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.