Thursday, November 14, 2013

Inside Outside Redux

"But you know all pictures painted inside, in the studio, will never be as good as those done outside. When out-of-door scenes are represented, the contrast between the figures and the ground is astounding and the landscape is magnificent. I see some superb things and I shall have to make up my mind only to do things out-of-doors."
                                                  - Paul Cezanne in a letter to Emile Zola, 19 October 1866

My studio is nice, but not this nice.
I love to paint in the studio, where the light doesn’t change and the wind can’t blow over your easel, dogs won’t lift a leg on your stuff, rattlesnakes and bulls won’t taunt you*, and people don’t come by and comment on what you’re working on or worse, blather on about whatever strange concept they’re working on; yes, I’ve witnessed all of these. 
Renny's, 18 x 24" oil on canvas.

So perhaps I complained about the challenge of the changing shadows as they fell longer through the afternoon, and my friend and painting compadre Kit whipped out this quotation as we were wrapping up a marathon day at the fabulous Hollister Ranch on the California coast.

Plenty of room: Lori & Kit at Renny's.

I have to agree with Cezanne: often you can tell if a painting was executed en plein air or from photographs in the studio. Painters who have logged thousands of hours outside can master the challenge, but others, well, not so much. You can tell, sometimes by the colorless shadows, exaggerated light, or strange details, that a painter hasn’t planted an easel in the dirt very often. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, except, as Cezanne says, those indoor pictures will never be as good.

Even the best of cameras can’t capture the subtleties of light and millions of hues that radiate into the human eye and are interpreted by the wondrous visual cortex, the largest system in the human brain. But that’s not the only reason that landscapes painted in the studio fall flat.

I don’t typically paint landscapes indoors; I paint from life, real flowers, fruits, or whatever piques my interest in the garden and studio on a given day.  In spite of the changing light and other challenges, I still prefer to stand in the beautiful landscape to capture not just a picture, but the air, the breeze, the softness of dirt or the sounds of water or wind.
El Capitan, 16 x 20" oil on canvas
Yesterday in Carpinteria an osprey perched in a eucalyptus tree directly above us and seals barked at the bottom of the bluffs behind us. Somehow all of these sensations are woven into the essence of a painting done outdoors, but they won’t be found in the sterile air of the studio.

Temporary studio at El Cap.

 *stay tuned for the snake story in a future post

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Back in the USSR

Outside the Winter Palace (aka Hermitage)
I knew when I set out on the 30 paintings in 30 days challenge that it would be a . . . well, a challenge. For me, the biggest challenge was a trip to the Baltic countries (Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia) and St. Petersburg, which my octogenarian mother invited me to accompany her on as part of her bucket list tour. Who could say no?
Optimistic as I am, I brought along art supplies, not accounting for the cold, rainy weather, which was not conducive to painting outside. Inside was not a good option either, as we were quite busy.
However, we saw fabulous art and architecture and contemplated deep history and culture. As much as I love watching football, nothing surpasses the thrill of standing in front of an incredible work of art and sensing firsthand what the artist saw as he or she stood in front of it, whether recently or 1,000 years ago. Masterpieces are undeniable in their execution, their composition, their color, their bravura – qualities that define them. For me, it is a sensation of awe, of desire, a visceral experience that defines a masterpiece.
Matisse's Dance, larger than life.
The pinnacle of the trip (from an art perspective) was the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. There can never be enough time there, what with 3,000,000 works in the collection, but our small group had the good fortune to be admitted two hours before opening time. We were alone in those great galleries, having a tête-à-tête with Rembrandt’s soulful portraits and Matisse’s giant, joyful dancers. From Caravaggio to Rubens to Picasso we wandered through brilliance and it was exhilarating.

I always love Cezanne's
still life & landscapes.
I studied in what was then Leningrad for a summer in the USSR as a student in 1985. To quote Paul McCartney, “Been away so long I hardly knew the place,” and it was remarkable to see the changes in the post-Soviet era. As a reminder of how powerful art can be, Wikipedia reports that the Beatles were labeled in the 1960s as the "belch of Western culture," and the Soviets denied permission in the 1980s (!) for Paul McCartney to play there.

My favorite floral painter, Henri Fantin-Latour.
Of course there were far more serious ramifications for displeasing the Soviets, including torture, murder, and exile to Siberia. Unfortunately, it seems as if the current Russian administration has not fallen far enough from that tree, in spite of significant improvements in daily life for many (but definitely not all) the Russian people. Still, the art alone was worth the visit, not to mention being with my intrepid and ever-curious mother, from whom I have inherited a deep love of travel and art, among other things.

With Mom at Peterhof, the Summer Palace on the Baltic.



Wednesday, September 11, 2013

A Little Bit of Everything (almost)

I met an abstract painter last week who was encouraging me to make a foray into abstract painting, as opposed to my comfortable zone of realism/impressionism. I told him I felt like I could spend a lifetime trying to master what I already do, and that working abstract would pull me away from that. He suggested that abstract work might enhance what I do, and my intuition tells me he might be right.
That being said, I am still playing catch up with 30 paintings in 30 days, and today I touched on the three genres I paint with some regularity - still life, landscape, and figure. Almost caught up!
Canteloupe & Grapes, 5x7" oil on gessoboard, $125

Tarpits Rocks, 8x10" oil on linen on board, $200

Lori Sketching on the Beach, 5x7" oil on gessoboard

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Catching up. . .

Grapes and glass, 5x5" oil on cradled
gessoboard, $125.
I am beginning to think that trying to complete 30 paintings in 30 days was a mistake, given that I've just started teaching again and have a solo exhibition opening in a gallery this weekend. But I am plugging away, even though I'm behind by a few.
I believe it is called "biting off more than you can chew," but I'm still hoping to catch up.
The added challenge will come in another week and a half, when I'm heading overseas on another adventure. What was I thinking?! Looking forward to working on some watercolour travel scenes after September 21; stay tuned.
In the meantime, here's a glass of tequila - the odor of which was more powerful than turpentine in the studio. It sits next to the easel but I think it's going to have to go back in the bottle until I have time to pick up all the lilikoi in the garden and make a fine margarita, and it doesn't look like that's happening anytime soon.

Monday, September 9, 2013


Vincent Van Gogh, Sunset at Montmajour, 1888.
Terroir is a French term that refers to the specific characteristics of a place that help shape the things that are produced there, such as wine, cheese, or vegetables. It can be thought of as a sense of place, and the concept even spills over into laws which determine what products can claim to be produced in a specific region. I think that terroir is something that landscape painters are quite familiar with; certain painters are strongly associated with certain places, and it is perhaps no accident that the concept is a French one. Think of Monet in Normandy, or Van Gogh in Provence.
Today it was announced that a painting that had been 'lost' had been newly attributed to Van Gogh. Sadly for the man who owned it, years ago the authorities had denied that it was painted by Van Gogh because it had no signature. But over time, methods of authenticating paintings have evolved, and when the heirs and owners of the painting brought it forward from the attic where it had been stuffed away, it was looked at anew.
Combining chemical analyses of the pigments, which matched those that Van Gogh was known to have on his palette at the time, and documentation from a letter he had sent to his brother, Theo, describing the scene and the painting, experts at the Van Gogh Museum in the Netherlands have proclaimed that it was definitively painted by him. They expect to sell for tens of millions of dollars when it goes to auction.
Old oak above Santa Barbara.
One reason I love southern France is that it shares some characteristics with the section of California where I live, but it has a different essence that feels deeper to me. But this afternoon I went out to paint in the foothills above Santa Barbara, in a rocky place with twisted oaks that resonates with the description that Van Gogh provided to Theo for Montmajour. This one still needs some work, but I thought I'd post it anyway, to honor the great painter on a day that one of his works has been 'officially' recognized.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Plum Process

Here are some plums, my third in the "30 Paintings in 30 Days" Back to School Challenge. I realize it's the 6th, and this is my third, but it does say 30 paintings, not a painting a day, so I will be catching up over the weekend and hopefully be back on track next week.
Recently I mentioned one method I use when building a painting using a cadmium red underpainting ( So I thought I would  illustrate the process - especially because process is paramount for so many painters, particularly when the goal is to create 30 paintings in a month.
For this little gem, it began at the Thursday afternoon farmers market, where I perused the offerings and selected a few choice pieces. People - vendors, friends I run into, strangers - always seem to think it's a little odd that I'm picking fruit for its good looks, not necessarily for freshness or flavor. I was hoping for peaches, but there were very few left. I did buy a few, though, so they might get painted yet, as they're still hard as rocks. Very pretty, though.
The plums, with their dusty blue skin, were more appealing, and I do like the little farmer who brings them to market from his Carpinteria orchard. He assures me they are delicious as well.
The cad red underpainting.

Laying in color - first the darks - and giving form.

Three plums - 5x5" oil on
cradled gessoboard - $125.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

In a Pinch

Monhegan Island Lighthouse, 5x7" watercolour on paper.
I am away from my studio and home for a few days in Connecticut to take my daughter to her new school. But to honor the "Back to School Challenge" of 30 paintings in 30 days, I brought along a little set of watercolors and stole a few moments yesterday to complete painting #2, from a photograph I took last summer of the Monhegan Island lighthouse.
I'm reluctant to post this, since I am clearly not a watercolorist, but to honor the commitment I'm putting it up here.
It's not all bad, though. Any painter will tell you that painting is a journey, and that it's mostly about the process as much as it is about the product. In this case, I wouldn't normally produce a watercolor, but since I'm away from home I'm forced to make do (for this short family trip, I couldn't bring my oil paints and easel). Working in an unfamiliar medium, which makes me feel like a rookie, is both humbling and energizing: I realize that in spite of the fact that I'm an oil painter, I can't tackle any medium (like watercolor, or acrylic) and expect the same results that have come from thousands of hours at my own easel in my own comfort zone.
At the same time, I have to say that this little work is not a complete failure - it's an exercise, and worthwhile in the way that cross-training can be for an athlete. It required patience, observation, and acceptance of my limited abilities, and an acknowledgement of this: at least I tried. And as I look forward to my first day back in the classroom in a few days, I'll have more compassion for my students who are always working in media they haven't mastered, with varied levels of success and frustration.
Now, in spite of the fact that I'm leaving my daughter behind, I am truly looking forward to being back in my studio, back at home, back in my comfort zone. This little lighthouse makes me grateful for that, even though I'll miss my girl an awful lot.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Back to School Challenge

Two apples with ginger jar, 5x5"
on cradled gessoboard, $125.
This is "back to school" week on several fronts in my house. We are leaving on a redeye flight from LAX at midnight tonight to take my daughter to her first year at boarding school as a freshman in high school. She will, at age 14, be living approximately 3,000 miles away in New England, a far cry from her native coastal California. And I will, for the first time in as many years, be living in a house without a child. Change is inevitable; how it will affect us all remains unforeseeable.
This is also "back to school" week for me, as The Howard School starts up this week, so when I fly back to California in a few days I will be back in the classroom with my kindergarten through 8th grade students. I love my job and I love being surrounded by the creative energy, frustrations, successes, and joys of teaching art. This year in particular I will relish being around children, as mine will be so far away.
In addition to being back at school, I have accepted the "back to school" challenge from a fellow artist, Leslie Saeta ( who has thrown down the gauntlet: one painting per day for the 30 days of September. More than 300 painters have accepted the challenge. I know I am already busy enough, but I am filling my calendar as full as I can, because I hope it will help me adjust to the changing seasons of my life.
So here's to September: for me, apples have always been a symbol of the season. Growing up in the Michigan, come fall we would go to the cider mills in the countryside surrounding Ann Arbor for cider and fresh, warm doughnuts (and always, yellow jackets all around). The farmers market would fill with paper bags and bushel baskets of apples, and chrysanthemums would start to appear in shades of yellow and rusty orange.
September here in southern California brings the best beach weather, the warmest ocean temperatures, and the end of the tourist season. We'll be heading down to the beach this afternoon for one last surf session and swim with my daughter before we drive down to Los Angeles for the transition to our new lives.
So here's to autumn, to apples, to changes. May we enjoy them all as best we can.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Luck and Opportunity

Georgia O'Keeffe: Always ready to go.
I am a collector by habit. I collect books. I collect places. I collect rocks with rings going all the way around, because my mother once told me that if you kept one, it meant you would come back to that place someday.

 I also collect quotations that I find meaningful; I have done this for decades, mostly from books and movies. But in these days of social media, I am bombarded with them daily: pithy idioms, spiritual callings, motivational mantras. I believe they tell me something about the the person posting - or the desired image he or she hopes to project. But occasionally they ring true and can provide a mental direction for my day.

Lucius Annaeus Seneca, c. AD 65
Georgia O’Keeffe once said that every serious artist should have several shows waiting to hang (I collected this one long before the advent of social media). I remember thinking that it sounded a little silly – after all, how many galleries are out knocking on doors looking for an art show ready to hang? That being said, I do try to paint a lot and have a lot of art ready to hang, and lo and behold! A gallery called in need of a show.

Actually, it was an email, and it was a gallery I had approached a few months ago with an invitation to visit my website, and if they saw a good fit for their gallery, to come visit my studio and talk about perhaps showing my work. We had exchanged a few emails over the summer, and when I didn’t hear back for a while I sent a gentle follow up reminder. The response was an invitation to put up a solo show virtually overnight – a scheduled artist had cancelled, and they had a gallery to fill, if I happened to have some art hanging around, ready to show.

Another quotation that is often bandied about is attributed to the Roman philosopher, Seneca: “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” I am frequently told that I am lucky, and I believe I am. While I’m not the most organized person, I like to believe I am sometimes prepared, like a good scout.

Et voilà. We picked a theme, we picked some pieces, and as soon as I’m done scrambling to get the paintings ready to be picked up, I will share an evite and posting on FB, and sending out a few postcards and a press release. I may even have to open a Twitter account, something I’ve avoided up to now, as is seems to be just another avenue for sharing pithy quotes. But time is short and I’d like to get the word out, so onward we go. Hope to see you at the gallery!

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Tips on Finding an Artist Residency

I can’t say enough about getting away from normal routines to focus on one’s art. It can be an opportunity to delve more deeply into one’s work, a chance to experiment in new directions, an invitation to expand horizons and to gain fresh perspectives on work, the world, and oneself.

My residence at Bordeneuve in southern France.
Many people who travel from the United States flit from place to place and return home with a medley of experiences, in need of a vacation. An artist retreat is different: you stay in one place and go deep, returning home refreshed and ready to tackle new challenges. I may eventually seek a residency in another place, but for now, France keeps calling me back, as it has since 2001.  

You don’t need to go far away. My cousin, a writer in Chicago, goes to Ragdale ( , which is a short drive from her home but a world away. Ragdale’s motto: “we believe that time and space are not luxuries but necessary elements for creating important new work.” I agree, and her best-selling novels are also proof.

 There are different types of residencies. You can pursue a solitary retreat or share the company of other creative people. Some are for one type of artist, while others mix writers, artists, composers, choreographers, screenwriters. Many are in quiet, rural areas, some more urban. You might not be within walking distance of town, so you will need to hire a car or make sure that transportation is available; sometimes there are bicycles  to borrow. Do you need a city or will you thrive in an isolated environment? Make sure you know whether you will have access to the supplies or equipment you need.

Fields at St. Martin de Redon near Atelier de la Rose.
One excellent resource is, listing 400 residencies in 70 countries. You can select from many categories on their website: location, setting (rural, urban), visual arts/writing/music/choreography, type of accommodations, length of stay, and more. For example, if I search for France, visual arts in a rural setting, I will see those that most appeal to me. There is also, which reports 1,200 residencies on their list, but the search facility is limited only to country and type of art. Another useful site is, the Alliance of Artists Communities, which lists residencies and also provides useful tips and information about choosing a residency that matches your needs.

On the high wire above my yurt.
Perhaps the most helpful information I have gleaned is from other artists. I google artists who have visited places I am interested in, and I have received very useful information. In one case I spent an hour on the phone with a ceramic artist in Vermont who warned me against applying to the place she stayed; I later heard from a second artist who had a similar miserable experience, and I felt badly that both of them, and no doubt others, had spent time and money traveling to France only to have a negative experience. I am grateful I knew enough to not apply there.

My experiences have been very positive, one in a group setting, once with a writer, and twice in solitude, in which I thrive. The solitary work ends with the day, though, getting to know my gracious and interesting hosts over dinner. Some offer visits to local sites, markets, museums, artist studios. At Atelier de la Rose,, the lovely Sally Gaucheron gave us a very informed and personal tour of the ancient cave paintings of Pech Merle and the surrounding area. With Noelle Thompson  I have visited fabulous gardens, the weekly market of St. Girons, an interesting modern art exhibition in the ruins of a medieval monastery, and other delightful places. At Mas Pinet where I stayed in my own Mongolian yurt, I was given a ‘baptisme funambule,’ a daunting lesson on the highwire by the world-renowned circus artists Jade Kindar-Martin and Karine Mauffrey.

Artists were here 25,000 before I was.
I sketch and paint every day, and I read, nap, eat, and exercise daily as well, all of which provide benefits to my painting. I find that my work resonates with the landscape and the experience of being away. For me, a love of France is inspirational, but there is also great freedom in having the time to dive deep.

A few places of interest: with 25,000 year old cave paintings'Aurignac

Friday, August 16, 2013

Spiderboy & the Future Artist

The scene.
In France this summer I was invited to paint by two musicians who are renovating an old stone house and barn set in the rolling hills of the Midi-Pyrénées. After enjoying fresh limeade and the rich tones of a cello emanating from a back room, I set up my easel in a shady spot where the road bends between house and barn.

I started laying in a sketch over a cadmium red underpainting. I often tone the whole canvas a thin red, which creates some rich color vibrations when that red underground peeks through the final painting. It also reduces the anxiety of staring at a blank white canvas not knowing where to begin.

Some artists lay in a sketch with charcoal or pencil. I prefer to start right away with paint, using a monotone raw umber diluted with turpentine to indicate lighter or darker areas of the scene. Often I draw and wipe it off a few times before I commit to the painting. Knowing I can wipe off allows me to forgive myself for the mistakes I am about to make. Yes, painting can be fraught with anxiety and fear - of self-doubt or anticipated judgment by others, of not “getting it right.”
The characters.

 As I paint often in public places, I am accustomed to people watching as I work and not at all bothered when the viewers are very young – they are always more direct and honest critics. As I was drawing, I had that prickly feeling that someone was watching. I looked over my shoulder and there she was: 7-year old Mia, a resident of the house. She looked a bit concerned about my drawing, but she stayed silent as a mouse, riveted by what was unfolding on the canvas.

Drawing finished, I began laying in color, starting with the sky and distant air, then dancing my brush around to the pavement, grass, eaves and roof. As the painting progressed, Mia looked relieved and began to point out happily that “this part is that building there, and there’s la maison de Francis next door.” I asked if she had a sketch book, and she came back with a colorful book and a set of markers. We worked together in silence again for a long while.

I was nearly finished when Spiderboy flew up on a bicycle and came to a screeching halt behind the easel, accidentally tipping turpentine into the grass. The 4-year old superhero was frozen by this act of art, transforming his view from the swingset into a recognizable image on canvas. Mia pointed out that I had missed the potted plant at the far end of the barn, and I added it in as a finale. A day later I heard the report: Mia has announced she that she would like to be an artist when she grows up.
The finished work (note the cute plant in the red pot at the end of the barn, courtesy of Mia).

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Leaving Bordeneuve (Some thoughts on an artist residency)

Fields at Bordeneuve by Rebecca Stebbins
Bordeneuve is a place that is hard to come to and harder to leave. It’s hard to come because of what you have to leave behind: basically, everything that isn’t in that small space where creativity resides. Spouses, children, friends, and all the accoutrements: laundry, for example, or cooking, cleaning, yard work. Animals to be fed and walked and loved. Bills to be paid and paperwork that piles up and supplies that need to be restocked and messes to be cleaned up and is there gas in the car? And do I have everything? You travel.

You arrive at Boussens on the crowded little train and step out into the Midi and voilà. There you are, with just your bag, your baggage, and yourself. And there is Noelle, who grabs your very heavy bag and heaves it into the back of her trusty Peugeot and you are off through the winding roads of the Ariège.

You pass farm fields and tiny villages, some with stately little homes and others with crumbly old barns, up hills and around pastures with sheep or goats, or little herds of cows in all of the colors that cows come. She turns in to a rocky track, and if you look back you’ll see the snow on the Pyrénées in the distance. You bounce down a luminous green tunnel of trees and vines and finally you pull in to a clearing with a house to the left and a barn to the right. That place on the right hardly qualifies as a barn: it is lovely, spacious, and filled with just what you need. Food, silence, books, a deep bath and a wide balcony, places to sit, to draw, to paint, to play, to dance – yes, even enough room to dance. Indoor space and outdoor space. And no clutter. You make a mental note: less clutter.

Blanchette & Edith, by Rebecca Stebbins
The first evening is jovial and calm – a lovely meal, a nice bottle of rosé, conversation that isn’t dull but isn’t deep – not yet. Later in the week the topics will grow weightier, perhaps. Tonight you are still shedding the old skin. Tomorrow you will wake up in a new skin, bright and shiny like the green garden snakes I’ve never seen there. 
The first day you will still be decelerating. You will wander and sketch, flip through books of poetry, unpack. But then something funny happens: just as you begin to accept the slowness, and the quiet, you start to hear all the noise there. For Bordeneuve can be a very noisy place, especially between the birds and the insects and the very loud cow a few fields away who bellows from time to time, and the distance village bells you catch once in a while. And that small space where creativity resides? Like the heart of the Grinch, it grows. And grows, until it takes up all the space of all the other stuff you left behind.

View from the end of the track by Rebecca Stebbins
And as you slow down, matching your speed to the rhythms of real life, you realize you have hit your stride, and you work. With a passion, until you are tired and have to stop, and then it’s time for a nap, or a meal, or a walk, or a bath. The choices are few, and so they are easy to make. Easy choices reserve brain space for your creative pursuits, you think. You’re not wasting precious time on TV, or idle chitchat, or wondering what to tackle next. Your time feels more pure.

You wake up, and it happens again: simplicity. Except now there’s a complication: oh! There are chickens outside the door, and perhaps they would like a little treat. You go to look at all the different flowers in the garden and you see dinner there too, ready for picking. You come back inside and there’s a cat – and somehow, not by the markings but more by the attitude, you know which cat of the four has come to visit. You are settling in.
And one day it happens: you have to leave. And it is hard, and you are already starting to think about arriving on the train in Boussens and the long drive down that rocky track to come back.


Sunday, August 4, 2013

On Monhegan

Monhegan Island Morning, Rebecca Stebbins, 2013
I was asked by a modern sculptor who saw my work online, “What’s the point of doing things that have already been done?” It came off like an affront, but I believe his point was that ‘real’ artists should push forward, seek new forms of expression, reinvent genres and challenge the status quo. I respect his point, for without it we could never have opened the door to a Vincent Van Gogh or Maya Lin. There are also artists whose attempts to shock the world seem more like self-indulgent fodder for a therapy couch than seeds for a new movement in art, but even the art world has its Betamaxes and New Coke.

My artwork is impressionistic, representational, or as a friend says, I paint things that look like things. It is what I love to do and to look at, whether a Monet landscape or a Chardin still life. I leave it to others to shock, repel, or disgust their audiences, or to confront them with difficult challenges. There is room enough in the art locker for all of us.
Edward Hopper, High Noon, 1949
I am painting for a few days on Monhegan Island, 10 miles off the coast of Maine. The 50 or so local residents call it “the rock,” and it is: a giant, rugged rock topped by pine forests and surrounded by the cold, swirling riptides and currents of the Atlantic Ocean. Monhegan has Maine’s highest cliffs, dropping 168 feet into the sea.

This place  has drawn people for thousands of years for its rich fishing; there is still a working harbor, primarily lobster boats. For 150 years the island has also called to artists, and many iconic American painters have painted here.
Everywhere here I see a Hopper painting. Edward Hopper was a distinctive American artist who forged a unique style that was sparse and clean. He often painted New York and Paris, and here, where his eye was drawn to the crisp lines of the dormered houses against the profoundly blue sky, or rusty rocks in a deep teal ocean.

Edward Hopper, Blackhead, Monhegan 1919
The current exhibition at the Monhegan Art Museum in the lighthouse features Monhegan artists who were affiliated with the New York Armory show in 1913, a watershed moment in American art history. Most of the paintings, by Robert Henri, Leon Kroll and others, are bold, modern landscapes. One would expect Hopper’s stark houses or rugged rocks here, but instead we find his still life painting of a jug and copper bowl, in tonal shades that look very much like Chardin.

Jean-Siméon Chardin, Still Life, c.1732

Edward Hopper, Jug & Copper Bowl
French painter Jean Baptiste Simeon Chardin was a master of the beautiful, painterly still life works he created in the 18th century. So here was Hopper in 1903, considered modern, ground-breaking and unique in his approach to his subjects, painting in the style of a Frenchman who had “done it already” centuries earlier. I wonder if anyone ever asked him, “What’s the point -- it’s been done before?” The piece was lovely, if a little out of place amongst modernist landscapes. I like to believe that Hopper found value in still life painting in the way that I do: as an opportunity to take a fresh look at old forms, a study in relationships, an exercise in seeing things as they are.   

My Sweet Cherries, Rebecca Stebbins 2013

Monday, July 29, 2013

Telling Stories

St. Genevieve & St. Apollonia,
from the National Gallery. Note the
pliers, and tooth.
I feel besieged by gruesome tales of late: of young women held captive and abused for years; of alienated young men with an affinity for gunning down innocent victims. We share this collection of fables with each other, seeking to understand our human existence with its undercurrent of fear and anxiety fed by the media. These stories also disengage our focus from nefarious acts perpetrated by our corporations, institutions and governments.

Stories of evil are nothing new. Long before FOX News there were artists, and the Church, and between them they perpetrated sensational stories that resonated in the same vein: tales of horror, torture and abuse, with a purpose and a warning: morality lessons, as it were. They once invaded the collective consciousness the way FOX News, the New York Times and CNN do today.  

In London recently I saw Michael Landy’s exhibit Saints Alive at the National Gallery. Landy was invited as artist-in-residence to stage an exhibition reflecting the museum’s collection. He spent countless hours immersed in this major collection of European paintings, sketching and copying works from medieval Italians to French Impressionists, honing his unique response.

More than visual images, Landy was viewing stories in paint. The majority of medieval works have religious themes, which continued through the Renaissance and beyond. Many tell stories of Christian saints, their martyrdom or self-inflicted violence. A theme thus emerged which Landy has brought to life in Saints Alive.
St. Jerome & his rock.
From the National Gallery
Over centuries, perhaps accelerating in recent decades, these stories have faded from the collective consciousness. As these stories are lost to time, Landy has reconstructed a few in a way that makes them unforgettable.

Composing body parts based on old paintings combined with industrial salvage, Landy has masterminded larger-than-life sculptures . These giant figures inflict their torment upon themselves – but only at our command. The interactive exhibit invites the viewer to set the violence in motion through the push of a pedal.  

We first see an 8-foot tall Saint Apollonia, based upon this painting by Luis Cranach the Elder from 1506 (above). Landy has fashioned our saint in her red dress, clutching pliers in which she holds a tooth. Poor virginal Apollonia was attacked by a mob who yanked out her teeth and invited her to renounce her faith or be burned on a pile of sticks. As the story goes, she jumped on the sticks. Today she is the patron saint of toothaches and dentists.
Step on an industrial foot pedal peeking out from under her dress, and the giant saint whacks herself in the mouth with her oversized pliers, chipping away at her plaster face with a loud bang. It’s a shocking interaction, as is the nearby life-sized St. Francis, who whacks himself on the forehead with a crucifix upon the deposit of a coin. Other icons show us of St. Lucy, who plucked her own eyes out and sent them to an admirer, and St. Jerome, a hermit in the Syrian desert, who beat himself with a rock to stave off impure sexual thoughts.

The scale and mechanics of these larger-than-life Saints, with the racket of their machinations, makes a startling impression, generating a cacophony rarely heard in the hushed world of the museum. I found myself laughing – these stories of torment are turned into parodies by their scale and haphazard assembly and clanging mechanics. Have we moved beyond the morality tale? Do we no longer need to beat ourselves with rocks to avoid impure thoughts? Or do we no longer need to avoid impure thoughts? These stories were told and retold for centuries, while the Church refined its own blend of torment and abuse, sanctioning violence and protecting pedophiles. Taken outside the purview of the church, when we reserve our horror for individual tales of violence courtesy of the media, are we blinded to the institutionalized abuses taking place? This is a thought-provoking exhibition and worth the visit. (for information visit   

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

A Few Words and Pictures from the LA Art Show

Untitled/Doug Thielscher
I attended the Los Angeles Art Show last month, courtesy of a sculptor friend, Doug Thielscher, who was represented by The McLoughlin Gallery of San Francisco. I was relieved in hindsight to have entered through the early California Impressionists and western landscape painters like Edgar Payne and Maynard Dixon, since I had less than two hours to spend amongst roughly 100 booths spread over 175,000 square feet (i.e., ~6 football fields full of art and “art”).

Looking at art – really looking – is exhausting. An hour was enough to see some stunning landscapes and gorgeous figures and florals, and I spent the second hour wandering through the show, alternately enjoying and being repulsed.

With 50,000 people attending over 4 days, the crowd was as diverse as the art, which ranged from $600 to $600,000.  Vendors included 33 “historical and traditional,” and 58 “modern and contemporary,” from the U.S. and Asia (Japan, Korean, 9 from China), South America (Venezuela), and Europe (Italy, France, Russia), and the United Kingdom (including Canada and 6 or more from Britain).

Edgar Payne in the Sierra Nevada.

John Gamble's poppies are prolific in paintings.
The California impressionists are popular; the concentration of people – and red dots - in the booths from William Karges Gallery/Carmel and George Stern Fine Art/West Hollywood and others was certainly greater than at more cutting edge booths. While I appreciate some modern work, it feels as if some people currently known as “artists” are trying too hard to be provocative and not trying hard enough to figure out if they have anything meaningful to say. Brand names were on display, like vinyl Gucci emblems with handcuffs and mirrors and Chanel logos behind an array of old prescription lenses. Really? Someone needs to dive deeper if the depths are still that shallow.  

Word Art (photo from LA Art Show website)
According to the Los Angeles Times, LA gallerist Jack Rutberg noted that “besides documenting the importance of the written word to the LA art scene, the show aimed to comment on the self-concept of the only major city he can think of that commonly goes by its initials alone.” Is that profound? Or is it shallow – in which case perhaps it’s perfect for LA, although he’s forgetting NOLA, which is another perfect moniker (No LA), given how different New Orleans and Los Angeles are; but I digress. Maybe the word art got to me after all.
This may invoke heartbreak for a
4-year old, but is it artistic?
Steven Diamant, owner of Arcadia Gallery in New York, was also quoted in the Times, saying “most of the tastemaking critics and curators have a need to find something new, and as far as they're concerned, representational painting is not new, regardless of its skill and impact. . . It seems that representational painting has to be disturbing or ugly to be taken seriously.”
Arcadia, known for its contemporary, representational (and neither disturbing nor ugly) art, had pieces at the show from $3,000 to $70,000 and expected to exceed show sales of 23 pieces in 2012. The Times noted that after showing for years in the "historic/traditional" section, Diamant moved Arcadia into the "modern/contemporary" section, “hoping to make a statement that his kind of art deserves the contemporary realm's respect.” Clearly buyers are showing some respect, even if critics aren’t. I wondered about that “contemporary/traditional” split, so he cleared that up for me – it’s arbitrary.
Oh, and Damien Hirst had a hologram of the diamond encrusted skull that he bought from himself, and a few dot paintings, looking flat and shallow and sort of, well, just right for LA.

These dots remind me of candy. Or Katy Perry.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Language of Art: Value

The language of art often includes words that convey another meaning in real life, as I tell my art students (ages 5 through 14). We are studying “value” this week.
Student drawing of a cone
They will tell you that it means how dark or how light something is. I remind them that it includes all the shades of grey in between. We create value scales in pencil, crayon, and charcoal, which most of them love because it is very messy (one 6th grader won’t touch it because it gets his hands dirty). 

Student drawing of a sphere

I try to impress upon them that without value, there would be no picture. With no black, you can’t see white. And all the shades of grey are what create form, or as they like to say, “3-D!” We draw cones and spheres under bright lights and ask ourselves “is this part lighter or darker than that part?” Forms begin to appear.

Differences in value lead us to contrast, which has similar meanings in art and in real life. I like this one, from Collins English Dictionary: “distinction or emphasis of difference by comparison of opposite or dissimilar things, qualities, etc.”

©2013 Rebecca Stebbins
Altering contrast can improve a picture. The calla lilies on the left and right are identical, but the contrasting background makes them appear differently.
©2013 Rebecca Stebbins

In life as in art, paying attention to contrasts can be helpful too: cool, cloudy days help us appreciate warm, sunny days; without sadness, happiness would feel empty. Perhaps we wouldn’t appreciate eloquence as much if we weren’t exposed to so much daily drivel.
For a more eloquent explication, here’s what Emily Dickinson had to say:


A door just opened on a street --
I, lost, was passing by --
An instant's width of warmth disclosed,
And wealth, and company.

The door as sudden shut, and I,
I, lost, was passing by, --
Lost doubly, but by contrast most,
Enlightening misery.