Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Life Size

I've been painting big lately.  Something I haven't done for a long time, because
1. I thought I didn't have the space
2. I thought I had to worry about selling art and big paintings are a hard sell
3. They can appear grandiose.

But I did it anyway, because
1. I am no longer willing to be my own worst enemy
2. My spirit is louder than my censoring brain
3. I am remembering...

These three things
1. Winslow Homer
2. Mark Rothko
3. They didn't shrink themselves, and I don't have to either

How it feels

Years ago, when I had a studio space (that I'm still paying for with graduate school loans) and I wasn't so worried about the first list, I painted some really big paintings.  The experience of being in the painting was overpowering, it was the final plug pulled from the cord that tied me to the nullifying voices in my head, voices shrink me down to someone else's expectations.  What a rush it was, the first time I painted something as big as me.  The closest I can come to describing my experience is that it was a divine encounter with myself, which soon revealed itself to be a divine encounter with everything.  I communed with a paintbrush and pigments and gave this feeling form.  For me painting is alway part prayer, part meditation, part storytelling and part formal arrangement.  But in the scale of my own body, the ratio of each part tipped far over into meditation and prayer.  My body became such a vital part of the prayer, in this dance with the elements of the art.

I found this very hard to talk about while trying to be taken seriously in graduate school in the nineties.

The final product was disappointment.  I took the pill that makes you small and tried to fit in, finding myself a satisfactory academic success but a personal traitor.  I decided Academia wasn't a good fit for me and  I put away my giant canvases and settled for a shrunken, more cerebral, version that distanced me from the way I felt.  It made it easier to talk about my art, to think about what to say before I said it.  The ideas I painted about were fascinating to me, and I never had to worry about making a fool of me.  Inevitably I lost interest and was pulled away by a richly rewarding and demanding life as a single mother, teacher and business owner.  Although I have continued to paint and live as an artist, I seldom tried painting on that grand human scale again... until this month.  It felt like I had returned home.  I am realizing now that every painting I have done between 1996 and 2017 maps a long and winding worldly path back to this scale of Living with Spirit.

Winslow Homer

My first and only time at a Winslow Homer retrospective was one of the few times I have cried in public.   Not only in public, but in a crowded room of strangers.  I was caught off guard, walking into a room full of his larger than life canvases of marine life.  I stood in front of majestic women, waves, and fishermen - tears running down my face.  I thought, "I want to paint this way."  Not "I want to paint these things" but rather I recognized the feeling from my own experiences of painting.  I wanted to be able to convey that back to the world.  I understood, in this wordless communion with a room of strangers; it is possible to convey the feeling of the divine dance.  

Winslow_Homer - The Fisher Girl (1894)
Winslow Homer - The Fog Warning

After all, Nature Does it All the Time

Late Afternoon Sky in November

Mark Rothko

Even before my day in the Museum with Homer, I discovered something about art with Mark Rothko.  This time I was alone, much younger and even more self conscious.  Fortunately, at the moment I happened upon the Rothko multiform abstraction at the Milwaukee Art Museum, no one was around to distract me from what I saw before me.  I stood there, and it pulled me closer.  Staring into it, I felt myself fall and... sadness is not a big enough word.  I left the museum profoundly moved,  but the despair was bigger than me at that time in my life and I ran from it.  

'Magenta, Black, Green on Orange'  by Mark Rothko 1947
Black Gray by Mark Rothko

 Many sunsets later, I know Mark Rothko was also my teacher.

Sunset  Door County, WI

"I realize that historically the function of painting large pictures is painting something very grandiose and pompous. The reason I paint them, however . . . is precisely because I want to be very intimate and human. To paint a small picture is to place yourself outside your experience, to look upon an experience as a stereopticon view or with a reducing glass. However you paint the larger picture, you are in it. It isn’t something you command!"  Mark Rothko

What I understand now, through a lifetime of painting and coming back to these lessons, is that Rothko's  "intimate and human" is precisely my "divine encounter."  They are one and the same, beneath the shapes and colors in a deliberate composition.   As Homer with the Human and Nature, and as Rothko with the Tragic and the Void,  I set out this year with my Ancestors and our shared Memory, to see what there is to be discovered in our journey together.  

So, I connected with a couple of Art World giants, and (hopefully) with neither grandiosity nor self deprecation, I compare myself.  I'm not claiming I can and will reach their heights of mastery nor success.  But I do understand them, as much as any artist who spends a lifetime making art can know.    

I am Usha

First in the "I am Usha" Series  9' x 5'

Second in the "I am Usha" series 5' x 5'

The goal of life is rapture.
Art is the way we experience it.
                                                     Joseph Campbell



  1. I love these new paintings Dawn! You are such an inspiration to me, both in your writings and in your work. I can relate. Making our way as artists in this world is such a difficult thing, so hard to stick to our true path, to follow our heart and not get drawn in to all the distractions and minutia. To truly become who we already are. You are amazing and give me courage, thank you!

    1. Thank you Joe! You are right, it really is difficult carving out an artist's life in this world. I am finally beginning to realize that having been an unrecognized artist, for the most part, has not necessarily been an impediment to my work. Financial success can be as much a burden as the pressure to succeed, and I just had to let go of both concerns in order to be really free to express my artist's visions. It is a good place to get to, and I think it mirrors an overall approach to life. The ideal is to answer to no one but the true inner voice, I guess. As a goal and an ideal, that is my guiding life philosophy, and it gives me the strength to have confidence in this strange thing we artists do.
      And... Dale put up a "painting wall" for me in the living room, so I can work on a surface as large as 8'x8' if I want to. So... the whole house is an art studio at this point!


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