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ghost ship 1

Ghost Ship, marker on paper, approx. 4″x6″ (c) AZM December 2016

A year ago tomorrow, 36 people died in the Ghost Ship fire in Oakland. At the time I did these three drawings in my sketchbook. I was haunted by the stories of people being trapped, trying to flee the fire by going down a staircase that ended only in more fire.

The larger story, that haunted me at least as much, was (and is) the extreme scarcity of safe, affordable housing in our area. These people lived there because actual apartments, which have stricter codes, were out of reach to their budgets (as they are to an increasing number of Bay Area residents). Their landlord got away with housing them in a warehouse because everyone concerned wanted it to work, even though it wasn’t safe. The housing crisis is another rapidly narrowing space that leads to suffering and possible disaster.  I knew when I drew these that I wanted to do more, a piece with specific allusions to the cost and scarcity of decent places to live, the way people are trapped by a poverty we have created. I haven’t yet. But I am still haunted.

 

ghost ship 2

Ghost Ship 2, marker on paper, approx. 4″x6″ (c) AZM December 2016

ghost ship 3

Ghost Ship 3, marker on paper, approx. 4″x6″ (c) AZM December 2016

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I’m at the annual meeting and conference of Unitarian Universalists, General Assembly: this year, in New Orleans. Instead of bringing knitting to occupy my hands through the many meetings and workshops, as I have done before, this time I brought my sketchbook. The last three might be called Variations on a Theme by Brice Marden, since seeing some of his work at SFMOMA last week clearly influenced what’s in my head.

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Sometimes, being a minister means working with some prickly people. They’re among the congregational leaders or visitors or–particularly tenderly–among the people I visit when they’re sick or sad. Not long ago, I was on my way to meeting with a member of the congregation when I passed under a stand of sweet gum trees (I think that’s what they are), whose seeds I love whenever I see them, and have never dared to draw. I went on to the meeting, and in our conversation, the person was both prickly and, to me, very beautiful: honest, caring, vulnerable. When I left, I picked up one of the fallen seeds, and I drew it that evening. In my private thoughts, it has this person’s name.

I’m loving exploring this idea from different angles. When does a grid stop being a grid? What is it then? The tension between the formal rules of the grid and the movement that arises through and in spite of that form evoke all sorts of other tensions in my mind. To what extent are our lives ordered or chaotic, regimented or free, communal or individual?

Both of these are about 4″x6″, drawn with ink in a pocket sketchbook. The light and camera available distort the colors, but you can get the idea.


I keep drawing these grids in my little 4×6 sketchbook.

grid-1-from-sketchbook

I’m experimenting with how to change the shape and flow of the squares; in my view this next one went off the rails, but the two people who have seen it both like it a lot, so what does the artist know:

grid-2-from-sketchbook

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These next two are my favorites–I love the way they ripple and move:grid-5-from-sketchbookgrid-6-from-sketchbook

I thought this one wasn’t finished (I don’t have my markers with me and there are still orange intersections to put in at the bottom), but since I was scanning the rest I scanned it too. Now I think maybe it is finished.

grid-7-from-sketchbook

In related news, I’ll be putting up 17 drawings, prints, and alebrijes from my sabbatical in the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto lobby today, with comments on each one. They’ll be there through the end of March.

I’m taking a class on woodblock and linoblock printing. The first piece I made was this one. As I was working on it I was dissatisfied, and made this drawing also. The drawing is a more successful rendition of what I was going for, but hey, it’s my first woodcut. I don’t have control of the medium enough to make lines as fine as I was imagining, and there are places I went too light–once you’ve done that, there’s no undoing it. Really, I think the only print medium that could have captured what I had in mind with this image would be a lithograph. But here it is, anyway, the first proof.
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The second piece was a linocut and much more successful. These are the seedpods of a kind of acacia, called huizache in Spanish, that grows here abundantly. I love them, and have enjoyed spending so much time with this one.

In previous wood- and linocuts it was very challenging to have drawn lines on the surface that signified the places I did not want to cut, i.e., that I wanted to print black. I kept feeling like I was supposed to carve where I’d drawn. So with this print, I made the drawing in negative, blacking in the places where I intended to carve, i.e., where I wanted to print white. It worked well.

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There’s a passage in the novella “Seymour: An Introduction” by J. D. Salinger, advice from Seymour to his younger brother, Buddy, a writer, with which I have an ambivalent relationship. It has been sitting in my quotations file, mocking me, for several years. On the one hand, it seems very wise. And I don’t know if Salinger succeeded in following it (or even thought he should), but he was a very fine writer and so when his alter ego, Buddy, gets a piece of writing instruction, I listen up. I’ve rewritten it here to be advice to a visual artist:

You . . . sit very still and ask yourself, as a [viewer], what piece of [art] in all the world Buddy Glass would most want to [see] if he had his heart’s choice. The next step is terrible, but so simple I can hardly believe it as I write it. You just sit down shamelessly and [create] the thing yourself.

My ambivalence arises from the fact that I don’t think I have ever managed to make a piece of art in this way. I see art that makes me gasp and sigh with instant recognition: it has given shape to something in my spirit. And I’ve made lots of art that I like, that expresses something of what I perceive. But to have an image come to me that is just what I most want to see? . . . no. I can’t think of a time when that’s happened.

It’s not that such art would necessarily be better. What I seek is that fluid connection between the images in my mind and the longing of my spirit. And this week I felt that connection in a way I can’t recall feeling before. This is the piece I most wanted to see, or close to it:

img_7314Untitled, pencil on paper, 4.5 x 6 inches

Moving along finishing some pieces. These two little critters have been almost-done for several weeks. The cat is 5″ long, the armadillo 4″, not counting their tails.IMG_7236IMG_7237

Heaven knows we aren’t going to have room in our suitcases even for the things we’ve made and bought, but I think we need to buy more unpainted alebrijes to bring home. We’re already thinking, “Alebrijes-painting party!”–for the munchkin’s next birthday if she wants, sure, but also for grownup friends.

Some art works start with an image that comes to my mind, some with an idea I want to express, some with something I see that begs to be re-created on paper. And then there are some that begin with a powerful desire for an excuse to buy more fine-tipped markers.

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I think I’ll be doing more in this vein, but I’ve promised myself: no new pieces until I’ve finished most of the ones that are half-done.

 

With a printmaking class coming up starting September 3, I thought it would be a good deadline for finishing the various half-done pieces I have in process. It’s been luxurious to start any piece that comes to mind, knowing I have lots of time to cycle through them, but when I counted I thought of eight pieces currently in process, not including a couple of designs that will probably be turned into prints. I often find it difficult to call a piece complete, and I wanted to nudge myself to just do it.

Well, today’s Tuesday, I thought. We’ll be going to the studio where we do ceramics, and our pieces will be out of the kiln, so I’ll glaze my two–a great start toward my goal for September 3. However, when we got there, the pieces had not returned from the kiln. So I . . . . started on a new piece, a linocut. Which, of course, is now unfinished piece number nine. Oh well! At least I can finish it at home, having splurged on a set of tools yesterday.

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