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More teaching

These photos are from some classes I am teaching at Lill Street Art Center, a venerable institution on the north side of Chicago. I got to know about this warehouse-sized collection of artist's studios and fully kitted-out ceramics, painting, and printmaking facilities more than ten years ago, shortly after I moved to Chicago from the UK. At that time, if you were someone like me who was looking to make some work quickly before acquiring my own studio, people told you about the Chicago Printmakers' Collaborative and Lill Street. I used the CPC for a few years, then got my own studio. In 2011, I took a short ceramics class at Lill Street. And starting a few weeks ago, I began teaching my first classes there.
The first class was a one-day intensive in Monoprints (bottom photo). The other class is a three week Journal and Sketchbook class, and in the photo you can see the participants spending an hour adding colour, collage, cut-outs, and other things to their journal pages. The…

Visit to an Artist's Studio: Rita Grendze

Rita Grendze has a studio at Water Street Studios in Batavia, Illinois. It's in a beautiful sandstone building near the Fox River, in an area of similar buildings that have been converted into studios and spaces for artists, designers, small contemporary businesses, and so on. Rita's space is on the small side, but it's full of light and has everything an artist needs, such as a comfortable chair.

Her work is object-based, mainly involving the transformation of found objects or pre-existing materials into new configurations, the better to bring out their semantic relations to one another, or perhaps to stumble upon new meanings.


The work in progress that was attached to the wall when I visited was made up of old music scores, rolled up and tied together to make a structure that looks like a giant molecular diagram. The age of the paper means that it has a pleasant ivory colour, which makes the sculpture/piece seem more solid and marble-like.


You can find more information …

Talking about Vincent Van Gogh

A few nights ago I finished reading the mammoth 900 page biography of Vincent Van Gogh from 2011, written by Stephen Naifeh and Gregory White Smith. It took about two weeks, and in the middle of that period I was invited to talk about VVG to a group of students at the Interlochen Arts Academy in northern Michigan. Jeff Wescott, a friend who teaches there, runs a biography class, and they are due to read and discuss Van Gogh's letters soon.

Sidenote: Jeff got Misty Copeland, the amazing ballet dancer, to talk to the same class a few weeks earlier about her recently published autobiography. As the following photo shows, she is also jaw-droppingly gorgeous, so I felt sorry that the same students had to endure my mug after spending time with this:


Be that as it may, it was fun to reflect on how Van Gogh has affected me as an artist, going all the way back to me teenage years. I was fourteen when an art teacher introduced me to his work. For years I had a reproduction of one of VVG…

Indianapolis Art Museum, Part 2

Unlike most of the rest of humanity, I'm not that keen on Marc Chagall's work. But a nice little coincidence occurred after I saw this painting in the IAM:


A few hours after we left the museum, we arrived in Zionsville to have dinner. I saw a small independent bookshop on the quaint old high street, and popped in to make a small purchase, as I almost always do in such situations in order to support real bookshops. The first book that I pulled off the shelf was a 1968 edition of A Coney Island of the Mind: Poems by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. I opened it up to see if it was worth buying, and the first poem I saw was this:

Don't let that horse
                 eat that violin
    cried Chagall's mother
                         But he
                 kept right on 
                                     painting

It goes on in similar fashion. Not a great poem by any means, but as we say in England: What are the chances of that happening, eh?

So of course I bought the book, and recon…

Indianapolis Art Museum, Part 1

I've heard about how great the Indianapolis Art Museum is, but I had to wait until October 2014 to find out for myself in person. I spent a few hours there, which is generally enough when looking at a lot of art, though I could easily have gone back a couple of times again to see all the galleries I missed.

I started in the Post-Impressionist section, where they have some outstanding examples from the Pont Aven school, including a room of prints by an American member of the group, Roderic O'Connor:


This painting by Emile Bernard, Breton Women with Seaweed, is extremely advanced for 1892 -- look at how abstract the shapes are:

One wall with three paintings is reason enough to visit the museum: a Cezanne, Gauguin, and Van Gogh side by side, showing the common interest in landscape, use of colour, and broken brushstrokes:




The Van Gogh was particularly well-lit, from above, so you could see how thickly the paint was applied:


Next post: Early 1900s and Cubism

Visit to an artist's studio: Lynn Basa

Last Friday I spent a few hours in the studio of Lynn Basa. Her studio is a storefront space in a building that once housed an eastern European-immigrant sausage maker -- an apt history for a contemporary artist.
Our conversation ranged widely: current studio work, artist's block, the problem of changing your direction when your recent direction is in quite high demand, what represents good public art, the demands of an MFA program, how Andy Warhol influences the current generations of young success-hungry internet-obsessed artists. 
Lynn has a successful career as a public artist, with ongoing commissions in Baltimore and Chicago. She wrote a book a few years ago called The Artist's Guide to Public Art: How to Find and Win Commissions, which I think was how her name first came to my attention. Facebook, of course, provided the final bridge. Her studio work currently involves making these gorgeous images from combinations of spontaneous, gestural accumulations of materials an…

Talented Students

My wife Patty and I went up to Interlochen in northern Michigan last weekend, to teach a two day workshop at their facility for adult programs. In the hallway, I saw some works by students from the high school Arts Academy which really caught my eye for their skill. That portrait, above, has a great awareness of tonal harmony, don't you think? That, plus the observational skill, the nice mark marking (flat brush for the block shapes, thinner brush for the lines) ... if I were this student's teacher, I'd have given them an A.
Similarly, this more abstract looking painting of a lighted window at night has great brushwork, and a developed sense of how to make a painting with just a few colours. Considering the artists were teenagers, I was extremely impressed. I could definitely imagine hanging one of these in my own home.

Visit to an artist's studio: Josh Garber

I attended a gathering in the studio of sculptor Josh Garber about a week ago, and this piece caught my eye.
It's a wild, free form accumulation of the cheapest, throw-away materials, wound round tree branches and taped any old way to hold them into place. The list of materials on the caption to the first photo suggests that they might be a classic representation of what an artist wears, eats, and drinks nowadays (with the exception of electrical wire, perhaps). If you follow the link to his website, then look again at this new work, you'll see that it's a departure from previous work. But the more I look at it, the more I see the relation to Josh's other sculptures. His public art pieces may be made from aluminum, but they have the same looping and winding forms, and the appearance of material that may be hammered into the forms, or exploding outward from them. Notice how this trash sculpture similarly appears to be lifting up and pushing outwards.
He hasn't dec…

Visit to an artist's studio: Doug Frohman

Doug Frohman is an artist whose studio is upstairs from mine at the Cornelia Arts Building in Chicago. He makes abstract paintings on canvas and panel, usually at least 48" x 48" upwards in size, which are an absorbing combination of all the ways a painter can make a mark on a surface. He takes paint and he brushes it, lightly and roughly, thickly and thinly, he scrapes the paint off and relays it, he uses a knife and a rag. When he's covered the whole surface, he goes at it again, and again, putting down one small area next to or over another small area until the whole picture finally emerges from this accumulation of stuff. The overall tonality and visual effect of his paintings is like Sean Scully, the difference being that Scully's "blocks" are often larger.

After Doug spoke about his paintings for a while, he said something that might be a profound way of describing this process. Or it might not be. But it probably is.
He said:
"When the picture c…

Visit to an Artist's Studio

Actually, this was a visit to a studio used by two artists: John Schettino and Sheri Wills, who are currently enjoying a month-long residency at the Ragdale Foundation in Lake Forest, Illinois. John makes sculptures, Sheri makes film/photography based work. During August they collaborated on works which they showed in a temporary exhibit in a beautiful purpose-built studio building. The floor to ceiling windows offered stunning views of the expanse of wild prairie that stretches for many acres west of the residency buildings: trees, wildflowers, grass as high as your shoulders. The art inside the building seemed at first to be a response to this environment. John's sculpture was an assemblage of tree branches found outside, suspended from the ceiling by monofilament wire along with a framework of thin wood strips. Sheri's piece consisted of a darkened box containing a slide projection of images of trees, rivers, glades, the images being rear-projected onto a crumpled piece of …

Restoring my Printing Press

I've just finished restoring and assembling my large etching press -- a six week process involving lots of rust removal, scrubbing with steel wool, and repainting. Here is a photo of the same kind of press from the Chicago Printmakers Collaborative:


And here is a short YouTube video of me testing the press, making sure the motor still works after nearly seven years of lying in storage:


At the Detroit Institute of Art, Part I

Two weeks ago, I made my first visit to the Detroit Institute of Art to see a collection that has to be described as 'fabled.' My first art history class was in my teens, and some of the very first pictures my teacher made me look at and consider are housed in the DIA, and here I was, many decades later, finally getting to see them for the first time. The collection is also great enough to catch the rapacious eyes of the city's bankruptcy manager, so perhaps this might be the last opportunity I get to see the collection in one place.

The first painting that caught my eye is this one:


Clearly the Renaissance (perspective, depth of planes, rounded modelling of figures, close attention to the detailed surfaces of things), probably from the Low Countries, good enough to be by Van Eyck or an earlier master. But the painter is virtually anonymous, known only by the name "Master of the Embroidered Foliage." So what is decoration, and is it more than just patterning on …

On the Need for Drawing

Yesterday evening, I took some Neocolor pastels and a sketchbook out onto the deck behind the apartment to draw for a while:


It dawned on me that I haven't sat down to draw for any length of time in more than a month, and that's too long for any artist of whatever stripe. Even if these drawings don't make it into any studio work, it's important to do it anyway, just to keep the hand and the eye working together. Here is the same drawing after working on it for a bit longer:


Clouds, light, and trees, in case you were wondering, using mainly lines rather than tone.

Visit to an Artist's Studio: Amy Crum

A few days ago, I visited the studio of artist Amy Crum, in her home near the Chicago River. We sat for over an hour next to a window with a view of treetops and plants, looking at her recent work spread out on the floor around us. She's recently returned to making art after a long break, and what she's been doing are collages with some ink and paint additions, all on letter-sized paper. The collage originates in vintage newspapers and magazines from Europe, which gives the overall tone of her pieces a subdued, cool, look. You can spot all kinds of individual objects and stylistic pattern in the source material (flowers, letters, clothes) but each piece is clearly about the abstract pattern of Amy's arrangement of these bits and pieces. They all occupy an elongated space in the middle of the paper, either vertically or horizontally, and the forms spiral out and back in on themselves repeatedly, no matter which side you see them from. It reminded me of looking at the patte…

Restoring my big printing press

I am currently working on restoring my large Dickerson printing press to a working state. This mainly involves removing a heavy deposit of rust on the steel rollers, which built up as a result of the press lying in storage and not sufficiently protected from the elements. I've taken lots of advice and tried different cleaning agents and methods, including:

Going straight at the rust with steel wool.
Brushing on a combination of vinegar and lemon juice, then rubbing with steel wool.
Wrapping the rollers overnight in aloominum foil.
Coating the rollers in a strong rust removing agent.
None of these have really been satisfactory. The only thing that seems to have worked so far is to soak some rags in a mixture of distilled vinegar, mineral spirits, and baking soda, and wrapping the rollers in the rags for a few hours. I then use steel wool on the residue, which comes away pretty easily. You can see the difference in the following photos between the rusted and the cleaned parts:



The diff…

Printing an edition

Yesterday in the studio I took one of the acrylic resist experiments and printed an edition from it. It's the 'Boxer and factory' image, on which I took an old copper plate, coated it with Lascaux hard resist, and did a mixture of carborundum/pastel ground collagraph, and drypoint:


I wanted to do an edition to see how well the material on the plate and the lines drawn into the resist would hold up to the pressure of a printing press. Below are six of the eight prints I took from it:


Two others were good prints, but the colour came out slightly different. My conclusion? I could probably get maybe ten uniform and good quality prints from the plate before the carborundum would start to be rubbed away. If I needed a big edition, I would probably have to look at sealing the surface of the plate more, but 6-10 prints is a good size for a small edition.

Now it's back to watching the World Cup...

Commemorating A Wartime Disaster

An Explosive Read

I’ve never been a soldier, and I’ve never wanted to be a soldier. I was a staunch pacifist beginning in my teens, though I modified that later when I read more about the history of the Second World War. But WWII remains, for me, the single war of the twentieth century and the first part of the twenty-first that I think was justifiable, worth fighting, and that I would have volunteered for. Every other war – at least, the wars initiated by European and American governments – I believe to be absolutely unjustifiable in terms of a direct threat to the security of the nation, and that they were started for mainly political and ideological reasons rather than as a response to the sort of existential threat posed by the Nazis.
I hold these beliefs despite the fact that both my parents were in the British Army in the 1960s, and that many of my memories from my first five years of life are of army bases, military housing, a father in uniform. In other words, I have contradictory impulses on th…

I just finished teaching a monoprint class

Last week, I went to the Interlochen College of Creative Arts to teach a 3-day intensive course in monoprint printmaking to a group of 6 adults. A monoprint is a type of print you make by painting or rolling ink onto a surface (a metal plate or plexiglass, for instance), manipulating the ink in different ways, then pressing paper onto the plate and applying pressure, either by hand-rubbing or a printing press. You usually only get one print at a time this way, hence the name "monoprint." (Strictly speaking, there is a difference between a monotype and a monoprint, but I'm not terribly purist about that.)

It was a great class, very tiring for all concerned, but we got some great prints out of it. On the first day, we spent some time outside making contact monoprints while doing some blind contour drawing:


Here are a few prints from that session:



The next photo shows a plexiglass plate on the bed of my portable printing press, the image painted freely with Akua intaglio i…