Creative Minds Art History Project – Vincent Van Gogh

Hello all! This is my first post I’ll be doing on my Creative Minds class projects I am leading with my program this semester. Each week we will be learning about a well known artist from the past or present, and completing a project based on their process and style. I work primarily with adults with disabilities or mental health issues, and though we will not only study artists with disabilities, mental health issues, addiction, or chronic illness, these individuals will be a special focus.

Today I’ll be walking you through an enjoyable and easy project inspired by the art of Vincent Van Gogh. Being the Coordinator as well as an instructor for an inclusive recreational arts program, there is always a wide range of abilities and experience levels in each class. I am excited to make art history accessible and fun for all ages and abilities. Vincent Van Gogh has always been one of my favorite historical artists, so of course he had to be the artist I chose for week 1. I know that he’s a lot of people’s favorite, but I have always felt a special kinship with him as we also happen to share the same birthday!

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His use of light, color, and movement through swirling, visible brushstrokes has become iconic and easily recognizable even to those with no knowledge of art. Also common knowledge are Van Gogh’s struggles with mental health throughout his life. He was blessed with a supportive and loving family member, his brother Theo, who financially supported him so that he could continue painting despite being unable to hold a job or make an income for himself. It seems his brother saw firsthand the transformative power of art, giving Van Gogh at least a few more days, months, years, or sometimes just moments of peace and joy than he would have experienced otherwise.

Oil paints are pricey, require copious amounts of time to complete a piece, need adequate ventilation that may not be available in all classrooms, and can be frustrating for beginning artists. So, we ditched the oil paints for oil pastels!

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The first step in our project was to make a simple outline in pencil first. Students were encouraged to be inspired by the provided images of Van Gogh’s most famous works, but not necessarily to copy. They could make a scene, a still life, a person or animal, or anything else that came to mind. They could then use the pastels to trace over their pencil outline, and add more lines in between to mimic Van Gogh’s iconic style. Students could fill their paper with as many swirls, stripes, or dashes as they wanted as long as they still left white space behind, because next the magic happens!

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After their pastel outline was completed, students could fill in their different areas with watercolor washes, and watch the oil pastel repel the water. Though not a requirement, this technique is especially amazing to watch when washing darker watercolors over bright or light pastel. One of the students even commented that it was “like magic”. This process is simple enough to be enjoyed by students of all abilities with minimal frustration, but also fun for more advanced students. Pro tip: make sure you have enough water in your paints! If your watercolors are brushed on too dry, they won’t repel as strongly. Also, be sure to use paint brushes with soft bristles. Stiff, scratchy brushes are harder on the oil pastel and will not give as neat of a result.

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There is a common narrative that Van Gogh suffered so much because while he was alive his art never became famous and people wouldn’t buy his paintings. I don’t know about that … I am a Doctor Who fan, and for those of you unfamiliar with the show it’s about time travel. Who would have thought, but this whimsical sci-fi TV show ended up moving me emotionally more than any work of cinema I’ve ever seen, and I watch a lot of movies! In my favorite episode, our adventurers go back in time to pay a visit to Vincent Van Gogh. They end up whisking him away to the future, where he can see all his paintings on display in a museum, and hear his fame being lauded. It is hoped that after seeing this, Van Gogh’s spirit will be renewed, and once he is returned to his own time he will not end his life as he did in history. They hope that when they visit that same museum again after their adventure, there will be walls of new Van Gogh paintings, having altered the past by showing Van Gogh his future. That does not end up being the case.

We put so much emphasis in our culture on fame, money, talent, and popularity that it is hard to accept that these things are not a magical panacea to fix all of our problems, and that sometimes these things are not enough to make us happy.

We need to keep reaching out to each other. As this episode concludes,

“The way I see it, every life is a pile of good things and bad things. The good things don’t always soften the bad things, but vice versa, the bad things don’t always spoil the good things and make them unimportant.”

Make it your goal to add to the pile of good things for the people you encounter each day.

A student that had been reluctant about this project at first because they don’t draw or paint ended up having a blast, saying they felt like they were getting to play and be a kid again. A lot of times, that is exactly what art is about! As Van Gogh himself said,  If you hear a voice within you say ‘you cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced. I hope some of you will decide to play and try this project yourself at home! Be sure to check back in the following weeks for more fun project inspiration.

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New Work! (In Which I Present Probably The Cheeriest Art I’ve Ever Done)

Hey all! I recently finished the 4th piece I’ve added to my current 12 part series. Each piece represents a month of the calendar, and this one is June so it would actually be installment 6 but I’ve skipped around a bit. To catch up new comers, I am working on a series of 12 mixed media, surreal, conceptual portraits in which the meaning is influenced by the use of pattern and color. They will depict women of all ages, races, and time periods, and each will communicate a different theme. I aim for the pieces to speak to women’s collective experiences beyond their differences. I give you, June: She Is Constantly Evolving.

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I think this is quite literally the happiest piece I’ve ever completed – There’s even a puppy … that is unreal. I mean, a couple years ago I actually was told by the manager of a local restaurant that I had to remove a couple of pieces from a show I’d hung there because they were afraid it might send patrons spiraling into depression. You’re not a real artist if your art has never been ousted from anywhere, or so I’m told. Not that everything I make is gloom and doom, but to have butterflies, puppies, flowers, smiling with teeth, and cotton candy clouds all together in one piece is not usually my jam. All of my work centers around people’s inner worlds, and sometimes confronts difficult or uncomfortable emotions. Even my pieces that convey overt happiness usually have some sort of edge or oddity to them.

I remember meeting my blindly assigned roommate in college for the first time. Once she found out I was an artist, she wanted me to do some large paintings for the common room, but “They have to be cute! Not scary!” Apparently she thought I was some sort of dark , twisted soul, which is quite funny as I had Sanrio posters all over my bedroom and Bart Simpson print pj’s for god’s sake. (I was to find out later that until we became friends she was afraid to put out any of her Hello Kitty themed toiletries in our shared bathroom, and also only watched America’s Next Top Model in secret when I wasn’t home for fear of my scorn.) To fulfill the cute requirement, I made a painting of a girl holding her kitten surrounded by retro, colorful power flowers. But … I gave the kitten purple dragon wings.

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This is so Museum Of Bad Art worthy in the most hilarious way, that I’m actually saddened I tossed it. It’s one of those compositions that is so bad it goes right past bad and back to good again.

All this to say, this is a rare piece to be one that conveys nothing but pure, unadulterated joy and exhilaration. It’s ironic that I created this at a time when joy and exhilaration were about the two farthest things from my mind. As seems to be the general consensus, 2016 has been more than a little trying, and it sure decided to go out with a bang in November and December.

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This piece is about transformation, as symbolized by the presence of butterflies, and maybe it was the idea that change is certainly most appealing during the most wearing of times, mixed with a bit of my love of holidays that makes it impossible for me to stay cranky around Christmastime. Either way, this piece speaks not to who we are right now but who we wish to be, and reminds us that nothing is permanent, and that sometimes that isn’t a bad thing.

See this design and more in my Redbubble Shop.

 

Art Discussion : Deliverance

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I have always thought of doing an art discussion post on this particular piece. Whenever I show it, everyone wants to know the story behind it as the fact that there is a symbolic visual narrative is clearer in this piece than in many of my others. Still, I have been putting it off for quite some time because explaining the concept behind this piece is very personal and would involve being really freaking transparent, so hold onto your hats. (I’m actually a big fan of transparency, but it usually manifests itself in the form of out-bursting deeply personal information in a sort of accidental social vomit, not neatly typing my feelings out for the world to see.)

This painting is a prayer.


When I started this piece, I was newly graduated from college and had been back to living in my childhood home for awhile afterward, which was super uncomfortable. I’m sorry, no matter how much you love your family it just is, unless said family adopts a sort of chill,  we are mutual adults living together almost like roommates sort of attitude, which nearly never happens.

I’d just finished training for a new job in sales that I already knew I was going to hate. Approaching tons of random people I don’t know all day and having to make forced conversation until they buy something? I might as well just get into the fetal position now for efficiency’s sake. The month long training involved driving 3 hours away and staying in a hotel with all the other trainees, and everyone was either horrifyingly mean and offensive or overtly sexually creepy. On more than one occasion, I finished a bottle of wine by myself sitting alone in my hotel room and I’m not a huge drinker. Not by any means advisable, but I honestly could not conceive of getting through this sordid affair without self medicating no matter how physically and mentally unhealthy. I’d had anxiety so bad 2 years before during my junior year of college that I had actually experienced brief hallucinations brought on by stress. I was not looking to have that be a repeat experience.

Even before I had embarked on my ill-fated new job, my emotions had been cycling out of control. I felt like my body was constantly sending off fight or flight signals, releasing chemicals that triggered the feeling that I was about to be chased by a tiger, except nothing was actually wrong. I would be elated and laughing and feeling creative and motivated one minute, and then suddenly this deep sense of dread like the sky was filled with pianos tied up on ropes that were about to all drop down on my head like I was in a Bugs Bunny cartoon would shake me to my core. I’d always been someone who felt BIG. When I feel joy, it’s intense and when I feel despair, it’s intense. I like to think it’s worth it for the times of joy, where the littlest thing can make me jump up and down like a little kid. A lot of people use that sense of celebration in the smallest details of life as they get older.

The first time I heard this song by one of my favorite artists, these lyrics really resonated with me because I think one of my biggest fears is people who never express their emotions. It’s just so foreign to me.

…But I would kill to make you feel
I’d kill to move your face an inch
I see you staring into space
I wanna stick my fist into your mouth
And twist your Arctic heart

The rapid up and down thing I was going through was something different, however. I’d always been in control of my mind and I felt like I wasn’t anymore. For someone who really likes to be in control of absolutely everything at all times, it was terrifying (I make itineraries for day trips even if I’m only traveling 20 minutes out of town. Excel spreadsheet lists are my best friends. Change plans on me at the last minute? Not unless you have a death wish. Just to give you a bit of insight…) It was also exhausting because the thing is, when your mind keeps sliding into that fight or flight state you actually feel as if you’ve just been in an extremely stressful and dangerous situation whether anything has happened or not. The fatigue is the same.

Another thing you may or may not know about me is that I am a Christian, albeit a Christian who has never felt very at home in the ofttimes bizarre sort of bubble of Christian culture (I swear people must have been able to sense it, because youth group was terrible. Maybe they could smell it like dogs smell fear.). This is mainly because it has always felt very exclusive, and also because being a female puts me in a sort of precarious situation with religion in general. It’s why the subject of “Women and Religion” actually has an entire college course of study devoted to it. Organized religion of any belief system tends to not be too kind to the ladies. (If I actually behaved how those super conservative “complementarian” advice articles advised that I do to be a “Godly woman”, never expressing a damn thought without asking “What do you think honey?” first, my current boyfriend would toss me off of our balcony. Or have me committed, one or the other. I found a keeper ;).) Basically, they just don’t seem to leave a lot of room for people actually being created with variation, people’s brains, hearts, and minds each working a little differently from the other. Luckily, Jesus doesn’t need you to be a robot that copies what everyone else in his bandwagon thinks, and He doesn’t need you to join any super special cool kids club. Also, despite how people like to twist religious truths to allow them to control others, he actually validated and lifted women up in contrast to society at the time. Don’t believe me? Some discussions on this issue can be found on God’s Word to Women, Sojourners, and a great interview on Christianity Today with one of my favorite christian writers, Sarah Bessey.

This is the first overtly faith based piece I’ve ever created, though my faith, my beliefs, and my passions inadvertently end up in all of my work in bits and pieces. I was obviously at a breaking point, and I was reluctantly praying about my struggle. I really didn’t even want to, because to be honest, I was frustrated, and I was pissed off. This was not what adult life was supposed to be like. I wasn’t supposed to still be dealing with this crap; I wasn’t supposed to still feel anxious and lost and overwhelmed; I wasn’t supposed to still feel like an outsider no matter where I put myself. Since drawing helps me focus and communicate my thoughts, I decided to draw my prayer.

Dealing with intense anxiety cages you. You aren’t able to function as your normal self, or even interact with others in the same way because every ounce of your energy goes into self care and basically trying to not feel like garbage all the time. This painting is a right to left narrative. A death version of the theatrical comedy/tragedy masks are embedded into this girl’s torso near the location of where her heart would normally rest. Hands are coming up from behind her and touching her shoulder in an act of comfort, you are not alone. The hands represent God, but they are not passive like a pat on the back or a “there there, everything will be ok”. They are active and forceful, saying “No, I will not let you continue to suffer.” A suffocating darkness creeps up from below. In the next part of the narrative, those same hands are breaking the mask in two, and out of the center, though still tangled, falls the girl; her true inner self, out of the cage. She is holding a watering can. In the final part on the far right, she is fully escaped from the prison inside the mask and water flows from the watering can she is holding, while silhouettes of human figures with flowers at their hearts stand in it’s spray. She is “watering” their souls, symbolized by the flowers.

When we go through tough things, we can use our experiences to better connect with and support others. No, that doesn’t mean the trials we go through are “good” (Seriously, “everything happens for a reason” has to be my least favorite platitude, and I really, really hate platitudes), but it means we can use something that was bad for good later on. Because of the struggles with anxiety I have experienced, I am able to better relate to a lot of my Artshop students and their mental health struggles which are oftentimes far more severe than what I have dealt with. I am better able to help them when they are going through a panic attack situation, better able to understand why on some days it bothers them to have a lot of noise during class when they are already on edge, better able to understand and empathize with the fact that they were fine an hour ago, and now are very upset even though nothing tangible has changed. I am able to be someone who says, “I hear you. Your feelings are legitimate. And you are not alone”.

A week or so passed afterward, and I ceased experiencing the out of the ordinary, rapid ups and downs.

No, my anxiety has not magically “poof!” disappeared, but over time  I have become far better at managing it and breaking out of its cage using a variety of learned techniques. For some, engaging in their faith and educating themselves on emotional management techniques isn’t enough and they may need to additionally seek counseling or medication. Everyone is different, and there should be no judgement.

Also, everyone should read this post about high functioning anxiety. I have never been able to articulate an experience so well, and it is a must read for all in my opinion, because I do not think this experience is uncommon. I think people just are apprehensive, like I was, to talk about it. I guarantee someone in your life right now needs you to know this.

What are some things you do to recenter yourself when everything around you feels out of control?

 

March: She Is Everything At Once

Obviously, though I had a fun idea of doing the whole “a drawing a month” reveal for my new 12 part series, that didn’t happen as I am on March and it is now almost September. I would like to enter this series into Art Prize next year, and decided if I have until next Fall, why impose such a crazy impossible deadline on myself simply for the sake of themed blog posts and risk the quality of the work? Impossible self-imposed deadlines are this thing I like to do that I really need to ease up on. For those who haven’t read my previous posts, my new series involves 12 mixed media, surreal, conceptual portraits in which the meaning is influenced by the use of pattern and color, one representing each month of the year. They will depict women of all ages, races, and time periods, and each will communicate a different theme and season. I aim for the pieces to speak to women’s collective experiences beyond their differences. I want the series to flow together in its mainly black and white scheme with pops of color, soft mixed media application, and it’s classic portrait composition. However, I wanted each month’s portrait to still be distinctly different “characters” from one to the other, achieved via aesthetic theme and accent colors. For this piece, I went with bold, dynamic primaries and a nod to pop art. You can view January and February from earlier posts.

In this piece for March, my goal was to take the commonplace negative stereotype of women being “emotional” and turn it on it’s head, marrying caring and empathy with strength, and sadness and despair with hope for a better future. A surreal merging of classic pop art, which often featured dramatic beautiful women sobbing,  with realistic portraiture was the perfect fit for this concept.

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Women are constantly being told they are too much of something, despite the fact that they are often expected to wear far more different hats responsibility-wise than their male counterparts. Google searches have become an interesting way to peek into mainstream society’s views. Anyone who uses the internet knows when you begin to type something in, google will finish it with the most popular searches and subjects. A UN Women ad from 2013 was the first to make a statement using this innovative approach.

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I tried the same concept, only typing in the starting phrase “women are too…” What I’ve found is that women are apparently too picky, but also too easy, too intelligent and successful to find love, yet too weak and too emotional to be leaders, the president, or involved in politics at all, but at the same time also too dominant. It looks like we’ve got a Goldilocks problem here.

As one who believes that sometimes problems we assign dominantly to one gender are still just basic human being problems, I didn’t want to negate the idea that there may be similar findings for men. However, when I tried “men are too…” I got nothing. In fact, when I simply pressed enter to see what articles would come up, the main article up top was “Monkeys turn into grumpy old men, too” about aging primates and behavioral changes. While hilarious, it is clear that this whole “Be everything at once yet also be nothing at all” contradictory expectation is something that, while maybe not entirely absent for men, is something that women face more in mainstream culture.

A descriptor routinely used to discredit women’s abilities is the fact that they are “too emotional” by default of their gender. However, when men step out of their perceived box by showing any degree of emotion aside from anger, they too are often chastised and ridiculed. This shows that our revulsion towards caring at least is a societal problem on the whole, not just a women’s issue. For some reason, people seem to view caring as weakness. This can be seen clearly in the dismissive term bleeding heart, always used with a strong air of disgust. (A note to be made here… when I talk about caring I am not including people sitting behind a laptop screen typing angry, obscene responses to random articles that they don’t agree with because they get off on being offended and telling people off. Nor am I talking about people who shut down and throw a fit every time they have to hear something that they don’t agree with. This is not true caring or passion, this is an addiction to “being right” all the time and putting people in their place, and it is unhealthy.)

I recall a conversation had with a person from my past 5-ish years ago. We were discussing some political or sociological issue. The other person, whom supposedly respected me, was nevertheless making zero effort to understand my view though I myself had stopped and listened to theirs. I remember growing frustrated and stating, “I don’t know why you are refusing to try to listen and understand where I’m coming from when this is an issue that is so important to me.” Their response was given bitingly and with a wave of the hand, “Oh, everything’s “the most important thing” to you.” Though it was meant as an insult, the more I pondered it the more I thought, I’m ok with owning that. Because everything does matter, in some way large or small.

In our culture, it’s cool not to care. You can see this fact brazenly displayed in popular entertainment (The Hangover 1,2,3,4,5? They just keep going.) People are routinely being told the answer to their feelings of isolation, depression, and anxiety is to just “let go”. But is the “ignorance is bliss” model really the one we should be following? This idea in and of itself seems to admit that caring is not weakness, but strength. Experiencing emotions of concern and empathy is an active state; not caring for anything outside of your own pleasure and needs is passive. To put it simply, caring about things is hard work. It can force us to take steps towards action that may make us uncomfortable, and take up a lot of our time and resources. It can be mentally and psychologically draining.

Caring is strength. Let’s lift up our mothers, our fathers, those taking care of an adult family member, our nurses, our teachers, our home health aides, our daycare workers, our counselors, our missionaries, our activists … No matter what societal norms tells us, they are our true heroes.

 

The Value of Including Others’ Stories In Your Work

I’ve been talking a lot about stories lately.

Last year, I had the privilege of participating in ArtPrize in Grand Rapids, MI. ArtPrize is an international art competition held annually and decided by public vote in which the entire city is turned into a gigantic art gallery. For ArtPrize, you want to go big so I devised a 15 part series of drawings titled “One Thing To Say”. There was no guarantee of getting to display, so I was on pins and needles (I mean, 15 drawings take a long, LONG time) until I had secured a venue at Monroe Church.

A selection of the 15 part series "One Thing To Say".

A selection of the 15 part series “One Thing To Say”.

The premise was this: I asked a sampling of individuals this question: “If given the chance to say one thing that would be transmitted into the ears of every person on earth simultaneously, what would it be?” Methods of communication, of reaching people, in this modern age are virtually limitless. There have never been more avenues with which to share one’s views publicly, to impart something to multitudes of other people all at once. It is an amazing and fascinating opportunity. Yet, with so much freedom to express, one of two things seem to happen most : The ability is taken for granted, so we say nothing that is truly meaningful to us at all, or we abuse that which is so readily available, leading to a projectile vomiting forth of our thoughts and opinions on all things big and small, so easy to reach multitudes with one button click and little revision or afterthought. If we had to boil down our communication from pages and paragraphs into a small collection of related thoughts, a single sentence even, what would each person say? With one shot to speak to every person alive in our current time, what would be revealed as the most important to each of us, and what would that say about us personally?

"One Thing To Say", Monroe Church ArtPrize 2014

“One Thing To Say”, Monroe Church ArtPrize 2014

Me, timehop to 5 years past, showing my completed "Occupancies" series and some very black hair.

CMU Student Exhibition: Me, time travel to 5 years past, showing my completed “Occupancies” series and some very, very black dyed hair.

This was not the first time a design was prompted by the responses of other people outside of myself, some strangers some not. The first time I tried this approach was for the Student Exhibition my senior year at CMU. I entered two projects. One was a four part series of drawings. I asked a random sampling of individuals “If the inside of your mind were a physical space, what would it look like?” I then created four opposite environments in which I placed the “cast of characters”, or individual answers I received. Open “boxes” atop their heads depicting their described environment laid each person’s thoughts bare. This project was a way to combine my two loves, art and interior design (well, 3 loves – I also enjoy people watching /slash/ discovering fascinating intimate information about complete strangers). The second project was an art book. For this one, I asked the question “Think of all your life goals, those things that MUST happen before you die. Then pick the most obscure one. Funny or serious, just be honest.” I turned these answers into an illustrated book entitled “Underneath” that ended up winning the Best of Show Grand Award.

Underneath, art book

Underneath, art book, cover

Underneath, art book, watercolor and ink

Underneath, art book, watercolor and ink

Letting others’ stories inspire you in your work allows you to reach out to more people, and bridges connections between those you reach across ages, races, backgrounds, and beliefs.

One thing I aimed to reinforce with “Occupancies” as I chose whom I placed in which setting and how they interacted with the others, was that there do exist universal threads in our emotions and struggles and striving, no matter how different our brains might seem to work compared to those around us. With “Underneath”, I aimed to give a voice to those longings within us that we keep silent. Everyone wants to talk about wanting kids, finding true love, getting that dream job, but come on – we all know deep down that isn’t all there is to life. For most of us, that just isn’t enough. I hoped people would read the responses and smile, and laugh, and sometimes even nod in agreement as they realized, “I’ve imagined that before! I thought no one else thought about doing that, I thought no one else wanted that, I thought no one else…!”

Kurt Vonnegut wrote one of my favorite things once, “Still and all, why bother? Here’s my answer. Many people need desperately to receive this message: I feel and think much as you do, care about many of the things you care about, although most people do not care about them. You are not alone.” We are taught to cling to what makes us different, and wave it as a banner, and uniqueness is good, but it sure can be a lonely feeling to be convinced that your mind and soul is an isolated space with no doors and windows, a place that no one can see into or understand. I’ve been there, and I don’t think I’m the only one.

Communicating others’ stories through art is a unique challenge (and one that I don’t take lightly!) to consider life through a different state of mind in order to depict another’s inner thought life, and to realize through the eb and flow of a life, we all have different experiences but go through similar stages of feeling, positive and painful, doubting and confident. We just think we are the only ones so no one wants to vocalize how they feel, and therefore everyone else feels they are the only ones and …. so it goes, the cycle continues. But it doesn’t have to.

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“Underneath” and “One Thing To Say” can be viewed in greater detail on my website, “Occupancies” can be found on my behance portfolio. High quality prints of my recent ArtPrize illustrations are also available in my ebay store or etsy shop.