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Bachelard and Braque on metamorphosis

Still Life with Lemons, George Braque

Over the past year, more and more, I’ve been involuntarily daydreaming as I paint, in a way that reminds me of what Gaston Bachelard talks about in The Poetics of Space. It’s an idiosyncratic book, beautifully evocative and almost impossible to classify, though it’s often considered a work of philosophy because of its approach to something that sounds absurdly limited: what happens psychologically and emotionally when a person encounters certain kinds of space. It explores how people experience rooms, forests, shells, corners, closets, drawers—and how different the shapes and volumes of these spaces evoke entirely different kinds of dreams. For him, various environments relate in specific ways to the human body and the way people actually inhabit or employ different spaces comes to take on multiple meanings. For him, space is essentially a state of mind rather than the staging area for travel and physical measurement. As Bachelard says in his introduction, the phenomenological approach of the book requires the reader to simply pay attention to how the experience of space can enlarge an individual’s receptivity to new imagery. He puts aside any inherited philosophical or psychological theories and simply examines what’s happening, in human terms, by paying attention to this own encounters with space and how it opens up a state of reverie, a daydream. Different shapes and sizes of space unlock different kinds of dreaming, a treasury of moods, feelings, and mental images. I think what he’s actually doing is elucidating how poetry and painting evoke a sense of a world.


As you read the book it inspires the kind of daydreaming he refers to with a particular adjective—oneiric. (It just means dreamlike.) The prose of the book itself draws you into the state Shelley referred to as the gently fading cinder in a fireplace, glowing, simmering but not really lit up with rational consciousness. In considering the different dream states evoked by a three-story house rather than a four-story one, Bachelard says, “Dreams of stairs have often been encountered in psychoanalysis. But since it requires an all-inclusive symbolism to determine its interpretations, psychoanalysis has paid little attention to the complexity of mixed reverie and memory.” Paying attention to this “mix of reverie and memory” is what Bachelard tries to do in his book, without trying to fit her insights into some particular kind of system. “The poetic daydream, which creates symbols, confers upon our intimate moments an activity that is poly-symbolic.” By symbols I think he means fertile images, metaphors or visual forms that offer a kind of “poly-symbolic” language whose exact meaning can’t be pinned down. An image of stairs comes laden with suggestions of multiple different memories and experiences. The power of its “meaning” is that it evokes an emotional and mental state rather than a proposition that can be put to use.


This was the long way to go to double back to a notion that got me started. I wanted to describe how, while I paint now, certain forms I’m depicting remind me of more than the object I’m trying to represent. It’s similar to what Bachelard was trying to get at—how one experience can seem to embody other kinds of experience—and Braque refers to it, in his journals, as “metamorphosis”. I have Braque’s journals somewhere, but can’t lay my hand on the book right now, lost no doubt in a particularly non-oneiric corner of a bookshelf somewhere in my studio. So I’ll quote him via John Richardson’s 1961 essay on Braque:


‘The only valid thing in art is that which cannot he explained,” I once wrote. I still feel this very strongly. To explain away the mystery of a great painting — if such a feat were possible — would do irreparable harm . . . whenever you explain or define something you substitute the explanation or the definition for the real thing. There are certain mysteries, certain secrets in my own work which even I do not understand, nor do I try to do so. Why bother? The more one probes, the more one deepens the mystery; it’s always out of reach. Mysteries have to be respected if they are to retain their power. If there is no mystery then there is no poetry, the quality I value above all else in art. What do I mean by poetry? It is to a painting what life is to man. But don’t ask me to define it; it is something that each artist has to discover for himself through his own intuition. For me it is a matter of harmony, of rapports, of rhythm and — most important for my own work — of ‘metamorphosis’. I will try to explain what I mean by ‘metamorphosis”. For me no object can be tied down to any one sort of reality. A stone may be part of a wall, a piece of sculpture, a lethal weapon, a pebble on a beach or anything else you like, just as this file in my hand can be metamorphosed into a shoe-horn or a spoon, according to the way in which I use it. The first time the importance of this phenomenon struck me was in the trenches during the first World War when my batman turned a bucket into a brazier by poking a few holes in it with his bayonet and filling it with coke. For me this commonplace incident had a poetic significance; I began to see things in a new way.


When you ask me whether a particular form in one of my paintings depicts a woman’s head, a fish, a vase, a bird or all four at once, I cannot give you a categorical answer, for this ‘metamorphic” confusion is fundamental to the poetry. It is all the same to me whether a form represents a different thing to different people or many things at the same time or even nothing at all: it might be no more than an accident or a ‘rhyme” — a pictorial ‘rhyme” by the way, can have all sorts of unexpected consequences, can change the whole meaning of a picture – –


You see, I have made a great discovery: I no longer believe in anything. Objects do not exist for me in so far as a rapport exists between them and between them and myself. In other words, it is not the objects that matter to me but what is in between them; it is this ‘in-between’ that is the real subject of my painting. When one reaches this state of harmony between things and oneself, one reaches . . . what I can only describe as a state of perfect freedom and peace — which makes everything possible and right. Life then becomes a perpetual revelation.



I often think about these comments from Braque about his abstractions. More and more, I see different, non-literal forms in the shapes I paint. As I capture the look of something quite ordinary and commonplace, I often find myself in other places and times. A pair of white begonia blossoms could pass for cloud formations I’ve seen at 20,000 feet in the air. As I paint it, a cow skull feels like an enormous rock formation, eroded by wind, with cracked cavern walls, something it would take a day for a tiny man to scale and explore. The pattern of light reflecting from the surface and inside a jelly bean looks like a peach-colored moonlit night—my light source, reflected from the candy’s curved surface is a tiny moon peering between sheets and billows of apricot-colored mist. Things are what they are, and many other things, all at one.


Body of work

A three-part show about the human and animal body (heads, arms and legs, and skulls) opened at Manifest–I wrote about it two posts ago–and this remarkable gallery in Cincinnati drew 293 people to the reception. (The email from Manifest to participants was specific about the number, didn’t round it up to “around 300″, which is testimony to the integrity of this gallery and its programs.) Even without the upward rounding, that’s quite a turnout, for any gallery, anywhere. I couldn’t be happier to have a painting in the show, and I have pictures of how it looks (above, for example) thanks to the team at Manifest, who sent shots to all the artists chosen for the shows.

Also, the program’s 4th International Painting Annual has just been published (my work was included in it as well) and will soon be available for purchase here. About the annual, from the Manifest website:

about the INPA 4

For the INPA 4 Manifest received 1560 submissions from 563 artists. The publication will include 125 works by 92 artists. Essays by Philip Gerstein and Laura Grothaus will also be included.

Eleven professional and academic advisors qualified in the fields of art, design, criticism, and art history juried the fourth International Painting Annual. The process of selection was by anonymous blind jury, with each jury member assigning a quality rating for artistic merit to each work submitted. The entries receiving the highest average combined score are included in this publication.

Work spaces, garden light



As November begins my heart is full of love and gratitude.  For my family, my home, my friends and my art. This year has been one of my most creative years ever and such a great year for teaching workshops.  I have learned so much, and grown as well. I think I am finding my flow.

I have many wonderful plans for next year, not only with new workshops and retreats, but with my family. My son is graduating from Oregon State University this winter and my daughter is getting married in the spring. New beginnings for them and I am so proud.  

The photographs I want to share with you are work and garden spaces from our Red Oak Book Arts workshop at Laura's house last week… nestled deep in the Hill Country of Texas.

Laura is also known as HastyPearl and you won't want to miss her blog, this post or her Etsy Shop, or if you are in Boerne, her antique space, where I have done quite a bit of shopping myself! I taught this workshop with the amazing Leslie Marsh, and we came together from opposite sides of the United States to teach. We have known eachother since I started blogging and were kindred spirits from the beginning.











I love these photographs, the golden light you see on each workspace comes from huge windows that are imprinted in my mind and overlook Laura's gardens,an oasis  of ponds,trees,flowers and butterflies, even in October. The love and creativity that Laura has poured into her home inside and out is apparent in every detail.








Although these works of art are works in progress, I wanted to show our processes. How beautiful unfinished work can be. How given the same materials everyone creates something completely unique. And how we thrived as artists, learning and growing together. We all were glowing from start to finish.




















A special thanks to Laura and Leslie, Kip, Elissa, Carol and Melody for making this magical workshop happen.











You can see more photographs of the garden mandalas that we made here.

And photos of our finished books and projects here.

And here are photos of some inside pages.

Thanks so much for visiting and I would love it if you have time to comment.

There are also new art pieces available in my

River Garden Studio Shop if you would like to see! 


Going to California – Just Sayin’…

Show Time

YES!  For the first time, one of my paintings is going to California!

My painting “Just Sayin’ V8b” has been accepted into the California Watercolor Association‘s 45th National Exhibition in Pleasanton, CA.

Stermer-CoxMargaret-Just Sayin'… V8b


California Exhibition Details

Exhibition dates are January 15 through February 21st.  The location is the Harrington Gallery at the Firehouse Arts Center.

The Juror of Selection is Mr. Eric Wiegardt.  The Juror of Award is Mr. Gary Bukovnik.

I am thrilled and am thankful!  Two of my art friends are also in the exhibition: Myrna Wacknov and Ruth Armitage. Congratulations Myrna and Ruth!

You may see the complete list of accepted artist’s at the CWA website on the exhibition page.

Just Sayin’…  The Story

This watercolor painting is part of my “Just Sayin’…” series, inspired by our culture, and cell phones in particular.  One of my sisters served as the model.  We were home visiting my Mom.  I went in to the kitchen and found my sister on her cell phone.  Her phone was to one ear and finger to the other.  I thought the gesture was funny and typical of our times.  I’ve been having fun working with it ever since.





The post Going to California – Just Sayin’… appeared first on Margaret Stermer-Cox – Watercolor Artist.

The Big Draw

draw contest

The World’s Biggest Drawing Festival runs throughout October; you can read more here. You can sample a charming children’s book on drawing/painting/printing like the great artists from The Guardian here.

Technology rules

tech addicts

Interesting idea for a show, our technology addiction.

We subject ourselves to constant stimuli, without even knowing what this dependency bodes for the future. Artist Rachel Lee Hovnanian already feels the fatigue, which she investigates with a new art exhibition, Plastic Perfect, at Leila Heller Gallery in New York.

“I’ve definitely become an addict, and I really feel the repercussions when I don’t connect back to nature,” Hovnanian tells me over the phone from New York. “I’m just as guilty, but I know that I need to unplug, otherwise, I’m going to become anxious.”

Words vs. images

frankenSchjeldahl seems to choose the longest linguistic route between the first and last words of this paragraph from a review of Helen Frankenthaler’s work. It weaves its way from here to there in a way I enjoyed. Google maps could have gotten him from start to finish in about a third of the time, but he’s dancing around his topic here like Francis Bacon writing about truth. I’m pretty sure he’s veering toward and away from something fundamental for me: that great visual art often has no content apart from the work itself. I would go further and say visual art that best embodies what visual art alone can do should have no narrative content, no story, no “meaning” expressible in any way other than what’s seen in the image. It evokes a world more than a story. Yes there are plenty of great paintings that serve to illustrate a story or make a “statement” about something good or bad: much of the work of one artist I love, Bruegel, is hard to distinguish from illustration. Icarus falling from the sky, a peasant wedding, a drunken dance, Spain’s invasion of the Low Countries, and so on, all of which almost require a cinematic narrative the paintings reduce to a single frame. Even Winter Hunters evokes a day in the life of the men coming home through the snow, though its power, I think, comes from the way it conveys an entire season, if not an entire life, all at once, lifted out of time and any sequence of events. The story drops away and all you see is winter, winter, winter, in the ecstatic way Elizabeth Bishop forgot about the act of catching a trout and saw nothing but rainbow, rainbow, rainbow. The story of Vermeer’s milkmaid begins when she starts to pour and ends when she stops. It’s the timeless world her image evokes that matters. Anyway, here is Schjeldahl’s meditation on how the mind refuses to give up its thirst for narrative when looking at a work of art, even if that hungry mind has to frantically start imagining the painter’s circumstances, the world that gave birth to a painting, rather than narrative “meaning” intentionally embedded in the image itself. In other words, he seems to be saying, a brother’s gotta think!  With all due respect, to Peter and Pieter both, I beg to differ:

Color-field climaxed a modern ambition to expunge narrative content from painting. You were meant to be alone—“autonomous” was a byword—in wordless communion with art, as with a sunset. But art, unlike nature, requires someone to perform an act of will, and where there’s a mind directing a hand there’s a story. If the story is excluded from a picture, it will reconstitute around it as art criticism, which provides a set of thoughts for the reasons that, as you look, you should abandon thinking. That isn’t fair to individual aesthetic experience, which may find drama in abstraction and transport in realism. It also leaves out of account the worldly circumstances that impel and reward changes in art. Those turned out, by the end of the sixties, to endorse almost anything but more color-field. Color-field paintings are period artifacts, some of them lastingly enjoyable, of a peculiar presumption. — Peter Schjeldahl, The New Yorker, Sept. 22, 2014


Dia de los Muertos & My Art Activism

Sour Note in the Forest of the 6th Extinction, monotype by Catie Faryl

Sour Note in the Forest of the 6th Extinction, monotype by Catie Faryl

by Catie Faryl

Autumn is poignant and cooling (we hope!).  All Saints Day, All Souls Day, All Hallow’s Eve allow us to honor and reflect upon those who’ve gone before us.  The Mexican way of celebrating and honoring ancestors is a reassurance that those we love are always with us. The connections of the heart do not die in this hopeful, live-affirming culture.

Art Altars give me a chance to get personal and express my vivid interior life.  In the tradition of art activism, I’ve utilized the high energy this time of year grants me to honor not only ancestors but all sentient beings who have left or are leaving this planet.  In 2009 my Shrine to Lost Pollinators revered the bees, bats, birds and other creatures who help us by pollinating our food and flowering plants.

In 2014 I must go deeper into a political statement that demands action beyond sentiment and nostalgia. With little time left for my art due to my activism on banning and labeling genetically engineered foods and seeds, climate change and social, economic and environmental justice, I hope to finish my altar installation for the October show at Art Presence in Jacksonville.  My altar is titled “The Calliope of Killing” because it provides a visual accounting of the man-made species die-off  known as the 6th Extinction.

Activist art is held at arms length by government and corporations, but loved by the people.  Activist art is a “hot potato” for the “powers that be” because it raises questions and issues they are unwilling or unable to answer.  It is one of very few effective channels to communicate with the public and to empower the people to express their own discontent and hope for improvement in leadership, lifestyle, the economy and Earth stewardship.  I have taken pleasure in using my “Artist’s License” to say and show what others might repress or deny. Art, humor and theatre are vehicles for defusing our confusion and frustration and for reducing the grandiosity of power by lampooning the arrogance and misguided decisions of governance and elite corps(es)!  Art can be a wake-up call to rally and support the will of the people.

The connections of my heart are to the natural world as well as to loved ones.  As conditions on Earth become more serious, and as the killing continues to escalate all over the planet, I am compelled to sideline the charity of humor for the sharper tools of the pen and the brush.  Ignorance, greed, and power – can they be felled with a colorful sword of information and truth?  Can we gather together to correct the trajectory made by those who would exploit all resources in favor of personal profit?  This time of year I search my mind and soul to find what spirit is within to help change the course of what humans are doing to the planet.

Catie Faryl
September 10, 2014


Is art really “for” something?


This reminds me of Alain de Botton’s continuous effort to show art is good for us. It’s therapy. It’s an education. It’s moral training. You can’t disagree with anything said here about literature–and by implication, art or music or movies–but why does it seem utterly simple-minded? I wonder if anyone, having read Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary, decided, “Ok, then, I’m not going to have that affair with the butcher (prince, corporate raider, bass player).” If so, that’s fine, but doesn’t it miss the point? Art isn’t “for” anything, unless life itself is “for” something.



It can be yours

“New York, 1950s,” by Garry Winogrand. Credit The Estate of Garry Winogrand, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

“New York, 1950s,” by Garry Winogrand. The Estate of Garry Winogrand, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

From today’s New York Times, Bill Hayes on art:

When you go — not if, but when (and soon, by the way; the show closes Sept. 21) — I suggest you bring a thesaurus. Because it wasn’t long before we found words failing us. An image of an acrobat caught midleap on a Manhattan street, for instance, struck the three of us as the epitome of “amazing.” So did another photo. Then another. Upon seeing the first few dozen of the more than 175 prints on view we pledged that we would not use that word to describe every single photo. Beautiful, incredible, joyful, strange, very sad — we made it as far as the second room before we were back to the A’s.

“It is just so… amazing,” said Katy, who’s 18 and an aspiring photographer, as if she’d been rendered helpless by yet another example of the Bronx-born artist’s particular genius for street photography. I nodded in sympathy. In a world plagued by intractable problems — police shootings, Ebola spreading, spiraling civil wars, planes falling from the sky — lacking sufficient synonyms for a work of art seemed a good one to have.

When we reached the last room, I asked Katy which picture was her favorite. She led me back to the one that had stumped her in the synonym department. Her sister, Emily, who’s 14 and had been off wandering through the Met’s collection of European paintings, then showed me her favorite piece in the museum: a Monet water lily painting (the first she’d ever seen) from 1919.

This is when I let each girl in on a secret: It can be yours. No different from falling in love with a song, one may fall in love with a work of art and claim it as one’s own. Ownership does not come free. One must spend time with it; visit at different times of the day or evening; and bring to it one’s full attention. The investment will be repaid as one discovers something new with each viewing — say, a detail in the background, a person nearly cropped from the picture frame, or a tiny patch of canvas left unpainted, deliberately so, one may assume, as if to remind you not to take all the painted parts for granted.