Sunday, February 18, 2018

100% Artist



1. to withdraw to a quiet or secluded place.

I have gone "on retreat" twice in my life. Once in 2009ish, when I was working through some personal history, trying to reconcile that with the adult I was becoming. My counselor suggested it, and so I went.

I stayed with some nuns at a nearby abbey, who prepared meals for us retreaters and otherwise left us alone. It was quiet, it lacked distraction and there was no to-do list. 

I was astonished at how productive it was just to be with myself. Just to have the space to intentionally think about certain topics. It was wonderful to be removed from everyday life, just for a couple of days.

The second time I went on retreat was in 2012ish, this time solo, at Christmas. For three days, I kept myself company in a cabin in the mountains. 

decked the place with Christmas decor, listened to music (or not), discovered Brené Brown, read, wrote long hand-written letters, crafted a little, cooked, and just stared out the window.

There wasn't much intention besides wanting to think quietly, wanting to strip my world of its noise, wanting to care for myself as I usually care for everyone else. It was extremely restorative.

This year, I took my third retreat. Again, a cabin in the woods, solo. 5 days. But this time, the intention was art.

I prepared by bringing about half my art studio with me.

I'll admit that I was nervous. Yes, nervous. I was worried that I wouldn't be able to be focused for so long. Nervous that I'd get lonely. Nervous that I might not like what I made, or that I might not make anything at all. Nervous that I'd lose my inspiration, or want to go hang out in the wilderness, or spend too much time online or on the phone with my family.

I rearranged the furniture in the place I was staying, to better serve my needs and help keep the place from getting trashed. This is the before photo:

In many ways, it was like the other retreats had been: quiet, away from my life and all the to-dos and caring for others. But there was no staring out the window this time, no whiling away. 

Turns out that I worked my butt off. I had so much creative energy flowing that I hardly slept, and when I was awake, I hardly noticed my tiredness. I had THE. BEST. time.

I resolved to do at least a page in my sketch book each day. The first photo, above, was my "intro" to that project.

I reveled in the time I could take to actually LOOK and SPEND TIME with the art books I brought with me...

I wanted to really look at some figurative work--who in the past had done it, and how? I found myself completely inspired by Josef Albers, who was not at all famous for his figures. Surprisingly, a book of his drawings included many figures, which is what moved me. Egon Schiele is a famous artist who drew men in vulnerable poses, and Gustav Klimt loved to draw figures. In a NYC exhibit the Neue Galerie did in fall 2016, it was noted that he would take breaks from painting his subjects just so he could go in the room next door to draw figures.

To focus my creative energy, I decided to focus on a self-portrait from life, something I had never done, and also to make something for the upcoming Fort Collins Open Hang show.

I spent about 5-6 hours in this position. Drawing from life is much harder than drawing from a photograph, but this is how the artists-of-yore did it. I wanted to see what it was like to focus on the details of myself so intently. It was pretty fun. Challenging but fun.
Something that never occurred to me before doing this exercise was that actually, I drew a mirror image of myself! Before artists could take photos of themselves, when they only had mirrors to utilize, they painted the mirror images of themselves. Every self-portrait ever made is actually a mirror image of the artist. That seemed particularly mind-boggling in the moment.

Work-in-progress photo (using editing to flip it), for comparison:

Here's how she's ended up, for now.

Then I got to work on whatever it was I was going to put in the Open Hang. I had taken photos of models past, and a long-ago pose kept bouncing around in my head. Plus, I was inspired by a sketch book exercise I'd done over a collage, inspired by Gustav Klimt. So I got to work collaging a big'ol piece of construction paper with tons of long-collected 2-D ephemera.

I ate, I drank tea, I went outside and walked around to get some fresh air and movement for half an hour each day. But otherwise, this is what I did. You can see my inspiration wall between the windows. The space's natural light was heavenly.

Here's me at the end of that fervent day (rosy-cheeked, elated), and you can see the collaged piece on the easel in the background.

Before I finished my retreat, I manage to get some blue paint on it, but alas! My time had come to an end. Time to pack up and head home, back to the real world. I cleaned up, re-packed the car (which hadn't been driven the whole time), and moved the furniture back.

To end, a small story:

I was in no rush to get home after the designated "check out" time, so I decided to drive to Denver to visit the art museum. I've been there several times since I became a member three years ago and it feels like home every single time.

As and end to my retreat, I decided to "do what the artists do" when they go to museums: draw. I grabbed a stool, took out my sketchbook and pencils, and plopped right down in front of one of DAM's most beloved paintings in their permanent collection, Childhood Idyll, by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1900.

I'd never done this before but had always wanted to. Turns out it was SO cool. I focused intently on the face of one of the figures and very much enjoyed the simple act of drawing, but to my surprise, i found that I also enjoyed bearing witness to other people's experience of the painting.

"Oh honey, this is the painting I wanted you to see..."

"This piece reminds me of..."

"Isn't that just lovely?"

For the most part, people let me be, respectful or bemused by my presence and my intentions, interested in my drawing nearly as much as they were in the painting itself. It occurred to me that here, in an art museum, is one of the few places in our culture where it is 100% acceptable (and even revered) to be an artist. 

After having spent 5 days on my own and arting like there was no tomorrow, doing this seemed like the normal thing to do. I felt so much like the artist I am, 100%. I was accepted, not judged. The question didn't occur to anyone there that this wasn't a perfectly good way for an adult to be spending her time on a Thursday afternoon.

I rarely get this. While my dream is to make art all the time, I am distracted by the routine of daily life, the relationships I hold so dear and work hard to nurture, and the fact that I need/want money in order to fund all my other zillion interests. 

And there is judgment. Society doesn't hold "the artist" as an acceptable occupation. As Brené Brown once joked, lamenting the way creativity gets squashed out of young people as they advance through school, "You go on and do your A-R-T. I'll just get on with my J-O-B."

In the last twenty minutes spent in front of the Bouguereau painting, I heard a timid, "You're a really good drawler."

I looked up to find a little girl, roughly ten years old, with a striped gray t-shirt dress and braids of red hair looking at me. As I'd been drawing, I'd noticed her little shoes through the crook of my elbow while she hovered near me for at least ten minutes.

I said, "Thanks. I practice a lot."

I found myself utterly delighted to get to engage with her, so happy to "talk shop." We discussed the painting itself and how my drawing might improve. She was shy but curious, which had bolstered her courage to say something to me. 

She reminded me of me. I myself had always had an admiration and reverence for people who made art.

Well, look at me now.

Here's Male Figure, Twisted, as it hung in the Open Hang show a week later.

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