Sky Above Clouds IV

If I had to pick a favorite painting, Georgia O’Keefe’s Sky above Clouds IV would be it.  Most if us know O’Keefe from her flowers, cow skulls, or austere landscapes.  Any one of her paintings would top my list, but this one is magnificent.

When O’Keefe began to fly in the 1950s, she started a series of works responding to what she saw from the air.  The Sky Above Clouds series started with a small, relatively realistic version of puffy white clouds.  She gradually abstracted the images on larger and larger canvases, culminating in this one.  Here’s what she wrote:

“I painted a painting eight feet high and twenty-four feet wide—it kept me working every minute from six a.m. till eight or nine at night as I had to be finished before it was cold—I worked in the garage and it had no heat—Such a size is of course ridiculous but I had it in my head as something I wanted to do for a couple of years so I finally got at it and had a fine time—and there it is—Not my best and not my worst.”

Sky Above Clouds IV fills an enormous wall at the top of a grand staircase in The Art Institute of Chicago. It slowly comes into view as you climb the stairs. The only painting in sight, its expanse and simplicity will take your breath away.

O’Keefe was seventy-seven years old when she made this painting.  As she aged, she clearly wasn’t afraid to explore new motifs, to expand in size, and to push towards even more abstraction. As an artist of a “certain age” myself, this inspires me.  Her age also tells me something about the images of clouds and the title of the painting. O’Keefe is not looking down but looking up.  The clouds themselves are merely a basis from which to move to the next level of existence, whatever you may imagine that to be.

As another year has passed, I can feel changes in my own perspective.  I am losing interest in many things that had been a part of me.  I don’t cook extravagantly. I wear the same clothes over and over again, particularly when I paint.  Smaller pleasures are more meaningful:  a glass of wine with my husband, playing ball with the dog, enjoying an early morning walk outside. The need to be with people all the time, playing with language, has been replaced by the joy of being alone in the studio, interacting with paint, brush, canvas.

Physical change as well as perspective change is taking place.  I have had to make peace with a different way of staying fit.  No more extreme sports.  It’s nice, actually, to smooth out the rough edges of needing to be on the mountain or on the river.  I am letting go of the addiction, which it was, to physical risk.

The risks now are in my artwork.  After decades of painting, I may be finding a new visual voice.  I’m getting comfortable breaking rules and having the courage to say, “This is me.  This is how I want to paint.”  I’m letting the “errors” be the strength of my expression. My nascent new standard:  “Do I want to look at this?” Not, “Is it correct?”

O’Keefe painted her last unassisted work when she was eighty-five.  Even when she was almost blind from macular degeneration, she continued to create with the help of assistants.  At ninety, she said, “I can see what I want to paint. The thing that makes you want to create is still there.”

Onward.  We will all face the physical and mental shifts of aging.  I’m choosing to experience them as blessings.  The world may get a little more circumscribed, but the will to make art can explode within that smaller circle.

The Courage to Learn

I have been a visual artist for decades.  My large acrylic paintings have been showing and selling.  It was getting to a point, though, where making art was becoming a technical task rather than an exploratory pleasure.  A class in oil painting popped up at the gallery.  It was exactly what I was looking for:  a new medium, a new style, a new way of seeing.

I had no expectations of success.  I didn’t know where to start. I didn’t even know what kind of brushes to use or how to mix the paint.   It was a thrill.

Right away, I got a few simple tips that were easy to apply. I learned about choosing brushes and how best to clean them.  I started to draw more accurately.  I experimented with lighting and “shadow mapping.”  I tried mixing paint with different mediums. I made a few small paintings that weren’t terrible.  They seemed like happy accidents.

After a month of class, I hit a wall.  My paintings looked like blobs. I worked and re-worked an image that would have been easy to make using my old techniques.  I tried a another idea, but it was a disaster.  It became painful to put color on my palette or brush to canvas.

I refurbished old brushes and straightened my studio.  I re-surfaced the canvases I had ruined.  I looked at art suppliers on line.  I painted nothing.  I thought about abandoning these new ways and going back to what I knew.  I even thought about not painting at all any more.

When I arrived at the next class, I told my teacher how I was feeling: immobilized and afraid.  She listened and then told a story of a group of artists who were sharing their creative experiences on-line.  They came up with a questionnaire to gather data about what emotions were happening during the painting process.

They discovered that when how you paint and how you want to paint are at the same level, you are happy. But because you are always learning, your technique improves. Soon after your technique improves, your expectations of what you want to accomplish increase.  You are unhappy because of the gap.  You work again to improve your technique.  Happiness for a moment, but your rising expectations create yet another gap.  The pattern repeats. “It’s okay to be unhappy,” she finished.  “It means that you are growing.”

“Of course,” I thought.  I’m experiencing in real time a philosophy of learning that I have spoken about often in my own teaching.

The first phase of learning is blissful.  Since you don’t even know that you don’t know what you don’t know, you can take pleasure in anything you do.  This is the phase of unconscious incompetence.  My first attempts are enjoyable and surprising.  I put paint on the canvas and something that looks somewhat like a flower or vase or lemon emerges.  Since I have no expectations, I feel like a success.

I learn a few things and move into the second phase: conscious incompetence.  I put down a brushstroke that doesn’t work.  I add more paint, and the colors turn to mud.  I am acutely aware of how much I don’t know, because I have a glimmer of what is possible. This phase is agony.

The next is even more so.  As I paint, I want to be free and direct and present in my brush strokes.  Instead, my mind focuses on the skills I’m learning.  My brushstrokes are too careful, the shadows too perfect. My painting looks academic, studied. This is the conscious competence phase of learning.  

I flip back and forth between these two phases. When I think about how I’m painting, my spontaneity disappears.  I slip back into old habits in order to feel more comfortable.  But I don’t.   At this precarious point, I need courage to stay in the discomfort of learning.

I want to move into the fourth phase: unconscious competence. This is another blissful state, where new habits are now ingrained.  The mind isn’t worried about technique; the body is organically performing.  Psychologists call this phase embodied cognition.

In certain areas of my oil painting study, I’ve achieved this phase. I can mix colors.  I’m seeing value patterns.  But there’s now a gulf between my new skill level and my vision of what’s possible. I can let this gap debilitate me, or I can turn this gap into inspiration. Again, I need courage to enter the cycle of learning again, knowing that each specific skill is going to pass through each phase.
 
If I know where I am in this process, I can identify my source of frustration. I can forgive myself for my anger and unhappiness and even for my desire to quit.  As my new teacher puts it, “Painting is an exercise in being kind to yourself.”  We could just as easily say, “Learning is an exercise in being kind to yourself.”

As I get on the balcony and watch myself learn about oil painting, I have a revelation about teaching.  I have been talking about the phases of learning for years.  I have been encouraging students to welcome their frustration as a part of moving forward. And now that I’m in the midst of it myself, I have even more empathy for anyone who is trying something new.

As educators, we must be kind to our students. We must treat learning as a fragile process fraught with despair.  We must do everything we can to create an environment in which the courage to learn can flourish.

We must also keep learning.  That is the only way we can truly understand the pathway to knowledge.

Art Matters

Last year I was able to see art all over the country.  I saw Jeff Koon’s self-conscious creations at the Whitney Museum in New York and Andrew Wyeth’s meditations on windows at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.  I  happened in on René Magritte’s mysterious surrealism at the Art institute of Chicago and Andy Warhol’s rhythmic Shadows at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.  I was introduced to a group of abstract artists at West Hollywood’s Louis Stern Gallery and revisited some old favorites at Indianapolis’ Eiteljorg Museum of Western Art.

Every artist has a reason for creating their work.  Karl Benjamin, the mid-20th century California artist whose work was showing at Louis Stern Gallery, says, “I think all of us are confronted with the problem of feeling whole. When you make a painting, you’re so closely identified with it that it is you, and when it’s done and it feels whole, then you feel whole as well. Otherwise, why would artists spend their entire lives painting?” His art is about his own experience, not the viewer’s.  There is joy in his expression; his delight in vibrant colors and shapes was passed on to me as I viewed his work.

Andrew Wyeth is more interested in the relationship between artist and audience. “I think most people get to my work through the backdoor,” he said. “They’re attracted by the realism and sense the emotion and the abstraction — and eventually, I hope, they get their own powerful emotion.”  As I studied his paintings, I was in awe of how his watercolors dissolved into abstract brushstrokes as I drew near and then, as I stepped back, returned to interior or exterior images of windows. I felt sad, yet entranced by the austere beauty of Wyeth’s loneliness.

René Magritte denies any meaning to his art: “My painting is visible images which conceal nothing... when one sees one of my pictures, one asks oneself this simple question 'What does that mean'? It does not mean anything, because mystery means nothing either.”  He is challenging the viewer to experience a dreamscape without analysis or interpretation, to see seeing in a new way. However, he is still investigating the relationship between artist and audience.  It was an interesting, fun exhibit of trompe l’oeil paintings, surprising, sometimes disturbing, all meticulously painted with a graphic designer’s skill.  The installation itself was the masterpiece; as I wandered through the velvety black rooms with light pinpointed only on the paintings, it seemed as if the images were arising from my own dream world.

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Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons are more cynical about their reasons for making art.  Warhol said, “Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art. Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.”  Koons builds on this with, “I love the gallery, the arena of representation. It's a commercial world, and morality is based generally around economics, and that's taking place in the art gallery.”

However, Warhol’s exhibit Shadows at MOCA in Los Angeles is more than a commentary on pop commercialism. This installation, made up of one hundred and two paintings, is unique in his body of work because it isn’t marketable. It had never been shown in its entirety before. His repetition of a large silk screened calligraphic image under-painted and overlaid with vibrant colors was oddly moving.  One curator referred to it as “visual music.”  I lingered in the galleries overwhelmed by the scale, mesmerized by the rhythm and seduced by the individual panels.

The Jeff Koons' retrospective at the Whitney was more difficult to become involved in.  I felt like I was looking at the work of trickster whose success depended on the craftspeople in his factory.  I questioned his insistence, heard over the recorded tour, that his intention is to get people to see everyday objects in a new way.  As art critic Jed Perl wrote in the September 25, 2014 issue of the New York Review of Books,  “The Whitney's overwhelmingly middle-class audience is being told that Koons presents a sly critique of middle-class values. Of course everybody can also see that he is having his way with commercial culture—and with us.” Yet, good for him. This exhibit provoked some necessary questions: “Is this art?”  “Why is this art?” and most importantly, “What IS art?”

The Eiteljorg Museum in Indianapolis has a different take on everyday objects as art.  Instead of being blown up in size or re-made in different media, cookware, clothing, weapons, jewelry, and religious icons of the original peoples of North America are seen as they are.  The Eiteljorg doesn’t exhibit these pieces as historical or cultural artifacts, but as art.  Tribal areas from Alaska to Mexico, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, are represented in individual galleries. The name of the artist is sometimes unknown, but his or her hand is clearly in evidence as the maker. The curators describe the influences on the artist as well as various methods of creating each piece.  The museum is careful to note that they have partnered with artists and tribal communities to provide visitors with a sensitive perspective.  I was overwhelmed by the number and beauty of the pieces on display. I loved considering that an individual artist made each one and, whether a secular or sacred object, imbued it with his or her personal touch.

All art matters.  So make a New Year’s resolution to make art. Make art that makes you feel whole.  Make art that makes others feel whole.  Make art that gets us to see in new ways and question our seeing.  Make art daily and make it for daily use.  By all means, make art that makes money.  Making art makes us all better human beings.