Instagram post of the latest plywood painting I finished. It’s 24 x 24 inches, acrylic on plywood. I snapped the original image as I walked past the entrance to a parking garage in Chicago.
I’m fascinated by the entrances to parking decks and garages for a couple of reasons. One, I find them to be architecturally fascinating spaces. The lines and geometry are often great from a compositional standpoint. Creating black and white art that strips these spaces down to core composition is a means of highlighting what I perceive to be the inherent beauty of these spaces that are often considered a functional blight on city centers.
Secondarily, I find these places to be interesting liminal spaces. They are intended to be navigated in a car, but humans have to move through them, though they are in many ways hostile. It’s this necessary but indeterminate space. I think this is similar to my fascination with airports. These are not the destination, merely some third space one has to navigate to get to where you intend to go. As such, they tend to be overlooked, perhaps why I’ve begun paying attention to them.
Below is the process from original photograph to finished painting.
The images as cropped and adjusted for Instagram. My working method with all of the pieces I’ve made from this series have started as photos I’ve posted to Instagram. It serves as the starting point, test bed, etc. for images that I want to work with.
This has become a predominantly digital process. Quick photo with my iPhone, processing via Instagram, then sketching out the composition in Procreate on my iPad Pro.
Process video of my work in Procreate. This highlights the decisions points and compositional decisions I made while resolving the sketch. The biggest choices were the elimination of the gate arm, and deciding to paint in the ceiling. Though the composition is heavily guided by the typically harsh shadows of these environments, I’m clearly not working to slavishly recreate every aspect of the image. Much of this process is about reduction.
The prepared board. I’ve bought standard 1/2 inch thick, precut, 24 x 24 inch plywood boards. They are then prepped with a coat or two of black gesso, and then a coat of white acrylic. I use a dark undercoat because I want the white in the image to have a sense of depth.
The analog portion of the process really begins. After resolving the composition in Procreate, I print it out, roughly 4 inches square, then use an art projector to transfer it to the board. The board has been completely covered in masking tape.
Back acrylic applied. Unlike my previous work on canvas where I used a brush to fill in the white areas as a contrast to stenciled black acrylic, I’ve been using foam brushes for both the white and black layers with these pieces for a more uniform appearance.
The last touch, adding in the red. This has been a new direction for me, highlighting small pops of color in these pieces. The working title of the series has been “Warning Signs,” as all of these spaces are adorned with markings of some type warning the pedestrian, or driver, of what they are or are not allowed to do. Or in the case of this space, guiding the driver through these curved ramps. All the same, they act as a warning indicator. Bringing these bright spots back into the composition is a way to highlight the quasi hostile but still functional nature of these spaces.
Manhole covers. Just can’t quit. Eventually I might have finished work detailing all of the places I’ve been thanks to my obsessive documentation of manhole covers in almost every city and town I visit.
Work in progress, laying down black gesso on plywood. Light caught it just right, the streaks looking like a giant record under magnification.
A weekend’s work. I’ve been in a bit of an introvert hangover since the holiday weekend. To recover, I spent most of the weekend at home, working Friday night and Saturday on this. Another in the new series of paintings on plywood. Again, a dash of color.
A few images from the process:
The first piece of art to have any color to speak of in… well… years. Continuing to work on a smaller scale, tweaking process a bit. More pleased with this than the first piece I made in this format. Think I figured out the method with this one, can probably retroactively “fix” the first one, make it more like this one.
“Loving compassion, this is my religion.”
Lama Deshek would soon begin the ceremony to destroy the mandala he had created over the course of more than a week in the lobby of the Museum. Generous with his time during the creation, stopping to chat with visitors, answer questions, pose for photographs, before the ceremony began, he noticed the many people craning over the barriers trying to snap a photo of the finished mandala. Looking around, he spotted a step stool, brought it to the side of the mandala, and set it up. Five minutes, if anyone wanted to come use the step ladder to get a better photo. Another small moment of grace on his part. After a number of visitors took their photos he pulled out his iPhone and stepping up the ladder announced, “last one.” And, realizing the nervousness of the onlookers previously, held his phone out and pretended to bobble it, eliciting laughter from all.
And then he began the ceremony. For a brief time he spoke of his belief that the central theme in his life is the deep loving compassion for all living things. Loving compassion, this is my religion, he said to the crowd of more than 150 people. And soon, though we all knew it would happen, after a brief ceremony, he took a brush and swept it through the mandala, 150 people gasping. Though we all knew the impermanence, we all still gasped at the beginning of the destruction, the lesson immediately and so clearly illustrated for all present. After a few strokes, he turned to the crowd, held a brush out, and gently invited them in to participate. In less than five minutes, what had taken a week to build was now a small pile of mixed sand.
I felt a deep appreciation for the opportunity to watch the ceremony, and a great pleasure in knowing that so many people were also able to share in the experience provided by my place of employment. When strangers find out I work at the Museum of Art, they immediately respond with some variation of, “that’s wonderful, it must be a great place to work.” I find a polite response, while internally reminding myself of the struggle it can sometimes be. Petty and fragile egos, passive aggressive back stabbing, pursuit of so many small agendas, infighting, and on and on. It can be infuriating in ways I’m sure many work environments can be. But, in this moment, watching the crowd, and thinking back to the hundred or so visitors that came to the opening ceremony, the many who participated in meditation with Lama Deshek, those who watched during his time of creation, I was humbled by the work I do. Humbled by whatever small amount I could contribute to helping share this experience with my community. It was a reminder I needed of why I wanted to work at an art museum. The power of art to inspire, to help see things anew, or discover a new perspective. The Museum as a place of exploration. And further, to be reminded through such a message as Lama Deshek’s of compassion for all living things, including, as he noted, for ourselves. For if we can not find compassion for ourselves, it is all the more difficult to have compassion for others.
Self compassion has been a struggle for me, and certainly my lack of self compassion has led to my fair share contributing to the workplace struggles mentioned above. I can not remember a time when it was not. And in recent weeks I’ve come to realize it more acutely, particularly in struggles I’ve had relating to others. Specifically in a romantic context, though reflection has made it clear how deeply this struggle has affected my ability to relate to other people in general. I’ve begun to read about self compassion. And after struggling to resolve many of the issues I’ve been facing of late, it seems like a good starting point to find a favorable path forward. I grew up as a “gifted child.” There are aspects that are great, but also some excruciating burdens, both self and externally imposed in my case. Growing up, I had support, but I also faced a lot of isolation. In my adult life I have not sought out the kinds of support that I might have benefited from, and allowed self-criticism to take an overwhelming role in my life. The desire I had as a gifted child to understand things, that natural curiosity, has also been a difficult urge to deal with when facing my internal struggles. I want to understand these issues I face, I wanted to find the solution, and when it does not come easily, when it might be impossible, the frustration is furthered. The existential crisis of one simply deepens, often through the tightening of self-criticism like a vice, squeezing out what little self compassion I had. I have often thought I had a distinct capacity for self assessment and awareness, looking at my mind from a distinct third person perspective, analyzing and probing. Realizing how inaccurate that idea often is has been crushing at times, but is slowly becoming an enlightening process. One I’m sure I will be writing about more.
Photograph, reduced to line art. Printing a 5 x 7 inch linocut, transferring to a 36 x 48 inch canvas, etc, has been a working process of mine for a few years. And as much as I enjoy playing with scale and seeing what happens when images are reduced to a linocut and then enlarged, it was beginning to feel stale. Or, if not stale, a bit more labor intensive than I’ve made time to accommodate lately.
My reduction to line art has also changed since getting an iPad Pro and Apple Pencil. I’ve been able to take photographs and redraw them completely digitally. No tracing paper. Direct. Efficient. I’ve also taken to using Instagram images as a starting point for the digital drawings.
So, new format. The large canvases just took a long time to finish, and aren’t the cheapest things to buy if I’m not really selling paintings. Criteria for new format became cheaper, and smaller. Plywood was a start. A decent piece of plywood is cheaper than a large pre-stretched canvas. And smaller, but not minuscule, something reasonable to work with. 24 by 24 inches. To speed things along even further, skip the print, just project the digital image on the board.
Pleased so far with new format and process. Not that the process is all that different. But, the costs were far less, and I basically finished the painting in two days instead of spending weeks or months poking away a little here and there.
Prepping new method and format. Undercoat of black gesso on 24 x 24 inch board.
I’ve been creating 5 x 7 block prints, then projecting to 36 x 48 canvases for years now. It’s the working method for all of my Sloss and Birmingham Mandala projects. It’s a big and labor intensive process. So, time for a change.
This is for a new series of images. They all began as Instagram photos, more or less all showing spaces that aren’t intended for people, but through which people sometimes find themselves navigating. Parking lots. Parking structures. Interstate underpasses. Rather than creating a block print, I’ve refined and redrawn each image in Procreate on my iPad. This started as a way to play around and experiment with the iPad Pro and Apple Pencil, but has become a more refined process. And now, rather than produce a block print, I’m printing out the image, then will project it on the prepared wood. From that point, the process will still be similar to previous canvases. Masking tape. X-Acto. Etc.
More process photos to come I imagine.
The Museum will open the largest contemporary exhibition curated from the permanent collection. The exhibition highlights many of the collecting themes the Museum has followed the last twenty or so years. A focus on under-represented viewpoints. A highlight of the “other.”
Third Space frames issues of the Global South within the framework or prism of the American South. It is impossible to look at art in Birmingham, Alabama, without the baggage of the location. What does it mean to examine the perspectives of artists grappling with exile, representation, identity, and more in this place. How have these issues been confronted in Birmingham, or the American South. A place that has more in common with struggling regions around the world than it does with cities or regions in the United States.
But more, in the context of current events. Current attitudes. What can this art teach us about ourselves and those around us? In a sense, all art is political. And the art in this exhibition isn’t necessarily easy to look at, or easy to digest. Some is beautiful. Some is ugly. But all of it has a story to tell. A story that is worth listening to, or worth digging into and trying to understand.
I won’t lie. This exhibition has tested many of us at the Museum. The scale, the production timelines. The interpersonal things that develop within a staff committed to what they are doing, but not always seeing eye to eye. But in the end, I feel this is a very important exhibition, regardless of the stress it has caused me personally.
We all need a little more empathy. A little more understanding. An expansion of our perceptions. And if this exhibition can guide viewers to that, I think it will be worth the struggle we’ve put into it.
I hope you will consider coming to it. The opening event will likely be big, and full of people, and hopefully fun. I’m curious to see the reaction of people to a potentially heavy exhibition in the context of a party… I hope it piques people’s’ curiosity and encourages repeated visits. Walking through the gallery a few times during the installation process, I’ve certainly noticed new things each time.
A coworker stumbled across an article about subversive coloring books from the early 1960s. They are brilliant and incisive, cutting quiet life of desperation to the bone. For all those who want to “Make America Great Again,” thinking that means the 1950s… well, from the evidence, it wasn’t necessarily so great.