Yesterday I attended the sound and light show "Immersive Van Gogh" in Minneapolis and it left me once again wondering about the strange relationship between the visual artist and the viewer of visual art. Van Gogh only sold one painting in his lifetime. After creating more than 860 paintings in the last two years of his life, he committed suicide at the age of 37, penniless and alone. Wikipedia informs us that his "troubled personality typifies the romantic ideal of the tortured artist."
For me, the way in which Van Gogh melded pure color from the paint tube with virtuoso brushwork is truly astonishing - and completely absent from any experience with his art that doesn't involve viewing his actual paintings. But it seems that for the average 21st century person who has had no real exposure to painting that Van Gogh is a marketing commodity as much for his mental illness as for his bright colors. It's more rubbernecking at a serious car crash than art appreciation. Why is a tortured artist a romantic ideal? Are we only interested in dead artists for whom painting might have been a temporary respite from illness or a reflection of illness itself? And what does that say about how we enable the players in the art industry that gain the most from that fascination with suffering: the gallery owners, the dealers, the Wall Street titans who collect and trade famous paintings like baseball cards?
There are plenty of sane, hardworking artists working today and, with the internet, it just isn't that hard to find art that touches you and supplies a means for a very human, personal connection with an artist. So go and see Immersive Van Gogh if you're curious, but walk right out past the extensive gift shop and find some real art. If you see the show in Minneapolis, you will be in the heart of the Northeast Arts District, home to hundreds of art studios in about a dozen buildings. And let poor Vincent's legacy be his actual paintings and not their image on a water bottle or a yoga mat.
These days I am sketching with gouache from license free photos available on the web (Pixabay) in preparation for hopefully lots of time plein aire sketching on the beach in Rhode Island. An example of one sketch is above-might need to work a little bigger: this one is about 3" x 4"!
I recently became aware of the work of Linda Nochlin, pioneering feminist art historian and author of a groundbreaking essay published 50 years ago in Art News entitled "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?". After somewhat definitively answering that question, IMHO, Nochlin spent her subsequent long career following her own sense that, to remedy the absence of women in art, it was necessary to show women's artwork, to make sure it was seen, and to write about it in ways that called out the implicit biases in much of traditional art criticism. If you haven't encountered the essay, please check it out along with her revisiting of the issue 30 years on in 2001 in which she concluded that while there had been progress, there was still much to be done.
One specific point in the essay really caught my attention, however. Nochlin challenges what she calls the major public misconception about art: that it is no more than personal expression translated in visual terms. Instead, she insists that "art is a language and a system of expression that must be learned" even if the outcome is work that seeks to reject that formal learning (which is the case with much modern art).
The idolization of those whom the art world anoints as "masters" (a predominantly white, male group) is dependent on what Nochlin calls the "mythology of genius." or the idea that the masters were all childhood prodigies who were possessed of uncanny talent. In reality, most of the artists whose work is lauded across the centuries were born into an artisan social class, if not into a family of artists that surrounded them with an environment that not only recognized their interest, but nurtured it and had the resources to see that it was properly developed. (Unless of course, with a few exceptions, the child had been born female.)
The mythology of genius is closely related to the myth of talent. Every hardworking, professional artist I know has had the experience of hearing an earnest viewer of his or her work say something like "oh you are so talented- I can't even draw a stick figure." But imagine telling a surgeon "oh you are so good with a scalpel - I can't even cut vegetables." Interest, plus opportunity, education and hard work, produces quality results in any profession, and art is no exception. Simply because responses to artwork are deeply emotional and unique to each observer does not mean that an artwork does not have intrinsic merit. Obvious self-interest aside, every member of a civilized society needs to nurture and appreciate the work of artists because art feeds the soul in the same way food prepared by a talented chef feeds the body. With care and encouragement AND a clear-eyed understanding of just how much education and hard work go into every artwork, we can all help to create the conditions where masterpieces that resonate across a broad spectrum of humanity can receive the broad attention they deserve.
Happy first day of May to all!
One of the biggest events of the year for Twin Cities artists has always been the mid-May open studio art festival known as Art-A-Whirl. This year, for the second time, the event will be virtual. Some arts buildings in NE Minneapolis will be open and some artists will choose to have open studios on the weekend of May 14-16, but the bands, food trucks, and craft brewery events that accounted for much of the massive popularity of the event in recent years will be gone.
I haven't had a studio in NE Minneapolis so I can't speak from experience, but many artist friends had become disenchanted with AAW because of the size and carnival atmosphere of the event. Fifteen or even ten years ago it was possible to tour studios while artists were working and learn about their craft, technique and inspiration. Artists really do love to talk about their work. But by 2019, many artists with studios in NE were choosing to be absent and to rent out their space and walls to non-resident artists to use as pop-up gallery and sales space. I have been one of these temporary artists, hanging as many paintings as possible in ten feet of wall space and hovering in a corner for three days hoping that one of the hundreds of glassy-eyed passers-by might actually look at a painting long enough to ask me a question. I sold a few small paintings and ran through a lot of business cards, but frankly the experience was exhausting and a bit soul-crushing. I came away with the feeling that this was no way to get people engaged with my art and make any kind of human connection.
The silver lining of the pandemic motivated virtual event is that the Northeast Minneapolis Arts Association that normally plans and executes AAW has put all of its energy into establishing a great online member platform, going beyond a mere directory to offering artists a keyword searchable online retail platform for their work, plus the opportunity to have video studio tours and demos. Last year, terrific NEMAA volunteers helped me to create a tour of my home studio which will still be available at my site on the directory (it offers a fabulously intimate view of my former second floor third bedroom). I recently began a new studio still life using traditional indirect painting techniques (i.e. this one will take weeks to finish) and have been documenting the starting process with video clips and photos that I hope a NEMAA volunteer will be able to turn into a short video which will go live on the opening day of AAW. The best part is that unlike the three day gallery that used to be AAW for me, much of my work will be available 24-7 for purchase for months to come and you can contact me any time through the directory to ask as many questions as you like about my training, process, inspiration, and even commissions (love them).
Please check out NEMAA's virtual Art-A-Whirl this year. While nobody has had the best time during Covid, many artists have had no opportunities to show their work and even more have lost the service industry and teaching jobs that funded their art careers. Your interest will be deeply appreciated. As always, I would love to hear from you and hope everyone is well and vaccinated.
I began my art education after retiring from a career as a corporate attorney. I spent four, full-time, academic years at an Atelier because I realized that, if I didn't know how to draw, no once a week art class or workshop would ever help me to make the kind of art I admired. I wasn't the oldest of my entering cohort of beginning students, but people over 50 were definitely in the minority. It didn't take long to realize that there is certainly a difference in generational perspectives on art education. Because of my background, I was looking forward to reading Nell Painter's Old in Art School, A Memoir of Starting Over, published in late 2019.
Painter was 63 when she set out to earn first a BFA, from Mason Gross College of Art at Rutgers University, and then an MFA, from RISD. She was a highly respected author and professor of history at Princeton University when she retired and was even in the process of finishing a book which became A History of White People, when she began her art school adventure (very much looking forward to reading that book as well). She may have had some art classes as an undergraduate when she was in her twenties, and she had always drawn, but her interest in art seems to have arisen while researching her history books and coming across little known artists and illustrators.
Painter never really explains, at least to my satisfaction, why she felt it necessary to obtain academic degrees in painting, except to state that she believed it was the only way to be taken seriously as An Artist, a concept she spends much of the book struggling to understand and explain. Certainly in her description of her teachers and their methods not once does she imply that she was "taught" anything. But in her struggle to fight back against the indifference and, in some cases, hostility of her teachers and fellow students, she completes her degrees and finds a place for herself and her art making. I certainly can relate to these experiences, having often encountered others with the assumption that old matron hobby painters shouldn't be taking themselves so seriously and making art full-time.
Painter concludes her book by making the crucial point that, having taken up art late in life, she can never exclude her lived experiences as a historian and as the only child and caretaker of frail and elderly parents, writing "I am a wise old person, not a hot young artist . . . I know the value of doing my work, my work, and keeping at it. I do keep at it - in the pleasure of the process of making the art only I can make." She also concludes that while she may be a Serious Artist and a Professional Artist, she will never be An Aartist, because she will always do other things.
To an Atelier trained artist who is curious about college and university art school, there are many observations of interest in this book. Not least among them is the depth and totality of modern academic art school's loathing of atelier training and realism, or anything that smacks of beauty for beauty's sake (or, for that matter, craft, technique, professionalism, etc.). These arguments always make me suspect that college and university art teachers must be deeply insecure about their drawing skills. In any event, the book falls completely short of recommending an art degree in painting, but makes an uplifting and persuasive case of pursuing one's passion late in life.
Five small egg paintings, including the one above, are headed for my NEMAA shop in time for my virtual presence at Art-A-Whirl 2021. Having just completed a Sargent master copy, I am so looking forward to resuming portrait painting with live models in the very near future. Happy Spring - and thanks for sticking with this long post.
Four years ago, in the beginning of my post-Atelier journey to understand how to paint color, I began painting small studies of ordinary chicken and duck eggs. The eggs were various colors, mostly subtle shades of brown and white, but some pale blues and greens. The colors turned out to be surprisingly complex, especially in the natural light of mid-winter Minnesota which is generally blinding, bright, white or soul-crushing gray, with very little in-between.
I know that I must have started the paintings right after the Valentine's chocolates were replaced on store shelves by the Easter candy. The process of painting the eggs helped me to remember that at least the commercial start of spring would soon arrive. After 29 years in Minnesota, I am convinced that "spring" as a season exists here for about 24 hours, sometime after the last hail storm and before the lilacs are completely spent.
From their debut at Art-A-Whirl 2018, through several neighborhood art shows and open studios, and up until the sale of the final painting from my NEMAA shop two months ago, the eggs have been popular. They are affordable and they have the radiance you only find in original oil paintings. But I think that people are also drawn to them for the same reasons I enjoy painting them: they are simple, common objects that, when given a bit of attention, give us the opportunity to briefly contemplate the wonder of nature every time we glance their way.
I scored the amazing collection pictured above from the shop at Gale Woods Farm in Minnetrista, Minnesota and have begun another series of small oil paintings. some of which will pair the eggs with one or more of the small pitchers, vases and cups which I have been saving for no other reason than "this might look good in a still life." Hopefully I will find some sweet little frames from my favorite NE Minneapolis frame shop, Hang It! (I always do) and they will make their way onto Instagram and into my NEMAA shop, and maybe onto the walls where they'll serve as a reminder of the reason why eggs, especially in spring, are a reason to be hopeful.
One of the themes running through this blog is probably going to involve my struggle to breach the wall that sometimes rises up around artists with intensive or exclusive training in academic realism. To survive three or four years of full time atelier study means, at best, feeling like you're in drawing and painting boot camp or, at worst, like you're being indoctrinated into a cult. When you leave that bubble (and thanks to social media, you can unfortunately cocoon yourself in it for a very long time), you realize that many people may see your beautifully executed work as quite boring. (Trust me, "this looks just like a photograph" is a compliment that rarely leads to sales unless you unintentionally painted someone else's favorite toy or food.) In other words, you're on the way to mastering a craft, but you've mislaid your creative soul along the way.
I've recently been trying to find my way back to creativity and self-expression by playing around with cold wax medium. My goal is to set aside a few hours each week and experiment with small, abstract studies on Arches oil paper using few colors, no brushes, some weird scraping and rolling tools and a short amount of time to complete. In spite of quite a few easily tossed, obvious fails, I've been amazed at how emotionally engaging the process can be. Sometimes I've produced something that captures how I feel before I am aware I am feeling it. The piece above, "Black Rain," seems to be exactly how I was feeling about the pandemic; watching helplessly as a firestorm seems to rage out of control. That certainly wasn't consciously in my mind as I was playing with my wax and paint, but I realized it as soon as the first stroke of "rain" appeared. Even when one of these is a fail and I don't wind up with any emotional connection to it beyond disgust, it acts like an attitude cleanser that gets me back to my regular work. I wind up glad I can draw realistically because I clearly don't have a career in abstraction!
There are realist artists who have incorporated cold wax into their work and perhaps I will do that someday. In the meantime, I am hoping that I am at least taking the first steps on a journey to find my own artistic voice.
Happy New Year! Or maybe we should just say Better New Year!; the bar is so low after 2020.
In an effort to impose some discipline on myself with regard to maintaining my website and other online presences, and also to return to an activity which I always enjoy - writing - my new year resolution is to make some regular blog posts here during 2021. Diving right in, some thoughts on art education and some advice on how to navigate the world of online art education which is something like the wild west right now.
First off, I am wondering what will be the fate of community art education. For many people, including me, my first exposure to making art since middle school was a weekly watercolor class at the local art center. It was a refuge from both my jobs (parent and attorney) and it set off a quest to find my own voice as an artist while mastering the tools and techniques needed to express that voice. After I finished my Atelier training, I taught at a couple of community art centers and at the Atelier. The experience really helped me to cement my understanding of what I had been taught. For many artists, community art center teaching is the financial lifeline that makes their own artwork possible. Many centers provide opportunities to show work which are hard to come by with so many galleries closing. With these schools and centers shuttered, I wonder where beginner artists will be able to find the nurturing environment to learn to create and also wonder how teaching artists will solidify their skills or even survive. Independent non-profits will need to compete for funding with so many other worthy causes, and taxpayer supported community education centers may simply be axed from cash starved municipal budgets.
If you are an aspiring art student, a dedicated hobbyist, a person wanting to return to art, or even a "serious" artist (more about that in another post someday) you may have ventured into an online search for art classes, or you may already be bombarded by offers of online workshops, demos and mentorships. Individual artists, and some independent art centers and schools, are desperately trying to stay afloat by moving into the digital age. Needless to say, the quality of these offerings, as well as the expense involved, varies tremendously, So rather than signing up for an overcrowded Zoom with some artist whose paintings you may have seen once and liked, here is some advice for choosing the right online content.
No matter what your level of experience, do your research. Look for "free samples" on the internet by watching YouTube videos, following artists you like on FB who may be doing FB Live demos, or searching for short free courses being offered by art centers or individual artists you admire. When you watch these, make sure that the instructor is more than merely comfortable with technology, but that they also know how to exploit its unique advantages FOR TEACHING. Unfortunately, some of the priciest content is often just a low quality recording of a sometimes shy and inarticulate master moving his brush around. Great art, zero education.
Second, carefully think about your needs and intentions. Be honest about your own level of experience, the time you have to commit to practicing the skills being taught, whether you have the work space and materials to follow along with the class. For people without a great deal of time or resources, many artists teach via Patreon and you can choose what to follow and when for a very reasonable fee. If you are a serious beginner, find online schools or ateliers with well-developed, progressive educational content with at least the option of regular feedback on completed lessons and assignments. If you simply want to try out new materials or produce a project for you wall - sort of the wine and paint approach - you can find events like these via EventBrite. Just be very suspicious of someone who tells you you can learn everything you need to know about ______ in just six short hours. You might have one nice picture, but that will be the end. It's also perfectly fine to admit that you are isolated and stuck and just need regular contact with a group of human beings who are making art. In fact, right now, that feels like a path to sanity for many of us.
If you are an experienced artist, you can spend some time analyzing your work and figuring out your weak areas and targeting courses that will address them. But any teacher worth his salt may very well make you take several steps backward and struggle with some initially stupid seeming exercises in order to address those skills. Do not resist. The hard work will pay off in the next painting. You may also want to consider a mentorship. This is the most expensive type of learning, and really the one that most depends upon your research and the relationship you are able to create with the individual instructor as well as your commitment to following his or her advice.
I've sampled a number of online courses since the pandemic lockdown began: free samples from art academies, Zoom workshops, formal online courses, a couple of Patreon accounts and more. Many were excellent, even if they were not a perfect fit for my needs. If you have an interest in academic realism and are looking for some recommendations, please get in touch.
I wish you all the best in your search for human connection and sanity in these hopefully waning months of the pandemic.
ps. I have set up an online shop through my membership in the Northeast Minneapolis Arts Association. I hope to regularly add more small works to that site and the wizards of NEMAA have made it very easy for you to purchase and me to ship these works. Check it out at https://shop.nemaa.org/artists/jan-wagner-jan-m-wagner-fine-art/
'Tis the season for visual artists to show everyone what they've been up to for the past 6-12 months and hopefully clear the decks for a new year in the studio by finding homes for their artwork.
But first some good news: my painting, "Fall Harvest," won first place at Norseman Distillery's fall art show. I was very surprised! Many thanks to the judge, Sarah Schulz of the American Craft Council, and also to Norseman for supporting local artists with a no-entry-fee show, a beautiful gallery space and even some prize money.
My work will be showing in three locations in November/December. First, on November 29 and 30 (10-3 both days) I will be participating in our second Bryn Mawr neighborhood crafts fair. Once again, we can't hang things on the walls (!) so I will have small oils (pets, eggs. still lives) as well as drawings and watercolors. The following weekend, December 6 (4-8) and December 7 (11-5), I will be having an open house at my studio. Many people have asked about where and how I work and now you will have a chance to stop by, have some wine, coffee, and treats and see some of the larger works actually hung on walls.
Finally, my friend and fellow artist, Dyan Padgett, has graciously allowed me some wall space in her beautiful studio on the 4th floor of the Northrop King Building (Studio 400A). Northrop King will be open every Saturday starting November 30 through December 21, as well as the usual First Thursday event on December 5.
For 2020, I hope to focus on portrait (look out friends and family - you will be modeling), figure, and maybe some more pet portrait commissions. It's so much fun to work on cats and dogs, and it's kind of a relief to have to paint from photos.
Hope to see you soon - and happy holidays!
Spring has at last arrived in Minnesota (we hope) so that means it is time once again for Art-A-Whirl, the largest open studio artist event in the U.S. This year I will be exhibiting at a small pop-up gallery, Salted Artist, located in the Steller Connect Space, 945 Broadway St. NE, Minneapolis 55413 (right next door to Spyhouse Coffee on the corner of Broadway and Central). Salted Artist promises a very diverse selection of art, from paintings and prints to digital works to up-cycled clothing. I will be showing about a dozen new small works (6" x6" to 6" x 8"), mostly alla prima dog and cat portraits, Many of these can be seen on the new Small Works page of my website. This year Art-A-Whirl runs May 17, 5-10 pm, May 18, 12-8 pm, and May 19, 12-5 pm. Hope to see you there!
Thanks to all of my wonderful friends and neighbors who stopped by the first ever Bryn Mawr holiday arts and crafts sale. Four paintings and three watercolors found permanent homes at the sale and I am very happy about that. For those of you who might still be interested in egg paintings for yourself or for gifts this season, only the three shown below are still available. If you are interested, please get in touch soon so I can get them to you ASAP.
Happy Holidays everyone!
All images copyright Jan M. Wagner Fine Art.