Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Artist Date

Last Thursday I had a meeting to set up some Creativity Workshops I'll be diong in October, November, and December sponsored by the Chicago Artists' Coalition and taking place in the Coalition Gallery, of which I am a member artist. So there I was in Wicker Park on a gorgeous, sunny afternoon. I just had to take advantage of the day and I was at that critical hour, nearing 3:00pm when getting on the road to drive to the south suburbs where I live, can turn into a tediously endeavor. Why sit in Rush hour traffic when exploring Wicker Park and all it has to offer is right there in front of me.

I found inspiration through exploring some places I had noticed before; John Fluevog, Eye Want, and Zella Brown. Of course I also went through the Flatiron building and there was plenty to see there while they were setting up for one of their featured art events for the upcomming weekend. There are loads of artists showing all kinds of work and I was also looking for other sorts of inspiration.

John Fluevog is a shoe designer and there was something really great about seeing the unique designs because with fashion, there are of course certain practical limitations on what the design can do. It has to be worn on the body. It has to fit, feel comfortable, wear well, etc. So when designers are still able to find novelty within these limitations, and still avoid the ridiculous, it inspires me. I'm a sucker for a good Loafer/slip on shoe. This one caught my eye.

I had been to Eye Want before when a friend of mine was exhibiting in their gallery. It is an eyewear shop that specializes in vintage and funky designs. The shop is decorated with art and objects that are worth going in to see on their own. They have also converted two rooms in the back of the shop to be used for rotating art shows. And the quality of work is exceptional. Kim Laurel and Fletcher Hayes are currently showing work there. I was particularly drawn to Laurel's mixed media collage where she is stitching into the paper and materials to make lines. Hayes' paired photographs were particularly pleasing to me as they let the viewer consider common place scenes in new ways.

Zella Brown has some great interior design prodects, most hand made, all original designs. The most interesting of them to me was the re-designed and re-purposed shopping cart chase lounge. The store has a fresh and new feel to it although many of the products are recycled. There are clocks made of tea cups and neck ties, original art, clever and cool objects to ponder, purchase, or present as presents.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Rocks and Roots

Nature's Patterns Lichens

Photo shoot in MN - Landscapes

Photo shoot in MN - Waterfalls and Friends

Update on "Ask, Tell" Reworking

I built a small frame/box to hold the broken pieces of the figurines. It was painted red to pick up on the red in the altered book and also to make references to injury, blood, and wounds.

A clear epoxy was poured into the box, over the arranged broken fragments. When dry, the epoxy is like a block of glass, transparent and solid.

Dryer sheets were attached to the sides of the box and at first seem to make reference to lace and ruffles because of their texture and color. Because of the red color of the box a connection to bandages can be made.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Artist's Statement

I am exploring personal and cultural issues of sexuality, masculinity, race, gender, and humor and simultaneously focusing on how our brains process information. While making my work I question thoughts by observing them, like in meditation practice; observing that the mind thinks and that thoughts arise.

Although the social commentary is an important aspect, there is also plenty of room for interpretation and reflection by the viewer. Because the works are created using an intuitive approach, aspects evolve that might not have been planned.

The rich tradition of oil painting and its history is a foundation; I find that the altered books and collage techniques, in combination with the tradition of painting, create a new whole that is reflective of our current time.

History Books embody the idea of historical information, once thought to be true and real, now outmoded and obsolete as they are replaced by the internet. The density of the visual imagery in this work also connotes the effects of media, advertising, and the internet, although in these pieces more provocative combinations are being presented in a unique way.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Stargazer: Garden Dreams Come True

For my "Enhancing Creativity" Class, we did an exercise created by Martha Beck called "Stargazer". The goal of the exercise is to reframe one's personal story and history to include seemingly negative events and see how they pave the way to the things we love most in the world.

Because I always wanted to have a wonderful garden, I had to be overwhelmed by other peoples problems while serving on the board of my condominium association.

The contractor who converted the building, an owner going into foreclosure (and illegally renting his unit while the bank was taking it over), an owner refusing to pay assessments and requiring legal action, pet policy violations, etc (and it was only a 9 unit building!) - convinced me that I had had enough of condo living.

Luckily our friends Brian and Jennifer were also house hunting at the time and worked with people who recommended Homewood-Flossmoor, an area we had never even heard of previously. We found a house we could afford with a double lot - more than we had hoped for and have spent the last 5 years getting rid of lawn and replacing it with landscaping; trees, shrubs, flowers and soon raised vegetable beds! If it weren't for all the headaches at the condo, I wouldn't have my beloved garden.

From Martha Beck's "Steering by Starlight" exercise.

Stargazer: Chloe

For my "Enhancing Creativity" Class, we did an exercise created by Martha Beck called "Stargazer". The goal of the exercise is to re-frame one's personal story and history to include seemingly negative events and see how they pave the way to the things we love most in the world.

Because I was open to the wonderful things that dogs can provide, I received the best dog in the world, the love of my life Chloe. A 3 year relationship with my partner at the time had to be ended, and when he left he took his (our) dog Chiquita, so it created the desire to have a dog of my own.

Because of my lifelong relationship with my cousin, who is more of a sister to me, and her propensity for taking in stray animals on her farm in West Virginia, when I was visiting her one of her strays had just had a litter of puppies and I said, "I'll take that one". If I hadn't experienced the painful break up of a relationship I didn't want to see end, I might not have ended up with the best dog in the world.
From Martha Beck's "Steering by Starlight" exercise.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Ask, Tell: the great debate

My artist date last week was the most memorable one of all time. I had been thinking more about making Giclée prints of my work, but knew very little about them. An artist friend recommended someone and it had been on my mind to find out more about the printer and the process. The web site provided a lot of information and I felt the cost was reasonable for the results. Because the printer was about an hour drive away, I took the piece that I was most interested in reproducing in case they had time to do it that day.

The conversation was informative and because of the three dimensional nature of the work, such as the porcelain figurines, the printer was making sure that I understood that some of that quality would be lost and the piece could be less interesting, at least different as a result. It was almost like he was trying to talk me out of it. Yet, I felt I understood the limitations of the process and that it was still worth doing. He had time, and asked if I could go have lunch and come back in two hours.

As I drove off to find a place to spend my two hours my mind was considering the possibilities that having a print of this piece would bring. Like other artists, if I chose a piece that other people liked, I could sell the prints at a fraction of the price of the original, widening my audience, earning some money, and the cost of the set up and making the prints would be recouped quickly.

Then the printer called when I was only a few blocks away - could I return to the shop...he said I was going to be really upset...the frame on the piece had failed, the piece fell, the figurines were broken.

A week prior to this I had sent a proposal to a collector for this specific piece. I had written a two page letter explaining the significance of the piece and why it would fit in the collection. I had written a two page analysis of the imagery. I had included glossy photos of the piece. Of course I imagined getting a call from the collector to confirm the inclusion of this piece in the collection and I would be faced with explaining it was broken. It was slowly occurring to me as I worked on this in my mind that replacing the figurines was unlikely so restoring the work to what I represented to the collector was nearly impossible. I felt sick. I had to remind myself to concentrate on turning the car around and driving back safely.

The printer felt horrible. He explained what happened. It made sense. I saw that by no fault of his or my own, the frame failed, the materials had not been strong enough to hold the weight of the piece, and the dust pan was filled with what was left.

There was nothing to do but to go home. The urge was to feel heartbroken, crestfallen, sad, sick, miserable, "why me", "just my luck", "nothing ever goes my way", and on and on. It was raining. The long drive home gave me time to be alone with my thoughts.

The teaching is: don't try to stop the feeling or emotion that arises when something like this occurs but rather to observe it and stay with it. I felt really upset. And then the teaching is to observe how the mind wants to run off into imaginary scenarios and messages to add on to this feeling, and usually add on to the misery. Watch how the mind wants to do that. Observe it and just stay there. Eventually, the feeling of calamity became less, and there was room for something else.

I was able to process some more. The figures could be glued. The broken figure carries meaning for the piece and perhaps is even better than what it was before. This metaphor, symbol, and iconography is potentially powerful.

Then from my art geekitude came the memory of Marcel Duchamp and a piece of his, known as "The Large Glass" that was accidentally broken when being installed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He saw it as the perfect random event that completed the piece and made it better than before. Life is random, Marcel. Life is also beautiful as you seemed to figure out, Marcel.

Marcel painstakingly repaired his broken piece, but left the cracked glass intentionally knowing that it had perfectly completed the piece visually and intellectually.

The teaching is that what happens in life isn't really the point; what we do next is. The old, overused cliche "when life gives you lemons, make lemonade" can be true.

The trick is to find out how. So often the lemons life throws at us trigger other responses and we are so far into our reaction so fast, and that reaction is so automatic and so all-encompassing that seeing an alternative way to be at that moment seems impossible. Yet there are infinite possibilities.

Another teaching that came to mind is "Loving What Is". So, to start telling myself that this event should not have happened, or at least it should not have happened to me, that the printer should not have dropped it, I should have known better in building the piece, I should have stayed and handled the piece...should, would, could...(these are key indicators in our thinking when we are resisting "what is"), to let any of that thinking occur is to not observe reality.

Of course this is what happened. Things like this happen all the time to people all around the world. Why would I think that I would be exempt. This is "what is". If I can accept it, yes even LOVE it, I bring myself the greatest joy. We do have a choice in what we think and how we react. The thing happened. There is no turning back from that. I have the proof that it happened. It is real. The figurines are broken. So do I want to put energy into rage, regret, or revenge? Or do I want to, with a clear mind, accepting and loving what is, make plans to move forward on this piece and prevent frame failures in the future?

What shape will the piece take now?

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Ask, Tell

“Ask, Tell” 2009

Analysis of Symbolism

"Ask, Tell" 2009, (37.5" x 26.5") is a mixed media piece by artist Jeff Stevenson incorporating oil on canvas, altered books, curled book pages, found objects (figurines, metal address holder), and wax.

The altered book in the center of the piece is opened and exposes pages that have been cut away to reveal various images within the book: maps, and text on the left and circular patterns on the right consisting of the book’s inside cover design, a reproduction of a fine art piece from the Western Art tradition, and a collection of African masks. The page with the images of the African masks is cut to fit within the circular shape, but also is cut into a common “party mask” shape. Within this page a smaller party mask shape is cut through to the Western Art image several pages deep exposing the eyes of the figure depicted there.

By utilizing the image of masks and the shape of a mask in this way, the piece explores the ideas of masquerade, ceremonial functions of masks, and altered or shifting identities. The title “Ask, Tell” in the context of the year 2009 creates an unavoidable connection to the United States military policy of “don’t ask don’t tell”.

African masks create mythology and stories of those cultures such as warriors, spirits, and ancestors. The mask that the U.S. is asking for its military to wear is also of mythic proportions: the male, heterosexual hero defending family, hearth and home. This ancient tradition that reaches well beyond our nation’s history has connections to sexuality and identity. Indeed a man’s definition of “manhood” is often focused on his ability to compete with other men, dominate other men, and kill other men. Our cultural model of our warrior has little room for men loving other men and relies on this model of competition, dominance, and willingness to kill in order to gain men’s commitment to the cause. By threatening the individual man’s sense of belonging to the larger cultural group, his status within that group, and indeed his very manhood, this man can be convinced to fight, kill, and die for the cause. This model also excludes women from this status as warrior because women and children are historically held up as the reason for fighting, defending and protecting. This cultural model manipulates people’s deep love and affection for family in order to fulfill its needs.

This mythology was also used to oppress racial groups thereby reserving the heroic role of warrior for those most valued by the system, the white, heterosexual males. By men openly loving other men this paradigm is turned on its head. By women fighting along side men, and possibly also fighting for the “enemy”, this antiquated model is forced to change. Racial equality was fought for through claiming the symbolism of the military myth, the role of the worthy warrior. In our modern world this outdated mythological warrior culture is not serving us well in any regard and must be changed. Our military will be stronger without it.

Party masks used in a masquerade unleash secret persona the wearer has hidden within. Throughout our history, celebrations are imbued with deeper meaning by tapping into the imagination through the use of masks. Changing one’s identity can have positive, creative, and transformative effects. When we imagine our future around the issue this piece is exploring, we realize that we can be whatever we want to be. Our greatness is not limited by who we are now. We can choose to put on a new persona and celebrate our inventiveness.

The maps are not easily identified as a particular location and therefore refer to the idea of location: finding home, traveling to new places, and our history of where we have been. They also refer to our need to understand our world and our place in it. Mapping is an activity that seeks to find specific facts of the natural world. Because the maps in this piece are interrupted, it implies that this knowledge is fragmented and in need of unification, connection, assimilation, and integration.

The figurines are framed by the cut out of the maps. Although they are two male figurines they are difficult to identify quickly as such. Part of the androgyny is a result of the original purpose of the figures; they are decorative representations of cliché nostalgia and a generalized idea of a romantic notion of days gone by. They also were created with female counterparts because in a heterosexist culture, one cannot exist without the other. One figurine is a Dutch youth carrying a yolk across his shoulders with a water bucket. The other figure wears a tri-corn hat, ruffles, and finery of a beautifully trite past era. His hair (wig) is full of curls and the way the figurine is painted, could easily pass as female. These two figures appear in the oil paintings incorporated into the piece and they are shown in close proximity as if asking or telling one another something. This close proximity could also be interpreted as an intimacy not unlike that prior to a kiss. By using androgynous porcelain figurines the viewer is provided an opportunity to examine their own feelings about same-sex closeness and intimacy without immediate discomfort that might be felt from a human depiction of the same subject. There is also a certain amount of good natured humor as we are invited to imagine the secret lives of these two little guys inside the curio cabinet when the collector isn’t looking.

The curled pages connote a book transformed and silenced. The book in the center of the piece has been altered to a new purpose. It can no longer be read as it was originally intended and now stands as a stationary object symbolizing the information, beliefs, and knowledge it contains. So then, the curled pages extend this analogy of the book to a representation of inaccessible knowledge and lost history, presumably of gay people who have actively been excised from history. A people who’s silence has been demanded, who have been threatened with exclusion from the group to which they rightfully belong, who the dominant culture makes invisible by exclusion, oppression, and omission, and who are steadfastly demanding equality.

The size of the piece is almost human size but not large enough to dominate the viewer. The viewer is provided an intimate proximity to the piece in order to contemplate it in the privacy of their thoughts. The colors are harmonious and warm particularly the creamy tones of the paper and wax that also creates a translucent visually pleasing effect.

The visual elements are open to many different reads and interpretations of this piece. They provide enough clarity to communicate a message and enough mystery to evoke thought.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Do Things Differently

If I want things to be different, I must do things differently. The problem with habituation is that it is so comfortable, so familiar, that often it is also undetectable. We do things a certain way because "that is what works", or "that is how I always do it", or we don't even register the fact that we chose to do it or that there are alternatives. Of course for things like washing dishes, driving to work, or getting kids off to school having a routine is important if not imperative. However when we lose track of what we are doing out of habit - flipping on the TV, getting lost in yammering phone conversations, surfing the net - things that get in the way of our life goals, relationships, and creative energy, well then, it is time to Do Things Differently.

Pick one day this week to be your "Observation Day". Pick another day to be your "Do Things Differently Day". And then carve out an hour or so on a day off, presumably the weekend, when you can be alone to write and reflect about what happened.

"Observation Day" is to take note of what you do. Make a list of all of your activities. Write it out: wake up, shower, groom, eat, talk to spouse, radio, TV, drive, work, etc. Identify what you do automatically and how you do it. Observe yourself. Notice how you always (flick the lights on, then coffee, then the dogs go outside). Can you get down to the details?
Just watching yourself will bring a new level of awareness. Also note what makes you mad, happy, irritated, (rain, traffic, favorite song) particularly unexpected things and surprises.

Then, the night before your "Do Things Differently Day", review your list of observations. Pick a few favorites - the things that are really YOU. Begin to imagine doing those things differently. Have you ever written something with your opposite hand? for how long? all day? Can you see yourself taking a different route to or from work? Asking someone else to drive or taking the wheel yourself? Ordering a different morning coffee, or buying one for the person behind you in line? What would happen if...?

The "Do Things Differently Day" dawns and you realize that the universe provides infinite possibilities and instead of doing routine things the same way, today you will do them differently - just for fun. Even if it is less efficient. Even if those who see you as the sum of your habits start to question and even freak out when you show up wearing red, or with your hair slicked back, or you skip lunch to take a walk around the park. Don't over think it, although you can do things that are good for you, you can do things you've put off doing, just do things differently.

At the end of the "Do Things Differently Day", go over your list again and put a check next to things you did differently, put a smile next to those things you had some fun with, put a lightening bolt next to things that felt energizing, and make up your own symbol for any other trend you noticed.

When you can take some time to reflect, sit down at a time and place when you won't be interrupted. Take about an hour. Write about it and keep your hand moving. Even if you write "I don't know what else to write", another thought will arise regarding this experience. Notice what you resisted, what excuses you made for yourself to abandon the exercise, how you returned to it in fits and starts. Don't judge yourself, just observe. See what else comes up for you about what you did, how you did it, and the potential it brings to life.

If we want things to be different in our lives, we have to do things differently. Much of what happens in life is beyond our control - surrender to that. What is within our control, our own behavior and choices, is often given over to habit, numbed out by routine, and avoided due to fear - observe that. Even a small change of a seemingly insignificant task can have a profound effect on our psyche. Try it. Do Things Differently.

Excursions: Recharge Your Creative Spirit

For those of us who live in and around Chicago there never seems to be a shortage of cool places to go and interesting things to do. And yet all too often we find ourselves getting into a rut or a routine, and even when visiting friends and family come to town and demand our services as tour guides, we look to the obvious solutions and end up in the same places.

Recharge your own creative spirit by treating yourself to a solo excursion to a nearby gem, The Elmhurst Art Museum. By going on your own, opportunities arise to explore your own thoughts, soak up the beautiful surrounding park, and enjoy the quiet of the galleries. Creative ideas often emerge from a well prepared mind that is at rest.

The Elmhurst Art Museum is worth seeing no matter what exhibits are on display. The McCormick house, one of only two Mies van der Rohe residential homes, was moved to this site in one of Elmhurst's parks and then the new museum was built onto it. In this way, the home was preserved (and is mainly used as office and meeting space, but visitors can see and experience the house) and the new construction harmonizes with the Mies van der Rohe architectural aesthetic.

The EAM website will allow you to check back about specific exhibits next time you are looking for a great destination for guests. And the museum is only blocks away from Elmhurst’s bustling shopping and eateries. Recharge your own creative spirit by adding The Elmhurst Art Museum to your creative list of destinations; your friends and family will thank you.

Jeff Stevenson: Artist Bio

Jeff Stevenson is a mixed media collage artist with a strong foundation in representational painting. Born in 1962 and creating art ever since he can remember, Stevenson began his career as an artist and educator in earnest in 1988 when he enrolled in Ohio University’s Masters of Fine Art, Painting program. Jeff Stevenson has exhibited his artwork in group and solo shows and has received numerous awards for his work.

In 2006, through his own investigative journey into the subject of creativity, Stevenson developed a college level course, “Enhancing Creativity” that provides opportunities for students to explore their own creativity and to examine the process of creativity as an academic subject. Stevenson has taught studio art classes, art history, and other subjects through Governors State University, Prairie State College, South Suburban College, Columbia College, The Illinois Institute of Art, Chicago, and Ohio University.

Learn more about Jeff through his website: for information about creativity life coaching, art shows, a creativity blog “8crayoncolors”, and more.

Reading List

Pink, Daniel H. A Whole New Mind - Why Right-brainers Will Rule The Future. London, England: Penguin Books Ltd., 2006

Mumaw, Stefan. Oldfield, Wendy Lee. Caffeine for the Creative Mind - 250 Exercises to Wake up Your Brain. Cincinnati, Ohio: HOW Books., 2006

Cameron, Julia. The Artist's Way. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, a member of Penguin Putnam, Inc., 1992.

Cameron, Julia. The Vein of Gold - A Journey to Your Creative Heart. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, a member of Penguin Putnam, Inc., 1996

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Finding Flow – The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life. New York: Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group., 1997

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Flow - The Psychology of Optimal Experience.

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Creativity - Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. New York: HarperCollins., 1996

Kimmelman, Michael. The Accidental Masterpiece - On the Art of Life and Vice Versa. New York: Penguin Press., 2005

Maisel, Eric. Coaching the Artist Within. Novato, California: New World Library., 2005

Pagels, Elaine. Beyond Belief - The Secret Gospel of Thomas. New York: Vintage Books., 2003

Pagels, Elaine. The Gnostic Gospels. New York: Vintage Books., 1979

Harris, Sam. The End of Faith - Religion, Terror, and The Future of Reason. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, Ltd., 2004

Gadwell, Malcolm. Blink - The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. New York: Little, Brown and Company, Time Warner Book Group., 2005

Gladwell, Malcolm. The Tipping Point - How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference.

Tharp, Twyla. The Creative Habit - Learn It and Use It for Life. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks., 2003

Baptiste, Baron. 40 Days to Personal Revolution. New York: Fireside., 2004

Sawyer, Keith. Group Genius - The Creative Power of Collaboration. New York: Basic Books., 2007

May, Rollo. The Courage to Create. New York: Bantam Books., 1975

Vincent, Norah. Self-Made Man - One Woman's Journey into Manhood and Back Again. New York: Penguin Group., 2006

Dyer, Wayne W. The Power of Intention - Learning to Co-create Your World Your Way. Carlsbad, California: Hay House., 2004

Enhancing Creativity, Art 504 SS09

The on-line Class Schedule at Governors State University is now available for Spring-Summer 2009. (it does not appear in the paper printed schedule)

ART504 section A, “Enhancing Creativity” is being offered on Monday and Wednesday evenings, 7:30 to 10:20pm June 29th through August 17th. This is a “Block Three” (second session of summer) condensed time frame class meeting twice a week for 7 weeks, however this is a “hybrid” course, meaning that a portion of the class will be conducted on-line reducing the number of on-land class meetings to about once a week.

This class will provide opportunities for students to explore their own creativity by engaging in exercises, activities, and group discussions, and to examine the process of creativity through research, reading lists, and observation. Participants will gain insights and practical knowledge useful for living their own lives more creatively (no matter the profession or occupation), and fostering creativity in others (in classroom and community settings). Models and methods derived from Julia Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way” and “Vein of Gold”, and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s “Flow- The Psychology of Optimal Experience”, among others, will be utilized.

Students who have taken this class in the past have really enjoyed it. It is a rigorous course of study and we have a lot of fun - there are always pleasant surprises. So, to those of you who haven’t been able to take the class in the past when it was offered during the day, now is your chance! Please pass this on to anyone you think might be interested.

Contact me with any questions you may have.

It is nice to be thinking about summer,

Jeff Stevenson