Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Artist's Statement Project; Part 2

This kind of Artist statement represents a collection of artworks, rather than just one. Seniors and Independent-Study Art students should do this if they are preparing a portfolio to submit to art colleges or university Art departments.

People who like an artist’s work generally want to know more about the artist. Artist statements are effective marketing tools. It helps make a connection between the artist and their audience. In putting your art into words you might also find that some of your ideas which didn’t entirely make sense to you become more concrete. Your writing might even open new paths in your thinking and take you in new artistic directions.

This definitely worked for me.

Artist’s Statement for a Body of Work
CIVICS; Faces in History

When I began teaching 8th grade Civics in 2011, I wanted to decorate my classroom in a way that would be patriotic and engaging. I also wanted to reassure students that it was okay that an Art teacher was teaching a Social Studies class (I have a double-major in K-12 Art and 7-12 Social Studies). Over the last two decades of teaching, I’ve frequently drawn on presidents and other historic figures for drawings and paintings. I simply gathered them up and hung them up. That first year I even had students try to name as many of the people featured in the paintings on a worksheet for extra credit!
Benjamin Franklin has an amazing line in the Broadway musical 1776. John Adams, fighting to keep a statement opposing slavery from being removed from a draft of the Declaration of Independence warns Franklin that if they don’t address issue of slavery from the onset, posterity will never forgive them. In an effort to get Adams to compromise with delegates from the South, Franklin tells him, “That's probably true, but we won't hear a thing, we'll be long gone. Besides, what would posterity think we were? Demi-gods? We're men, no more no less, trying to get a nation started against greater odds than a more generous God would have allowed.”
A basic premise of democracy is that leaders are servants of the people who elect them. The promise of America has always been that any kid could grow up to be President. What fascinates me about great men as a Civics teacher, as an artist, and as a citizen, is that they’re just men. Perhaps of great ability, power and experience, but never the less just men. Full of faults, imperfections, vulnerabilities and personalities. My hope is always to portray the faces of Presidents and protest leaders as human faces. Faces that could be your cousin or uncle or neighbor or friend. I hope whether its Truman or Gandhi or Lincoln, that viewers can see that there is a real person behind the face.

The Two Cowboys Two paintings which I tend to hang next to each other are an 8”x 8” oil on panel of Arizona Republican Senator Barry Goldwater and a 14”x18” gouache on canvas of Texas Democrat, President Lyndon Johnson. The paintings contrast each other not only in size and format but also in mood and style. Goldwater is more detailed and has more angles. He’s also more comfortable and confident. Whereas Johnson has more swooping curves and seems almost unfinished. Meanwhile his face seems more weary and jaded. These two paintings in many ways reflect many of the differences and tensions in our country.

BULLY! One of my all time favorite works is a 9”x12” tempera on matte board, monochromatic, orange,  impressionistic interpretation of Progressive/Republican President Teddy Roosevelt. This was painted quickly based on a photograph of the president laughing heartily. I think it captures the exuberant personality that Roosevelt was known for. Since we share a first name, I’ve always had a special affinity to him and with this painting.

KING This acrylic on paper in teals and black started a long relationship for me with Martin Luther King. I’ve always been an admirer of the activist and have tried several times over the years to paint him. Two or three oil pastel paintings haven’t made me as happy as this earlier work. A couple of years ago, I managed a larger, more detailed and developed piece which I gave as a wedding present to a friend who lives in Washington D.C. This early painting is more close-up, more intimate and probably better reveals the worry, sacrifice, deep intelligence and seriousness of his cause. Like the Teddy Roosevelt painting, this is one that has become an old friend. I think I’d like to have it hanging in whatever office, studio or classroom I occupy as long as I’m teaching, writing or painting.

I never realized that I even had a style of my own until I hung several of my paintings together on the wall of my Art classroom this Fall. Looking at nineteen years of paintings I’d done with classes or as examples for classes, it finally manifest itself to me. It may may just be my own Attention Deficit Disorder, messiness or stubbornness- but my work seems to be very passionate, expressive and maybe just a little rough-hewn. I’d like to think that  I’m a shaggy lummox like a bison or a bear. Unkempt yet majestic. Simultaneously humble yet proud. Inglorious with dignity. In other words, quintessentially American.
Art History students and aficionados can probably recognize the influence of the neoexpressionism of the 1970’s and 80’s. I’m not sure if this is because that was the era in which I grew up or if its because of the strong German expressionist influence on my professors at Concordia College in Seward, Nebraska.
If I had to name my favorite painters, I’d probably rattle off names of pop artists like Wayne Thiebaud and Jasper Johns; the venerable regionalist Grant Wood, and Native American master John Nieto. But my work doesn’t really seem to look like any of theirs. Frankly I think my paintings remind me more of Jules Feiffer, Johnny Hart and Bill Mauldin. That’s probably because from ages 12-38 it was my dream to someday make it as a professional cartoonist.
Years ago a student told me that I teach History classes like their Art classes and my Art classes like they were Social Studies. So maybe I get my wired crossed a lot because I can definitely see how my cartoons are influenced by Grant Wood and Wayne Thiebaud and my paintings are more like Bill Mauldin or maybe even Charles Schultz or Matt Groening.

Students who watch me painting often say something like “how do you DO that?!!”
Inevitably the teacher in me wants to either painstakingly explain to them the process of observing, analyzing, comparing and contrasting visual-spatial placement and proportions and then recording those observations and analysis. But I  know it would bore them to death.
That same teacher in me also wants to point out every single flaw in my painting, hypercritically explaining how their awe is misplaced because of how weak my technique is or how inaccurate the features are compared to the photograph I’m using. But I hate to devalue their experience, even if I don’t think I deserve whatever admiration they’ve just given me.
So I encourage them by offering that “you can do it too, you just have to keep practicing and listen to what I try to teach you,” yet not bother revealing all of my magician’s secrets.
Ultimately it is a sort of alchemy. Certainly there’s the trained artist’s way of perceiving and translating those perceptions into visual language, but there’s also a great deal of responding to and expressing about the subject matter. What they mean to me and how I feel about them. What I admire or disdain.
Too be sure, its not just about the artist and the subject. The painting itself makes its own decisions too, just like our children do. Or in this case maybe a better analogy would be to say that sometimes politicians break party-ranks and vote their own conscience (something I admire about Teddy Roosevelt).
Finally, you the viewer, bring your own experience to every painting too. Eighth graders who have no idea who Goldwater, Johnson or Roosevelt were often have vastly different reactions to my paintings than adults.
So there are four of us collaborating on each painting; artist, subject, painting, and viewer- each lobbying for our own interests. Hopefully we all make compromise and meet somewhere other than where our preconceptions would’ve taken us alone. That’s in the nature of democracy too, isn’t it? Together, whether in tension or harmony, we’re something very different than any of us would be left to our own devices. E Pluribus Unum, from many- one. Long may it be so.

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