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Painted Macaroni: Artists Recall the First Piece They Made as a Child

A few years ago, I ran a series of more than 30 artist interviews on my blog called Six of the Best (click the link to jump into the series). Some of the best responses came from asking each artist this question: What's the first ever piece of art you remember making? In this post and the previous post, I've collected some of the most interesting answers. Click on each artist's name to find out more about their work.

Luis Roca: A painted macaroni piece of my left hand on green construction paper in kindergarten.

Tim McFarlane: The very first piece of art that I remember making was a cardboard figure of a man made out of a shoebox that my mother had. I was probably seven or so and that was the first thing that I put together by myself, using only my imagination. I remember it being a very spontaneous act: I pulled the box out from a bottom drawer in my mothers bureau, started cutting it up with scissors and wound up with a rough, squared off approximation of a figure. I don’…

Monsters and Fighter Jets: Artists Recall Their First Piece of Childhood Art

A few years ago, I ran a series of more than 30 artist interviews on my blog called Six of the Best (click the link to jump into the series). Some of the best responses came from asking each artist this question: What's the first ever piece of art you remember making? In these posts, I've collected some of the most interesting answers. Click on each artist's name to find out more about their work.

Donna Hapac: As a child – maybe 5 or 6 years old – I decided I wanted to make a series of related pictures of a swimmer, like in a storyboard or film strip. I took a length of toilet paper which was already divided into squares that suited my idea and I drew it with crayons.

Seth Friedman: Until I was 38, I never tried making anything that might be called art.  In 2008, thanks to severe malaise and my wife's constant prodding, I carved a rock from our backyard. I am still amazed that (a) the result did not suck, and (b) the waking door to my recurring dream (a house under the …

A Great Bookbinding Resource

Throughout the year, one of the classes I teach most frequently is how to make artist's books (accordion folds, how to glue decorative paper correctly to cover boards, various stitching methods). One of the best resources I have found, and which I pass on to all my students, is this YouTube channel:

The person's name is Jennifer, from Scottsdale Arizona, and under her YouTube name of Sea Lemon she posts many professionally produced videos with detailed step-by-step instructions for bookbinding methods, such as coptic stitch, saddle stitch, long stitch, and more.

Victorian Iron and Georgian Stone

I went back to England last week to attend my mother's 80th birthday. My home town of Newcastle is located about 300 miles north of London on the north-east coast, close to Scotland. It was one of the boom towns of the industrial revolution, with mighty coal mining and shipbuilding industries. The merchants who amassed great fortunes spent some of their wealth on public building, leaving a legacy of impressive architecture that looks better than ever these days, thanks to the clean-up that came along with the post-industrial urban renewal.

The above photo shows the roof of Newcastle Central Railway Station. It was built in 1850, and architect used an 'arch and nave' design supported by cast-iron columns and hoops. This kind of framing, with glass roof panes, is reflected at smaller stations all around Tyneside. The street entrance of the station is a classical design of arches and pavilions in sandstone. This is also the style of Newcastle's elegant Grey Street:

It wa…

I Receive Visitors

I hosted a group of about forty people in my studio this week. They were visiting several studios in my building as part of Art Encounters, a group that organizes tours of artists' studios in the Chicago area. The group leader, Joanna, led a sensitive and thoughtful discussion of my work.

Almost all my business cards and postcards disappeared, so there may be future sales arising from the visit. But aside from that, it was good to talk about this new body of work for the first time and to receive such positive responses to it.

Student Success

If there's one thing that's nicer than teaching a printmaking class to engaged and talented adults, it's when one of those participants submits a print made in the class to a competition or exhibition with a successful outcome.

The above print is a collagraph by Jean Harper, made if I remember correctly by incising shapes into matboard and then adding some carborundum here and there. Jean's day job is Associate Professor of English at Indiana University East, but clearly her future lies in the field of Fine Art.

The print is on display at the 41st Annual Whitewater Valley Art Competition.

To see my schedule of future classes at Interlochen College of Creative Arts, sign up to their mailing list here.

The Undiscovered Country

"  the dread of something after death,
The undiscover'd country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns. "Hamlet, Act 3, scene 1
In the United States, a country obsessed with youth culture and the eternal postponement of old age, one of the greatest taboos is to talk openly about the aging process and death. In her exhibition at Hofheimer Gallery in Chicago, artist Mary Porterfield bravely depicts some of the adverse effects of aging with a clear-eyed gaze, a skillful hand, and a great degree of compassion.

In these oil paintings on glassine, we see the faces, hands, and bodies of the aged with nothing hidden. Porterfield's brush carefully depicts all the wrinkles, the folds, the sagging of flesh on bones, the pallid skin and the red-rimmed eyes. In many of the paintings we see the same female face, apparently that of the artist's grandmother who experienced memory problems towards the end of her life (she died aged 100). Thus we see a woman lying on th…

New Work: Theme and Variations

Over the summer, I have been making oil paintings, etchings, and terracotta sculptures with a common theme: a pair of arms and hands reaching out to or holding a crow.
The theme ultimately derives from the darker, industrial work I did a few years ago, based on memories of my coalminer-grandfather in England. That started with images of him as a boxer, or lying on the ground after being injured in an accident underground. Gradually, the image has become refined until I'm just using the arms.
The crow just floated into the pictures, as it were. I've always loved crows, and I can picture them sitting in the trees in the village where I grew up, or on the top of the church, cawing up a storm. They are associated with sinister things, which still links to the idea of misfortune in my work. But I also just love their shape and colour.

The etchings are slightly more detailed-looking than the paintings:
And the clay sculptures are somewhere in between, technically:
I've got some…

Light from Distant Stars

I saw this photograph in an exhibition in Tucson, Arizona. It was taken by Edouard-Denis Baldus in 1855, and it is an albumen print of the church of Saint-Germain l'Auxerrois in Paris. It stands across an open plaza from the Louvre, and the contemporary view is almost unchanged from 164 years ago. But it was the date of this photo, plus the razor sharpness of the image, that put me in a great state of wonder.

As far as I understand it, the great detail and high contrast in such photographs was made possible because the image was printed onto paper coated with egg white, and so it was dispersed over the surface of the paper rather than sinking into the paper fibres. That's what makes this photo seem like it was taken yesterday, perhaps with one of those Instagram filters added to it. But then, when you realise that the picture was taken in 1855, the mind starts to get dizzy at the sudden collapsing of all that time, a century and a half disappearing in an instant.

164 years ag…

Manet at the Art Institute of Chicago

You'd think that there'd be nothing new to see in a major museum show devoted to Edouard Manet. But the exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, Manet and Modern Beauty, is full of surprises. There a few examples of his most celebrated works, such as Boating from 1874-75, but it's the many pieces in different media and on a small scale that really take your breath away.
There are lots of watercolours, often contained within letters that are displayed in frames on the gallery walls. The looseness and spontaneity of these quick and closely observed studies is endlessly delightful.
There's even a case with the watercolour box he was using close to his death in 1883. The drawings, too, are fresh and intimate in nature.

 Many of the oil and pastel pictures are selected from an 1880 exhibition in Paris. The final gallery in the show is filled with small pictures he painted during his last months, many of which are studies of flowers or vegetables such as asparagus. Despi…

Prints at the Grand Rapids Art Museum

If people go to Grand Rapids, Michigan, these days to see some art, it's usually to take in the DeVos-funded Art Prize that consumes the city every autumn. But by far the best art in the region is held at the Grand Rapids Art Museum. From the outside, the building does not look huge, but its three floors are currently displaying a refreshed hanging of works from its collections, and it's absolutely terrific. Every room has several great pieces. On this visit, I was pleased to see how many prints they were showing, starting with this woodcut by Ilya Schor.

Next, a soft ground etching by Magdalena Abakanowicz:
 Then a huge multicoloured woodcut by Susan Rothenberg:
Now a bright lithograph by David Hockney:
A screenprint by Jacob Lawrence:
And finally, a lithograph by Alexander Calder, part of a small but excellent exhibition of prints in this medium:
If any of these names are unfamiliar to you, I strongly recommend you follow the links from their names, because they each left o…

Paintings and Sculpture by Ahavani Mullen

A few weeks ago I saw a show of work by Chicago artist Ahavani Mullen in the beautiful space of the Chicago Art Source on Clybourn. Her paintings are abstract collections of marks and skeins of paint which hover between texture and liquid space, like pools of water through which float branches, sand, stone, and slowly dissolving ink. In the photo above, you can also see her experiments in transferring the discoveries she's made in painting to three dimensions.

Talking to the artist, we covered a range of topics: the process of painting; how a series of seemingly automatic gestures often arrives at the point where one large shape occupies the centre of the canvas/panel; how one knows when a painting is finished; artist's residencies such as the Vermont Studio Center; the importance of an artist having a studio.
Mullen's work is extremely subtle, yet it catches the eye immediately and draws you in for a closer look. To see more of her work, here is her website.

How Does One Teach Drawing?

I've just started teaching a 10-week Beginning Drawing class. I have taught short workshops in drawing before, but this is the first time I've taught a full semester long class in drawing. In preparing for the class, I had to consider the question: how does one teach drawing?
"One must always draw, draw with the eyes, when one cannot draw with a pencil." Balthus
My answers, based on my own experience of learning in the classic, traditional manner:

1. Familiarise the students with the materials.

2. Set clear goals for what drawing is and isn't (e.g., not a photograph, though one can strive for realism; mistakes are acceptable;, etc.)

3. Start with simple objects, then work up to more complex objects and groupings.

4. Begin with soft pencil, then graduate to charcoal, conte, coloured pencils and pastels.

5. Give guidance, but don't stifle people's expressiveness.

6. Make most of the guidance about looking, and looking again, at the thing or things that you…

Photos from My Open Studio

I took part in the open studio at the Cornelia Arts Building a few weeks ago. I sold the small clay statue shown in the photo above. But equally satisfying were the conversations I had with the sizeable number of visitors who passed through.
Those visitors included a group who brought along their pet conure (a species of parrot).
For this open studio, I tried something different. Instead of taping to the wall the standard information about the pieces on display (title, dimensions, price), I made museum-style wall texts that included a story about each painting, print, or sculpture.
This didn't lead to any sales of the paintings (yet), but they caught people's attention.

Working in Three Dimensions

One of my goals for 2019 is to make more ceramic pieces. I don't pretend to have any groundbreaking skills in the medium, but I do love manipulating the clay and seeing the final glaze-fired piece. Below is a set of photos taken at each stage of making a recent piece inspired by my paintings and prints from the last few years.

This is the terracotta clay piece just after I made it:
Then after it was bisque fired:
And finally after it was glaze fired:
Not sure about the colour, but I do love the high gloss effect of fired ceramic. For this one, I brushed on two layers of a reddish-orange glaze, two layers of black on the arch, and two drip layers of blue on the figure and base.

Student Work from an Etching Class

I recently finished teaching a five-week introduction to etching class. They were five talented and enthusiastic adult participants, all first-timers when it comes to etching, and they all produced interesting prints that used many of the available textures you get with copper plate intaglio. One of my favourites from the class was this image of mother and baby, made with line etching, a light aquatint, and drypoint. It has the feel of one of Mary Cassatt's prints.

People ask me if teaching takes anything away from my studio art, and I reply: absolutely not! I love sharing the things that I have learned from 25 years of making art, and I love it even more when I see the discoveries people make. Plus, whatever particular art form I teach (printmaking, drawing, handmade books) invariably makes me find out something new about the medium, or spurs me to make something new for myself.


Artists at Sea: Winslow Homer in Maine

After writing a 1,000 word piece about Winslow Homer's eighteen month stay at an English fishing village, I have been writing a series of primers about other artists who made similar journeys. Links to the series here: Gauguin; Manet; John Marin; JMW Turner; Monet. In the final post in this series, I rate Winslow Homer himself.

Who

Winslow Homer (1836-1910), American landscape and marine painter.


Coastal association

The coast of New England in the USA, and Cullercoats, in the north of England.


First coastal visit

Like several painters in this series, Homer was born near the sea (Boston, Massachussetts), spent much time inland or in big cities while building his career, then returned to the coast, this time that of Maine, in 1883.


Reasons for visiting

Homer had painted marine scenes before the 1880s, but it was his two year stay in Cullercoats, a tiny fishing cove on the northeast coast of England, that influenced his decision to move permanently to Maine. Historians say that disappoi…

Some Thoughts About The Burning of Notre Dame de Paris

January 2nd, 2019. Patty and I had just landed in Paris the day before, on New Year's day. This was taken on our first walk, at about midday. We strolled drowsily from our rented apartment in Montparnasse up the Blvd. St Michel, cutting slightly northeast at Cluny so we could approach the Shakespeare and Co. bookshop via the network of narrow, stone-paved streets that follow the medieval street plan even if many of the buildings now date from the 1800s. This was my first sight of Notre Dame -- on this trip. I'm posting it now for the same reason as everyone else around the globe: millions of Parisians walk past it or see it every day, 30,000 tourists visit(ed) it every day, yet it's one of those buildings that everyone who has seen it comes away with a deeply personal attachment to.

In this photo, at the moment I took it, I just wanted to capture the fact that you can walk around central Paris, on the way to somewhere quite different from Notre Dame, just noticing it for …

Ancient American Sculpture

I took this picture in the Portland Art Museum a few weeks ago. These are three terracotta figures made in southern Mexico or central America, some time between 200 BCE and 400 CE. Meso-American art is one of my favourite things to look at in museums. They could not be more different from the sculpture produced in Greece and Rome during the same time period, but to me they are the equal of classical sculpture in their expressiveness.

NB: It's probably inaccurate to call them sculptures, because the anonymous craftsmen who created them may have done so for religious reasons. That is, they were creating figures for ritual use, rather than works of art. Though just as in Western art, there's no reason why those should be mutually exclusive.

Another thing: having worked on making my own little figures in clay recently, I have a deep appreciation for the skill it takes to make figures like this -- particularly feet and hands!

Portrait of the Artist

Artfully shot black and white photo of me, taken by my wife Patricia Ann McNair, through the tunnel of holes in a sculpture by Barbara Hepworth.

From My Studio

I have these large collage pieces on panels that I made a few years ago. My work has changed a little since then, at least in technique, so rather than throw these older pieces away, I tried to bury the existing surface in a mixture of gesso and piles of acrylic gel medium. When it dried, it left this interesting surface.

The Prussian Blue areas were originally a steel grey, which seems to have interacted with the gel to make this colour. The result reminded me of the cyanotypes I've been making, so I taped up a few of those, and they seem to match:
Hmmm....food for thought.

Artists at Sea: Matisse and the Med

After writing a 1,000 word piece about Winslow Homer's eighteen month stay at an English fishing village, I'm writing a series of primers about other artists who made similar journeys.

Who

Henri Matisse (1869-1954), French painter.


Coastal association

The Mediterranean coast of southern France.


First coastal visit

In the 1890s, Matisse spent significant time on two different coastlines: Brittany, from 1894 to 1896, and Corsica in 1898. But it was his first visit to Collioure in 1905 that brought about a transformation in his ideas about painting. Collioure was/is a tiny fishing village in the extreme southeast of France, about 10 miles from the Spanish border.

Reasons for visiting

He joined the painter Andre Derain and spent the summer exploring Derain's ideas of using patches of pure colour, applied in almost crude brushstrokes, to convey light and mass. Matisse may also have wanted a change of scenery, because in 1904, aged 34, he had his first one-man show, at Vollard's…