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