By making a society of images, I can translate experience and give back to words the weight and meaning stripped away by rote tradition and manipulation. I swing back over time making new work for five themes: Geographies; Characters; Residual Portraits, Documents and Travel Lines.
Word and Image:
Born in Pontotoc, MS in 1944, I grew up in Trussville, AL, a little town at the end of the Appalachian chain northeast of Birmingham, population 1600. Old family photos, kept in a box, were the only valued images I remember in the protestant word culture that raised me. From the pulpit, at school, and at home, experience was translated through words, the building blocks and enforcers of our organizing systems. Somewhere along the line I realized those carriers had suffered a loss, you couldn't trust them. What was said in church didn’t translate into everyday life. Clashes between black and white, tradition and new, rules and freedom, called into question the stories and games used in preparing us kids to go out, survive, and with some luck, thrive.
Abstraction and Usefulness:
Our schools had no art classes but if a teacher needed something drawn, they would often ask me to do it. As an adolescent I made secret drawings and making them seemed a necessary task. On TV, astronomer Carl Sagan said "There are three great disciplines worth a lifetime of study; science, religion and art." Art? The people I knew didn't speak of it. When I was 17, an art class was offered in school and a new teacher, Frauken Grohs Collinson, daughter of two artists, came not just from another state but from Germany. She blew open doors to a larger world. But I had so much to learn, and too, there was life to be lived. At Auburn University I chose to study Graphic Art in the school of architecture and after two years changed my studies to Art Education. Next came three years of teaching art, which I loved. The Viet Nam war defined our time, I married a soldier who was posted to Germany, and discovered a world outside AL, MS and GA. We lived off base on the German economy, even though the resentment toward Americans was high in Europe in 1969. I looked at paintings wherever I could. Some years later and back in the states, I studied drawing and printmaking at the University of Maryland as a CE student with a new professor, Martin Puryear. I was admitted to the MFA painting program at American University in Washington DC and graduated in 1978. After my studies, I felt a need to make highly detailed representational paintings and drawings from observation. This was my practice for some years until a new quest emerged. I wanted to know the language of abstraction. Southern culture put a lot of value in usefulness. Representational painting could be narrative or celebrate status. It could bring nature's beauty inside, or echo old family photographs which as a child had opened up the old times, my only way to travel. Modernist abstraction used concepts and a vocabulary I was unfamiliar with. Employing various strategies, I tried to wind my way forward and failed. I took some important cues from Philip Guston, a visiting artist at AU, and because I had substituted Japanese art history for European art history I turned to traditional Japanese apprentice training techniques to make ink drawings. Under a Japanese master, apprentices were told to sit and pull a single brush mark until the move was mastered. This could take up to a year. A similar discipline, became my practice, during which I also switched hands. In time, armed with my new found belief in bodily sensation and material response, I began to build a new visual vocabulary.
Traditional art materials are carefully crafted and very beautiful. I love good paint and fabric, pigment loaded colors and the right tool. But an artist’s job is to get to the heart of the matter, and whole hearts include the unworthy. To achieve this may require not only conventional materials but the left behind and never considered. Technique includes an acknowledgement of skills brought to the table before art education. I could sew, cook, draw, work wood a bit and build things. I swam competitively and played softball for years. I knew what killing was (fishing, and my mother’s chickens) and in time, learned the value of patience and the tender touch. Now after a practice of nearly forty years I have the moves I need, and choose my expressive approach according to the needs of the project. My long rummage through the trunk of visual history, along with extended play with materials, has offered up a steady way to counter sly corruption in our stories and games.
Point of view:
“Pick a worthy subject and its opposite, include supporting details.” This stuck with me when I read "Principles in Chinese Painting" in the late 1970's. I can see more if I am neither for nor against any method or material. The use of abstraction or representation depends on the nature of the questions I am addressing through material means. A sense of touch begins with my eyes and translates through my hands. Intuitive strategies include jumping the gap between my kind of character abstraction and geometric formalism, and a highly descriptive, narrative, visual vernacular rooted in photography and precise representation. Moving between these two often feels like looking at the stars, then down at my feet. That back and forth has not changed-- it has in fact been a quest, a journey of commitment looking for my heart’s desire.
After developing a working abstract vocabulary, I could not begin a painting until I had a title, which would be whatever word or phrase was rattling in my head. Beginning was an act of faith as it always is. The subject represented in a title would soon get lost in the long material processes where only one step and then the next matters. At the end, and always to my surprise, expressed meaning seemed richer and more expansive, compared to the word title. This was my practice for many years until I chose to do a series of paintings rooted in a years long practice of using my camera to shoot short visual narratives acted out by friends who were game for such a collaboration. Having seen a retrospective of Duane Michel’s work in Pittsburgh, I was inspired, although I considered my photos as sketches. In my category "Characters" a series, “Rules and Measures”, spans 2010-2014. Using my deconstructed photos as screen print stencils I could realize highly representational, almost sculptural figurative images in a series of narrative paintings which function like filmic outtakes. In 2015, I returned to abstraction and to my surprise, the inspirational trigger was no longer a word title, but a material voice, generating ideas through touch. Now, in fact, the title is very slow to emerge and must be adjusted as I realize meaning over time. Inevitably, some long buried voice gives a shout out in my head. All of a sudden I can hear the words and they mean what they say.