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