March 27, 2010

"a playful search for beauty"

Ever wonder who is the coolest artist on the planet? Well, look no further. It is a woman who has proven for over seven decades that inspiration is absolutely everywhere...or at least, it is wherever she is in any given moment. She has worked all over the world designing pottery, rugs, furniture, tableware, vases, candlesticks, glassware, ornaments, watches, and silkscreens...just to name a few. And today, at the age of 103 she continues to design. For me, both she and her work are, and always will be timeless. Her name is Eva Zeisel, and even though I have never actually met her, I have had many intimate conversations with her heart and soul through her enchanting work.

Born in Budapest in 1906, she had an intense interest in seeing the world at a time when women simply did not travel alone. This desire lead to a bizarre twist of fate while in Moscow, when, not yet 30, she was accused of planning an assassination attempt against Stalin (yes, you read that correctly) which lead to an 18-month prison sentence, 12 of which were in solitary confinement... a "defining moment" as Dr. Phil would say.  Recognizing that dwelling on happy memories would only bring her pain, she forced herself to think of nothing sentimental, nothing from her past. And, because thinking of the future meant realizing the possibility of never leaving the prison alive, she chose to live in present moment only. She kept her body toned by exercising in her little cell, and spent her days imagining creative designs to keep mentally fit. Her hours were filled with sketching, designing, refining and meticulously hand-stitching designs--all in her mind's eye. Like Nelson Mandella, her body was imprisoned but never her mind and spirit. Decades later, she explains that she wouldn't change a thing about that harrowing experience because it taught her to see and savor every moment since.  

 I fell in love with Ms. Zeisel's designs long before I knew about her life's circumstances. Most of her tableware was created before I was born--she was even honored with an exhibit of her work at the MoMA! And some designs from that era can still be found today on ebay or antique stores. And while all-white dinnerware is commonly available from every design company today, Ms. Zeisel was the first to create such a service in this country. Thankfully some of those sets from the 1940s and 50s have been revived at Crate and Barrel 
and Bloomingdales, making them available to new generations of fans--again, proving that her designs are timeless and always fresh.

 So what inspires her? Well, first, let me tell you what does not. She cautions todays' artists about Post-Modernist thinking that demands we be an individual, be spontaneous, be original, be unique, always strive to invent something new...ideas she calls "negative impulses" as they prohibit our ability to develop a relationship with our designs because our focus moves away from (rather than toward) our search for beauty. She taught at Pratt for 15 years, and challenged her students with assignments that taught them to stay in touch with the original feeling and motivation behind the design. For example, they were instructed to incorporate "describing words" like soulful, rhythmic, dull, earthy, happy, sinuous, etc into their work.  This clarity of communication can be seen in examples of her own work like the lidded casserole dishes depicting birds, apples and ducks. It is easy to see how she incorporated lines, patterns and relationships observed in nature into functional design, all the while honoring the obvious joy she felt in creating these whimsical creations.

In the delightful book above, "Eva Zeisel On Design"  (cover photo above by Fred Conrad) she narrates her ideas on design in both images and words. She points out how we are inspired by nature's repetitions and patterns, and shows how a slice of red cabbage contains the same designs found in the lines of Art Nouveau. (oh my, she is right!) Also, we see that many of her vases and bottles are patterned after the human form, based on the harmony found in negative and positive shapes. She calls her Town and Country salt and pepper shakers "portraits" of a family, patterned after her own family and when you look at them, you can't help but realize that this sensibility of form is what sets her work apart. It is a treat to discover that when she designs a bowl, she is mindful of creating a design that feels complete on its own, as opposed to one that feels empty. That is a concept I have never before considered, but it all goes back to her ability to really see and feel what is in front of her. Like ET pointed out in the previous post--she goes beyond the basic "rules" of design like line, shape, form, and value and presents us with the "spirit" or essence of the object. The photo above illustrates her process of creating as she begins by sketching and cutting her designs out of paper (you can see a finished version of her stunning tables at DWR)  She reveals "Everything I do is a direct creation of my hands, whether it is made in wood, plaster, or clay...My designs are meant to attract the hand as well as the eye" This has never been more true than now when her eyesight is poor and she relies on an assistant to help translate the designs in her head to solid form that she can feel and refine with her hands. What an incredibly inspiring woman she is. You may also be interested in seeing her delightful interview on TED, visiting her website here, or reading this book or a recent interview with writer Lisa Kogan.

(above--my studio wet-brush holder. Knowing nothing about pottery, this is my foray into kneading, glazing and firing... and sharing Ms. Zeisel's love of curvilinear designs. My inspiration (and "describing words") were movement, waves, rhythm... Can you tell?

"...things speak to us, they tell us where we are. They talk to us through their shapes, contours, color, weight, temperature, surface, sound, and most clearly their associations...They fit in or clash with our surroundings. They speak to us in many national dialects. They speak of faraway places and things of old, of modern life and cultures long dead. They inspire. they sooth and bathe a home with grace, and provide intangible pleasures and joy. This is the magic of the language of design"...Eva Zeisel

March 19, 2010

Truth and Simplicity

"Truth and Simplicity"
12 x 16, oil on canvas

On this last official day of winter, I am sending you a little sunshine I discovered in a tube of paint...
My inspiration is of course Vincent Van Gogh, and I've searched his life story to learn what he found most inspiring. To begin with, the color yellow was a reoccurring theme--he said "A sun, a light, which for want of a better word I must call pale sulphur--yellow, pale lemon, gold. How beautiful yellow is".  Another inspiration was Japanese art, and if you have visited Monet's home, you know that both these were huge inspirations to him as well.  From what I can gather, Van Gogh was especially smitten with the fact that the Japanese integrated art into their daily lives, celebrating beauty in a way that made art indispensable. He offers this heartfelt explanation "'s sight changes. You see things with an eye more Japanese, you feel color differently." Van Gogh was enthralled with Provence where he lived in the "Yellow House" and painted yellow fields, a place where artist Paul Gauguin came to visit and paint with him for a couple of months. From Gauguin, he learned the importance of working from memory (I wish someone would help me learn that) and for a short time, he experimented with outlining his shapes as the Symbolist's did. Early on, he was more a tonalist painter at a time when the Impressionists were beginning to be popular, was enthralled by Rembrant's work, saying that what he loved most about the old master's work was that he "dashed off a thing from the first stroke and did not retouch it so very much." Van Gogh was slow to discover color, but when he did, he made it his own. Also, the invention of the camera brought a whole new way of composing a scene, inspiring Van Gogh (as well as the Impressionists) to experiment with cropping painted images.

 Before he discovered a life of painting, his first vocation of choice was preaching, but he was so overzealous about living like Christ, denouncing possessions, and choosing extreme poverty that he was asked to leave the church. Years later, this zeal and humility became a theme in much of his work, as evidenced in his choice of subject matter in the paintings of his chair and the bowl of potatoes (above). He linked subjects like potatoes to poverty, and  referred to the working class peasants as "the righteous poor", idealizing and romanticizing them in many of his paintings. Also, I learned that he often copied the work of artist Jean-Francois Millet. Van Gogh was mostly a self-taught artist, so this helped him to understand Millet's technique as well as subject matter, the humble working class. Vincent felt more at home in the "seedier" parts of town, often living and working alongside the peasants who inspired him. Sewing, weaving, farming, mining...these were the peasant labors he romanticized as spiritual tasks, noting that this humble class of people were "closest to God." Honoring the dignity of their hard lives and work in his own work, he explains "I have tried to emphasize that those people, eating their potatoes in the lamplight, have dug the earth with those very hands they put in the dish, and so it speaks of manual labor, and how they have honestly earned their food." A humble man who valued truth and simplicity in his subjects as well as in his own life. 

Explaining how great artists learn to go beyond what most of us see to convey the true essence of their subjects, Eckhart Tolle explains:  "Van Gogh didn't say: 'That's just an old chair.' He looked, and looked, and looked. He sensed the Beingness of the chair. Then he sat in front of the canvas and took up the brush."

March 13, 2010

You wash, I'll dry...

"You Wash, I'll Dry"
8 x 16, oil

I love painting reflective surfaces such as the silverware. The colors and values are arranged in such an abstract manner that the thinking side of the brain gets bored ~ allowing the intuitive side to simply react to color and value without overanalyzing it. Pure fun.
"Before enlightenment,
 chop wood, carry water
...After enlightenment
 chop wood carry water"... (an old zen saying)

March 6, 2010

il divino

"studies for Capitol columns, after Michelangelo"

8 x 6, conte' and pastels on pastel paper

Explaining the steps artists must master in order to progress in their work, Studio Incamminati artist and teacher Lea Colie Wight, explains, "Most of us start out learning how to use graphite, charcoal or paint to accurately record what we see. The process begins as an exercise in controlling a brush or pencil and learning how the materials can be used to create an illusion of reality. If we finally achieve that objective, the focus shifts to one of communicating personal expressions and observations". The key word is "if" because there is no guarantee that we, as artists, will ever evolve beyond learning the technical aspects of creating art and discover that shift in consciousness...which was never a concern for Michelangelo, who proved that shift in focus while he was still a teenager. Art historian and Michelangelo scholar, Charles de Tolnay explains "His youthful works already manifest the entire vision that characterized him", a vision that was "still vague in expression only because he did not yet possess technical mastery and deepened knowledge of anatomy and perspective."  The young artist had the vision before the technical skills--rare indeed. Today we would say that he "found his unique voice" early in life.

 De Tolnay goes on to suggest that his "maturity began to exhibit a rhythm", and his life can be divided into three phases. The early years, when he was sculpting the Pieta and the Bruges Madonna, were characterized as "heroic" ; while the middle years when he agonized over the Sistine Chapel, Tolnay refers to as "elegiac" because so much of his life revolved around sorrow and angst. The latter years before his death are described as "tragic" as Michelangelo recognized that his dreams had taken a forty year detour. And while I understand those characterizations, I also see another side that is rarely discussed. He was devoted to his family all his life. Written correspondence between Michelangelo and with his family reveals constant requests for money from his father and brothers which he dutifully obliged. Often the money was used to buy land and there were occasions when he sent ALL of his earnings home to them, while he lived very frugally. One of his letters explains that the Pope had refused to pay him for over a year, and that he had nothing to live on. In his last years, having outlived most of his family members, he continued this generosity by regularly sending  donations to the poor and needy. He gave anonymous, feeling that his philanthropy was more meaningful if he did not accept praise for his efforts. Certainly he had many challenges, but I see a man who lived life with great passion, humble requests and intense spirituality; a man who seemed to make peace with his past, as evidenced here in his own words:

"The mind, the soul, becomes ennobled by the endeavour to create something perfect, for God is perfection, and whoever strives after perfection is striving for something divine...
Only God creates. The rest of us just copy... 
I live and love in God's peculiar light...
if we have been pleased with life, we should not be displeased with death, since it comes from the hand of the same master"...Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564)