Sunday, March 27, 2016

How to Push the Envelope

If you've ever felt stuck, like you're basically just doing the same painting/collage/sculpture (or whatever) over and over again, you're not alone. Once you find a technique, style, or process that's successful for you, it's easy to get stuck in a rut. It works, and you feel comfortable with it. If it ain't broke, don't fix it, right?

This is usually when a little nagging voice inside my head starts picking and poking at me, going, "too safe, too much the same, too easy." I want to be brave, and innovative, to do something new. I want to push myself beyond where I am now, into more unfamiliar territory, to improve and grow as an artist. This is generally way more easily said than done. Humans are creatures of habit, and old habits die hard. So how do we force ourselves to press forward, to abandon what's safe and familiar, to get, for lack of a better word, better?

So here are some ideas I've come across over the years for getting out of that rut. I proffer no guarantees here, but you might find some of them worth trying. 

1)  Brainstorm at least ten ideas, then throw the first ten away.
This really makes you think outside the box. It sounds crazy, but by the time you get to #11, you are so far outside the box, you don't even know where it is any more.  Scary. You are starting to come up with ideas that also sound crazy, and are unlike anything you've thought of before. Try one of the ideas that feels like you are really reaching, and see what happens; you may just amaze yourself.

This assemblage/sculpture/book, called Indigenous, consisted of a wooden box with rocks as 'pages' onto which plant parts and seeds were glued. The rocks had holes in them, and were hung on sticks which went through the holes and into the back of the box. Ironically, they were literally in a box  (haha!), but rocks as pages with plants parts glued on was pretty far removed from anything I'd done up until that time.

2)  Make 50 pieces in one weekend.
This is completely insane, right? At least, that's what I thought when I was given this assignment in graduate school. Not possible. Can't be done. Of course, everyone in the class was freaking out. My logic was, since I highly doubted that I could draw or paint 50 pieces from scratch, to take a shortcut and use what I already had. I pulled out a bunch of old monotypes and started tearing and cutting them apart, then got out the glue and started making collages seven by seven inches square as fast as I could. I did manage to make 50, and some of them were pretty bad. But, much to my surprise, some were really beautiful. This exercise became the beginning of my still-ongoing Transformations series, and my first real foray into collage.

 Transformation 12

Transformation 10

3)  Switch mediums.
Self-explanatory, right? If you normally work in oils, switch to pastels; if you usually do black and white ink drawings, try colored pencils. If you're a collage artist, try linocuts or monotypes. This is guaranteed to force you to change your process, even if you stick with your usual subject matter.

 Air Mandala
Back in my undergrad days, I was working in pastels and colored pencils. I then took a printmaking class, and my work changed drastically. With printmaking, you never know exactly what you're going to get (like a box of chocolates) until you pull the print.  No minute, detailed planning with monotypes; instead, I was forced to learn to give up some of the control, and it was probably the best thing that could have happened to me.

Olivine Angel, monotype with mixed media

4)  Switch sizes.
This can make a huge difference in how you work; the greater the change in size, the more you will have to adapt. I went from making pieces that averaged about 15 by 22 inches (half the size of a sheet of Rives BFK) to doing a series of 3.5 x 3.5 inch abstract pieces I called "Seed Mandalas". This series also represents a change in medium, as I was using acrylic inks for the first time.

 Seed Mandala 15
Seed Mandala 1

Seed Mandala 4
Working very small really makes you pare your composition down to the basics. You have to think in terms of what's essential, and leave out the rest. It forces you to simplify in a way that working larger does not. By the same token, it totally changes your perception if you experiment with making art much larger than you normally would.

5)  Limit materials.
If you limit your materials in some way, you have to expand your thinking. This is easy to do if you're a mixed media artist. For instance, you could limit yourself to using only magazine cut-outs, or only decorative papers, or only vintage ephemera. If you're a painter, limit your color palette to black and white, or to shades of the same color, or choose 3 colors and use only those.

 The Pink Dress


When I began doing my weekly quick collage series, it was mainly a no-pressure way to use up scraps that were laying around after I had finished a large piece. I decided that I would do one each week, utilizing only the materials that were scattered over my drafting table and floor. This forced me to combine things in a way I probably wouldn't have if I'd allowed myself access to all my materials.

6)  The George Costanza method.
This is probably my favorite one, only because it cracks me up. If you are a Seinfeld fan, you may recall the episode where George's life is basically in the the toilet - he has no job, no money, and lives with his parents. Nothing he tries seems to turn out right. So he decides that since whatever he normally does is wrong, he will do just the opposite of what he thinks he should do. I'm not sure exactly how this applies to art-making; you'll have to do a little creative thinking here. Perhaps if you would normally start by carefully putting everything in place before gluing it down, so instead just glue down the first thing you see and go from there?

That's what I did with this piece, and it's not bad, I think, though certainly different from the pieces that are more carefully thought out. I did learn from it, though. Only you can decide what to do the "opposite" of, and what that consists of for you. Or, just laugh at the video and do what you want!


Monday, March 21, 2016

Weekly Quick Collage: Connections

collage, 5 x 5.5 inches

“It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one destiny, affects all indirectly.”
                                                                                                  ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.

“We cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow men; and among those fibers, as sympathetic threads, our actions run as causes, and they come back to us as effects.
                                                                                                             ~ Herman Melville

“We are like islands in the sea, separate on the surface but connected in the deep."                                                                                                                                                 ~ William James                                                                        

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Healing Mandala

Have you ever made a piece of art that completely baffles you? I made this piece back during the winter, and I just have no idea what to think of it.  It's not really like anything else I've ever made, and when I look at it, I could almost believe it was made by someone else. It's a strange feeling. I really can't decide if I even like it or not, and I was very hesitant to show it to anyone. It just kind of sat there; I'd look at it every once in a while and think, "Do I like it now?" A clear answer never came to me. What I needed was to hear what someone else thought - a bit of helpful criticism. So anyway, here it is.

Healing Mandala, version 1

So how it came about is this: I was going through a terrible time, and a dear friend sent me these four flowers that had been used in a Buddhist healing ceremony - they're the large flowers that look almost transparent. I couldn't believe they survived the mail without being broken. I thought for some time about what to do with them, and decided to use them in an artwork that would be dedicated to healing. A mandala seemed like the perfect thing.

I glued the two book pages onto a piece of multi-media board, then cut out a piece of lace to put in the center.  I stitched around the center part of the lace, and hated it, but let it be for now. I glued on the ash seeds and the healing flowers. I found a print on fabric I had done in a workshop, and cut parts of it out to glue around the periphery, and put in the maple seeds to connect them to the center part of the piece. I placed the purple flowers in the corners. Then I let it sit around for a while, not knowing what I wanted to do with it.

Finally, since I couldn't remove anything, I started adding more things to it, one at a time. As long as I wasn't satisfied, I thought, well, what have I got to lose?  I made sort of a circle of marks with gold crayon, and liked it it, but decided to add stitching. I glued the hydrangea petals over the lace, and painted them with gold ink. Then came the gold crayon over the lace - it was just too white - and the stitches. Finally, the magnolia petals, and the feathers.

Healing Mandala
9.5 x 14 inches
ingredients: antique book pages, vintage lace, gold metallic crayon, gold ink, hydrangea petals, ash seeds, magnolia petals, sacred Buddhist healing flowers (no idea what they're called), maple seeds, purple flowers (no idea what they are - found them in an old book), relief prints on cloth, feathers, stitching

So there it is, and I'm still not sure if I like it. Guess I'll put it away again for a while...

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Weekly Quick Collage: Being Human

Being Human
The bottom line is: We must be working on arriving at the destination for which we were put on this planet. Yehuda Berg
Read more at:
collage, 7.5 x 5.5 inches
The bottom line is: We must be working on arriving at the destination for which we were put on this planet. Yehuda Berg
Read more at:
The bottom line is: We must be working on arriving at the destination for which we were put on this planet. Yehuda Berg
Read more at:
The bottom line is: We must be working on arriving at the destination for which we were put on this planet. Yehuda Berg
Read more at:
The bottom line is: We must be working on arriving at the destination for which we were put on this planet. Yehuda Berg
Read more at:
Follow what you are genuinely passionate about and let that guide you to your destination. Diane Sawyer
Read more at:

Lately, I started thinking about what it means to be human. It's one of those questions that just seems to bring up more questions than answers. If we look to our DNA to find the answer, we find that it is 98.4% identical to that of a chimpanzee.  In fact, some scientists believe that all life originated from the same one-celled organism, based on the fact that, "All species in all three domains share 23 universal proteins, though the proteins' DNA sequences—instructions written in the As, Cs, Gs, and Ts of DNA bases—differ slightly among the three domains." (All Species Evolved From Single Cell, Study Finds", by Ker Than, for National Geographic News). It seems clear that we are only one of the many life forms on this planet, and are somehow deeply connected to them all.  We are of this Earth.

"Experiencing our full humanity requires us to attenuate our self-centeredness by enfolding it within a much wider sense of self in which we experience genuine love and compassion for all beings, both living and non-living. There are many names for this wider, deeper self, which is our deepest level of consciousness. My preference is for Arne Naess’s term ecological self because it suggests that the wider self is not some insubstantial, ethereal intellectualization, but rather deeply rooted in the very materiality of our planet—in its teeming biodiversity, its ancient crumpled continents, its swirling atmosphere, and the depths and shallows of its lakes, rivers, and oceans. Thus, the ecological self is not only the human self—it is also the Self or soul of the world, the anima mundi, that awakens us to our full humanity when we know, palpably, in our very bones, that there is a selfhood far vaster than our own in which we live and have our being, and to which we are ultimately accountable. C.G. Jung succinctly gives us a taste of this when he says that 'At times I feel as if I am spread over the landscape and inside things, and am myself living in every tree, in the splashing of the waves, in the clouds and the animals that come and go, in the procession of the seasons.'" (What Does it Mean to be Human? by Stephan Harding)

So what makes humans different from our fellow beings? It was once widely accepted that only humans used language, though it now appears that that's not the case. Are we the only animals with self awareness? The only ones with emotions? It seems that's not true either; I'm not going to bore you with more scientific articles, but experiments appear to prove that elephants, dolphins, primates and some birds are self-aware, and many would argue that they indeed experience emotions.

 “It still hurts, but life is supposed to hurt. Too many people think life is supposed to be easy and perfect all the time. But there is always some hurt. It's part of being alive. You have to accept it's a piece that every single person carries. It's what makes us human.”
― Katie Kacvinski, Still point

I really didn't know where to begin to answer this question. Obviously, there are many answers, depending on one's focus and point of view.  In my research, I found that there really is no one theory that is generally agreed upon; rather, of course, it's more of a philosophical question.  Is it spiritual awareness that makes us human? Our ability to use symbols and think abstractly? To be creative? Our capacity to look at the big picture and see beyond ourselves?  Or is it the ability to think within the moral framework of "right" and "wrong"?

“Every age has its own way of mythmaking. Ancient Egypt had its myths, the Sumerians and the Assyrians, the Christians and the Muslims, the North and the South -- the style of creating myths always varies. What myths are being created as a shelter even in the chaotic atmosphere of today! Until doomsday humanity will create these shelters. What else could people do when they come from one darkness and travel to another? And with so much deprivation? Man remains man so long as he dreams.”
― Yasar Kamal

This whole exploration has left me with a lot to ponder. For me, I feel I can better express what I feel about being human visually than I can in words, because the whole question goes beyond words into a realm even more symbolic and abstract. I hope my ramblings and collage give you something to think about, or resonate with you in some way.

Best wishes and love to you all, my fellow humans, and to all beings that share this planet with us.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Storytelling With Collage

If you happen to follow me on facebook, you'll know that my work appears in Roxanne Evans Stout's new book, Storytelling With Collage: Techniques for Layering, Color and Texture. I'm extremely excited and honored to have my work included in this beautiful book, along with the work of so many talented artists. I haven't yet posted the piece by itself, and I thought now would be a good time to share it.

From A Far Country
mixed media collage, 9.25 x 15.50 inches

To read the story that goes with this piece as well as many others, you can order the book from Amazon here. The book is loaded with great ideas, instruction on various techniques, and truly scrumptious artwork and photographs to look at.

Thanks to Roxanne Evans Stout for her graciousness, and for making the process so easy and enjoyable!