Artistic Tradition: Being a Part of Something Big

This essay originally appeared in the July 2008 issue of Art in Wisconsin.  

A couple of years ago my high school ceramics teacher asked me to write a reflection on a retreat we took back when I was a student.

On a cold winter evening in the late 70’s a bunch of high school art students piled into cars and drove off for a weekend at a remote cabin in the woods of Iowa. I remember a bitterly cold ride in the back of a pickup truck, but once we arrived the cabin was warm and full of excitement. Our trip was more than just a weekend jaunt, we were going on a pilgrimage. It was a pilgrimage to meet the teacher of our teacher. Don Hunt who taught us ceramics made it clear we were not simply being taught a skill, we were heirs to a tradition. It was a tradition that traced back to the Bauhaus in Germany and even further back into the mists of time. I was thrilled to be a part of something elemental, ancient and mysterious.

the essay was to be the foreword for a chapter he was contributing to a book about Marguerite Wildenhain, a distinguished ceramic artist and teacher from Germany.  Marguerite had received a rigorous training and taught at the Bauhaus. She fled Nazi Germany and eventually arrived in this country where she taught in California. As a teacher she was renounced for demanding and receiving the highest effort from her students. over the years her students became teachers and produced talented pupils of their own. one of Marguerite’s students was Dean Schwarz who led the retreat in that remote cabin in Iowa and my teacher Don Hunt was a former student of Dean Schwarz.

For youth the importance of tradition can be easily tossed aside… and when I was in school the dominant mode of art education was the philosophy that art in the 20th century was a continual upward spiral of innovation. this fascination with the new taught that each new generation of artist would cast off the chains of the past and reinvent art. I think one of the most refreshing things about the teaching of Don Hunt was that he had us steeped in tradition and was so explicit in saying that what we were learning was something that had been passed down from teacher to student for generations.

recently I was able to purchase the finished book marguerite Wildenhain and the Bauhaus.  It is an enormous volume with 767 pages weighing about as much as an unabridged dictionary. I have not yet had the opportunity to read the entire book, but in looking through the pages I recognized the same colored slips we used for decorating. Her pots also had the same glaze that we had used in our kilns back when I was in school. I also recognized the same design of kick wheel that I had made once, but most importantly I recognized in the various essays descriptions of her passion for teaching and her student’s enthusiasm for learning. It was the same burning enthusiasm that I had experienced so many years ago in ceramics class with Don. I was also impressed by the vast reach of Marguerite’s influence. It was clear that marguerite had many students and many of them went on to teach others and pass on the legacy.

The lessons I learned from Don were some of the most formative in my life. I count myself fortunate to know the exact genealogy of this line of my artistic heritage. I know many that share that connection and I am sure that other teachers have left similar trails of talented pupils. One has to image that anytime one encounters an artist of significant talent and insight, behind that person must be a legacy of tradition that contributed to what that person has become. whether we recognize it or not, that is the way that we truly become an organic living part of something very big.

Margurite Wildenhain, 1959, Photo by Otto Hagel © 1989 courtesy of the Center for Creative Photography, The University of Arizona Foundaion

Finding Meaning in a Work of Art

Disrupting audience expectations has become a staple of modern art.  As art seeks to challenge the viewer, the art world becomes an insiders club with some people in the know and some who are mystified by the museum experience.  We fear getting it wrong and revealing our ignorance. This culture of esoteric art knowledge is a barrier that shuts down our ability to perceive.  It also encourages overreliance on interpretation of works of art.   

The antidote to this insiders club is to make ones eyes the primary entry point to a work of visual art.   Look carefully and see what you notice.  Explore the composition.  Examine the elements of color, shape, line, and texture.   Does the work intrigue you?   If the answer to that question is “not much”, or “the museum tag made it sound really interesting” then perhaps the emperor has no clothes.  On the other hand if you find the work captures your eyes and bears repeated attention then you have found something of value.

As an artist presenting my work, I hesitate to tell what I intended.  Presumably my words about this work carry more weight than any other viewer of the painting.  However, I think that if you the reader of this essay rushes ahead to read my interpretation, you will have missed a chance to encounter the work free of my opinions.  You will miss the joy of making discoveries for yourself.   A written essay explaining the meaning of a work becomes a trap in that we can obtain the message of a visual work without looking for ourselves or delving deeply into what might be waiting for us.  When we rely heavily on written interpretations, the meaning becomes fixed to the words rather than the visual presence of the work.  So you have been warned! Spoiler alert! Read no further until you have taken time to look at the painting that is the subject of this essay.   Do not just give a cursory glance.  Take time and form your own opinions.  Once you have done that, read on and compare your conclusions to my own.

When I have shown people this painting without explanation, I have found that many are unable to identify the subject matter.  I am sure people feel nervous when they are put on the spot.  The inability to identify the subject may stem from unfamiliarity with biblical stories.   Some people may be unsure where to start and feel that artwork is the realm of professionals. 

I don’t think that slow recognition makes this a bad painting.  The story this painting depicts encourages the reader to question the ability of men to see God’s plan clearly, so a painting that slowly reveals itself can emphasize that point.    My painting strays from many of the conventions of Christian art.   Older traditions used halos to show the audience the subject matter is saintly.  Lately biblical illustrators signal the audience with a robe and sandal style of depiction.   My style is cartoonish, but with a little too much blood and sorrow to be a work targeted at children.  It is not really a style that is associated with biblical subject matter.  I try to show as many elements of the story as will fit in the frame.  I will often omit the facial features because I think specific facial features can put distance between the artwork and audience, while the converse allows audience inhabit the work by filling in the blank with their own specifics.  I do try to use the gesture of the figures to convey the story and feeling of the characters.

The subject of this painting is drawn from Genesis 37:17-36. The author the story of Joseph tells a story of rivalry, betrayal, lies, complicity, lust, sorrow redemption and more.  Though it all, the central message is that Joseph’s seeming misfortune is turned to blessing.  For Joseph’s brothers, the ill advised attempt to be rid of Joseph does not liberate them from his domination.  Ironically their actions put him in a position to lord over them as well as to save them.   

In my painting of Joseph being sold, I tried to paint the scene in a way that emphasized these elements of human weakness and strength.   One can see Joseph’s brothers in an impassioned conversation with their father at the top of the painting.  The brother’s word balloon is filled with an image rather than text.  The brothers are telling their father that Joseph was killed by a lion.   Joseph’s father, Israel, is grieving a river of tears that wind around the world.   The coat of many colors dominates the center of the painting.  We also see the brothers splattering the coat with the blood of a sacrificial lamb.  The coat’s central location emphasizes how Joseph has been stripped of a symbol of his father’s favor.  It also is a reminder of the lie the  brothers used to convince their father that Joseph had died in a lion attack.  On the other side of the globe, Joseph is shown in egypt being sold to his new master.   The globe is used here as a symbol of distance, not only physical but also spiritual and emotional distance.  In contrast to convention, the moon dominates the upper left and the sun illuminates the lower right.  The unconventional position of the sun and moon highlight God’s favor on Joseph and the problematic actions of the brothers.  

Having shared my perspective on this work, I would hope that rather than becoming the source of your understanding, this essay is a chance to reflect on your experience of the painting.  You have already reached your own conclusions prior to reading my opinions.  So now you might want to look back at the work again as if you are looking at it with me.  You may say to yourself, “Yeah, I noticed that!” or “Oh my gosh, I see that”.   Or perhaps you may even have other insights that go beyond the limits of the essay.  

As you encounter works in the future, I would encourage you to look deeply at the work and imagine what caused the artist to create such a work.   Then after you have had a chance to take it in and form an opinion, look at the museum tag, listen to the museum’s headphones or read the catalogue entry.

Art CSA compared to Agriculture CSA

In our area, farmers have been connecting to consumers through a system called Community Supported Agriculture or CSA.  This system cuts out the middleman and creates a direct connection between the farmer and the family dinner table.  A customer who buys a share of an agricultural CSA will receive a shipment of farm produce consisting of what is ripe on the farm that particular week.  The produce that is provided varies with what is in season and what thrived in that particular growing season.   The shipments will continue as long as the harvest lasts.  Families get a steady supply of fresh produce and the farmers get a stable source of income.  

For the consumer who is used to arriving in a grocery with a staggering amount of choices it may seem to be limiting, but behind that choice are some ecologically unfriendly facts.  If one chooses to eat produce out of season, that food will need to be trucked in from a great distance and may not be as flavorful as one locally grown.  In fact foods such as tomatoes have been hybridized to make them stronger for the long trek to market at the expense of traits that make them tasty.   To eat food that varies with the seasons puts one in touch with the earth and its cycles.  For farmers who face pressures of weather, price fluctuations, cheap imported produce, GMOs and factory farming, the CSA is a means to face these obstacles on an equal footing.  An agriculture CSA brings consumers  organic, family farmed, locally grown produce.

In an art CSA artists connect directly with art buyers.  Like the agriculture CSA there are shares that are pre sold to the customer and there is a distribution party.  The artist is given a mandate to create a body of work using all their talents similar to the way the agriculture CSA gives the farmer a mandate to plant, cultivate and harvest what the land will best produce.  There is also a similarity between art and agriculture CSA in the effort to disrupt the assumptions that are baked into the traditional means of distribution.   In the same way that CSAs enable consumers to consider altering their diet to harmonize with the seasons, the art CSA can challenge the reliance on distant arbiters of taste to indicate what is trendy and new (constant search for innovation). So much reverence for innovation (godlike) in contrast to that, craftsmanship and master of technique.   Art that is a product of one’s community can touch the heart in a unique way.  

The features of an art CSA that make it different from an agriculture CSA revolve around the differences between the products of each.   When a farmer grows 15 bags of potatoes, each bag will be virtually indistinguishable and consumer will be happy with whatever bag they recieve.  With art, the question of how to distribute work that is varied presents a challenge.  In my case I include an element of choice into the distribution process.  The CSA shareholder will have their choice depending when their name is drawn from a hat.  Since there are 30 paintings and 15 shares even the last name drawn will have a wide choice.   For those who are set on a particular work, I offer a premium share that costs more and enables reservation of a particular painting.   This process of selection is enabled by the posting of all the works on my website and facebook.   I also created a website tool that allows art buyers to click and drag artworks into their order of preference.   Other artists create uniform work.  In that case each customer receives artwork that is the same as what every other customer receives.  Print portfolios  such as the Sesquicentennial portfolio organized by Andrew Balkan is a prime example.  Another way to appeal to the varied taste of art buyers is the inclusion of multiple artists as seen in the Arts + Literature Laboratory CSA.  The differences between each CSA is a product of tailoring the process to meet the needs of the producer and customer.  

This essay was written by artist Doug Haynes on the occasion of his second art CSA titled 30 Watercolors.  Half of the paintings in this CSA were created in Korea and half were painted in Wisconsin.  The CSA distribution took place on November 10th 2019.   His first art CSA, titled 30 paintings in 30 days took place in October and November of 2013.  

Doug Haynes is an artist living in Madison Wisconsin.  His work can be found at www.emeraldstudio.com and www.newbibleart.com. To contact the artist or request permission to reproduce this image contact haynes@emeraldstudio.com.

Chuck Bauer Breaks New Ground

In this day and age of tired remakes it is refreshing to see an artist break away from a tested and proven skill set.   The latest exhibition of Madison painter Chuck Bauer is a bold departure from his established body of work.   Chuck has for years been a regular presence in the community of  plein air painters in and around Madison, WI.   His work in plein air is fresh and lively in the way that only an accomplished painter can approach the act of direct painting.

Chuck’s work now on display at the Madison Senior Center at 330 W Mifflin St. (near Overture and the Central Library) is a new exploration of neon colors coupled with strong value contrasts and mysterious iconography.   The symmetrical compositions seem like a rebellion against the asymmetrical landscape of a plein air painter.  The imagery of these works evokes an exploration of the inner world of an artist.  They range from visual conversations with the world of art to childhood imaginings of the life of a romantic cowboy.

When the business of art eclipses creativity all efforts converge on  creating a consistently recognizable body of work.  Such a strategy can lead to marketing success, but leaves much growth and potential untapped.  The balance that feeds the artist’s soul and also puts food on the table is a unsolved zen koan on a par with “what is the sound of one hand clapping.”

Wedding Day , Watermedia on paper, 23″ x 30″
by Chuck Bauer

Brovo Chuck!

The struggle is real

I wanted to share a couple of photos which document the uphill battle to make art.   The first image is a list drawn up by my daughter and I of things to do on a day off.

On the other side of the same sheet of paper is an emphatic note from my daughter.

Now if you look closely at the bottom of the list drawing appears to be a late addition to the list.  However it is also violently scratched out.   This all happened over ten years ago when my daughter was young.

The moral of the story is artists beware! Art making is a struggle and sometimes those nearest to you will oppose you.

Chess trophies

 

2020 Chess Trophy

2019 Trophy

2018 Trophy

2017 trophy detail

2017 trophy detail

 

 

For the past few years I have organized a chess tournament at our school.  Each year, I create a trophy out of bits and pieces of stuff.  In 2017 the trophy features a flag that says checkmate.

The students are quite enthusiastic chess players and the trophy is something to recognize that effort.

A golden king at the top.

2016Trophy

2016 Trophy

 

A knight encased in plastic.

IMG_2078

 

2014 trophy

2014 trophy

2013 Trophy

2012 Chess Trophy

2011 Chess trophy

The 2011 trophy had a pawn enclosed in a clear box

 

There should be a 2010 and a 2009 trophy but I do not have a photo.

I think the 2010 one had bird of prey capturing a piece.  The 2009 was a clear plastic pepper grinder that looked like a giant chess piece.

 

Van Gogh’s Missing Journals

Terrance Coffman’s book Van Gogh’s Missing Journals is a fascinating work that sweeps readers back to the late 1800’s through Van Gogh’s eye’s.  The text introduces us to the gritty lifestyle of the farmers, preachers, miners and artists surrounding Van Gogh. The author is faithful to the facts of Van Gogh’s life, but uses the journal format to invent Vincent’s interior thoughts.   I found the work compelling because Coffman, who is also an artist, is able use his own experiences to build a convincing narrative. Coffman draws a clear portrait of of the personalities of Van Gogh’s friends and family. The book takes us to a time when when Van Gogh is not only obscure but also a failure in art, work and love.  Coffman’s text depicts the hard realities of mental illness in Van Gogh’s life. Vincent was also haunted by a stillborn older brother whose name he shared, but the shadows are tempered by tender images of Theo’s love and support as well as Van Gogh’s passion and commitment to his ideals, and art. I was fascinated with accounts of Vincent’s pleasures such as reading (Dickens, the bible…), drinking (absinthe, wine…)and club life (the Moulin Rouge,brothels…).    My reading of the book was enriched by frequently stopping to look up particular paintings or checking what Van Gogh had written to Theo on a particular date. This book is a chance to see the struggles of a great artist in the making.

A link to the book at Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Goghs-Missing-Journals-Terrence-Coffman/dp/1983541559

NPR’s Tin Ear for Net Neutrality

Last night I had a moment of clarity regarding old media and new media.  I was listening to Terry Gross on fresh air, who was interviewing retiring NPR commentator Robert Siegel1.  I had listened to his voice since childhood and as an adult I had come to trust and rely heavily on reporting from NPR.  That feeling of long held trust was quite a contrast to my response to a piece of reporting I has heard on All Things Considered earlier in the evening.  In that story a reporter was attributing the huge number of bonus checks being distributed by Comcast and AT&T to the recently passed tax changes2.  While the tax plan may have been a factor, these two companies mentioned are the beneficiaries of an even more lucrative handout from the government as a result of the recent repeal of net neutrality rules.  The fact that NPR omitted mention of net neutrality in a story that highlights the celebrations of two central figures in that fight was alarming.  One might hope that NPR  would have been leading the charge on informing the public of the net neutrality debate.  While the typical NPR format of presenting two sides of an issue has been tweaked a bit recently to remind listeners that lies regularly emanate from the White House, the format still has reporters  parrot talking points such as “sweeping regulations3”, that do little to shed light on complicated issues.  The use of satire found in new media outlets is a more effective tool in exposing fraud when the political discourse goes off the rails.  In his interview Robert Siegel mentioned comedian John Oliver by name as someone who really did well researched reporting breaking open the issue of net neutrality4.

The takeaway for me is that learning the whole story cannot be as easy as turning on the radio and listening to a trusted voice.  As much as I have loyalty and warm feelings tied to Public Radio, I will definitely need to reflect on what is being said and probably need to dig to see other useful perspectives.   The kicker is that loss of net neutrality could make finding other perspectives more difficult.  The simplification of a narrative for the sake of fitting it into a news time slot has made me deeply skeptical.   I wonder what other stories have or will be distorted by skimming over the facts.

Artists’ Information Superhighway Soon to be a Dirt Road

UPDATE: On 12/14/17 the FCC voted to eliminate net neutrality.

In the near future, the internet could experience a fundamental shift away from the free flow of information, towards a system that requires payment to participate.   While not an overt form of censorship, it has the potential to push many valuable artistic ideas out of the mainstream.  For many talented artists who have undergone the torments of wallowing in obscurity, the deficits of such a system are self evident.

Under the current system, the humble website of a regional artist will load just as fast as any other page on the web. However, if net neutrality rules are suspended, the web will become skewed towards large content providers.  Up until now, regulations have ensured that internet service providers (ISPs) provide the same speed of service to every website.  Thus, net neutrality created a level playing field for large and small content providers.    The rewritten rules will permit priority service for some websites and slow the performance of other sites with artificial bottlenecks.  

Artists add content to the web.

It is expected that ISPs will reformulate their business model to take advantage of the lax regulation.   The first change would likely be to pressure video streaming services such as Netflix or Youtube to pay for speedy content delivery.  This will result in higher fees and more advertisements as well as less bandwidth for small websites.   

 

In a best case scenario this proposal will be rejected.   If that fails and the ISPs gain the ability to throttle speeds at will, one could hope that this becomes a battle of titans where little folks would remain unaffected.  Perhaps even at reduced speeds the slim files that compose an artist’s website will load in a time reasonable to impatient visitors.  

In the worst case scenario, a plethora of ills could spill from this pandora’s box.  ISPs could approach artists to request fees to deliver content at high speeds.  Artists already encounters shakedowns on platforms such as Facebook which solicit money to “promote this post.”   In addition, shady operators might cash in on the public’s uncertainty to promise solutions while delivering only snake oil.   Lack of net neutrality could also accelerate an existing trend towards an aesthetic shaped by what is most likely to draw a click.  While not really a unified artistic school of thought, the web seems to celebrate art that is bizarrely fascinating as well as reward artists creating work linked to a popular figure or rising trend.  In a tiered system, the click-worthy art would likely be put in the fast lane of the internet, while works of more subtle beauty would populate the back alleys.  Artists who have long chafed at the power of artistic elites, may find themselves facing a whole new set of decision makers passing judgement on what gets seen and what is neglected.

A number of factors have lead to this proposal.  The internet’s value as a place to share ideas has been under appreciated and is being overrun by the desires of commerce.  Opponents of net neutrality frame the issue as removing excess government regulation.  This idea is really just legislation catering to companies like AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon who stand to profit enormously and whose push to make this happen make them the second largest lobby in congress.   The current FCC chair, Adjit Pai, is a former Verizon lawyer who has the interests of ISPs close to heart.  When the FCC collected comments online, the process was marred by a flood of millions of comments automatically submitted by bots in opposition to net neutrality.1

On the other side there has been a strong push to preserve net neutrality.  Analysis of online comments collected by the FCC show that of those comments, ones posted by actual humans showcased an overwhelming support for net neutrality.2   Supporters of preserving a level playing field on the internet have framed the issue in a variety of ways.  Some tech giants such as Amazon, Netflix, and Google see it as bad for business or a distortion of their vision of the internet.  Other social justice-oriented groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and Greenpeace take principled stances based on free speech.  Late night comedian John Oliver takes jabs at the underhanded moves of companies that can’t even be trusted to keep their promise to show up and install cable.3  While these diverse perspectives are all valid, a critical population has remained largely silent: artists.  

A decision is expected at the mid-December meeting of the FCC.  Some groups circulate petitions and others advocate contacting your representative in congress.  For those who wish to have their voice heard in this matter, contact members of the FCC board4as well as members of congress5 with a brief polite letter or email.

An internet dominated by those who have the money to spread their content is likely to become uniform and stale.  There is no guarantee that creativity or bright ideas will flourish if they are consigned to a slow speed internet ghetto.

Fairy Garden

Since I was young I have been fascinated by miniatures. This new mini garden has a mountain, river and small village contained within a 3’ diameter.


close_up

Last year when someone left the stand for an outdoor fire pit on the curb, it started me thinking about how to convert it to something useful.  I combined the stand with 2” styrofoam insulation, cut up pieces of electric go-kart, rubber roof material, miniature houses and gutter mesh.  The styrofoam was a base upon which I sculpted terrain out of cut up pieces of go-kart.   In order for the river to hold water, I cut the roof membrane to cut through the middle of the garden.  The gutter mesh is screwed to the terrain to help hold soil in place.   Since the gutter mesh is not that wide, I stitched pieces of it together with electrical wire.  The houses fit though holes cut in the mesh. 

I have planted mostly succulent plants and moss as I wanted the growth to hug the terrain and not overwhelm the scale of the houses.   I added some slate to make a mini path to the houses.   I will be interesting to see how the plantings mature as the season progresses.  This afternoon there were heavy rains which should be helpful for the plants although I got soaked through and through as I was riding home on my bike.

 

The mini garden sits next to the little library.

The mini garden sits next to the little library.