My Dog Could Paint That: What Makes Abstract Art "Art"

I meet people surprisingly often who will look at an abstract painting and say “that’s not art”, or “my kid could do that”. Unbelievably, there are still curmudgeons out there who furiously denounce non-representational art, whether they’re at a local art fair or at the MOMA.

Annoying as those comments are to abstract artists, it does put the onus on us to try to open up some minds about what, in fact, does make abstract art “art”, and not simply a decorative craft along the lines of a hand made cushion or a hand-beaded purse (or a finger-painting by a 4 year old).  I have participated in this debate a hundred times and one of the big themes of the discussion is always artist intent.
I have always known why I do what I do. I know why I create the type of art I create, what I am trying to portray, and what it means to me. But I have also up until now had sort of a que sera attitude; if people appreciate my work, then great. If they don’t, that’s fine too.  People have their own reasons for choosing one work of art over another, and to try to sway them is pointless and unfair. I hate salespeople and I never want to be one.

So while I have always known what the intent of my work is, it is something I have been reluctant to share. I just find that artist descriptions can often cross the line into the ridiculous, so I keep mine to myself. But the more time I spend in the art world the more I realize how important it is for artists to explain their practice, process and/or intent in clear, concise terms.  The clearer I am about my objectives, the more people can appreciate my work as fine art, not only as a decorative object. Don’t get me wrong, if you like my work because the colours match your throw pillows, then great! Bby all means buy my paintings and hang them above your sofa. But if an understanding of the purpose, relevance and influences of the piece will offer you a deeper enjoyment of the work for years to come and maybe even help the work rise in value, then I probably have an obligation to provide you with that information.

Why is intent important? Why is it a differentiating factor between art and decorative craft? Because the point of craft is to create something handmade, original and well… decorative. The point of art is richer and more layered. Good art does not function in and of itself, but as a culmination of history, study, rules, rule-breaking, societal and cultural changes and so many more factors that are impossible to count. Abstract art can be thought provoking- it can be culturally or historically relevant – it can be disturbing, it can be beautiful and decorative, or all of the above.
So what about those people who wander around art fairs and mumble under their breaths that a monkey could paint that? Interestingly, a study that was published a few years ago in  Psychological Science Journal found that people can, in fact, distinguish professional abstract expressionist paintings from similar paintings by children, chimps, monkeys and elephants. They can’t always explain how they know the difference, but they do. What’s the distinction? Intent. Is it possible for an elephant to create a valid abstract expressionist work of art? Possibly…as a fluke. Can he create a consistent series? Portray his chosen and thoughtful objective? Not so much.
Art doesn’t have to be “about” something obvious in order for it to be good or valid. It can convey a mood or a feeling, or simply be about the artist’s interaction with the materials used to create the piece. Abstraction is the artist’s way of representing what is within instead of reproducing something from the outside.  As Georgia O’Keefe said in reference to her abstract works: “The abstraction is often the most definite form for the intangible thing in myself that I can clarify in paint.” True that.
So in the interest of practising what I’m preaching, I have updated my website to include a comprehensive artist statement. Link to my website here for more info.

Thanks for reading!
Abstract art should be enjoyed just as music is enjoyed –
after a while you may like it or you may not.

Buy What You Love!!

I recently took a painting to a client’s house. He loved it and had decided to buy it but wanted to make sure his daughter liked it. I left it with him for three days so he would have a chance to get her opinion (she loved it). After the third day he left me a message saying he had decided not to buy the painting after all. He had invited a bunch of guys over for poker night and they had all argued about whether or not the work was well suited to his living room.  Most liked it, but one friend felt strongly that the space needed something less abstract with a softer colour palette to go with the sofa. The friend was so persuasive that he left my client doubting his own opinion, and in the end he couldn’t bring himself to buy art that one of his friends didn’t approve of. My client took his friend’s advice and hired a decorator, and he is now the bored owner of a dull landscape that matches his wall so tastefully that it’s nearly invisible. The poor guy had found something that stirred his senses, and he let his passion be stamped out by someone else’s colour preferences.

There is so much advice out there about how to buy art, but I always tell my clients that what it boils down to is pure and simple: just buy what you love.  You don’t need a decorator or art dealer to tell you what moves you. Life is too short to not surround yourself with things that make you happy, and those moments in life when we find something special that we connect with are so rare, we need to grab them when they arise. When you see a work of art that you love and can afford, don’t think too hard about it- just make it yours. Don’t worry about where you’ll display it- if you love it, you’ll find a place.

I found “Nipple Tassles” by glass artist Claire Anderson at an art fair.
“Tassles” in my powder room.

Last year my husband and I attended a party at the home of a couple we met, and hanging their family room was a large painting by an artist whose work I immediately recognized. As I excitedly chattered on about the artist’s last show and her impressive new works, I realized both sets of eyes had glazed over and my friends were politely not listening. One of them finally admitted that their decorator had chosen the painting without their involvement, and not only did they know nothing about the artist or the piece itself, neither of them even liked it.

Unfortunately this happens all the time.  People are busy. It can be helpful to have a decorator narrow down some choices based on your preferences: there is a wide range of art out there and it can be a daunting process to find the right piece. But to entirely make the selection without the homeowner’s input? How sad that so many people are living with art that has incredible stories that they don’t learn! How does that process even go? Hmm…going to spend thousands of dollars now on something that will dominate my primary living space. Let’s see: I could choose something I find soothing, moving, beautiful –something remarkable that makes me think – definitely something I want to keep looking at day after day. Nah. I’ll just hire a stranger to pick something they like.   After all they picked the sofa so they should choose what they want to hang above it.

People buy art for different reasons: for investment, for enjoyment, for decoration.  But art is and has always been a societal signifier of status, wealth and cultural intelligence, and too often people get caught up in what others think and forget about what’s important. In displaying art in your home, you are expressing your liberty, your passion and your individuality without saying a word.  The art you buy must resonate with you… whether its significance is aesthetic, cultural, intellectual or sentimental in nature. Never let anyone sell you art that you don’t like because of some perceived value that you don’t see. Displaying art that has no meaning to you is like lying on your resume. It’s a false description of who you are – both to the people who visit your home and to yourself.

When we connect with a work of art, we make a connection to the artist, to the world and to ourselves, and to buy art that enhances our lives and moves our spirits is to live life on a higher plane. Happy collecting.

“Ah, good taste! What a dreadful thing! Taste is the enemy of creativeness.”
(Pablo Picasso)

The Hows and Whys of Encaustic Painting

Why My Paintings are so HOT!

People often ask me how I heard about encaustic painting and why I do it.  They wonder why an artist would bother with a medium that is so messy, involved, difficult and expensive (not to mention the potential for serious burns and inhalation injury), when you can now create similar effects with acrylic mediums that are far cheaper and easier to use.
Encaustic is different from other media not only because of the look of the final product, but because of the paint itself: both in its historical significance and its connection to the earth. I work in encaustic because there is something about warm beeswax in the studio that makes me feel alive and connected to something ancient and authentic, in a way that manufactured acrylic paints cannot.
Encaustic painting is an ancient art form that was developed over 3000 years ago when Greek and Egyptian shipbuilders used hot wax to fill the cracks in their ships. Soon pigment was added and this led to painting designs on the surface of the waxed hulls. The process was eventually refined for the art of painting on panels. The word encaustic is Greek – meaning “to burn in”.

One reason for the popularity of the encaustic medium was the durability of its finish once it was dry. Beeswax is impervious to moisture and acts as a sealant to keep colours bright. Under the right conditions, an encaustic painting can last indefinitely. Probably the best-known encaustic works are the Fayum funeral portraits painted in the 1st through 3rd centuries. Amazingly, these portraits are still intact today.

Encaustic fell into disuse with the decline of the Roman Empire, when cheaper and easier methods of painting were developed. The process was so time consuming and painstaking and the cost of producing it so high, that Tempera painting eventually took over and encaustic became a lost art.

Encaustic had a few stops and starts in the 18th and 19thcenturies, but began to truly come back to life in the 20th century with the availability of portable electric heating devices to melt the wax. It began its resurrection in the 1950s with a few artists, including Jasper Johns and Diego Rivera, and continued to grow with the work of Tony Scherman and others in the 70s.  From then on it rose steadily.

Johns, Rivera and Scherman offer a good cross section of how encaustic can be used in any style of contemporary art, and I have been lucky enough to see works by all of them in person. One constant with encaustic work is that photos simply cannot capture their richness and intensity.  The luminosity, immediacy and depth of an encaustic painting can only be experienced in person.

It was seeing a contemporary encaustic show in Toronto that set me on my current path.  I had been painting with acrylics and epoxy resins (a highly toxic and chemically produced cocktail). After attending the encaustic show, I did some research on the method and tried it. As soon as I began, I was hooked.

I now paint almost exclusively with encaustic, often incorporating papers, inks, found objects, charcoal and other media. Oil paints and oil sticks are an important part of my practice and I use them liberally. One of the ancient practices I was most drawn to was the ability to suspend papers and objects in beeswax. They can be incorporated into the paint, or made to look like they are floating; giving the work an ethereal quality.

I make my own encaustic paints, staying close to an ancient recipe of beeswax, pigments and damar resin. I begin with a visit to an Ontario honey farm to purchase my beeswax, which I then melt down with the resin and pigments and mold into individual pucks of paint. The paints become solid at room temperature and are melted as needed on a hot palette in order to be brushed onto my panels. Each layer of encaustic paint must then be re-melted into the layer beneath it in order to fuse the painting together. I use a heat gun or iron for this process.  My studio is a crazy mess of brushes, scrapers, mark makers, collections of papers (both handmade and vintage), found objects, fabrics and natural matter.

Each of my paintings is a culmination of diverse elements coming together, and every day is an adventure in painting since I never know what I will discover next. As Jasper Johns said: “Do something, do something to that, and then do something to that”. I couldn’t agree more.

Painting with encaustic is about rich scents, warm, soft textures and smooth, glossy surfaces.  It smells like honey and the smell never dissipates, even after the painting has been finished for years.  I love working with it because of its tactile qualities. Other types of paints come alive when the painting is complete, but encaustic speaks to me because beeswax has a life of its own before the artist even begins working with it.   As I work, I give thanks to the bees for the gift they have given me, and I am ever grateful for being able to do what I love and put something new and beautiful into the world.

“I tend to like things that already exist.”  

(Jasper Johns)


Why You Shouldn’t Buy Art at Homesense…

Welcome to my art blog. I have some things to say about the subjects of making, buying and selling art.  For my first post, I thought I would start with some basic feelings about art collecting that hold true for me. These ideas have grown from years of knowing that most people understand why humans need to create art, but have no understanding of why buying and collecting art is equally important to the evolution of humanity.

So here are some of the things I believe about buying art:
    • I believe original art always retains the energy and passion the artist put into creating it.
    • I believe everyone should buy products that were handmade with care.
    • I believe quality and originality matters.
    • I believe acquiring original art teaches my children that there is great value in things that are unique, quirky, imperfect and unexpected.
We found this guy in a gallery in Quebec City
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    My sister bought me this ceramic box at an art fair
  • I believe supporting local artists will inspire my children to follow their dreams and to find value and inspiration in the creation of something magical that comes from hard work, knowledge and passion.
  • I believe my money is better served in the hands of a working artist or craftsperson, than padding the pockets of a huge corporation.
  • I believe mass produced items hurt our environment and dull our senses to what is truly unique and beautiful.
  • I believe original art can make us think, feel and appreciate in a way that mass produced art never will.
  • I believe buying original art promotes mindfulness and personal connection between human beings.
  • I believe buying original art promotes the kind of excellence, craftsmanship, creativity and quality our society is sorely lacking.
  • I believe something made by hand is always worth more and will usually last longer than something that is not.
  • I believe that supporting artists and other small businesses is good for the economy, and supporting Homesense and Amazon is not.
  • I believe there is great joy in discovering an artist or piece of art you connect with.
  • I believe in supporting the people who do not pander to mass sensibilities and are not willing to compromise on what they find real, meaningful or beautiful.
  • I believe in encouraging and celebrating the cultural, personal and creative diversity that is humanity.
  • I believe in the value of maintaining a visceral connection to the earth by remaining connected to where things come from.
  • I believe my life is richer since I began collecting original works of art.
  • I believe it doesn’t have to cost much to begin a meaningful art collection.
  • I believe that art can be far more accessible and affordable than many people think.
  • I believe the benefits of owning meaningful art outweigh the costs.
“A man should hear a little music, read a little poetry,
and see a fine picture every day of his life, in order that
worldly cares may not obliterate the sense of the beautiful
which God has implanted in the human soul.”