One of the joys of studying art history or the career of an artist is seeing the progression of ideas. Looking at a collection belonging to them is like connecting the dots to their thought process. Changes occur due to life experiences, material experimentation, travel, and developments in technology. Places they visited, things they read. Relationships. Certain works are exciting to me because I can see the ‘seeds of what’s to come.’ When explaining this to students, especially to those who are new to talking about art, I break it down like this:
An artist’s work reveals their focus of attention. It is an invitation for the viewer to share this heightened awareness… essentially saying,
“Look at this, pay attention to this.”
One of my favorite examples of artistic seeds is , Le D’ejeuner sur l’herbe by Claude Monet housed in the Musée d’Orsay. It’s a huge visual delight to behold, and it shows exactly what’s to come: LIGHT. There are beautiful areas and moments in this work that can be discussed for hours: That little food still life, the homage to Manet, the lush chromatic grays to name a few. However, the star of the show is this painterly dapple of light and shadow on the blanket in the foreground. It’s contrast and elegance jumps off the painting and announces Monet’s fascination with light. Done in 1865-1866, it is a precursor to the Grainstack paintings of 1890-1891, and the Rouen Cathedral Series of over 30 works that examine changing light conditions (1892-1894). His obsession with atmosphere and how it affects light led to his unique use of color that he applied to later works. This culminates with his studies of Water Lilies, a subject he explored over 250 times until his death in 1926. “In viewing Water Lilies in its entirety, one can see the progress and subtle changes that take place not only in the natural world, but within the artist as well. " -Tom Gurney
Seeds of What’s to Come: My Own Work
Looking for clarity in my own work, I recently sorted through a pile of old paintings.
The majority are oil on canvas, since I focused on realism and portraiture for a large part of my artistic development. There is a blatant shift away from figures to abstract mixed media on paper at a certain point, a reaction to life experiences. Now that I have had some distance from this earlier work, it’s easy to see common threads that weave through out. The mixed media pieces are of particular interest because they are the seeds of what's to come. The work illustrates experimentation with materials and surface treatment that would lead me to paint with encaustic wax years later. It is also clear that my subconscious reality pushed forward considerations of impermanence, connection and transcendence. I even love that word:
Latin prefix trans- meaning ‘beyond’ and scandare- meaning ‘to climb.’
Climbing Beyond. Ego transcendence (beyond ego), Self transcendence (beyond the self: the other) and Spiritual transcendence (beyond space and time). Moving beyond ordinary limitations, or our physical reality. Both within and beyond the universe; in it, but not of it.
The sacred 'other'. Things extraordinary. A spiritual state beyond the world surrounding us.
Gold Passage, Acrylic on Canvas 2006 Violet Passage, Mixed Media on Paper 2007
When I am asked what my art is about, I often stumble to find the right words.
In artist's statements I mention my interest in our physical and spiritual journey through life, the conscious choices we make vs. that of chance. I am interested in how our life paths unfold.
A deeper look into those piles of old work helped me to see my intention with more clarity.
Impermanence. Connection. Transcendence.
My work explores inner dimensions of human existence, our need to seek connection with the universal, to something bigger than ourselves. My paintings are the result of the intuitive mystical found in the creative process when our mind is escorted to another place.
A spiritual place where making or experiencing art inspires connectedness and reflection.
And this magic is available to us all.
What a gift.
Red Realm, Encaustic on panel 2023
I have always taken photographs of my paintings as I worked on them. Using my camera as a tool helps me step back and examine my art. I look at areas of contrast and color relationships. I crop and rotate images of the paintings and turn them black and white to check the values. Many times I print out copies to draw and paint over so I am not disrupting the original work. I have shared this studio practice with other artists and students, encouraging them to critique their own work. Some artists use Photoshop or Procreate to view and edit their art. The digital world lets us easily document ourselves in ways that we have never been able to before. It is interesting to see where we started with a piece, the artistic decisions that changed it and the final result of our problem solving and creative process.
This studio practice reflects our human experience. We have a plan in place, but things can change pretty quickly. Change is inevitable, but essential for growth. You can fight it, or develop the skill of accepting and allowing-something we all have to work on. In a chaotic world, humans find comfort in structure and consistency. It’s important to remember that the most successful things that come from the creative process (and life) happen in that delicate space between deliberate intention and letting go. I have documented proof of that.
Left: Underpainting, Work in progress
Right: Completed work, The Lockless Door, encaustic on panel 18x18
A Year of Gratitude
I had a big birthday this year- the one where you get your AARP card. (How did this happen? Wasn't it yesterday I was wearing my Violent Femmes T-shirt in art school, or quietly rocking my babies?) My friends joked with me, asking me how I feel to "officially be old." Like the saying goes, I am older, but wiser. Very happy not to be so easily influenced as I was in my younger years. There is much to be gained from the good and (especially) the bad life experiences that got me here, to the mid 50 club. I know who I am and what matters. So how does it feel to be officially old? I feel truly blessed.
Many do not get the privilege of growing old.
In February of this year, dear friends of ours lost their son in a tragic accident. Just a sophomore in college, Greg was a ‘mini me' of his handsome father, and fiercely determined like his mother. Just like both parents, he was devoted to his family and faith. Surrounding the sorrow and tears is a sense of being cheated when we lose someone so young. There is that haunting “why?” that will not be silenced.
Tragedy such as this causes us to pause, reflect and not take things for granted.
This year I hugged my children tighter, sipped my coffee slower, and spent time in the beauty of nature whenever possible. I found joy in watching my garden flowers bloom and double in size as they fed the busy bees. I spent time with those closest to me who I could relax with and be myself.
I didn't waste time with people and things that aren't important. I traveled and found myself laughing and crying as we snorkeled in the clear blue ocean, thankful to be in such tropical beauty with the sun on my face. Back home in my studio, I painted with intention, enjoying the process, open to letting go to allow the painting to lead the way. While reworking a painting in February, I didn’t do much thinking, I put on some quiet music and got to work. It was one of those magical sessions where I feel like I've been painting for 20 minutes, but glance up at the clock and suddenly it's 3 hours later. My hands were busy while thoughts of my friends, grief, loss and what happens to us after we die filled my head.
There is a beautiful line from Wallace Steven’ s poem, Harmonium (1923), that says,
‘Death is the Mother of all beauty.’ I have found this to be true.
The awareness of the fragile, impermanence of life cultivates appreciation for every moment we are given. Grief brings mindfulness to our everyday moments. Grief embodies all of the unexpressed love we have for those we have lost. We grieve the moments we are unable to share with them.
However, through the pain, we must remember that those we loved deeply are always with us. Because they ARE us. Who we love makes up who we are.
Our culture needs to normalize mourning and unexpected tears. They are not just tears of grief, they are moments of remembrance and appreciation for what we love.
We need to cry freely and talk about our loved ones often, because this is what makes them eternal.
I am selling prints of this special painting, Soul Plan (Ascension) encaustic on panel 16x20In Loving Memory of Gregory Anthony Anstine (January 11, 2002 - February 4, 2022)available for purchase on Fine Art America.
The proceeds of this sale will be donated to a scholarship in Greg Anstine’s name.
The site will let you select a poster, fine art print on paper or a print on canvas. The work can be framed to your specifications and arrive directly to your door. You can view and purchase here:
I start every painting session by setting an intention for the work, and taking a moment to express gratitude. Gratitude for all that I have and for time to myself to create. Grateful for the space and equipment to continue to explore encaustic painting. Since my studio area was completed last November, I have been extremely productive. One particular work I attempted was significantly larger in scale. Working on a bigger surface with encaustic wax requires a different approach, and it can be quite an expensive investment in materials.
I say ‘attempted’ because I worked at it on and off for months, picking it up then putting it away in frustration. It just wasn’t coming together. I was wasting time and precious wax as I built layer after layer. I would add paint, scrape it off and try again. Repeat, stop and work on something else. Eventually, I set it aside, giving up in defeat.
This week I gave it another go. I put the painting on my work table and examined the composition. I decided to change direction, turning the painting on its side so it was vertical.
I remembered some good advice from a fellow painter: Sometimes you have to let the work lead the way. So that's what I did.
I chose a completely different color palette, one I rarely use. I turned music on and enjoyed the process, not worrying about wasting materials or the end result. I just enjoyed making marks. I took in the vibrant colors. There were areas I screwed up, exposing the underpainting too much. It took time to correct it. However, in fixing my mistakes I discovered areas where I decided to reveal what was underneath. I reconsidered the concept of the original piece, then went in a totally new direction. A narrative in my head was developing about how the newly transformed painting could embody what I wanted to say. I grew excited as it progressed, my heart pounding. Stepping back from it, I realized that I had actually surprised myself.
This painting is a victory for me. It reflects two years of continued study of technique and color. More importantly, it's a step forward. Lately there have been many external ‘nos’ directed my way, but this was a yes. My own personal, empowered, internal HELL YES...which cancels out the pile of negative influences that discourage me. The external things are out of my control. This was mine. An artists studio practice is spiritual practice. The work reminds us to:
Get out of your head.
Enjoy the process.
How we respond to failure is more important
than the failure.
Creativity grows from challenge.
Challenge leads to resilience.
Have faith and change direction if it’s still not working. (It’s ok to quit and start over).
There is truth in the creative process. With a strong emphasis on everything being a process.
It’s the same encouragement I share with my nervous art students when I hand them a big blank canvas: "This is your little world, right here in this space. What do you want to say?"
Because I say," Hell yes!"
I hope you do too.
A Teacher friend of mine assigns her students the task of interviewing people of different ages. They ask questions about life, seeking advice and different points of view. I have done these interviews numerous times over the years, but was recently taken back by an interesting new question they posed: “What is home?"
Without thinking about my answer, I immediately responded,
” Where I am centered.”
They looked up from their paper and put down their pen.
There was an awkward pause.
“ OH…. Um, most people say the town where they grew up,
or their husband or their wife.”
I was quiet. That is the obvious answer, and a good one, and at one time I would have said that too. However, I didn’t know how to explain to a 16 year old that yes, that’s true, but
I know better now.
I have lived in many places, each different and special to me.
They have all been home.
Home has been the people I’ve loved. Many have come and gone. There were those who helped me to understand what love is, and some who showed what it is not. They came to me as a messenger at the right time. A few were sent to teach me loss and the fragility of life.
I carry it all with me, they go where I go.
They were with me in my old house, and now in my new one.
When I am swimming in the ocean, staring at the moon, and as I hike in the woods, they are all connected to me.
They are me.
I am better for knowing all of the people and places I loved. I am at peace with it,
and it is this peace inside of me that is home. It’s not found anywhere else,
and it has taken me a long time to get here.
Sticking to my answer, I turned toward the student and repeated:
“ Home is where I am centered. Hopefully, someday you’ll understand.”
Above: Detail images of recent work in progress, Pennsylvania (left) and Vermont (right)
This summer, I attended an artist’s workshop in Vermont. This was my first time traveling to attend one in person, as opposed to online, and I committed to make it a productive week and worth an 8 hour drive.
The time spent on an organic farm doing yoga, hiking, writing and painting was exactly what I needed. All the simple, delicious food we ate was grown and expertly prepared on the farm. I met other artists who were generous in sharing their work and words. My instructors were encouraging, attentive and challenged us to be mindful and aware of our natural surroundings, as well as thoughtful with mark making in our art.
When I do have time to walk or hike at home, I will often listen to a podcast or audiobook. Multitasking this way ‘makes the most of my time’. Or so I thought. When assigned to hike to a spot in the woods and spend a half hour in silence, writing and sketching, I realized how much I was missing. With my eyes and ears open, I heard the back and forth chatter of birds. The stream babbled past, making not one sound but two different patterns as it rushed actively from the hill to the smaller rocks level in front of me. I touched the damp moss and leaves while feeling a cool breeze on my face. The forest smelled rich and earthy after the morning rain, a distinctive odor known as petrichor. Petrichor is the musky, fresh scent caused by the water from the rain, along with certain compounds like ozone, geosmin, and plant oils. And yes, I was so enchanted by it that I looked it up to find out more. (You’re welcome). I sat by the stream and wrote notes, did drawings and color studies of the beautiful scene around me, but it wasn’t around me, it was in me. I was absorbed in it... full of awareness.
So present, in fact, I lost track of time and the group had to come and get me.
Researchers have found that our brain lacks the ability to perform multiple tasks at the same time- in moments where we think we’re multitasking, we are most likely just switching quickly from task to task. More importantly, we are cheating ourselves, as well as others, of our full attention.
I don’t think that my response to Vermont is because it is more beautiful than my home state of Pennsylvania. I was just completely present on that farm, full of gratitude and connection while there. What if I apply this presence to all aspects of my life? What if you do so with yours?
Thoreau said, “Live in each season as it passes, breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of the earth.” Be fully present where you are, right now.
We don’t need to go somewhere else and seek out nature, we are nature.
It is not around us, it is in us, and I am grateful for that reminder.
It All Started with a Circle.
The March Covid-19 Lockdown had many of us reevaluating things.
As a busy type "A" person, much to my surprise, I was pretty ok being sequestered. The sudden world 'time out' made my life simplified in ways that both disappointed and liberated me.
Lockdown meant there were people and situations I did not have to deal with directly anymore. My time was spent with a trusted inner circle of friends and family I adore, with whom I share common beliefs and values. We had meaningful conversations, carefully planned meals and lots of laughter amid the uncertainty that surrounded us. The security of my bubble, my inner circle, helped to offset the daily reminders of chaos and mortality of the outside world. We had each other.
I am filled with gratitude for what I recognize to be a very blessed and privileged life. The great pause of Covid allowed me to ponder what provides true value in my life, what is just obligation vs. what brings me joy. I fully comprehend the necessity of genuine, vulnerable and trusted
relationships, of quality over quantity. Our inner circle is the foundation on which to build our authentic self, and in turn, a larger community of like minded individuals. With any luck, it could make the world a healthier place than it is right now.
Themes of circles continue occupy my mind and current art.
Pictured above: Lockdown: Inner Circle encaustic and antique hardware on wood panel, 18x24.