Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Layers: Time, Space, Memory, Patterns, Connections, and Movement

The bird without feet flies to the tree without branches
I have been painting in layers for so long now I can hardly remember how it all started.  Ironic, actually, because to me layers are all about time and memory, our experiences and how they sometimes fade, brighten, change, recede, collapse and even disappear under the weight of time, new experiences and sometimes even the strength of our own will.

The beginning stages of this painting consist of a mixture, a paste made of equal parts determination and chance.  I chose the drawings that I cut and paste based on my recent studies of nature, tying them together with past drawings with themes of individuality, strength, power and freedom.  Not knowing yet where all that would take me I added some pages from Carl Sagan's "Cosmos" on the theme of space travel and nuclear fusion with a vintage map of the Southern US, focused on New Orleans.  
Like most of my paintings, I was thinking about relationships, both the connections and the tension between the world of nature and the world of humankind.  In this case I was most concerned with energy.  Our willful energy and it's effect on the earth and on nature is one theme arising, but also the energy of our hopes and dreams that lies under the surface, the subtle forces we impose on events without even knowing.   Sometimes the outcome is not what was planned, but it IS the the sum of the parts that went into it.

While I was cutting and pasting I accidentally cut the feet off of one of the birds and decided to glue them down as separate pieces in different places, not connected as they were previously.  That evening Dale and I watched a film called "Pariah,"  (recommend it, by the way) and the main character in the movie, a teenager struggling with issues of identity and belonging, writes a poem, one of the lines going something like this... "the bird without feet always flies to the tree without branches."  I'm probably not quoting verbatim, but you get the idea.

This little bit of serendipity fueled a newer and more complex meaning in the painting for me, how movement can be a restless never-ending quest for a landing that does and cannot exist.  I spend a lot of time marveling at the spontaneous eruption of movement when I'm painting, and this movement is crucial to the overall content in the painting.  That is, the moment keeps you IN the painting, while it also keeps you from staying in one place. 

The preliminary stages: drawings and vintage book pages

Halfway through this painting I am discovering the meaning inherent in it from the beginning while simultaneously defining the meaning by the marks I make as a result of those discoveries.  Ah, a parallel universe, working through the processes of life itself in a creative act.  Few things, in my mind, are as rewarding.  I layer in order to cover, uncover, highlight, remember, obscure.  All the same things I do with thoughts, actions, words… but how I love to do it with paint.

Some areas are raw, even becoming more raw as the painting progresses.  Some areas are detailed, specific, ordered.  Some fall into chaos.  All is somewhat controlled, but never completely.  There are patterns that arise and patterns that fall away.  There are synapses and there is punctuation.  It is constantly in flux, to the point that I can only arbitrarily, or maybe intuitively, impose an ending at some point, out of necessity.  But through it all meaning evolves.

Fot this particular painting the meaning is poignant.  The bird without feet is autobiographical, while the relationship between nature and nuclear physics is based on observation of the world.  The result is an inquiry into the process of finding ones place in this world of natural laws and the laws of man.  And this inquiry is fascinating enough to me to get me into that studio again tomorrow for another day of work, another glorious day of painting.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Spirit Helpers - Arctic Peoples

Close up from "Spirit Helpers- Arctic Peoples"

Last December we were settling into our new life, working daily in the studio and living in a small house in the woods in Door County Wisconsin.  It happened to be an early, and somewhat snowy winter.  The studio is in a very open area; being a farming region, we are surrounded by fields.  The result is a view out of my window that often looks like the arctic tundra, snow blowing across a palette of white, gray and blue, with a backdrop of a dark tree line and big sky that often calls me to the window at sunset with its breathtaking and bone chilling beauty.
When a friend from Europe contacted me with a request for a commissioned painting I was thrilled of course, and when she told me she was fascinated with Arctic Peoples and culture, I had to marvel at the serendipity.  Looking out my window, I thought I already have a great deal of inspiration in my daily routine.  So began a long distance collaboration of ideas between Brussels, Belgium and Egg Harbor, Wisconsin, connected by gusts of snow and the howling of the bitter wind.

Research and Inspiration

Before embarking on a new painting I spend a little time hunting and gathering.  The inspiration that Kerstin felt from her new found fascination and attraction to Arctic Life opened the door to many possibilities and directions for research.  I started with a gorgeous and sparse film called "The Journals of Knud Rasmussen," an Inuit Film that opened my eyes to the qualities of Arctic life that I have come to deeply admire. http://www.isuma.tv/en/isuma-productions
After watching the film, I contemplated the harsh day to day realities of Arctic life and the pared down and elegant cultural solutions to these challenges developed in Inuit culture.  I dove further into the concept of Spirit helpers and Shamanic Culture, an aspect of the film that I loved.  An online search led me to the work of Abraham Anghik Ruben, an Inuit carver whose work and life story I won't get into here, but would urge readers to investigate, not only for art, but also for the lesson in history: http://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/museums/abraham-anghik-ruben-the-intermediarysculptor-carves-inuit-legends-of-his-heritage/2012/10/25/6fbbaf12-1d5d-11e2-b647-bb1668e64058_story.html
After a week or more of reading, watching, and reflecting I had my own ideas forming.  The physical and spiritual life of the Intuit ignited my imagination, the all too common damage caused by the introduction of Western culture and it's colonizing mentality dug into my heart, and the cold winds outside my window haunted my dreams.  I was ready to begin.

The three levels of existence are beginning to appear.

The Blood and Guts: Paintings have a life of their own.

My painting immediately began to evolve into three levels, and I saw, in my interpretation of Arctic life, three very clear experiences of reality which, unlike our Western experience, are not compartmentalized.  The levels of existence: the human world, the natural world, and the spirit world are all very intertwined and interdependent.  My personal belief is that, despite our Western dichotomies, this is always the reality of experience.  In the vision of Inuit Life I have captured they are all one, and working together with elegant grace.
Images of a Swan Maiden, fox spirit and a canoe as a vehicle of transpiration between the worlds are my own iconography, a symbolic language and story that developed while painting.  Although not directly borrowed, the symbols and characters that arose were very much influenced by Ruben's Sea Goddess and the spirit helpers in the film.

Color, texture and pattern: Sun and blood add life to the monochromatic landscape.
During the weeks I spent painting this piece, Kerstin and I occasionally emailed each other with thoughts about the painting.  I shared my discoveries and she sent images and ideas that inspired her.  Although the exchanges were brief and arrived over the tangled web of the internet crossing an ocean, it seemed as if our minds were meeting in a way that transcended words.  I would describe it as a meeting of not just minds, but of hearts and souls.  The serendipity continued to inspire new developments and strengthened my trust in the process.  Doing a commissioned piece is not always easy for an artist.  Expectations can hinder creative thought and and outside influences can muddy the clarity of the process.  I am fortunate to have had very good experiences, I only take commissions if I feel the buyer loves the innate qualities of my work, not just the superficial formal look of it, and he or she does not have a restrictive definition of art.  Each painting has a life of it's own, and when it is a good commission, it has two minds behind it, working together.  And when this happens it's magic.  I often charge less than my customers expect for commissions, because to me these projects are a gift, and a shared effort and experience.

Finished Painting with fabric backing and bamboo rod.
Technical Issues

The final issues with this piece were technical, how to ship this Belgium without adding hundreds to the price.  I solved this by sewing the canvas to a large piece of fabric.  I chose a Batik from Ghana in deep blue and gold.  The African pattern and colors worked so well with the painting I had to chuckle.  A little symmetry between continents, pulling us all together.  I added leather loops on top that support the entire piece with a bamboo rod.  When Kerstin opened her shipment all she had to do was unroll it and hang it from a couple of nails on the wall!
She emailed me to tell me she cried when she saw it in person, and it hanging on her wall it felt like it had always been there.  What an amazing experience for both of us.  I couldn't be luckier, doing what I do.

In the middle of painting this I had a little story arise.  It captures, for me, the essence of this experience.
Fox speaks to the swan maiden. Both are protected by the sun spirit. Fox tells the maiden, "you are going to grow up and forget, but never forget. Those who have grown up do not know everything. They have forgotten more than they remember."

May we all find ways to remember.  

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Work in Progress: This is the Fun Part

Intermediary: Work in Progress
It's fun to talk about a painting in progress, sometimes for me more enjoyable than talking about a painting after it's finished.  Once the work is finished, everything has been decided.  At that point I'm much more interested in hearing what the viewer has to say, what an individual walking up to a painting for the first time sees, interprets and understands.  
At this point… I would say this painting is nearly half finished, but it's impossible to say for sure, mysteries can still unfold, meanings can show themselves and changes can occur.  I can still have an "aha" moment when the meaning of this painting suddenly goes deeper, or takes a turn I never expected.  At this point I have, in my mind, an pretty general understanding of what it means, to me. 

If you wanted to wait and interpret my painting for yourself before being influenced by my intentions, stop reading now.  I am going to write about what I began to see in this painting, on the second day I worked on it.  
When it began I had some general ideas going into the image.  One was the idea of forces of opposition. Conflict.  Dichotomies.  I used a drawing of a bird and a snake in an attack/defensive struggle.  I also had an image of two creatures facing each other, also in attack/ defense mode.  One is a deer-like creature and the other has computer keys for teeth.  The third image I used is from a Medieval Alchemy text and it shows a bird facing downward with a rope in it's mouth.  At the end of the rope is a large stone.  From it's feet a scroll of paper unravels.
The three drawings, all torn from my sketchbooks, are drawings I have done in the past of things that interest me.  They represent concepts I enjoy trying to understand, ideas that help me make sense of the world.
I began painting by trying to visually tie together the images with paint while thematically tying together the images with new and larger images in the paint.
By the end of day two I found myself with a painting of a sleeping figure.  The meaning of the painting is beginning to reveal itself.  In the center is a seated Buddha-like figure.  He has technology - all that is man-made on one side of him and spirit/nature on the other.  Like the snake and the bird that surround the sleeping figures' head, these two creatures are in a fight- one has an aggressive stance and the other a defensive stance.
At the sleeping figure's feet is the bird, attached to his toe.  And the same foot that holds the bird with its' toe carries a large swan made of stone.
In the center of the painting is the Buddha-like figure.  His eyes are closed and his arms are wrapped around him like a straightjacket.  A tear falls from his eye.  The figure whose sleeping body stretches across all of these images also has his eyes closed.  The bird at the foot end of the figure drops the stone.
To me this painting is about being asleep.  I think it's something human-kind is very guilty of, and I do not excuse myself.  We are here in these bodies witnessing the essential nature of life, but we have our eyes closed and do not know what our roles are, perhaps we are even trapped.
The images in the painting imply that perhaps one of our roles is that of the intermediary between these worlds that seem at this point to be in opposition.  Whether or not they are truly in opposition is a question… is it a result of our sleeping that the conflicts exist, or do we sleep to avoid the conflicts?
I once had a dream, and in the dream a fatherly guide said, "The ones who know why they are doing what they are doing will control the technology."  Today listening to one of my favorite Buddhist teachers, Heather Martin, I heard her say, "Know what you are doing."  It seemed to fit.
Perhaps I paint these to teach myself what I need to learn, but in the meantime, I hope I paint something that also gives pleasure to others.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

20 Days in the Life of a Painting

Phoenix: Finished Painting

I love to allow the viewer into the day to day excitement of making a work of art.  My style of painting has developed over years of practice and trial and error, evolving into an idiosyncratic intuitive process of layering.

This is the first finished work I accomplished in 2014.  I feel very aligned with the universe with this one, the cocoon - butterfly theme combined with the Phoenix rising from the ashes captures a mood that seems prescient.  Although it seems moody or even dark, to me it is a painting about evolving, about growth and action, and relationships in motion.  I feel a triumph and connectedness within the images, and the dark and the light are both necessary.

I'm starting with the finished Painting, not to ruin the surprise, but rather to give you a step back after seeing the final product.
It's such a rewarding experience to create one of these, I hope you the reader can experience some of the delight with these images.

Here is the very beginning, Day one.

Day One             
I love the first day of a new painting.  Nothing has become a struggle yet, it's pure play.  It's almost impossible to make a mistake or have a critical eye about my work in the very beginning, because it is a journey into the unknown.  All I have to do is be receptive and dive in fearlessly.

I began this painting with a Moth image I had drawn in my sketchbook, a timeline from Carl Sagan's "Cosmos" and a diagram from a agriculture textbook illustrating irrigation techniques.  The tiny image on top is a Mayan image, a god, I believe, throwing a comet.

These seemingly random images actually all seemed connected to me, and they set the stage.

When I applied paint on this day I primarily thought about connecting the images.  Although the connecting is mostly just through design, I also began thinking about how they literally connect.  Humankind's relationship with nature, often a theme in my work, was the overwhelming response.  

Days Two through Five

Adding both broad areas of opaque paint and detailed areas of drawing (Both with paint and with fabric that is drawn on with Sharpies then layered into the image) the story starts to take on a life of it's own.  New Characters arise, seemingly out of nowhere, and take their place in the drama.  Some of the images that started to appear in this stage surprise me.  The skull and the fish were completely unplanned.  But most of all I was delighted by the appearance of the winged human-like form that showed itself to me at the top of the painting.

When I talk about these developments, I speak as if they happened without my doing.  Of course that's not true, but in a strange way it's accurate.  I painted these images, but I did not plan them.  Often I paint something and step away before I even realize what is it.  I'm sometimes very lucid and sometimes in a trance-like state where time is lost.  Those are fun, I have complete trust in this state of mind, my "painting state."  Whatever happens make sense to me at some point in the process of creating each painting.  There are attitudes and frames of mind I have to maintain while working in the middle stages of a painting, primarily revolving around the concept of "Being true to the painting."  I let the painting itself direct my choices more than preconceived ideas I have about it.  It is a zen-like intuitive response of complete honesty and trust in the process that I often try to carry over into the rest of my life.

Days Six - Ten


During the Middle stages of painting I add a lot of paint.  Actually the first of these three images shows a new layer of dark oil pastels, draw over the acrylic paint, which will be worked into future layers of paint.  (Very hard on the brushes, I use the cheap tattered ones for that)  Sometimes during this time I cover entire sections and then decide it is too much and bring back some of what was covered.  I play with color, try things out and change them over and over.  The painting changes daily at this point and sometimes goes back and forth, looking more like it did two days ago.  It is a struggle often at this point.  I may have said I hate this painting a few times at this point.  I don't really hate it, but I do get frustrated with the tedious work of finding the best combination of elements to work together in the image.  A layer of dark oil pastel lines blend with bright colors… a layer of dry brushed whites add dimension, cool colors push back, warm and bright colors jump forward.  It's still fun at times, rewarding at times, but it feels like work more than ever at this stage, a necessary part of the evolution of am image.

Days Eleven through Sixteen


 This particular painting went  through these stages of development more than any I've ever worked on before, that is why I am so happy to share these stages with you.  In the second and third week of painting I often said, towards the end of the day, "I think it's almost finished," only to make major changes the next day that required more and more hours of painting.  During this time I added new colors, a layer of a transparent cool colors and lots of detailed patterns in the solid areas of color that I had finally settled on.  The detail in this piece required sitting over my work table for hours.  I had to do a lot of stretching after studio time!  After a few more days the painting was finally finished, as far as I can tell.  The first image on this post is the final result of all this work.

 For me it is a labor of love, every moment is worth it and rewarding in the act itself.  I am hoping to be able to sell these paintings and others, as well as prints of the work I do this winter.  This painting is available for sale as a print, as well as other printed merchandise on Society6: http://society6.com/DawnPatel/Phoenix-djT_Print#1=45
If you are interested you can copy and paste that link and check it out.

I hope this was enjoyable for fellow artists and/or art appreciators.

I haven't touched upon the ideas and meaning in the work in this post intentionally.  I try not to sway the viewers experience.  I think the individual reading of the work is as important as the intentions I had while making it.  I will post one day in the not too distant future an explanation of the ideas and thoughts that are behind my work… stay tuned.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Mystical Beginnings


New Work in Progress.  Day one, three layers.

I did a little cleaning up in the studio today before starting this new painting.  Rummaging through some old drawings I found this poem I wrote 20 years ago.  It feels fitting for today, 

Artist's Poem

Once here was a drop of rain,
and the raindrop fell to earth and became a feather.
And the feather grew wings to become a bird.
The bird flew great distances and became the wind.
The wind touched the ground and became a woman.
The woman, remembering how to fly, became a dancer.
And the dancer in her grace became a song.
The song was of mystical beginnings rolling through time,
sung by millions of voices.
The voices sang to an unborn child.
The child was born and forgot the song.
But when the child drew pictures, music filled her head.

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