Thursday, October 28, 2010

Moment of Anxiety

There is a moment of anxiety when I place a finished piece on the wall and see it for the first time as it should be shown. I've never known a piece to live up to my expectations as I stand back (perhaps because delusions of grandeur are the only thing that can keep me motivated to finish it) but I at least hope that I'm not disappointed. No matter how I look at a sculpture or painting while I'm working on it, how many times I hang it, arrange the individual pieces or place them together, the final hanging is always different and a surprise.
Five Wedges
(Update 2/4/11: I changed the name of this piece to
Green Chimneys)
shellac on curly maple and cherry
49" x 20" x 4"

With this one I am less disappointed than most, which I have to accept as total success.
I think it is very musical. The colors have a rhythm as you look from the right or left sides, which I wasn't expecting as much as I had planned for the wedge shapes and placement to be rhythmic. Initially, I thought viewing from the right was better, with the yellow on each piece, but now, looking from the left and seeing the red/yellow pattern, I can't choose.
I've been listening to a lot of jazz as I work and would like to think that this sculpture is influenced by Thelonious Monk. I find it amazing how the notes he plays are simultaneously completely wrong and completely perfect. I think my only disappointment in this piece is in not seeing a similar quality, something needed to be more wrong and unexpected but I'm not sure what.
close-up (right)

From the fine art world though, it is influenced by Anne Truitt. After seeing her work on-line, I wanted to play around with making 3-D pieces that were colored differently on each side. I also like how she makes paintings of minimalist 3-D forms. I debated for months whether to make this a wall piece or something for a pedestal but could never think of a good way to display them on a pedestal so I went for the wall.

close-up (left)
I also struggled for months on cutting the wedges. They might look simple but my only hope of cutting the faces with clean lines and without tear-out (because of the intense figure) was to improve my skills with handplanes. Thankfully, Garrett Hack gave a workshop on using hand tools nearby over the summer and the Vermont Arts Council gave me a grant to help pay for it. Dealing with tear-out is the most difficult problem of working with figured lumber so I'm sure my new skills will help me save a lot of time on future work.

Update (Nov. 11, 2010): I have added an image of this piece on a real wall to give a more realistic view of it.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

If I Were Three

It has been a few years since I was three, but I think if I were, I could play with these blocks all day long.
Random sizes, randomly painted, who could ask for more?
I think it is pretty darn close to impossible to avoid creating a visual masterpiece, regardless of how they are stacked.
The possibilities are endless.Each master piece is ephemeral, made once, never to be seen again, but who cares, the next will be better still.
They are made with pine and milk paint. I had never used milk paint before so I was interested to learn more about it. It is completely safe, essentially edible, made with milk proteins, limestone, and natural pigments. They are the some of the oldest paints of human history, found on cave paintings. It acts more like a stain than a modern paint so there are no brush marks left behind. Surprisingly, I couldn't find any suppliers nearby so I ordered some samples from these very nice people in Maine. When I started using it I realized that I've seen a lot of studio furniture makers use them, like David Hurwitz and Mark Del Guidice, but didn't know exactly what I was looking at. I couldn't figure out how they avoided brush marks so impeccably. It is also compliments contemporary furniture by giving a contrasting old/antique-esque look to the work.

I think I should have made a set for myself. Maybe I'll get lucky and learn that three-year-olds find them useless.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Paradise City - Northampton III Debrief

I was at the Paradise City Arts Festival in Northampton, MA over the weekend. This was my third time going to this show and I have to say it has been my favorite venue. It is a well established show that always has good crowds with plenty of people who aren't afraid to spend money, even in this economy. I can't say all the artists are selling at the level they need or expect to, but people are definitely spending money. For me, even if I'm not selling, having a large audience certainly helps in that I always get good feedback. Luckily, sales were good, especially compared to the disappointing Spring shows. I sold the new piece, Peaches and Pears, as well as an older piece, Green Grass-Summer Day, and I know a couple of people are seriously considering additional work. That, along with the additional 27 email addresses that I collected, give me hope that I can eventually earn a living making art.
Booth Shot
October 9, 2010

After the show I decided that I need to start taking notes to document what people say when they see my work. In particular, I need to count how many times I hear the exact phase "I've never seen anything like this." It is somewhat amazing to see a stream of random people walking by and hearing the first thing out of their mouths be the exact same phase. I estimate I hear it about five times a day but I'll start collecting data at the next show and then use the numbers as a gauge for evaluating success.

Other interesting comments included one person who was raving that they the work should be in museums. Unfortunately, he wasn't a curator nor did he have connections to any but I encouraged him to remember the work if he ever ran into one. Another artist stopped by and asked "Do people understand how beautiful these are?"

I also remember someone saying, "You must really enjoy making these." To which I responded, surprising myself, "No, actually I don't enjoy it." I enjoy the final piece, I enjoy thinking about them, I enjoy having a purpose to go to the lumber yard, but the actual process of making them I mostly don't enjoy. Rather, I find it to be a painful struggle that I'm compelled to complete. An endurance battle much like a marathon. Does anyone ever really enjoy running marathons? I've done them and I can't say I liked it either; still I would like to run more. I've hoped that making art would somehow get easier over time but I haven't found it to get any easier. Interestingly, I recently heard Philip Roth being interviewed on Fresh Air by Terry Gross and he said essentially the same thing. Writing has never gotten any easier for him, rather, it has always been a difficult struggle that he battles with every day. I guess I just need to get used to it (though, I'm sure, if it ever got easy I'd find something else to do -- the struggle keeps it interesting). Update Oct 22, 2010: I saw Frank Stella talk at Dartmouth College yesterday and, when someone asked whether he found more pleasure in making his art, looking at the finished piece, or looking at the work of others, he said that he doesn't find pleasure in making his art, that there are always problems that he is trying to fix which take all his attention, and that it is much more pleasurable to look at someone else's art.

In addition, I was surprised, and very humbled, to hear one artist compare my work to Agnes Martin's. I don't see it myself but have heard it enough times that there must be some truth to it. I hadn't known of her work until I made Silk Ribbons and Cherry a couple of years ago and had three people tell me that it reminded them of her paintings. Her work is so subtle that looking at images on the web is really pointless but finally saw one over the Summer. Like a whisper, it forces you to listen. If my work could do that, it would be a great accomplishment.

Another advantage of the show is meeting other artists and learning about their work. I especially like to see other people working with wood. This time I talked a bit with Mark Del Guidice, a unique and very accomplished studio furniture maker. He combines his own contemporary designs with his interesting, intuitive, hieroglyphs. They appear to tell a story but they are ambiguous enough that the viewer is drawn in and challenged to decipher them. He also adds text in morse code sometimes. I believe he creates pieces that work as an antidote to the ever increasing speeds of modern culture by slowing people down and getting them to look and think about what is in front of them.

Love Chest


This chair has morse code on the back. It says, "Relax Have A Seat."
Sanfra Chair
I was glad to see this piece of non-functional wall art. The rocks are a nice touch. It seems a little altar-esque, something that promotes contemplation and prayer.

The next show is CraftWestport, November 20 and 21.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Collaborations With Nature - Janet Van Fleet and Emiko Sawaragi Gilbert @ The Flynndog

There is a fascinating show of wood sculptures, titled Afterward, at the Flynndog Gallery in Burlington, VT, Sept 30 - Oct 29, by Emiko Sawaragi Gilbert and Janet Van Fleet. Emiko's part of the show is titled Cornucopia and Janet's is All Aboard. Both artists have collaborated with nature to create the work. They haven't carved, painted, or significantly altered what is normally viewed as refuse and debris by most people, thereby helping the viewer to see the world in new and interesting ways.

Though not in a formal gallery, complete with gallerina or even a desperate and starving gallerist, this show is likely to be one of the best you will ever wander into in Burlington; the rest of Vermont; or just about anywhere. Better still, the work is also some of the most affordable you'll find anywhere (how often do you find something that is simultaneously the best and cheapest of any category -- the only other example I can think of is the hummus at the Mediterranean Bakery and Cafe in Alexandria, Va.) -- all but two of Emiko's pieces are available to a loving home as gifts from her and the Vermont forest from which they came (contact her at while all of Janet's pieces, which she vows are not returning to her now clean studio, have no prices because she is happy to accept offers (call her at 802-272-5956 and name your price). Hence, this is a great place to do early holiday shopping (Janet's work is available as individual pieces or as their current groupings).

In Cornucopia, Emiko has used "scrap" branches and trees, left over from a firewood collection event, that are reshaped into interesting forms. Each is made from a single, continuous section of a tree. They are so well crafted that you first wonder whether the forms are natural tree growths or caused by some other force of nature (bugs? wind?).

In this one, If I Dream, she has created a womb-like bulb.

If I Dream

Here is another view and closeup of the same piece.
If I Dream (closeup)

The title piece, Cornucopia, is the easiest to identify by its title.

I believe this piece, Janice, is a portrait, but perhaps more a portrait of spirit than physical features.

With It she has created two delicate cocoon-like leaf balls. Has the tree curled up to protect itself from insects or have insects attacked it and drawn the branches together?

Initially, when I saw this single drawing (a series of vertical graphite lines that subtly forms a shadow of a figure) in the show, I thought it was out of place, but after thinking about it a while I realized that it was a metaphor for the rest of the show, a person present, but in the shadows, subtly influencing what is present.
graphite on paper

In Janet Van Fleet's half of the show, titled All Aboard, she has cleaned out her studio and repurposed hundreds(?) of found object sculptures from the last 12 years to create a metaphorical and visual "train" that depicts life in all its beauty and ugliness.

Appropriately, The Eagle Points The Way To A Different Future, leads the parade.
All Aboard

Though old and decrepit, the eagle seems to have the wisdom needed for charting a better direction. With this closeup you can see his gnarly wood face and driftwood chip feathers.
Eagle Closeup

The show includes many of Janet's wonderful teapots. I love how they have their own unique personalities. It is fascinating to see how she has imbued them all with a touch of humanity.

Several years ago Janet made a wonderful video, titled March of the Teapots, that shows just how much personality they have as they leave her studio in Barre, VT and make their way to a show in St. Johnsbury, VT. It is well worth watching.

There is also this great little piano dancer. The toy piano really makes the piece.

Here is a reincarnation piece made with a poem by Janet's mother. You can read more about the making of the piece and the full text of the poem on her blog here.

I like how these tiny nail/screw people seem to be picking apart the flesh like ants. Great found wood head.
Reincarnation (closeup)

Then there are these greedy Cowbirds (with their gold hands) that seem to be dancing around their trophies (Janet said she thinks they are surrounding slaves but like most of her work, it is open for interpretation). They also have a trail of dollars following behind them (lots of foreign currency with unknown value along with some greenbacks).
They look rather happy, dancing around in all their hubris.
Cowbirds closeup

I find this funeral piece to be more fun and funny than sad.

The musician seems joyous and I really like the guy in the cart on the lower level (titled Bring Out Your Dead) -- he makes me think of this classic "Not Dead Yet" skit from Monty Python's Holy Grail movie (amazingly, it is always just as funny whether you're watching it for the 1st or the 100th time).

I don't think this hangman/puppeteer is up to any good, he might even have some fascist tendencies with his fork hand (which I love) and all those military medals while standing above segregated/compartmentalized objects (broken glass, buttons, baby shoes, and a small collection of her wonderful nail people, among other things).

This piece is definitely in the "up to no good" category. Plenty of fighting and killing going on.


The Prophecy piece seems to be made from a series of self-important and condescending priests, each with odd heads that are nothing like the self image portraits they carry around. I don't normally think of priests or prophets as narcissistic but their lack of self-knowledge seems to indicate a high level of self-absorption.

This is the best head of the bunch, a grotesque rotting dead lizard(?) made from chicken bones and a tree root.
Prophecy (closeup)

Then, back in the fun/pleasant category, there is this surrealistic fish chariot piece.
Fish Chariot

Also in the happy category is this coupling piece. It is good to see a loving lesbian couple made the parade as well.

There is also this burlap ash covered beggar. Very realistic, complete with polio-stricken and atrophied (though surprisingly still useful) legs. I'd bet if you left him on a busy street during the day he could actually earn his keep.

And finally, there is this pair that Janet said were titled Adam and Eve for a show years ago. I don't think they have to represent the apocryphal primordial couple, they could be just any pair, or non-pair, but I like their exaggeratedly long legs and the courage they show in their armless existence.
Adam and Eve