Seasoned painters know that it pays to have a plan, an organizing principle to guide creative decisions at the easel.
Even stream of consciousness artists start off with an idea or feeling in mind. And a conceptually driven artist, even one like me who is working from Fluxus boxes set up in the studio, has to have an idea on how to build an image from the ground up.
Here’s how I got from the box still-life to my finished painting, Alchemical Bride 24 (Sojourner Truth).
Firstly, I reversed the bride, so the small figure was in front and the large portrait in back. The picture still bent in half, but now I had an all-seeing eye looking at me. Cool!. After a number of sketches, I zeroed in on the green reflections from the plants in my studio as a color prompt.
With green as my anchor color, I picked out a quadratic color scheme to complement the hues I saw in the box, and nudged others to fit my chromatic key.
I believe in organizing principles to guide my brush. But I don’t think artists need to become goose-stepping fascists, mindlessly following some art historical rule. That kind of rigidity is for theorists, not for those who actually practice. The easel is where the rubber meets the road, and any painter worth her salt won’t give up what will best serve her painting because of a rule!
Take the Rule of Thirds, a universally appealing way to distribute focal points in a painting, for example. To find my true thirds, I diagonally divide my painting in half in opposite directions. I then divide each leg in half, to find the “eyes” of my thirds. In my composition, the “eyes” are marked in red.
I wanted to create a strong movement from the bride’s vigilant and actively staring eye, to her hands, folded and waiting for action. A narrative suggested itself in these two gestures as I thought about the historical figure of Sojourner Truth. So I stressed the top right and lower right “eyes” softening the other two with shapes, moving with the rhythms of a Fibonacci spiral.
Now look here, I free-handed my Fibonacci spiral, so it’s not a mathematically correct spiral. No doubt, there’s a theorist out there clucking tsk-tsk with disapproval. Know what I say to that? Jimmy-crack corn and I don’t care! My painting is alive and bristling with color, textures, values, and implied narratives. And it moves with the rhythms of the spiral despite the organic imperfections of my hand.
I use chromatic keys and compositional devices as organizing principles like an artist, not like a fascist. Discerning mathematicians and art critics need not freak out.
I have been a professional artist since 1985, and was recruited to teach right out of college. For me, teaching has always supported the healing and activism at the heart of my studio practice. In turn, my commitment to service is at the heart of my pedagogy.
Last year I took a substantial pay cut to go on sabbatical (our school district is poor and we get docked for research). I took professional leave to create a documentary for use by the arts departments in our district and in our feeder schools. I looked at my partial salary as a grant to explore documentary film-making. I have no training in film, but I am an experienced visual artist and an educator. I knew from consuming films of various genres across different platforms, that audiences will gladly overlook rough edges if the content is good.
My husband joined my efforts, becoming my cinematographer, without any monetary compensation for his time or for the wear on his equipment. I researched, scripted, directed, edited, and produced not just the contracted hour-long educational film, but eleven additional shorts.
The purpose of the films? To reverse the white supremacy that blights the art world. And it is a blight. That’s not an opinion but a quantifiable fact.
In March of this year, The Smithsonian analyzed more than 40,000 works of art in 18 major U.S. museums’ online catalogs. What did their research find? Predictably, 85 percent of artists featured are white, and 87 percent are men.
Benchmarks such as the ArtReview Power 100 in 2018, tell a bleak story: 62% male/38%female, 60% Caucasian, 20% Asian, 6% Black, 6% Mixed-race, 6% Latino, 3% Middle Eastern. You might think, but that’s big art business, what does that have to do with education? A great deal, as it turns out. Classroom demographics reflect an equally disturbing dearth of minority voices in the arts.
But this story of white supremacy isn’t set in stone. It is in flux. If last year 60% of the Power 100 were white, the previous year it topped 70%, and just fifteen years ago it was an appalling 87%. This increase in diversity, while slow, is a direct result of efforts from the art world’s most dedicated individuals– people like Thelma Golden who support the health of our cultural ecosystems by challenging racist policies.
As a Latinx intersectional feminist, I felt strongly I had to do something. And my husband joined my crusade. The crucial question was how could we convince young creatives and their parents to fund a college major without established pathways to success? How could we entice young creators to lend their voices to our greater cultural ecology? Societies are judged by their cultural legacy. In the age of political crowds chanting “send them back”, of #BlackLivesMatter, of Latinx children dying under ICE custody, what does it say about us as people that minority creatives are silenced before they even have a chance to contribute?
Block-buster exhibits such as Kehinde Wiley’s A New Republic at the Seattle Art Museum create visibility for success stories. However, they do little to disclose how aspiring artists break through institutionalized racism and market obstacles to become financially soluble professionals.
The purpose, then, was to bridge the gap between the young creative doodling in their sketchbook and successful arts professionals. The film was to uncover the pathways to success established by municipal institutions and funding sources as Artist Trust, 4Culture, and Seattle Office of Arts & Culture, and introduce students of color to recent equity programs and initiatives. The documentary also introduced students and recruits to a number of successful established artists of color in the community, as well as flourishing emerging talents entering the Seattle marketplace. At all times, I kept my ideal viewer in mind…that young creative who wants to follow their dream but thinks that it cannot be done.
The first short dropped nearly ten months ago, the most recent, was uploaded this Spring. Currently, I only have anecdotal evidence that it’s working. I am seeing more students of color enrolled in the nine art classes I teach in the Fall, and my colleagues report similar demographic shifts. My college hasn’t yet collected enough data to render a clearer picture, but already the feeling is that this project is reaching it’s intended audience, one download at a time.
Below are the links to the films. I hope you will enjoy and share them liberally. There are eleven shorts, all under 10 minutes, that faculties can use to introduce lessons, and one class-long film. All the videos are available for free streaming on YouTube.
Artists of Color in Seattle, documentary shorts:
Humaira Abid, A Life in Art, 8m36s:Features the internationally renowned sculptor and installation artist talk about overcoming challenges and becoming a success right out of school. Abid just won the prestigious $25,000 WA Artists Innovator in Art from Artist Trust in 2019!
Lisa Edge, A Life In Art, 7m49s: The last dedicated journalist covering art in Seattle and the region. All other arts reporting in the city is done by INTERNS or journalists who cover everything, from finances, politics, sports, food, shoes, whatever. Not any specialized training! Can you believe it? Features the arts reporter discuss her trajectory from anchoring the news to writing art reviews and artist features. She specifically talks about where she discovers talent and who she chooses to highlight in features.
Aramis O. Hamer, A Life In Art, 8m03s: Features the art entrepreneur and 2019 Neddy at Cornish $25,000 award winner discuss how she successfully left a career in nursing after matching her salary through art and the many creative income streams she cultivates.
Philippe Hyojung Kim, A Life In Art, 7m37s: Features the young artist during his residency at ReCology discussing how he makes connections to curators and critics, teaches, and motivates himself to make it happen.
Gabriel Marquez, A Life In Art, 7m11s: Features the young graphic designer and public artist/muralist discussing his successful careers and interrupting his studies to work after his daughter was born. He shares about his initial difficulties after moving to Seattle from Texas. Latinx artists still find it hard to make it happen in Seattle, And Marquez has recently moved back to Texas with his young family. He is currently painting one mural after another.
Sarah Meranda, A Life in Art, 7m20s: A graduate from Seattle Colleges art programs. Features the young jewelry designer discuss taking classes, juggling bills, and doubling what she makes in her full-time corporate salary through her “side-hustle” art business. Since publishing this video, Sarah has become a full-time jewelry maker and hired more assistants.
George Rodriguez, A Life In Art,6m09s: Features the well-known ceramicist thriving as a sculptor and teaching artist. From representation at blue-chip art galleries like Foster / White, to commissions from the Mexican Consulate, Rodriguez makes a Life In Art inevitable! He is currently living in Philadelphia.
Resources for artists in Seattle, documentary shorts:
Artist Trust, A Life in Art, 5m40s: Features Brian McGuigan, AT Programs Director enumerating numerous training opportunities, resources, grants and fellowships open to all artists and steps the organization is taking to prioritize equity.
4Culture, A Life In Art, 9m21s: Features Executive Director Brian Carter discussing King County’s funding programs and his own career trajectory from founding curator of NAAM, to Burke Museum and finally to arts administration. Carter is bi-racial, didn’t see himself or his family reflected in the arts growing up, and comes to arts funding as a critic and catalyst for equity.
Seattle Office of Arts & Culture, A Life in Art, 5m23s: Features Director Randy Engstrom discussing the importance of building up the cultural ecology of our communities and the many different programs Seattle funds. He explores how specific programs are helping artists of color break into public art. The office has moved to the new King Street Station and is now more accessible than ever!
CoCA Seattle, A Life in Art, 8m27s: Features Nuura Ibrahim (who was a student at SCC not too long ago) and Judy Rayl discussing the Center on Contemporary Art’s commitment to all artists, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, or ethnicity.
Making It, A Life In Art, 54m40s: The narrative arc invites creatives to conceive of a career in the arts through studio visits and interviews. 4Culture’s Executive Director speaks about how broad the field is and invites the young creative to lend their voice to our culture. Participating artists share how they created plans to develop secure incomes in the arts, how they overcame resistance to their work and even personal losses. They share how to deal with rejections and prevail in their careers.