Saturday, January 2, 2016

Home-School MFA

Four years after I graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago with a BFA in Drawing and Painting, I asked three of my favorite teachers what an MFA degree would do for me that I couldn't do for myself.

Susan Kraut's answer was that most people went for an MFA to get to where I already was, a working artist with a studio of one's own. Unless you want to teach, she added. Then you need an MFA. I did not want to teach on a full-time or regular basis.

Richard Deutsch countered my question with one of his own--was I satisfied with my studio practice? If not, then what was missing? He suggested that I could always take a course as a student-at-large to fill in gaps I felt in my training. Unless I wanted to teach? I did not.

Richard Rezac was the last teacher I approached. I've often found his art difficult to access--the references are obscure or personal or abstract, the forms carefully chosen and unexpected at the same time. And every time I've asked him for advice he has been amazingly concrete and helpful. Once we got the "Do you want to teach?" question out of the way he said, "I'll give you the advice that I didn't take--save your tuition money and travel with a purpose."

This  advice really resonated with me and was the beginning of what I often refer to as my "home-school MFA." I asked Richard to be more specific about "travel with a purpose." I suggested a show of Titan work in the National Gallery in London as an example. He described how he would plan his itinerary, going to the show his first day in London. Doing some research before his trip to find out what else was showing in galleries or museums and spending a day or two exploring this art. Then he suggested returning to the Titian show before departing. A three or four day trip to London to see art.

He also suggested I read widely, go to lectures, ask questions. I asked him what besides art he did for fun and he looked sort of sheepish and admitted that he doesn't do non-art related things. I'm not sure that's true, since I've bumped into him on his way to the symphony, but he has always seemed dedicated to art the way a monk is dedicated.

It's been about fifteen years since I quizzed my teachers. I would not say I've attained my degree yet--it's always a work in progress.

I still have my studio and I think of Richard Deutsch talking about the importance of just showing up, logging the time. I have a time clock in my studio to remind me to log the time.

I have taken workshops and attended lectures. And I've traveled a lot. Not always as purposefully as the theoretical London trip that Richard Rezac laid out, but I search out opportunities to see art wherever I go.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Reading Journal--Two Fun Books For Halloween And Beyond

Little Red Hood by Marjolaine Leray
originally published in French, by Actes Sud Junior, (c) 2009
translated by Sarah Ardizzone, (c) 2011
First published in the UK in 2011 by Phoenix Yard Books, Phoenix Yard, 65 King's Cross Road, London, WCIX 9LW
reprinted 2013
40 pp (with NO TITLE PAGE)
two colors only, (red and black), on clean white pages
very small, appealing trim size--about 5" x 7"

This is an amazingly simple rendition of the traditional story of Little Red Riding Hood. There are only two characters in the story, Hood, and the Wolf. The text is hand-written, with the wolf's dialog in black ink, Hood's in red. The characters look almost like doodles, yet convey immense impact. Full of black humor, this is the ultimate stranger-danger book, which teaches both the power of "no" and don't take candy from strangers, without frightening the reader about the world. A great book to study for how to convey emotion with absolute economy of drawing. Drawing and text in black and red only on white pages--it feels very complete. I love this book!

Bone Dog by Eric Rohmann
Roaring Brook Press, (c) 2011
32 pp plus 1 tipped-in sheet of vellum plus blue endpapers

A charming story in the "dead-dog" genre, suitable for Halloween, but also readable anytime. I particularly like the flow of lines and gestures that move the book forward, including three wordless spreads near the end. The story has a very satisfying ending. Eric Rohmann won the 2003 Caldecott for My Friend Rabbit.

Friday, July 19, 2013

My Skype Date With Amy Stacey Curtis

Several years ago I met an artist named Amy Stacey Curtis is one of the most productive artists I know, and it's not because her day is any longer than anyone else's. Amy works in Maine and, when I first met her, was several stages into a "solo biennial" project she had developed. Every two years she creates an interactive installation exhibit around a particular theme. She had nine themes in mind, beginning with Experience and ending with Memory. Fifteen years into this tremendously demanding project, Amy is now working toward an installation on Matter, having completed one on Space last fall. I was lucky enough to get to an early installation, Change, and we have remained in contact since, mostly through email.

I have always admired Amy for her dedication, discipline, and no-excuses approach to creating really challenging and interesting art and getting it out there. For each of these installations she must locate a space large enough to accommodate 9 specific installations. She raises funds to cover the costs of the events, the space, the materials, the publicity. She considers the administrative side of getting these installations made as part of the art-making process. That was a revelation to me. Instead of complaining that, as an artist, she shouldn't be burdened with all these telephone calls, emails, grant proposals, etc., she incorporated it right into the art-making process. This reminds me of Cristo, who felt that securing the site and getting the permissions was all part of the deal. And like Cristo, Amy creates drawings related to the theme to sell to help raise funds for the projects.

We bumped into each other a few weeks ago at an opening of the Patricia Ladd Carega Gallery for a mutual friend, C.C. White.  Amy had to get back to Maine that evening so we did not have time to talk--just time enough to realize that we like to talk with each other.  Amy suggested we Skype, so today we talked for about 45 min. It felt great to have time together even though I am in Oak Park, IL and she is in Maine. And as always, I felt I learned a lot from her conversation.

I love her discipline-- she is someone who does not waste her time. She said she spends 3-5 hours a day writing--1 hour of that is on a ms for a book she envisions laying out the process and content of her 9 solo biennials. The rest of the time she is writing grants, proposals, lesson plans for her teaching, administrative emails for her projects. She also spends 3-5 hours a day at her studio work--making drawings, at pre-production for her installations, conceptualizing her ideas. She limits herself to 15 min. a day on Facebook and LinkedIn, her choices of social media. Now that is discipline.

I asked her how she uses LinkedIn. Amy says that she only links with people she actually knows or people who's art is really interesting. She says she responds to every request by looking up their profile, thanking them for the invitation to link. She includes links to her website and work and asks if they have any questions for her. That way the conversation is already started. This again, is something I admire about Amy--she's very intentional about how she uses social media. She is also really good at reciprocating. If you take the trouble to get to know her work, come to her shows, or attend one of her talks, she makes every effort to check out your work, show up for your openings if she possibly can. Skype, LinkedIn, and Facebook are all ways she is able to extend her artistic community beyond the narrower confines of Maine, a very rural state with limited arts resources. And she absolutely makes the most of the resources available.

Amy will be having a solo show at the Portland Museum of Art titled "Nine Walks. The show opens October 3, 2013. And she will be giving a talk about the videos in this show in Dec. Get there if you possibly can.

Good luck Amy!

Saturday, June 29, 2013

OPAD Art Camp--2013

I teach art workshops in my studio for the Oak Park Arts District Art Camp. I got back from almost three weeks travel in Norway and Svalbard to have 2 days to prep for 6 workshops. I planned my workshops on the plane trip home.

Here is my preliminary thinking from my journal entry written in flight from Copenhagen to Chicago:
I have 6 art camp sessions-- 3 on Thurs. and 3 on Friday. No repeats. This is great! For the oldest groups, esp. if there are no repeats from Debbie Creticos's class [my last Art Start session], what if we concentrate on drawing from life--birds' nests; sea shells; rocks, basic drawing lessons. Work with graphite sticks (buy new ones) & kneaded erasers for 15 min. Add watercolors. If I combine the nests, flowers, shells with bowls, pitchers, etc., there will be opportunity to learn color mixing, painting techniques, and drawing from life. We can reference Dutch Still Life, looking at reflections, light & shadow, backgrounds. Positive and negative space. Good w.c. paper, 6 colors of paint, brushes, palettes, graphite sticks, erasers. These are our supplies. Computer paper for the drawing lesson. I need: palettes [square plastic picnic plates from Dominick's]; erasers [kneaded erasers]; graphite sticks; prepped paper--use 8 sheets of Dad's old watercolor paper, quartered; images of Dutch Still Life.
 Lay out the palettes as soon as possible so the paint will harden!
Is this a good plan? Can 5 yr. olds draw nests? Can we think about "scribble" drawings, getting closer and closer to the shape? Or can I talk myself into 2 completely separate lesson plans?

Color mixing--yellow + blue = green--but you have 2 yellows & 2 blues. Do they come out the same? How about yellow + red? Again, 2 of each. And red + blue??? No white. No black. Nor gray nor brown. Can you mix these? 6 stripes down with flat brush--let it dry a bit, then 6  stripes across with round brush [like a plaid pattern.] Paul Klee color square paintings: towns; castles; faces; fish; etc.

The second graders I taught for Art Start this year had had such success and fun drawing birds' nests from life that I decided to focus on still life, with birds' nests as the center piece for my Art Camp workshops. I knew, however, that this might be too challenging for the very youngest campers (5 and 6 year olds) so I decided to do color matching and Paul Klee inspired drawing for the two youngest groups of campers. That meant I had to have two different set ups and sets of materials. I never was able to run out to the craft store and the art store in Oak Park did not have what I needed so I ended up improvising even more than this plan and I only bought the plastic plates to use as palettes. Everything else I already had in the studio from previous workshops.

Here is a picture of the basic set up--waiting for the first group to come. This was a young group that would do the color mixing/Paul Klee inspired workshop.

I use DaVinci watercolor paints in 37 mil. tubes. Each palette has two reds--Quinacridone Permanent Rose & Vermillion Hue; two yellows--Arylide Yellow & Hansa Yellow Light Lemon; and two blues--French Ultramarine & Thalo Blue.

First we made a color wheel, laying out the 6 colors on their palettes, then experimenting with a few of the combinations to make green, purple, and orange. Next I gave them each a "Four Square" sheet along with 4 color swatches from the paint store. The challenge was to mix the exact color of the paint chip using the 6 colors on their palettes. I made sure to choose a dark color, a light color, and several muted colors ranging from browns, grays, strange greens, and burnt oranges. I have found that this is a great way for the kids to learn how much water to use and how to think about color mixing. If you can mix a good deep brown or eggplant color and you can mix a light gray, you will be able to mix almost any color you need.

Lastly I gave the kids fresh sheets of paper, Sharpie markers, and showed them my favorite Paul Klee paintings, where he is painting with squares and swatches of color, sometimes drawing with black ink. They were free to draw whatever they wanted, inspired by Paul Klee.

drawing                                                                                                         mixing colors


I always love the drawings kids come up with after looking at Klee--even a "rainbow," (usually a fallback generic motif for kids afraid to draw) becomes special. 

 For the 4 older groups (ranging in age from 6 to 11), I decided to challenge them with drawing from a still life set up in the middle of the table. Each workshop began with about 10 minutes of a basic drawing lesson, learning that you can draw practically anything using straight lines, curved lines, three basic shapes, and some letter shapes. We talked about the different energy it took to draw different lines.

We looked at some still life paintings from reproductions I had saved from old calendars. I particularly wanted them to think about backgrounds--how you could simplify backgrounds or keep them complicated. I also suggested they think about what the still life is sitting on, rather than drawing objects floating in air.

I set out still life elements, including birds' nests with fake eggs in them.

Instead of graphite sticks we ended up using charcoal pencils (because I had them and did not have graphite sticks.) I set the timer on my phone and asked the kids to draw in black charcoal and use their kneaded erasers as drawing tools to get lighter shades of gray.

Working with a kneaded eraser as a drawing tool.


After 15 minutes of drawing I added watercolor to the mix. These kids caught on really quickly to how to handle the paint and mix the colors they needed.



Finished Artwork--I wish I could show you the happy and proud faces of the artists, but for privacy's sake I have cropped these pictures. Notice, though, that the pictures often have the same color palette as the artist's clothes.

 This painting is not quite finished. I told the artist that she could use any watercolors she had at home to finish it.

I think these are great paintings for adults, but these kids were mostly 6, 7, & 8!

Saturday, May 25, 2013

The Next Big Thing Blog Tour


I’ve been tagged by Amy Timberlake for The Next Big Thing Blog Tour! Amy recently published One Came Home, which is my bedtime reading right now. Check it out!

I’ve never taken a “Blog Tour,” although I love to travel, so this is me, learning as I go.

Here are the questions—and my answers:

1) What is the working title of your next book?

It started out as CARGO and has been changed to THE MYSTERIOUS CARGO. I just submitted this ms and am waiting to hear if my first choice editor likes it.

2) Where did the idea come from for the book?

Every summer I drive 1000 miles across I 90 from Chicago to New Hampshire and then 1000 miles back again. I am always fascinated and amazed at the trucks and vehicles I see and the things they carry. That’s where the working title, CARGO, came from. Then, on a drive downstate I saw the most amazing piece of cargo I have ever seen. It was huge. It was long. It was unmarked and I have no idea what it is. I took photos. And I knew I had to include that mysterious cargo in this book.

3) My ms is a picture book for 4-6 year olds. Currently it is a little heavy on text (800 words), and I’m hoping that once an illustrator is on board we can reduce some of the text by telling the story through the pictures. I have already cut as much as I feel I can without having to write tons of illustration notes and losing the flow of the text. The next round of cuts needs to be a collaboration between editor, illustrator, and myself.

4) What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a
movie rendition?

I half-way imagine Bart Simpson as my narrator. The sister is a little like Lisa and a lot like me as a child. The parents could be Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. Not sure who could play the part of the dog.

5) What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

On a two-day family road trip a young boy forgets about his missing video games and becomes obsessed with following the progress of one particular truck carrying a very mysterious cargo.

6) Who is publishing your book?

That is a good question. I have submitted to one editor and am hoping she will love this story enough to want to work with me on it, but I will not put her on the spot by naming her. It took me twelve tries to find the right home for TRUCK STUCK. I hope this book reaches the right editor sooner than that.

7) How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

It has taken me 4 years I think to bring this story from random notes and journal ideas to a completed ms. I thought I was going to write in rhyme, since each of my previous 3 books rhyme. I wrote a prose version of the story intending to substitute rhyming text once I’d nailed down the plot details. Every time I tried to force the story into rhyme it became unworkable and cumbersome. I liked the flow of the prose. After a year or more of struggling to rhyme I finally gave myself permission to write in prose. I feel so liberated!

8) What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

One book that I looked to for a model is the Golden Book, Scuffy the Tugboat, by Gertrude Crampton, illustrated by Tibor Gergely. Scuffy takes off downstream and passes through different kinds of landscapes until he reaches the wide ocean. The changing scenery and transition from rural to urban landscape reminded me of the changing landscape on my own road trip. I also looked at A Trip to the Bottom of the World with Mouse, by Frank Viva. This is another book about a trip and I liked the way the story is told in dialog. It is a Toon book, a comic for youngsters. While I don’t see my story as a comic, it does have a lot of dialog.

9) Who or what inspired you to write this book?

While I was originally inspired to write about the amazing trucks I keep seeing on my travels, I fell upon a phrase that really pleased me—“I go! You go! We go! Cargo!” That line has become a refrain in this non-rhyming text, with variations to the line that mirror the story. It captures the energy and fun I hope is in the story.

10) What else about the book might pique the reader's interest?

All through the story the boy is hoping to discover what the mysterious cargo is. (Spoiler Alert!) And he never does find out. I intend to set up a Facebook page where readers can post photos or drawings of the interesting cargos they see and perhaps someone will solve the mystery of the mysterious cargo.

Next up on the Next Big Thing Blog Tour? Lori Degman, author of One Zany Zoo and inveterate rhymer will pick up the baton. Take it away, Lori!

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Do You Haiku?

I was asked to teach 4 poetry workshops to the 4 second grade classes at Mann School in Oak Park, District 97. This is part of the Art Start program, funded by the Oak Park Education Foundation. I've never taught poetry workshops for Art Start before, never done a series of poetry workshops, and never taught poetry without first using art as an entry into the creative process.

I decided to ask for some advice. Debbie Creticos is a second grade teacher at Longfellow School. We've worked together on Art Start (art) projects for at least 4, maybe more years. And sometimes we've introduced poetry to go with the art. Debbie invited another second grade teacher to join us and we brainstormed poetry and second graders together. At the end of the session Debbie said, "You'll be fine. They'll love you."

I reread Gooney Bird Is So Absurd, by Lois Lowry. This is a book Debbie introduced me to several years ago. Gooney Bird Green is a fabulous second grade character who likes to be in the middle of things and who wears the most flamboyant outfits imaginable. And each of the books in the series focuses on different aspects of writing and story-telling. In Gooney Bird Is So Absurd, the class is studying poetry. Following Lois Lowry's lead, I decided to begin with Haiku for my first Art Start workshop.

I turned to another great book, Haiku (Asian Arts and Crafts For Creative Kids) by Patricia Donegan. In this book the author provides a real understanding of traditional Japanese haiku, provides 7 keys to writing haiku, and includes many examples of both traditional Japanese haiku and haiku written by contemporary poets including children from all around the world.

Since my workshops are only 30 minutes long, the teachers follow up after I leave and help the students continue writing. I made a poster for each class with examples of haiku poems and a page spread from the proofs for my own book, The Robin Makes A Laughing Sound: A Birder's Journal. Each season opens with a bird list, a sketch of a white oak tree in that season, a few bird sketches, and a haiku appropriate to the season. I also included a sheet of tips for writing haiku (basically taken from Donegan's Haiku book. Here's a copy of that sheet:

How to Write Haiku:

Haiku poems are made up of very few words, maybe six to ten, broken into three short lines. If you are trying to count syllables, the pattern is:

5 syllables

7 syllables

5 syllables

It is not necessary to count syllables.

Describe a moment in time—something that actually happened to you, that you actually saw. Choose your words carefully to paint a picture in your mind. Use descriptive words—not just “flower” but what kind of flower, what color flower, what about that flower is special and unique?

Create a snapshot, a picture, using words. Use your senses to get in touch with the world around you.

What do you see?

What do you hear?

What do you smell?

What do you taste?

What do you feel?

At recess, at lunch, on your way to and from school, pay attention to the world around you. Watch with “haiku eyes,” keep an open mind. Prepare to be surprised and find your haiku moment.

I left each class with a poster, a stack of magazines for cutting up, and nice blue card stock for the kids to write out their finished poems on and illustrate, perhaps using the page proofs from my book as inspiration. Here's a list of the books I left each class:

Lois Lowry, Gooney Bird Is So Absurd
Jack Prelutsky, If Not For The Cat
Bob Raczka, Guyku
Sallie Wolf, The Robin Makes A Laughing Sound: A Birder's Journal

Well, It's Been A While Since Last I Wrote

I haven't been keeping up with my reading journal the way I'd planned, but I sure have been reading. That's about all I did this winter--curl up on the couch with a good book. My favorite book since I wrote last has been Okay For Now by Gary Schmidt. Richard Peck wrote the review for the New York Times. I won't try to top that, but there were all kinds of reasons why I loved this book. The first was the voice--the narrator, Doug, had a very distinctive way of addressing the reader, asking numerous time, "You know how that feels?" And as the book progresses these questions shift from being confrontational, angry, hurt, to expressing joy, wonder, gratitude. The Doug's growth is displayed in his questions.

Another reason I loved this book was because each chapter began with a reproduction of an Audubon print of a bird and Doug's description of the print. I have always believed in the healing power of art and Doug comes under that spell. His ability to see his world in the world of Audubon's birds opened up new ideas of how pictures convey their meaning. I'm an artist, with an art degree, and I learned about composition from reading this book.

This is the last reason for liking the book that I'll give, but it's not the last reason I have--Doug has to reach outside his family to find adults who will give him the support and help that he needs to overcome so many obstacles in his path. And he finds help in many strange places and in turn is able to help others. The message is important--that there are people who care about you even when your parents can't or don't. Doug feels as if he is entirely on his own at the beginning of the book, with no one who can take his side, and by the end of the book he has built a community of caring people.

If you haven't read this book, you should--it's a great story, powerfully written.