Category Archives: learning as I teach

deception (Lord, I feel it)

It was time to paint the walls of my husband’s office. And knowing that the color I had hand-adjusted for our other rooms was a winner, and that we still had a good amount left in the 5 gal. container, we set out to use it. Whew, it did not work in there! He has one window in that small room, and the lighting is completely different. My wonderful color looked dark and morose in a different placement. So, back to Lowes we went. Color is a fickle thing. It is entirely dependent on context.

The mid 20th century Bauhaus instructor Joseph Albers was a master at helping his art students understand this. Using color chips and simple exercises, like “make five colors into six”, they learned the relativity of color. “In order to use color effectively, it is necessary to recognize that color deceives continually”, Albers said. Here is one exercise exampled. The brown squares are the same exact hue, but the reading of each is influenced by its surrounding colors. A dark context makes the center color lighter, a cool context makes the center color warmer and vice versa.

This relativity, this prone-ness to deception, is of interest in the time we’re in as a culture. Have you been in conversations with those who see things entirely differently than you do? It’s remarkable to me how a news story is interpreted so conversely by two folks with some of the same information. Context will determine whether the ‘facts’ being presented are orange or dark brown. I say, examine closely. Look at the context. Do some experimenting. Ask questions. You can stand and insist that orange is orange, but you could be easily wrong. Be sure about what is sure, and aware of what simply morphs. Be a humble sounding board, willing to test and to explore the assumptions being bantered and felt as ‘true’.

Deception is in the air. It’s good to do some work on this. Go back to the elementals. Albers’ students learned well because they were forced to wrestle with it. What is ‘color’ (changeable) and what is ‘fact’ (stable). What is surface charm and what is structure? What is emotion, and what is reliable here? What stands the tests of time, and what is a passing dew on the grass?


“but purple is important to me!”

Her face was darkened and remained that way for the hour or so that she hovered around me. Her shoulders were hunched, her mood dour, and she was only 11. It was pitiful, and yes, I felt sad for her. But it wasn’t too long before my empathy turned to impatience and then to decisiveness.

We were involving the kids, all 65 of them, at Rise Up!’s after school program. Having saved out an area where they could put their mark on the mural, we were cycling the kids through one by one. This 11 year old angrily eyed everyone else getting their hands in the paint, while she argued with her teacher and then with me. Did she want to be involved? It was hard to know. Six pans of color from the mural palette were set out, but by the time this little friend agreed to get her hand dirty the purple and the red were decommissioned (artist’s prerogative for many kids kept choosing the darker colors).

This really set her off and she was now determined to tell me and everyone else what she had to have. We worked with her, we explained the color balance, we coached her not to miss her opportunity, and finally we were done. 64 hands are on the mural now, but one is missing.

Later that evening I reviewed the afternoon’s project “did I handle that well enough?” “Could we have better helped her be involved?” “What was more important: color balance or wise coaching of an angry child, or a life lesson that may or may not have been going on there?” What struck me as I weighed this was that one resistant child took more emotional energy than all the other 64 kids combined! She was determined not to budge, and she wanted us to know it. We did.

Adamantly, she took her stand “but purple is important to me!” even though she was repeatedly coached that the purple was no longer an option. When I think of stubbornness and insistence, I will think of this little girl’s will. She just could not soften. The time was up, the plates of remaining color were scooped into the trash, and she was surprised to see that her opportunity was really over.

That’s the part that makes me most sad. Things end.

images are appetizer

You’ve been to the events—hungry and wondering how long until the meal would be served. Then someone shows up with a tray of small things, artfully arranged, inviting you to take. It’s a welcome thing. It leads you in and tides you over. Small tastes, like tapas, awaken the buds. A meal of this would not be enough, but the little bit is like a promise: that more is coming and that it is going to be good.

Images are like this. They awaken, and they prompt forward. They are unobtrusive, quick, and just enough to get one’s hunger pangs a little more hopeful.

Yesterday I had a team helping me flesh out some of the images sketched on some mural walls. The kids who use this space after school each day are watching the progress magically appear. Even the littlest ones have opinions about which figure is the prettiest princess, about where the path is going to go, about whether their own face gets to be included in the final result.

The artists meanwhile worked intently to get the strokes and the colors just right, while I was slapping the landscape connectors in like a banshee. I am the one who knows how much more needs to be done. There is metaphor in all this for me. I’m affected to tears even as I type just thinking about the “meaning connectors” and how this all speaks to my life.

There are little ones who want their faces included. There are bigger ones who want their work to shine, and there is one (in charge) and in a hurry who is somehow going to get it all done in time. I identify with every one of these motivations. Seems to me it’s all part of a much bigger picture. I’m the little kid, I’m one of the struggling artists, and I am working with the One who is moving toward a much more important and satisfying finish. All this is just appetizer.

why do you work?

Artists examine things. Looking under rocks for clues is maybe another way to say this. And for many of us, digging at our own personal reasons for creating is a necessary hazard in that examining process. The inner motivation behind the working has to be understood and it has to be bigger than our ability or why bother? It’s intimidating to stay at it. There’s got to be a compelling drive that keeps one at it. Sometimes this is intuitively exciting, other times it is a slog that ends up surprisingly fruitful, or sadly not.

Until the next day’s try.

There’s a long road of other artists who have gone before to learn from. There are many right now who are making tracks. But what moves me the most is inspiration that takes off from some well-chosen and very fertile words.

I taught a small workshop this month with a couple eager beavers who were willing to try their hand at abstracting using some new materials. It’s true for me and I hoped would be for them that the cutting edge of “not knowing really how” would produce some exciting personal discovery. They came with only some favorite words to work off of.

Voila, or “There it is!” was the result after a couple hours of experimentation. We really are creative whether we understand how we’re made or not. The excitement in getting a glimpse of that is contagious. This finished result was just one of several little gems made that night. Liz illuminated a favorite quote from Brenda Ueland’s “If You Want to Write”: “Since you are like no other being ever created since the beginning of time, you are incomparable.”

unifying the mural

at-workIn some previous posts, I’ve highlighted the portrait work begun this summer for a community space, an after school refuge for kids. On a recent Saturday, a group of us gathered for several hours to paint in a basic background to set the avatars into a landscape. This entire tableau is going to be a storied timeline, further to be detailed and linked. Do I sound like I know what I’m doing? I laugh at the thought and my own chutzpah. I’ve never tackled something this big! But the stars aligned this year for the project. The ideas clicked, the grant money provided, the kids showed enthusiasm, and the time came available soon after I was asked to consider spearheading the venture. It’s going to come to a unified completion with a little help from friends. It’s way better together. Our goal is to have these two long hallway walls completed with all the elements by Christmas.

on the vacancy of meaningless-ness

“I knew nihilism, and my friend, you’re no nihilist.”
In my art History class we just finished the 20th century. My students’ lives barely skimmed the top of that century, while I lived completely immersed in half of it. I remember the horror of the photos from the Pacific war in books my father brought home. I remember the sound of the sirens in a film about the quiet hiding annex of Anne Frank’s family. True, I only experienced these from the safety of distance, but the horror entered my soul and has never left. The image linked here (at the MOMA in NYC) is typical of the art that emerged out of Europe after that time. On this side of the ocean, the work was much more confident, though the thinkers were not. I grew up on this side of the pond, pondering Abstract Expressionism, and Matisse’s effort at order with his cutouts. I looked and then lost interest in Warhol’s reproductions, his 15 minutes of fame. It’s been said that Warhol killed art, and philosophically that case can be made. If a pianist can go on stage, dressed for performance, sit down and then 4’33” later, no finger on the keys, stand and walk away, we are done. We might as well go home. But wait. . .where is home now, maybe that no longer exists as well?

That silence (the pianist would later need to explain) was the real piece. The awaited anticipation of the unsuspecting audience, filled with nervous coughs was the real work, he would tell us. The duration was the real ‘music’ and it was indeterminate. We just needed to take his word for it.
“When I hear what we call music”, John Cage (the pianist) later explained, “it seems to me that someone is talking”. . . “I don’t need sound to talk to me”. . . “it doesn’t have to mean anything”
He spent many meaningful words trying convince us of this.

But the immense problem is that we do not want to live this way, indeterminably. After the high brow concert we still want to go home. It was nice for a time, that silence; souls do love quiet. But quiet is only satisfying in a world where things will eventually make some sense. If indeterminate quiet is all we really have, we are completely un-done.
We raise our kids, and plan our days trusting that certain things will emerge, that important things do have meaning. Cage informed us otherwise, then needed to elaborate. He had to explain because we rubes need meaning. He looked down his nose at us, even as he had to add some kind of sense to his idea. Now we are all looking beyond him.

And artists are still making work after Wahol. If all is meaningless, then why make work? Marcel Duchamp admitted this, spending the rest of his life after rocking the art establishment, by just turning his back on it all and playing chess.
The nihilists are vacant, being challenged by some great work going on now with integrity and intelligence. There is also a lot of meaningless work. One of my students has decided that the work he wants to do “needs to have meaning”.


expect the unexpected

Working with Chinese inks on plastic paper has been bringing some interesting surprises, the most fun when I am just loosely holding an idea while the inks behave as inks do. There are certain boundaries I set, and then there are outer boundaries at work (like gravity, and viscosity). But the fun comes in the unexpected finish. I am working together in a sort of duet with these materials, and I rarely know what is going to happen next.

I do have a plan. I need to get 17 pieces done for a showing in November. I have been studying through Emily Dickinson’s work for a couple years, just finished. And lately I have been tracking through the emotional journey of another poet and prophet: Jeremiah the Hebrew. Just today I gave a lecture to students about how Michelangelo saw himself as Jeremiah—at least he chose that singular brooding figure on which to place his own resemblance in the Sistine chapel program. And there was a lot about that project that was a huge struggle for Michelangelo. He wrote about the days when his neck hurt and the plaster was all over him, and he doubted his ability. Oh, but the results.

Time moves. It is all ground for more work to be done until that set moment when all the work is done. I love the finish. But I am learning to enjoy the stretched out surprises in time too, and part of my reason is because I am not the one in charge.

working in flesh

My studio is a mess and unattended. Ideas have been stacking up, awaiting their turn. But just about every waking moment this semester has been tasked to a course I was given to teach. I love to simplify and to probe, and so Art History Survey II–which races through 7 centuries of art all around the globe was a treat and a culmination of years of thought. We’ve looked at the historical, scientific and philosophic precursors that have then shown up in the visual response through time. The big questions get asked again and again in all this work; we seem wired to ask and to seek, to keep on asking, to express and to provoke.

The text finishes near the present moment with this quote which I find telling. “Art in the new millennium seems to be heading in several directions simultaneously, constantly shifting and recalibrating new perspectives and concerns as part of an increasingly complicated global discourse.” You can see this in the visual results.

Stokstad and Cothren, Art History (Boston:Pearson, 2014) 1129.

But I go back to words that have moved me deeply, and set me again into wonder. In a letter to another artist, Vincent VanGogh said this in 1888:

“Christ alone–of all the philosophers, Magi, etc.—has affirmed as a principle certainty: eternal life, the infinity of time, the nothingness of death, the necessity and the raison d’être of serenity and devotion. He lived serenely, as a greater artist than all other artists, despising marble and clay as well as color, working in living flesh.”


The little Maple volunteer, making it’s way toward light from underneath the canoe caught my attention this summer. It was rooted in a place that would not bode well for its survival. So I replanted it in good soil, placed it into a bright spot and it has been a happy little responder, even giving me another set of leaves. Right on schedule though, it changed with the cooler weather.

And I wonder now if I should bring it in. It was 11 degrees this morning. So I did a little reading about these kinds of things. It turns out that if I protect this seedling by sheltering it inside that the tree will die of exhaustion. It needs dormancy. It needs to slowly harden in the colder weather so that it can stay alive. I will need to watch the freezes so the roots can still get some moisture, but mostly this little tree I am training needs me to stay away and let it be as it chills.

This has me thinking about life cycles, about the nature of progression, about renewals that come only after certain periods, about expectations, about what is happening beneath the surface when signs look otherwise.

I cannot make this development happen. I am watching and I am wondering as I think about alot of other things I want to help develop. This little unlikely sprout is a good teacher.

persistence of meaning

In an afterschool program I am involved in, we have been continuing to look at the major themes in art as a means of understanding “why bother?” The kids I have are bothered by a lot of things in their young lives. I showed them some work by the Abstract Expressionists; and tried to explain how these guys insisted that art was for art’s sake alone; that it had no inherent meaning. The artists of this period had to use words to explain this insistence, for people looking at the random markings and collages, kept searching for meaning. I told the kids, “This is freedom day, your piece need not mean a thing, just tear the paper and. . .”

And here, I had to give some kind of guidelines for what makes a finished composition good (meaning?).

They started in. it was so interesting to me how even with freedom from meaning they kept trying to make meaning on their two dimensional panels.

The next time I came in, the theme for historical art making was “saying something that is true.” We looked at some important examples using Homer, and Grant Wood. How quickly the kids could catch the artist’s intent. Then it was their turn, continuing with torn paper. Their grasp on what is true easily focused on their own personal worlds, self portraits mostly. We only have about 45 minutes for the craft part of this curriculum. But they dive in and these are kids who feel little confidence otherwise. As we talked and worked they taught me a new text code: tmi=too much information. I laughed out loud at that, as I watched them work with their materials. Without words, without tmi, they were showing me in their constructions what was on their minds.


seeing value

I was in a workshop this past week, with a very able instructor. It is not easy teaching abstraction well, but she was a great model and help to me. I have come home now seeing value studies everywhere and I am sure it will affect my work, already has. Value, color, line—the basics. These are the kind of fundamentals we teach in beginning art school classes, that athletes speak of, kind of “here we go again” only better this time around. I am going to highlight today two little shots I caught just looking with my eyes open; one this morning as I shoveled the snow.

Another as I moved past a counter and got caught by the beauty just sitting quietly waiting to be noticed.
The shadow reminded me of a great phrase I’d recently read from Emily Dickinson’s poem #132 “… and shadows tremble so—“

This I am realizing is an exercise in joy! Listen to this echo from Henri Nouwen “I am tempted to be so impressed by the obvious sadness of the human condition that I no longer claim the joy manifesting itself in many small but very real ways…” Joy is not denial, but rather a chance to see what’s really real. Value is found in the common made celebratory. Real things representing, hinting at, suggesting so much more.