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Painting & WSO Traveling Exhibition In Carlton, OR

Wallow Gallery, Carlton OR

Greetings!  I am pleased to say that my watercolor painting “Three Minute Egg V11”, is now showing in the Wallow Gallery, Carlton, OR.

Carlton: Three Minute Egg V11

You see, it is one of the 20 award winning paintings from the Watercolor Society of Oregon’s (WSO) Spring 2018 Experimental Exhibition.  And, WSO has a traveling show consisting of their award winning paintings.  So, the award winning paintings get to travel to select galleries around Oregon.

Gallery Details.

I would like to invite you to see the Traveling Exhibition in Carlton.  Therefore, I’d like to share gallery information with you.  The paintings are showing at the Wallow Gallery, 125 W. Main St.  Business hours are Fri-Sun, 12-5pm. For more information, please email[email protected] or call 503-785-9951.  Furthermore, you may want to call the gallery first if you plan to see the exhibition.

The paintings will be on display through the end of September.

WSO 2018 Traveling Exhibition

WSO Experimental Exhibition.

What makes the experimental exhibition special is that artists are encouraged to explore different water-media and substrates.  Put another way, you see everything from a more traditional watercolor paint on paper to mixed water-media on aqua or clay-board.  And, the types of water-media include transparent watercolor, gouache and acrylic.

Still, the intentions of jurying the show are the same: recognizing paintings with technical and artistic achievement.

And, one further note about WSO art shows.  The fall exhibition includes only watercolor works on paper.  You can see, then, how it contrasts with the spring experimental show.

Photos By Liz Walker.

Carlton; Liz Walker's "On Solid Ground" used with permission

I’d like to give you some background regarding the photos.  To explain, most are from fellow Oregon artist, Ms. Liz Walker.  Thank you Liz for permission to use your photos!

Included are her photos from some of the previous stops on the traveling show’s journey.  Plus, I’m adding her own award winning painting.  I liked the feeling of her painting “On Solid Ground”.  You see, it has a degree of mystery that I particularly enjoy!

Thank you!

On a personal note, I would like to extend a “thank you” to Zsuzanna Wallow, Sandy and all the WSO members responsible for this wonderful show.  And, a HUGE thank you to Wallow Gallery for showing the art works!

Please Stop By!

In closing, I would like to invite you to stop by the Wallow Gallery if you are in the area!  Please, go see some wonderful experimental water-media paintings by my friends and fellow Oregon fine artists!  Thank you!

Carlton. Paintings from WSO Spring Exhibition


The post Painting & WSO Traveling Exhibition In Carlton, OR appeared first on Margaret Stermer-Cox.


My parents, Gene and Rita Dorsey, from happier times.

I’ve been a blogger manqué for much of the summer mostly because I’ve been immersed in trying to finish the three paintings I’ve already written about—and I am on pace to get them done on time. But I’ve also been busy with my two other occupations—writing to earn money and taking care of my elderly parents. It feels odd to call my parents elderly when I, myself, will in short order be able to qualify for that demographic. Maybe sixty is the new forty, but I have a feeling that the milestones to come will cast a darker shadow on a narrowing path. Time feels as if it’s getting shorter by the day, which means I need to work harder to stay ahead of the clock, but I’m finding that the painting life is giving me lessons about my larger life as a human being, not just a painter, despite myself. The need to pay attention has become the central imperative of my life, in almost all activities. Writing still comes naturally, and I can do what I need to do—with the exception of contributing to this blog over the summer, clearly—but caring for my parents has become both a bigger challenge and a deeper reward. I find, repeatedly, that I’m choosing to see myself as a son, rather than a painter, on a daily basis for varying lengths of time. And I’m discovering that, as laborious and discouraging as it can be, I’m adapting to it. I’m changing in a way similar to what happened to me when I became a father, when I found myself willing to do almost anything to care for my kids, without resentment or complaint—no matter how it robbed me of my autonomy and personal time.

My brother, Phil, and I share the responsibilities of enabling my parents to continue to live independently in their condo in Penfield, NY, a twenty-minute drive from my home. My father lives most of his life now at a few points on the tiny map of his primarily domestic world: bedroom, bathroom, dining room, deck and TV room. He’s able, just barely, to shift his body from bed to scooter and thence to the bathroom, the living area, or the deck outside. His infirmities derive from stenosis, peripheral neuropathy, a brief TIA from which he partially recovered, pulmonary issues, and increasing effects of dementia—he is the same person as he always was, but greatly diminished, hemmed in, caged by his body and brain, though his sense of humor remains intact as do his gratitude and kindness. However, more and more his despair over his condition sparks bouts of anger or snarky critiques of those around him. Inevitably, whenever we are together I gaze directly at the future, my future and everyone’s future, and it has the effect of stripping away most of the layers of denial that all of us wrap around ourselves like comforters on a cold night. Old age and death watch me, as I watch them. We’re all dying slowly or quickly, and when you see that, what matters most in life is giving as much care to one another as possible. Occasionally, the demands of my father’s predicament test my equanimity, but most of the time I just surrender and do what both of them need and what my brother, Phil, is unavailable to do.

Yesterday afternoon, I stepped away from my canvas long enough to take a call from my mother. I had to do it on my iPad because the iPhone was downstairs, and I dreaded it because I had never definitively located the pinprick in the tablet’s body for the microphone. For a long time, I’ve been speaking into the data port, like a dolt, which usually has elicited an exasperated question: “Are you in the car? You’re fading.” This time I found it at the top of the case, finally, and so comms via iPad have been established, once and for all, with reliable clarity.

“Well I finished The Bostonians,” she announced.

We’d been reading this book together in parallel over the past couple weeks. Despite the recent erosion of her vision, Mom still can use lenses to decipher a recipe if she can enlarge the typeface enough: she cooks her own corned beef, makes pasta with lobster, garlic and olive oil, pan-sears sea bass and serves my father a milk shake for lunch every Sunday. For decades they have lived there happily. In the past, they’ve been able to venture out to meet with friends for lunch or dinner, play golf, and spend the winter at their other condo in Florida. Now they leave the place only to buy necessities or visit a physician.

Yet this domestic normalcy doesn’t hold anymore. A cursory description of their life doesn’t reflect the daunting emotional struggle they face. My father has declined dramatically over the past three years, both physically and mentally, and my mother has only now, at 93, begun to show signs of memory lags—a hesitation in calling up a particular word or name—the little blips of aphasia I already notice in myself, dead pixels that wink out in the screen of memory and then light up after a while, or don’t. Physically, her only ailment has been macular degeneration and arteriosclerosis, requiring a stent earlier in the decade—triggering a reaction that sent her heart racing so fast she nearly died in her hospital bed until they found the medication needed to slow it down.

All that aside, Mom reads more books than I do. It’s her solace, her reward, both an escape and an engagement with narratives that give meaning and perspective to her own life. It’s the one thing she looks forward to in her day, the hour or two in bed after my father has fallen asleep when she can let a storyteller take her by the hand and lead her mercifully through someone else’s younger life. She spends all of her day, every day, caring for my disabled father, who has declined more and more rapidly, both physically and mentally, in his 90s as he wanders deeper into the waste of advanced age. His struggles are hers, though my brother and I live close enough to visit and help her through one crisis after another, or simply show up to do repairs and solve technology issues or fix equipment or, most often, take them to a medical appointment. Mom can’t see well enough to actually read the words on a page, unless they are dramatically enlarged on the computer screen, so she listens to voice-acted books downloaded from Audible. In the past, she always kept an eye on the Sunday Book Review, sampling best-sellers, and reading mostly classic American authors. Her syllabus through the years included all of Hemingway and his biographers. (She and my father had met Hemingway’s son, Jack, once in Sun Valley, and he told them he hadn’t read a word of his father’s novels and never would, which wasn’t a surprise, considering how Hemingway had abandoned him and his mother, Hadley, in Paris.) Over the years my mother has read books by Jonathan Franzen and Donna Tartt and Tom Wolfe, as well as one-off hits like All the Light We Cannot See, and has, in the past, eagerly consumed everything John Irving published, as well as dozens of other authors. Recently, she read Winesburg, Ohio, but couldn’t cotton to F. Scott Fitzgerald. The prose, which in The Great Gatsby has almost never been equaled, just put her off. She always preferred Papa. Having exhausted the available catalog of audible books by John Steinbeck, she now relies on me for suggestions. For example, I spotted a new Anne Tyler book in the Sunday review and downloaded it for her, but her reaction was that it felt like a sandwich and soup after the fine cuisine of James and Tolstoy

This past spring, I nominated Anna Karenina, because I’d decided that, while I paint, I would start listening to whatever she was “reading”, so that we could talk about what we think of it as we make our way through it. Tolstoy was one author I had neglected to read in my younger days, with the exception of his later essays and some of the longer stories. We both loved the novel, the sort of book that couldn’t be written now, given our culture. What followed were long discussions about the characters. I explained to her how Levin’s slow enlightenment, in parallel with Anna’s moral and psychological decline—they both confront suicidal urges with radically different outcomes—was a retelling of Tolstoy’s own harrowing spiritual journey. Levin is Tolstoy’s avatar, and what happens to him in the book is a fictional portrayal of the mental agony that led Tolstoy to discover a new interpretation of the New Testament, a fresh reading that ended up inspiring both Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

She told me that as the end of the book neared she kept hoping for more and more chapters, she was so spellbound by Tolstoy’s world and the generosity of his vision. On the other hand, she has yet to finish Resurrection, partly because it bores her but mostly because Henry James has sauntered decorously into her path and, after four of his novels, addicted her to his voice. We started with Portrait of a Lady and made our way through The American and What Maisie Knew and now The Bostonians. I have a list of seven other novels, though I plan to spare her the complicated syntax of his final three great books. She was as ambivalent about the voice in What Maisie Knew as I was, and it was only a comparatively brief sample of the prose in The Ambassadors and The Golden Bowl. It’s easier to read than to listen to the incorporeal Jamesian sentences of those last novels, which seem to want to detach themselves from the physical world and feed the consciousness of his characters directly into the reader’s mind, like the umbilical data cables in The Matrix. He likes to pack a paragraph of thought and feeling into a sentence that feels as if it is constructed to make you forget how it started by the time you’ve arrived at the period.

I had finished The Bostonians an hour before my iPad played its little steel band ring tone riff.

“What did you think?” I asked. “I liked it. I think it ended exactly the way it should have.”

“I think so,” she said. “They did get together but he had that last comment about how she would be in tears again.”

“But you can see it’s true. He wants to silence her. He wants her at home, not in public.”

“I just couldn’t stand to see her end up with Olive. I was so disgusted with that woman.”

“Olive was a stalker. She was making money off Verena’s genius, wasn’t she? They all were. It wasn’t healthy.”

“I liked Basil.”

“I did too, but James gives you a pretty balanced look at what’s going to happen. Basil wants her to quit advocating for women and just be there for him. He said that she can go on speaking and using her talents, but only at the dinner table. She’s not going to be able to bear it. She’s in love with him, and I wanted her to marry him, but Ransom needs to wake up. James keeps you guessing what he thinks about the women’s movement back then—it was a sort of circus with all the other contemporaneous spiritual movements—but I think in the end he sympathizes with the idea that women need to be free and equal, just as the blacks in the south did. He brings up the parallel many times.”

“That’s fine, but what happens to the family?”

There was a personal stake in this conversation. My mother had chosen the traditional path: to be the business executive’s partner both at home and in society. And it had worked for them and for us, as sons: she was devoted to her kids. The challenges of raising us constituted all the fulfillment she needed in life. My father made enough to support all of us. Discussions around women’s liberation had taken place in our home while I was growing up, decades ago, and the dilemma is at the heart of what’s happening now in the lives of my children. My father was an advocate for feminism and my mother wasn’t opposed, but she distrusted the overreach she felt was built into it. She predicted that children would suffer.

It’s a question that is being raised and resolved again, in opposing ways, in our family right now. My wife was able to quit working for the early years of our children’s lives, just as my mother had done, but then Nancy went back into teaching full time. My son and daughter have worked many years in Los Angeles in the film industry. Christin suspended a Los Angeles career that took her through various positions at companies like New Line Cinema and Skydance after having her second child and is now happily exhausting herself as a full-time mother. Her simple justification: “Family comes first.” My son, Matthew, has worked for a decade cutting movie trailers at Seismic Productions, and his wife, after having their first child late last year, has decided to hire a nanny and return to her job with Ellen Degeneres. I’m watching from the sidelines to see how this works out—once Laura has a second child, I’m expecting she’ll have second thoughts about driving off to work every morning. Yet they won’t be able to survive without two incomes, having just bought a modest but astronomically-priced house in Encino. It’s a little ranch, squeezed between two others, with 2,000 square feet, no garage, no basement, of course, and a limited attic for storage. It’s just one step up from a starter home, at best, despite the price tag. The insanity of the economy we’ve been creating for the past decade troubles me. This is not going to end well, for the country. They have no choice but to have two careers. Feminism happens to serve the capitalist system quite well—because decades of wage stagnation have required both parties in a marriage to have careers now, and that’s a recipe for stagnant wages. Flood the market with labor and wages stall. As a result, single-incomes aren’t enough for most families.

“Well, I don’t think Henry James was thinking much about child-rearing, What Maisie Knew notwithstanding. In this case, he was just wondering if Verena’s talents will fester and create a lot of suffering for both of them. And how long are children around every day anyway? It’s only for a few years and then they’re off to school.”

“But they are home by three,” my mother said, essentially advocating for the choices she was able to make sixty years ago.

And so we debated a question that America settled decades ago: women need to have all the rights and opportunities as men, and children will be raised as best they can be despite the absence of one or both parents for much of the day. As it turned out, my mother was very happy and quite fulfilled without a career.

And now it’s my turn to juggle work and family, taking care of them, as they took care of me. This has become one of my most vital roles right now, when I put down a paint brush—and partly why I haven’t been contributing as readily to this blog. I’m working on a personally imposed deadline to complete three challenging paintings, and all the while my parents are requiring more and more assistance. I have been over at their condo for an hour or two, or three, every few days over the past few weeks. I had to lift my father off the bathroom floor last week, when he appeared to all of us to be dying. He had lost strength in his legs, stretched out on the tiles, gazing up at the ceiling with dazed eyes, and when I got there he was having trouble breathing, could hardly speak, and didn’t seem able to respond to questions. I managed to leverage him up by following my younger brother’s example from a previous mishap—slipping my arms under his, squatting behind him, locking my hands at his breastbone and then lifting his 160 pounds with my legs to the point where I could slide his butt onto the wheeled transport chair beside him. He had collapsed out of weakness from pneumonia in his right lung and an infected bladder—the outcome an episode a couple weeks earlier of incontinence. E coli was the villain. My brother showed up and called 911, and the paramedics got him on an IV, which helped restore some alertness, and took him to Highland Hospital.

It was the last thing any of us wanted. Hospital stays for anyone in the family consume your life, and my father hates those stays with the sorrow of a small child. My wife had had a life-threatening emergency with a strep infection in the spring, and I spent nearly a week driving to and from her room twice a day with food and supplies. In these situations, little work gets done: the concentration needed to paint or write can’t coil itself tightly enough to drive the momentum required for the flow I need. But there was no hesitation on my part: the ability to shift into this outer-directed gear has become second nature, directing my attention to something other than myself—the task at hand. I’ve been doing this for my parents so many years. I’ve surrendered to it, gratefully now. It’s the best thing I can possibly do with my time. There is no choice really, when you see what needs to be done—what is the only good thing to do. It becomes its own reward. So with our father, my brother and I spent several days commuting to and from the hospital, picking up our mother, spending time at his bedside, and then returning home to get in some hours of work, while the other brother drove to pick her up and take her home in the evening. This was only one incident in a long sequence of similar events, throughout the years since Dad turned 80. Somehow we are managing, thanks to my mother’s tenacity and strength and health, to keep them both out of a nursing home, though lately we’ve begun to wonder how long she’ll be able to cope with his deterioration.

One of the most crucial ways I’m trying to be there for my mother, through all this, is by reading these books along with her. As much as she and my father need our physical presence to solve myriad problems—I put in an hour trying to clear out the ductwork for her clothes dryer last week—these reading sessions are in some ways a life line. More and more she has no one to talk with her, since my Dad’s ability to converse about anything has become minimal. To talk about Tolstoy sustains her and revives her and gives her something to look forward to, both the act of listening to the stories and then the phone calls where we talk about them, in our little two-person book club. The key element in all of this is just the simple act of paying attention. Someone cares enough to engage in a half-hour conversation every day, listening to the challenges and pleasures of the past twenty-four hours. Everyone craves attention and so few other people are actually willing to give it: spouses, children, parents, friends, and employers. It’s surprising to discover that, these days, one of the best ways of getting focused attention from anyone is to call a Sears repairman or some independent plumber and simply enjoy how those hourly rates can inspire the most intense and helpful work on your problems that money can buy. You can get, along with it, some intelligent conversation—some of the liveliest talks I’ve had in recent years about nearly any current event or life predicament have been with some of these sharp and independent workers. It’s probably as good as psychological therapy, which is one other way to pay for the luxury of having someone else listen to your problems, looking for solutions. Bartenders, of course, are always a fallback.

As Iris Murdoch pointed out repeatedly, when you pay attention to someone or something you give up autonomy—you have to willingly submit your freedom to the service of something greater than whatever you feel like doing at any given moment. This is as true in my family life as it is in painting. It can be incredibly easy and unconscious, when you’ve done this so much that there’s no resistance to whatever needs to be done, but it can also be achingly difficult. Paying attention is risky: once you do it, you find yourself drawn against your will into an undertow of obligations to the task that has it’s own momentum, because you end up caring about the people you’re helping more than you did before you opened yourself up to their predicament. That momentum can be painful, a riptide that exhausts you if you fight against it psychologically. But if you give in to it, it can be a tail wind. The caring leads inevitably to the rededication of time and energy to someone else. That means sacrifice. But a sacrifice can also be a loss of weight, a lightening of one’s own load—you give up your attachment to what you think you want to do in order to do what you know you need to do. There’s buoyancy in it, if you let yourself go.

I’m learning from all this, learning about myself and about what matters in life. Every day I’m recognizing more clearly that to pay attention is the most fundamental human faculty, from which everything else springs. What means the most to both my father and mother is not that we solved the problem, but that my brother and I cared enough to show up and talk to them about it and try to help. The attention is what they crave more than anything. And as much as I remind others in the family that this is the case, being thousands of miles away makes them less and less able to show they care. It’s up to the two of us now. Everything else humanly possible grows out of paying attention, as Krishnamurti—and many others before him—observed in all of his lectures. It’s there at the root of every skill, every instance of learning, every meaningful human gesture, peak emotional moment, and pleasurable indulgence. Most of what I regret from my typical day can be traced to inattentiveness. Before all else, in painting, I have to pay attention. It’s both the first and last step, as that sage observed. Once I’ve done that, I have to pay even closer attention.

A Clown: More Than A Smiling Face

But, still, a smiling clown can be good!

Clowns Popped In My Head.

Hi!  Lately, I’ve been doing some small studies of clowns.  Why clowns?  I don’t know.  They popped into my head this past May and I keep coming back to them.

Research Time.

So, after a few drawings, I thought it might be a good idea to research clowns.  I started with a search for famous clowns.  As you might expect, there were photos and mentions of some of the more recent famous comedic characters, both real and fictional.  Circus clowns like Emmett Kelly, American Tramp “Weary Willie” and Red Skelton, Freddie the Freeloader.

Clown With Daisies And Balloons

Traditional Types.

Then, I started finding articles about traditional circus clowns.  Did you know, that there were generally three types of circus clowns?  They are the white face, Auguste (red face),  character clowns.  The character clowns may include the more recent hobo or tramp, like Weary Willie.

Boss Clown.

There is a funny hierarchy too.  To over simplify, the white face clown is the top clown and serious (straight face) clown.  Whereas the red face or Auguste clown is the one that gets the pie in the face.  Naturally, the character clowns play characters.

Its About Meaning.

Now that I’ve shared with you my quick research on these circus characters, I’d like to relate my findings to drawings.  You see, it makes it much more interesting creating my clown characters now that I know a little bit about them.  And, its inspired me to create more!

Oddly enough, I drew a “white face” clown without knowing the significance.  Still, I think he is appropriate for the occasion.

Clown With Daisies & Balloons.

In any case, I hope you enjoy my clown with daisies and balloons.  Thank you!

PS.  You could say that this watercolor and ink study is a type of “drawing from memory and imagination”.  The emphasis is on imagination!

Twin Clowns.

Naturally, when you draw one clown, well, maybe you need to draw two!  Plus, I’m a fraternal twin.   Happiness!

Clown: Twins


The post A Clown: More Than A Smiling Face appeared first on Margaret Stermer-Cox.

The Adventure of Quiet (Or: Sabbatical with Two Gum Grafts, One Unintentional Fast, and Zero Jet Skis)

In the US, July is the big, shiny, monster car of summer, revving up with lots of sparkly, high-octane adventures involving fireworks, waterproof SPF 50, and lifejackets. But my idea of summer fun has always been the quieter kind: a book in the shade. A swim in the lake. I’m a gear-free seeker of quiet where my thoughts can unspool long enough to hear Spirit speak.

You might say poetry is my jet ski. It’s all the adrenaline rush I need. And this July has been my writing sabbatical, so it’s been a good ride.
At the beginning of the month, I had another gum graft over two teeth, and that has meant soft food only. But for the first few days after the procedure, eating anything more solid than a liquid hurt, so I ended up fasting for a bit. Without much energy, I pretty much just laid on a blanket on the lawn beneath the trees, watching the leaves and clearing my mind and heart to write.
Those three days on the blanket are the highlight of my summer so far (even though one of them was spent with a bag of frozen peas on my swollen face). In that time and quiet, I let a year’s worth of worry dissolve in the breezes, caught up on forgiveness, and recommitted to my quietude. 
Alas, I had reached that point I thought I’d finally grown wise enough to avoid; needing an external circumstance to slow myself down. Without the gum graft, I would have written, sure. But I doubt I would have given myself permission to take the lengthy stretches of silence that exponentially fed my writing for the rest of the month.
As of today, my last day of sabbatical, I have a working manuscript of poetry (as in: the poetry still needs work, but it’s a manuscript!). I am positive that much of its inspiration and creation came from those three days of complete chilling.  
Not everyone gets excited about a quiet month to write poetry—or even about quiet itself. But it might be worth trying the mellow way when the chance arises. In the past, I’ve tried a few of the louder and splashier and gear-laden adventures—not my cup of tea, but glad I tried. Hey, if neoprene and wingsuits float your speedboat, knock yourself out (but not literally!).
It’s great to enjoy adventures of motion, but it’s also great to enjoy adventures of stillness. Quiet doesn’t make much noise, so it doesn’t get much press. But oh, the power of it!
I’ll be in motion again soon—a little journey that I’ve been prepping for, like I do all journeys, big or small. That prepping reminded me to put the same effort into planning times of stillness in the future. May I never need another gum graft to remind me!
We all have our ways of moving through this world. Personally, I’m thrilled to lie still and watch a tree on a summer afternoon—a tree so full of leaves, it would take days just to truly see each one, let alone imagine the story of their growth. I highly recommend it.
Here’s to hearing the quiet things,


Wide Awake passes the Turing test

Parquet Courts at SXSW 2013

Wide Awake, the new album from Parquet Courts, is a relief. I’d almost given up on these guys. In his production of the album, Danger Mouse has helped bring them back to their core strengths, while at the same time becoming a bit like the musical equivalent of Prozac. He makes the overall experience less discordant and much, much more enjoyable than the band’s work since their breakthrough album, but he also rounds off the edges a bit. In a few tracks, the boys hit their post-punk target with the same raw power and wit (“Do I pass the Turing test?”) that was so evident in Light Up Gold. Yet much of this pleasurably surprising album stays at a less frenetic pitch. What’s hopeful is that, in comparison with the experimental recordings they’ve been tinkering with, here they’ve kept faith with their unkempt appetite for a relentless beat, and are a little more considerate of an average Ramones lover’s needs. What I miss is the sense of their cutting completely loose, flirting with barely controlled frenzy in obeisance only to a melody and their phenomenal drummer, Max Savage. They have yet to set the crossbar any higher than Master of My Craft but they’re getting close.

No ideas but in things

Frederick Hammersley’s notes for possible titles

To live and work by inspiration you have to stop thinking.      –Agnes Martin

Frederick Hammersley was a sort of visual Taoist. Everything in his work seems to emerge out of a creative tension between polar opposites. Even his titles often depend on the polarities of a pun. If something in his work is pregnantly curved, it will be answered by razor-sharp angles elsewhere. In his organic images, the paint seems as irresistibly pure and fresh and new as tinted icing on a cake, yet it will be surrounded by a frame that looks salvaged and restored, as distressed as driftwood. These one-off, hand-crafted wooden frames—the urge to run a fingertip across them was mighty strong when I saw his work in 2011—are countered by the thin, low-profile lines of the floater frames that contain his geometric images. He worked on comparatively miniature canvases for the organic paintings and built the shadow box frames seemingly to bulk them up, and the frames work as yet another essential, polarizing element. They are almost prosthetic, a completion of the work, different from the way Howard Hodgkins integrated his frames with the work by making them a wider surface for his paint. With Hammersley, the frames are idiosyncratic, original, married to the painting rather than subordinate to it, making the painting a distinctly three-dimensional object, physical and situated in a particular place in front of the viewer’s body, a fellow traveler through time, smiling with an unspoken individual history. The painting sits inside the shallow box, without seeming to touch it, at rest, at home.

In these organic paintings, black and white wrestle as opposites often in their own tiny zip codes, yet they are segregated in such a way that their polarity is enveloped by the larger polarity between this opposing duo and the various peninsulas of luminous color around them. It’s wheel within wheel of opposing elements, smaller polarities within larger ones.

Group Insurance, Frederick Hammersley

Hammersley’s organic shapes look anatomical and informal, hand-written, as if they could be cartoon X-rays of whatever is going on inside a Dr. Seuss figure. His lines feel as recognizable as a signature. The coloring book shapes allow him to juxtapose one pure color against another. The tones glow with delight, a calmly heightened response to the experience of seeing one spot of pure color next to another. They offer understated, captive ecstasies. Their color harmonies emerge gradually as you view them. The assertive, overconfident world of so much large-scale abstraction depends on its ambitious scale. Hammersley’s luminously colored lobes huddle and fold into one another like vulnerable newborns on small canvases; they almost need their frames to get noticed.

His geometric paintings are much larger, but not all that big. The work I saw at Ameringer McEnery Yohe (now Miles McEnergy) were square, ranging between three and four feet wide, small enough to fit on the wall of nearly any American house. As David Reed pointed out in the show’s catalog, Hammersley’s work was meant to be part of one’s daily life, a domestic companion, not something to visit on “high art occasions.” The structure of his geometries seem like an entirely dispassionate pursuit, like a multiplication table, a methodical working through of every possible recombination of variables, every last way to assemble a rectangle, triangle and parallelogram within a square. Yet even these angular images don’t feel impersonal or cold. Their amiable simplicity is what’s most striking. Often he worked in black and white, and rarely relied on more than three or four tones, keeping his paintings as minimal as they could get. And yet when he did venture into color in the geometric compositions, it was usually a lyrical departure into lilac, taupe, peach, or a muted green.

The work these paintings do is entirely perceptual. There’s nothing to decipher. Yet, against my better judgment, I’ve been lured back to my catalog of Hammersley’s work recently because of their coy, elusive titles. This troubles me. Normally, I hate titles and the way they offer a foothold for intellectualizing a painting. Conventions notwithstanding, a date would suffice. With plenty of notable exceptions, titles usually strike me mostly as an artifact handy for taking inventory. Even Guernica would have been just as well served by its title if any other town had been attacked—a different place-name wouldn’t have diminished the painting’s shrieking protest, and Untitled might have conveyed an appropriate speechlessness. With a host of exceptions, the names of paintings are like the names of people—you need them mostly to talk about them or add them to somebody’s list. Yet Hammersley’s titles are both playfully irrelevant to the silent work his paintings are actually doing, and—like those weathered frames—a way of situating the work for the idle pleasure of musing about it. The question, as always for me, is whether or not thinking about a painting matters at all—since, for me, painting (like music) does it’s most essential work immediately, before any thought about it can get in the way.

I’ve been leading myself down this garden path this summer, though—against my better judgment—and I’m two thirds of the way through for a triad of paintings where naming the work will offer more ideas than my typically pedestrian titles do—and so I’m going back to Hammersley to reassure myself about this. When I did my first painting of paired jelly beans and bullet casings, I was looking for a way to combine soft and colorful objects with something hard and shining. It occurred to me that a Jelly Belly might fit into a bullet casing as a whimsical substitute for a lead slug. The idea made me uncomfortable because it felt like a facile metaphor, like a distant nod to the famous photograph of the protestor who inserted a carnation into the barrel of an MP’s rifle during the Vietnam era. I have no passion about guns nor about controlling their ownership. Gun owners should be allowed to own whatever they want, under the law, knowing that they’ll likely never need to fire them. Gun control is virtually pointless. With millions of weapons already out there, you can’t, as they say, put the genie back in the bottle. All the guns anyone will ever need are privately owned already and will never be seized unless we end up living in a completely different country. If the nation wants to ban particular semi-automatic rifles, we should do it, but it won’t change the culture nor really stem much violence. If bullets made of sugar are social commentary, it’s my wry, impertinent version of it. The problem is not in our Ninja stars, but in ourselves.

Jelly beans/bullet casings

None of this has anything to do with why I painted the image. Jelly beans and bullet casings seem to belong together as polarized formal elements, visually, regardless of whether or not they form a coherent or unambiguous assertion about anything at all. Yet it’s hard not to think about what they can be construed to mean, though—and that makes it doubly hard to resist the urge to make the painting. The title arrives after the image, and in this case it has involved weeks of musing, weighing alternatives, finding the lightest touch possible and then discovering a way to tie things together. It took me more than two months to come up with a title for my second painting of bullet casings with jelly beans, mostly because I had nothing in particular that I wanted the painting to convey, intellectually. The temptation is to draw from my own long-standing or current preoccupations, though, and this is what I’ve ended up doing.

For the small series it belongs to, a subset of the jars I’ve done over the past decade, I’ve wanted to do three of them containing something other than jelly beans or M&Ms or Chiclets, and so I’ve been on the alert for objects that are roughly the same size as something small and edible, with some kind of distinctive sheen—if not as colorful as candy, then something metallic. The motivation to do the first candy jar arose as a response to my love for color field painting and abstraction in general. I wanted to find a way to stick to still life painting—technically the jar paintings are a single object placed on a flat surface containing multiple repetitive parts—but at the same time I wanted to build the image out of nearly uniform areas of color, pieced together to form a pattern that extends across nearly all of the canvas. Color was the primary motivation. Thiebaud, Mattiasdottir, Matisse, Porter, Morandi, and especially Janet Fish used a personalized palette to make color nearly an end in itself in their versions of a still life. Without taking overly painterly liberties with what I saw, I wanted to find a way to do something similar, to use color to create a persuasively real image that also has qualities of an abstract pattern. I enlarged the jar and presented it so that it nearly fills the entire canvas, pushing everything it contains forward toward the viewer so that it seems to be hovering at the flat surface of the canvas. The image toggles back and forth between representation and abstraction, and the fact that the same but slightly different set of objects is clustered so tightly together in a repetitive pattern hints at all-over abstraction.

With one jar of candy after another, using color and shape to explore variations on the same basic structure, I had little interest in doing more than numbering the individual paintings according to the order in which I’d painted them. But with my first departure into something other than sweets—the first painting I did using diaper pins a few years ago—I recognized the opportunity to venture elsewhere with the titles. A friend, Sheri Colao, had suggested the subject when I was visiting her and her husband Brian, in Pompton Lakes. Until then, I’d had no idea these colorful pins even existed. But I liked the idea, found them on the Internet, and ordered enough for the project. At the time I had planned to paint two different images containing the diaper pins—one jar full of open pins and one full of them safely closed. After finishing the first of the pair, I began to free associate in order to come up with a title and the fact that the pins were all open and jabbing toward one another in a seemingly disordered jumble suggested the perils of an unrestrained, impulsive, or rebellious life. (Or, maybe, social media?) Hence, Cutting Loose and Breaking Free. So I ended up with a conceptual label for an image that grew out of nothing more than a craving for certain formal qualities in the image. As counterpoint to that first painting, the smaller companion in this current series of jars will be named Reticence.

For the second coupling of jelly beans and bullet casings, I’ve drawn from my recent reading of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and his later non-fiction inspired by his code for civil disobedience and, at least for now, I settled on Resist Not, shortened from Resist Not Evil, though the first canvas ended up with the slightly ironic title that seems too obvious: Gun Control. The new title suggests that maybe both gun owners and gun opponents might find a better approach by refusing to fire back at their opposition, intensifying an anger that simply spurs further polarization. Yet I find nothing in this issue very compelling. I grew up borrowing a friend’s .22 rifle and shooting targets at a range—it was a fun, coming-of-age ritual. Guns are a part of life. But Tolstoy was right: the more you fight your opponent, the more he fights back. Imagining a gun that merely stuns, or dispenses candy, might suggest a form of non-violent resistance—or no resistance at all, which was the original advice. “Resist not evil” is an admonition adopted first by Tolstoy and then by Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., who both scaled the Russian’s advice into social change

And on it goes, as my thinking mind improvises on an image that wasn’t inspired by any of these considerations.

I’ve played all sorts of interpretive games this way, as Hammersley did when he playfully improvised on his tones to puzzle out his titles. In fact, the past couple days, I was thinking of mottos or guidelines that come in threes, trying them out, but none of them really fit. Silence, exile, and cunning. No. Hope, faith, and charity. Not really. Waking, dreaming, deep sleep. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Paper, rock, scissors. Moe, Larry and Curly. Still thinking of Tolstoy, I even looked up lists of monastic vows, of all things, and found one that actually almost applies: chastity (restraint), poverty and obedience. What three admonitions could be a larger repudiation of current Western culture? I could almost twist those notions to fit, but it would be a stretch. But the point is that none of this ex post facto significance motivated me to make the paintings, the third of which should be finished by the end of August. My interest is working with formal characteristics, smuggling certain kinds of color into a painting, and letting the integrity of the image generate it’s own ideas, or none at all. Bypassing the discursive brain is how most or all of a great painting’s work gets done.

Simplifying – In Drawing & Painting Composition

Coming To Terms With Simplifying.

Greetings!  I’m still thinking about this idea of simplifying.  In this article, I speculate about where the concept of simplifying fits in the composition lexicon for drawing and painting.

Contemplating Over Coffee

Mini Workshop Coming Up.

Yes, this is the kind of thing I contemplate on from time to time.  And, if you think that I’m obsessing about simplifying then you would probably be correct!  The situation is that I am working on getting my thoughts and experiences organized.  This is because I’m scheduled to lead a mini workshop on simplifying to the Watercolor Society of Oregon.  And, I want to be able to communicate ideas clearly.

Doing Research.

So, as you might imagine, I’m doing some research and study.  However, I’m finding that when one does a search “simplifying in drawing and painting composition”.  You see, its been oddly difficult finding relevant results.  So, instead, I’m trying different searches and looking in my art books.

How Does “Simplifying” Fit In?

Because of the scarcity of information, I wanted to figure out where this concept of “simplifying” fits in the lexicon of composition.  Perhaps I’ll be able to do better searches or at least articulate what “simplifying” is all about.

Definitions: Simplifying

The Problem.

To restate the problem, what does does it mean to simplify as it applies to designing a painting? And, how does this process fit with the elements and principles of design?

Minimalism & Abstraction?

Furthermore, isn’t Minimalism simplification taken toward the extreme?

In a manner of speaking, the answer to the Minimalism question is yes.  The Tate Museum, for example, defines Minimalism as an extreme form of abstraction typified by big simple geometric shapes.  Come to think of it, abstraction is linked to simplifying too.  You might want to refer to the Tate’s definition of abstraction.  It includes the following line.

The term can be applied to art that is based an object, figure or landscape, where forms have been simplified or schematised.  

Circular Contemplation.

Can you see where my brain might just go around in circles?

Simplify: Design Elements

Composition & Design.

Back to composition or design (a short digression)!  You might want to know that I use the terms composition and design interchangeably.  I’m referring to the same thing; how we organize elements on the picture plane.

Simplify: Design Principles

In any case, the concept simplifying is not a design element or a design principle.  So, how does it fit?  I’m thinking its an over-arching “approach” and therefore is fits indirectly.

One Example.

Simplifying shapes

I thought I’d use one of my paintings, “Coffee At Black Cat Cafe” as an example of simplifying by linking or massing shapes.  While this painting may seem complicated, and it does to me, I have taken steps to simplify shapes to promote unity.

If you would like, please take a look at the three figures.  The two figures at the right are linked by their adjacent arms, creating a bigger shape. The figure on the left sits alone; she is my center of interest.  Also note that the figures and the table are depicted in similar warm colors.  Thus, I am linking the smaller shapes into a single larger, triangular shape.

In this example, then, I use both shape and color as the design elements for simplifying.  The action of simplifying (linking or massing the shapes) promotes unity, which is a design principle.

Second Example.

I just noticed that both of the paintings I’ve selected show places where I’ve simplified.  The figures, for example, are simple.  That is to say, I haven’t put in a lot of the details about bone structure, muscles and features.  I’ve left that to your imagination.  Furthermore, the color schemes are relatively simple or restrained.

Your Turn.

Come to think of it, how about you?  For those of you who are artists, how do you simplify shapes, colors, values and other design elements in your own work?  And, for all of us who appreciate art, have you noticed simplification in other works of art?

To Simplify Implies Action.

Consider again, then, the words “to simplify” and its opposite “to complicate”.  Don’t the terms imply action?  In the act of designing a drawing or painting, I would suggest that we’re talking about how we arrange things on the picture plane.

To put it another way, to simplify or to complicate refers to the ways in which we arrange or apply the design elements in accordance with the design principles.

Links To More Examples.

For more, you might want to see my article on silhouettes.  Or, you might want to check out artist Frank Eber’s blog post:  “Simplifying a Scene”.  John Burton, Tucson Art Academy, has a short video titled “3 Key Steps to Simplifying A Complex Scene” that I think is good.

Update!  I came across Linda Kemp’s book on simplifying titled “Simplifying Design & Color for Artists”.  I have not read it myself, but have looked at the table of contents and it looks good.

PHEW! Simplifying Seems Complicated!

Trying to simplify seems to be complicated.  But, what I’m seeking is clarity.  And, low and behold, to simplify can mean to seek clarity.  Another brain loop!  But, this is where things get sort of exciting, if you can stay with me.  Clarity and understanding are part of the definition for simplifying or simplicity.

Its All About Artist Intent.

You might ask the question, “Why is this important at all?”   For me, its all about what an artist wants to say and how to say it.


To summarize, then, the term “to simplify” fits in the design lexicon as an action.  The action is to reduce or simplify one of the design elements.  In doing so, the artist is working to create unity, of the design principles.


Thank you for stopping by.  Please feel free to leave a comment if you like!  Warm regards.  Peggy.

#simplify #simplifying #simplifyyourpainting

Simplify: Still Contemplating!
Still contemplating how to simplify!





The post Simplifying – In Drawing & Painting Composition appeared first on Margaret Stermer-Cox.

Bumping into the sacred

Michael Pollan (source:YouTube)

I’m reading Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind, which describes the wave of new research into psychedelic drugs. It’s in the same vein as Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, drawing parallels between what users experience and what mystics from various religious traditions said about their own encounters with transcendence. I’ve never experimented with these substances, despite pressure to do it from the other members of my garage band in high school, in which I played guitar. (They all had a habit of dropping mescaline before practice sessions.) I have no interest in trying them now. What’s compelling about Pollan’s book is that he had little interest in religion and spirituality when he began his research and was surprised by what he discovered as he got deeper into the subject. What interests me in all this is how it relates to the way in which the process of painting is a much quieter, and less dramatic, path toward a similar sort of ego-effacing state of awareness–though that phrase would hardly describe much of the higher profile art being produced now. (Critics, of course, can make the discipline even more ego-effacing . . . )

“The study demonstrated that a high dose of psilocybin could be used to safely and reliably “occasion” a mystical experience—typically described as the dissolution of one’s ego followed by a sense of merging with nature or the universe. This might not come as news to people who take psychedelic drugs or to the researchers who first studied them back in the 1950s and 1960s. But it wasn’t at all obvious to modern science, or to me, in 2006, when the paper was published. What was most remarkable about the results reported in the article is that participants ranked their psilocybin experience as one of the most meaningful in their lives, comparable “to the birth of a first child or death of a parent.”

“AS SOMEONE not at all sure he has ever had a single “spiritually significant” experience, much less enough of them to make a ranking, I found that the 2006 paper piqued my curiosity but also my skepticism. Many of the volunteers described being given access to an alternative reality, a “beyond” where the usual physical laws don’t apply and various manifestations of cosmic consciousness or divinity present themselves as unmistakably real. All this I found both a little hard to take (couldn’t this be just a drug-induced hallucination?) and yet at the same time intriguing; part of me wanted it to be true, whatever exactly “it” was. This surprised me, because I have never thought of myself as a particularly spiritual, much less mystical, person. This is partly a function of worldview, I suppose, and partly of neglect: I’ve never devoted much time to exploring spiritual paths and did not have a religious upbringing.”

“The story of how this paper came to be sheds an interesting light on the fraught relationship between science and that other realm of human inquiry that science has historically disdained and generally wants nothing to do with: spirituality. For in designing this, the first modern study of psilocybin, Griffiths had decided to focus not on a potential therapeutic application of the drug—the path taken by other researchers hoping to rehabilitate other banned substances, like MDMA—but rather on the spiritual effects of the experience on so-called healthy normals. What good was that? In an editorial accompanying Griffiths’s paper, the University of Chicago psychiatrist and drug abuse expert Harriet de Wit tried to address this tension, pointing out that the quest for experiences that “free oneself of the bounds of everyday perception and thought in a search for universal truths and enlightenment” is an abiding element of our humanity that has nevertheless “enjoyed little credibility in the mainstream scientific world.” The time had come, she suggested, for science “to recognize these extraordinary subjective experiences . . . even if they sometimes involve claims about ultimate realities that lie outside the purview of science.”

By the time Griffiths turned fifty, in 1994, he was a scientist at the top of his game and his field. But that year Griffiths’s career took an unexpected turn, the result of two serendipitous introductions. The first came when a friend introduced him to Siddha Yoga. Despite his behaviorist orientation as a scientist, Griffiths had always been interested in what philosophers call phenomenology—the subjective experience of consciousness. He had tried meditation as a graduate student but found that “he couldn’t sit still without going stark-raving mad. Three minutes felt like three hours.” But when he tried it again in 1994, “something opened up for me.” He started meditating regularly, going on retreats, and working his way through a variety of Eastern spiritual traditions. He found himself drawn “deeper and deeper into this mystery.” Somewhere along the way, Griffiths had what he modestly describes as “a funny kind of awakening”—a mystical experience. I was surprised when Griffiths mentioned this during our first meeting in his office, so I hadn’t followed up, but even after I had gotten to know him a little better, Griffiths was still reluctant to say much more about exactly what happened and, as someone who had never had such an experience, I had trouble gaining any traction with the idea whatsoever. All he would tell me is that the experience, which took place in his meditation practice, acquainted him with “something way, way beyond a material worldview that I can’t really talk to my colleagues about, because it involves metaphors or assumptions that I’m really uncomfortable with as a scientist.” In time, what he was learning about “the mystery of consciousness and existence” in his meditation practice came to seem more compelling to him than his science. He began to feel somewhat alienated: “None of the people I was close to had any interest in entertaining those questions, which fell into the general category of the spiritual, and religious people I just didn’t get.”

Later, he quotes another researcher:

“You go deep enough or far out enough in consciousness, you will bump into the sacred. It’s not something we generate; it’s something out there waiting to be discovered. And this reliably happens to nonbelievers as well as believers.” Whether occasioned by drugs or other means, these experiences of mystical consciousness are in all likelihood the primal basis of religion.

Embrace Your Day Job

About a week ago, Hyperallergic published a great, brief assessment of how tough it is to make a living as an artist, and it’s pretty obvious that if you want a life of luxury then you should look into investment banking. Yet the ultimate effect of the piece is heartening. Most of us are on the same life raft. On the whole, artists don’t make much. But we find ways to make ends meet and still make art. And the longer we stick with it, the happier we get. The writer, Benjamin Sutton, was reporting on a study released by Creative Independent, an offshoot of Kickstarter. The group surveyed artists in the U.S., UK, Canada, France and roughly 50 other countries.

What’s most welcome about the piece is how it actually showed that it’s possible to be serious–and reasonably happy–about making art without being able to stay solvent from the proceeds. Which means, more or less, that if you think Van Gogh was a failure, then you need at attitude readjustment, friend. Failure isn’t about money when it comes to creative endeavors.

Here were some of the finding:

  • The majority of visual artists working today make less than $30,000 per year. (Average median income in the U.S. is nearly double that.)
  • Only 12% of respondents said that gallery sales of their work have been helpful in sustaining their practices, and grants ranked similarly low.
  • Two thirds said they had to rely on freelance work to make a living. The next largest segment do work unrelated to art for the bulk of their income.
  • Half of all artists surveyed said they make less than 10 percent of their income from their art.
  • Schools don’t prepare artists for a world that runs on the exchange of money–though it’s hard to see from the findings what art schools could actually do to help artists earn more. A little more preparation for how one needs to find other ways to make a living in addition to art maybe . . .
  • Just under a third of respondents felt that gallery representation did little to improve their financial stability. The gatekeepers are finding it just as difficult to stay in the black as the artists themselves.
  • The Malcolm Gladwell rule of 10,000 hours of practice as a threshold for mastery–in this case ten years of work–makes a difference. Artists who stick to a professional regimen for a decade earn more and find themselves much happier with the life of making art. After two decades, happiness rises even more.


Pie in the Sky

The other day, I was hunting for a file deep in the recesses of my Dropbox folders when I found a document from over twenty years ago. It was a self-assessment essay, written for my senior portfolio as an undergraduate.
At some point, I must have transferred it from a floppy disk, and I hadn’t read it since I wrote it. I winced before clicking “open,” wondering what young Anna had “assessed.” I started to scan the double-spaced, Times New Roman font. Two paragraphs in, and it wasn’t as terrible as I’d thought. I read on. In one section, I detailed the then-highlights of my writing education. One was a seventh-grade project on The Odyssey. Calypso’s fire of the future inspired me, and I wrote an essay musing on my grown-up life.  
I was simultaneously back in my college basement apartment writing that memory and back in the grade-school classroom writing the original. Meta-historical-memory, maybe.
Toward the end of my nine-page self-assessment came this paragraph about my post-graduation dreams: “Once I have the diploma in my hands, I could find myself teaching, working on the staff of a literary magazine, publishing, curating…or even traveling as a freelance artist and poet. I cannot predict what will burn in Calypso’s fire this time, and I do not want to. Through serendipity and grace, the right things come. I am willing to wait.”
I blinked. I hadn’t realized my twenty-year-old self had known all the things she wanted to do. And then I realized I had done them all—including the “or even” of being a traveling freelance artist and poet—the least likely element on the list at the time, especially since I had no role model for that in pre-social-media 1997. It was my pie-in-the-sky dream.
Young me just reminded middle-aged me of serendipity and grace: Thank you, Anna.
Let’s remind ourselves of our dreams, live them, and keep hatching new ones. Apparently, it’s time I hatch some new dreams….

And apparently, there’s pie in the sky after all!