How does a show go from one media and style to another?

watercolor and acyrlic paintings
20 ” x 30″ Watercolor on Paper to Abstract Acrylic on 18″ x 24″  Panel

I’ve been working on a show about visual memoir for over two years. Creating work focused on a topic– a series, a body of work, a show — is different than creating a singular work of art. There have been many styles and phases as I have walked through deciding how I want to share a slice of my life publicly. Each stage of the work has led to the next, the pieces I am creating now could not exist without those that went before. Sometimes the threads are obvious. Other times not as much.

Getting out of my usual space

Sitka Center
Sitka Center for Art and Ecology

I did a three week artist’s residency at Sitka Center for Art and Ecology in May 2013.  I had lots of preliminary work done  on the story I wanted to tell in written and painted form.  This was an opportunity to dive deep and start the work I wanted to show.

There is a unique magic that happens in creative retreat. Getting away from the distractions of daily life allows openings to occur that I have found fruitful over and over in my career. It’s best when I allow whatever to happen that bubbles up from inside and avoid getting caught up by a need to produce brilliant finished work.

Carving stories into the paper phase

detail of words in painting
Detail of painting with layers of words, watercolor, and colored pencil

I was writing stories from my past into watercolor paper with a bamboo skewer. Painting over them. Incising another layer. Paint, stories, paint, stories. Colored pencil to pull out more of the texture. I wrote each story many times by hand. Pressing the words into the paper took effort, my hand would cramp by the bottom of the page. I’d get a break on the painting layer. A rest as the paint dried. Then I would start again.

Transforming story through process

Writing the story felt hard. By the time I had carved a story several times I was over it. Not just in an I’m bored way, more like the emotional charge it held was gone. I found myself with a new level of empathy for others in the drama. The tight hold I had on my version of the story released. I could see other viewpoints, sometimes for the first time.

What am I communicating?

mixed media painting of tree
Adapted to the Edge, watercolor and colored pencil, 30″ x 18″

I took a few writing classes before I went to Sitka. I had a lot to learn about the narrative form. I wrote a lot while I was away and finished a series of paintings. I was struggling with the structure and arc of the story. I took another class to get help.

When it was time for me to get feedback on my story structure I presented the words and with small images of the paintings to the class. I felt something important about the story emerging from the space between the visual and the verbal. The class wasn’t much interested. They wanted another story. A comedy perhaps? Set in group therapy, a story looking back on how my life unraveled.

It felt like they were looking for a story about the train wreck of my life. Yes there were gnarly details, but it was a tiny part of a much larger story that was about the transformation of my family’s lives. One of the class members sent me feedback where his conclusion was unless I focused on answering the question why I didn’t leave, no one would care about anything.

I stopped writing and started looking for artists who work with the visual and verbal. I was missing the mark and very annoyed that I was once again being asked to explain. Not to mention, I did leave, a long time ago. I didn’t want to create work about being surrounded  by addiction and violence. I wanted to create a show about healing and moving beyond it.

Back to the Studio

picture of studio
My studio

The studio is a place of refuge for me. I went back to my most comfortable visual language. I needed a place that felt productive, where I could find flow.

I needed change. I didn’t know how to get from where I was to where I wanted. I decided to change media, moving into painting first in oil, then in acrylic on panel. I moved to the abstract, to find the essence of what I was trying to express.

Ultimately I found what I was looking for. The work that is part of Beyond the Story: Exploring Visual Memoir is just that. The stories don’t appear at all. Instead the work starts on a gelli plate where random unexpected things occur. I’m faced with a series of choices about how I embrace or reject the print.

  • Can I make it beautiful?
  • Can I find a place where it fits?
  • Can I accept what has happened and integrate it to create something new?

 Importance of an Artistic Community

When I was feeling so frustrated, I started looking for artists who were writers. Specifically people who were working on visual memoir. I had been following the work of Rebecca Shapiro and Lisa Sonora Beam for a couple of years.  I was able to meet each of them, and asked them to collaborate on a show. The talks we have every couple of weeks over a year have deepened my understanding of what I am trying to do.

I  leaned on my artistic community. I sought out people who would understand what I was wresting with and who could talk about the integration of the stories into the visual. They helped me see the essence of what I was trying to say visually. The conversations about what I was trying to do were critical to my ability to break into new places with the work I was creating.

Inviting you to share your story

The whole point of this show is to celebrate a wide range of ways we can share our stories. I’m creating opportunities for others to experience the transformation I have lived many times over the years by going to the places between the visual and verbal. One of these will happen at the opening of the show. More to come soon.

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Beyond the StoryBeyond the Story: Exploring Visual Memoir
Sept. 5 – October 30, 2014

Hillsboro Public Library, Main Branch 2nd floor
2850 NE Brookwood Parkway
Hillsboro OR 97124

Opening celebration:
September 7, 2014  2:00- 5:00 PM
artists talks  at 3:00

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