The Poetry and Jazz of Painting


“Birdland,”  © 2018, Molly Larson Cook
22″ x 28,” acrylic

“An artist’s warehouse, full of experience, is not a store of successful phrases ready for use, but is a store of raw material. The successful phrases are there, but they have been broken down to be made over into new form. Those who have the will to create do not care to use old phrases. There is a great pleasure in the effort to invent the exact thing which is needed. Use it. Break it down. Begin again.”    –Robert Henri, The Art Spirit

“Man, sometimes it takes you a long time to sound like yourself.”  —Miles Davis

These days I wear three hats.  I mean that both metaphorically and literally.  I love hats and have several along with a hot pink hat rack to hold them.  I particularly rely on my hats on bad hair days which happen often when the Santa Ana winds churn themselves up.

Metaphorically, I wear my artist hat (beret?), my jazz hat, and my poetry hat.  I’m so attuned to these three that I’m billing my upcoming solo show as “The Colors of Jazz,” celebrating the connections among poetry, jazz and visual art.

I  work in abstract expressionism because it combines pieces of both jazz and writing along with my love of color.  Abstract expressionism is improvisational – like jazz – and lyrical – like poetry.  This may not be anyone else’s definition of abstract expressionism, but it’s mine.

And it’s actually not far from the truth for many of the abstract expressionists  who made the scene just as modern jazz, cool bop, wildly improvisational music were also making the scene. It’s no coincidence.

In Listen, the jazz novel I wrote a few years back, one of the musicians says, “You play the first note, baby, and see what happens. Then you play the next note.  If you know all the notes before you start, that might be something. That might be music. But it ain’t jazz.”

Henri’s words resonate whether they’re describing a work of art (or the process), a jazz improvisation or a new piece of writing:   Those who have the will to create do not care to use old phrases. There is a great pleasure in the effort to invent the exact thing which is needed. Use it. Break it down. Begin again.”   

If I know how a poem or a painting will turn out before I start – well, they might be something. They might even be music (or words that rhyme or a picture).  But they will definitely not be jazz.  Or poetry. Or abstract expressionism.

Miles spoke wise words, indeed, about learning to sound like yourself (or paint or compose).  These things happen only when a writer or musician or artist is willing to let go of the need to know the outcome until the process has ended.  Risk and a certain bravery will be required for the ride.

For my money, it’s the only trip worth taking.

 

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Breaking Rules and Making Art

Simon Jennings, trained as a graphic artist and a graduate of the Royal College of Art in London, authored a number of books for artists. He worked as a designer and graphic artist in New York, Chicago, and London and taught at several British art schools, including the Royal College of Art.

My favorite among his books is his Artist’s Color Manual which includes valuable information about the history of color and pigments, a section on the characteristics of individual colors and a section titled “Creative Directions” which describes and illustrates techniques with various media.

Jennings includes a number of quotations from artists and also his own sometimes deliciously irreverent narrative about painting.  As the sometime poster woman for irreverent behavior over the years, I particularly like his suggestion that we break the rules.  After all, it’s art!

Of course, artists have been experimenting and breaking rules for years. It’s the nature of the best of the game.  Just as in writing or music or any other creative endeavor, we learn the rules (the scales, the grammar, the classic steps) and then we get to fool around.  We get to make choices and discoveries.

Here’s Jennings on “Experimenting with Color:”

“Experiment with how you look at colors in nature; the colors are rarely like you think they are.  Use any materials that are available and ignore correct usage–try gouache over acrylic, mix it with ink, and scribble over it with colored pencils and pastels.”

A friend sent me a card recently with a quotation from actor/comedian Danny Kaye: “Life is a great big canvas. Throw as much paint on it as you can.”  To which I might add “and in any media you choose.”

Jennings continues:

“Rub, scratch and scrub into the surface, using a simple limited palette of two or three colors to avoid the results looking too muddy. Use thick and thin paint, draw lines and apply washes.”

Even before I read this passage, I began – in my own irreverent way – to “rub, scratch and scrub.”  As I’ve written before, I no longer use brushes – I use tools, and the rub, scratch, scrub technique is perfect for the palette knives, rollers, scrapers and anything else I pick up.

Jennings ends this sidebar as follows:

“Forget about making an accurate drawing of a photographic likeness of the object – just apply the paint as fast as you can. All you are trying to do is capture a vibrant impression of the simple still life in front of you, so concentrate on the colors. See what turns out. If you like what you have done, keep it. If not, discard it and try again.”

I don’t work from a still life these days, but my first serious drawing from many years ago was done in pastel and was of an apple the instructor had set up for a still life. I pulled the drawing out recently to remind myself of the long distance from then to now (on a lot of maps).

Back then, I was pleased that my pastel looked like a real apple, the one on the table, and told the instructor so.  She smiled and said, “That’s good. Now do one that doesn’t look like an apple.”

Looking back, I realize that her words may have been my beginning in the happy world in which I now reside with abstract expressionism.  All color, all the time. A world in which I always “concentrate on the colors” and in which I wait to “see what turns out.”

Here’s a new piece, “Dreamsville,” and I’m pretty happy with the way it turned out.  It’s 20 x 24 acrylic and it’s available.

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Solo Show in the Works – The Organic Artist Asks the Paint

When Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

Wait, I hear you say, we haven’t even had Thanksgiving yet.  True enough, we haven’t, but Spring is on my mind for a happy reason.

I’ve been offered a solo show in San Diego that will go up at the end of March and run for three months – April, May and June.  The gallery is one in our Liberty Station arts venue, a popular and busy place in the heart of the city, and I am more than delighted to have been offered this opportunity.

Spring is not that far away when it comes to generating enough pieces to fill not one, but four walls!

Yes, I have a lot of pieces already finished, but mounting a solo show means putting the very best of my work together in a coherent and cohesive manner.  As I’ve said before – rich and complex, not complicated and confusing.

Since color is my animal, I know that much of what I put together will be connected by color.  But not only color.  Even as I think about new work, I’ve begun it, but being an “organic” painter just as I am an organic writer means that I have no clear, pre-determined plan for any piece.  (See below.)

I have a general idea, but I let the paint take me where it wants to go.

Architect Louis Kahn, who designed the Salk Institute building in San Diego, was asked how he came up with his beautiful designs.  His answer was that he asked the bricks what they wanted to be.

I ask the paint.

To those who want more structure in their lives (and their work), who want to know exactly where they’re headed on any journey, an answer like that can be disturbing.  Possibly even irresponsible.

“What do you mean, you don’t know what you’re going to paint when you start?” (Or write. Or visit.)

What we mean is that we’ll engage the media – words, paint, the wheels beneath us – and journey together.  We’ll sing and dance and explore.  We’ll take some risks and laugh at ourselves when things go wrong, because we know there’s no “wrong” when it comes to the creative life.  There are only ideas that don’t work.

One of the best things about the creative life is that we get endless “do-overs”…and every one of those – every new layer of paint or different word – gets us closer to who we are as artists or writers or dancers or inventors or musicians or cooks or any other creative thing we want to be.

Because each try, whether it succeeds or not, becomes part of our history, and we are richer for it.

Those who keep learning and experimenting and refining their creative work will be like Titian. As Robert Henri has it in his The Art Spirit:

I believe that keeping one’s faculties in full exercise is the secret of good health and longevity. It made Titian a young man at nearly a hundred.”

We could probably say the same of Grandma Moses, too, but Henri’s book was written long before Grandma Moses came on the scene.

Here’s a recent example of my own experimenting and refining.  On the left is a painting I posted more than a month ago.  First draft, as it were.  And on the right is the recently finished piece.

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I asked the paint what it wanted to be, and I got an answer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Frank Lloyd Wright in My World of Jazz

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My Jazz paintings cozying up to two from my Deconstructing Frank Lloyd Wright series

As promised, here’s a photo of this month’s exhibit of my work at HYPE Gallery. The initial response has been good to this mixing of earlier and newer work.

Hanging a gallery show can be a challenge in the desire to keep the work consistent and not present a mish-mash of everything an artist has done.  As my sculpture prof used to profess about many things – you want something rich and complex, not complicated and confusing.

So I pulled smaller pieces from last time and added the two new ones. The first comment I heard was from a visitor who liked the arrangement and how the colors worked together.  That made my heart sing as, for me, it’s all about color.

The entire show this month with six women artists is rich and complex with color, and not one bit complicated or confusing. I’m delighted to be part of it.

As a side project, I’m also participating in the Postcards from the Edge exhibit this month at The Studio Door (our mother ship), a national project that benefits visual artists with AIDS.  The original, one of a kind, postcards created by artists all over the country will be sold and proceeds will go to the fund.  Because the postcards are exhibited anonymously, I’ll wait to post a picture of my entry until later this month.

Finally, I offer a couple of short passages from the 1923 book, The Art Spirit, by Robert Henri, artist and teacher.  His writings, nearly one hundred years old, stay fresh and inspire me every day.  He writes about visual art, of course, but his words apply to ever so many other things.

“Know what the old masters did. Know how they composed their pictures, but do not fall into the conventions they established. These conventions were right for them, and they are wonderful. They made their language. You make yours. They can help you. All the past can help you.”

and

“We are not here to do what has already been done.”

Amen to that.  Amen to that.

 

 

 

 

Mixing It Up for the November Show

Today was a gallery day as I rearranged the work from last month, switched things around and added two new pieces.

The new additions are from an earlier series. and I wasn’t sure they’d work with the more abstract pieces already in place.  I loaded the trunk with an assortment, so I’d have plenty of options.

I had fun and smiled to myself when I realized this felt like pulling things out of the closet, trying them on and discarding them one by one as I shuffled the paintings around – put one up, take two down, take those two down and try something else.  It was all about color balance and also – for me – about symmetry.

I’m never quite taken with shows where the work seems to be placed at random on the walls.  It’s a matter of taste more than anything, but also a matter of knowing how you want your work to be seen.

I want my work to be seen in a relatively ordered manner allowing viewers to focus on each painting without distractions.  Quietly. Thoughtfully.  Other artists are going for something else.

When I had things the way I wanted and had used all the tools of the gallery hanging trade including the handy level, the gallery owner dropped by and gave me a thumbs up, noting too the symmetry. “I wouldn’t add a thing.”

And the new pieces from my “Frank Lloyd Wright” series worked beautifully.  Here they are. I’ll have a picture of the entire wall in a few days.

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Deconstructing Frank Lloyd Wright
18 x 24, Acrylic on canvas, c 2016

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Frank and Vincent Go for a Walk
18 x 24,  Acrylic on canvas, c 2016

I’m ready for the Friday opening and grateful to have this terrific opportunity to show my work and for the sales that have been happening every week. Small steps, but this artist’s journey of a thousand miles has begun with one small show in San Diego.  Who knows what’s next…

 

 

 

 

Another Month in the Gallery!

October has been a happy and busy month with the show at HYPE Gallery and my gigs as a participating artist gallery-sitter through the month.  I don’t know about the other artists in the show, but I love being at the gallery and talking to any and all who wander in.

The good news now is that the show has been extended through November.

I’ve met so many interesting – and interested – people and have enjoyed engaging them in conversations about the work on the walls as well as, in a few instances, their own work.

Artists like to see what other artists are doing, so it’s always a reasonable guess that some of these folks are also doing creative work.  A few of them have been musicians or working in some other creative field.  More than one has been involved in high tech, and my abstract paintings have been of particular interest to them.  I like hearing about what they see in the abstractions.

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“Blue in Green,” ©, 2016, 20 x 24 acrylic on canvas

One of my choices to do abstract work is the whole idea that the viewer can add his or her own narrative.  When I have the chance to hear that narrative, it’s especially gratifying for me.

I’ve also sold some pieces, always good news, including one that’s on its way to Germany, purchased by a young couple touring the western United States.  I was happy to meet every buyer and to know where the pieces would eventually find their homes.  Although selling artwork online is popular, I don’t think it’s for me.  I have too much fun getting to know the folks who enjoy the work, although I’d be happy to make the sale to any of my readers who might be interested.  We’ll just have to get acquainted some other way.

One couple who started taking art history classes “just for fun” during their early retirement bought one of my first collages and were already discussing just where it would go in their home as they walked away, happy owners of one of my own favorite pieces, one I wasn’t entirely sure I wanted to sell.

Selling one’s work, all of mine are originals – no prints, is a lesson in letting go.  But when we know our work is making someone else happy, that’s a good thing.

In his book The Art of Loving, Erich Fromm wrote about generosity and noted that the most generous among us are not afraid to let things go because they know they can create more of whatever it is – money, love, art…  I keep that in mind.

And now I’ll have another month in the gallery – more art, more conversations, maybe more sales.  As we say in southern Cali, “It’s all good.”

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“Celestial Bodies,”  ©2016, 11 x 14, mixed media collage on illustration board

Hype Gallery/Studio Door in San Diego’s North Park Arts District
3750 30th Street, San Diego, CA
For information, contact The Studio Door, 619.255.4920

 

 

 

 

Who Put the Art in the Party?

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Part of my wall at the HYPE Gallery

It was no coincidence that “art” was right in the middle of “party” on Saturday night at the Studio Door/HYPE Gallery in San Diego.  Live jazz, good wine, happy people, great conversations, a little dancing and – of course – art!

Like writers, artists like me without a big studio where I can invite people in work much of the time in solitude.  The possibilities of getting our work to the public are generally limited to street fairs or a neighborhood coffee shop or competitions where we might exhibit (if we’re lucky) one or two paintings.

But the chance to show our work in a gallery, several pieces of our work at one time, is a break we don’t take lightly.  And the possibility of making sales on the spot is a possibility that means a lot.  Most of us are not starving in garrets, but selling our work is not just about making money with it.

I sold two of my smaller collages Saturday night, one to someone I know and one to strangers, a delightful couple who told me how much they liked it and talked about where it would go in their home.  That’s the part that means something to me.  And the person I knew did know about my art but had not seen it.  When she did, she wanted to own one of the pieces.  We were both happy.

As a born people-watcher, I also enjoyed observing the flow of the crowd on Saturday night – the folks who come to see a specific artist as well as the art aficionados who enjoy a pleasant evening out and want to see what’s new. It’s instructive for an artist to watch what happens when they pass by your own work – the ones who take a quick glance and move on, the ones who stop to take it in, spend time with the work, sign the guest book or pick up your card and slip it in a pocket.

Abstract art is not for everyone, so I didn’t expect everyone to be interested, but I listened to comments and watched.  Learned.  None of this will change what I do – I’m not creating art for the masses – but I did hear things that helped me know I’m not headed into an art ditch either.

I came home Saturday night gratified by the whole experience.  And Sunday morning, I gessoed up a new canvas and got right back to work.  An artist.

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New work.  Only just begun…stay tuned!