Drawing from Life

drawing-from-life.jpgThis is a terrific book that I picked up in Seattle and since have been slowly relishing each page. Unlike many survey books that devote little more than a superficial paragraph and single photo for each subject, there are many photos from each journal featured, along with Jennifer New’s in-depth profile of each journal-keeper’s motivation, inspiration, and how keeping art journals over many years has impacted their work and life.

Not just artists are featured — in the mix of 31 journals, there are those of scientists, a psychologist, a film-maker, musicians, an architect, a quilt-maker, and more. New divides the journals up into categories of methodology: observation, reflection, exploration, and creation, with an introductory essay for each section. There is also an introduction siting journal-keepers through history, and the soft-binding, rounded corners, and ghostly grid background on all the interior the pages gave me the pleasant feeling that I was actually reading from a journal.

This book has given me new insight into what I could achieve from keeping a more regular journal and has inspired me to draw every day. In fact, I’ve been looking forward to opportunities to get stuck in odd places or at parties without anyone to talk to, so I can whip out my journal and start gathering visual information. (click on a thumbnail for larger view)


The World of Robert E. Smith


Robert E. Smith, a self-taught outsider artist who has been featured in the Museum of American Folk Art, will be 80 next month. To put together this show at the MSU Art & Design Gallery that spans over thirty years of work, collectors loaned 140 of his paintings for the exhibition. It’s a rare opportunity to become immersed in the wacky and entertaining world of Robert E.

One of the paintings that we loaned is the basis for this downtown mural, and we won it at the auction to raise funds for the mural. But our painting is better because the artists who interpreted the mural for Robert smashed the painting a bit — ours is longer and skinnier.


But they did pretty much capture the spirit of the original painting. In this detail you can see some of the trademarks of Robert’s story-paintings — famous people like Ray Charles or Santa Claus appear frequently, as does Baby Jane, current events, and personal landmarks from Robert’s memory. If you haven’t already figured it out, Robert has been a major influence on my art.


I love the busy activity and texture of his paintings, the tiny details that you have to get in close to see, but most importantly, the humor of the mysterious stories. This painting that I had never seen before is called, “Mercy Hospital, County Jail.”


Robert sometimes records his stories on tape, attaching the cassette tapes to the back of his paintings. He also writes cartoon books, giving himself titles that he fancies such as “moody artist” or “notable folk-artist.” To see more paintings, go to the Good Girl Art Gallery.

Icons and Culture


I want to enter a show that’s called Icons and Imagery because I think it’s a great idea for a theme. But the juror is German and the exhibition will be in England. So this gave me pause — the humor and play on words and images that is a big part of my art, would it translate?

One of my quilts, Robbery at the Lingerie Boutique just returned from from a touring exhibition that visited France, Great Britain, Denmark, Austria, and Australia. Weird trivia — a woman from my hometown, called to say she saw it Austria. How small the world is! But at the same time, how big! And I wonder how my quilt was received by the locals?

Two books I’ve read this summer Blink: the Power of Thinking Without Thinking and A Whole New Mind both site the research of psychologist Paul Ekman that indicates facial expressions are interpreted the same around the world. But I know this isn’t true of hand gestures, and what about graphic symbols? Think how the swastika has changed.

The prospectus for the show gives this definition: An icon (from Greek eikon, “image”) is a graphic, image, or picture of some object or actions which elicits symbolic meaning beyond the object represented. It stands for an object by representing some well-known significance or certain qualities. An icon represents something of greater significance than the literal or figurative image. So can any icon be truly universal?

What do you think? And if you’re an artist reading this, do you think your work reaches across cultural boundaries?

Niki in the Garden


Occasionally a show comes along that so exciting and full of life, color and joy that it’s difficult to fit it into a simple blog post. This is true of Niki in the Garden at Chicago’s Garfield Park Conservatory. Over 30 larger-than-life sculptures by Niki de Saint Phalle are installed in the already wonderful greenhouses and gardens of the park.

Besides designing sculpture parks and theatre sets, she was also an actress and model. In a video of her life, she is shown doing a series of large assemblages with paint enclosed in plaster — she used a shotgun to shoot the plaster so the paint would explode across the surface of the piece. What a crazy lady! (and as always, I use the term ‘crazy’ with affection and admiration!)

Phalle is know for her multi-colored Nanas that boldly dance and sometimes even spout water. An exhibit placard explained Phalle’s inspiration, “Nanas are like goddesses to me, even superwomen of the sort, primitive tribes idolized. Perhaps they’re aggressive — that’s what some men think. They certainly know what they want, but they are warm, not mean.”


In addition to Nanas, there are huge totems, alligators you can climb, niki_desaint_phalle7.jpg cats in which you can cuddle, man-chairs for sitting, and an amazing skull lined with a mosaic-mirrored interior complete with bench and delicious pearly teeth. niki_desaint_phalle3.jpg

Phalle’s work is covered with seductive surfaces that are delight to examine closer because the materials are so well composed and crafted.

(click on any thumbnail for a larger view) After just seeing Cloud Gate at Millenium Park, I was intrigued by the coicidence that Phalle’s “Large Firebird on Arch” had a similar, and yet totally different effect. Like Cloud Gate, Phalle’s mirrored surfaces reflect sky and land, but in a fractured, more complex way. (far left detail above)


A couple of pieces in a quiet corner of a garden caught my eye. These pieces are not volumetric like most of the show, but are almost linear sketches in air, filled with small toys, symbols and objects. As in all her other works, Phalle shows a judicious use of color and detail.

Phalle says, “When my lungs were severely damaged by working with polyester, air came into my life. I had to learn how to breathe again, breathe deeply. The Skinnys reflect that change.”



If you have a chance, run, don’t walk to Garfield Conservatory before this show ends on Oct. 31. Plan on not only seeing wonderful art, but pack a lunch (or buy a hotdog for a buck) and enjoy the whole day.

And I haven’t even posted all my photos of the exotic plants and flowers. I’ll leave that to your imagination….spaceflower.jpg

Out the Front Door: In Memory of Pat Renick


This morning someone left the front door wide open, so that when I got up for breakfast, a huge gust of spring air hit me full face. I felt like I was almost drowning in the glorious morning air.

Strange that I should feel so invigorated, since we had been up the whole night before, driving home from Cincinnati from the memorial celebration for Pat Renick or “Mother Art” as she’s often called. Pat was an artist, a sculptor, an educator, a mentor, and a friend to so many. We were lucky to see her at various sculpture events around the country, sporadically and sometimes far between. But she was one of those people whose words and contagious enthusiasm would stick with you long after. You can read more of her accolades on art critic Sara Pearce’s blog.

Pat always wore a hat. She said they were handy when you don’t want to make eye contact, or are rather bored at meetings, and that conversations when you’re wearing a hat are always more interesting than conversations without. So everyone wore a hat to the memorial celebration — wonderful hats with dinosaurs, hats with barbie dolls, with shovels, vegetables, sunflowers, you name it. It was a great event for a great lady.


Looking back to her work in the 70’s, her themes are still universal and fresh. She transformed a VW car into a dinosaur to send signals about our dependence on fossil fuels. Another sculpture, Triceracopter: The Hope for the Obsolescence of War, is a dinosaur built on the body of a honest-to-gosh army helicopter. It’s amazing to read her descriptions of how she built these things, using roasting pans in her kitchen oven and a tent in the back yard in this conversation in Sculpture magazine.


Later work her work became more haunting with Life Boats: Boats about Life — sculptures that make allegories to different voyages in life and death.

But as Pat said, “I’ve often had two parallel lines of creative work. One is playful and humorous, especially in drawing and sometimes in sculpture. At the same time, I’ve had enough experience to recognize issues in my own life and in the larger world. My work moves in both directions, and sometimes the two come together in unexpected ways.”


While staying at her house last year during Russ’s sculpture installation in Cincinnati, I had lots of time to study the framed drawings on the walls of her house, drawings that sometimes feature the adventures of Sky Woman, who would fly around the world, tirelessly fighting those who “thrive on tearing the wings off dreams.”

At sculpture events, I usually feel like a tag-along, a non-sculptor. But not around Pat. She always had time to check in with me and to encourage me through the years before I found myself making art quilts. She’s one of those people I have much to thank for, but most of all for her belief in me, as an artist in search of an art. For her belief that everyone can find the artist within.

So this morning, when the fresh air hit me with gusto, I thought it would be good to start a ritual of throwing open the front door and walking out into the morning, rather than sneaking out the back door as I often do. And I felt Pat’s hands on my back, pushing me through the front door.

In closing, here’s a photo of Pat at one of her and Laura’s grand parties and a quote by one of Pat’s heros, Molly Ivins:

Be sure to tell those
who come after
how much fun it was.

Pressing Matters


Feeling totally swamped with day-to-day emergencies and tedium? (yes)

Feeling overwhelmed with too many responsibilities? (yes, yes)

Feeling like you wish you had more arms, more eyes, twice more brains, and a lot more pep? (yes yes yes!)

There are so many distractions that can take our attention away from what’s important. Many things are urgent, but the truly important things are usually ones that have no immediate deadlines, other than the ones we make for ourselves.

Lately I’ve been preoccupied by the urgent and neglecting the important. To encourage myself focus on the work, I’m re-reading The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp, a book I’d have to say is the biggest influence I’ve ever had on my work habits. Twyla’s writing seems to have the effect on me of wanting to drop everything and rush to the studio.

Or maybe I just need more iron in my diet…

White is a Color

I try to always carry a little spy camera around with me to snap photos for my inspiration files — especially ideas for color schemes. And often while getting haircuts, I’ve admired this little box from afar, but yesterday I finally got out of the barbar chair to capture it.

My hair stylist says this company has been making bob pins since the 1930’s and probably never redesigned the package in this time. Good thing! because I think it’s so handsome in simple pink, black and white.

It’s a great example of something a friend taught me — white is a color. Previously I knew that white in terms of light is a mix of all the colors of light. And white in terms of pigment, as in mixing paints, is an absence of color. But once while judging a student logo competition, my friend Mary who runs her own graphics studio, turned to me and said, “These students haven’t learned that in graphic design, white is a color.”

I’ve thought about that often since then. In some of my quilts I’ve used white as a color, as you can see in The Singing Telegram and Blue Christmas. When you use white, you have to be more careful while working — not to get it dirty! My dog Mochi walked through the warehouse one day, smelling every odd thing, then smelled Blue Christmas which was on a low table. Horrors — a dirty smudge! Had to ban the dog after that, but the spot came out and you can’t blame her really — she’s so smart, maybe she knew the quilt was about her!

So here’s a toast to white (as I raise my morning glass of milk!)

Windows of Color

Friday I drove to St. Louis for another funeral. The service was held in St. Paul’s Lutheran Church early in the morning, and the morning light filled the church with a colorful glow through the stained glass windows.

The windows reminded me of patchwork quilts, and I especially liked how the small symbols were intermingled with the blocks of color — each different, each one with a special meaning that was unique to this church and community. After the service, I happened to met a member of the church who helped to design the windows, and he explained how the symbols were selected.

Cartoon Logic and Old Cars

I’ve been driving around for about a week now with a really big bug splat on my windshield — to be able to study the shape and attributes of bug splats, and also to remind myself to put some bug splats on this quilted car. Now that the car and the windshield are done, I guess I can go wash my real car.

I was also thinking about quilting little bugs flying in the headlight beams, then happily found this dotty print that kind looks like dust flecks floating in light. I still might try the bug idea too, maybe just one or two little lonely gnats.

Cartoons requires a sort of logic, which I often contemplate while drawing. For instance, this car is inspired by a photo I found of a convertible Thunderbird from the 60’s. The real car had four headlights, but when I drew them all in the picture, I ran into the problem of how does an old car headlights high-beam look? I got all confused about high-beams and low-beams, so I eliminated one set of headlights. Now the car kind of looked funny in the front, but oh well, I’d moved on…

Because then I realized my original drawing was flawed in another way. If an alien tractor-beam spotlight were directed onto a car, where the light wasn’t, the car would be dark, right? but how to do that in fabric….? My solution was to change to darker fabrics, but I don’t like the way the front tire turned out, so may re-do that.

The reason I choose a Thunderbird is because I once had a similar car. My dad gave me a 1967 Thunderbird to drive to high school, except mine wasn’t a convertible. It was my grandmother’s until it became too unreliable for a grandmother, but not too unreliable for a high schooler. You can see it in this old photo — me with my obligatory 70’s Farah Fawcett hairdo created under the torture of a curling iron, and I have no idea who that little dog is. I loved that car, the inside had all kind of electric do-dads, and it was like sitting in a spaceship. I named her “Bernice,” and all my friends called her that too.

I was wondering the other day why so many of my quilts have cars and trucks in them, then I remembered that when I was growing up, my dad was kind of a car nut. He always had some kind of old vintage car around in various states of restoration. When you’re a kid, can sort of draw and have no money, it naturally occurs to you to draw pictures and give them away instead of buying gifts. So I used to draw my dad’s cars and give the drawings to him, and he had to frame them of course. But my drawings of cars have always looked sort of fat and squatty, like cartoons.

Happy Kokeshi

I promised Gerri I would take this photo. Gerrie gave me the Kokeshi doll in the middle to add to my collection when I met June, Terry, and Gerrie for lunch in Portland. She said it was lonely at her house, but it’s taken me a while to round these guys up for a little Kokeshi party. Thanks Gerrie, she fits right in!

Kokeshi are wooden Japanese folk toys that were commonly made as dowel-shaped dolls carved from branches of trees. Now days there are tons of different styles — the one on the right with the tassles still has bark from the tree on its base, and the two on the left with the brown jackets are dolls from my childhood that my mother recently found in an attic. Somewhere in a Japanese tin I have more small ones, but for the time being, they are determined to stay hidden.