Sunday, January 6, 2013

They Fill My Eyes

When the news first broke about the Sandy Hook school shootings, I really tried to avoid listening to the media coverage—it often seems we focus on perpetrators over victims. But when they released the names two days later I thought, “I can give attention to this; I can bear witness to this.” I opened the article and saw that it was not a celebration of the lives of 20 children. It was a database listing name, birthdate, gender, and age. In that moment, I knew I had to process the information with art.
I created twenty paintings using colors derived from the Myosotis arvensis (Forget-Me-Not) and a geometric numbering system. Each piece is painted with Flashe on a 10" x 10" wood panel and conveys data initially released about the children to the news outlets. Each painting is dedicated to a specific child. The color on each indicates whether the child is a boy or girl. The number of colored segments reflects the child's age. The overall number of segments are placed in eight triangular sections from left to right, top to bottom, and show the child's birthdate. The series title is a line taken from the old Marmalade song, Reflections of My Life.

The paintings are now hanging in the Mosaic Gallery in Pomona and will be there until the end of this month. The gallery is sometimes used as a meeting space, so there was a large number of people in the back room when my friend and fellow artist Dominique Ovalle and I were installing the show. The group came into the gallery during breaks and later for a potluck—and I learned some valuable and interesting things about how we process tragic events like this one.
As I was making the paintings, I felt like I was spending time with each child, getting to know them. Catherine Hubbard and I share the same birthday; Chase Kowalski was born on Halloween. (I wonder if he thought that was awesome or kind of a bummer.) Jack Pinto had the coolest name. What surprised me is that every person I talked to wanted that same kind of time. They wanted to understand my system so they could decipher the paintings and learn something about each child—it was awesome! Bittersweet, but awesome.
Side Note:  The last time I posted on this blog was more than two years ago. I had just started my art quest and was still making “school project art.” A lot has happened since then—I’m entering my fourth and last semester at Claremont Graduate University where I’ve been working on my MFA. I was very lucky to discover early in grad school a way of painting that is authentic to me. I am a conceptual painter whose work often focuses on the models we build to understand the world and ourselves. I use mathematics and geometry to abstract and reanimate statistical data and other information

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Silkwood Reenactment

An artist's life is never dull...

I was working on my kitchen table this afternoon preparing wood panels for a mixed media typography project. I had already constructed the panels (with mitre cuts even) in the sculpture lab and was now using spackle to fill in the nail holes and irregularities. I had purchased a new filler at the hardware store--latex wood filler--and was applying it the same way I always do: with my fingers. I let it dry for the requisite two hours and then started sanding. The process seemed to be kicking up an unusual amount of dust so I thought I should get the mask I had used for mixing encaustic pigment.

I don't usually read directions unless I need to, but thought this occasion had just escalated to "situation" status and called for a quick review of the label. This is where the Silkwood reenactment began...

The label said don't touch the product with your skin, don't breath in the dust, work in a well-ventilated area--you get the picture. "This product is known to contain chemicals recognized by the state of California as causing cancer." I could hear the warning sirens sound as I opened all the windows, vaccuumed all the debris, wiped down the counters, gathered up the drop cloth and dish towels, stripped down, threw everything in the washing machine, and took a shower...

I take responsibility for my own inadequacies, but I think the hardware store had a secondary responsibility to recognize me as an extremely unsophisticated user. (When I asked the clerk for help and he proceeded through a series of questions about what I was looking for, my answers should have been a BIG clue: What have you used before? I don't know, something in a plastic tub.) I am now having a brownie and hoping that this particular warning label was the result of some poor lab rat being subjected to the stuff 30 times a day for a year until he valiantly died...

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Intermediate Painting Project: Encaustic

Encaustic painting, or hot wax painting, was notably used in ancient Egypt to create mummy portraits and has since been used by many significant 20th century artists like Jasper Johns. The process involves adding colored pigments to heated beeswax, which is applied (painted) onto a surface, typically wood. Other materials can be encased or collaged into the wax.

I found the wax somewhat difficult to work with—you have to paint quickly while it’s still warm and malleable, and yet, use a delicate hand because the wax builds up fast. Practice definitely makes a difference as evidenced in the work of my fellow students who had taken intermediate painting before.

For my first (and only, so far) encaustic, I created an homage to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. On three 12” x 12” wood panels, I applied pages from her book and pieces from an old Mississippi map and covered them with clear beeswax. I mixed two different pigments (a cobalt and an ochre) into wax for the second layer, which included mocking bird-shaped “windows” to the first layer. I used black pigment for the contour-line drawings on the third layer and xerographic transfers for the fourth.

Homage to Harper Lee, Encaustic Collage on Wood, 12" x 12" Panels (2010)

Monday, June 7, 2010

Digital Photography Project: Panoramas

The practice of painting and drawing panoramic views dates back hundreds of years. However, the advent of wide-angle photography in the 19th century came to displace painting as the most common way to represent landscapes and historical events.

One panorama can be taken through a special wide-angle lens or multiple photos can be taken and placed together into one panorama. I’m sure we’ve all stood at a particularly beautiful vista and “snapped and rotated” to capture the entire scene. Back in my undergrad days at the University of Nevada, everyone had multi-photo Lake Tahoe panoramas tacked to their dormitory bulletin boards. That was how we did it in the 20th century!

In the 21st century, Photoshop can automatically combine multiple, sequential photos to create panoramas. The photographer can use a tri-pod to keep the camera steady or just “snap and rotate” the way we used to do. Here’s a photo I “snapped and rotated” for my digital photography class:

Taggers Train, Digital Photograph, 52" x 8" (2010)
We also worked on directorial panoramas where the photos are taken at different distances. This allows the photographer to emphasize (or deemphasize) the subject as he or she deems appropriate. Directorial panoramas can tell a story or just record an event. Here’s a herd of Foothill Boulevard horses enjoying a lazy afternoon:

Foothill Boulevard Horses, Digital Photograph, 30" x 10" (2010)

Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Holy Equation

Two Questions
There are, in my opinion, only two valid questions regarding art: 1) what is good art? and 2) who gets to decide? The questions seem simple, but the answers are rife with gray area and controversy. Volumes have been written. Experts have weighed in. And yet no definitive equation exists that allows a purchaser of art to plug in components Y and Z to produce an X that equals good art.

Defining “art” is fairly easy: Just about any one-of-a-kind thing that is the product of creativity is art. Some textbooks further qualify it as human creativity and require that it evoke an emotional or sensory response. Without getting bogged down in the details, if you can display it or perform it, it’s probably art.

Number 8, Jackson Pollock
Mona Lisa, Leonard da Vinci
But just because the definition of art is rather encompassing doesn’t mean that all art is good art. We know that technical skills factor into the equation and certainly the use of good design principles. What about content? Or difficulty of execution? It seems like the Mona Lisa was more difficult to create than one of Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings, but is that true and does it matter? Does context count? I would think so. Art is very often a manifestation of its time—not good or bad, simply the perfect visual expression of a culture or movement. Think 16th century church-sponsored paintings or Mark Rothko’s fields of color.

Orange and Yellow, Mark Rothko
How do we know that good art exists? The critics tell us! Actually, who gets to decide whether art is good depends on the situation. Anyone can decide whether art is good enough to hang in his or her living room. Purchasing art for your home is a very personal decision. If a painting speaks to you and engages you, by all means, take it home—you don’t need a professional art critic to tell you it’s good.

If, however, the end goal is to collect art for its asset value or to display art in a public forum, some expertise is required. An art critic is like an investment advisor and must be able to evaluate a painting or sculpture’s contemporary significance and to understand how markets price art. We (lovers of art) and posterity may not always agree with critics because they often function in a particular time only. (If you want to see an inside view of this phenomenon, rent Who Gets to Call It Art? from Netflix. If you’re not using Netflix, you should—it’s a great deal!)

For example, in the fall of 1636, a savvy investment advisor would have told you to buy tulips because in six months one bulb would be worth ten times your annual salary. You would have thought he was crazy, but when you sold your bulb at the top of the market in February 1637, you would have been very wealthy. Looking back, though, posterity views tulip-mania as nothing more than a large economic bubble. In this regard, future generations may decide that what is good art today really isn’t when viewed against the background of all the other art that has come before and after it. Somehow, it all seems to shake out in the end.

“Nice” Is a Four-Letter Word
From the beginning, my art instructors (mostly Peet and Marian G.) have consistently criticized my art as being “too nice.” It’s never been about my technical skills or execution; it’s always about the content. I’m not painting (or drawing, photographing, or digitally creating) rainbows and unicorns, but the end pieces seem (at least to P and M) to come from Pleasantville. Even though Javier (the tree frog) is a giant, slimy amphibian, he looks like he’s smiling. My Cat in Winter, which I used on last year’s Christmas cards, is a rusty old cat in a snow storm with nice colors.

When we critique our art in class, the pieces that get the most positive feedback are the ones I would describe as dark and edgy. The content often comes from secret, painful places. My fellow students are expressing loneliness, self-doubt, rage, and fear. In my digital photography class, one student produced a compelling portfolio of black and white images that showed her struggle with being a victim in her own life. Another student, and very talented photographer, produced a study of dead birds. For those of you who didn’t make my tour of the student art show, many of the pieces had dark and edgy components. We all commented that a successful piece seemed to include one or more of the following: shattered glass, amputated body parts, snakes, skulls, raw meat, gratuitous nudity, or blood.

Sacred Heart of Jesus, Damien Hirst
I recently read that David and Victoria Beckham “turned their lovey-dovey feelings for one another into a fortune in modern art.” The couple owns works by the likes of Sam Taylor-Wood and Banksy and are said to include in their collection Hirst’s Sacred Heart of Jesus, which is a silver bull’s heart pierced with scalpels and other pointy objects. I think animal organs say, “I love you,” don’t you?

I’ve tried to explain that dark and edgy is difficult for me because I was potty trained at the appropriate time, I want my life to feel like a Saturday afternoon, and I worked out most of my emotional baggage in the late ‘80s. Seriously, I’m not a Pollyanna. I do have dark places…I just don’t spend much time in them.

I appreciate what Peet and Marian are saying. Good art engages; it makes you respond. Right now, my art looks lovely over the fireplace. I appreciate very much that they think I can be a better artist, that I have something important to say. The best piece of advice I’ve gotten for finding my voice and my version of dark and edgy came from Doug. He told me to quit searching for the equation. Just paint. A lot.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

A Thick Skin Is a Gift From God

Exposed and Scrutinized
Everybody has to kowtow sometime to somebody else’s opinion, schedule, expectation, or structure. As much as we’d like to, we don’t operate in the vacuum of noninfluence and nonjudgment. Parents have to prepare meals that are nutritious and that taste good to their kids. Students have to turn in work that meets with instructor preference. Employees have to perform their jobs on employer schedules. Businesses have to offer products and services that customers want. Our choices and decisions are exposed and scrutinized.

Back in my days as a corporate executive, I remember listening to my colleagues complain about this boss or that committee questioning the decisions they made or how they did their work. “If only so-and-so would get out of my way and let me do my job. That’s what they’re paying me for!” I also remember thinking, “What I’d give to only have two or three people scrutinizing my work.” When you’re an accountant or a loan officer, you’ve got your boss and maybe a small committee reviewing your work. When you’re responsible for the organization’s marketing and communications, everything you do is dissected by thousands. Certainly your boss has an opinion, but then so do the company’s (in my case) 850 employees, 200,000 customers, and the community at large.

I remember one woman calling me to complain about a campaign we were running. Three of our branch managers—Tom Neve, Dick Ragain, and Harry Polland—were being featured in an advertisement that touted the bank as having products for “every Tom, Dick, and Harry.” The woman told me the ad was sexist and that I should have included a woman. I gave her my standard speech about appreciating feedback and that our best customers are the ones who let us know when our service isn’t up to par. How else can we improve? Of course, in the back of my mind, I’m thinking we don’t have any women branch managers named Tom, Dick, or Harry, but apparently that was beside the point. Then I asked her what branch she banked with to which she replied, “Oh, I’m not a customer. I just thought you’d like to know.”

Artists Are Courageous
You have to have skin to keep your insides in…and the thicker the better when you’re the marketing and communications director. If you’re easily offended or continually affected by the opinions of other people, you’ll never be able to develop advertising that meets the strategic needs of the organization. Identifying an audience and creating a message that not only speaks to that audience but results in action (buying product, changing perception) is the basis for successful marketing. Not winning awards, not pleasing the CEO’s spouse, and not having all your friends tell you how much they like your work.

Imagine then how much courage an artist must have to continually put his or her work out there for public critique. Artists may create art “for art’s sake” or to express political issues, work out mental shortcomings, or discover the meaning of life. But whatever the purpose, all art is soul-baringly personal to the artist. We create in gouache and blood. To adapt a quote from sportswriter Red Smith: There’s nothing to art. All you do is sit down to a blank canvas and open a vein.

I suspect that having your art disparaged is a little like someone telling you that your children are stupid and untalented—maybe even worse because you can always blame substandard children on the other parent. A thin-skinned artist who can’t handle exposure, scrutiny, and bad reviews won’t be an artist for very long.

Cuesta College Student Art Exhibition
Every year, Cuesta holds a juried student art exhibition. The school invites a juror, usually an artist or gallery curator, to review submitted artwork, determine what gets in and what doesn’t, and select winners. Students may submit as many pieces as they’d like for a nominal fee ($5 each), which is used for cash prizes. Artist and Cal Poly instructor Michael Barton Miller ( served as the exhibition’s 2010 juror.

All my instructors encouraged students to submit entries, but cautioned that jurors accept work according to their own objectives and taste. Qualified pieces are often rejected because they don’t fit into some larger theme.

We had an excellent response from students this year with hundreds of pieces submitted and approximately 50 accepted. I submitted two charcoals and four paintings; one of my charcoals was accepted and none of my paintings. I am disappointed that Window of Opportunity didn’t make the cut, but my painting instructor assures me that there’s nothing wrong with my paintings and that I shouldn’t be discouraged. I attended on Friday Michael Miller’s lecture about his own work. The presentation was thoroughly enjoyable and did, in fact, reinforce that artists, too, have their own points of view and taste.

The exhibition runs from April 29 through May 17, so make sure you stop by and check it out if you can. The Cuesta College Art Gallery is located on the San Luis Obispo campus in Building 7100. Here’s my piece that made it into the show:

The Visit, 2-Piece Charcoal on Paper, 30" x 44" (2010)

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Spring Break, Part II

Works in Progress
I have been working on several art projects while on break—starting some, finishing others—and thought you might like to see where I am with the trying two-panel. As previously stated, I am still at it and believe I have the clouds at a “10” (on a scale of 1 to 10), the wheat field now at an “8½” (there’s something not right about the cloud shadow), and the not-as-pitiable desert now at a “7.” The desert is my biggest concern, but it’s come the farthest. It’s still too dark and the road depth is just a little off.

This Land, Acrylic on Board, Each Panel 12" x 20" (2010)
I have also been working on cleaning up a charcoal we did in my intermediate drawing class. I drew the piece in the Egon Schiele style of nonrefined contour line and as a learning exercise and precursor to my sleeping self-portrait. Cuesta has a juried student show coming up and I think I’d like to enter this piece if I can figure out what to do with the background.
Second-Hand Dude, Charcoal on Paper, 20" x 30" (2010)

We have three projects due in my book arts class, but I’ve been focusing on my pop-up book this week. Book arts is a class where we actually learn how to make books. We cut the boards, glue on fabric, stitch or glue the signatures, and create cases. These invaluable skills are probably more craft than art at the level I’m currently working, which is no reflection on our very fine instructor, David Prochaska, but rather testimony of my newbie status. There are, however, artist’s books that would boggle your mind in their intricacy and beauty. I’ve included a few photos below (not my work, just pieces I googled). I’ve also included a photo of the model for my pop-up. I’m taking the final health care bill, putting it into a coffin-shaped book and cover, with a bill-turned-vampire as the pop-up. That’s not political commentary, is it?!!

Example: Artist's Book
Example: Artist's Book
Example: Artist's Book

Working Model for My Pop-Up Book (2010)
I find, as always, that I am more changed when my projects are complete than the projects themselves, which begs the question, what or who is the work in progress?

The Spring Break Projects List
I still have not made it into the garage, but I did start, complete, and file my taxes today. The weather, which has been cold, rainy, windy, and gloomy all day, was perfect for the task. Check. (As in “off the list,” not “refund.”) I did laundry, picked up Marco’s prescription, and loaded Adobe Lightroom onto my computer. Check, check, check.

I also spent some time at the Paso Robles art center ( yesterday. My friend Carol found a watercolor on canvas that she’s infatuated with and wanted me to look at it. Based on the number of people who said, “Nice to see you again,” I think she’s been there a few times trying to decide whether or not the infatuation is true love worthy of actual purchase. Sometimes art is like that.

I have never been what you could characterize as a “shopper” (my mother thinks I’m not related to her) except where art and books are concerned. Art galleries and book stores are dangerous to my pocket book, so I have to be particularly vigilant in a tough economy. I held my ground (and budget) even though I saw some wonderful pieces and met some very fascinating artists. I really liked Peg Grady’s cat piece. If you’re nearby, check it out!

Back to Reality
All in all, it’s been a pretty relaxing, yet productive, Spring break. Tomorrow morning, I check out of the guest room and go back to school…when’s the next holiday?

Friday, April 9, 2010

Spring Break, Part I

Palm Beach or Spring Cleaning
Except for sleeping in the guest room all week, I really hadn’t considered going anywhere for Spring break. With four art classes, five days a week, and most of the leftover time spent on finishing art projects, my house has been looking a little disorderly. I try to find a balance between "clean enough to be healthy" and "dirty enough to be happy," but at some point you have to sweep the room with more than a glance.

I LOVE living in a clean house, sleeping on freshly laundered sheets, and relaxing on fur-free furniture—who doesn’t? But I HATE housework. The last thing I want to do is spend time on a task that I’ll just have to do all over again next week. I wish I thought it was fun or challenging or therapeutic, but for me it ranks right below exercise and pulling weeds. I doubt even our OCD friends look at housework as enjoyable.

Still, I thought Spring break is a perfect time to regain control over the dust bunnies, polish the copper teapot, and clean out the garage. I know, as a rally cry it hardly ranks with “Palm Beach or Bust,” but such is the burden of age and a mortgage.

The Pop Psychologist Is “IN”
I am a Type A-minus personality. I am competitive, ambitious, high-achieving, multi-tasking, unhappy about delays, and not-controlling-but-definitely-bossy. I make numbered lists: 1) written and 2) mental. I drive myself with deadlines. It is, however, this aversion to housework and other maintenance tasks that keeps me from being a Type A-plus personality. I mean, seriously, you will never find me up at 2 a.m. because I had to load the dishwasher before I could go to bed.

So, in thinking about how to approach my Spring break objectives (yes, yes, I realize that developing an “approach” is a stall tactic and that I should just start cleaning), I decided to go with my strengths: I made a list and gave myself a deadline.

The Week’s Not Over Yet
I won’t bore you with the details of the list (lest you hold it over me come Monday morning), but I will share a few of the week’s highlights:
  • I cleaned out the refrigerator, including washing the five jam jars that had less than a teaspoon of jam in them so they could be put in the recycle bin. I thought about combining them, but didn’t have a taste for fig-pear-pomegranate.
  • I scrubbed the kitchen floor, which interestingly has 81 full-sized 12” x 12” tiles and 32 partials, and laundered the now-pink throw rugs.
  • I set up and organized an Excel file with all my online passwords. Notice to would-be hackers: The word “password” does not appear anywhere in the file.
  • I washed five pairs of shoes; I am still waiting for them to dry.
  • I designed new business cards.
  • I read an article about Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, looked up French chef Escoffier, started memorizing the names of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence, and finished From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. (Okay, these were spur of the moment additions to the list.)
  • I loaded Microsoft Outlook onto my computer and started organizing my contacts and calendar. Notice to family and friends: Look for a request to update your information.
  • I scrubbed the floors in the laundry room/cat bathroom. For parity’s sake: 52 full-sized tiles, 11 partials.
  • I tracked down (after a nonfruitful visit to OSH) and ordered replacement bulbs for my office lamps.
  • I painted awhile on my two-panel landscape. I think I’ve got the wheat field up to an “8½” and the desert up to a “7.”
  • I wrote this week’s blog post…
I haven’t started the garage (the week’s not over yet), but I have realized that I’ve got the life I want…one where there may be dust in my house but there isn’t any on me.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

It's Always Too Soon to Quit

The Importance of Failure
My good friend Carol and I were having breakfast yesterday morning at our biweekly Saturday Sisters writing group* meeting and I was bellyaching about this two-panel landscape that I’ve been struggling with. One panel is a wheat field, the other a desert. The two 12” x 20” boards sit at different heights (the left side is higher by about four inches), but side-by-side with a common horizon line and storm clouds. I’ve spent hours and hours on it and feel that although the cloud is a “10” (on a scale of 1 to 10), the wheat field is an “8” (moved from a “7½” after two hours of painting on Thursday) and the desert is a pitiable “3½.”

Carol remarked that she never imagines me struggling with my paintings. That got me thinking…people rarely talk about the hardships that come before the success. As a society, we celebrate achievement, not the malfunctions and mistakes and grueling process that allow us to achieve. Life doesn’t actually read like a resume because we don’t include the failures.

In fact, our failures are often more important in shaping character and experience than are our accomplishments. Albert Einstein failed the entrance exam to the Swiss Polytechnic Institute. Marilyn Monroe was released by 20th Century-Fox in 1947 because Darryl Zanuck thought she was unattractive. John Grisham’s first novel, A Time to Kill, was rejected by 16 agents and a dozen publishers. Soichiro Honda, founder of the Japanese motor company, understood that wrong turns and delays are part of the journey when he said that “success is 99 percent failure.”

* The Saturday Sisters writing group consists of Carol and me and was formed last year so we could brainstorm and edit the things we write. Mostly we just like to get together for breakfast, but I’ve got a novel that will one day be scripted into a movie starring Meryl Streep (ha!) and Carol writes letters to the local editor and thinks she may develop op ed pieces to freelance. However lately, we talk more about art than writing as Carol has been doing some drawing in emeritus and private art classes.

Trust the Process
Painting is all about the journey. Every piece requires missteps and failed attempts. The process of layering—building up, covering up, searching for something that works, not finding it, finding it, messing it up—is ultimately what makes a painting successful. There is absolutely no other way to do it because it is the layering that creates the richness and depth.

Once you figure out that you just have to trust the process, you can control your panic through the ugly stages (and believe me, there are always ugly stages) until you reach your destination: a painting you would put your name on.

As a destination-oriented, bottom-line-focused individual, I’m not sure I will ever be able to truly live my life in the moment. (I believe some aspects of our natures come hard-wired and that I am, it seems, a Hobbes. See below.) But I am amazed at the joy I’ve found in the process and the work that precedes what the world calls success.

Rejection Letter or Merit Badge?
An important objective in my taking art classes has been to develop a portfolio that I can submit as part of an MFA program application. (A Master’s degree in Fine Arts is required to teach at the college level and would provide one more option in making art a viable part of my life.) Typically, applications are due in January for the following Fall term and include 15- to 20-piece portfolios. Prospective students usually work on their portfolios for two years to best reflect their talent and potential.

The likelihood that even a qualified applicant will be accepted is fairly bleak. I read an article this week that said it is now harder to get into art school than it is to get into med school (at the graduate level, not the undergraduate). Acceptance rates are running about 5 percent due to limited funding for instructors and facilities. This means that universities can only accept 5 to 10 new students each year even though they receive hundreds of applicants. Most students apply to multiple schools, multiple times because selection committee objectives vary from school to school and year to year. One of my favorite (and most brilliant) Cuesta instructors told me that he applied three times before he was accepted.

So, even though I have been working on my portfolio for less than a year, I felt it was important to get an insider’s view of the process. I applied in January (with much appreciated recommendation letters from Peet, Marian, and Patty) to three schools—UCSB, UC Davis, and UNLV—because they are ranked among the top 100 graduate schools for Fine Arts and located in cities with affordable housing. Applying was a long shot, but navigating the application process has given me a new life skill worthy of a merit badge.

As of today, I have received rejection letters from UCSB and UC Davis. They were each very polite in thanking me for my application and explaining that they have more applicants than available slots. I have to admit, it stings a little. Nobody likes rejection, right? Not even polite rejection. I should hear from UNLV later this month or early next.

Will I keep trying? Absolutely! One research firm estimated that you can optimize the probability of being accepted by applying to 15 or more schools. I suspect hard work and improving my portfolio will boost my chances as well. The bottom line is: We always have to try. We always have to reach for more even if we falter. It’s the stretch that emboldens us and prepares us for what comes next. Thomas Edison said, “Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.”

Tuesday, March 16, 2010


Nonartists often wonder why artists create so many self-portraits. The answer is simple really: It's not about vanity or self-absorption. It's about finding a model who doesn't charge much and will sit for you at three o'clock in the morning. Here's a charcoal I've been working on this week:

Artist Asleep, Charcoal on Paper, 30" x 22" (2010)

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Bankers Box

March 2009

Bankers Box is a brand name for those cardboard storage boxes business people use to keep 1) old files that the IRS says must be retained for however many number of years, 2) seminar notes that they’ll never refer to again but can’t seem to throw away because the binders are so nice, and 3) general everyday clutter that they swept into a box because some Big Cheese dropped by for a surprise office inspection.

Note: Said Big Cheese preaches that an organized desk reflects an organized mind because he (no offense, boys, but I haven’t met a she-Cheese who fits this description) doesn’t have any real work to clutter his desk and is thus free to annoy the staff with unannounced visits.

Compulsive Hoarder or Unrealized Artist?
When I packed up my office in June 2008, I filled 25 boxes with 17 years of this very important aforementioned “stuff.” These boxes joined the 32 boxes already residing in my garage to form a 57-box heap. It’s an embarrassing problem that I am trying to deal with and one that worries my dear friend Iris who periodically sends me notes, articles, and books on decluttering my life. (I haven’t had the heart to tell her that her notes, etc. all end up in the garage, and therefore increase the clutter, but that’s another issue.)

I don’t think the Mt. Everest I’ve built represents some unacknowledged mental illness because the rest of my house stays in pretty fair order. I do think, however, it has reflected my inability to say with certainty that I know what I want to do with my life. I mean, don’t we all cultivate multiple options when we’re just not sure where our paths will lead? So, how can I throw things away when there’s a chance I might need them?

The Foggy Idea That Comes in Week Six
Week one in InDesign ends with the class finding, saving, and modifying images to use in our eight-page artists’ books. Week two finds us learning how to use master pages, pairing images and fonts to best communicate a given word or concept, and testing varying resolutions in color and gray scale. By week three, I’m still thinking marketing and graphic design and have written a note in my sketchbook that reads, “Second career: CEO of Stone Bishop?” Stone Bishop is the name I’ve chosen for my business should I toddle in that direction. Marketing company names seem to fall into one of two camps: “clever” or “staid,” with “staid” always being a series of law firm-like names. Figuring that my potential clientele are likely to be financial industry companies and not skate board manufacturers, I choose “staid.” Since it’s only me, no partner, I select a second name that is geographical. I would have chosen Stone Pacific except that I’m not planning to sell tile.

The fourth and fifth weeks reflect InDesign basics and we start to design magazine covers. Mine is entitled, “Art & Books,” and features a front page photo of JK Rowling. Not particularly original, but more original than the handful of porno rags some of my classmates are working on. All the same (and apparently 19-year old boys are), the principles of good layout hold true whether the centerfold is Miss February or an article on organizing your library.

And then comes the foggy idea. It’s week six and we have two projects: one is a tri-fold brochure, the other a layered art piece constructed of multiple pages with portions cut away to reveal parts of the undermost layers. I whip through the brochure project—my Photoshop skills are still a little amateurish, but my layout is crisp and easy to understand. Brochures are a breeze (how many have I created over the course of my career?) and I’m totally bored.

The layered art piece seems much more intriguing. I put a spiral staircase in a brain so the viewer can descend through the human mind in the same way he or she would move from floor to floor at a major department store. First floor, psychoses and Belgian chocolate…

You Are Here, Digital Art, 8" x 14" (2009)

Thinking Outside the Bankers Box
We never realize how structured we are until we step outside of our boxes. (In my case, a bankers box.) In the movie Logan’s Run, life seemed pretty good until Michael York discovered what really happens to 30-year olds. Whether it’s a renewal ceremony or company awards banquet, the outcome is the same: conformity.

It was the beginning of March 2009 and I was just starting to understand that I was making a choice. I was venturing outside into the unknown wilderness that is Sanctuary.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Grabbed and Squeezed

January to February 2009

Adobe InDesign is a layout program used to create advertisements, magazines, and brochures. The text, images, and graphic elements of any graphic design piece are typically developed and perfected in other programs and then brought into InDesign to create one cohesive, engaging presentation. For example, you might write the copy in MS Word to take advantage of its editing features and prep your photos in Photoshop to manipulate size, hue, saturation, etc.

The Challenge
When I entered Cuesta College's InDesign class in January 2009, it was these skills I expected to develop. And, well, to prove myself right. You see, almost a year earlier, I made an offhand comment to the bank's graphic designer that, given six months of training in QuarkXpress (his primary layout program of choice at the time) or InDesign, I could be at 85% of his facility with the program. After seeing the offended look on his face (he is, afterall, a degreed designer with many years experience), I pointed out that it was the last 15% that could take a lifetime to achieve.

I am a precise and deliberate person and don't speculate unless I say I'm speculating; I don't make unfounded claims. (I do, however, make up statistics about 42% of the time as a way of explaining things--so who knows about the 85%?!!) The bottom line is that this statement had been eating at me since I made it and was, in part, a driving force in my need to take this class and do well in it.

Goin' to Disneyland
It's easy to understand why athletes want to go to the Magic Kingdom after a long season of hard work and training. Disneyland exudes an irrepressible lightheartedness that grabs you and squeezes you the moment you set foot in the Happiest Place on Earth. I'm not saying that the Cuesta College Fine Arts Department is Disney-esque, but there is a three-dimensional texture to an artistic atmosphere that doesn't exist in banking. (Duh.)

From the first day in Peet Cocke's InDesign class, I felt "grabbed and squeezed." Artists live in a world where inanimate objects have personalities and facial expressions (e.g., the recent happy face ads from American Express where purses, airplanes, and chairs smile) and political issues, mental shortcomings, and the meaning of life are all worked out in gouache and blood. How do you explain to the adoptive family you love and respect (my banking friends and colleagues) the joy and relief at meeting your biological family (instructors and fellow students)? Artists, even the suppressed ones who have found success in other disciplines, often feel like proverbial square pegs simply for the lack of companions who see the world through the same perceptive kaleidoscope.

Everything Is an Art Project
So, I shouldn't have been surprised then when our first project in InDesign was not a tri-fold brochure, but a mad rush to create something from nothing. The assignment was to take eight pieces of art paper and a 24" length of string and put them together. In 45 minutes. Without any other instructions. Peet's objective (as he often says, there is a method to his madness) was to demonstrate how artists’ books are structured before we put graphics on the paper.

I didn’t want to use glue or tape or anything except the materials we were given, so I rolled, cut, folded, punched, and wove mine into a kind of paper sculpture (see photo). The 18" x 12" piece will always symbolize the significant impact that Peet has had on me in recognizing that every idea is a potential art project and every thing is a tool for making art.

Everything Is an Art Project, Paper Sculpture, 18" x 12" (2009)

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Beginning of the Beginning

June to December 2008

Triggering Events
In the Fall of 2006, a definitive agreement was announced between a large ($750 billion in assets) foreign conglomerate and my much smaller ($2.5 billion in assets) regional community bank to merge sometime in 2007. To be acquired really--everyone just says "merge" because it gives the acquirees some sense of control and dignity. And we all know the only control you have in these situations, or in life I suppose, is how dignified your own behavior is...but that story is for someone else's blog!

As is typical in an acquisition, members of the acquired executive team are kept on only as long as they are needed to ensure a smooth transaction. The company, post-merger, clearly doesn't need two presidents or two CFOs or, in my case, two senior vice presidents of marketing and communications. So, after completing the rebranding of the community bank, my position was eliminated in June 2008.

It's important to point out here that even though I worked for the community bank for a wonderful and rewarding 16 years, I really didn't feel a high degree of heartache. These things are just business. They're not personal. They just ARE. Life is not about what happens to you, but how you react to it. There's an old Yiddish saying that pain is inevitable; suffering is a choice. So, I wallowed for about three hours and then began planning my next move. Of course, my abbreviated mourning period was facilitated by the fact that I have been "moving on" my entire life, that I had already been in banking for 25 years, that this was my sixth merger (statistics say the average banker will experience seven mergers in his or her career), that I ended up in a pretty good financial position, and that the first phone call I received after being laid off began with, "Congratulations!"

A Pretty Grand Birthday Gift
I celebrated my 51st birthday three days later, and even then, I knew I had been given a gift. We rarely walk away from the good things in our lives to seek out potentially great things. (If you haven't read Jim Collins's Good to Great, do yourself a favor!) Mine had been a good job--challenging work, a successful company, pleasant people, a lovely place to live--all things worth preserving. But here was an opportunity to figure out whether I wanted something else.

I had been working 60- to 70-hour weeks for the last year and was just plain exhausted. So, the first thing I did was nothing. Many of my colleagues jumped into looking for another job. Maybe they had to. I just know I had the time and means to take a breather, so I did. I watched movies, I read books, I walked, I quit eating vending machine food, I increased my volunteer hours, and I began to explore options. Maybe I would set up my own business or consult. Maybe I would change industries and work for a nonprofit that was doing something positive for the world. Maybe I would do something I hadn't thought of yet. I kept my cup empty and my options open.

The Glimmer of an Idea
In late October, I decided that if I were going to set up my own business or do some consulting, I needed to expand my skills. Although I had been acting as art director for nearly 20 years in designing and producing advertising, collateral materials, and packaging, I hadn't been doing the actual graphic design myself. I would pencil out what I wanted and have my staff designer execute it. (Note: I do not wish to imply that the designs created under my supervision as marketing director were mine alone. The degree of detail in my instructions was inversely dependent upon the talent and skill of the designer; some designs were mine, some were the designer's. More often though, final pieces were the result of good collaboration with the entire marketing team.)

I looked for graphic design classes at the local community college and university. Even though I graduated with an MBA from Cal Poly (California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo) and would have felt right at home, the community college seemed to have better offerings. And how can you beat the price? Three credits and four-and-a-half months of skill-building entertainment for $216--that's hardly the cost of a weekly movie and box of Raisinets. I signed up for Adobe InDesign.