Cue music. Quiet, please. Places! And 'Action!'
I teach a class at Main Line School Night in Radnor, PA, called "Artists on Film." It's a series, meaning that it is offered each semester, with all new films each time. This fall it starts Thursday, September 22, 2011, and runs through November 3, with September 29 off for the high holidays.
It's a blast to teach, and I keep getting repeat customers, so it must be fun to watch, too. I show the best movies I can find on all matters Art. I take special pride in surprising my students with unexpected subjects and thought-provoking content (Students? Really? This class is so much fun I feel more like a hostess than a teacher).
I have two criteria: the movie must illuminate something artistic, by its subject, cinematography, themes, or vision; and it must be a damned good movie in its own right. You'd be surprised how many there are.
I never give away the movies for the current semester, so don't bother asking. I hate to reveal my secrets, but just as a teaser I will say that prior student favorites include Rivers and Tides, directed by Thomas Riedelsheimer, and Helvetica, directed by Gary Hustwit. If you have not seen these movies, find a way. I plan to offer "Artists on Film: Greatest Hits," a kind of retrospective of the best of the best someday, so you can also wait and watch them with me then.
The class is filling fast; as of this writing there were only four spots left. For more information, you can go to the Main Line School Night website: http://mainlineschoolnight.org/CourseStatus.awp?&course=11FAA41001
I hope to see you in class.
Learning to See
If you had the chance to see the world with a completely different perspective than the one you are used to using, would you do it?
If you had the chance to see the world with different eyes, would you look?
I did it. Or rather, I am doing it.
What if you were given the chance to change the way you see the world, but you might never be able to go back to the ways things were?
I'm doing it anyway.
I went to the library for a summer novel but came out with Fixing My Gaze: A Scientist's Journey into Seeing in Three Dimensions, by Susan R. Barry. It's about how a neurobiologist with a lifelong vision defect learned how to see stereoscopically by undergoing vision therapy. Previously, she could only see two-dimensionally.
For explanation: Two-dimensional vision, or 2-D, is flat, like a drawing on paper. 3-D means that there is also depth: an actual room with furniture in it, instead of a drawing of such a room.
It's a fascinating story. At the end of the book, the author listed little tests you could try online to check your own depth perception.
I failed every single one of them.
I discovered, to my horror, that the world did not look the way I saw it. There were layers I couldn't use.
I called my sister and said, "I have no depth perception!" And she said (like "duh") "Yeah, I know. That's why your paintings have that compressed space."
I said, "My paintings have compressed space?"
So I made some calls and started vision therapy. Now, a year later, I can see in 3-D. Most of the time. What's really cool is that I can pop it in and out by thinking about it. Although, the longer I go to therapy, the more I lose the ability to retreat to flatspace.
I used to walk around as though I had a flat screen TV in front of my face. Not a good one. Not HD. Certainly not 3-D. Everything I could see was on that flat screen. There was nothing beyond it.
Now I move in space, and it is a totally different experience. It's not just that the world looks different; it feels different, too. In fact, it's like a different planet. A friend, who is undergoing therapy as well, describes it as the difference between mono and stereo in music; there's stuff you just can't hear in mono.
I think it's more like the protagonist's experience in the movie "Avatar," who went from seeing the world from his wheelchair, to being in the world a completely mobile and free-moving person. Before you get offended about my use of a handicapped person in my metaphor, remember that I am legally blind in one eye as the result of a childhood accident. That's what caused my inability to see in three dimensions.
I knew that this course of therapy would probably change my art. Drawing is the act of transferring a three-dimensional subject to a two-dimensional image. I was able to do that with some ease, because I was already seeing in two dimensions anyway. So there was a danger I might lose some of that ease. Or all of it.
I thought that of course now my work would have depth (hopefully both kinds: depth, and depth, if you know what I mean).
Not so. My use of space in art hasn't changed a bit. Apparently I'm not all that interested in portraying space, though I love moving through it. I suppose I spent too many years without it.
What has changed is my use of color.
There are animals who have organs that see infrared and ultraviolet light, the way that our eyes see visible light. I feel like I grew new organs within my eyeballs that see way beyond the spectrum of my prior existence. Do other people always see color the way that I am seeing it now? Without having been "blind" for awhile like I was, do they appreciate it?
It's like the e.e. cummings poem: "now the eyes of my eyes are opened."
It's like the gospel version of Amazing Grace: "was blind, but now I see."
If a person is the sum of her perceptions, then I have become a whole different entity. It's so worth it.
My Behavioral Optometrist is Steven J. Gallop, O.D. His phone number is 610 356 7425, and his office is at 7 Davis, Avenue, Broomall PA 19008. His website is GallopIntoVision.com.
I didn’t know I wanted to be a farmer when I grew up until I was 45 years old.
It’s irresistible: all these living, growing things popping into life around you, and you get to play a part in the process, too.
There is a saying in the Talmud that every blade of grass has its angel which leans over it and says “Grow! Grow!” It is exhilarating to be that angel.
My family and I are starting a small farming business, and the planet has gotten much bigger and a lot more interesting. We have conversations about good dirt and watch Youtube videos on how to shear sheep.
I never had such a visceral sense of all the plant life being around me being alive – as actual living beings – until this spring. Somehow I never noticed that I was surrounded by aliveness, even though this area is like a jungle in the summer.
Maybe I finally grew new senses because this winter was particularly deadening and full of death. Now it seems that the planet is bursting at the seams with life and potential, stretching and growing in a leaping, bounding, exuberant way.
A goat smiled at me (they do, you know), and it opened my eyes. To use a metaphor that feels like an archaic expression from a dead language, I awakened immersed in a live green world which previously I had scanned but never downloaded.
I guess I’ve been doing this all along, because art-making is a lot like farming; they both involve growing things. It’s just that the materials are different. In fact, I think I had been farming art for so long that I had lost some of the excitement of creation. I had forgotten how cool it is to make new forms out of raw materials.
Farming is more custodial, though. While all art projects have a life of their own (and some of them are bloody willful pigheaded little brats), there’s not quite the same sense of responsibility for new life. That’s a different feeling altogether.
R. W. Emerson said that the earth laughs in flowers, and I need to laugh more. So we’ll see what grows and develops in the coming months.
Watch this space.
The Pleasures of Summer: Pool Time
Most people are afraid of the dark. It makes good sense – after all, the dark might harbor all kinds of nasty things: monsters, predators, secret desires, spiders, your dog’s squeaky toys which when you step on them feel and sound like you accidentally killed a child. In other words, the dark contains all those things you can’t, or don’t want, to see. It’s the lack of visibility that is the key.
When I was younger, I used to like to drive around at night and look at the lighted windows in the houses. It gave me a feeling of security. All those people were safe in their houses, snug and warm, doing mundane things, presumably happy. It made me feel content, like all’s right with the world. This is not the feeling most people associate with darkness. I still feel that way. Even after the incident with the bear.
I am not a morning person. I think the term is “night owl”. I associate the nighttime with a lot of neat things happening – I guess I just do my best work in the dark. Unlike most people, I have a lot of positive associations with the night, and the dark.
One of those associations is music. I like nocturnes. I suspect that a lot more people like nocturnal music than like the night. So much less to step on.
There are all the obvious nocturnes in music that conjure up that evening feeling: Chopin and John Field, Debussy and the Art of Noise, Beethoven.
There are many less obvious choices, too.
Some of my nocturnal paintings and photographs were inspired by John Balke’s “Book of Velocities” (check it out on Amazon), both the cover artwork and the music. He took his digital camera with him when he drove around at night, and randomly took pictures, not consciously trying for any particular image. Then he made music. Cool.
My personal nominee for ‘Best Nocturnes – Album’ has to be Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue.” Say what you like about the lineup and the this and the that, but it’s all about the bass line, baby. You know what time of day it is from the first measure.
The ‘Best Nocturne – Song’ is “Rainforest” by Paul Hardcastle. Only the original version, of course. This is an interesting choice of music for two reasons: one, this song somehow manages to conjure both urban and natural soundscapes and does so at the same time; and two, I have no use for the rest of the man’s music. Smooth jazz is strictly daytime; real jazz is the soundtrack of night.
The winner for ‘Nocturnes Lifetime Achievement Award Thus Far’ has to be saxophonist Jan Garbarek. Like, does this guy ever go out during the day?
Both Balke and Garbarek are Norwegian. Studies show that humans must have darkness – and total darkness is better than light-polluted darkness – for healing, sleep, and rejuvenation. Maybe those endless, black Scandinavian winter skies are great breeding grounds for jazz.
I’ll never know if I like the dark because I like the music, or if I’m drawn to the music because I like the dark. I do know that all of it inspires me as an artist.
What a difficult subject to paint, emotionally, and what a difficult subject to photograph, technically. Yet I keep trying.
Right now I am trying to photograph fireflies. There are very good reasons why there are no famous photographs or paintings of fireflies. So far I have achieved murky unidentifiable black pictures of something that might be dust.
There are fewer artists and photographers than musicians of nocturnes that I can name as my fictional award winners. I think it’s that visibility problem referred to earlier.
Easy choices in painting: Odilon Redon and George Inness and Rousseau. Photographer Linda Connor makes the list. Even many of her daytime pictures are taken in such low light situations that they qualify as nocturnes. And her moods and feelings are all of darkness and mystery.
Summer might seem a weird time to be talking about the pleasures of nighttime, but it’s the best time to appreciate the darkness. In the winter, there’s just too much of it.
Author and Jungian analyst Clarissa Pinkola Estes (who wrote Women Who Run with the Wolves) has a new audio set out called “Mother Night.” She says that the way through darkness and shadow leads to the wise soul. That sounds enticing to me. So I will keep trying to find that way.
The blackness . . .
Keep . . .
Keep on . . .
“Optimistic,” by Sounds of Blackness (Honorable Mention – Song).
After I began painting The Dresses series, I read My Mother’s Wedding Dress, by Justine Picardie, and Love, Loss, and What I Wore, by Ilene Beckerman. Both are memoirs, a history of the self through clothes. Both writers focused on specific outfits, rather than the iconic, archetypal dresses I’m trying to paint. They talked about some particular garment, and what was happening in their lives when they wore it – what it meant to them, at the time, and after the fact, when they were looking back.
In these paintings, I am looking for something universal, not just something I wore that was unique to me. Something I actually wore can tell stories about what happened to me, it’s true. But there are things I never got the chance to wear, and dreams that never came true. Maybe “empty” dresses can speak more eloquently about all the things that didn’t happen, all the experiences I never had.
Everything is beautiful at the ballet. Isn’t it? Does any dress translate
the word “yearning” better than the tutu?
My niece took ballet to fulfill her physical education requirement at
school. At the end of the semester, she had to put together a little dance
sequence using some of the moves she learned in class. I had bought a
three-layer, pink tulle ballet skirt to use as a “model” for some of my
paintings. I loaned it to her for the class final. She loved wearing it.
That did not surprise me – I’ve been thinking a lot about the power of
clothes, so I expected that. What surprised me was that all the other
students in the class felt the pull, and borrowed it for their final dances,
too. This was not a class full of “bunheads,” future ballerinas, just a
bunch of kids trying to get the credits that they needed. I could tell by
the way she spoke about it that wearing that skirt made such a difference to the way they felt doing their dances. It just had magic.
Afterwards, we talked about how anyone can buy a tutu and dance around the house, if they want to.
But no one ever does. And it wouldn't be the same as actually wearing a pink tulle skirt and dancing in front of an audience.
Maybe that skirt holds the key to the magic of a ballet dream – without the blisters.
And everything is beautiful at the ballet . . . .
At art school I learned that pink is a tint of red, meaning that pink is
just red with white in it. You use the same pigment for both.
Yet I cannot imagine two colors further apart in terms of emotional
connotations. Pink is all sweetness and light and softness and cuteness, and
red is hey-the-engine-is-hot-let’s-take-a-ride-come-on-and-do-it-right-now.
This painting is called “Voodoo.”
For years I have been looking for “the” color book that would tell me how to use color to create the emotional effects I wanted in my paintings. I think I may be not color-blind, but color-inhibited. I think we all are in this
culture. Go somewhere public and look around at what people are wearing.
It’s a sea of grey, beige, and black. Lots of black.
Black is supposed to be so chic, but what it really is, is boring and safe.
It’s the ultimate camouflage.
Diana Vreeland, editor of Vogue magazine in the 60’s, traveled to India and observed, “shocking pink is the navy blue of India.” Our landscape does not look like India, and I suspect that's partly why we dress in such dull colors (especially in the winter). It’s some sort of leftover adaptive
behavior from the days when we used to be prey – don’t stand out, you’ll get munched. Maybe it still works, against human predators.
Unfortunately, this leaves us all color-starved. In light of the pink
versus red enigma mentioned above, if we are color-starved, are we
emotionally starved, too? Are we range-of-experience-starved?
The only book I could find that might be useful was Louise Hays’ Colors and Numbers. So I started researching the emotional effect of colors not by painting them, but by wearing them. The idea was to literally, physically immerse myself in a single color of clothing each day, over a long enough
period of time to decide what effect it had on my emotions. Here is what I
Wear yellow when you want or need to be sociable, like going to a party.
Wear red when you are scared or insecure and need courage (interesting in light of Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage).
Wear orange when you have a lot to do and need energy. Because it seems to assist activity and being busy, it would probably be a good color to paint your office.
Dark blue is a very inward color – wear it when you need time to yourself.
The effects of green and blue vary according to the shade.
By chance, my husband and I bought these very dark grey sheets (they were on sale). It was awesome to sleep on them because it was like slipping into the void every night, but in a good way. Can color cure insomnia?
If I was brave, I might paint or decorate my bedroom all black.
I am still investigating.
Does any of this translate to painting? If I paint a mostly yellow
painting, will it arouse a feeling of conviviality?
I have no idea. Do you?
Some articles of clothing have a power far beyond how often they are worn. In fact, it seems that the fewer times one wears something, the greater its influence. The wedding dress is the most obvious example – there are entire TV series devoted to the subject of finding the perfect gown.
I imagine that this is so because some garments embody our deepest wishes and dreams: if the dress is just right, then the marriage will be, too. It is a form of magical thinking. Thus explaining it, does not, however, lessen how powerful the pull of the perfect garment can be.
There’s more to it than that, though. I think certain kinds of dresses represent deep archetypes, and while we can discuss what these dresses mean all the day long, there are profound subterranean psychological attractions going on about clothing that can never be dissected.
I recently started painting dresses. I didn’t realize that I was painting what is known in the art world as “still life”; I thought I was creating figure paintings, just without the people in them. After all, to my mind, I wasn’t painting the dresses as dresses, I was painting the states of mind they represented. My subject wasn’t the dress itself; it was the way it feels to wear certain kinds of clothes. (I discovered this is impossible, or at least, I am not skilled enough to do it. So then I thought, well, I’ll just paint The History of Femininity through Dresses. As if that would be easier. I have settled for the understanding that sometimes as an artist, one has no idea what one is doing, one just has to do whatever it is one is doing as best as possible, get on with the painting, and leave the philosophizing for some very empty day in the far distant future. Yet here I am, still philosophizing.)
If I say to you, “Little Black Dress,” you not only know exactly what I am talking about in terms of style, you know the mood that goes with it: sophisticated, elegant, sexy. Glamorous.
When I painted “Little Black Dress,” the first of this series, I realized that by leaving out the model and just painting the dress, I had made it Everyone’s Dress. I can’t necessarily see myself wearing the same dress as some beautiful model, but I can substitute myself for an invisible woman. And then I can imagine what it feels like to wear that beautiful dress. Perhaps I can do this even if I never actually wear that beautiful dress.
How many people’s lives are glamorous?
Second in influence to the wedding dress must be the prom dress. I think a lot of unexcavated dreaming about the future gets tied up with prom dresses. There is a coming of age element with the prom dress that I think has already passed by when you get to the wedding dress.
There is something heartbreaking about prom dresses. Maybe it is more of that magical thinking; when I put this on, I will no longer have to worry about my skin and my hair will look like I meant it to do that and I won’t feel so stupid all the time. That’s the looking forward part. There’s a looking back part, too, depending on the phase of your life span. The looking back part says Jesus I was just so terribly young. That’s why so many artists (I am not blazing the trail here) are painting frilly, poufy 1950’s prom dresses. Those dresses embody that youngness so much more obviously than the prom dresses we actually wore. Those fluffy frills speak so clearly about how youth lifts off in the slightest of breezes and blows away.
Loss and yearning. One dress can paint one thousand emotions. One dress can encompass so many dreams.
Young girls want to be sexy. Old girls want to be young.
Hi, I'm Amy Anna, and I'm an artist, photographer, and writer. I'm a Person of Unrelenting Curiosity, so come explore with me.