Thursday, March 15, 2018

Letters to Eliza

     Last August we voted the new themed show of Impact Nebraska Artists to be "Nebraska Roots."  We will gather this weekend with 24 new artworks and it's been fun to see my peers posting their creations on Facebook. The challenge of painting to a theme and showing with other amazing artists is intimidating. It stretches my imagination, skills, work processes, and understanding of self and others.
     This painting has been a struggle. Started in September, it has been through many phases.  Some of the middle stages were better than near the end! I consider my strength to be balanced compositions, though graphic lines and symbols are often used as a crutch to create balance and focal points. 
     Years ago, I created a collage around a photo of
my great-grandparents and their four children (the hired man was also in the photo).  I had several prints of this small painting and used it in an early stage of Nebraska Roots.  The image became precious...thus, the struggle.  It's difficult to work around a part that you love in a collage, because it may become obliterated...or try to take over the composition. You can see here the photo fights the tree as a focal point. And I loved the real pressed leaves on that tree! They had to go.
       My brother had done a lot of family history work a few years ago, and mom had given him a box of family documents.  He emailed me some photos of letters our great-grandfather, William Vasey, had written in 1879 to"Eliza, my dear wife," who stayed in Iowa while he set up the homestead in Dawson County, Nebraska.  I made gel transfers of his beautiful handwriting (on the right), creating another "precious" problem.

     In the letters, he answers her questions about Indians in the region (1500 camped in the western part of Frontier County), tells of being cheated out of one site,  going over 50 miles to the Loup River to obtain cedar logs for foundation of their house, and says land is going fast.. "if there is anyone wanting to come out here, tell them they had better come soon."
     On the left, to balance the script on the right, I collaged a copy of an envelope addressed to Mrs. Wm. Vasey, Grundy County, Iowa.
     Here, in the fifth photo, I tried to lose the precious, but couldn't because that's what it was all about!  I had actually painted over my grandfather, and could hardly see the I cut out duplicate images of those three, making them more important (though still pretty small), and actually moved my grandfather to the place where the hired man was in the original.
     My son had a surprising critique for me.  He said I'm too subtle!  He saw color and missed all the hidden detail until I pointed it out. And he  That's sort of how I've always painted...using the layers of collage to hide secrets.
     I want to try another version of this theme and format.  If it turns out better, I may swap out this Impact piece. Check to view other artists' versions of Nebraska Roots, as well as our four other exhibits. "Skyscape" will be in Bancroft, Ne during April.   

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Colby's Art on the Oasis

So no one told you it was gonna be this way...
by Rebel Mahieu
Best of Show

Last weekend I judged and critiqued the annual Art on the Oasis show in Colby, Kansas. It was enlightening in so many ways.  Judging always makes me study up on composition, color theory, and critique.

I was caught off guard by a question from the crowd about my credentials. I started with certification in art education, which this person laughed off, as he could paint better than most of his instructors.  Understandable. What would you offer as your credentials that would satisfy a critic? I mused on this with last night’s insomnia, and decided that making art for 50+ years, intensively for the last 20, as well as working to improve my art with workshops from master teachers, consultations with other artists, and lots of studying is more important than any degrees, memberships, or show resume bullet points.  The more you make art, the better you get. And I would argue that, at least for me, teaching pushes my expertise up a notch by the preparation required to feel confident in front of students.

This Colby show is organized into three skill levels, each with seven categories of medium.  Different categories are appreciated, as it's nearly impossible to compare a photograph to a well-executed oil landscape--like apples and oranges.  In fact, as a one-of-a-kind-mixed-media artist, I recognize my bias against a photographer who can make multiple prints of a good photo. However, this judging experience made me realize that categories can be cumbersome and need to be understandable to the public.  There were pieces entered as drawing that were clearly mixed media. Their category “Oil or any other opaque not listed in another class” put fabric batik in with oils. Multiple categories mean more awards for artists, but more cost for the hosting organization. And, with so many possible mediums, it’s hard to know where to stop in making a fair contest.
by Elizabeth Gladin
1st, student drawing media
There were over 200 student entries.  One senior from Southern Valley Schools in Nebraska came for critique of her watercolor abstract and 2nd place acrylic of a combine in the field.  Her courage and willingness to improve skills will be useful in her art ed classes at Wayne State College. High school artists are limited by poor quality supplies and the 47-minute class time, where 10 minutes is wasted with take out and cleanup. Still, they produce impressive art, like the first place Wolverine graphite portrait shown on the right. (This photo is cropped to remove the entry label.)

In judging different skill levels, I was struck with the fact that a lot of the difference in skill showed up in presentation.  A majority of amateur entries had poorly cut mats, unpainted canvas edges, warped paper, or frames with no spring clips. Even in the professional level, the difference between two perfect pieces came down to matting with frayed edges from using a dull blade.

An artist’s signature shows pride in one’s work, and I am all for unobtrusive signing.  But an obvious signature should be in sync with the personality of the artwork. Three signatures stand out in this show: one, with traditional acrylic landscapes, paints his signature in small capital lettering; the second, a photographer, uses black marker, centering the smallish script signature on top of double white matting, with a long horizontal line before and after. Both these artists had multiple works in the show and their signatures were consistent, creating a recognizable branding of their work. The third signature was much bigger than I prefer, but executed in the style of the charcoal drawing, so as to almost blend with the image. This artist had other works in the show that were not signed in the same manner. I prefer branded signatures as a professional statement, but for some reason, this one worked for me.  I wonder if the same script, only much smaller would work for his brand…. All that being said, do you want me to remember the art or your signature? Maybe both!

As I talked aloud in the critique about my decisions, I realized how important storytelling is in my appreciation of art.  Given equal quality compositions, and masterful use of media, I will always choose art that tells a good story. Sometimes that is found in the image itself.  Sometimes I find stories in writing or ephemera used in mixed media. And a great title will lead me to the story.  Someone in the audience had known judges who purposely don’t look at titles. I know I did not notice all the titles, but when creativity is used in a title, it can lead the viewer to take another look, to empathize with the artist’s struggles, or to laugh out loud—which makes the art memorable.

In addition to all the above musings, I must mention the satisfaction I get from connecting with other artists at events like this.  I loved meeting others who create in remote areas, and seeing many Nebraska art friends there for the critique.

I learned a lot from this experience…I hope you have too!

Saturday, March 11, 2017


I am honored to be a part of Impact--a group of 25 Nebraska artists with a mission to educate through outreach programs and thematic exhibitions.  Our newest exhibition package is titled "Skyscape."  The symbolism and meaning in my painting are begging for a little explanation of the way my brain works...and the things that define the age, space, and time that went into the creation of my Freedom Sky

When I heard "skyscape," my first thought was of Georgia O'Keeffe's Sky above Clouds IV, which I'd seen at Chicago's Art Institute on a University of Nebraska study tour in 1997. The painting is huge (8 x 24 feet!) The portrayal of distance in this work has always fascinated me.  On that same tour, we viewed some of the fabulous public sculptures in Chicago, one of my favorite being Alexander Calder's Flamingo located in Federal Plaza.  It's color and curves are a wonderful contrast against the straight grid lines of the Mies van der Rohe buildings surrounding it.  Then, two years ago, I made several trips to Chicago where my daughter was being treated for severe migraines.  On one of those trips, I encouraged her to deny the pain and see a bit of the city. We walked to the Calder sculpture, where we took selfies and other touristy pictures.  So, as I searched for skyscape ideas, and the Art Institute was on my mind, I pulled up the Flamingo pictures and felt drawn to this one because of the transition of the grey-blue across the sky, showing distance and atmosphere. The light is interesting, causing the Flamingo red to appear black, with subtle reflections of red in the buildings.

While musing on the skyscape image, I was also reading Sue Monk Kidd's historical fiction, The Invention of Wings, and was blown away by the realization that the movement to abolish slavery was also the beginning of the woman's rights movement, and they are similar problems in terms of human rights.  All this was going on in my mind as Donald Trump came to the presidency, with the Women's March and lots of civil rights issues...addicting Facebook posts, research to verify "fake news," fear and isolationism.  

Suddenly, the perspective lines of the Federal buildings pointed to the center of the Flamingo, which became a spirit tree, with concentric tree growth rings telling the history of civil rights.  In The Invention of Wings, a slave girl tells about re-enacting her mother's story of her grandmother wrapping scraps of red thread to an oak tree, and ceremonially giving their spirits to the tree.  So, when the Flamingo became a spirit tree in my painting, it required red thread.  Another part of the grandmother’s story told how the stars fell from the sky the night the grandfather was sold to another slaveholder.  So, the stars in Freedom Sky…while suggesting the states symbolized on the American flag, are also falling from the sky.

Many days of Internet research on human rights went into my painting.  The rings of words tell some of the major events in United States history that have affected human rights.  On the gallery wrapped edges of Freedom Sky, I included letters and numbers…initials to honor some of the major players and legislation in the story of human rights in America, as well as those that influenced my painting (Kidd, and Calder).     

Federal Plaza is not in Nebraska, but, it is a pretty cool and unusual view of the midwestern sky.  The buildings and sculpture contrast in the same way federal laws and human rights clash…or rural (Chase County) and urban (Omaha) lifestyles differ...or like conservative and liberal viewpoints seem so at odds in these difficult days. We must look at where we've been and fight for our ideals, yet work and change together.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Christ Be With Me is showing in two places right now.  A framed print is in the Meadowlark Gallery in Grant.  The original is in a  show at the Unitarian church in Lincoln, NE.  This is one of my favorites.  I was inspired after reading from Richard Rohr's Yes, And devotions where he talks about St. Patrick's Breastplate, a mantra from catechism.  The words are in the perimeter of the painting: Christ below me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ above me, Christ beside me, Christ within me.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Be Brave

This started at least a year ago, with more added in May. (first photo)  I thought I was finished 2 weeks ago and got a good picture then. (second photo)  As it sat around waiting for its frame, my satisfaction needed something more.  And, I had written in several phrases from Sara Bareilles' song, Brave.  Awesome inspiration...but inappropriate for me to be using.  It  made me antsy about copyright issues.  So, today I added paint and papers to obliterate some of the words...which led to more paint, more paper.  It is now much improved with more layers of interest.

Once again, I forgot to get a final photo before I finished framing, so please excuse a few reflections in the last photo.

I should dedicate this piece to my 92 year-old-father-in-law, as he has been trying hard to be brave in the extended recovery time after knee-replacement surgery.  Not sure whether the pain or just being in the nursing home requires more bravery.  Last night I helped him through the pain until time for more drugs by having him recall his most memorable hunting trip.  He was able to fill half an hour with details of a big elk he got in Colorado in the 1950s!  He has a couple more weeks with skilled care, but he's making great progress.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Farewell Dear Friends

Two of my favorite paintings sold last week to some good friends here in Imperial.  It was so fun to see them in a different setting.

Impressions of the Frenchman seemed to glow on the green wall in their house!  And it means a lot that her family is from the area where my inspiration photo was taken.  This has been part of my Highway 6 Series and depicts the Frenchman River near Hamlet, Nebraska...with artistic license!

High Plains Aerial #2 was also inspired by a photograph taken from our airplane, towards the eastern part of a line between Denver and Imperial.  It's the last to go in a series of three coordinated aerial landscapes, that were all framed alike.  All three are owned by people in Chase County!  I loved them hanging together..they are all in a square format and have the same papers, and colors.  But, they are perfect individually in their new homes.   

I am honored to have others appreciate and purchase my art.  I know there is magic and mystery in the unique responses people have to art, and it is a blessing to connect with people in this way. 

Thursday, May 29, 2014

My Hiding Place

Life has been happening a lot lately.  In two months this Spring, I made two trips to Kansas (Dad's birthday, then he broke his hip), two trips to Aspen (daughter's health, then surgery), three trips to Lincoln (son's award ceremony, and gallery work twice), and one trip to Omaha (nephew's graduation)!  I am excited to stay put for a while, but after all that travel, it's hard to figure out how to just be home.

This painting happened quickly.  Earlier, I'd been practicing piano...trying to perfect "You Are My Hiding Place" for an upcoming worship service.  So, the song was stuck in my mind.  In frustration over a social situation, I escaped to the studio.  After playing with a portrait idea, the flowers (like I used to doodle in the margins while taking notes in high school) started growing ...I guess as a fallback to mindlessness.  The song started taking over and became the theme of the if I realized that I tend to hide behind my art, rather than communicate.  This sounds like a sad commentary on my psyche, but I'm okay with the metaphor.  Sometimes, I hide behind art, sometimes it speaks for me, sometimes I use it to escape, sometimes I deliberately create statements, but artmaking is intrinsic to who I am.  The circles, flowers, grids, and music keep me grounded.  I like how they are working in harmony with  the layers of this piece.