On Personal Memory and Art-Making
For this exhibit I selected a number of works that reflect memories of my family and hometown. Raised in Seattle, I moved away in my early 20’s, but I have maintained close relationships with family and friends through frequent visits. I live in the Bay Area now, but some part of me works to close the gap between my two homes. I often harken back to people, locations and events that are an integral part of me; these recollections often surface to my awareness and become manifest in my artwork. Hence, the works are my mementos.
Besides the obvious actions of holding a brush and applying paint, an important element of the creative process for me is looking, brooding, mulling, reconsidering. An artist working in her studio has uncharted time and space to herself as she goes about manipulating materials and creating images, and the freedom to make what she wants. As I paint I allow myself to be in an open place where I am as indulgent and intuitive as possible, first loosely setting out the beginnings of a painting with strokes and colors that appeal to me that day. Once I start, the paint and my hand/arm movements lead me to the next stroke. What I see in the marks I make engenders thoughts in a stream of consciousness. I grab from these what feels important, and make marks that represent the feeling-sense that is surfacing. At the same time I am quite in love with the deep colors, the buttery texture of oil paint, the slash of strokes, the surprising areas where one color meets another. I keep going until a scene forms that intrigues me and pushes me onward to define it. It’s exciting (and sometimes frustrating) to watch it unfold and then figure out how to finalize it all.
Memory is a major contributor to stream of consciousness. At times I have wondered if perhaps I am “working out” moments in my life that did not get enough attention while they were happening or that I did not understand at the time. Or, I wish to pay homage to those moments. Much of the urge to create the work is about proclaiming: “I exist. This is me, this is what I have seen, this is my view of the world.”*
Much of my work has been reminiscent of the landscapes of the Pacific Northwest, which I still visit often. Others are keepsakes of family members; I created something for myself that represents them in order to “hold on to them.” The assemblages are obvious: “He Built A Life” (see photo below) and “Glen’s Candies” are for my difficult father, “Little Sylvia’s Dollhouse” for my adored mother. “Two Wildernesses” is a painting honoring my brother, who died at the young age of 65. He loved to hike in the wilderness and when we lost him we were left in our own wilderness. As I mention these creations, see them here in public, I recall and share these loved ones and loved places again.
”….what I do is me, for that I came.” Gerard Manley Hopkins
This series of monotypes was inspired by the obos sculptures that I encountered in Martha Kingsbury’s book George Tsutakawa.1 I had long been familiar with Tsutakawa’s work because I grew up in Seattle where I encountered his fountains and sculptures placed around the city. These arresting, beautiful objects are imprinted on my early memories. I recall being especially fond of the “Fountain of Wisdom,” situated in front of the downtown Seattle Public Library, where I studied as a teenager. Fortunately, the city planners retained this fountain on library property when the new (fabulous) Rem Koolhaas-designed Seattle Main Library was built. I also clearly recall the huge Paul Horiuchi mosaic mural at the Seattle Center during the 1962 World’s Fair. These experiences were part of my very early art education--perhaps “visual education” is more accurate--which includes an appreciation of the Japanese sense of design and balance.
Tsutakawa’s obos sculptures were inspired by rock formations that he saw in Ladakh.* They are markers on a path to show that someone has passed safely; each walker carefully adds a stone to the pile.
In May 2006 I had the opportunity to use a wonderful electric Takach etching press owned by Joan Stuart Ross at Ballard Art Works in Seattle for five full days, and was able to pursue my then new-found interest in monotype. I had taken numerous workshops in the process, but had never had unlimited use of a press. As I set up the studio that first morning, I searched my brain for a theme; the vision that presented itself was a memory of those sculptures in the book about Tsutakawa. Specifically, the teak sculpture, “Obos No.1, 1956” was the initial inspiration and it led me into a process of putting together piled-up and floating ovals, adding varying slants of light; each monotype led to another version of itself. Hence, this series. You could say I have added my own stones to the collections begun by Mr. Tsutakawa.
Still excited about the forms of the obos sculptures, I completed another series of monotypes in early 2012, which I call “Obos Series II.” I continue to work with this theme.
*”Whenever one gets over pass without being afflicted by pass poison or without suffering any other injury or disaster, the gods have been good to him. And so he celebrates the event. He does it in several ways. He builds a pile of stones at the pass—called OBOS in Ladakh and ORIS in Lahul (sic)—and each time a traveler passes that way he adds a stone. And so the piles grow into huge collections. Everyone adds to them.”1 -
1. Martha Kingsbury. George Tsutakawa. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1990.
Marc Ellen Hamel, June 2013
FROM A TALK GIVEN AT THE CALIFORNIA INSTITUTE OF INTEGRAL STUDIES IN OCTOBER 2007 ACCOMPANYING AN EXHIBIT OF MY PAINTINGS AND MONOTYPES.
“RECOLLECTIONS IN COLOR”
I will talk a bit about my artistic process and why I called the show “Recollections in Color.” I considered some other titles: “Painting as Personal Process” and “Lost and Found in Paint,” which are good descriptions of what painting is for me, but Recollections in Color seemed the clearest. Color is my first catalyst; recollection is the rich mind travel that occurs during the process. The artistic process is hard to explain since it is, after all, a nonverbal activity, but there are a few things that can be said. Essentially, I make paintings because it provides an arena where I find moments and work out issues with my inner self and through creation of a real object for the outer world.
Color: the first catalyst! How I love using that thick oil paint drenched in color and the activity of laying it down on canvas to see what happens. What one color looks like next to the other, what one area of color does, layering, changing, making marks…..all of this is an indulgent thrill, really, those first passes are very exciting. I generally don’t start with a plan to make a particular painting or say a particular thing, usually I just start making marks; I will have a feel for use of a particular color, or a particular composition in my mind’s eye. No matter where I start, an intuitive selection process is at play and my mind is accompanied by feeling states; this is an important fascination. It is intuitive work. I try to remain open and go where the color, shapes, marks, composition take me. Seeing what the marks tell me is the next fascination. And that is much of the thrill….the surprise of what appears, what you end up creating.
Composition is also key, I am interested in building a composition on a rectangular or square surface. A painting is a bit like a puzzle, I don’t know where it is going to go, but I trust that I will find out when I get there. I make a puzzle and then I solve it. And as I work, I reflect. When you spend hours alone in the studio, you have lots of time to talk to yourself and observe what ideas, issues, memories surface. I judge and weigh them, noticing what has power; this helps me find my way in a painting and define what the final image will be. These recollections are the second major focus. I will spend a number of sessions on any given painting. During the entire process I am painting over, scraping off, re-doing areas, until it looks “right.” At some point the painting starts to manifest something rather clear to me, as a visual composition or as a story told. When I get near to the end of a painting, I get less indulgent and follow some inborn clarification guideline……so that the story becomes clearer. Sometimes only a few parts of the “first draft” are still intact. In the process, though, much of the painting has shown me what it is about. An area or stroke intrigues me and seems important and powerful, and/or it simply is wonderful to look at. And those images will probably stay. Or, I may have a realization that the painting is actually “about” something else and I need to alter some part of it. The final painting will offer a balance of both a worthy visual offering and a subtext. In fact, I could probably talk about each painting and tell a viewer something about what went on during its making and what it means to me. But all this talking and arguing back and forth with myself is not necessary for the viewer, though I hope the final product has some resonance and presents a fascinating place for you to visit.
One of the biggest AHA! moments I had was when I realized: Oh, I see, I am a limited human being, I will not always know what works in a painting immediately and that is OK, in fact that should be expected. As I bring myself back to the work a number of times over a span of time, I am bringing more of my intelligence and intuition to a piece than if I finished an image in one day. This is not the ONLY way, as sometimes you are in a space where some little piece of yourself comes out on the paper or canvas in front of you and it has quite a punch just as it is. Sometimes beautiful messages arrive and you have to know: it’s a keeper! It can be the years you have concentrated on your craft that you make a piece without much effort. You must trust the process and keep coming back and be as present as you can to become the fine arts craftsman you hope to be. And you must learn to accept the visions you create.
Essence is a good word for an artwork. A painting is an essence of time or place, rather like recalling a song. You may recall how you can hear a memorable song from a particular time in your life and as you float in the reverie of the tune, you almost feel yourself set down in that time again and it can create a very strong mood. It then serves as a marker for who you were at that time, how you saw your world. I hope to do that same thing with a painting, create a mood perception.
For instance with “A Day at the Lake,” rather than being a straightforward “illustration,” this painting is about the essence of a day spent at the lake. There’s water (blue), sun (yellow) lively fun (green) and passion (red); broad areas of color and small touches. I remember the looseness and joy of those days as a child – out of the house, out of school, lounging on the lakeshore, dashing into the water. And a reassured quality: the comfort of mother sitting nearby. It is a specific beach for me, but it doesn’t have to be. It is about a day at the lake.
People are often curious about how a painting gets made……I am often asked “how long did it take you to make that painting?” I could be smart aleck-ey and say, “oh, about 30 years” (meaning all the time in my life that I concentrated on image-making, leading up to the days I worked on this piece). Instead, I like to compare it with writing. Imagine a person writing a poem. First they work on it with all their usual intensity for a number of hours or days and now have an emotive, functioning combination of words sitting on the paper that gets close to a reasonable expression. Well, they don’t typically type that up, do a spell check, and send it off to the publisher, who then says “gee, thanks, it will be in the next issue.” Most of the time a writer will go away from their poem/article or work on something else, re-visit that piece a number of times, scratch a lot out, frequently ending by using just a couple of lines or images from the first draft. When you return to a creative effort over time, you look afresh and notice things you might not have seen the first time. What you are doing is bringing more of yourself to the piece and reviewing it from a slightly altered perspective: using the parts of you who are in charge on Tuesday of one week then the parts of you who are showing up to live your life two weeks later on a Friday, for instance.
I’d like to talk a little about the idea of “being an artist.” I have made art all my life, beginning with assignments in elementary school and crafts as a teenager. I include in this when I was a tween-age baker making frosted cakes --- how I loved the look of those beautiful tinted icings; oil paint reminds me of it. In elementary school, we were encouraged to draw and tell stories about our pictures; I hope we all had these early art experiences. Throughout adolescence and college years I explored watercolors at my desk or took public drawing classes here and there, and later spent many semesters in art school at the University of Washington. I cannot say, as many do, “I always knew I was an artist.” Rather, looking back, I see that I was simply “in my element” when making things, drawing, painting; it was where I felt interested, challenged, excited.......though I could not have said so at the time. In fact, it has only been in the last 10 years or so that I don’t feel as if I might be overreaching to say “I am an artist.” But then, my life has been marked by self-doubt, which I have decided is ultimately a rich thing, not a sad thing. If I had been quite sure of myself at all times, I might not have searched as I did......and the search is what keeps us lively.
A FAVORITE QUOTE
Another way to talk about my work is with this quote from Robert Bly; I have it pinned to the wall of my studio among with quotes from many other writers and artists: "When we speak habitual thoughts, we notice they seem soaked in darkness like logs that lie for years on the lakeside, sometimes entirely sunken and sometimes half out of the water.”
The “Recollections” in my paintings are the “habitual thoughts” he talks about. My paintings are gifts to myself and from myself. And I see them also as gifts to the viewer.
Marc Ellen Hamel, November, 2007