I paint is based on what I see outdoors, these three blocks take inspiration from stained glass windows, painted scrolls, and a Japanese tea house.

Three different blocks incorporating splatter: tree bark, summer gardens, and old bricks.

Beyond painting different subject matter, I’ve also been experimenting with new types of mark-making, specifically splatter. What I’ve been doing recently is taking a brush, loading it with watered-down paint or ink, and flicking the bristles across the surface. It’s been particularly effective for abstractions based on tree bark or weathered bricks covered in lichen and moss. Obviously, splatter painting has been around for a long time, but as someone who has always felt compelled to meticulously render every painting with tiny brushstrokes, exploring this type of mark-making is a big step forward for me in my ongoing exploration of abstraction.

Colors of August

So that’s what I’ve been up to this summer. Stay tuned to see how I finish out the year with the colors of autumn.

A Cat for Virginia

A few weeks ago, my parents emailed me a picture a cat belonging to their neighbor, Virginia, and asked me if I could draw of portrait of it for her.

The cat in question, who is unquestionably adorable.

Apparently, Virginia had seen a picture I’d done some years ago of a cat in my parent’s house, and all but absconded with it. My folks thought it would be a nice surprise then, to offer her a picture of one of her own cats, done by the same artist.

This is the drawing Virginia admired. Sadly, the cat pictured here, Boris, is no longer with us.

I’ll be honest: I don’t like drawing from photographs. They’re fine as references for details, but I’ve never liked copying from photos wholesale. I used to draw from photographs pretty regularly in high school, but subsequent art classes and studio sessions have instilled a preference for drawing from life. For me, drawing from a photograph is a translation of a translation, and something gets lost in the process. Don’t get me wrong, every artist has a different practice and I know several artists who work successfully with them, but I don’t count myself among them.

Virginia is one of the sweetest people I know, however, so I happily made an exception in this instance.

I started with a series of sketches to get to know the image better. Just as I know my best writing usually comes from extensive editing and revision, I need to sketch a subject several times before I feel comfortable with it and start approximating its actual appearance. Each time, I made adjustments as I honed my observations.

Eventually, I started getting something that looked less like a cartoon and more like a cat. This study then became the basis for the final drawing. I don’t draw cats regularly enough to consider myself a portraitist, but I still wanted to at least resemble what I saw in the picture.

With my final study in hand, I then began working on the final version. I started with a light pencil drawing on watercolor paper, and then went over the outlines in pen and ink. Once that dried, I erased the pencil. The drawing that Virginia had admired was rendered in charcoal, but since I knew the drawing would be traveling with me, I didn’t want it to get smeared or smudges in transit. Instead, I opted for a mixed media approach using pen and ink, ink wash, and paint.

Once I had the pencil outline, I used ink wash to begin adding values. Once that dried, I began adding paint, alternating between paint, ink wash, and line drawing to add details.

After about three or four hours, I had this:

This ended up being more fun than I thought it would. I had debated whether to keep it black and white or use color, but ultimately I was so taken with the cat’s pretty blue eyes that I felt obligated to render it in color. While I was concerned that working from a photograph would produce a stilted image, I think I managed to avoid that. The daily abstractions I’ve been painting have definitely made me more comfortable with painting in a looser manner, particularly in the cat’s body, which helped bring a sense of energy back to the composition. I’ll admit I still didn’t get the face quite right, but it’s close. As long as Virginia likes it, that’s all that matters.

Also Brandon says I need to start drawing our own cats more often.