Bricolage,a French term for tinkering, is used in the arts to describe a creation constructed from a variety of diverse resources–mostly readily available materials.
The notion appeals to me; not only as a process of art-making, but as the essence of art itself. Seeing an object not only for what it is–but what it may become is a wonderful approach. Even a cursory review of my artworks through the years certainly speaks to this concept–as does the toolbag, workbench and junk drawer. Each holds an assemblage that might be junk, but hold some promise of artistic use. Brass C-rings have found their way into wearable art, failed watercolors have metamorphosed into butterflies, and left-over paint has been splattered on used Tyvek envelopes, resulting in book covers.
Not that there isn’t joy in fresh, new papers and paint. One of my favorite smells is still a new box of crayons, and there is nothing more lovely than a newly stretched canvas. But there’s sometimes more fun in tinkering that can result in serious work. Assemblages have been considered fine art since Georges Braque and Picasso coined the term collage. Robert Rauschenberg’s “Combines” moved the concept further to fully incorporate found objects in his canvases.
Isn’t that what all art is? It is sometimes said that there is no new art, that each painting, song, dance or poem is informed by previous works. Works by oneself, by other artists–and of course, the world around us. Even those early painters spreading pigment on cave walls at Lascaux were creating images of animals seen that day. There seems to be some synaptic twist in the artist brain that ignites a path from observation to execution without hesitation. I’m sure it has to do with following the urge to create.
At this point in my life where I’ve accumulated a number of skills, and resulting artworks, it seems time to organize them into some sort of collection.Serendipitously I was asked by fellow artist Brenda Smoak to participate in her Artists Tell Their Stories, “52 Artists in 52 Weeks” project. Smoak’s concept is to have one artist a week showcase a representative piece of work, and talk about it. This pushed me into creating a portfolio site. As I perused the many domain names I’ve accrued, it became obvious that the one that speaks most clearly to my eclectic collection of works is “les Bricolages.” While I know the Marketing 101 rule of only promoting one genre at a time, most of what makes me an artist is that one work leads me to another.
So, once the Byzantine configurations between domain host and site host meld–les Bricolages will be launched. It has been great fun collecting and configuring works from the past forty years, and a number of new ideas have cropped up–which is a bricolage in action.
It’s New Year’s again, and a cursory glance through this blog’s archive tells me that it’s also time for the annual “Good-bye to the Old” review post. The media is also burgeoning with equal measures of suggested approaches to “let go” of 2014’s transgressions, and affirmations to aid in making and keeping resolutions for 2015. The urge for going to something, anything positive is palpable in these last hours of the conterminous shift to the New Year.
Certainly, I’ve been an willing participant in this yearly dance. But somehow, other than my abysmal failure rate, I just don’t want to do it that way again. It may be AA’s favorite aphorism–that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result Or perhaps it’s the increased awareness of my own aging, or the itch to have some fun and do some good, but mostly it’s that my own urge is to go is toward a place of peace.
Because my birthday is in July, I take two “New Beginnings” each year. In some ways this is a way of seeing the opportunity for “fresh starts” every six months. Which, of course, doubles the occasion for review. I’ve done a lot of reviewing in the past half year, and with that, the urge for change has grown.
I’m more aware of my aging. Not the wrinkles and aches–but the looking at where I’ve been, and assessing what has emerged. The increased self-appraisals have initiated a mental cataloguing of skills. It’s not unlike reorganizing a work area, where amongst all the detritus, tools you forgot you had emerge. In this year, I’ve sorted through and found quite a collection of skill sets, with the supplies and implements to work them.
One of my least favorite sayings is the “she/he who dies with the most (whatever), wins.” I always find that enormously sad, not unlike my grandmother’s habit of “saving” the newly gifted slippers, and continuing to wear the ratty ones. I aways tried to be the person who can eat breakfast with the best silver, and who takes more pleasure in giving away than saving.
It is this reaction that brings this year’s sunset a more realistic goal. In the New Year, and each year after–when each day ends I want to have a tired body, a heart that is at peace with my day, and mind that is eager for tomorrow. I want to use up all the good paper, and eat the last of the bread because I am confident I can make more. I want to remember in my muscles each skill I’ve got–and keep the urge to learn more. Whatever day is my last, I want it to be one of peace–with good works left for someone else to finish.
I don’t want to remind myself of happiness, I want to breathe it.
As things go in my artist life, when I’ve plunged far enough into ennui to be stagnantly frozen–something itches its way to just under the surface of my awareness. It finally erupts into an overpowering urge to create–something, anything. Earlier this year I had shifted my classroom windows to a garden filled with butterflies and other winged beings. All cut paper. It’s a wonderful, lighthearted process. Splash paint inks onto both sides of bristol, then use the shapes the merging inks make to form floral and insect shapes. In truth it’s kid art with a little sophistication. Or a little more mess.
When the latest push to work emerged, the papers were closest at hand. As I began building several books, I recalled I’d months ago promised an artist gift to several friends. This reminder energized my splashing, folding and forming. Butterflies began to rise from a flag-book form–their cousins attached themselves to an accordion fold. That love of working returned, and as I laid the finished books under weights for pressing–I felt that lovely internal smile. Good work, well-done–soon to be sent to someone who would love it. Of course there was that little internal voice niggling that I shouldn’t ever stop working if it felt so good, and that these gifts were long overdue–good friends deserve better.
I left the pieces drying that weekend as I made the family trip with my husband to NYC to bring my youngest home from her first semester at Pratt. My oldest joined us and all was to be a celebration weekend with Mother’s Day being that Sunday. Watching my youngest saying good-bye to a friend, it occurred me how much the friend resembled the friend of mine I had just made a book for. The synchronicity stuck me–art school friends. At the end of our first semester together my friend brought me her oil paints. She was going off cross-country and wouldn’t need them for a time, and “besides,” she said after watching me struggle with acrylics, “you’re trying to work with skim milk when what your paintings need is cream.”
My thoughts wandered through memories of how much this friend meant to me, and my artist life, regret for not being closer as the decades have passed, and happiness that the gift I would send her would be ready to mail when I got home. And then I felt the twinge. I knew she had not been well for a long time, and had recently been hospitalized again. Something told me not to call, and instead reached for that great impersonal communicator–Facebook. The twinge was precision accurate. My friend had died a calendar week before.
Through my tears I ached for my own loss–of my friend, of the opportunity to talk to her again, of our youth, of our possibilities. I wept for all the moments I’ve put something essential aside for the habitual action, the norm, the expectation of daily life. Finally, at the core of that pain I felt a cracking of light. More than forty years ago my friend and I talked about our art, being our art, remembering to love and live our art. That no matter where we went, what we did–we would be artists first. “And,” she would say, “that’s why I know we will be friends forever.”
I will send that book today to my friend’s daughter, and keep working. I’ve been given countless beautiful gifts through the years, but perhaps this last gift from my friend is the most powerful. The reminder to not wait, not hesitate. Her voice in my head, as strong as it was decades ago when I’d be waffling about something, “Hey, you know we’re going to die, we may as well be happy first.”
Teachers, like therapists, spiritual caregivers and medical professionals are taught protocols of respecting our and others’ boundaries early and throughout coursework. It is required that we navigate between providing care while remaining at a level of emotional distance. We are trained to provide genuine empathy and sympathy while maintaining a self-protective shield of detachment.
But the reality for most of us is far more difficult. Some days we just soften and fail. And I am deeply grateful that we do.
I discovered today that the very first student I worked with at my current job has died. He was a wonderful young man who taught me much about what I had taken on as a teacher to very ill children. From our first session together until the morning I hugged him goodbye, he was honest, straightforward and generously shared his feelings and opinions. Once he decided he could trust me, he became willing to share his powerful truths, and listen to mine.
When he told me early on that he knew he would not survive, and thought it was “stupid” to read whatever the assigned novel was–I gave him “The Little Prince.” Of course there was initial resistance, but Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s tale opened discussions between the two of us that ranged from WWII aviation to the reality of dreams. No, it wasn’t the assigned literature, and yes, we spent less time on taxonomy and Algebra I than we should have.
But we each learned. He learned that imagining was still possible through grueling courses of chemo and radiation, and that silliness is an act of bravery equal to anger. I learned what this job would require of me–and that my first obligation is to listen–always.
As we said our goodbyes, more than a year ago, he gave me two paper sculptures he and his mother had made during their stay. One was a giant spider, the other a proportionately even larger housefly. Absolutely nothing cute about them, they were a dare from him for to me to display them. Which of course I did. I gave him the copy of “The Little Prince.” When he tried to refuse with, “But I already read it,” I think he expected my response: “This is one of those books you read more than once. It’s like having a friend who is always there.”
When I heard the news of his passing today, my eyes went right to the spider and fly still hanging in my classroom. And then to another copy of “The Little Prince” on the bookshelf. And it seemed appropriate that it was raining as I later walked home in tears.
Each day I am privileged to spend my time with children who are very, often terminally ill. I listen to the hopes and fears from the families. I watch the scrupulous medical and therapeutic caregivers who unfailingly provide treatment with gentleness and respect. I am fortunate to both see the successful return for follow-ups, and give over my classroom to families saying their last goodbyes.
This, at least for me, makes the essential visible. There are no boundaries to that.
“New Shadows V” 1996 Oil on canvas 63 x 63″. Per Kirkeby, Private collection.
A lovely gift took me and my youngest to the Per Kirkeby exhibit at the Phillips Collection. A massive show for that gallery, I found most of the work to be interesting–powerful–but with a few exceptions not in a color palate that resonated. Excepting the canvas above.
We stood though, and watched the latter part of a bio-video from 1996 that accompanied the exhibit. A wonderful film (whose title I can’t seem to source) that followed Kirkeby through the process of creating one canvas. And that’s where the resonance kicked in. Watching him build and rebuild, scaffold-squatting as he worked the top areas, bringing other canvases to visually enter a concept, and repeatedly sitting in an overstuffed chair to take in the place the painting had moved to before going at it again–all the while commenting on the process–my head began to nod in agreements. Especially with the solid understanding that building–layering strokes on strokes has nothing really to do with the current buzz-terms of “destroy,” and “deconstruction.” But rather the uppermost layers would never be possible without the under-structure work. Not that the previous is a framework, but a layer of concept that allows the exploration of change.
In this culture we are so trained to strive toward completion, ownership and the demonstration to ourselves and others of our skills that we seem to be losing the essential gift of impermanence. We see a wonderful sandcastle on the beach and are unable to grasp that one of the intrinsic beauties is that the next high tide will obliterate it. We are always a little shocked and dismayed to discover some masterwork contains evidence of reworking by the artist. The term pentimento is the Italian word for repentance or regret. As though the artist has “fixed” some earlier error.
Suppose though, we allow ourselves to think of this process as forward motion. An ongoing process of exploration combined with a joyful recognition of experiencing the present moment of any work. My earliest teachers taught me, respect for supplies aside, that no working at the art is ever wasted–but that no one piece is sacred. How freeing it is to work that way.
In my annual process of clearing out my email newsletters and feeds I came across this discussion opener from a linkedin arts group: “I believe families are terrible studio mates. I also believe women need to support one another by creating spaces and groups to support them when family fails them.”
This is such a recurrent theme of so much of what is written about and for women who choose to be artists, I had to respond.
I have been a working artist, artist/teacher for over 40 years. While there have been magical periods when I had formal studio space, much of my work has been done on the dining room table, or at the easel tucked onto the sun porch between bicycles and toys. I’ve had periods when I’ve been richly supported by fellow artists as part of a working group, and periods when the only artists I “communicated” with were masters hung on a museum wall. I’ve given over all kinds of my supplies to a school project, and certainly stopped work to shuttle kids or spouse, or make dinner. Through the years there has been an undercurrent of justified unhappiness with my not having a “real job”, and always no hesitation to interrupt my work with a “where are my socks” question.
But, there has always been a respect for my work, and my working at my art. Even when small, my children knew better than to touch my work. I keep a decades-old, almost symbolic watercolor brush that was never, ever “borrowed,” nor have I never heard a single grouse when I would (and often still) be up until the wee hours working.
The difference for me is that when I work–while I’m vaguely aware that I have responsibilities at some hour, I am in such a state of flow that minor interruptions, grousing, surroundings are unimportant, I am in that state of being with the work. When I am there, I am separate from opinions or responses from anyone else. This isn’t something I deliberately learned through the years, as I remember feeling this state of flow in a high school classroom–that state of just not being aware of anything but my work.
While unfortunate, it is historically documented that for a woman to be an artist there are additional demands, restrictions placed on her working. Many women through the centuries have made an active choice to withdraw from the norm and not marry or have children. Absolutely I have had moments when I wish I had taken that route, and everyone in my family has heard me mutter (or bellow) “a room of one’s own!” from Virginia Woolf”s “A Room of One’s Own.”.
But in the end, as I learned from one of my first teachers–mine is truly the only important voice. I know when I absolutely have to work–or explode. I know when a piece is working or needs to be reworked or trashed. And I know when (whatever it is) it is finished. If I believe anything it is that. Every artist has that voice inside. Learning to focus on that voice can make all the difference.
So I will empty the dishwasher, put a load of laundry in, clear off the dining room table–and get back to finishing the drawing above.
More and more often, I experience a powerful dichotomy of emotion in a single day. Yesterday it was all about art, the arts, and young people.
Throughout most of the day, I stood at a multiple college portfolio review, helping my youngest navigate the lines to interview. In the hours I stood I became more and more heartened.
The room was packed with young people toting French portfolios, carefully clutching sculptures or ceramics, wielding laptops–most accompanied by family members as they waited in lines to meet representatives of various college level arts programs. Most of the best known art programs were there, hosted by Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts. In each line, I was at some point close enough to overhear the reviewer’s approach and response to a young person’s work. Without exception I heard gentleness, enthusiasm and encouragement from the staff–even when the response could be easily understood to mean “Go home and keep working, you aren’t ready yet.”
Of course I am quite clear that tuition to these institutions is ridiculously prohibitive to many, and that of any thirty kids in line for The Arts Institute of Chicago, perhaps two had a chance of admission. I also considered all the wonderfully gifted students not present. Those without resources, guidance or even exposure to the arts in his or her public school.
But the artistic energy in the room was palpable. Yes, I saw the less talented, less skilled end of the spectrum–but I also saw outrageously exciting artwork. In every genre, every medium. Even more encouraging to see was the young people. I saw ownership, eagerness, and passion. Even those who would surely abandon the idea of an arts degree had a foundation. The urge to create was visibly embedded.
And then I came home and found the trailer for the “Landfill Harmonic” that is circling Facebook. After checking Snopes I watched the video again. The website for the film states, “Landfill Harmonic is an upcoming feature-length documentary about a remarkable orchestra from a remote village in Paraguay, where its young musicians play with instruments made from trash.” The “Recycled Orchestra” is just that–violins, cellos, flutes–created from trash. Trash from the landfill that is home to the young musicians. .
Watching the promo film for a third time I could see the same expressions of hope and creative passion that I had seen at the college fair earlier. “My life would be worthless without music.” This from a young girl in Cateura, Paraguay holding a violin crafted from scrap metal. “I live for my painting.” This from a young man in Richmond, VA displaying his work on a laptop worth several thousand dollars.
None of this is new, certainly not to me. As I watched the video, with the stack of promo material my daughter had collected piled next to me, a quiet thought became louder in my head. It is so very easy to see the disparity of benefits in this world. To become angry, to shed a tear, to post a comment or a video to some social network site. To cheer the efforts of others, to carp and snark about government budget cuts, to justify my own inaction with some statement of my inability to effect real change.
But sometimes, the easier path is to actually do something. To stand up, speak up, and get to work. To try and fail, and try again is always healthier. At least for me. So look out. I may not be able to be stopped this time.
There is a state of being that doesn’t quite fit the negative connotation of “procrastination,” but when carried too far becomes limiting at the minimal and crippling in the extreme. Preparation. Not that I fault the act of preparing. Mise-en-place was something I struggled to learn as not an additional chore, but a necessity in so many pursuits. It saves time, materials, and reduces frustration. When I teach I tell my students that there are three essential parts to any art-making, and the putting in order of materials and tools at the beginning and end are as important and the creation itself.
It happens often that the organization of materials, clearing of workspace, decision of image and placement takes on a life of its own. It becomes far too safe and satisfying to gather the goods, set-up the space, and then consider the act time as work well-done for the day. Or days. If not careful, this is when the inner critic catches a glimpse of an opening and blossoms with the niggles of self-doubt. Do I really want to work in graphite, or what about the alphabet series, the textile piece, the handmade book…until the real uglies step in. The “It’s already been done,” “What do I need with another stack of abstracts.” Read: “Not good enough.”
Fortunately I’m old enough to have traveled this miasmic snare before, and know, even in the depths of snarled impotence that there will be an emergence. There is the reward of working flow so very close. But as I age, I am also more and more aware of time as a factor. How many lethargies do I have to spend. How large a cache of ideas conceived, but not birthed am I willing to leave as legacy.
So I come again to moving from potential to action. A soul-centered place of remembering that abject failure is always, always preferable to annihilating torpor. It is that same state of being where from muscle-memory I know the steps to the water’s edge without looking. The place where I know that only by walking into the deeply clouded dawn will I have the chance to see light break through. To guide my way.