Sunday, May 19, 2019

"Little Fires Everywhere" by Celeste Ng

Another art-related book I have recently enjoyed is Little Fires Everywhere, by Asian-American author Celeste Ng.  When I'm slogging away in my studio I sometimes want the diversion of an audiobook. This time I chose an author whose previous novel Everything I Never Told You impressed me. It was an Amazon Book of the Year in 2014.

Ng's parents emigrated from Hong Kong in the 60's, and Ng was born in the US in 1980. At the age of ten she moved to Shaker Heights, Ohio, a progressive, well-regulated suburban community that she has chosen as the setting for both her novels.

A winner of Goodreads Choice in 2017, Little Fires Everywhere is mostly about family and motherhood. One of the main characters is Mia Warren, a peripatetic artist who moves with her teenaged daughter Pearl from one American town to another. Once one project ends, they pack up their few belongings and move on to find another. There is a stark contrast between the bohemian lifestyle of this little family and the rigid conformity of Shaker Heights.  This is reinforced by the introduction of  the Richardsons, an affluent, conventional family who take Mia and Pearl Warren under their wing. The reader slowly learns about the mysterious background of the Warrens as another plot line involving cross-racial adoption evolves.

The life of Mia Warren as an artist is central to the story, and comes into focus as the novel ends. A good read, Little Fires Everywhere is being made into an 8-part mini-series for Hulu, starring Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Explorations with Jane Davies, Lesson 5


A few weeks ago I posted about the "City in Ruins" series I began as Lesson 4 of my on-line class with Jane Davies. For Lesson 5, I continued working on the first six pieces, and began another four. The approach was the same: four layers of collage, sanded, and then the application of paint, pattern and line. I chose to limit myself to a neutral palette, to use a wide variety of media, and to create quiet spaces that contrasted with busy areas.


The first step I took was to sand down more of each piece, especially the dark background, which I had created with Carbon Black. Jane Davies suggested I aim for a richer, more nuanced dark, so I was guided by her tutorial on laying down multiple coats of transparent colour. I settled on the complementary colours of ultramarine blue, quinachridone gold, and sepia.


Another suggestion was that I introduce some colour, and I chose to include some areas of quin gold.


I also made an effort to soften the margin between the building shapes and the background. I did this by applying a smudge of sepia or quin gold between the edge of the buildings and the background.


I did include a few pieces of red paper in the collage base for the latest four (5.7 - 5.10) but it didn't fit in well, and I persisted with the quin gold throughout.


Since I took these photos, I've made a few small adjustments, adding a touch more pattern here, a scrap of collage paper there, changing the value of a small area so that it is lighter or darker.


For example, in 5.7 above, I found the dark blotches on the lower right and upper left distracting, so I have moderated those bits with paint.


Can you see the clock face on the lower edge of 5.8? I partially concealed that with some Titan Buff paint. And the suggestion of red near the centre has been modified too. I find that looking at photos of the work can be helpful in suggesting small changes that might be needed to make a stronger composition.


I don't consider these works to be totally complete, and will no doubt return to them with fresh eyes at a later date.


Having spent so much time on this series in these last few weeks, I am somewhat weary of them and would like to put them aside for a while.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Another art-related audiobook

When I'm slogging away in the studio, especially when engaged in less mindful tasks, I often like to keep company with an audiobook. My latest find is The Muralist, by B.A. Shapiro (2015). Shapiro is best-known for The Art Forger (2012).

Like many novels of historical fiction, this one shifts between two different protagonists. One of them is a young woman artist, working in the 1930's in New York, employed by the Work Projects Administration. Alizée Benoit, born in France, is part of the Abstract Expressionist movement, friend of Lee Krasner, lover of Mark Rothko, protegée of Eleanor Roosevelt. She is preoccupied with the fate of her extended family, French Jews who are desperate to emigrate to America.

The second main character is her great-niece, Danielle Adams, also an artist, working as a researcher for an auction house in contemporary New York. Danielle wants to find out more about Alizée, about her impact on the development of Abstract Expressionism, and about the mystery of her disappearance. Nothing is known of Alizée's life after 1940, when she was still in her twenties.

So there is much in this book to interest me, including the American art scene of the 30's and 40's, the WPA, and the tragic indifference of so many governments to the plight of refugees from Nazi Germany.

As with Shapiro's "The Art Forger", I found the writing to be competent but not compelling. Much of the drama of the story is inherent in the historical turmoil of the era. The book never becomes more than the sum of its parts. Still, good company in the studio. I listened all the way to the end :-)

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Art + Life Rules from a Nun

Almost five years ago, I wrote a post about Sister Mary Corita Kent, and her ten rules on Art + Life. Some things are meant to be savoured more than once.

These rules are no doubt posted in many a studio, serving as daily inspiration. Here's a youtube presentation of them:

Sunday, May 5, 2019

City in Ruins

Thank you to Tess Hall, a participant in my current class with Jane Davies, for sending me a reference to the poem, Building with its Face Blown Off, by Billy Collins.

I am also reminded of this photo from Edward Burtynsky, which I saw recently at the Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal.

Edward Burtynsky, from Three Gorges dam project, China, 2002

This is the kind of devastation that is suggested by my recent imagery of "deconstructed" buildings in a mixed-media series, "City in Ruins", which I blogged about earlier this week.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Explorations with Jane Davies, Lesson 4

Layer #1

I was curious about Jane Davies' "Radical Collage", as described on her blog. which involves the use of a sander to deconstruct multiple layers of collage. And I was intrigued by Peter Sacks' works, which are composed of many layers of collaged paper, text and cloth, and which I wrote about a few weeks ago.

Layer #2

So when it came time to lay out the parameters for Lesson 4, I decided that I would see what would happen if I took a sander to my collage. Otherwise, I wanted to continue with neutral colours, pattern, line, and the contrast of busy areas with quiet spaces.

Layer #3

I pulled out piles of collage papers, including wallpaper and vintage text books. I reclaimed six birch cradle boards, 10 x 10, on which I had mounted earlier colour studies. I bought a product called Sandable Hard Gesso from Golden, mentioned on Jane's blog post. The manufacturer's website advised it was best used on a rigid surface, hence the birch cradleboards. As the sides had already been painted black, I protected them with green painter's tape.

Layer #4

And I got to work, cutting and tearing materials to collage into place with acrylic gloss medium. In the end, each board had four layers of collage. I worked in a rough grid format, using rectangles of various sizes, placed randomly. All had to be perfectly dry before applying the sander, a cute little hand-held number borrowed from my son-in-law.

hand-sized sander

Even using the coarse grade of sandpaper, I never got past the second or third layer. Papers that had wrinkled a bit when collaged looked striped when sanded. Others developed a kind of "blotchy rash". The edges in particular took a beating. The cloth bits were the most resistant to sanding. The result was completely unpredictable, which was fun. And challenging.

Top row, left to right, #1 - 3. Bottom row, left to right, #4 - 6.
Each 10 x 10 board has four layers of collage. At this point they've been sanded,
and #4 and #6 have a bit of paint on them.

The general appearance of the sanded pieces was "vintage", because of the papers I had used as collage material: mostly beige, with small print. If I had used white papers with large, modern typeface, the feeling would have been more contemporary. Because of this "antique" quality, I was tempted to finish these off with cut-out botanical prints (a rose, an apricot branch in bloom) or a butterfly, but decided that this was not the direction I wanted to pursue.

Instead, I reverted to my "cityscapes" theme. Carbon black paint established the sky background, sometimes further sanded down to create ambiguity. Masses of buildings emerged and were defined with patterning and line. Stencils, stamps, painters' tape, marker, paintbrush, water-soluble crayon and charcoal were all put to use. Further sanding and collage ensued. I wanted to retain the character of the "deconstructed" materials, not covering up too much. The impression is one of "A City in Ruins".

Here are the results:




#6. This one has the least amount of paint and patterning added to the
deconstructed collage surface. Just a few lines to suggest shapes.

I consider these to be works in progress, and hope to have another go at them soon. Something about the black seems a bit harsh. Can I make it richer, somehow? Perhaps I can create some transitional areas between the busy patterning of the collage and the quiet space of the background. Might introduce a few touches of colour too. Stay tuned!

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Spring show for Hudson Artists

Very excited to show some of my newer work in acrylic collage at the upcoming spring show of the Hudson Artists.

Here's the official promotion for the show:

"The Hudson Artists Association (AHA) invites you to its Spring Exhibition on May 3-4-5. 
"For close to 70 years, the Hudson Artists Association has been a major cultural influence in the Vaudreuil-Soulanges region. With almost 80 members, including several artists who have participated in international exhibitions, the AHA stands out for the quality of art works presented. 
"A painting by artist Carole Lessard will be offered to the lucky raffle winner and all ticket proceeds will be donated to the Palliative Care Home in Vaudreuil-Soulanges."

NEWS FLASH! I was delighted to win an Honourable Mention at the AHA Spring Show. The prize was awarded to Black and White series #2, shown in the photo, lower row, first from left.  This series showed nicely, with a white matte and a frame in black metal.

Black-and-white series #2

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

"The Marriage of Opposites", by Alice Hoffman

When I'm spending time in my studio, I often like to listen to an audiobook. Most recently, I savoured The Marriage of Opposites, by Alice Hoffman, a work of historical fiction that tells the story of the family of Camille Pissarro (1830-1903). I have read and enjoyed others of her novels, including The Dovekeepers (2011) and The Museum of Extraordinary Things (2014).

Pissarro is my favourite of the Impressionist and post-Impressionist painters. I especially like his later work, including those wonderful street scenes of Paris. I enjoyed learning about the influence of his family and his birthplace on his work and his career.

The Boulevard Montmartre on a Winter Morning, Camille Pissarro, 1897
Metropolitan Museum of Art

Pissarro was born on the island of St. Thomas, now part of the U.S. Virgin Islands. Hoffman cleaves closely to the actual history of this family, enriching it with vivid native folklore and vibrant descriptions of the plant and animal life of this tropical isle. Hoffman describes St. Thomas as a magical place, influenced by its native Creole culture and its history of piracy, home to a community of Jewish exiles from Portugal and Spain as well as African slaves, all under the relatively benign rule of Denmark. The main character in the story is Rachel, mother of Camille and his many siblings.

One of the aspects of Pissarro's life that I learned about in the afterword to the novel was his exile in England during the Franco-Prussian war, 1870-71. From Wikipedia:
"When Pissarro returned to his home in France after the war, he discovered that of the 1,500 paintings he had done over 20 years, which he was forced to leave behind when he moved to London, only 40 remained. The rest had been damaged or destroyed by the soldiers, who often used them as floor mats outside in the mud to keep their boots clean. It is assumed that many of those lost were done in the Impressionist style he was then developing, thereby 'documenting the birth of Impressionism.'"
You can read a review of "The Marriage of Opposites" in The Guardian.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Art-oriented travel adventures

I've heard good things about Road Scholar, the non-profit travel company formerly known as Elderhostel. They list twenty travel itineraries oriented to art and art museums. You can read about these offerings here.

The company has a reputation for "educational travel", though we all know that any travel is educational if you have the right attitude. Many of their clients are retired teachers.

The art trips range from 4 to 17 days, and some include travel by river boat or ocean liner. A range of activity levels offers something for everyone, including intergenerational groups and solo travellers.

Here is a sampling of their art-oriented itineraries:

In the Footsteps of the Masters: Impressionism Along the Seine

Dive deep into European Impressionism, gaining a comprehensive knowledge of Monet and van Gogh as you discover their inspirations and homes alongside scholarly experts

Frank Lloyd Wright, Roycroft, and the Arts & Crafts Movement

Meet traditional artisans, attend crafts demonstrations and explore authentic Roycroft homes as you join experts to learn the story of the Arts and Crafts Movement in Western New York.

A Barnes Foundation Exclusive: Modern and Impressionist Studies

Get to know the Barnes Foundation, where you’ll attend Road Scholar exclusive classes, learn about aesthetic principles and explore the works of Impressionist and Modernist masters.

Hands-on Glass in Chihuly's Seattle Studio

Discover the art of glass-blowing alongside experts as you learn about the works of Dale Chihuly, visit artists’ studios and the Museum of Glass and create your own glass masterpiece

Spanish Art: From the Golden Age to Gaudi and Beyond

Revel in traditions of art as you enjoy lectures on the Spanish Masters and Gaudi, visit iconic museums and set out on expert-led walks to the cathedrals and monuments of Spain today.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

The Way We Talk About Art Shouldn't Be Impossible to Understand

Are you often stymied by Art-Speak, the gobbledygook that purports to explain a particular work of art?

Here's a great article on the subject, written by Jackson Arne and published last year on

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Explorations with Jane Davies, Lesson 3

My objective for this two-week period was to continue exploring variety of contrast in a neutral palette, using collage, paint, line and pattern in a "cruciform" format. I wanted to have the busier areas contrast with quiet (but still interesting) backgrounds, and to include "transitional" areas between the busy and the quiet. All of these measure 16" x 16".

This had the least amount of value contrast. Mostly I restricted the values to light
and medium. There is a bit of black in the text, but it doesn't "read" as dark.
I like the way I was able to break up the background into shapes, using
a soft charcoal line.

#2 is similar.
It has more value contrast, with several collage pieces a medium-dark.

#3 has more value contrast still, ranging from white to black.
The background is a touch darker than in #1 and #2.
There's a bit of white cheesecloth collaged into the centre of the X,
and some spattered black paint. I might yet tone down that black clot in the centre.

#4 has an even darker background, and a full range of value contrast.

Because we are expected to produce a minimum of six "explorations" for each lesson, I supplemented these with the re-worked efforts that were begun in Lesson 2. (I posted about them here. in both their original and improved versions.)

The response to these pieces was generally positive, though the instructor, Jane Davies, explained that "cruciform" formats are meant to have horizontal and vertical orientations only. If I want to push them towards the diagonal, I should call the format "radial" or invent another name.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

"Daily Rituals: Women at Work," by Mason Currey

"What Women Artists Knew About Work" is the title of an article recently published in the Wall Street Journal. The piece was written by Mason Currey, the author of "Daily Rituals: How Artists Work", and more recently "Daily Rituals: Women at Work".

The article was so interesting that I decided to order his new book immediately.

Here is an excerpt from the newspaper piece that captured my interest:
"Don't be afraid of slumps. ... [I]t often turns out that these miserable slumps precede the most fertile periods of artistic or intellectual activity. The New Zealand writer Katherine Mansfield was very familiar with this cycle. Despite much self-castigation over her non-writing days, she eventually realized they were just as important as the more conventionally productive ones. 'What happens as a rule,' she wrote in her journal, "is if I go on long enough I break through." The Abstract Expressionist painter Helen Frankenthaler worked in periods of deep focus followed by stretches of labored, unsatisfactory painting, or nothing at all. 'I seem to start at day one again,' Frankenthaler said, adding that the feeling was 'agony'. But, gradually, these fallow periods would give way to a new phase of work.
"Never give up, no matter how long it takes. The Danish writer Isak Dinesen didn't start writing seriously until she was in her 40s, near the end of a failed venture at running a coffee plantation in Kenya. The sculptor Louise Nevelson exhibited her work for 25 years without making a sale; she got her big break shortly before turning 60. And the painter Alma Thomas didn't become a full-time artist until she retired from public-school teaching at age 68.
"These women were sustained by a belief in themselves and their gifts. But perhaps more important was the fact that they found real joy and satisfaction in the work itself, regardless of whether the outside world took notice. 'Nothing surpasses creative activity,' said the 19th-century pianist Clara Schumann, 'even if only for those hours of self-forgetfulness in which one breathes solely in the world of sound.'
"Even those who found their work quite trying would never seriously think of giving it up. The critic and novelist Susan Sontag is a good example: She wrote slowly and with painstaking effort, and yet at some level she found it all 'thrilling.' She liked to quote Noel Coward: 'Work is more fun than fun.'"