Life as a professional artist is a constant hodgepodge and a scramble for different opportunities as a business. For me it is also a constant reevaluation of what I am doing artistically. The image above, "Empty Nest," is my most recent work and it looks to be the touchstone of where I am headed artistically in this new year. It's a simple object (one that actually mysteriously appeared on my driveway this summer!) yet it holds a lot of symbolism: loss and nurturing, hope and despair, fragility and softenes, roughness and strength. The passage of time. Happy New Year!
It's been a tough year, to put it mildly. I'm more grateful than ever to have my art as a healing power and meditative practice to keep me centered. Moving houses after 15 years took up a lot of time and energy so it seemed like a lot of my art life was on the backburner, but as I looked back through my calendar I realized I had quite a few artistic highpoints:
After a two-year wait I got the surreal experience of seeing a few of my paintings appear in a scene in a film traveling the film festival circuit when it made a stop in Lansing. In April I had a wonderful solo show at Kettering University and was warmly welcomed by that community. A unique, really cool opportunity was the selection of one of my paintings for the Lansing Art Gallery's "Pop-Up" art gallery. Images were reproduced very large and placed in newspaper kiosks throughout downtown Lansing, along with free newspapers about the art and artists.
This fall I scrambled to gather paintings for the Greater Lansing Housing Coalition's fall exhibit and met a lot of great people there doing important work. This exhibit is up through March and open to the public during business hours. The exhibit includes work by several members of a group of plein air painters I have been fortunate to get to know over the past couple of years. My artistic products from this were pretty terrible at first, but this fall I actually executed a few keepers (after retouching in the studio), which are on this website. Let me know what your thoughts by contacting me and also stay in touch on my Facebook page.
It's the first of November today, and it happens to be 73 degrees out and colors are peaking--very late this year. Midwesterners can be a dour bunch though. Twice today alone I heard a version of "I hate this time of year because it reminds me that winter is coming!" I, however, refuse to let the future ruin the here and now. If you do that, you compromise what you have.
My adventures in Plein Air painting this year have taught me to apply this lesson to painting. The locations of where our group paints, and weather and lighting conditions are out of my control, so I am faced with making the best of what I have in front of me. The goal is to find the beauty and attempt to capture it.
I am more successful at some attempts than others, but this doesn't necessarily have to do with the view or landscape I have to work with. I have learned that the most important part of the process are the choices you make before you actually start painting--the subject and the composition, so I try to choose carefully. You can't fix the basics. (This is also a metaphor for many things in life.)
I will have to paint inside in my new studio now that the November winds will be blowing. It's not a separate building like my old one, but it has a lot of charm and better heat. I will find the beauty in it. Besides, it's not where you are but what you make of it.
About thirty years ago, I was spending a tortuous summer back in Grand Rapids following my freshman year of college, living at home for the summer to earn some money for school. The only job I could find was hostessing for a Bob Evans restaurant. As mainly a breakfast joint, this was not an ideal fit due to the late-night partying habit I had acquired at college. Most mornings I would arrive somewhat hung over, squeezed into the required, somewhat demeaning, uniform of a ca. 1900- style long, red skirt and high-neck white shirt with puffy sleeves, and seat an endless stream of customers while trying to keep the wait staff from getting mad at me.
One bright spot that long summer was a customer who came in about weekly and chatted with me about art. He discovered I was an art student, and said he was an artist. He was an older, African American man, always came in alone, and was very gentlemanly and kind. One day in late summer, he gave me a rolled up print, and wished me luck at school.
I am ashamed to say that this print, although I love it, has never been framed or hung in any of my homes! It is an artist's proof lithograph, signed by Paul Collins, a well-known Grand Rapids-based artist. Many are familiar with his Gerald Ford mural at the Kent County airport, but he has done a significant body of work on famous African Americans and more. Check him out at www.collinsart.org.
I now have this print framed and hanging in my new house and I love it! My son really loves it, because he loves dogs. I love the artistry of it. I have decided that I am going to seek out more original works for my new home, and put less of my own art up. I should probably practice what I preach, which is that collecting original, local art is a wonderful, satisfying way to beautify your home and enrich your life.
I am in the process of moving, which means going through 15 years of accumulated stuff. As an artist that also means sorting through lots of good, bad and questionable art. I have already filled an entire dumpster with old drawings and prints, amazed that I once thought they were even worth the materials they were created with. It just goes to show that you have to go through the painstaking processes, no matter the results, in order to truly learn and grow, and that investment is never a waste of time.
The image here is of Suzy, created in a sculpture class taught by Mel Leiserowitz. It was one of several where I spent hours observing live models in various states of undress and interpreting them in various visual media as an undergraduate Studio Art major at Michigan State University. Suzy has seen better days for sure--I think she was left outside for a while at some point--but I can't part with her because of the story she inspired.
Shortly after her completion, I was summoned to the art department chairman's office, who was then Irv Taran. Mel and a couple of other profs were there as well. They put forth a strange yet cool idea to have a bust sculpted of former MSU basketball coach Jud Heathcote. They wanted to use dirt from the ground where the Breslin Center (the MSU basketball stadium) was being built for the sculpture compound. AND they wanted me to do this bust!
Apparently I had impressed them in the sculpture class with my ability to capture the likeness of Suzy and they thought I was the most qualified to do this bust. I was so flattered, I was almost speechless. I explained that I would need help formulating the mixture properly and they took that into consideration. The plan seemed a little half-baked, actually, but as a lowly undergrad with a great opportunity, I didn't want to say so.
I left them to explore the matter further, but it never came to fruition. I imagine if it had, poor Jud might have eventually looked like Suzy if the Breslin Center dirt formula had not held up.
I have had a very exciting week, finishing up a very interesting commission and opening a solo show at Kettering University; a small engineering college in Flint, Michigan. I also got to see, after three years in production, a few of my paintings appear in the film The Funeral Guest at Lansing's Capital City Film Festival. After finding me through the Greater Lansing Art Council, the film crew came and loaded up a bunch of my paintings and kept them for a week, then returned them. I had no idea how or where they would appear in the movie, but I am still chuckling and not sure what to think: they were on the wall of an elderly dying man's room in an old folk's home! Was this my 15 seconds of fame? Does it top that omelet I made for Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O'Connor? (long story) or is my 15 seconds still in the future? Good movie though.
I was also tickled by the wonderful exhibit reception I had at Kettering's Humanities Art Center. This lovely gallery is smack in the middle of an academic building where students can wander in freely between classes. More than sixty people came to reception, about half faculty, half students and some people from the community. After this cold spring the guests enjoyed "experiencing" nature and warmer weather through my art, and as Michiganians, most had some reminiscence of the Sleeping Bear Dunes area or Lake Michigan that connected them with the subjects of the paintings.
It was enlightening to hear everybody's thoughts about my art, and interesting how almost everyone had a different favorite and not necessarily the ones I would pick. Being a visual artist can be really lonely, so this feedback is so valuable and I am still processing it. If you have thoughts or questions about my work, please comment, and if you do Facebook, join my artist site.
One of my college art professors once called my work "pedestrian." He absolutely did not mean it as a compliment, but, who cares. I want my art to be strolled through. Sit your eyes inside and breath. Travel the brush strokes, feel the colors synergize. This is why it is important to see art in person whenever you can--at a gallery, museum or studio visit--because digital images online do not show the details of the brushstrokes or vibrancy of colors. It is like looking at plants online versus visiting a garden. Make this the spring, or summer, to do this, you won't regret it.
In my last post I explored how others perceive how I do what I do, which got me thinking about how responsible I really am for what I am able to do artistically. I now realize that like anything in life, many things usually contribute to one outcome. First, I was lucky to attend schools with strong visual art offerings. This is becoming increasingly rare in our country's schools systems. Second, I had the support of a parent and stepparent to pursue and develop my talent. Despite financial challenges, they found it in their budget to hire a private art tutor when I was 13. Stan Myers still lives in Rockford, Michigan, painting beautiful watercolor harbor and sailboat scenes. He had me read the classic Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards and diligently perform the exercises. I highly recommend this to anyone getting started--learning the fundamentals of drawing is vital to anyone pursuing art, even if your ultimate intention is abstract painting.
Unfortunately my parents cancelled Stan's sessions when I began failing Algebra in 9th grade so I could focus on that. Not sure about that logic, but that's how it goes when you are a kid.
Third, the artist gene runs strong in my family. My grandfather on my father's side and my mom were both artistic. My grandfather, Tys Damstra, was born in rural Friesland, Netherlands. He took an art correspondence class by mail to develop his artistic skill. He created delicate, realistic, yet somewhat folklorist, landscapes of his Frisian countryside. The scene above shows a view from his house during World War II as Holland was occupied by the Germans. The trees are stumps because they were all cut down for firewood. My grandfather was skilled in many other ways as well--woodworking, making wooden shoes and a successful house painting business. I have fond memories of mornings in his basement woodshop, gluing and painting little creations while he crafted amazing furniture. The drawing table he made for me is still in use in my studio. To learn how my grandparents took their five children to the U.S. after the war and other fascinating stories of Michigan immigrants, check out The Sweetness of Freedom by Martha Aladjem Bloomfield and Stephen Garr Ostrander.
My mom also had artistic aspirations (see image below). With training she could have been very good, but art was mainly therapy for her. When she died a few years ago, her home was filled with paintings of the beaches and tropical places that brought her warm calm and happiness in this cold Michigan climate. Her biggest gift to me, however, was her support of my abilities and belief that art was worth pursuing.
Finally, I have to mention my brilliantly talented sister, Emily Damstra. Emily is a scientific illustrator whose work includes coins for the Canadian Mint and Smithsonian exhibits. Her precision and attention to details in nature are amazing.
Whether creating art is to make a living, get you through a war or to keep you warm through a Michigan winter, it is a hugely beneficial pursuit. I wouldn't trade it for the world.
It's been an exceptionally wonderful fall here in Michigan. I never meant to spend my life here and often yearn for other places, but I never feel that way in October. If I lived somewhere else I would miss October (and did, terribly, when I lived in California and Florida!) with the door open most afternoons to my woman-cave studio, I have been fully absorbed in the alpha-wave flow of creation. But today is one of those wicked November days with 50+ MPH wind gusts and large branches crashing down on my forested street.
It's also been a whirlwind of art-related activity for me lately. last week was the annual Art for Charlie Foundation fundraiser, to which I donate artwork and volunteer. The Foundation supports children in hospice and families bereaved by the death of a child. They raise money and awareness through art events because art affirms life and beauty and brings joy, which parallels the intention behind my art.
I met the lovely couple who purchased my painting this year at the event--always a thrill for me--and they said, "I can't draw a stick figure, I could never do what you do." I had heard some version of this at least five times that evening, and too many times to count over the years. It never fails to unnerve me. Do people say this to their plumbers? Earlier that evening I had the pleasure of meeting one of my idols; former Michigan senator Gretchen Whitmer, and she said it. I responded, "Well, I could never do what you do!" I was so humbled; no matter your politics, this woman has amazing courage, and is a fierce, intelligent fighter for her beliefs.
People often don't realize how creative they are and how it applies to their everyday life. My friend was discussing a painting commission she may have me do. She came up with a complex yet delicate plan that include symbolism for her children set in a special place where they go camping. This is someone who claims she is not creative! I could not have come up with that plan. But, I can paint it!
I guess my point is that what I do is a job, one I hope I do well. I have had many years of school and practice along with several good mentors. But anyone who cares about what they do is in essence doing what I do.
In case you are still reading this, anyone that knows me knows that I am a very direct person, so I thought I'd lay it all out here. I want to give you a few reasons why it is advantageous to both buyer and artist to purchase fine, original art over the internet versus through a gallery or art fair. Disclaimer: This is how I do it, I can't speak for others. I have had a growing number of happy customers this way lately and hope to have more! I am happy to give references.
1. I can price my art more affordably since I don't have to share 50% or more of the price with a gallery or have the costs of travel and booth fees of an art fair.
2. Larger selection, with the option of custom / commissioned work.
3. Work is sold unframed at a lower price; customer can frame it themselves to suit own decor or taste.
4. Print off the artwork or view it at a leisurely pace in your own home to see if is a good fit, send links to others to see what they think. No impulse purchases allowed!
5. Satisfaction guaranteed, if you don't like it after delivery, money back--no problem (although I've never had a painting returned!.)
So if you see something you like on my "Paintings" page, or have an idea or photograph of something I could create for you, shoot me an email at email@example.com. Let's do this thing.
Late in the afternoon of August 2nd, my cell rang and a panicked voice on the other end said they were trapped in our cottage, trees crashed down all around, blocking the driveway and nearly missing the house, no electricity or water. It was the "Storm of the Century," a wind shear of up to 100 miles an hour through beloved Sleeping Bear Dunes, Glen Arbor, across Big Glen and directly over our cottage. The guests at our cottage survived the night trapped in the house and our neighbors chainsawed and bulldozed the trees out of the way the next morning. A giant basswood missed our house by about five feet. Our other neighbors were not so lucky, two big trees smashed into their roof and car. The real miracle was that no one in the area was killed.
The economic impact on the area, at the height of tourist season, is huge. The apple and grape crops were also heavily damaged. People and nature will rebound, however. When you choose to live in "The Most Beautiful Place in America" it is worth having a few trees fall around you. Plan a trip there this fall if you can and show support for the businesses and community: www.visitglenarbor.com.
Shelly, a fellow painter friend of mine, recently invited me to join a local group of artists who meet weekly at different outdoor locations to paint. I'd been feeling pretty isolated lately, so this was a welcome opportunity to chat up some like-minded souls and also shake up my painting routine a little. It had been decades since I painted directly from nature (see "My Wild Wanderings" post) but I have little fear of paint and canvas, especially acrylics. Anything you put on dries quickly so mistakes can be painted over.
My first Plein Air attempt was at a cute little park in Williamston, Michigan. It was a fiercely bright May morning. The members of the group were very welcoming and I set up along the river bank, absorbing the thousands of shades of green, real and reflected in the calm water. Two hours passed quickly. I learned that I needed to bring sunscreen and a shade for my canvas, as direct light dries paint too quickly. I was pleased with the results, however; I felt free to not be fussy and exact, letting the paint flow and take advantage of what happens naturally.
The next few adventures with the group produced somewhat less inspired paintings, but the experience was still meditative, and I have made several new friends. Barring rain, excessive mosquitoes and mom duty, I think this will be a regular thing.