Saturday, January 22, 2011

ART TALKS: Evolution/Sally Milne, Julie Davidson Smith, Sharon Thompson

The following photographs were contributed by Martine Bresson, taken at The Mansion on January 19, 2011 ART TALKS.  The speakers (Sally Milne, Julie Davidson Smith, and Sharon Thompson)  discussed the evolution of their art practice.

Jane Derby and Julie Davidson Smith

Julie Davidson Smith

munching at The Mansion

Adept projectionist, Sandra Jass

Sally Milne with watercolours

on stage: Sharon Thompson and Sally Milne

Sharon Thompson

inspired discussions

"Plum Glass and Lemon Reflections"  watercolour Slide #1

We’re here to talk about the evolution of our work and I think that as artists and people we are always striving to develop and grow. Some of this process of development happens through conscious choice and directing our efforts and some of our growth - and this became clearer to me when looking back at my own work, in preparing for tonight’s talk - comes as a natural or unconscious progression and to me this is the exciting part about evolution in our work.

I have always painted in watercolour and I’ve been doing so for 23-24 years. The biggest factor in my early development as a watercolour painter was that I was able to work at it full time right from the start. I was living in Switzerland and I didn’t have a work permit so I was able to go to art school.  I did a lot of work on drawing and colour theory there but, there wasn’t much watercolour instruction available so, I am largely self-taught in terms of technique.

The qualities that attracted me to watercolour in the first place became the qualities I looked for in my subjects: Transparency, the fluid aspect of the medium, clean and clear colour. So, the medium really was my starting point.

I’m going to go back about 15 years to when I started to work on some still life paintings with glass objects in them. SLIDE 1 (Plum Glass and Lemon Reflections): In this painting I was interested in capturing the transparency of the glass, reflected colour and the effect of light shining through the glass. This was an expression of the qualities of watercolour and of my interest in colour. At this point I had been working in watercolour for 7-8 years and I my own style and technique were starting to emerge. My approach to painting has been to use strong, saturated staining colours and to try to achieve the final result in as few layers or washes as possible. In doing this I am keeping the white of the paper close to the surface so it can shine through the colour and I can achieve transparency and keep the colours clean. One thing that stopped evolving in my work many years ago is my palette. Years ago I established a group of 12 colours to work with and I have stuck with these colours ever since.

SLIDE 2 : ( Glowing Amber): For a period of time my only subject was glass objects. Once I had developed my technique and my palette I continued working on these paintings which I saw as studies in transparency, colour and light.

SLIDE 3 (Pure Light ): I had never really been interested in traditional representation and I found myself getting closer and closer to the subject - looking for places of intersection and compositions where there was little background and the objects extended beyond the borders I had determined as the edges of the composition. In all my work I am using photographs as a reference and I would set things up in sunlight to photograph them, thus capturing the light in a certain position and allowing me to approach the subject from different perspectives - such as in this one where I am looking down at the objects.

SLIDE 4 (Transparent Shadows): The composition - placement of objects and use of light and shadow started to become as important to me as the transparency which had first attracted me. I was excited when I did this painting because it was one of the first ones where I became aware of the element of abstraction in my work. (1998) I wasn’t necessarily about the objects any more.

SLIDE 5 (Colour Balance): In this piece, where the bowl and vase are more clearly represented, I started to focus on some of the abstract shapes within the glass. I wasn’t aware that I was doing this at the time but, this is an element which re-surfaces in my later work.

Now, at this point, I had been working on paintings of glass objects for about 3 and a half years and I’d done roughly 130 paintings. I got to a point where I felt I had explored the subject and I couldn’t see where to go with it further. I had done paintings representing the whole object, I had worked with light shining through glass. I had placed glass objects one in front of the other and worked on transparency and intersecting lines and overlapping colour. I had worked on composition with objects extending beyond the edges of the frame. I had explored many of these elements without really asking myself any conscious questions but, at this point, I started to wonder where to go next and I felt that I needed to open myself up to something new.

Subsequently, I have found that “opening oneself up” to something new does not always lead to fresh inspiration but, at that particular time I got lucky!
One night I was watching tv and a documentary came on about icebergs off the coast of Newfoundland. I was completely mesmerized by it and knew right then that I had to go there- to see them and to try to paint them.
In the Spring of 2000 and 2001 we went to Newfoundland specifically to find and to get as close as possible to some icebergs. We were very lucky and saw quite a few icebergs of varying size and were able to go on boats and get close to most of them. I came back with hundreds of photos.

SLIDE 6: (Majesty) This was a departure for me and it responded to a need for change.
This was a very exciting time as I tried to capture something so large, so sculptural, with such a presence and power, which wasn’t transparent but, which was also something transient, passing, melting, fluid.
The paintings were larger than any I had done before. This one measures about 2 feet by 3 feet which is large for watercolour and presents a physical challenge. The first paintings I did showed icebergs that could not be contained by the edges of the composition. People who had known my work with glass for years had a physical response to them, taking steps back...It was exciting to see that people had a physical response to my work but, a little disturbing to see that the response was to move away from it!

SLIDE 7: (Grounded) So, I painted some with land in them - which provided a reference people could grasp, a context they were familiar with.

SLIDE 8: (Ice in the Sunlight) And, some where I showed the whole iceberg. Some of the biggest technical challenges for me in this work were things like painting a large sky wash. Most of my previous work had been done in what I would call defined shapes.

In 2000 and 2001 I did about 30 of these iceberg paintings and then I started to yearn for warmer colours again so, I took a new look at my collection of glass objects.

SLIDE 9: (Aerial) One of the things I was now interested in - and which may have come from my work on the icebergs - was the element of movement and trying to convey movement through the fluid aspect of glass.

SLIDE 10: (Day’s End) Another painting focusing on fluid movement as an element of composition. This picked up and continued with the evolution away from representation.

I had been exploring the abstractions found within representation for a while - earlier, without even realizing it and now I started to use the glass objects as a source for abstract compositions.

SLIDE 11: (Gyro) This work still came from photographing glass but, I found myself cutting up the photos and only using small pieces of them to base my compositions on.

"Life Forces" wc

SLIDE 12: (Life Forces) These paintings are not pure abstraction. They all come from things I see when looking at glass pieces close up.

SLIDE 13: (Bloom) One of the challenges I found with this work was to do a painting without hard edges - to only paint the shapes within. This was pushing away from my natural tendency toward clean, clear edges and was a technical challenge working in larger areas and keeping the whole thing soft. I felt this was a new progression in my work.

SLIDE 14: (Shadowy Ice) Where there is abstraction within glass, there is also abstraction to be found within ice and in my most recent paintings I am working on looking into the ice and developing the forms into compositions on their own, no longer relying on the whole. Some of the paintings in this group have defined edges and shapes and others do not.

SLIDE 15: (Within the Ice I) Again, the soft edges are challenging me and drawing me closer - away from my earlier days of representing the whole with clean, clear, crisp objects, sharp edges and moving into softness and becoming aware of mood as an element to explore.

SLIDE 16: (Within the Ice II)

What I’d like to say to sum up is that sometimes we are lucky enough to grow and evolve and develop without even being aware of it. During other periods it is a struggle and demands a lot of hard work, persistence,  discipline and determination. As artists, we have a physical representation of that evolution in our work, showing us where we have come from...and I think we are pretty lucky to have that. 

I appreciate this opportunity to share some of my process with OKWA.  It is always valuable to reflect upon where one has come from and where one might be going as an artist. I have decided to confine myself to showing work from the last two years because with 20 minutes it does not seem possible to cover the whole long time that I have been working.

The first images are of my most current work finished at the very end of 2010 and into 2011, which I will show as I talk generally (image #1) and move back  in time later.

I want to begin by saying that for me, to be an artist is and has been to embark on a journey of fire, a journey of considerable difficulty which requires facing oneself, all of one's passions both light and dark and using the energy of those passions as a spring board to make art.  For me. making art is about transforming the passions of being human into light and space and energy.(image #2)  

 Part of the journey of fire that I speak is my having a double sided voice.  This voice seems to have one side that is highly structural and formally demanding (  #3 slide of a still life)  and another side that is fluid and loose  ( #4 slide of a garden).    I find both of these sides beautiful and expressive but they have also seemed different, both visually and emotionally, impressionism vying with cubism.  The art making emerges from the dance and conflict of these two sides in an effort to bring them together.  

 For example, here is an abstract which I finished in the spring of 2010 ( image #5) , highly structured and typical of  where I was at the time.  Then at the end of June we took a road trip across the prairies.  I painted every day and  behold, the other side that loves movement and looseness jumped forward.

 ( slide #6) The experience of the prairies really had an impact on me.  I felt as though the whole landscape was whispering to me as I worked.  I could see  through this whispering sense, that the space light  and energy that seemed to be at the centre of my abstract work was right here in front of me.  It was not just  an imagined journey that lay beyond the daily ups and downs of this world. 

 (slide 7) This gave me a new confidence in what I am doing in the abstract work, and I returned to Kingston and completely reworked the show for North Bay in 3 weeks on the basis of this experience.

I want to speak now about the use of line in my work  this is a recent drawing done with the left hand. ( #8 image figure)  Life drawing is a practice that I have done off and on ever since graduating from art school and it is an important part of my vocabulary. Lines do a host of things in my work—making connections. expressing energy, creating spatial depth to name the main ones. In February 2009 I broke my right wrist and spent 8 weeks living and working from the left hand.  I was left handed as a small child and was shifted to the right hand.  To my large surprise I found that the left hand could draw much more accurately and expressively than the right hand.  Since then  all of the drawn lines, and the use of the paint brush are with the left hand.  At Queens I studied sculpture and painting equally during my BFA because I loved them both. I often think that I am a sculptor using paint.  

The sculpture had a very large influence on my painting, especially in the areas of composition and form (image #9 landscape). Though both the painting and the sculpture in my graduating show at Queens were completely abstract, I spent most of the years after graduation, from 1983 to 2000 as a landscape/garden/still life painter.   I felt I did not really know enough about painting when I graduated and, I also believed it was important to work and learn from life.  I did learn a great deal, especially about colour from trying to reproduce the colours in nature. I also learned about relationship, seeing, light, space and depth  These are practices that I continue to this day, feeling both personally and artistically nourished by them.

(slide #10) I have not confined my artistic activities to painting however and have experimented with other materials through collage. Part of the impetus to experiment comes from the question in my mind “who am I”, “what is my voice?--and so when something in the work of others attracted me I wanted to try it out.  I think this sort of experimentation is really important in one's development especially early on. The 'collage' practice also goes some way towards incorporating my love of sculpture.  I also like the additive process of collage, which is different from the painting process .  I like the difficulty of resolving what is already there but not quite right by adding something new rather than covering up or painting over.   This has been a great help in strengthening the painting. In these collage pieces I put everything, pencils, hardware from the basement,  buttons, glass),  anything that I could create rhythms with basically.  I kept redoing the series with every new material that came to my fancy and attention like tissue paper, string but it was concrete  (slide #11) that  really caught my fancy.  What attracts me to the concrete is that it is both very physical and stone like ( and I have called these works stone drawings), but at the same time, using paint one can achieve a diaphanous effect  and this ironic combination appeals to me visually,  and spiritually.

( slide #12)  I also experimented briefly with hair pieces for a show at the State of Flux gallery of Modern Fuel. In this series each piece needed to have a hair piece in it to fit the theme.  I found this need to work with a theme intellectually and formally challenging.  It stretched my conceptual side and gave me the brief satisfaction of realizing that I could or might do this kind of work if I felt inclined..

 (slide #13)I want to speak now about my abstract painting.  I have learned to do many things competently over the years and each of these has added to my artistic vocabulary .  I also learned what appealed most to me amongst these, and all of it has been the ground work for where my heart and soul lie which is in the abstract painting.  I will show you a few recent pieces (slide #13).

A little bit of history. After graduation in 1983 I did not again do abstract painting in any serious way until the year 2000 and from that year it has been my main focus. My BFA sculpture teacher, Alan Dickson asked me when he saw me pursuing abstract work again, why I had waited so long to return to this, implying that I had wasted a lot of time.  In part he was right ( slide #14) I was avoiding. 
This serious return to abstract painting in 2000 was the beginning of the real journey of fire because it is truly walking a path of unknowing and the reason I had avoided it so long  was the need to gather enough life and artistic experience to sustain a practice that walks completely in the unknown.
I am inspired by the cellist, Pablo Casals who every morning would begin his day by playing one of the Bach Cello Suites. I imagine that it was his way of preparing himself for the day, of embracing and celebrating that day to come no matter what it might bring.

(slide #14) I think of my painting, especially my abstract painting, in this way.  I have no real words for what it is about, just as Casals could have no words for what the music he was playing was about.  However, 2 things come close to describing it.   The first is the sense of transforming human passion into space and light  and energy which I have spoken about. The second is the sense of the world as whispering; I tell a story which relates to this of another encounter with Alan Dickson who was by the way a wonderful teacher.  We were discussing a piece of abstract sculpture that I was working on at school.  I said to him that I heard what to do.  He said,  "You do not hear what to do, you see what to do." Despite his authority I could not reneg on this sense of hearing what to do. Looking back on this event, I can see that at some level there was a sense of what I call the world whispering inside me and inside itself even then.  I see this in the works of some of the great artists—Cezanne, Emily Carr, Eva Hesse, Agnes Martin and also far back in art history,  Rembrandt, Vermeer, Giotto, and Fra Angelico to name but a few.
It is to participate in this, to probe it, and to try to express it, that I make art and that I am prepared to undertake the journey of fire that is at the heart of art making.


Julie Davidson Smith contributed spontaneously to the discussion of the evolution of one's art and so her talk is not transcribed here.  Be sure and check in to see when the next ART TALKS will be held at Kingston's THE MANSION.

1 comment:

  1. thank you for posting the talks by Sally, Sharon & Julie. It was an interesting read!