Theory Schmeory

My “art education” apparently started at a very early age. 5 to be exact. I was in kindergarten and once a week we had time set apart to do art. Artsy craftsy is a more appropriate term, but I reveled in it. I remember with sincere fondness the sequins I chose to adorn my paper crown of David, the pipe cleaners for the crown of thorns, and the colored cotton balls I carefully glued down on my lamb of God. (Yes, I was sent to a small private Lutheran school, ugh ugh. During my nine years there, we did many art projects, mostly secular rather than religious though)

One day, however, the teacher decided to give us an introductory Lesson on Real Art Theory. She pulled out the papier mache balloons we had made from the time before, and explained that we were going to pop the balloon inside and cut the form into a flower. I remember trying to carve petals carefully with the scissors. She then pulled out pots of red, yellow and blue paint, and asked us to choose one. I chose yellow.

Egg, painting by Duane Keiser

Then she pulled out pots of green, purple, and orange paint, and assigned each of us the Complementary Color of the Primary Color we first chose. I received purple.

Hole No. 2, painting by Emily Eveleth

She then instructed all eight of us to mix together our primary color with the complementary color and use this mixture to paint our flowers.

I was crushed, I remember it well. I mixed the two together and out came this sludge, this brown bubbling mass that had lost all sense of the beauty of yellow and purple. I wondered how on earth it was fair and right to cover a delicate paper flower with dirty paste. And following the teacher’s orders, I and the others painted our flowers with this fudge which recalled anything but chocolate, though I tried really hard to see it that way. I looked at my brown flower with the greatest sadness, and then looked up. The entire room was filled with brown paint. I was surrounded by shit, and I was deeply upset.

This drawing below is one of the few that I have still have from youth. We had a swingset in our backyard, decorated with overlapping circles and a bit of rust. I loved it (I still go on swingsets when noone is looking), and so I drew it. We did not have a pond, but a kiddie pool, and the colored autumn leaves and dyslexic date show I would have been 6 years old at the time. Not long after the complementary color lesson therefore, and yet there is no sign of that important lesson in Art Theory being applied here. Thank goodness. This was just me looking, trying to get the feeling that the two-seater swing was at an angle, giving each leaf its color and shape, the chain its rings. The part that surprised me, though, is what I found on the back. If you look carefully, you can see through the paper that I had started this drawing on the other side, putting the horizon line right in the middle. I must not have liked it, so I started over. This was a matter of preference, not a learned rule, of something not seeming quite “right,” that the sky was further up and so I needed more space.

Perhaps ever since the brown flower episode, I developed a mistrust of institutional art education. Many years later I tried studying further, in high school, university, privately and at an atelier, but I always felt alone and defiant, knowing that I was committed to drawing and painting what I believed was truthful and not because someone else told me so. I preferred to investigate things myself, to try to see deeply on my own and not because I was supposed to see something. To this day, I have yet to observe a brown and say to myself, “Ah, I see yellow and purple.” Browns are infinitely richer than a formula.

Looking Squarely

A for apple. Oil on green ceramic tile, 8 x 8 inches

I have been thinking a lot lately, perhaps more than the usual. Mostly about trying to understand how I can make good art, not stupid paintings, and how this desire is linked very much to understanding what it means to be a human being. How to swim in your cappuccino, not just sip it.

Some of you may know that up until about a year ago I lived in Florence, Italy. When I decided to make the decision to close down my school and move my things back to the US, it involved dealing with well over a hundred paintings and drawings. Each canvas taken off the stretcher bars and rolled together with the others. The detested failures tossed. Inventory lists made. The panels packed into a large suitcase. I shipped my clothing and books over, but I flew over with all of my paintings as my baggage to avoid loss or damage via postal delivery. I learned the magnitude of this task.

Some of you may also know that I flew to Israel in February on an impermanent basis. My former experience of bulk has caused me to change how and what I paint, out of fear of the sheer volume I will likely create in artwork: no more big canvases on stretcher bars, panels not to exceed 50 x 70 cm, and I have even gone to working on paper for its lightness. When I find something new I really want to paint, I question its value over something I have already painted, and often I paint right on top of the old one despite knowing that technically this is not a good idea, and I never would have done it in the past. The important thing I suppose is that I do have some way to record what I am seeing and feeling.

Square Me. On the easel now, an attempt at a completely unblurred stroke painting. I am thinking about whether or not I want to include my cat in this mugshot. Oil on yellow ceramic tile, 12 x 12 inches

Recently I realized that I have already pretty much filled up my quota of panel volume, and sadly I greatly prefer them over linen or paper for their hardness and lack of texture. I was then walking one day in the factory zone near where I live, and I came across some abandoned tiles. These were not just tossed squares of ceramic to me: they were Art Materials. I lugged a few home and went back periodically for others. Of course, one is not supposed to paint on ceramic tile with oil paint; how can it possibly have permanence or resistance to change and breakage (one already broke on me, smashing onto the floor in a hundred pieces)? I did switch my medium and started using Liquin, considering it one of the most ridiculously permanent substances one can add to oil paint. Looking at these new tiles now, I have come to appreciate them for what they are: not an oil painting, but a craft, a homage to the original use of the term, a delicate and fragile one created with the same amount of observation involved in painting on linen. They are heavy though, so I will have to reluctantly return to paper and linen. And I do not have a clue about how I could ever possibly ship them.