February 24, 2017

Weekly Project Preview

Sometimes it is a walk in the park. Literally and figuratively. With the sun shining and temps in the 70s (in February????), I went for a walk along Forbidden Drive in Fairmount Park. I couldn't help but pull out my phone to snap pics of the very subject I plan to explore in my upcoming weekly self-assignment. They're everywhere! Here's a preview. The first is constructed - I believe it used to be a spout or spigot for running water (there was a trough beneath it) - the rest are natural rock formations.

February 22, 2017

Stretch & Sketch, Deliberately

With my yearly intention to stretch beyond my comfort zone and my need to resume being a working artist percolating away at all times, these are the things I have been focused on or noticing as of late.

Beginning, following through, and finishing
I have great energy and excitement when planning new craft projects. I gather and/or purchase all the materials and tools I need to make said project. And then, usually, my engine stalls. With this knowledge, I am pushing myself to finish half-started projects and follow through on the not-yet-begun-but-have-all-the-stuff projects. This is somewhat easier to dedicate my time to now that I have given myself permission to craft. All the crafting is building my art making skill set and I'm getting some pretty cool, useful things from the bargain.
Daily practice, assignments, and accountability
I started the series of Sketchbook posts here with the idea that they would serve as an accountability tool; that through these posts I would hold myself accountable to a daily art practice. Only thing is, I had no articulated goal for regularity of posts nor subject matter to provide necessary focus. Well, now I've got it. All the research and note taking and brainstorming and word play I have been doing in my physical sketchbook have blossomed (exploded is more like it) into an assignment. I've never committed to a regimen like this before, have even scoffed at the idea previously if I am totally honest, but it feels like it is exactly right for right now. When the one material I had to order arrives, I will begin a series of weekly pieces for the duration of (at least) one year. Fifty-two weeks, 52 textile pieces exploring a single theme.

I am revved up to begin this project. My goals are simple but important.
  • In committing to a weekly practice I am committing to myself and to my art. 
  • In committing to textiles I will practice a set of skills I wish to acquire. 
  • In committing to a single media, albeit wide-ranging, I will engage my inventiveness.
  • In committing to a single theme I will deepen and broaden my understanding of the theme. 
I am fully aware that this practice is going to be challenging for me. I won't like everything I make, pieces will fail, my skills won't be up to snuff, I won't have enough time every week to do what I intend, I will run out of ideas, I will repeat myself. . . The regimen and deadlines will allow me to get past my pesky nay-saying ego. I will show up. I will do the work. I will share the work. I will learn. I will grow.

February 17, 2017

Compounding Synchronicities

Woah! You ever have a powerful BAM moment when all sorts of stuff comes together, falls into place, and opens the way to move forward? When these "ah-ha!" moments happen to me, I'm usually in the shower. (That's the window in my shower, pictured above, covered with a frosted panel that allows in sunlight while providing privacy.) The shower. Quite possibly the most inconvenient place to grab a notebook and scribble it down before I forget it. And I do usually forget it, because, even though powerful, these insights are ever so fleeting and not often articulated in fully developed sentences for easy transcription. They're most often a glimmer, a feeling, a nuance. This time, though, I held onto it for it was more fully developed than usual.
Several synchronicities have been piling up for me, stemming from The Magic of Myth workshop and my commitment to re-establishing my art practice. With this month's Magic of Myth focus on commitment and serenity in the back of my mind, I read the following passage shared by the poet Carolina Ebeid in In the Company of Women: Inspiration and Advice from over 100 Makers, Artists, and Entrepreneurs by Grace Bonney.
Reading this is so helpful. I substitute "art making" for "writing." I have been focused on my daily art practice as making something every day, or working actively on something every day - "something" being a physical piece of art or a component of a piece of art. I have been failing to do this. And have been beating myself up for this supposed failure.

What I have been doing, though, is art making. The "idleness and thinking" and "reading and engaging with other art forms." I have pages upon pages of notes, jots, inklings, ideas for development, questions to answer, further research to investigate. This is all part of it. Part of my commitment to make art. (I actually touched on this previously, but reminders and encouragement from any quarter are welcome and necessary.)

Another synchronicity that made me sit up and take notice was similar themes and strategies around commitment and follow-through being addressed in a Magic of Myth video and this blog post by Ann Wood (a follow-up to the one I shared in my last post). Combined with the revelation / reminder above, all of this unlocked a sticky stubbornness of mine and provided such a feeling of ease and "rightness." 

Specifically, this unlocking granted myself permission to craft. To make useful things that are not part of my art practice. Until now I have felt a bit guilty for my crafting; for making a lampshade or knitting or learning to make clothing. Guilt for putting so much time and effort into non-art* when what I really want and need to do is make art. But here's the thing, crafting is building my skill set with textiles. I am learning new skills without the added art pressure of bearing my soul at the same time. At this stage, for me, crafting is art making. Just as reading is art making, and walking in the woods is art making. 

Put another way, I look back on my time at art school as a fully immersive experience with a single goal; to develop my artistic voice and learn the necessary skills to express it. I learned to express my voice with photography. Now, I still have my artistic voice but I am learning a new language with which to express it. This new language is textiles. By crafting, I am learning the skills I need to express my artistic voice with textiles.

The BAM moment in a nutshell? It's all connected. Every activity or inactivity that supports art making is art making. So stop already with the self-guilt and keep doing what you're doing. Congratulations, you are on the right path.

*The distinction between craft and art to which I allude is utterly personal and non-judgemental. My art projects grapple with feminist ideas and concepts while my craft projects grapple with design and engineering. Obviously, craft is art and art is craft. For me, though, making a lampshade is not my art.

February 15, 2017

Sprinting

With the imperative to just do it freshly percolating in my world, and with encouragement from this synchronous post about the creative sprint by Ann Wood, I got out of my head and on with the project at hand - the completely reversible, apartment friendly, ugly light fixture makeover.
Why I have been racking my brains to engineer a way to thoroughly stiffen the fabric panels so they don't shift around or wilt while simultaneously attaching them to the spines of the clock cage / lamp shade doesn't really matter. Why I wanted to avoid sewing at all costs doesn't matter. (Which is good, because I can't answer either question.) Instead, applying Ann Wood's creative sprint suggestion to just push on with it to completion, I got out a spool of lovely linen thread and gigantic milliner's needle and started stitching.
And here's a funny thing - two funny things, actually. 1) I love how the stitching looks. I can't imagine the lamp shade without the lashings (ugh, dull beyond belief). The linen spiraling along the aged, pocked metal spines adds wonderful visual and tactile interest. 2) The one reason of which I am aware for trying to avoid sewing was that I wanted nothing to do with the tedious, repetitive, time-consuming task. Which is utter poppycock! I love tedious, repetitive, time-consuming creative tasks. Which just goes to show that staying in my head for too long is not good for me nor my head. With that said, back to stitching. Completion is imminent.

February 10, 2017

Art, Identity & Doing the Work, Part 2

a loose continuation of the previous post

I'm exploring the trials, tribulations, and traumas of losing one's voice as an artist. Silenced for any reason - be it lack of funds, lack of access to technology and tools, lack of ideas/creative block, paralysis from too many ideas, paralysis from mental illness, fear of failure, fear of success - a non-working artist is an unhappy artist (to say the least). As with everything in life, once inertia sets in, it's really, really hard to re-establish a daily habit or discipline. But the only way to do it is, well, to do it. Simply said, tremendously challenging to put in practice.
Personally, as you know if you'd been here for a while, I've been dabbling in media other than photography, searching for a way back into my art practice. Some of these attempts have sparked fire, but the fire soon burns out. Sustaining the energy and interest to create daily has remained elusive. 

As I continue to search for a new means of expression, with the kind of photography I do seemingly out of reach, I have repeatedly and unhelpfully returned to brooding about whether or not I am still a photographer and seeking to answer why I have not embraced digital photography. Trying to find a behavioral or psychological answer to "why this" or "why not that" is usually beside the point. The questions I am asking might not even be the right questions. I turn inward instead of outward. I brood instead of doing. Brooding obsessively never gets me anywhere except into a nasty funk. This brooding of mine is self-defeating because being low makes the climb back to art making all that more challenging and the goal more distant. Knowing this, and heading down that slippery slope of obsessive brooding, I fully embraced the recent suggestion to write down all the things I love about darkroom color photography.

What poured forth shouldn't have been a surprise. Getting it out of my head and onto paper was eye-opening and completely in character. I have to laugh at myself because it's so damn obvious and yet remained hidden to myself. 
  1.  I love the anticipation and delay inherent in traditional photography. Shooting negatives, not knowing what they will look like until the entire roll is shot and processed and then translated into prints.
  2. I love the physicality of darkroom printing. Touching and handling the negatives and paper, adjusting the enlarger, changing the color balance in the filter pack... All of it is physical, real, touchable.
  3. Because I understand the mechanics behind it all - manual camera operation, lens optics, enlarger alignment, film properties, etc. - I can adjust, alter, or repair any aspect that needs to be addressed.
  4. I do the thinking and deciding. Technology and push button automation don't take the process out of my hands or beyond my understanding. 
A peek at the bigger picture. I don't like driving cars with automatic transmissions. I wish cars were still made with window cranks and locks operated by keys. The more computerized and automated our cars and other products become, the harder they are to troubleshoot and fix, more can go wrong than the average person, or even the best mechanic, can figure out. I don't like this. I read books made of paper pages, not books on a digital device. Ditto for other printed media. Given the choice, I almost always pick the physical over the digital, the mechanical over the computerized. It's just how I roll. Why should I believe I'd feel any differently about photography?
With this basic self-knowledge, I have a plan. I do like a good plan. With bite-sized action steps. (See? Action steps = doing, = getting out of my brooding head, = first steps to re-establishing art practice.) 
  1. Shoot a roll of fresh film with the old 35mm film camera to test equipment for proper operation
  2. Get film processed and proofed (have contact sheet or small prints made)
  3. If necessary, repair camera and repeat steps 1 & 2
  4. Continue to shoot film
  5. Hook up film scanner and learn to use it
  6. Try emulating darkroom process with computer, see if I like / hate it
  7. Like it, continue. Hate it, move on.
The jump from #4 to #5 is a leap of faith for me. I don't particularly want to do this, but I need to do it. Turns out I've been holding out for darkroom access that no longer exists. At least in the photographic arts places I know in the US. Only in the past few days have I taken the initiative to discover that they all have eliminated their color darkrooms. So there it is. I have to move on to digital printing. There is no other way offered to print large format color photographs. By using film and shooting with a completely mechanical camera - no automation whatsoever - I'll retain the anticipation and delay that I love and have control and physicality in the process. This was the key that unlocked most of my resistance. 

Simultaneously, while experimenting with this photo process, I have a project under way that I have returned to time and again over the past couple of years. It may incorporate photographs at some point, but as of now I'm not sure how that would happen. While my vision is for life-sized pieces, I don't have the space or funds to work at that scale. I'm moving forward with miniature, scale models of the final pieces. As working small is more budget friendly, I'm allowing myself more freedom to experiment and make mistakes. And, bonus for me, this project requires a lot of research. I'm having a blast.
I constantly need to remind myself to just do it. That the process of creating is key. That doing the work is what's important. That everything else works itself out through the daily practice of making. But getting started again with the daily creative discipline can seem impossible. Blockages, challenges, or inertia can feel insurmountable. These books have been, and continue to be, the kick in the butt that encourages me to to take that first, enormous step back into the work.
Do you struggle with a creative practice? What do you do or read for encouragement to get back into your work? Please share in the comments so we may learn from each others' stories and find encouragement and inspiration together.

February 7, 2017

Art, Identity & Doing the Work

1998 invitation to Louise Bourgeois show at Wood Street Galleries, Pittsburgh, PA
 (camera at top is a magnet, not part of the image)
Artists, makers, writers, creatives - you know who you are - how do you feel when you aren't doing your work? The work near and dear to you, not the job(s) that pay the rent. Personally, not working makes me feel like half a human at best. I've written more than one post here about identity as an artist, struggling to find a medium after color photo technology left the darkroom and I did not follow, and trying to find a way back into the work. And it is a struggle. A mighty struggle because not working, not making art, is akin to not breathing. Or not breathing enough. It's not a complete flat-line, but brain activity is definitely slowed, sluggish. Joy is dimmed, obscured. What is a potter without a wheel, a weaver without a loom, a writer without a pen, an artist without the necessary tools of expression?

I have been processing (ugh - bad photography pun is intentional, sorry) this lack of identity, lack of a voice, for a decade now. Am I any wiser? I don't know. But I do know that I keep flipping back and forth between believing I a photographer without an outlet (color darkroom access*), a photographer who needs to learn to print digitally so I do have an outlet (halfway down this post), and the possibility that I am no longer a photographer (this post). Is my resistance to digital photography self-defeating or self-preserving?

I have a lot more to say about this - I have been wrestling with it for 10 years now, people - but in the interest of brevity, here's a few things that are somewhat related to this question of artistic identity/output that I have found helpful. They all come from participation in The Magic of Myth: The End of the Quest, an online class through Squam Art Workshops.
  • The King's Stilts by Dr. Seuss
    A wonderful story (it doesn't rhyme! I had no idea Dr. Seuss wrote without rhyming) that serves as a reminder to follow and practice your joy, art or whatever it may be; or deny your true nature, silence your voice, and be no good to yourself or anyone else.
  • "Make Good Art" commencement address by Neil Gaiman
    Exactly as the title expresses - no matter what external crap or greatness is happening, continue to make good art that is a an expression of the unique you. Link above connects to the video of the speech.
  • This quote from an article I have yet to read,
    "I was telling the story as a victim of my circumstances, as though it was happening to me. The truth that set me free, ultimately, was that it had all happened or been perpetuated through me—and I could author a change as soon as I wished."
    Guilty of this one. The story I tell myself is that I stopped making photographs because I lost darkroom access. When, in fact, I could be making photographs digitally. But, for some reason(s), I have not "authored" this change in working methods.
  • The prescient suggestion to write down what it is I love about the color darkroom process and to explore if these elements can be found in other forms of visual expression.
    This exercise, in combination with the elements listed above, has led to a subtle shifting. Whether the shift sticks or not, I have no way of knowing. But this is progress.
I know that making art is the important thing, the necessary thing, for me to do. Whether it's with photography in one form or another plagues me. It plagues me because it is how I see, it is familiar, it is what I am trained in, it is what I have lived and practiced since the 90s. But, since I can't do it the way I would like to - in the darkroom - what now?  . . . to be continued in the next post

*The color darkrooms I have used over the years are not the sort of thing you can rig up in a bathroom or closet. The print is exposed with an enlarger, similar to black and white printing. Rather than developing and fixing the print in open trays of chemicals, however, the exposed color print is fed into a processor. The processor is a large, cube shaped machine that consists of internal rollers and separate chemical baths. The exposed print is fed through the machine and chemical baths by the rollers and comes out the end a finished print.