Are you a painter, a sculptor or both?

Summer is finally here, and with it comes the very precious daydreaming time I need to let my work flow freely. Paintings to create, sculptures to finish and mould, and an installation project to put together; those are my summer work plans. And as I reflect on them, looking at the steps each requires, I realize how very different but, at the same time, how very similar they are. To me, they’re different in the creative process but very similar in their spirit.

The Rocker, limited edition of 25, hydrostone gypsum cement, 6″ x 6 1/2″ x 5″

Many artists consider themselves either painters or sculptors, but rarely both. I play with all of it because each way of working provides its own reward and allows a fresh perspective from which to visit an idea. Painting offers me a place of further freedom simply because a blank canvas offers an opportunity to create a new world. Sculpture, on the other hand, tends to present more ‘material’ limitations. In fact, the level of ‘limitation’ varies for each material. Glass, for example, is a very bossy material that comes with precise rules one must abide by. But if you can put up with its neediness, it’s one of the richest, most dignified materials to cast. Clay is more forgiving, but it’s still not as free flowing as painting.

Larry Cornett, in his blog titled When it comes to creativity, are you a sculptor or a painter? approaches the subject this way: “Painters visualize and place their dream on the canvas. It can be anything they want. A purple cat? No problem. Clocks that melt and drape over tree branches? But of course! If they can imagine it, it can be. Sculptors have to be much more realistic about what can be brought forth from the stone. A granite block cannot reveal a fluttering red feather boa. There are limitations imposed by the material and the tools.”

The lovers, limited edition of 25, hydrostone gypsum cement 5 1/2″ x 5″ x 2 1/2″

And what about installation work? It can be anything you want, but it focuses on occupying a space. In that sense, the choice of material is guided by what is relevant for the space. Wikipedia defines it as “An artistic genre of three-dimensional works that often are site-specific and designed to transform the perception of a space.” The installation I’m focusing on this summer is the final step of a community engagement project I’ve been working on since September. I will elaborate on it in a future blog sometime soon when I’ve seen the final product as well as the interaction of the community group with it. What I want to say for now is that creating an installation is an opportunity to focus on a concept, and share an idea by using materials that will best convey that concept. In other words: the idea comes first. The choice of material, second.

Communion, limited edition pf 25,hydrostone gypsum cement, 8″ x 8″ x 6″

 

After 20 years as an artist, I know I’m comfortable with, and even excited about, working with a variety of materials and techniques, but I realize that some might fear that this risks creating confusion. In my case it’s coherent with what I’m trying to express. All my current work has a common underlying spirit that is true to the way I want to exist in this wonderful world. Each piece flows with life and speaks of entanglement with each other and with our environment, no matter what the material!

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Learning to be Afraid: becoming an artist

Broken, oil on canvas, 30″ x 24″

I recently saw a friend’s post on Instagram about being afraid and working through it, and since then I’ve been thinking about the time in my life 20 years ago when I had to overcome my own fear. But I’m pretty sure, that at some point in our lives, we all have to make difficult choices with uncertain outcomes, and that that process can be justifiably frightening. Sometimes, though, those fears can be overwhelming.

Life has been pretty peachy for me so far but, like everybody else, I have felt deep fear, and in some cases it felt like it was for no particular reason at all. Let’s face it: no lion has ever threatened to eat me! However, those nameless, faceless fears still find a way to bore into my head once in a while.

I decided to become a full time artist more than 20 years ago, when my first child was about two years old, when I started a day-home simply because I couldn’t imagine having to drag my own children to daycare every day. (Please know that I have tremendous respect for all the parents out there that have maintained a ‘real’ job while having babies. It’s not an easy task; it just wasn’t for me.)

Once the boys became less demanding, I figured that becoming a full time artist would allow me to keep working from home. But, above all, it was what I had always dreamed of for myself. At first, I was incredibly excited! I was going to embark on my lifelong dream and spend my time creating works of art. But a couple weeks into it – just about the time my former self would have been expecting that first paycheque for a ‘real’ job well done – fear arrived and made itself at home.  I was terrified.  I had no idea what I was doing, how to go about it, or what decisions to make that would at least generate an income that could pay for paint and canvases. Yeah, I know. Poor planning.

The colour of fear, oil on canvas, 24″ x 36″

But in my defence, I really felt that if I didn’t jump into it, I’d never make it happen. Nevertheless, as I realized the magnitude of the uncertainty I had created for myself, I started having daily panic attacks. They would always come in the evenings as I was getting tired, when I knew I had to make a decision. Then a very clever old lady told me, “No matter what you do, one morning you will open your eyes and it will be your 40th birthday. You can wake up as an artist or as something else you don’t really want to be. It’s up to you.” Clearly I had only two options. I could give up my dream and go back to a steady pay cheque with a predictable work path, or, I could stick with it and find a way through the anxiety.

Somehow I knew then I had to push through those panic attacks, so I thought I would organize myself around them. I stopped fighting, and instead welcomed them every day.  I made sure I was set up comfortably on the couch with a blanket, a glass of water and whatever I thought I would need, so I wouldn’t have to move. I tried to focus entirely on the panic attack. And when the waves of shivers and worries came over me, I sank deep into them.  I tried to feel them moment by moment, in every part of my body. I observed them, even if it was uncomfortable.  And, eventually, I came to love them.  

Diffusion, oil on board, 48″ x 48″

It felt that the more I relaxed into the fear, and surrendered to all the physical sensations that came with it, the more I felt a deep connection to the world.  Sometimes, flashes of clarity would appear unexpectedly.  Those felt like precious tidbits of knowledge I needed at that moment – precious life lessons I could put to use right away in my work and in my personal life.

Eventually, as I found a routine with my work, and the first stable sources of income came out of the work I did, I grew out of the panic attacks. With the help of my husband, who is a pro at organizing work and immensely supportive of what I do, I created a structure for my work, some goals, and a way of working that brought enough peace to keep me going. Since then, things have come together nicely and my work is largely fear free. Now I can use whatever fear that creeps back into my life as a source of inspiration for my artworks.

Today, those early anxiety attacks are all a distant memory. But my young friend’s instagram post encouraged me to remember and share my early experiences after I published last week’s blog “Naively Optimistic”. Maybe I wasn’t so naïve after all. Maybe I had a sense that being an artist would be more than a job; that it would become my life’s journey because none of the work we do as artists is done on the surface. It demands deep introspection and recognition of what life presents us.

More change will come in my life. I’m certain of that. In fact it’s just about the only thing that I am certain of! My hope is, that in the face of uncertainty to come, I will have enough wisdom to surrender to it once again, and to make the most of it, using the energy it will stir to create meaningful artwork.

 

 

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Longing for lazy days: a series speaking of Nature’s entanglements

Some time ago, after painting realistic landscapes for ten years, I began looking for my own visual voice. I had realized that the landscapes I’d been painting could no longer speak of the depth and magic of my relationship with the natural world. So I set out to paint differently, to paint in a way that truly speaks of who I am, of what I value, of what I want to bring to the world, and to leave behind. This led me to think deeply about what has influenced my visual world and I soon found myself longing for the lazy summer days of my childhood.

Connected, 24″ x 30″, Oil on cabevas

When we were little girls, my sister and I would float on the Chenal du Moine close to the small village of Notre-Dame-de-Pierreville. Our family cabin stood on a small dirt hill protected against the yearly spring floods, and we were two little girls free to find time to daydream in the dark waters of this gentle river.

Those delicious summer days flowed into one another as we followed the warm currents that led us to Saint-Pierre Lake. As we sat on our life jackets, the water surrounded us with its love and patience and we reciprocated fully. Trusting in its arms, we stood witness to its infinite creations: the plants, the insects, the trees, the fish. It felt magical and boundless and we sensed we were part of it, savouring the smells, the sounds and the landscape. Our skin drank the sun, the water and the wind and we were nourished by Nature’s infinite wealth.

At night, I would dream. I would dream of water, trees and sky. I would find myself floating again, this time, amongst the clouds. Sitting on my life jacket, I would weightlessly travel the sky. My subconscious reviling the ultimate expression of the freedom that lived within us during those summer days. Protected from the watchful eyes of adults, my visual and emotional world was taking shape, strongly rooted in the water and in the forest.

Longing for lazy days, acrylic on canevas, 40″ x 60″

Today, I strive to reproduce those childhood experiences through my creative process and to visually express the powerful emotions they awake in me. My work is a visual expression of that sense of freedom, of communion with nature, and with the world. I long to reproduce those experiences, but being an adult with a to-do list that never ends, I find the only place I can replicate that feeling is while I paint them. Today, in every piece I paint, I make a deliberate decision to, at least emotionally, plunge back into those delicious lazy summer days and to express the magnitude of their grip on my being. And my hope is that I can share them with you, offering the peace and magic they have instilled in me.

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How do you know when a painting is finished?

My students see the evolution of my work. I’m a slow painter and paintings hang on my studio walls for weeks, so my students see the work from the original charcoal drawing to the final brush stoke. Some of them notice the process; others don’t. Some ask questions and all of them seem interested in my answers. But the other day one of the boys asked, “So? How do you know when it’s done?”

I love their questions. They force me to be more reflective about my own paintings, so I can be more intentional about transferring my own learning to their projects. When this delightful young man asked how I would know when my painting was done, I said, “When none of the colours jump out at me; when the colours are in equal balance. But I know for a fact that my rules of colour are different from other artists and from people who look at my work.”

“You see, my dad was seriously colour-blind. One day, he went shopping for a new car and came home bragging about the new station wagon he’d just bought. We were all pretty excited of course – at least until we had a look at it. It was bright neon orange! “I got a great deal on it,” he said proudly.” None of us had the heart to tell him why that salesman was undoubtedly bragging to his family that he’d finally unloaded that awful orange wagon. But, needless to say, we all came to love it despite its colour and, whenever we’re together, my sister and two brothers still tell stories about that ugly orange wagon dragging all 6 of us to the cabin every weekend.

Detail of The orange cat

Two of my three sons have inherited my dad’s colour-blindness so, to me, colour is an objective thing and colour balance can only be discerned by the viewer. In fact, the use of colour is what makes the ‘voice’ of each visual artist unique. And I think I’m a slow painter because that pace allows me to disappear into the process, to engage in a real dialogue with the colours. In a world where the private gallery system wants us to pop paintings out at an alarming rate, I go against the current and paint slowly. Not because I can’t paint fast, but because I’ve created a process for myself that allows me to spend the time to really see the colours live beside one another as the canvas fills. During that time I can observe the evolution of their relationships, and I can feel the tensions and releases between them. Being involved with a work of art for many hours makes me feel as though the whole world is contained in that one canvas. It’s a simpler version of the world, where everything exists in a state of respect for what surrounds it, and where I can exist as part of the process.

Detail of The orange cat

I have no idea how other people see it. But, to be honest, that’s not relevant. The only way for an artist to get to where she is going is to follow the path that her work is tracing for her, and to make abstraction of the outside world when it comes to painting decisions. One painting at a time is how an artist moves forward, each piece paving the way for the next work.

But, strangely, as soon as the painting is finished it doesn’t belong to me anymore. As much as I live in them while I’m painting, once done, my mind has moved on to the next project and the art has become part of a larger world that is out of my control. As Katie Ohe once told me, “All an artist can do is believe in what he does.”

My painting is finished when it feels right to me.

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The Big De-clutter: What do artists do with their unsold paintings?

I spent a few hours this fall helping friends empty their house, and that was totally traumatized!

It was an immense task, and I was forced to admit that emptying a big house of its unnecessary possessions has been waiting for me in my own home for longer than I care to admit. All of a sudden, the weight of my stuff became unbearable. So, rather than getting ahead in my marketing and painting work over the Christmas break as I had intended, I embarked on a massive and obsessive de-cluttering.

I went through every room, every drawer, and every closet and either gave or chucked away everything that we no longer used or that no longer make me happy. This, naturally, was pretty stressful for my husband and my sons. (I think my husband wondered if he was in line for the dumpster!) But soon, we all got into the process and everyone offered some of their personal possessions to dispose of. It was a gruelling process that took a lot of hours, and every new drawer I tackled made me want to take a break. But I pushed through and am glad I did.

Today I feel lighter and more optimistic. Our home feels under control and somehow, so does my state of mind. As Bustle says in his blog, 6 Benefits of De-cluttering Your Life, According To Science, “It’s good to know there is a connection between junk and other problems. We can all feel it when our desks are messy, or our kitchens out of sorts. It’s unsettling, and can hold you back from getting stuff done in life.”

Although I already feel the benefits of our de-cluttering, I still want to get rid of more things. Is this a symptom of my mind needing even more space and freedom? It could very well be. What is stopping me then, other than the fact that I have to get some work done now? I’m wondering that myself. I can certainly get rid of a lot more in my closet, but what about my studio and my sculpture shop? That is a lot more challenging.

Supply shelves in my studio

All of us who are artsy and handy know the joy of having exactly what you need close at hand when you are working on a project. Unless an artist works strictly on his computer, he needs plenty of studio materials. Having a stock of various supplies available in-house saves a lot of time and allows for the creative process to flow without interruptions. So as a visual artist, there will always be a limit to how much I can de-clutter those spaces if I want to keep productive.

However, when it comes to finished work, unsold stock is a much more difficult issue. Even the most popular artists accumulate impressive amounts of unsold work; it’s an unavoidable issue. I have an artist friend who started working on paper rather than canvass because she couldn’t stand the accumulated stock of unsold paintings. She turned to paper because it takes a lot less space.

My stock of unsold paintings, for now!

A few years ago, I had a conversation with a friend of mine who, at the time, was working for Alberta Foundation for the Arts. Part of his responsibility involved visiting aging artists’ studios to look through their inventories. The older an artist is, the more stock he has, and my friend told me that in some cases, there were many rooms stockpiled with paintings, despite the fact they reported that they had resorted to burning much of it. At first, I was shocked. It seemed like an extreme measure but, upon reflection, I realized it makes a lot of sense. Out of respect for the collectors who own some of their work, it may be a good idea to make sure that the market isn’t flooded with work at the time of the artist’s death. And, out of self-respect, it’s probably a good idea to destroy work that no longer makes you feel proud.

In light of this, I added a new rule to my professional practice. Every two years or so, I shred or burn any unsold work that I am not really proud of. (And no, you can’t have it for free!) The whole point is to make sure that whatever I leave behind after I die is a legacy that I’m entirely proud of, even if it’s only for my children to cherish. I want the work that remains in the world after my passing to represent what I was trying to create in the best light. My hope is that I will leave beauty behind, confident that through the years it will never be considered clutter by whomever owns it.

Artists out there, what do you do with your unsold paintings?

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A Toddler Could Have Painted That!

Last week I hired a woman to clean my house. Trust me, my house needed it. I freely admit that I much prefer to be in my studio. And besides, I share this house with a bunch of boys who just don’t see the dirt and mess, as a result the house gets seriously neglected. This lovely women with lots of life experience was a welcome help.

As I was showing my new cleaner around the house that first time, she commented on all my work – truly a collection that represents every step of my progress as an artist. She loved the landscapes and the ceramic flowers, and went on to tell me how she just doesn’t “get those paintings with the rectangles. A toddler could paint those,” she proclaimed. Then we walked into my studio and she saw my newer work. I could tell she was trying to find something in them to relate to, but it was difficult for her. “These are much better than all those rectangle paintings” she said diplomatically.

I like this woman. She’s hard working and honest, and I certainly wasn’t going to allow her comment to spoil my cleaning day with her. So, while I was tiding up as fast as I could to stay ahead of her energizer pace, I wondered what are we artists doing wrong? Why is it that people with lots of life experience don’t understand the first thing about abstract paintings? Why is it that they actually believe that a child could paint a Jackson Pollock?

Does the art world not communicate? Or do we communicate in an unaccessible language? Maybe it’s a little bit of both. Many people feel completely disconnected from the language used by contemporary artists when they talk about their work. I think, too, that the school system fails to provide a basic understanding of art because the curriculum sticks to a very limited list of old masters. Today’s students have very little exposure to new work and new ways to approach and talk about art. Let’s face it: football and hockey are a much bigger part of the general culture. And frankly, most homes are decorated with cheap cookie-cutter prints bought at big-box stores. Those prints by the way, do not put any interesting amount of income in the artist’s pocket.

I realize that art is important to me, and that it’s not important for a lot of people. But I strongly believe that all of us should have at least some understanding of the critical importance of abstract work throughout our history. It requires us to have an inquiring mind – to look beyond the surface and to be open to seeing the human condition in its many manifestations. It’s a skill we should all learn because in the 21st Century, we live in a complex society among myriad cultures with incredibly diverse ways of understanding. Abstract art requires us to acknowledge that truly understanding one another is enormously challenging. But once our minds are open to that challenge, we all benefit from learning to see with different eyes.

Photo credit Jessica Labrie

“A five year old could paint this!” Every professional abstract painter out there has heard that particular critique and, believe me, they cringe every time.

So? Does Marla Olmstead’s work belong in a museum or on the fridge? Slate Culture Box commented best. “The elephants, and perhaps even your own brilliant progeny may be terrific painters—but they’re not artists. This is because art is not just about making things or slapping pigment on canvas; it’s also a way of thinking and seeing.”

Ed Swarez in his blog titled “No, your five year old could not paint that” explains, “But I do believe that, when most people apply themselves and really try to see what is going on in the artwork in front of them, they have an unsuspected instinct that allows them to connect with the work and recognize its value.”

And Hawley-Dolan and Winner, in the 2011 blog titled Seeing the Mind Behind the Art, writes “People untrained in visual art see more than they realize when looking at abstract expressionist paintings. People may say that a child could have made a work by a recognized abstract expressionist, but when forced to choose between a work by a child and one by a master such as Mark Rothko, they are drawn to the Rothko even when the work is falsely attributed to a child or nonhuman. People see the mind behind the art.”

Photo credit Jessica Labrie

Last week I shared a fun little test on my Facebook page. There are 11 images of abstract work and you must decide whether each was painted by a toddler or by a professional artist. I took the test and correctly identified 9 out of 11. And, to my knowledge, the only person who beat me is my hiking partner, Josée, who got 10 out of 11. Now Josée, although she is open-minded about art, is certainly not an art connoisseur. What she knows are toddlers. She’s been running a day home for 20 years and has seen an impressive number of toddler paintings, so you can’t fool her! She knows toddler art when she sees it.  

 

Maybe, what is needed to better appreciate abstract artwork is simply more exposer to toddlers!

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