Monday, March 08, 2021

Solutions: don't take the obvious for granted

A view of my Daily Observations photo archive

Earlier this afternoon, I hit a wall with a new painting that I'm working on. Well, not so much a wall as a door to which I had the right shaped key, but that key had been cut wrong, making entry a little difficult. I started thinking about how to solve the issue that I was having by doing what I usually do; refer to other paintings of mine for clues. I'll often look to other artists' work, as well. This habit has been ingrained in me since high school. It's often hard to turn off this part of my thought process when viewing artwork, especially when the work has some resonance with mine. I try to be aware of my thought patterns in these situations because I can miss out on really looking at the work. 

This afternoon's issue was something that came up during the last painting session I had, three days ago, on Friday. Towards the end of that session, I had the unmistakable feeling that I had reached that first point where I didn't know what to do afterwards. The painting needed something to push it forward, but what that was, I hadn't a clue. When I came in today, it was still taunting me, daring me to even think about a solution. After doing a little prep work on three other panels, the possible solution hit: why not take a look through some of the hundreds of photos I've taken that make up my ongoing Daily Observations project? I've done it a couple of times in the past, but using the photos to work out a painting problem is generally nowhere near the top of my list. Anyway, I got on my laptop to look at some shots and within a couple of minutes, I had what I thought was my solution. Not bad at all. 

When I make use of a source outside of my own work for problem solving, it's never with the intent of direct copying something into my painting. I'm just looking for some way into a solution, something that will trigger a response within me that will lead to a way forward. In general, it's both a form and a feeling. I'm not looking at the photos and thinking, "Ah, ha, that's the exact thing I need to use!" More often, it takes elements from several sources to comprise a workable solution. It's good that this time, I was able to come up with something that made sense fairly quickly. Now, I have to deal with the new question(s) that my solution brought up. 


Sunday, March 07, 2021

The physicality of life in art

(photo: ©Stanley Whitney)

"You want to bring the physicality of life to your work"
-Stanley Whitney

I was watching a short interview with Stanley Whitney via YouTube this past week and this quote really grabbed me. It hit home because I've been thinking about issues related to this in my work. A lot of what influences my work is the textures of the world around me, like different kinds of wood screwed together, layers of worn posters stapled to utility poles, cracked and lined cement and asphalt...the list goes on. I'm a fan of bringing more physicality to my paintings, but I've wanted to do it in a way that doesn't just mimic the textures that I see in the streets. I'm not looking to replicate those textures, but to develop textures that suit the specific needs of a work. 

I've always embraced various types of textures in my painting, but never anything that was too obvious, at least from a distance. Mostly, it's been visual texture through the manipulation of forms on the surface. These textures don't rise from the painting's surface, but are just changes in how the paint or drawing material is handled. I had a period in the late '90s where I made a bunch of mixed media works where plexiglas, aluminum and wood were used in a variety of ways and had their own textures. I've never embraced really thick applications of paint on my paintings to create texture-it always seemed to be too much about surface, whereas I've been more interested in making spatial environments that rely on changes in scale to create depth. I went for textures that were a little more subtle. Like the mildly sandpapery Micaceous Iron Oxide (MIO) that Golden makes. Once dry, MIO has a surface that may be equivalent to 100 grit sandpaper Not too chunky, but still noticeable to the eye, and it's somewhat reflective. 

Lately, I've wanted to make some of my glyphs stand out from the surface. I've found that a heavy gel medium does the trick very well. Not only does it create a good peak, it gives a nice, almost encaustic-like look to the paint. Now, I want to experiment with adding differing amounts of paint and dried pigments to the gel medium to see how it acts.

"The physicality of life" is such a perfect way to describe what I want to bring to my work. That can take the form(s) of brushstrokes, scraping of paint, drips, covering of areas and so on. It's not only the look, but the general feeling that I hope to communicate. I like that some of my paintings feel like they're still in the process of evolving, even when I've chosen to stop working on them. Allowing some of the making process to be seen keeps the work alive in a way that I can't explain. It's similar to when observing the changes in my environment, on my walks, subtle and not so subtle; there's almost always a feeling of small wonderment at recognizing shifts in the world around me.  Doing this reminds me of how life is in continual change and flux, something that I want to convey to the viewer. My hope is that through the work, they'll recognize and appreciate something of what I see and experience. 


Saturday, February 20, 2021

Nine drawings

Nine Drawings (out of 20), 2021
Each: graphite or conté and oil pastel on paper, 12.5" x 9.5"

One day recently, I went on a drawing spree. I completed twenty drawings during an afternoon while also watching video profiles of various artists. I don't recall all of them, and I'm sure that there were a couple of repeats, but I often enjoy watching videos when not listening to music or podcasts while working in the studio. This particular afternoon, I wasn't in the mood to paint and remembered that I had this pad of nice, smooth white paper made by Fabriano and that I had a bunch of oil pastels that  hadn't been used in years, so that was it, a drawing day it was. I made some drawings back in 2004 or so where I used graphite with colorless and white oil pastels that turned out really well. I wanted to see what could happen using those same materials with my glyph images. 

The types of mark making that can happen when dragging the colorless or white oil pastels across soft graphite or conté was interesting to see. The blurriness and break down of the original drawing does something for me and I can't quite put it into words. I think it may have to do with altering the drawing in such a way that it begins to take on a different shape and appears to be morphing as I'm manipulating the oil pastels. The drawing seems to be in a state of flux, receding and advancing out from the paper all at once. If I cover the drawing with thicker layers or darker colors, the drawing gets buried under a confluence of marks. I'm always debating how much of the original drawing to leave visible. I'll start covering it up from the middle or one side and work my way across it from there. Determining where to stop the over drawing is always the interesting part. I like pushing the marks to the very edges of the glyph grid and figuring out how much of the glyphs to leave and where to cover them up entirely. 

I'm not sure where these will lead next. I've already made some on larger paper (22" x 30") and the results were pretty cool. However, the surface of the larger paper has a mild cold-press feel to it and even though it's a shallow texture, I'm not entirely satisfied with the results. I'm going to look for sheets of smooth paper that's at least 140lbs. A hot press watercolor paper will work, I'm sure. In the meantime, I think there's a lot to experiment with on the smaller sized paper. The 12.5" x 9.5" size feels really good, so I'll probably continue with more of these drawings at this scale. Maybe make enough to fill up a good sized wall. 



Friday, February 12, 2021

Art Doesn't Make the Artist

I can't always relate to your work, but I can always relate to you, and that is what mattered.”

This quote is from someone who is a former coworker of mine that I still stay in touch with. We both worked for a long time at a food retail job in Philadelphia as managers. The business switched hands a couple of times after the original owner retired. I didn't last past the second changeover, but Kerry P. did, although he eventually left there, as well. Kerry is someone who will say what is on his mind and is pretty open with people. It's one of the things I like about him. 

The above quote is from an email exchange we had not long ago. What he said here has really stuck with me because of its honesty. What I make as an artist isn't going to appeal to everyone and there's nothing new about that, it's a simple truth of life, in general. I don't really worry about who will like/dislike my work. I'm more concerned with making it and having it out in the world to be experienced. I guess what it brings up for me is the importance of interpersonal relationships and how we navigate them as artists. What I'm trying to get at is that, deep down, we want a response to our work. If that happens, good or bad, then I think most of us will be satisfied. How we handle those reactions is also key. I wasn't surprised by Kerry's pronouncement of not being able to relate to what I do, since he has said in the past that he has a limited understanding of contemporary art. 

This part, "...but I can always relate to you, and that is what mattered.", is key. It brought home the thought that what we do isn't all that we are. Art has always been a MAJOR part of my life, but just one part, not all of it. I live, breath and eat art, but it isn't the only thing that makes up who I am as a person. I've always felt this way. Often, I think that people can tend to subsume their entire personalities and motivations into what they see as the one thing that makes them who they are. While I believe there is no separation between art and life, art isn't all of life. There are so many other factors that go into what makes up who we are. Much of that has to do with perceptions of us from others. Our personalities and beliefs are made up of our own experiences, how other people experience/perceive us, as well as our own perceptions of the world and others. 

I think I could have easily taken offense to Kerry's remark, saying something like, "What do you mean, you can't relate to my art but you can relate to me? Isn't my art part of me?" and so on. However, that wasn't the case. I accepted his comment because that's his truth, plain and simple. He relates to me as a person from a certain part of his life (work, mostly) and he's had difficulty relating to some of my artwork. It doesn't negate my whole being as a person, if anything, it can open up a path for further discussion about my work and his relationship to it. It's easy to conflate our main occupation with the entirety of our self worth, but in the end, there's way more to us than what we think we know through our work. 


Shockoe Artspeak and the enduring myth of the "starving artist"


The latest episode of the Shockoe Artspeak podcast, Ep. 71, Rethink: The Artist Formerly Known as Starving really spoke to me. In it, hosts Ryan and Garreth break down the unfortunately enduring concept of the "starving artist". First off, I've always hated this cliché. Even as a young college student who didn't have a lot of cash, I still thought it was a unhealthy mindset. I thought of the starving artist trope as a cartoonish myth, at best and at worst, a demeaning caricature of creative life as being comically and chronically poor, bereft of any value and not a way of life to aspire to. If you're an artist reading this, I'm sure you've experienced some version of this messaging, either via pop culture, from family and friends and others.

In the podcast, "starving artist" is also said to be used by art students as a badge of honor, a way of proving your devotion to being a "real" artist by adopting a mindset that poverty equals artistic integrity; that you're "keeping it real". In reality, adopting the poverty mindset of the starving artist trope is just setting yourself up for failure as a creative person. While it's true that fine artists might not, as a group, make as much money as people in other occupations, it's ridiculous for artists to take on the negative mindset of thinking of themselves as starving when they aren't flush with cash. Now, it can be tough making a living solely with creative work, but if you set priorities and really look at what art means for you and what you want to get out of it, then there's no such thing as being a "starving artist".

One of the things that has kept me from falling prey to a poverty mindset as an artist is understanding early on that I would need to have day jobs in order to have the life I wanted as an artist. For most of us, this is a fact of life, with or without gallery representation. Selling work always goes in phases and there can be gaps of months where little to no money is coming in from sales. It's been important for me to understand that there will be, and have been, downshifts in art income and that understanding has helped me adjust things when needed. If you're able to have some kind of steady income from another source, like teaching or working other jobs then you're likely to keep yourself fed, hosed and pay bills. If you can feed yourself, you're not "starving". That's a rather literal interpretation, but I think it matters. If you're able to maintain your basic needs, then that gives you the ability to continue making your art and the ability to find ways to be a THRIVING artist, not a starving one. 

Anyway, if you've ever wondered about this myth and how it affects artists and the popular view of art making, give this episode a listen. It really got me thinking about some things and maybe it will do the same for you. 

Saturday, February 06, 2021

Commitment: Fuel for the Marathon


Not too long ago n the studio...

I was recently a guest on an as-yet-to-be-launched art themed podcast. Early on in the conversation, the host asked me how early did I make the commitment to become an artist. Commitment. Words have impact and this one hit me like a ton of a good way. Let me explain: One of the most common questions creative people of any stripe get asked is "When did you know that you wanted to do this?". My answer has usually been something along the lines of, "Well, I've always considered myself a full-time artist in my mind, even though I've held day jobs since the age of 13...." For some reason, I could never think of another way to answer that question, until now. 

Commitment is the word that I've been searching for all of these years! It seems silly for this to be a thing after so long, but that's how things work sometimes. I mean, saying that I've always thought of myself as a full-time artist wasn't wrong, it's just that commitment gets to the core of my being an artist and how I've sustained myself mentally and emotionally all these years. Through all of the ups and downs, setbacks and triumphs, my commitment to making art is one of the main things that fuels my creative drive. 

I think that my drive to make art has been so intrinsic to my character over time, that I never consciously thought about what word or phrase best fits All I knew as a high school student was that art was the one thing that I felt I could make a life for myself with; it was one of the few interests that I truly loved and wanted to become better at. There was nothing else that held the same grip on me. I liked my english and science classes, but nothing gripped my imagination and fueled my curiosity like art.  It boiled down to the alchemy-like usage of the raw materials of paint and mediums to translate what I saw in the world around me to paper, canvas or other surfaces. That was and still is magic to me.

I understood at an early age some of what I was getting myself into as an artist. I'd read a lot about artists from the past and what they often had to endure to continue making their work. I also made it a point to educate myself as much as possible about what it may take to be an artist in the present day. I understood that, in no uncertain terms, I would be in it for life, full stop. I didn't know what that would really mean until later, as I began navigating my art life after college. The demands of adult life- bills, loan payments, jobs and relationships, in addition to art has proven challenging and the path stressful, at times. However, none of that has dimmed my continued passion and love for what I do. 

Being committed to art means continuing to do the work when no one is looking nor necessarily caring about what it is that you're doing. When I was a younger artist, I had ambitions of having my work "set the world on fire", of gaining wide recognition for what I did early on. I look back now and feel relieved that I didn't gain early fame because a lot of that work was bad. Bad, but very necessary for me to make. I still make bad work, but it's those unsuccessful ones that make the better ones that much sweeter to claim. I've made the choice to put my work out into the world through a variety of means. That's only the smallest part of my activity. What matters most is what happens in the studio, which almost no one ever sees (unless posted on social media). Even then, no one really knows what I do in there and that's where the commitment  and drive comes in. I don't need anyone to know exactly what i'm doing in the long run, as long as I get to do it and share some of the results. Everything else is icing on the cake. 

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Black and Abstract

Tim McFarlane, Shapeshifter (Sm. II), 2020, acrylic on panel, 11" x 14"

Last year, during the social upheaval and protests after the extra-judicial killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and countless other Black and Brown people by police, I questioned whether my work could be relevant for the moment. Being a Black artist working with abstraction, I felt like what I do wouldn’t mean much to people, and other Black people, in particular.  Art made by Black artists has almost always been expected to reflect the Black community; its struggles against white supremacy, strength in community and various aspects of Black life. Realism being the preferred avenue of messaging. In this context, abstraction by Black artists, until relatively recently, has been, at times, disdained by Blacks and willfully ignored by the greater art world. This is the lens through which I understood things as a young artist in my late teens and early twenties, even though it took me a bit longer to fully understand and fully embrace my own need and reasons to make non-objective art. 

My last years of high school on through to my sophomore year of college saw a big shift in the type of work that I wanted to pursue as an artist. I had learned and practiced the basics of color, drawing, line, form, composition, etc… through realism. Going into my last couple of years in college, I had begun to discover that realism had limitations for me that I couldn’t ignore. By this time, in the late 1980s, I’d begun paying more attention to contemporary art through regular trips to galleries and museums in Philadelphia and New York. A whole other world opened up for me. At the same time, I was finding out more about how Black artists were highly underrepresented in the wider mainstream art world and when they were accepted, there seemed to be a very narrow view of the type of artwork made by Black artists that was acceptable. Basically, almost anything that centered around Black figuration and themes of struggle and community were “acceptable”, a trope that seemed to be the consensus of the Black community and the white-dominated mainstream art world. This is how I understood it at the time. There were very few Black artists, male or female, that were being recognized with shows in New York and other big art cities around the U.S. The biggest exception that I knew of at the time, was Jean-Michel Basquiat. It wasn’t until much later that I would become aware of Black abstract artists like Sam Gilliam, Howardena Pindell, Norman Lewis and Ed Clark, to name a few.

Around the late 80s to early 90s, I took an interest in the work of American Abstract Expressionists and later abstract artists, which provided the aesthetic kick that I needed to move into the beginnings of discovering and molding my own non-objective voice. Just prior to this, I had begun to lean into a kind of rejection that would fuel my practice for a long time. The rejection I focused on was what I perceived at the pigeon-holing  of Black artists and art by both Black and white establishments. Both Black communities and the mainstream art establishment only seemed to champion a type of social realism that felt overused and limited in its scope, in my view. An only child, I had developed an independent streak pretty early on, so it’s no surprise to me that I took the route that I did in my work. Later, after high school, one of the things that spurred me on as a young artist, was wanting to prove, mainly to myself, that I could make non-objective work that was just as good as any of the white abstract artists that I had knowledge of at the time. 

Flash forward to now and with almost 40 years of art making behind me, I still have moments of wondering if what I’m doing matters in certain ways. The truth is, what I do as a Black artist working with abstraction isn’t going to resonate with everyone and it definitely isn’t going to directly solve any of the social ills that continue to plague the Black community or other communities. What it can do is provide another way of seeing, another way of helping people to see, to question their world and themselves, perhaps. Also, to show a way forward, to be a testament to hope and a future. The one certainty about making art is that it is an act of faith. It’s an act of faith that assumes a future simply because of its existence. The will to make a painting, sculpture, film or other creative endeavor means that there is some amount of faith in the maker that a future is possible. 

The events of 2020, now bleeding into 2021 are way beyond the scale of what my painting can do. However, the smaller scale individual value that I and my work bring to the table is that of questioning, standing in one’s own truth, through confidence and perseverance. I don’t know what people look for or see in my work. My only hope is that it can provoke a feeling of some kind, good or bad. That is communication, that is making a connection. Whatever connections viewers make with the work is out of my hands, on the other hand, having had the faith to make the work and put it out into the world for people to witness and experience is all I need. I have other goals, like having my work represented in major art institutions and collections worldwide. However, those ambitions have been a secondary concern for me. At this point, I have good  gallery representation, my work is included in many private and university collections and I continue to have work shown, something that I didn't imagine would happen as a teenager, so I now know that it's possible and I welcome bigger things. However, continuing to paint and make the non-objective work that I want, being in dialogue with other artists across time, regardless of who may or may not see it, like it or not, or whatever else is going on in the world is the ultimate success for me. 

Thursday, December 31, 2020


I was supposed to be painting all day, but I finally reached the end of my rope with how the studio had been arranged for the past couple of years. There was also the annoyance of the cats using some paintings as a way to get up to the table on the far side. To finally thwart them and maintain my sanity, I took the room apart mentally and started figuring out the best new situation to go for. 

The main thing was to move the table from the middle of the room to closer to the far wall, as seen above. I took the paintings that had been against the wall and moved them into the closet area, giving me a little more floor space. A win/win. It's funny that doing this is coinciding with the coming of the new year tomorrow. Cleaning is a ritual for many at this time of the year, ushering in the new with a clean slate, of sorts. Doing this rearranging today made a big difference in my mood regarding the space. Even though I don't have more square footage, it feels renewed. 

I did get to paint this evening, after fixing something to eat for dinner. I have a 40" x 40" painting that's been on the wall for almost a week without me working on it. I slowed down a bit because of the holiday, but now I'm gearing back up for January. I spent Monday documenting some small works from this year that I'm sharing between Bridgette and Paris Texas LA. Yesterday, I sent a batch of images to both places to get things moving for the new year. I have a few larger pieces that I need to have photographed by someone else. I can handle smaller works, but my studio setup and equipment isn't favorable to taking photos of works above 16" x 20". 

Another change I made today has to do with the title of this blog. I was thinking about the former title, "Practice", while walking home and listening to an art-centered podcast, The Conversation Art Podcast. The particular pod I was listening to featured a conversation with a director at Lehman-Maupin Gallery in New York. The conversation included thoughts about the language of art, specifically, the language of art as filtered through academia. I thought about the use of the word 'practice', as it relates to studio work and realized that I had been uncertain about renaming my blog 'PRACTICE' for a while now. 

The main misgiving that I had about it revolved around the idea of practice when it comes to studio work. It doesn't feel right to equate what I do in the studio with "practice"; I'm doing the work, not practicing. I may be getting hung up on semantics, but in my head, there is a difference. Practice infers that an activity is being done in preparation for a bigger, more involved activity, not practicing. Doing the work is what happens in the studio. I mean, it's possible that this is just splitting hairs; that "Practice" and "Doing The Work" are the same thing. Perhaps, but I feel much more drawn to describing my time in (and out of) the studio as "Doing The Work". 


Clap 'Cause It Feels Good


New work :: Clap ‘Cause It Feels Good, 2020, acrylic on panel, 14” x 11”

There’s no denying that the energy around us has been visceral this year. I can’t think of another word that fits so well. Sometimes, it felt as though our nerves were being stretched to their snapping point with stress, anger, anxiety and grief.

But then, we also found moments of hope, life and laughter amid the madness. Finding space to revel in the simplest of uplift; a dance, humor, making eye contact with strangers over masks hiding our smiles, but not the humanity in our eyes.

Clap ‘cause it feels good, that’s the only justification you need.