Stormy Lives, Stormy Art?

I promised in the beginning (“Welcome to My Blog”) that I would be going wherever my thoughts may take me (and I can assure you, they are always taking me somewhere).  As a result, I will continue with the current thread begun in the previous posts.  This thread began with a weather-related theme (“On a Late Winter’s Eve”), and each post has suggested something to me that I wanted to pursue in the following post.

In our previous discussion (“Sketches on a Late Winter’s Eve”), we let our hair down and rolled up our sleeves and got “physical”, as it were.  In fact, I made references to the physical aspect of art, and to the ways it allows us to give expression to our energies and to our inner self, even likening the process of creation to a form of dance or physical exercise.  Indeed art is all of those things and it allows both the mind and the body to become involved in the act of expressing, or communicating what we feel or want to convey to the outside world.  Yes, art is expression, and the act of creating art is very much an act of expression or communication.  It is this thought that led to a comment appearing in the last post which I promised to follow-up on.

To begin, let me recall for you some key words or ideas that made their appearance in the last posting.  First, was the concept of pure creative energy, which can be unleashed in the creation of art, embodying itself as a physical act of creation.  I pointed out that we can do this even without a great deal of planning or forethought.  Indeed, if we simply set the stage, and begin, some sort of action will always follow (good, not so good, but always a surprise).  The beauty is that we ourselves are in complete control of the process, but it takes its shape as a “phoenix” ( mythical bird rising from ashes) rising from the interactions of  the body, soul, and mind of the artist.  It is you becoming a creative, expressive energy that finds expression through your physical interaction with our physical world..

In the last blog I used the word “attack” to describe how I felt when I took charcoal in hand and began to make my marks on the physical ground (the paper) which would support and preserve the results of my actions.  “Attack” is a strong word.  I did not speak of “caressing the paper with my lightly held charcoal crayon”, and I did not mention “carefully and deliberately carrying out my preconceived notions of what I wanted to say”.  I simply indicated that an abstract thought was in my mind and it demanded of me that I express it somehow in visual form.  It was important that I gave expression to the driving force within me, and the abstract idea of a storm can demand a powerful or perhaps “stormy” artistic response.  The art should fit the subject or motivation, and should reflect the energy level that is appropriate to achieving that objective.

These were the kinds of thoughts that were conjured up in my mind as I described the experience that I wanted to relate to you in the last post.  You may recall that I mentioned that an artist, whom I have not thought about for a number of years, made his way into my thoughts, and I wrote that we might visit his work in this next post.  I thought of him because I felt that both the man and his works might have something important to say to us if we pursued the subject.  Even more, his works seemed to fit the kind of creative phenomenon that occupied my thoughts in the previous post.

The artist, whom I had the opportunity to know briefly, some years ago as a student, was the Canadian artist, Paterson Ewen.  Paterson Ewen is perhaps not a very familiar name often dropped at social occasions over cocktails and cleverly enlightened conversation.  Yet he was considered important, and he was important, and his works hang today in places like the National Gallery of Canada and many other public museums and institutions, for example.  I think that Paterson Ewen opens a window on many fascinating aspects of art, including many which are not often visited, but which should not be ignored.  If you haven’t taken time to look him up by now, let me tell you that Paterson Ewen came into my mind because he was a strong man, something like a lumberjack when I knew him, and who didn’t dally with the niceties of polite society and the refinement of “proper” art done in the usual way.  He brought his physicality and his inner spirit forcefully to bear on his artistic creations.  Though I knew him only briefly as a person, it is his work and commentary on it that I wish to consider tonight.

So that you will better understand what I already know, let me explain that Paterson Ewen was known best for his very large, later works, executed typically on one or more full 4 ft X 8 ft (approximately 1.2 m X 2.4m) sheets of plywood, which he physically “attacked” (quite literally) with a “router” (a hand-held machine tool used in woodworking to quickly cut, shape, and “gouge” wood).  If you don’t know the tool to which I refer, it consists of an electric motor with handles on two sides and a sharp, 3-dimensional (often cylindrical, conical, or other shape) sharpened cutting blade which spins on the motor’s protruding rotating shaft at extremely high speed.  It quickly reduces the wood cuttings to a fine dust.  The router is held in both hands, by the handles, and is moved almost entirely by the actions of the arms and body, across the surface being cut.  In the hands of Paterson Ewen, the router was used to gouge shaped lines and shaped depressions into the surface of the plywood sheet(s) on which he worked.  To finish the work, Paterson would take colored paints and fill the gouges and depressions with paint, along with whatever remained of the original plywood surface.  The result was always a forceful, and powerful statement, as art.

Normally, I would post images of a few of Paterson Ewen’s illustrative works on plywood here, but due to copyright laws, I will refer the reader to his page in Google Images for examples of his work.  Pass your mouse over each image to determine whether it is a Paterson Ewen image, as many other images appear on this same page.

At this point, I hope you are beginning to understand why some of my words and ideas expressed in the last post led me to think of Paterson Ewen.  However, there is even more connection than I have mentioned, so far.  It turns out that Paterson Ewen was strongly motivated to produce images involving the weather, often violent, including rain- or hail-storms and even tornadoes.  He also was fascinated by celestial images of the moon, stars, and even the aurora.  As an example, here is a link to his work entitled “Tornado #3“.  The image appears at the bottom of the linked page.

And now a few words, before continuing, concerning art as communication and expression.  Few would deny art’s standing as a form of expression or communication, and I am not the first to contend that it is, in fact, a language.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that it is a universal language which can speak and convey a message to any person, regardless of his background or his geographical connections, and that fact makes it very different from the other kind of language, namely the spoken or written language.  We all know the familiar saying, “a picture is worth a thousand words”, and isn’t it true?  What a visual or auditory image of any kind may convey to any one of us can be unique to us and may even defy adequate description in spoken or written form.

Paterson Ewen had, what I think could be referred to as a “stormy life”.  He had an unhappy childhood, served in World War II, studied to become an artist (a time which he referred to as among the happiest in his life) and married a French Canadian dancer and sculptor, Francoise Sullivan.  Their years together were not easy and left little time for making art, forcing him to take other jobs in order to survive.  Eventually the marriage ended in divorce, and the artist experienced his first nervous breakdown.  Another breakdown soon followed and he was admitted to psychiatric care and was treated for depression with shock treatments, which he felt benefited him enough to be able to go back to work as an artist.  The story of Paterson Ewen’s somewhat turbulent life can be found in various excerpts available on the Internet (see links below) or in the book or magazine articles published about him, and I will not dwell on it in more detail here, since that is not my purpose.  A good place to read something about his life and work can be found in this Biographical Sketch, and in this Article, published originally in Maclean’s magazine.  There is also a book about Paterson Ewen which may still be available by Internet search.

It would be easy to make the case that Paterson Ewen found expression in his art, and his method of creating it, for the conflict of mental and emotional forces which almost tore him apart on more than one occasion.  It would be easy to say that his method of tearing into large sheets of plywood with a router to produce strong images of storms and turbulent weather, could perhaps be explained by simply examining the emotional turbulence in his own life, and claiming that it simply found  an outlet and expression in his work, and in his manner of producing his works.  This is what I originally thought, and it would make an interesting story, if true.  However, I think that it is also true that life is not always so easily explained as what first appears on the surface to be obvious.  In fact, the notion that there may, in some cases, be a connection between forms of creative expression and, shall we say, “madness” is not new.  This idea has been proclaimed throughout history by many notable writers and scholars, and it seems not hard to find examples that would appear to substantiate this connection.

In Paterson Ewen’s case, I believe we have to look more deeply, and I think that the strongest clue to an answer was given by Paterson, himself.  On an occasion when it was suggested that his work was, in fact, the product of the turbulence and negative impact of his past emotional experiences, his reply was most interesting.  Paterson acknowledged that one might think that persons who had experienced similar lapses into periods of mental instability, might exhibit related patterns in creative bursts of expression (in art, literature, or other means or expression),  He even made reference to the famous painting, “The Scream“, by Edvard Munch.  I myself can think of a number of artist’s works which suggest these inner emotional turmoils finding expression through the creative act of communicating through art.  I’m sure that you can also think of famous examples or artists whose well-known mental instability resulted in truly unique expressions in their art.  An obvious example, which has been recently in the news, might be the famous painting by Edvard Munch, mentioned above.  His well-known pastel painting (one of four versions of this image that he produced) entitled “The Scream” has just recently sold at auction for almost $120 million, a new record for an auction sale  (whatever his motivation for producing it, it was certainly a valuable one).  One might make the case that Munch was expressing something which he felt from within.  In fact, Munch made an entry in his diary expressing the emotions he felt when experiencing a sunset in which he felt that the clouds had turned to blood and that he felt a scream in all of nature.  Munch later reiterated his feelings and motivation in a poem (which has been translated from the Norwegian) which he painted on the frame of the painting which was recently sold at auction.  I won’t pursue this topic much further here, I simply mention it as an example for further discussion or research.

The revealing comment that Paterson Ewen made, when it was suggested that his emotional trauma might be finding clear expression in his work and that this might be a common occurrence, was telling, I think.  Paterson responded by commenting (paraphrase) that the artists he had known who could be said to be suffering from severe forms of mental anguish, had, in fact, never produced much because they failed to have sustained periods of creativity.  He went on to point out that in the five psychiatric wards where he had been spent time in  treatment, he had never met another artist.  This appears to have been his way of saying that there was little connection, as far as he was concerned, between his problems with mental illness (as well as alcoholism, etc) and the artistic work which he produced.  It appears that to Paterson Ewen, at least, his work was the normal response to his artistic drive and spirit and his intellectual curiosity, and not the product of his emotional past.

I tend to accept this point of view, which he espoused, and, with what I know of his work, I believe it was motivated more than anything by a fascination with the forces and powers of nature, and with the physical laws which govern those forces, which he found fascinating.  His work seems to be motivated by the wonder of the power of nature being revealed to us in cosmic interactions between stars, planets, comets and other celestial phenomena, and on earth by forces as beautiful as those which generate thunderstorms or the aurora, or as powerful as those which produce tornadoes.  There seems to be a clear scientific component to his wonder as is evidenced by one of his works, in particular, entitled “Thundercloud as Generator“.  In this work, he effectively produces a scientific illustration of the build-up of powerful electrical fields which can occur between clouds and earth.  These fields can ultimately resolve themselves in instantaneous and powerful bolts of lightning, and the thunder produced by the accompanying shock wave as the dielectric insulator of the intervening air mass is torn asunder by the violent release of electrical energy.

I think we have only scratched the surface, here, of an enormously complex subject, and I will want to delve further into it on a separate occasion.  I was not motivated at this time to engage in a psychological assessment of the connection between mental or emotional states and creativity.  I was motivated by the desire to comment on the work of a single artist which seemed related to our former discussions, with a weather-related theme.  However, we will not leave the larger issue, which has been opened here, aside, but will want to return to it at some point in the future, as worthy of further discussion and investigation.

For those who would like to know much more about Paterson Ewen, the artist and his work, you will have no trouble finding other references on the Internet, in addition to the few links that were given above.

The creation of art is a complex phenomenon involving two distinct entities, each worthy of study and analysis; the artist who creates the work, and the completely separate issue of the work itself, its motivation and meaning or interpretation (a distinction made by the famed Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Jung).  There is much more to be said and much more to explore, as always.

For now, I thank you for joining me again.  Perhaps you’ll find the time and interest to learn more of Paterson Ewen and his work.  For me, I remember him as a remarkable individual whom I once knew and now remember.  He was a person who left a very unique and distinct fingerprint on the world of art, and I think he provides an interesting example for us tonight.

Thank you for joining me.  I hope to see you again soon, and to you, Paterson Ewen, rest in peace, your creations will live on and perhaps provide inspiration and hope for others.

—  Jim

I must express my apologies to those who may have known Paterson Ewen far better than I did.  If I have said anything that might be construed as offensive or incorrect, it was not intentional.  He made his appearance here through my memory of him and my desire to bring him, his work, and his life to the attention of others who might benefit from them.

Sketches on a Late Winter’s Eve

In my last post, my remarks were shaped by the late winter storms and rains which dominated my thoughts that late-winter night.  The season continues (as do the rains), as Spring officially begins this month.  Officially, they say my particular part of the country is out of the drought, but dry conditions are predicted to prevail over much of the southern half of the country, and even in parts of the northern US as we move into 2012.

These conditions are reportedly brought on by a cyclic cooling in the Pacific Ocean, referred to as “La Nina”.  This past year, as La Nina was winding down, it started forming again, so much of the country will experience continued drought conditions perhaps well into this year, and possibly even beyond.  In addition, our winter was unusually mild this year due to the action of the jet stream which arched across the country from west to east, moving to the north this past winter, pulling warmer southern air up over most of the US.  Of course, this was balanced by the extreme cold weather in Europe, mentioned in the previous blog post.

In any event, as I mentioned before, the mild winter may bring unusually severe storms as Spring approaches this year, and so my thoughts continue to be focused around thoughts of past work with a weather-related theme.  The Alberta prairie-storm scene discussed and portrayed in the last blog, featured a typical storm scene with grain elevators and railroad cars illuminated by the slanting rays of the sun before sunset, and set against a backdrop of darkening skies and blowing dust ahead of the oncoming storm.

The scene was depicted in a realistic style, with reasonably accurate suggestions of the shapes of the buildings, railroad cars, trucks and other elements of the scene, including even the fallow plowed fields in the foreground (unfortunately the image was probably too small to see much of the detail, but you get the idea).  Such painting is referred to as representational, and even realism, if carried to the extreme.  It was not my intention in that painting to produce a highly finished or polished work at the level of realism, and that is often the case with the work of many artists.  I am often motivated more to capture the essence of a scene and to convey the feeling or an emotion associated with it, than I am in rendering every detail.  The whole issue of how much to include or not to include in a work, and the degree to which it should be finished and even possess photographic-like qualities, could be the subject of many blog posts, indeed.  If you’d like to see examples of extreme realism in painting (photo-realism, hyper-realism), I might refer you to the work of Richard Estes, for example.  Another artist, often credited with being among the first of the modern photo-realists (though he himself did not necessarily agree with the title), and one whom I had the opportunity to know, was John Kacere, known primarily for his realistic figurative works.

Today, many artists are influenced by the ground breaking work of the Impressionist school, and much of our art today is not of the highly polished or finished variety, but rather is more “loosely” rendered, often with some parts more finished than others, and in which what is left unsaid can be as important as what is said (or shown).  After all, the mind delights in challenge, and we sometimes gravitate more to work that leaves something to the imagination, or to be completed in some way in the mind of the viewer.  The Impressionists, in particular, sought ways of conveying the sense of light and color in nature by painting in a way that prompts the mind to reconstruct the visual sensation from what is actually seen in the painting (small adjacent daubs of pure color which blend in the eye to form the desired hues when viewed from a distance, for example).

To continue with our theme, we’ll stay focused on stormy weather and take another look inside the mind and soul of the artist, again.  This time, however, the artist is not going to be working from an actual scene he has witnessed, but is simply inspired to create something related to the abstract idea of a prairie storm.  The real intent is to simply throw away all convention, grab a suitable set of tools, and go to work without a detailed plan, and let creativity roam free to produce whatever will come of it (sometimes good, sometimes not so good, but always a surprise).

In my case, and for the sake of this discussion, I often experience the desire to do just what I have described.  A favorite set of tools for this is a large sheet of paper (typically newsprint, about 18X24 inches in size) and some suitable pieces of charcoal for “painting” on the paper.  Charcoal is a wonderfully expressive medium for artists to work with, enabling everything from fine line work to broad, expressive strokes; and to a virtual spectrum of shades of gray (by smearing), for defining form.  A common expression relating to this kind of work is the word “chiaroscuro”, which according to Webster, refers to a type of art employing only light and shade, omitting colors.  Artist charcoal comes in several useful degrees of hardness, all of which find their place in pictorial rendering.  The charcoal itself, of course, is obtained by burning wood in a relatively oxygen-free environment.  The wood used for artist’s charcoal is often willow, and the charcoal is often compressed (or even mixed with certain clays) to form a more substantial and refined drawing/painting tool.  The paper used must not be too smooth, but must have a “tooth” (a certain degree of roughness), enabling it to hold the charcoal dust within its fibers.  For that purpose, newsprint (which has not been printed on) is one of the least expensive of the suitable media for charcoal drawing, but many very fine hand-made acid-free papers are available for work which is intended to be archival (able to survive for very long periods of time into the future).

In any event, on days like the one I am describing, the act of drawing becomes a form of physical exercise, or dance (painting and drawing are often suggestive of dance, as the whole body often becomes involved in the process, and it is for this reason that many artists like to work “large”, with sweeping gestures (on large sheets of paper, canvas, boards, walls, barns, or whatever)).  For the sake of our discussion today, “large” will mean 18X24 inches.  The drawing itself will not be done so much by the actions of the hand or wrist, as by the arm and the whole body moving in a harmonious way, and with little regard to fine detail of any kind.  The whole idea is to simply catch the essence of whatever is in the artist’s mind (if there is anything at all in there) and to have a good time being expressive and creative.

Perhaps a brief aside might be in order here.  If you are overwhelmed by the world of everyday reality, and seek escape, and an alternative to romance novels, action-packed westerns, TV drama, etc, etc, then an alternative that is possibly even more fulfilling might interest you.  Grab a large piece of suitable paper; buy a small assortment of charcoal sticks (sticks, not pencils, for large work) and let yourself go!  You may be amazed at what can happen with a little effort.  By the way, if you do, you’ll want a “kneaded” eraser (very soft, kneadable rubber especially made for the purpose), and something like a small piece of chamois (sheep skin) or anything similar (an old T-shirt, for example), for smearing and creating shades of gray.  The creative possibilities before you are now endless and you will have become an active, rather than a passive participant in your pastime!

Meanwhile, back to the main theme for today.  Having done what I have just described, I simply mounted the paper on an upright board (an easel can be handy), and proceeded to “attack” it with pure abandon and little forethought, with the stick of charcoal.  The result will usually be a bold statement of some sort and with a little pushing and shoving here and there, you can start to mold it into whatever it may suggest to you (in my case, I already had a storm theme in mind).  Well, here is the result of a fairly short, but thoroughly enjoyable session with the charcoal:

Prairie Storm Sketch w/charcoal

Prairie Storm Sketch w/charcoal on paper

Based on my somewhat limited knowledge of weather (I have attended a “storm spotter” class), I constructed what might be recognized as a strong shaft of updraft air, billowing out at the top into the characteristic “anvil” formation.  I then splashed some clouds all around, threw in some kind of foreground (reminiscent perhaps of prairie) and tossed some mounds suggestive of distant mountains on the horizon beneath the whole mess.  I do not claim that I have created a great work of art, but I do claim that I had a good time doing it, and that’s what it’s all about.  Use your imagination, and be creative and expressive!  This is surely one of the most important sides of the artistic creative experience and one that I enjoy engaging in on a regular basis (I’ll show more examples of this in later blogs).  To the musical side of my mind, an image of this sort, intended to be a powerful statement, might be described as “Wagnerian” .  I can even hear the distant thunder and see the flashes of lightning when I think about it, and perhaps even the Valkyries are thundering along somewhere in the distance!  Having said that, the work of another artist whom I knew comes to mind, and  we may pay a visit to him in the next post.

Lest this latest post turn into a short novel, I will quickly bring this to an end with an additional commentary.  Having finished with the charcoal experience, I felt like I’d like to do something very similar with paint and a few colors, just for variety, and so I grabbed a canvas board (in this case not so large) and a very few oil paints, and taking a bristle brush in hand, proceeded to replicate the experience with my new tools.  Here, for your amusement, is the result of that quick and spontaneous effort.  You’ll have to agree that this is not a finished painting by any stretch of the imagination, but it was fun and I sort of like it (which is of no consequence, whatsoever).

Quick oil rendering prompted by charcoal sketch

Prairie Storm from charcoal sketch rendered in oil on canvas

No, this is not the serious side of art, it is the other side, but an important one and one which helps to mold us and our skills as artists.  And whether you see yourself as an artist or not (even though ancient cave and wall paintings attest to the fact that humans have been experimenting with art for many thousands of years), you can have a good time just engaging in this primal instinct which seems to reside in all of us!

I hope I was not too long-winded today, but you are dealing with a former teacher and I think it’s just part of my nature – I’ll probably always have something of the spirit of teaching in me, and it seems that it will come out, whether intended or not.  In any event, this concludes my latest journey into the magnificent and seemingly unlimited world of art, which leaves plenty of material for future excursions!  Thanks for joining me!  I’ll hope to see you again soon.

Until next time….

—  Jim