The Exactly Right Word


“Map of the Elusive Waterway”
11″ x 14″ acrylic

Over the past year, I’ve been working my way up from small collages to larger canvas pieces and then up to even larger canvas pieces.  I’ve enjoyed every step of the way.

The larger canvases gave me freedom to push some boundaries and experiment with new techniques – loosen my stays, so to speak, and get a little crazy.  And I did all that.  Some of my favorite pieces came out of that larger work, and I still have blank canvases in bigger sizes waiting patiently for me against the wall.

But a friend and I are considering a pop-up gallery in my neighborhood during the summer.  The summer starts in May where I live and the tourists start filling the sidewalks and streets, so it’s time to get ready.

I’ve been doing a little research and visiting a local year-round art fair, keeping my eyes open to learn what sells and what doesn’t.  A pop-up gallery, like a weekend fair, appeals more to folks who are passing by than to collectors (although you never know).

For this venture, I need to scale down.  I’ll show a few of the large canvases (in case one of those collectors happens by), but the bulk of sales will likely come from smaller pieces that can sell for less and be easily carried away.

At first, I was loath to give up those bigger canvases, felt as if I were taking a step backward to go smaller.   I wanted to keep working with color but I had to make adjustments in the way I worked and the tools I used.

At the same time, I began working on poems for a chapbook.  Poetry is, of course, all about compression.  When I teach it, I advise students to bring in drafts and then tell them to cut the draft by a third.  Their “oh no!” looks are pitiful. Thirty lines down to twenty.  Fifteen lines down to ten.  It’s the compression that makes a good poem what it is – tight, concise, solid.

And so it was with the paintings.  The smaller canvases gave me a great exercise in compression.  How could I say with the paint, with the colors, what I wanted to say in “fewer words”?

As the poems and the smaller paintings proceeded, side by side, I felt the joy of discovery, of finding not the almost right word, but the exactly right word.  Not the almost right splash of color, but the exactly right splash of color.

Life is full of lessons.  Some of them are worth the learning.



Comparing Ourselves to Everybody in the Whole Damn World


Map of the Mojave Rain Forest
11″x14″ acrylic on canvas

I was working away at the easel a week ago when I took a break and ran across an art news story that not only gave me pause, but stopped me dead in my pitiful tracks.

It was the announcement that the Metropolitan Museum of Art has just made 375,000 art images available and free for the public.  You can do whatever you want with these images.  That’s a lot of art.  But the story went on to note that the National Gallery in Washington, DC also has about 45,000 such images available, the New York Public Library has made 180,000 images available, the British Library has over 1,000,000 images (count those zeros) and the Rijksmuseum has 150,000 images.

Now, even if some of the public images are duplicates from one museum or library to another, the numbers are still (as he who shall go nameless might say) – “Huge!”

So I stopped and asked myself what I was doing with that canvas and those paints. It’s somewhat akin to the feeling a writer has when she walks into a library or a bookstore with all those books on the shelves.

We need some perspective.  First of all, a lot of those images are of art created a long, long time ago.  And given samples I checked out, some of them were probably donated by family members of would-be small-time artists and hardly qualify for the Louvre.  Others, of course, are good, even great depending on the artist in which case we’re back to the question:  What am I doing with that canvas and those paints?

Well, I’m certainly not trying to compete with a couple of million works of art (questionable or great).  So am I trying to compete with all the living artists in America today?  Ha.  All the living artists in California? Again, ha.  All the living artists in my neighborhood…hmmm.  Like Jack Benny, “I’m thinking. I’m thinking.”

A little healthy competition can be a good thing.  Runners and other athletes know it.  You win or you lose.  The stats are there for all the world to see and nobody likes a sore loser. For creative people, the “stats” are subjective and healthy competition can slide into jealousy or discouragement/depression.

If it’s jealousy, we can end up as nuts as Salieri when Mozart outdid him.  (If you need a refresher on this watch Amadeus again.) If it’s discouragement/depression, we can hit blocks that cause us to walk out of the studio, shut the door and never look back.

I don’t know about you, but for me it’s not going to be either of these.  We have a third option and that option is to value the art we do without interference from any critics or juries or even the public.  Selling the art is a different subject, so let’s not get confused here.

Most of us know we’re not Michelangelo or Rothko or O’Keeffe. But we also know enough to see when we’re working well and when we’re not.  We continue to learn and congratulate ourselves on pieces we know are pretty darned good and to find lessons in the ones that go south on us and even make us shake our heads with a “What was I thinking?” laugh.

In their wonderful book Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking, David Bayles & Ted Orland include this little dialogue:
Q: Will anyone ever match the genius of Mozart?
     A:  No.
Thank you–now can we get on with our work?”

Let us be grateful that all those art images are now available, but let us not be jealous or intimidated by what’s gone before.  We don’t have time.  We have work to do.




The Naming Game

When I was an art history student required to memorize names of artists, dates, places and works of art, my favorite title for an artwork was Marcel Duchamp’s “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even.”  The work itself is an abstract composition of glass, paint, dust and the workings of Duchamp’s mind, but the title – to me – is sheer poetry and adds to the intrigue of the piece.


“The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even”
Marcel Duchamp

“The Bride…” came to mind this week when I read an article about problems abstract artists have titling their works.  Working as one of those artists myself I’ve been stumped by this, too.

Landscape painters and portraitists have a more solid place to begin:  “Sunset over Ocean Beach,” “Meadow with Wild Flowers,” “Henry Wiggins, 1968,” and so on.  But even realist painters sometimes want to branch out and come up with something a little different.

Many abstract artists, especially abstract expressionists, simply number the paintings.  “Blue No. 5,”  Black and White No. 32.”  I understand this impulse because I want to let viewers of my own abstract work decide for themselves what the painting is about.  I prefer to let the painting connect to their experience and emotions without me butting into the conversation like a Miss Fidditch of the art world.

There are a lot of schools of thought about this naming business, but I did find help online as we artists work to come up with names – a name generator that will do the hard work for us!  I gave it a try the other day and came up with a few possibilities for a new painting:  “Complicated Movement,” “Unconscious Eye of Lust,” “Intimate Intensity,” “Surface of Fear 1955,” “Intensity vs Investigation,” “The Celluloid Air.”  Hmmm.

Writers have a similar problem when it comes to titles for their novels and I wonder how many copies of a book titled Among the Ashes and Heaps would have sold.  Probably not nearly as many as The Great Gatsby. 

Other suggestions for titling abstract works include using lines from books or poems, either something you already love or just a random stab with your finger in a book.  As a poet, this idea appeals to me and as a jazz aficionado, so does the idea of song lyrics.  I gave the random stabbing idea a try for this new one and grabbed a book of poetry off the shelf.  Not mine, somebody else’s.  This is what my finger landed on, “…this reliable frame that lets color be…”  I like it.  I’m going with it.

Maybe next time I’ll give the generator another try, but until it comes up with something as inventive as “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even,” I’ll go with poetry. Or possibly just “Red No. 43.”


“…this reliable frame that lets color be…”
title from “News of the Occluded Cyclone”
by Alice Fulton

acrylic painting on canvas, 11x 14




January is now over and February is upon us.  I vowed to take the month of January off to recoup after the holidays and unsettling  news stories.  By the end of December, my painting mojo was on some other planet and I needed time to find it again.  So, no social activities, concerts or major events in quiet January.

I broke the quiet last evening when I went to a small jazz performance by a world class guitarist and a flute player.  It was the perfect way to rev up the mojo again and get me back to both painting and writing.

As for the groundhog who apparently poked his nose out this morning in Pennsylvania, I don’t know.  I’ve got myself on a media diet this month and as far as I’m concerned, “No news is good news” for the month of February.  I’m hoping that the worst will be over by the end of the month.  “Yeah,” I hear you say, “right.”

Either way, I’m happily playing with the paints and gesso, the palette knives and canvas even as I fiddle with words for a new poem.  My first major art instructor told me long ago to put my easel in the best light and my writing desk next to it.  “They’ll feed each other.”

Judging from what’s happened so far in February, I have to think he was right.  My painting table and my writing table (with computer) are, in fact, right next to each other.  I’m able to move from one to the other as the paint dries or the words come slowly and feel the resonance between the two.

It may not be magic, but it’s something.   And I’m keeping it.

First February painting, 11×14 acrylic, “Map of the Inner Harbor”img_1899