Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Postcard from Interlochen 7: Printmaking Day 2

On day 2 of the printmaking class (Tuesday), I led the participants through different ways of doing colour monoprints, using the subtractive method, the additive method, and combinations of the two. In the afternoon, they started combining monoprints with drypoints cut into aluminum flashing tiles or sheets of duralar. Some of the great results can be seen in the following short slideshow:

If I was going to miss the last two World Cup round of 16 matches, I'm glad it was for this reason.
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Tuesday, June 29, 2010

On a toy drink

From Praeterita

Patty and I went for a drink at a local roadhouse after the first class. I had a Blue Lagoon, which was vodka, blue curacao, schnapps, and seven up. Here in Michigan that means it comes in a pint glass. And they also gave me a toy seahorse, which I am holding proudly in the above picture.

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Postcard from Interlochen 6: Printmaking Class

Yesterday was the first printmaking class at Interlochen. There are four adult students, and it is the inaugural class in the Mallory-Towsley building, a purpose-built facility for the Interlochen College of Creative Arts. It's quite incredible, the facilities they have here: light, airy classrooms, overhead projectors where you can just plug in your laptop to a wall socket and off you go. We did contact monoprints in the first class, both black and white and multi-colour. The print displayed above is a black and white contact monoprint by some student whose name I think is Patty McNair or something. A contact monoprint is so-called because you roll a think layer of ink on a clear sheet of acetate, place paper over the inked plate, and start drawing. When you lift the paper up, you see that the ink has transferred wherever the paper came into contact with the layer of ink.

On Tuesday, we'll do additive monoprint, which is essentially painting with inks on the acetate.

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Monday, June 28, 2010

On walking around Interlochen

Along the road that runs beside the Interlochen campus, banners hang from posts placed about 100 metres apart, each one bearing the slogan ‘Art Lives Here.’ Every time we pass them, Patty says: ‘Who’s Art? And where does he live?’ Of course, it doesn’t really refer to someone called Arthur – unless that person were Arturo Toscanini, perhaps. Because even though Interlochen has a great creative writing program and fine art program, and stunning purpose-made buildings to match, music is still King here. 

As I go out for my morning walk (briskly, 3 pound weight in each hand, Olympic-style weird-wiggle-walk, approximately 4-5 mph) I see the high-school kids emerging from the cabins in the woods and sloping off to their summer camp music programs. When I pass some of the campus buildings, I can hear even at 8 am the sound of a young pianist practising two-handed scales at lightning speed, someone in the percussion building banging a glockenspiel, a clear soprano voice singing a heart-stopping chromatic scale.

In the woods around the lake are dozens of practice cabins, some plain wooden ones with just a chair and a music stand inside, some built from stone with mottos over the doorways and grand pianos inside:

It's a short walk from anywhere on the campus to Green Lake:

And there's nothing like standing on the edge of the water each evening and looking out at the sunset:

I like cities -- a lot. But trees and water can be nice sometimes, too.

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On Kara Walker's 'My Complement . . .'

This week's Meditation is on a recent survey of the work of Kara Walker, an African-American artist who mainly makes gigantic murals from cut silhouettes.
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Sunday, June 27, 2010

On looking through old sketchbooks: 13

Abandoned church, Fayence, France, 1987

“One must always draw, draw with the eyes, when one cannot draw with a pencil.”—Ingres and Balthus.

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Friday, June 25, 2010

Interview with Chicago artist Tom Robinson

When you meet Tom Robinson (, it's like encountering a natural force in its untamed state. There's a warmth and friendliness coupled with a barely-contained energy, which is evident in the many activities that he has been involved with in Chicago, and nationally, for more than 30 years. He is an artist and sculptor who has designed furniture, created many public art projects, and was instrumental in setting up the Chicago Art Open, an annual showcase for the work of Chicago's vibrant and eclectic art scene. I met Tom in his huge new studio and gallery space on the opening night of the show 'Drawing Attention'.

: You work in a variety of media. Do you see common threads or themes when you move between drawing, painting, sculpture, and constructions?

Tom: I work in series and am very procedural, so each piece of work starts independently of the other. I would like to believe each medium eventually peaks into one thing.

: What are you working on at the moment?

: I am currently working on two series of work, plus another project. The first is a series of wood mosaics called “Twins” that I have created over the past 5 years.

They are mirror images of each other. The mosaics are all composed from natural woods, triple glued to a quality plywood base. They are cleat-hung and stand about two inches from the wall. They are totally flat with only a slight curvature to the eyes.

The second series is “After Apnea”. These panels are oil and charcoal on two sheets of 30" x 44" bfk Rives drawing paper. They are executed over portraits that I have drawn on both sides. Some of the old drawings stick out in places. The final size of each piece is approximately 30" x 84". 
Apnea, former “Suicide Girl” and internet sensation, is given a credit on each piece. There are ten pieces in total.

I am also working on a project called “Make Believe”. This is a competition for the Wicker Park/Bucktown Chamber of Commerce to create public art in unrented storefronts in the neighborhood.

: You've curated many exhibitions, both in Chicago and across the USA. How did you become involved in the world of curating and organizing shows?

: I was drafted into the presidency of the Chicago Furniture Design Association in 1984, and I never looked back.

: Which show that you organized are you particularly proud of?

: The Chicago Art Open - 1999.

: You've recently moved to a large studio and gallery space on North Avenue. What are your plans for the gallery?

: I have just signed a 5 year lease. I'm hoping for better economic times so I can develop a regular exhibition schedule. I would like to specialize in shows related to drawing.

: Could you say something about the current show in the gallery?

: It's a show of drawings related to the figure called 'Drawing Attention'. All the work in the show was made by artists attending the weekly life-drawing session here, and it shows a wide range of drawn and painted responses to the figure.

'Drawing Attention' is showing at the Tom Robinson Studio/Gallery, 2416 West North Avenue, Chicago, until June 26th

Postcard from Interlochen 5: Final class

So yesterday was the final meeting of the Interlochen Journal and Sketchbook class. We gave them a lot of time to draw and write:

And they produced entries in their journal/sketchbooks that looked like this:

And like this:

Patty and I gave a craft presentation during which we got all the people attending the conference to try some drawing and quick writing. Then we had put up pictures on the walls of the room where we held our class, and laid out our participants' journal/sketchbooks in an impromptu exhibition for all conference attendees to look at and envy:

Four days is a short length of time, but it certainly produces intensity; and if it isn't enough time to finish a piece of writing, we at least got all of our students started on some truly interesting pieces of memoir and fiction. This Writers' Retreat is growing year by year, and I would recommend that you come along next time if you were thinking about it this year.

Next week, I'll be posting about the printmaking class that I will also be teaching here. And do check back in for the regular schedule of posts about art and being an artist, including a new web-talk Meditation over the weekend about Kara Walker.

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Thursday, June 24, 2010

Postcard from Interlochen 4

Anne Marie reading at final dinner

Postcard from Interlochen 3: Blind contour drawings

Yesterday during the Journal+Sketchbook class, we got the participants to do blind contour drawings of stuff we set up for them in the Great Room. Things such as grapes, crumpled up paper bags, bottles:

And once again, after some initial bewilderment about what they were asked to do (''What! Draw without looking at the page? Draw without lifting the pen from the paper?'), they all produced highly expressive and interesting drawings, as you will see in the following slideshow:

After they draw for half an hour, Patty leads them into a writing exercise. I always show the drawings from these classes, even though this is really aimed at writers - but writers quite rightly don't want their first rough drafts reproduced on someone's blog. So you'll just have to take my word for it when I tell you that the act of moving from drawing and back to the writing often produces new directions in things they're already writing, or starts for completely new material. I guess that all writing workshops will produce this result in some way. Our students, however, remark on the heightened sense of seeing in the writing after they have been drawing. Blind contour drawing in particular forces a kind of slow looking, and meditative losing of oneself in the act of drawing, that seems to unlock sensory perceptions in the minds of writing students.
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Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Postcard from Interlochen 2: Hike and Write

Tuesday afternoon was the annual Writers' Retreat Hike and Write. Program co-ordinator Anne-Marie organises a trip to the Sleeping Bear Dunes shoreline, which overlooks the vastness of Lake Michigan. The idea is that people hike through a forest and up a hill, emerging at the top of the dune. After a short walk along the crest of the dune (which rises to about 200 feet at points), people get the time to sit looking out at the lake in the sunshine, and either write in their journals, continue writing they've already started, or do some drawing:

It was a scorching mid-summer day, which wasn't so great for my pale Anglo-Irish skin. But it was worth frying in the open air for the chance to look out at the lake from my perch up on the sand dune.

On the way back we all visited a local chocolatier called Mimi Wheeler, who makes hand made chocolates from cocoa pods she imports from South America. The choccies are filled with wild ingredients like beetroot, hot chilli peppers, and basil.

Her shop is filled with all kinds of beautiful things relating to chocolate making, including a mould in the shape of a pig:

You can find out more about Mimi's fantastic chocolates at

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Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Postcard from Interlochen College of Creative Arts

I'm at the Interlochen Arts Academy in northern Michigan for the next two weeks. Patty and I have just done our first day teaching the Journal and Sketchbook class to a group of five adults, and it went really well. There are 40 people here for the week. Some are taking our workshop, others are taking workshops in Fiction, Poetry, and Memoir. On Monday afternoon Patty read from some of her published fiction and I gave a video-assisted presentation on my work to the whole group. It took place in the beautiful Writers' Building, which has these enormous pillars made from small rocks:

It's also supported by these gigantic columns made from tree trunks, about five feet in circumference and maybe 25 feet high:

In the evening Anne-Marie Oomen, who runs this writer's retreat, gave a reading from her own memoir:

Even after the first half day, there was a vibrant feeling of shared creativity in the air. All of the people attending have used precious holiday time and paid good money to be here, so they're all excited, willing, and raring to go.

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On looking through old sketchbooks: 12

Street vendor, Havana, 2001

"I draw like other people bite their nails." -- Picasso.

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Monday, June 21, 2010

On a 15th century Aztec Figure in Clay

This week's Meditation is on a piece of clay sculpture by an Aztec artist from c. 1450, and the relation between so-called primitive art and the Western tradition.

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Sunday, June 20, 2010

On looking through old sketchbooks: 11

"But what is your final goal, you may ask. That goal will become clearer, will emerge slowly but surely, much as the draft turns into the sketch and the sketch into the painting through the serious work done on it, through the elaboration of the original vague idea and through the consolidation of the first fleeting and passing thought."

Vincent Van Gogh, Letter to Theo Van Gogh, July 1880.

Free association drawing, marker pen on vellum, 2005

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Friday, June 18, 2010

Interview with Chattanooga artists Janet Chenoweth & Roger Halligan

(L) Jan Chenoweth: 'Graves on a hill', Acrylic on canvas, 24" by 24"                                                             (R) Roger Halligan: 'Fortune Flowers I', 11" x 4.5" x 4.5"                    

When I was in Chattanooga last weekend, I visited a number of artists' studios on the south side, an area that has been transformed in recent years by the arrival of painters, sculptors, glass artists, furniture makers, and other creative people. The two artists who impressed me the most were painter Janet Chenoweth and sculptor Roger Halligan, who have a building near Main Street that combines a large workshop and studio area at the back with a beautiful gallery area at the front. They were kind enough to agree to a joint interview, and I began by asking them to talk about their work.

Philip: Jan, your work has an interesting balance between 2-D elements such as texture, colour, and drawing, and 3-D elements such as jars, found objects, box frames. How did you arrive at this combination in your work?

Jan: Evolution. I have always been drawn to strong colors and textures, I can't remember a time when they have not been part of my art. I keep trying to push my idea of color combinations into new and sometimes very uncomfortable realms for me. It struck me a few years ago that I view everything from many dimensions, it is hard to me to see things as flat, even my 2-D work. Figuring that out really helped me to at least partially understand what I was doing. As far as the objects, cast epoxy, and wood and metal constructions are concerned: I collect objects, architectural fragments, and visual fragments that occur in my daily life. These objects and fragments always move something in me, I am not always sure what or why—maybe reminders of the past or something that I find pleasing. In some cases it may be something that bothers me enough to notice. Just things I have a strong response to or things that stand out from the visual onslaught encountered in daily life. One given in my life is that I love to make things. The newest work brings these elements together in a way that has kept my interest and brings new questions that need answering.

Philip: Roger, similarly how did you develop what I see as a style that combines heavy and light materials, solidity and a sense of playfulness?

Roger: My early sculptures in graduate school at University of Georgia were minimalist, welded and monochromatically-painted steel pieces that were designed to integrate into our environment. There is the old joke that sculpture is what you back into when looking at a painting. So I made sculptures that addressed that. I specifically created pieces to go in corners or that would attach to both the floor and ceiling or that became directional obstacles that would force the viewer to take a certain path in the gallery. I had the sense then and still do now that there is something oddly absurdist about making totally non-functional objects and then placing them in people's space for them to interact with.

Roger Halligan: ,Safety First-Ollie's Buoy' (approx. 7 ft high)

My art changed after grad school when I worked as an exhibit designer for the North Carolina Zoological Park. This was where I found my true voice as an artist, instead of making art I thought I should be making. This newly-formed state zoo hired a team of young artists, including myself, to do exhibit design and construction for its new natural habitat exhibits. We worked collaboratively and developed many techniques for creating hardscape elements found in such exhibits, like artificial trees, rocks etc. The 1400 acre property that the zoo is on is a very old tree-covered mountain filled with outcroppings of native stone. If we were to make the habitats believable we had to mimic the real outcroppings flawlessly. That discipline crept into my personal art when I created a very vertical, rock-like sculpture that seemed delicately balanced on rusted welded steel forms. The apparent contradiction of man-made material, (steel), and an apparently natural material (concrete that looked like stone) intrigued me and the forms struck some Jungian “collective unconscious” nerve that made me research the origin of those forms. For me it was the Neolithic standing stones and other formations found in various parts of the world especially Ireland, Scotland and Cornwall. These forms activate space and designate a unique, meaningful place and are some of the earliest human site specific constructions. They resonate with us. The fact that many of the megalithic stones were carted great distances to their locations fitted right in with my absurdist notions, although I’m sure our ancestors had convinced themselves of the importance of these acts.

Philip: You have exhibited together, and you have a shared studio and gallery in Chattanooga. Have you influenced each other's work at all? I am thinking of the openings in your paintings, Jan, and the openings in your sculptures, Roger, as well as the use of rough textures and strong colours in both paintings and sculptures.

Jan: I know that there are many ways that we influence each other's work. Probably, not all obvious to us, but to other people. I never worked with concrete before I met Roger. It is now a material that I feel I can use when a piece is right for it. As far as openings in paintings and sculptures go, for me that goes back to my work in graduate school. I built architectural structures in which windows and doors played a prominent role. I really love walking through neighborhoods at night, seeing the warm lighted space and interior depth through unclad windows. The openings imply something beyond.

Roger: Jan and I met when I was giving a presentation on my sculpture at the Greenhill Center for North Carolina Art. She got it. That started our relationship and we have been influencing each other and our work ever since. Jan understands color better than any one I have ever met. Her love affair with color is infectious. My sculptures when I met her were in tones of gray and rust. That has changed dramatically. You mentioned openings in our works. Actually we both used openings or negative space before we got together. How we individually used them in the past influences how we use them now. We force ourselves to push in our own directions as much as possible, knowing full well that we are attracted too and influenced by what the other is doing in another corner of the studio.

Philip: What are you working on currently?

Jan: The constructions housing cast objects. There are some multi-object combinations I want to make and some different materials that I have been collecting to cover the boxes with, and I want some of them to be viewed in the round. I also have drawings for some outdoor sculptures that will get made at some point.

Jan Chenoweth: 'Three lucky jars,' wood, casting epoxy, found objects, pigment

Roger: Our move from rural North Carolina to living and working in downtown Chattanooga’s semi-industrial south side influenced changes in the direction of our art. For me the plethora of non-verbal, cautionary symbols gave rise to thoughts about safety and our perceptions of what we should be warned about. Railroad crossings, river buoys, colored striped patterns on signs and stairways crept into my awareness. My new sculptures are part of a series of “Land Buoys” They still contain elements of my older work. I hope they still activate space and designate place but also act as enigmatic directional warnings. Now they not only get in the way of the viewer but they also ask them to decide what they need to be concerned about. 

Philip: When did you move to Chattanooga, and why?

Jan: I have lived in Tennessee twice in my life and I like it. Chattanooga was a place that I drove through on my way to and from visiting my family in Florida. It was always physically beautiful to me: mountains, trees, river, lakes. And importantly, the winter is not very long. We visited Chattanooga seriously in 2006 to decide if we wanted to take advantage of the Allied Arts ArtsMove program. It took a day to decide that we would be stupid not to move here.  It seemed like a perfect fit and it is.

Roger: I first came to Chattanooga in 1983 to deliver a sculpture to the Hunter Museum which was hosting an NEA-sponsored outdoor sculpture exhibition. I distinctly remember downtown Chattanooga as being a pretty run down, inhospitable and somewhat dangerous place to be. I came back again in 1997 to place sculptures at Chattanooga State and do a one-person show at River Gallery’s sculpture garden. The difference in the downtown was astonishing and my negative feelings changed to ones that considered Chattanooga as a great place to live and work.

Several years ago Jan and I short listed a number of places where we might like to live. Our kids were grown and scattered in four different states and three different time zones, and we figured as long as we were near an airport we could probably live just about anywhere. Chattanooga was one of the places we both agreed to put high on our list. It was beautiful, affordable, and vibrant. There was and is an energy and an interest in contemporary art that's not found everywhere.

Philip: What are your plans for the beautiful new gallery space that you have created near Main Street, Chattanooga?

Jan: We do not want to create an ordinary gallery, we do not want the usual commercial gallery. We want to put together shows that we want to see, introduce artists, and show art that is not common in the region. We want to do some very short shows—one or two day exhibitions—as well as longer shows. We have just moved into the studio and gallery spaces and hope to get both in complete working order within the next few weeks. Then we will sit down and schedule exhibitions.

Roger: We both have the feeling we can do whatever the hell we want to with this gallery. We will obviously show our own work but we’re going to let this exhibition space evolve in some organic fashion, doing shows when and how we want to do them. Should be fun!

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Thursday, June 17, 2010

On the brevity of a life

Ten years. That's the entire span of Vincent Van Gogh's life as an artist. I've been dipping into a selection of his letters again, and I had forgotten the following sobering facts: in the Spring of 1880, he decided he wanted to become an artist; by July 1890, he was dead.

The selection of his letters is illustrated with lots of his drawings and sketches. His earliest efforts were really not that good. The best you can say about them is that they are direct and earnest. But his progress in drawing mirrors his phenomenal progress in painting. In ten short years, he went from drawing like this:

. . . to drawing like this:
Only ten years. Just think what you were doing ten years ago. Feel how it seems so close by, so recent. A lot can happen in a decade, of course, but it's still not that long a piece of a human life. Yet Van Gogh accomplished so much during that short career.

He puts to shame all of us who complain about not having enough time in the day to get to the studio, or to fit our work into our 'busy' lives.

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Wednesday, June 16, 2010

On Looking Through Old Sketchbooks: 10

Bass player, Havana, 2001

“Let whoever may have attained to so much as to have the power of drawing know that he holds a great treasure.”—Michelangelo.

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Tuesday, June 15, 2010

On the Hunter Museum of American Art

Audio slideshow interview with Katrina Craven from Philip Hartigan on Vimeo.

This is my first full blog entry after my trip to Chattanooga, Tennessee. I was there to take photos for a travel article that Patty was researching. We were hosted by a superb PR company called Geiger & Associates, who organise press trips to places such as Chattanooga in order to introduce journalists to as much of a particular town as possible in three or four days. For example, on our first full day there, our itinerary was: visit to the Moon Pie factory (a hallowed biscuit/cookie maker); a tour of the aquarium (otters! penguins! more fish than one person could ever eat!); a boat trip up the Tennessee River gorge; a tour of the Delta Queen riverboat; a stroll around the artisans and artists area of Bluff View; dinner; then a walk deep underground in the caves below Lookout Mountain.

I also took the opportunity a few days later to visit Chattanooga's Main Street Arts District, and later I will post some interviews with people I met there. We also went to the Hunter Museum of American Art, where I conducted a short interview with Katrina Craven, the Public Relations & Marketing Director for the museum. I've posted the audio of this 4-minute interview with an accompanying slideshow of images at the top of this post. Apologies for the occasional noise on the audio file.

The Hunter possesses a superb collection of American art from all periods: pre-European, pre-twentieth century, some wonderful mid-twentieth century pieces, and lots of interesting contemporary work. It also has a substantial sculpture collection, which is displayed in and around the museum buildings, and in a nearby sculpture park overlooking the river. The museum and its collections were largely made possible by the donations of generous benefactors, and out of that came a beautiful museum and an indispensable collection of American art. Even an old Socialist like me realises that the art world is sustained by the philanthropy of very rich people. In Chattanooga, the rich are spending their wealth with a keen dedication to the public realm that is not unusual in the USA - not at all - but which is remarkably visible in such a small city. The whole town seems to have been regenerated through culture - not just art, but music and architecture too.

Thanks again to Katrina Craven for giving me a few minutes of her time.

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