January 2010

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the real McCoy

The Rembrandt Research Project was established in 1968 to determine bona fide Rembrandt’s apart from those works of his students.  In Dutch tradition, students would closely emulate after the artist in the artist’s school.  Often the student and artist would collaborate – particularly on portraiture.

Imitation was a means to teach and develop young artists in the ways and processes of a master artist.  This traditional approach has led to much confusion as to who created what work.  Indeed, if the experts debate the authenticity of a piece, we might say that the Rembrandt school was quite successful.

Forward, encaustic on panel, 72"x60", 2006 ~ Mark Perlman

During my years in the classroom, it wasn’t uncommon to have the class work on a composition in the manner of a master.  Like the Dutch tradition, the objective was for the student to learn from replication.  My aim was for the student to glean from the artist and perhaps adapt a bit into their own work.  The intent was never for the student to become a studious imitator – creating copies of established master works.  Still, there is the risk that a student will become so comfortable with their copy work that they never take from the original process, but adopt it.

Several years ago I gave a day long workshop that focused on drawing processes on clay.  In my approach, the process can be complicated.  The workshop attendees took notes and photos, asking many questions. 

Man in the Red Trees, color pencil, graphite, collage and ink, 18"x14.5", 2008 ~ Kurt Kemp

A few months afterward, a student emailed an image of a small tile she had created after the process I had shown during the workshop.  I was quite impressed with the tile.  Her image – a portrait – was soft, ethereal.

Over the years we’ve spoken several times.  On one occasion she was excited to show me a platter she had waiting to be bisque fired.  The platter had a delicate image of a figure.  I asked her how she was creating some of the shadows and edges.  As she began to share, she punctuated her explanation with, “just like you.”  Well, no – I explained – not like me.  These images were very different.  Her response was that she was ‘doing it all wrong.”  Again, no.  She had taken my process and developed them to her work and it was beautiful.

Ephemeral Passage, white stoneware, 15 tiles each 18.25"x19"x1.5", 2003 ~ Jeanne Otis

Students need to find their own way with all the options before them.  The last thing you want is a student creating copy work – particularly if it’s inadequate.

‘That looks like Beth’s work…on a bad hair day!’

The scenario made me think back to my instructors.  Did I take from the process or adopt the process?  So, with some trepidation I did a little research.  What if I’m doing copy work…eek!  In the end, I can see the bits and pieces I took and made my own.  Assuredly, these talented artists will see no copy work from me.

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when I left…

“Something has spoken to me in the night…and told me that I shall die, I know not where. Saying: “[Death is] to lose the earth you know for greater knowing; to lose the life you have, for greater life; to leave the friends you loved, for greater loving; to find a land more kind than home, more large than earth.”
~ Thomas Wolfe, You Can’t Go Home Again.

In Thomas Wolfe’s novel, You Can’t Go Home Again, protagonist George Webber writes a book that makes frequent revealing references to his hometown.  When the hometown folks read his book, they think it less than flattering.  Consequently, Webber finds that he can’t go home again. 

Often, Wolfe’s novel is used in reference to that feeling you get upon your return, after leaving home in search of a more independent life.  Though not the author’s narrative intent, that distance does make home a more difficult fit.

Over the holidays, we went to visit family – not unlike much of the nation.  True enough, though we are readily welcomed and comfortable in our hometown, I don’t think we could move back.  There is a strange disconnect.  Most of which, I believe, is created through the strong relationships and intended purpose of our current home.

~ Milagro by Aura E. Zapata

Nonetheless, being ‘home’ for a few days allowed me to more closely examine what I took with me when I left…the bits and pieces of the of the region, the culture, the color and texture.  I took them.  I cherish them.  I find them in my work.

In graduate school when discussions in seminar sessions revolved around potters and the influences in their work, I was often at a loss to find connections.  It was almost embarrassing…well, it would have been if I’d let anyone in on my floundering.  For the sake of clarity – it wasn’t as if I didn’t recognize the visual or process similarities between the artist of influence and the influential artist.  I simply wasn’t so moved by the work.

Instead of potters, I studied the monochromatic intricacies of Louise Nevelson’s sculptures; not unlike the complicated surfaces of the Milagros from home.  Preferring the calligraphic scribbles of painter Cy Twombly; akin to silhouetted yuccas blown into a sky colored by the setting sun.  Or, captivated by the authority of each line and smudge in Larry Rivers’ work; creating layers of texture and information so similar to the complexities of border culture.

It was a good visit home.

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