We live in a world where I can literally say any two absurd words together and instantly be bombarded with images of those words. Anything I can think up. It is fascinating, fun, and profoundly tragic. As an artist and a person I think about these kind of things. A lot. I think there is a connection between our image saturated society and our declining interest in the spiritual as a culture.
I am, mostly, an abstract artist. I did not start this way, and in fact I love realism. I love drawing hyper-realist portraits and still lifes. My sketchbook is so tight even I don’t think I made it. Give me a pencil and my lines are crisp and unyielding; I love the challenge of making my pencil exactly, precisely describe something. But my paintings are abstract, or abstracted to be more accurate. When I am painting there is no need in my conversation with my work to embrace the challenge of realism in its traditional sense. It’s just not interested in visual realism.
I am, however, keenly interested in un-visual realism. On the reality of things we don’t see. I was once giving an artist talk about my work to a crowd of people in Richmond, VA. Artists know that this can be a dangerous and painful endeavor and is highly ill-advised. But it is necessary and if done correctly can even be cathartic. On this particular evening I had spoken, shared a few current pieces and then opened the floor up for questions (again, ill-advised). I spoke about my process, my training and how I landed in my current place of abstraction. An older well-mannered gentleman in the front row raised his hand and asked, “But I don’t understand. If you can paint something that looks like something, then why don’t you? Why don’t you paint barns? I like barns.”
I promise, I did not laugh then; but I can’t think back to this without a giggle and a polyp of anger welling up in my throat. I will never forget the image of this genuinely confused man telling me he liked barns ergo I should paint them. There are so many things wrong with his question. And even more ways to look at it. But here is how I tackled it.
“I am not, as an artist,” I said quite adamantly, “interested in the barn. I am not interested in conveying to you how the barn sits in the sunlight, how the shadow falls idyllically across the door or the weight of the slats on the roof. I can take a photo of the barn if I like the look of it. I am, however, very interested in why you like the barn – the connection, the feeling, the unspoken relationship between you and the barn you like. As an artist I want to explore the connection part, not the object of the connection.” Or I said something like that.
Now, I am not an expressionist. My work is not all about emotion as color and form tumbling into a painting. But that is a convenient way to discuss why I do what I do. We can all agree that something like an emotion exists – love is real – but is unseen in and of itself. It get’s a bit trickier when the thing we are attempting to give form to does not have a prescribed feeling or name. But it is real and true all the same. Rothko referred to it as the Sublime; in fact many of the founders of Abstraction talked about the Sublime, the Spiritual. The Other.
I firmly believe that creating is a form of spiritual practice. It is beyond the brushes and the paints, beyond the feel of the bristle on wood or canvas. It is not just a physical action, it is a spiritual endeavor requiring more of me than just my hands and eyes and body. And in turn it’s result in imbued with more than just the physical. If we are lucky, so very lucky, that will be apparent to others. A piece will have the effect of stopping someone in their tracks because it speaks to the unseen within that person.
In today’s world where we have access to any image we’d like to see however absurd, we can lose the connections between what is seen and what is unseen. When any bizarre idea can be made into a visual (and probably has been), we forget that some things cannot formally represented. They are without tangible form. We – our minds and our souls – need abstraction. We need the space it provides to let our souls identify with the other, to connect, explore and be spoken to in a way which must be deciphered. Abstraction provides a respite to our being. It provides a freedom to connect and acknowledge the unseen and the platform for curiosity and interaction.
To counter the sad image of the barn man I will share another interaction, this one from someone I have never met. An artist commented on Instagram the other day how he/she kept feeling strangely drawn to the work I was posting. They then went to my website and immediately understood why –‘it’s the spiritual in your art that I’ve been seeing’ they wrote to me. What a humbling, beautiful thing to be a part of.
I will always be an artist who is interested in exploring connection, relationship, language and the unseen. My work may change, my subject matter shift, but my foundation will remain. We are all much more abstract that we care to think we are, and in desperate need of seeing the unseen.
Summer vacation has always been tricky as an artist. My son is home all day, looking for something to do. The garden occupies absorbent amounts of time, going quickly goes from meek and mild to tawdry and unruly overnight. I throw myself into weeding and cultivating like it’s a personal vendetta against the chaos. There are beaches to go to, adventures to have, and family to see. Yes, the studio takes the back burner in the summer months.
But not this summer. My son has been home for months, and out of necessity has learned to art of entertaining himself. The garden is a welcome reminder that some things, at least, are still as they always have been. I find myself drawn into the cycle of the seeds and blooms with a gratitude and calmness that welcomes even the weeds. And the trips are all postponed or cancelled. We have to settle with family zoom visits, phone calls, and even the long lost art of the letter. This summer the rituals are paused or transformed. And in the midst of this, where I have ended up more often in my studio.
The studio has become so much more crucial during this time. In the first months of COVID I had a very difficult time creating, art seemed like a luxury, even an abomination to those who were sick and suffering. Then the protests started, the injustice and pain of systemic societal issues daily confronting us with the broken reality of our world. I felt so small and speechless. Painting would not come. Creating was a foreign concept. I would stare at my easel for hours paralyzed and wonder what I could possibly have to say into such a time.
That is the thing about being an artist, it’s about having something to say. It’s about you – the artist – having a thought/idea/complaint/shout/mumble about something/anything. The form changes, the thoughts change, but the necessity remains. It took me some time to remember that I didn’t need to speak to everything or everyone in this moment– just to myself. As I reminded myself of this day after day, I found I started pouring out work. Pieces that started with layers of chaos and uncertainty slowly dissolved into quiet spaces. I built into each painting structure, composition and calm which each layer of line and form and color. I was creating internal compositions, layering and reforming all that is going on into a something I can look at without being completely overwhelmed. And I was keeping myself at least a little sane. Art as therapy is powerful and when creating is your native tongue, it’s transformative. My latest pieces have been a remedy for me; and my summer studio time a balm. I still mourn the state of things, but I can do it in a productive way; not filling the void or ignoring it, but exploring and speaking into it. The new paintings speak into my unease with hope; into my grief with grace, and into my unrest with peace. I hope they do the same for you.
Art as language
When I first started this blog back in the olden days of January, I was a little nervous. Nervous that I would run out of steam, that I would lack things to talk about, or the worst fear of all – that no one would read or care what I wrote. But I had a plan, a way forward, a schedule of what I wanted to say even if I didn’t know how to say it yet. And I figured who cares if no one reads it – I still wanted to write it. My heart was in the right place and I was going for it.
Best laid plans…right?
Fast forward to today, March something-or-another – I honestly don’t know the date. At the moment I don’t know much and to know the date is to think about time and to think about time is to think about the future. And that currently is a very difficult thing. This is a rough time for our world. We are isolated, we are scared, we are acutely aware of how vulnerable and fragile we are. And here is the truth I must face as a person and as an artist.
I have no words.
It’s not that I am in despair or anxious and don’t want to talk about it. I have hope. I see strength and beauty winnowing it’s way into our situation. It’s that I don’t have the words to talk about it. Words have failed me.
Whatever I hoped to be in this lifetime I cannot not deny the fact that I was made an artist. My communication, especially in times of trial or uncharted territory, will never come firstly in words. It will be in form and color and line. It will be in the quietness of a studio, deep into a painting when I will understand what is going on and how I see it. Floodgates of understanding will open – sometimes for good and joy, sometimes a torrent of sorrow. But understanding and processing will come and words will have no part in it. It is another language we artists converse in which is understood as a native tongue.
I have sat these past few weeks in my studio, tracing line upon line in ritual to ease my uneasy mind. I have layered color upon color as a liturgy to calm my unkempt spirit because words could not reach it. I have created very little in the form of a finished product, but I have created space, breathing room, acknowledgement. I have begun to create a dictionary for this time in my life. Not with words but with actions and forms and colors and line. A vocabulary which the deeper parts of me sees and recognizes and begins desperately to devour.
So, I’m speaking mainly to artists at the moment, but my guess is we all, no matter our vocation, are finding the failure of words at the moment. Artist, make things. Do things. Draw, create, sculpt, paint. Find the words you need hidden in the act of producing in the language you understand. It is not selfish. It is not a luxury or unnecessary activity. It is vital to getting through this tangled time with our sense of self and others intact. And it can be a gift to those around you that also lack the words but do know how to express without them. We need artists and artist’s ways of thinking now more than ever.
Do not worry if you don’t have the words at the moment. Words have always been limiting to our vocabulary as people. I say, give them up for a bit.
Art as language
One of the first questions I get asked when people find out my vocation is some variation of “How do you start a painting? Do you know what you’re going to paint when you start?” Which is an odd question if you think about it.
Of course I do.
And of course I don’t.
Starting a painting is many things. It’s the excitement of a first date and the anticipation of an exam. It’s the challenge of a Rubix cube and the peacefulness of an afternoon kayaking. It’s the promise of a newly tilled garden bed and the terror of speaking in front of 1000 people. It is overwhelmingly wonderful and horrible all at once. So, basically, it’s kind of like life.
There are two ways to look at the start of a painting; the physical start, meaning the actual putting of paint to surface; and the less-easy-to-define other start – the emotional, spiritual, insides-brought-out start.
I always saw the physical start as the easier of the tasks. When I used to teach workshops I would tell my more hesitant students – the ones who had been staring at the canvas for the last 45 minutes – “Give yourself a problem to solve.” A blank, clean perfect surface is coma-inducing. It is precious. And good art, though it may end up there, cannot be started there. So many of my students were so busy expecting to create a masterpiece that they were petrified to start. Or worse yet, they started and were unwilling to take off the kid gloves (which honestly is not really starting). In their minds every mark and brushstroke had to bring them closer to a piece they could frame up pretty and sell at the local art league exhibition. And that, though important for paying bills, is disastrous for creating art. So how do you start? Make a mark, paint an underpainting, use the color you hate the most. Then your brain will start to see ways of solving the little problems you’ve created for it and a painting will begin to take shape.
Starting a painting is not about the finished product. It is about the process. The process of making art is vital to the condition of the end piece. It’s part of the reason I can’t just copy a piece I’ve done before. I already said what the first painting had to say, to repeat myself would be empty, shallow – it would have none of the depth of the original. No one’s copy would. And there’s a reason for that. Creating is a spiritual act. I will repeat that. Creating is a spiritual act.
Which brings me to second way of looking at starting, the other start. The act of creating is grounded in things that cannot be explained by the physical; it has the power to feed us in a way that reaches our very souls. The sum of the paints pushed and pulled across the canvas to create a piece is greater than the parts of colorful strokes individually. More goes into a session of painting than just the materials; it is an intentional and demanding act to create something. We were made as creative beings, by a creative God; it is embroidered in our fabric to make and innovate and seek. For me it comes out in paint or pencil or ink or whatever is sitting around my studio that day. The process of making is a form of meditation for me; a way to process and understand whatever is going on in my life – seen and unseen. And starting that process can be overwhelming if I look at it as a whole – going straight for the high dive. But if I look at it as small moments of quiet and connection, earnest seeking and bonding, well then, it is just baby steps into the deep end.
Sometimes life gets in the way and I don’t get to paint for a while… a long while. At some point my kind husband will just stop and look at me as I’m melting down like a two year old and he’ll say, “I think you need to go paint…now.” He sees clearly that I haven’t been nurturing that part of me and it’s affecting all of me. I need a time out.
So then I must go to my studio (begrudgingly because while he’s right, I’m still behaving like a toddler) and start. Those are the most difficult starts. The gunk that’s been building up needs to be scraped off. My vision is fuzzy. And all I can manage is the physical start. The very act of touching color to surface seems insurmountable. But I do it. And I keep doing it. And then the most important part of all. Discipline. Discipline is vital to creating anything worthwhile. Discipline is what will allow me to see through the gunk, refocus my vision, and get on to the other start I so desperately need. I just keep going, even and especially when I do not feel like it. And eventually I have a start.
My guess is that every artist has a unique way of starting, a way of beginning again for the hundredth or thousandth time. But the key is to start. To actually do it. Not every painting I start is a success, they don’t all end up being exhibited or even shown to anyone. But they are all necessary and they all teach me something. So, if you’re feeling adventurous (or maybe especially if you’re not) go try it yourself. Grab a pencil or paintbrush and a piece of paper, any piece of paper – the less precious the better – and start something yourself. Draw, paint, create, seek, and find. It’s just one little start away.
In my last post I confessed to my fascination with chairs. Writing that post got me thinking about what I surround myself with and why; which in turn got me thinking about what other people surround themselves with and why. And all this thinking led me to a perfectly terrifying realization. If you happen to be an artist, this conversation might do the same for you.
Let me start with the obvious. What we surround ourselves with matters.
I know this is not a mind-blowing concept. I am, in no way, the first person to suggest this. In fact, when I think about this fact the first thing that rings in my ears is a teachers voice touting “Garbage in, garbage out!” I’m pretty sure I know which exact teacher said this catchy little adage repeatedly to us students, but it doesn’t really matter. In my mind it’s simply a strong, sure voice of my teen years. I know this saying was in reference to our young, impressionable minds and whatever trashy TV or music we were bingeing on instead of the great works of literature and noble sounds of Rachmaninoff. I think we would all concede this fact to be true. What we put into our brains will certainly effect what comes out of them.
But our houses and desks and calendars and lives are no different from our minds in this respect. What we place into our bedrooms, cubicles, or kitchens, has a profound effect on our attitude and outlook. It can narrate our entire day. And the constant creep of junk is just as insidious as my high school teachers warnings suggest.
Maybe I am alone in this, but my house is usually a mess. A lived-into mess. But there is, believe it or not, a quiet security in my mess, and a comfort in my clutter (I might not do too well with the whole KonMari thing). I have things in my day that ground me in the unseen reality of living. Chairs are one, yes, but there are so many other things, not the least of which is the collection of artwork that line the walls of my home.
Over the years my husband and I have accumulated art – like a lot of art. It’s hung everywhere. All genres and styles – antique, contemporary, etchings, ceramics, paintings, European, Indian, Japanese. Art from artists I know dearly and from artists unknown. Art with stories to tell, told with the very hand of its creator. I have chosen to surround myself with things made with intent, things created to bring into this world beauty or challenge or an element of the sublime. I have lined my walls and days with voices.
As I thought about all this with great joy and warmth, the flip side slowly settled in on me like a panic attack. I am an artist. I have been invited into other people’s homes and lives, to be a part of their daily living. In fact, my very livelihood is founded on the idea that people will want to invite a piece of me into their home, to look at one of my paintings or prints day after day and trust that it will have something valuable to say to them. The gravity of this idea is stifling. It is a terrifying responsibility to know that a small piece of you will be woven into another person’s daily life.
It is also the reality of being an artist; of making something and believing enough in it to think that it has something to say to another soul. When I look at my work, I can see the solid foundation of what I have intentionally placed into my path each day as well as what I stumble into (back to chairs of the side of the road…but also conversations at Target or interactions on the streets of my neighborhood). I have placed things that question and answer to me in different ways and which enable me to do what I do.
Some of my diehard collectors will know the story behind my pocket paintings, but for the rest of us I’ll share the tale. Many years ago I painted a tiny painting, so small it fit into the interior pocket of my beautiful sky blue winter coat. I slide the tiny piece in there and carried it around all day. No none knew, I didn’t show it to anyone. But I knew. And I felt different. I felt stronger and more connected, I knew that I had a bit of beauty with me during my rote daily jobs. With the very presence of this little painting everything became more. More intentional, more important, more valuable, more imbued with beauty.
More importantly, I acted differently. I felt the value of each interaction. I brought that tiny bit of beauty I was hiding and wove it into my day. It was amazing. All because of what I surrounded myself with (or in this case padded myself with). I keep very few of my own paintings, but I have kept that one to this day.
The act of painting for me is a form of seeking and putting into image some form of unseen truth.
Whether it is just for my eyes or to share with the world, the process is the same. I make something that surrounds the viewer in the unseen nature of things, questioning and answering in the same breath. When someone else is able to recognize this and understand it is exhilarating and deeply rewarding. And when they want to live with it, well that, that is an honor and privilege.
I recently renovated the attic of my 1885 house into my studio. I evicted the bat squatters, took the entire floor with it’s sloped ceilings and odd angles, and molded it into a sprawling space for creating. An artist studio is a critical indulgence in this vocation – to have a space where I don’t have to worry about being messy or what other people might think about my mental state when they glance in. The space is entirely mine. Lots of the things lining the shelves make sense – materials, paints, wood, paper, books. They are the things I actually need to do what I do. There are, of course, things that I simply just love to look at. Rocks collected from travelling, beat up metal figures I found while digging up the garden, old photos and things I don’t even know what they are. I just liked the look of them.
And then there are the chairs.
I have 6 chairs in my studio. At least two of which don’t even work. I love chairs. Particularly old chairs, chairs I find on the side of the road that people are throwing away (hence the non-working models in my collection). If I see a decrepit rotting once-chair as I drive by I will, to the utter horror of my teenager, turn around at the nearest side street and load it into my car.
As I moved into my studio and began carrying all these chairs up the stairs, it struck as me funny and slightly concerning. What am I doing? I was beginning to question my mental state.
As far as I can tell all people in all cultures like to sit. And within our western culture it is on a chair of some kind. Chairs are one of the first things we fill our little box-houses with. They are the most common of commonplace in their function but beyond imitate in their actuality. And most importantly and attractive to me, they are full of stories.
If you go and find a chair at a thrift shop (or side of the road, I don’t judge, I encourage) it is a safe bet that it is old, probably at least 20 years old but more likely 50 or more. For those of you saying no way, let me remind you that 20 years ago only takes you to 2000 and 50 to 1970, so all those beautiful mid-century modern pieces are in fact around 70 years old. That is a lot of years of people sitting in it, living with it, eating dinners and doing homework with it. Family fights, first words, big questions, small moments, comfort and sorrow – they are all there silent and still. That’s a lot of history bound up in those pieces of wood and upholstery.
My favorite chairs are chairs in name only. I find old broken things beautiful, I always have. In university photography class I would waste rolls of film (yes, I said rolls) walking the cobbled alleys of Richmond documenting the decay. I loved it even if admitting it now makes me cringe for it’s sentimentality. There is beauty in something which has been used, has been a part of a life, moving past its function into object. It demands our respect and pause if we let it.
The chair pictured above is one of my street finds. It was clearly used often by people I will never meet. It’s craftsmanship tells me that it is old, it’s wear that it was loved. It is perhaps repairable but then I might not notice the exquisite hand carving, the mortise and tenon joints, the hand drilled holes for the caning of the seat. No, I love this chair exactly how it is. It was thoughtfully crafted, not just made.
Before you get too concerned, let me just say most of the chairs in my house are functional. None of them match (which makes me happy) and I do take the time to repair them if need be so they are safe to sit in. Then comes the exciting part – then I can begin to add my own history. When I look at a chair in my home I am reminded of the common everyday things that happen in my common everyday life; the things I take for granted. I see the meals we share around the table, and the games we play afterward. I see the books read curled in the sunroom. I see gatherings of friends and hours of homework and a myriad of other little things that make up the years. In short, I unsee the chair and I begin to see time.
Time is the one thing we want more of. We want to stockpile it for vacations and hoard it for sunny 75 degree days. But we can’t. We must spend the same amount each day no matter what. So we better make how we spend it matter. When I look at a chair I am reminded that the mattering of days is not only in the Disneyland Vacation days but in all the little things of each day. The time I spend with my son and not my cellphone matters. The time I sit with a coffee and catch up with a friend matters. The time I spend meditating and praying, being still, matters.
So, I suppose, my fascination with chairs is not as concerning as it first appears. We all have our little things that keep us grounded and appreciative of time. It’s a gift to be reminded of the preciousness of time in something so banal and ordinary. Unlikely reminders that though I cannot make extra time, I can craft what I am given.
I remember the first time I read John Berger’s Ways of Seeing. I was just starting University and I found an old yellowed copy at the used bookstore nearby. For anyone who doesn’t know, Berger’s work rose out of a British television series in the 70’s of the same title. Throughout the program and book, Berger discusses the many ways we see things, not the physical aspect of it all but the societal and political convention as from which we view art. And I might add, therefore, the world.
His book has been a long standing first year art student read – or at least it should be if its not anymore. Not an assigned read, but a stumble-across brittle paged paperback that each aspiring artist should at least pick up once.
I’m not really going to talk about Berger – go read it. But the concept of what he was exploring about got me thinking about things. I just turned 42 years old. I have been creating art, living life, working jobs, and raising a family for a while now. A big part of me feels like I should have a little more figured out by now, a little more smooth sailing, a little less seat of my pants. But that is not the case. For whatever reason 42 was a bit more jarring to my delicate psyche than 40, and Berger popped into my head.
I think he was almost right – we need to adjust our ways of seeing. Almost. What I really think I need is to adjust my ways of unseeing. So much of what I do, my roles in life, have a seen set of standards, of expectations; of things I feel like I should know how to do. Or at least I feel like other people expect me to know how to do. But is that true?
This idea makes perfect sense to me when I put it in the context of painting. In my artwork I gravitate toward exploring the unseen. I am interested in what surrounds us but is not in physical form. When I am painting, or drawing, or doing whatever it is I do in my studio this makes sense. I am able through paint or line to see the hidden abstracted mess that weaves my life together. It’s the translation of this way of thinking to outside that studio that is a stumble for me. I forget, when I am picking out apples at the grocery store, that connection between people is a sacred thing. I forget again, when I’m vacuuming the living room, that the phrase living room is a beautiful idea that deserves hours of exploration. And I forget, as I go over the monthly bills one more time, that the riches I would really seek could never line the walls of my bank account.
So, 42 is going to be my year of unseeing. Of learning to unsee everything in front of me. I’m afraid the common has lost its glory and the everyday has lost its beauty. That is not how we are called to live. For over twenty years now I have created and painted and thought about how my work could speak about unseen things to others. Now it’s time to see how the act of creating this work could speak into the unseen in my everyday.
Hey RVA, there’s lots of great ways to see some of my new work this fall. Current Art Fair, VA’s Contemporary Art Fair was this past weekend but no worries if you missed it. Art Style Design Richmond is coming up Nov 9&10 at the Highpoint. And ThinkSmall 10 is the same weekend at artspace gallery in Plant Zero! So go see some art and maybe pick up a piece or two.
I am so pleased to announce the opening of an exhibition of my work at a delightful new gallery in Taipei, Taiwan. 嘉俬房 & other Art things will open R. Sawan White on Saturday, September 7, 2019.
For more information check out the gallery on facebook or instagram!
It’s great to be at work in the new studio at last. I’ll get around to posting some pictures of it soon, I’m still feeling out the space. In the meantime here’s a new one I quite like.
She fell int the story with no words to add, acrylic and pencils on wood, 9″x12″
available for purchase