Unity From Piece To Piece

But it doesn't look like my other work.... Worrying about unity of your work from piece to piece is only a problem for the discovered artist. When you're still undiscovered, you can relish in the unexpected and explore everything. Why limit yourself to one single path when there are so many calling you?

Admittedly, I have an overabundance of paths calling me, and I regularly have to sit down and hold a conference with those temptations before I launch right in. Sometimes they have validity, but not always. I do want to set some limits in my life to keep me sane.

There are so many factors that go into choosing a path through an artist's life. Once you have been discovered, collected and represented, your clients have expectations, and that can be really limiting to your creativity. So while you still have the freedom to push your boundaries, go for it. Practice, explore,  improve your skills, discover the heart of your work and don't settle on something prematurely.

I go through runs where l find my true creative center, producing bodies of work that touch a new level consistently. These are greatly rewarding periods in the studio. There is nothing better than riding a creative wave, especially when it's extensive and deep. That is the sweet spot.

But that high doesn't last forever, and inevitably I find myself puttering around looking for something to tickle my fancy. I get distracted by shiny things (not literally) or listen to a well-meaning compliment on a piece I don't love. It makes me wonder if my critical eye is out of whack. Would it sell? (That question should be right up there with the dreaded "Is it good?")

You know the feeling when you have not had a compliment on your haircut in a long time? It's perhaps time for a new one. I think the same about art. If I've lost the spark, its time for me to get back into the studio and explore. Push it further, or sideways, or even backwards! I have to remember what unifies all of my work is that I made it.

For more insightful reading, check out Steal Like An Artist by Austin Kleon.

This article is from the September 2015 newsletter. Subscribe to newsletters to have articles like this delivered to your email.

In The Wood Shop

One weekend in August I escaped the heat of the city to bask in the quiet, pine-scented forests of the Rawahs. We cooked and relaxed, and most importantly, we harvested trees for making new tree round art.

It is sad to see the devastation the pine beetle has caused in the forests in northern Colorado, but there is new growth everywhere - amazing wild flowers and new pine trees that are already 4 feet tall in places.

The landowners know they have to keep the dead trees cut to minimize fire hazards, so harvesting dead wood is a regular activity. We mounted our ATV's, grabbed the chain saw, and took off in search of dead wood with beautiful pine beetle stains.

And we found plenty! I now have all new stock to play with in preparation for my show in December. Oh so much to do.

This article is from the September 2015 newsletter. Subscribe to newsletters to have articles like this delivered to your email.

Exhibit: The Element of Wood

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower.
- Poet Dylan Thomas

Solo Exhibit December 16-19, 2015

Community Creative Center
200 Mathews Street, Fort Collins, CO 80524
Old Town Library Park

December 2015:
Wednesday 16th 12-6
Thursday 17th 12-6
Friday 18th 12-7, Reception 5-7
Saturday 19th 12-7

This show focuses on two bodies of work: prints made from herbs used in Traditional Chinese Medicine and mixed media pieces done on wood rounds harvested from the Rawah Forest of Northern Colorado.

Artist Statement

This year I’m hosting a solo show and the Community Creative Center in Old Town Library Park, Fort Collins, CO. I’m showing a body of work I created in 2005-2007 while living in Bellingham, WA.

I was teaching at Western Washington University and living away from my home and community in Seattle. The Art & Design Department had a large-scale printer that I was chomping at the bit to try out… so I set a goal of creating a series of art prints based on Medicinal Herbs used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).

By then I’d been a student of tai chi at the Taoist Studies Institute in Seattle for over 10 years, and had developed an understanding of internal chi and the relationship to health and medicine. There were a large number of fellow students who were acupuncturists, naturally, since tai chi is based on the same principles of yin and yang as utilized in TCM. They address areas of the body that are unbalanced by opening up the meridians - channels where chi flows through the body. Doing tai chi is like giving yourself an acupuncture treatment.

Tai Chi practice with Grand Master Feng in China, 2003; Traditional Chinese Medicine Apothecary sample

Plant and animal parts are used in conjunction with acupuncture for a complete treatment. Each has a specific property which helps to balance the body. There is a complicated map of properties, but for my project I was interested in the inherent physical properties - or beauty - of each plant specimen. I also wanted to play with the idea of whether the properties could be transferred through an image of the specimen onto paper, thus in effect giving the viewer a bit of a healing treatment. This is, of course, not a scientific experiment, but my interest in subconscious laws of attraction and “repulsion” (a TCM term) made this a compelling project nonetheless.

Using specimens of plants (no animal), I created a series of prints consisting of single herbs presented in a botanical layout, using some photo effects and printing them at up to 20 times their scale to magnify the plant structure. I printed them on heavy weight watercolor paper.

A while later some of the prints were hanging in the treatment rooms of the Seattle Institute of Oriental Medicine (SIOM) when I got a call from the receptionist. She explained that some of the students and teachers were having a problem with one of the pairs of herb prints and I needed to come take them away. This was thrilling - because I was able to interview a faculty member and get a hint of what was happening. Turns out the pair in question was an herb used to manage anger, and it could cause your chi to rise to your upper body and discombobulate you if you were not grounded enough.

Again, not scientific proof, but I was beginning to become aware of the energy my art would, or could, bring to a space. This might explain why people respond to art is such vastly different ways, why some people are attracted to work that others are “repulsed” by, often unconsciously. This inspired my next phase of the herb prints, the Formulas.

I first wrote a list of made-up titles that represented the healing principles I was wanted the work to embody. Then I asked two TCM practitioners to create the matching formulas from their herbal apothecary. I took these pouches of formulas and poured them onto my scanner bed, arranging them carefully into a balanced composition.

These prints show the complete formulas in raw form before they would be boiled into a tea to consume. The series consists of 30 (2 each of 15) single herbs and 14 Formulas.

Page from my notebook on herbs; Detail of Mu Tong/Clematis Vine print.

While envisioning this show, I considered including some recent work and opted to show pieces made from wood rather than the paintings I’ve exhibited in recent years. The herbal prints and the wood rounds share the element of wood - one of the five elements of TCM: wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. Thus, the show became about the wood element and its characteristics of germination, extension, softness, harmony, flexibility, etc.

The wood pieces are made of pine rounds cut from trees killed by the recent pine beetle infestation in the Rocky Mountains. The beetles leave a dark stain that enhances the grain and beauty of the wood and thus the wood is now commonly used in woodworking. I harvested trees from private property in Northern Colorado to use in making the series.

The natural pattern of the tree rings and wood grain make such a dynamic statement of their own that the series became a practice in meditative study and restraint. I found I could easily overwhelm the natural beauty and make the piece of wood into something less attractive. Instead, I followed the cues given by the wood, counting rings and tracing their patterns using a wood burning tool.

This naturally led to marking the rings by numbers, then to telling the story of the rings by cutting words from novels, making poetry, and describing the environment in which the trees grew. Some of the trees are 300 years old! Imagine the stories they could tell, the things they have witnessed and the wisdom they hold. This series imagines a bit of that story.

My workspace while working on the Wood project; Detail of a finished piece.

*a note on process ——

While I am working on a series, I like to immerse myself entirely into the work and do very little other creative work. The more invested I get into the process, the deeper I get into following the trail. At first I might be hesitant about materials or process, unsure of the intent, content or direction. But if I continue going forward I can find my footing and the work opens up to me. I like the discovery process. Every material or curiosity has something to reveal.  It does mean that each series I do might be very different than the others, and even that I am learning to relax into.

Creativity comes naturally for me. Repetition does not. Not surprisingly, It turns out that creativity and repetition have opposite energetic patterns! It seems society loves the repetition of things, yet I am just cut out of a very different cloth, and I can’t fake the other. And so be it.

In developing the Element of Wood show, I realize how much I love putting a show together when it is just me and my process. It reminds me of doing video installations because every element in the show helps to communicate the message. It is creating an experience, not just a wall full of artworks. How a person enters the space, how information is revealed, how the story is told — all of this is part of curating an exhibit, and every detail matters.

Is It Good?

Does it suck? These wise words are from the wonderfully creative talent Linda Barry in her book What It Is. Ms Barry simultaneously makes me cringe at all those too-familiar, awkward childhood moments and helps me see the light of a creative life.

These two questions are what the world asks of us, the teachers and critiques, audiences and customers, galleries and museums. And the difficult thing is, there is no answer. It is all subjective, which means, opinions.

At times I try to follow that illusive "good" label, aligning myself with some critical element coming from outside of me. Listening to that voice only makes me miserable, until, blessedly, I give up and realize I DON'T KNOW!!! I don't know what I am doing! I'm a failure!

So I sulk around for a few days until out of boredom I pick up a colored pencil and begin to scribble some worthless mess on paper. This sucks. Why am I doing this? I'm only wasting my expensive pencils.

Soon the world opens back up again and I'm back in the flow. MY FLOW. The glory of it is, when you stop trying to be something, you lose your head and get into the flow of it. How could I ever forget? Well, as Ms. Barry explains, you learn and forget this an infinite number of times.

Oh yeah, I remember now, that familiar territory of deep calm and trust, where nothing matters and I get to play again. Bliss.

From the July 2015 Newsletter. Check out past monthly newsletters and subscribe HERE. It's free and easy!

Three Panel Commission

Three canvases hang as one piece, a total of six feet wide

Earlier this spring I was experimenting in the studio, playing with muted colors and out of focus shapes. I also added the little color chips of dried paint I've used with previous work. The result was the image on the right, with the chips running vertically down the center.

A friend liked it so much we decided to add two more paintings to the series. His large walls need artwork that fills the space rather than getting lost on a big blank wall. Creating a series hung together as one piece makes a defining statement.

I had a lot of fun playing with geometry and negative space in the positioning of the paint chips. And with the muted, diffused background, the small bits of bright paint seem to jump off the wall.


Commission of Trees

In June I was thrilled to be commissioned to paint a large two-panel piece for a client's living room. She needed "tree energy", so we decided it needed to be big! The painting measures 4 feet x 6 feet.

It has a fairly simple base structure of two intertwined trees that will be populated with leaves or blooms or whatever she desires. She's one of my mandala students, so I insisted she join me in painting these jewels. Here is the painting today, sans jewels. It is handsome as is, don't you think?

I used many transparent layers to create the background effect of depth, and kept the color simple and only slightly brighter than the wall color. This makes the organic shape of the trees dominate rather than being confronted with a large rectangle on the wall.

In a few weeks I'll add the final painting with all the beautiful jewels.

krfc Radio - Support Local Culture

Listen to the radio interview with Bonnie Lebesch by krfc and Support Local Culture, Fort Collins, CO, April 20, 2015