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Karen's Patio

Recently a friend posed a question that has inspired me to ponder.  Knowing I’d only been making art for a few years, she asked, “Do you think you are getting any better at it?”

After pondering long and hard, I keep coming up with the same answer:  “No, I’m not improving—only changing.  And definitely growing!”  Not only growing in the sense of experimenting with my paints and stretching into areas I never dreamed of before, but I think I’m growing as a human!  After all, the intensive reading of art history and studying centuries of great art (mostly via books and periodicals, not galleries) cannot fail.  Learning any new thing will result in growth in comprehension and appreciation—and that growth fans out to impact many other areas of life.

I’m learning to see with fresh eyes—similar, perhaps, to the eyes of a child.  I’m discovering beauty in off-beat places—like the weathered and rustic back alley behind the stores in our up-north small town, and a case of colorful gelato in our local coffee bistro.  Just last week hundreds of teensy tadpoles slithering about in the shallows of the Rock River set my mental paintbrush slithering on hypothetical 140 lb. cold press paper.

More than ever before, I think in pictures and translate mental pictures into shapes not readily discernible to anyone but me.  When I paint a picture from my mind, or from an experience I want to remember, one or more facets of that scene or experience will surface in colors which convey mood and emotions.

Below you will see an example of painting an experience—a rendering which I shared awhile back, and am repeating in this instance because it shows the technique of expressing one or more facets to tell a story, rather than trying to replicate a scene in photographic detail:

Jamie and Leo's Day

The experience dates back to a wedding in September, 2013.  Family members and friends of our granddaughter Jamie and her sweetheart Leonardo were waiting outside of St. John’s mini cathedral in Delafield, Wisconsin for that moment when we could enter the church for the ceremony.  Anyone who has experienced the best of a typical Wisconsin autumn can reconstruct the scene in his or her mind:  warm sunshine, crisp air, blue sky, and the sleepy droning of cicadas.  The day—mellow beyond words.  Jamie and Leo—even more mellow and precious than the day.  When a scene or experience is mellow beyond WORDS, only a picture will suffice.

So in this rendering—“Jamie and Leonardo’s Day”—you will see sunlight, the Norman architecture of the St. John’s cathedral and campus, and the suggestion of trees in early autumn while the grass is still summer-green.  I could not begin to paint Jamie and Leo, but I could record the happiness I experienced at their wedding.

Growing through art.  Along with growing in ways to see, I’m growing in a tolerance for messes.  Life in process can be messy, but I’ve always been a neat freak.  From the onset of my art adventure, I’ve had to relax with messes and even enjoy them when they reflect a work in process.  There are paint stains on the carpet around my art table, and splatters on the strip of drywall behind where I work.  Part of the décor!  Evidence of a life lived with the exuberance of freedom from fussing and fretting about things that don’t matter!

No, not better.  Just changing and growing.  The painting at the top of this page is a rendering of my friend Karen’s patio.  I did this back in 2007, from a photo that I’d taken when visiting Karen.  I had my original painting reproduced at a print shop, to a place mat size, and then laminated—so we have placemats of Karen’s patio.  I also gave her some of the placemats, and she recognized her patio.

Were I to paint the same scene today it would be vastly different—not only because Karen is always assembling fresh details of vintage beauty in her home and garden, but because today I would not even dream of trying to reproduce a scene camera style.  Certain features of the patio décor would grab me, and I would express those features—colored by my mood and the essence of that day.

The mention of “mood” brings me to the realization that perhaps only in the arts can one’s subjective mood be the prominent and dominating factor.  In our everyday world, objectivity is absolutely essential—for survival, for accuracy in our work, in our understanding of other people, and for a correct view of life itself.

Contrary to much current thought, we live in a world which is objectively BLACK AND WHITE—in terms of TRUTH AND NON-TRUTH, GOOD AND EVIL, RIGHT AND WRONG.  But in the arts, we can express with subjectivity—life as we see and experience it, uniquely from the inside out.  Considering the countless benefits of (and reasons for) art, perhaps that is one of the greatest:  the arts are windows to subjective aspects of the human experience.

No, not better.  As far as I can see, just changing and growing.  At age 80, I’m blessedly free of a competitive spirit in my work.  Thus, art making is pure pleasure and excitement for me—devoid of any sense of struggle or drive which would mar my freedom, spontaneity, and joy.  If I can express just those three things—freedom, spontaneity, and joy—I’m delighted.  And completely contented!

Here is a very recent example called “Blue and Old Pottery”—done in gouache (with hints of watercolor and acrylic) on Yupo paper.  Not better, just changing and growing.  And different!  That’s part of the excitement of art.  No two paintings are alike!  🙂

blue and old pottery 2

Margaret L. Been — July, 2014

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The Haunted Mesa . . . inspired by Louis L'Amour's novel by that name . . .

In the above painting, inspired by one of my favorite novels—THE HAUNTED MESA, by Louis L’Amour—I began with the “dampen the paper/charge the paint/and back off” concept but backing off simply did not work.  Instead, I spent hours letting layers dry, painting new layers, sponging off muddy parts (Arches 140 lb. cold press paper takes a lot of sponging and reworking without falling apart), and much consternation to the point of nearly tossing the whole bit into the waste basket.  Hour after hour and layer upon layer, I just couldn’t seem to make the painting come alive.

Then I accidentally turned the paper (to what I’d thought was) upside down, and voilà—THE HAUNTED MESA materialized before my eyes.  I like this one as much as any I’ve ever done.  I guess my punch line is, in the words of Winston Churchill, “Never give in . . . .”

The painting is large enough that it wouldn’t completely fit into my scanner.  (It will be matted and framed to the outside dimension of 16″ x 20″.)  But I was able to scan aspects which especially appeal to me:  the yellow-green sky and the faded background layers, as well as a good amount of the alizaron crimson/permanent magenta/ultra-marine violet foreground. 

The cloudy areas in the foreground were created by randomly rolling a wadded up facial tissue over the freshly painted, wet surface.  I’m just a bag of funny tricks!!!  🙂

Margaret L. Been, ©2013

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For the last two decades, Joe and I have made a pilgrimage West at least once a year—frequently in the Winter or early Spring.  Our destinations were Colorado and New Mexico, and we combined our love for the West with a visit to loved ones who live near Denver.

This year, the trip is not happening—but never mind.  My paintbrush travels to the High Rockies of Colorado, to the adobe houses of Taos and Santa Fe, NM, and to those fascinating Cliff Dwellings on the Four Corners.  Just as I never tired of traveling West, I will always love reading about the West via documentaries, histories, and Louis L’Amour novels.  And likewise, I probably will never tire of painting the West.

My favorites of L’Amour’s novels are those mysterious tales of lost canyons, valleys, and ancient cities in the regions surrounding the Cliff Dwellings.  My mind paints as I read, and eventually the paint materializes on paper.  Hence the above pair—Lost Valley of the Ancients I & II.

The paintings are propped on another passion of mine—my piano.  A collection of Scott Joplin rags peeks over the painting on your right as you view the photo.  Playing a Joplin rag never fails to make me smile!  Such mellow music, with soul! 

To the left of Scott Joplin, sits my venerable book of classics by Mozart, Schubert, Chopin, Beethoven, etc., which are infinitely satisfying to play.  (That’s why they are classics!)  The book was my mother’s, and it dates to the late 1920s or early 30s.  Not only did she gift me with her love for music, and of course the music lessons, but she left me the actual music books to enjoy.  My fingers don’t flow as effortlessly across the keys as hers did, but with practise I can play.  Mom would be pleased! 

Meanwhile, with books, paints, and a piano I really don’t need a “vacation”!  It’s all here, at home!  🙂

Margaret L. Been, ©2012

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It’s been said that Wisconsin has four seasons:  Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter/winter/winter/winter/winter.

Actually, in Southern Wisconsin we sometimes have mild days into November.  We can also have winter days in October.  And winter normally stretches into March or April.  Where we lived for eight years in Northern Wisconsin, you can tack three weeks on at each end of winter–making a nice long one!

I’m relearning some things about Southern Wisconsin winter, where Joe and I lived most of our lives.  We do not have the 35 below zero thermometer readings that we had up north–but we do (at least this time around) have a lot more icy, slushy, raw, damp, overcast days.  So it’s a toss up.  However the coin lands, it’s winter in Wisconsin!

Although I get antsy pantsy by about the first of March, I enjoy winter because it’s beautiful to look at–and because I love to craft and READ!  Others love winter because they love to ski.  The important thing is loving something enough to keep on doing it throughout these long weeks. 

Whatever the season, I love to get lost in a huge novel.  Currently, I’m snow plowing my way through Dostoyevsky’s THE IDIOT.  It’s riveting, and ponderous–as are all of Dostoyevsky’s novels.  He was a brilliant Christian worldview writer, and he left us a legacy of works that plumb the depths of the human psyche.

Reading the Russians always takes me a bit more time than reading large novels by English authors, because of the characters’ names.  Russians tend to have more than one name–depending on whomever is addressing them–a formal name, a personal name, etc. 

Creative, but challenging for those of us who are accustomed to one name per person.  When reading the Russians, I sometimes get mixed up as to who’s who! 

Since my maiden name was Margaret Ruth Longenecker, and now I am Margaret Longenecker Been, I’m grateful that I have only one name!  That one is enough for me!

Meanwhile snow is falling, falling, falling.  School closings are popping up all over the place.  What a beautiful time to read!

Margaret L. Been–All Rights Reserved  

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