cleaning the studio......and other adventures in art
I’m painting birds again. I’ve drawn and painted plenty of birds before, and written about it too, notably with The Daily Bird. The most salient point I’ve made about birds is that they are one of the few wild animals with which we interact on a daily basis, even if we don’t think of our urban birds as being “wild” because of the degree to which they’ve adapted to our presence.
I’m not a birder, I often don’t know the name or habits of the birds that I see (although I do often make an effort to find that information later), but I like to observe them and I take many photographs of birds being birds.
These pieces are slated for the upcoming Pajaro Valley Arts TakeAways exhibition, which is a fundraising exhibition for a fantastic organization. April 7 – May 23, 2021, more details soon. Hopefully a few more birds soon too, to complete the set.
I started this blog post several weeks ago about a project I’m doing in response to the pandemic, but that was before California caught on fire and we had to evacuate. Back home again, I’m also back to this project, so it’s a good time to finish the post too…
Here we are in the throes of a global pandemic, and what’s an artist to do? I started the pandemic by sewing masks—hundreds of cotton masks—for family and friends, of course, but also for essential workers and underserved communities. It’s satisfying to do something that contributes to community health. Here are some of the (1500+!) masks I’ve made.
Returning to my studio after the shelter-in-place, I rediscovered a project that I’d begun just before the pandemic hit. I had cut up a large painting from years ago, intending to reconfigure it onto flat panels. But after all that mask-making, I now saw fabric instead of canvas. The pieces were the right form-factor for masks, ignoring the size of course.
Here’s the original painting from 2013, and then the same painting after I had cut it into pieces.
So I started pleating and tried many different ways to modify and reassemble the pieces. My typical process is often lengthy, with plenty of trial-and-error, but this project is really taking a long time. Like a painting, every little change affects the entire assembled piece and requires revisions elsewhere. Anyway, we’re on covid-time now, so I just try to be patient and let the process play out.
Here are some photos from this process, but it’s not finished yet. The steel edging will most likely have a rust-patina finish, so imagine the color change from the raw steel. You check back into this blog for further updates and hopefully some photos of the entire piece, soon, I hope!
I’ll be in the upcoming show Take Aways: Art to Go! at the Pajaro Valley Arts gallery, January-March 2020. I’ve written before about this yearly show in this blog post, which explains my approach to the work I do specially for this show, so you can read that for more details.
But I’ll just say this: I think about these pieces as being sort of like “idea sketches”, and the pieces will resonate throughout my upcoming work in ways both obvious and surprising.
This year my series is titled Inside Outside. It has two components: the “outside” are small square barn paintings and the “inside” are small mixed-media pieces made with rawhide, tar paper and (most importantly) horsehair. I ride horses, my daughter and I have horses, so I spend a fair amount of time with horses, and this is my way of using them as a subject matter. So see for yourself here, and come to the show to see the vast and varied selection of artwork.
Many thanks to Mauro Bianchini, who wrote an article for the Sempione News about my piece Making My Own Paradise, currently on display at Palazzo Mora in Venice Italy: Sempione News: Mauro Bianchini on Barbara Downs Making My Own Paradise
Before I say more, I just want to add that I love Venice: the people, the architecture, the art, the history. My thoughts go out to that beautiful city and its people through the devastating flooding that they are experiencing.
As to the article, for those of us who don’t speak Italian, here’s the Google Translate version:
Here’s a photo of me with my entire installation at Palazzo Mora.
In a moment of surprising forethought and planning when I was in high school, I took some drafting classes because I knew I wanted to study art in college, but I also knew that I needed to earn a living. Why not do drafting as my day job? I liked drawing and the tools of drawing, and I was a visual thinker. It seemed like a good fit. This was back when drafting was ink or pencil on vellum or mylar. I eventually did do quite a bit of work in Autocad when it came into common usage.
So while I finished up my college studies, I also worked as an electromechanical draftsperson. I had many jobs over the years, but I had the unique experience of working for an early private enterprise rocket company, and I still do love watching any sort of rocket movie or footage.
I always tried to keep my drafting job separate from my artwork, but when I look back at my drawings from those days I see quite a bit of draftsmanship in them. The influence is there, like it or not. Drafting rewired my brain for a certain sort of seeing and thinking. Here’s some early lithographs from my college days:
I did manage to veer away a bit from the drafting influence for many years as I did figurative work, though line and edge have and still are always important to me. But I started to embrace the drafting influence in more recent years, using straight lines, centering something on the page, and focusing on a single thing, like a drafting view.
Here are some large-scale tarp paintings illustrating this point, from 2012, mixed-media on 6’x8′ unstretched canvas.
This has got me thinking about the drafting concept of views. In drafting, a specific view of an object is shown: front or side or bottom or cut-away section of 3D orthographic projection. This implies a sort of selective vision, which we all have of course, but it goes without saying that artists present information through their own personal selective “vision” (be it visual or otherwise), showing the viewer something about how we approach the world.
In my case, I’m often trying to show the viewer what it is that I am looking at (and equally important is what it is tht I’m ignoring, but the viewer isn’t privy to that information).
These two pieces are a good example. In Making My Own Paradise (left), I divide the landscape into into three sections: earth, horizon (populated with a man-made structure) and sky. It’s like a drafting view of an object, in a sense, but the object is the entire landscape. I’ve edited out anything that is unimportant in my description of the earth, the horizon, and the sky. In Nothing But Blue Skies (right), I show specific and small areas of sky inside each box. Look here, and now here; look at this and now this. These pieces are currently in an exhibition put on by the European Cultural Centre titled PERSONAL STRUCTURES – Identities in the Palazzo Mora in Venice, Italy, in conjunction with the 2019 Venice Biennale.
Again, in these pieces below, I split the landscape up into three sections, but I minimized the horizon line with a more ghostly image of the man-made structures within the Icelandic landscape.
And then there are all these images of barns in Iceland, in perspective, in front views, all like drafting drawings with only as much information as needed, and no more.
I finished this piece, Nothing But Blue Skies, some time ago, but I was so busy getting it finished and shipped to Venice for the European Cultural Centre’s Biennale show that I neglected to cover it in my blog at all. I’ll make amends now.
Like a previous post I did about its companion piece in the Venice show, I’d like to show you some of the making of this piece. Below you’ll find plenty of pictures and descriptions. Click on the first photo and you can scroll through the rest of them with captions. More photos of this and other pieces in the Skies series can be found here.
As I was finishing this piece, I remembered those early color versions I’d done, and since I had two additional cases I decided I would use those with some color. I already had the blue skies, so I painted these two red and yellow.
Coming soon…and you’re all invited! I have 18 paintings included in The Very Very Rare Affordable Art Fair, a few of which can be seen here. There are many other artists as well, including Susana Arias and Jenni Ward, two of my Mission Industrial studio neighbors. We’ll all be there for the Meet the Artists closing reception, April 28, 4-6pm.
Sometimes I think I’ve finished something and it turns out that I’m wrong. The longer a piece sits in my studio, the more chance there is that I will modify it at some point. This is especially true of paintings and encaustic because they are both infinitely workable. It’s not so true of drawings on paper, which can’t take the ongoing abuse.
For instance, here’s an encaustic piece from 2017 that I recently reworked to heighten the color. I honestly don’t know if it’s better now or not. But it’s different and I’m enjoying it at the moment.
Interestingly, this encaustic actually started life in a much different form, as you can see below. I kept some of the green from the original but everything else is different, including the frame patina.
Here are a few more…
I have some work in the Take Aways show at Pajaro Valley Arts Gallery right now—I’ve been participating in this show for a few years, and I do a special series for it each year.
Because all the pieces for this show are under $300, and the artists are expected to replenish pieces as they are sold, my working process is quite different from normal. I’ve settled into a process that I call “thinking out loud“. The pieces aren’t exactly sketches, and they aren’t exactly macquettes for something bigger to come. Instead, they are explorations of some themes in which I find myself currently interested. I might take it further, or these series may be the end of it. It’s an enjoyable process and it leads me in new directions.
Because this year’s series followed directly on what I did last year, I’ll explain that one first. Nothing But Blue Skies was comprised of two components, birds and skies; buyers could mix and match individual pieces as they liked. But I always envisioned them hanging together as seen here.
The “skies” are small encaustic panel constructions that are framed with a construction material that is stiffened with a specialty paint, and the “birds” are mixed-media with that same paint.
This year, I worked with the same themes and materials but in a different fashion. Again, there are birds and skies. Technically these are two series, but, again, they hang together. Buyers can mix and match pieces or select just one. The birds are titled North. South. East. West. and the skies are titled A View From the Other Side. I’ve included side-angle shots also to give a better indication of depth and shape. The series totals eight pieces at the moment: four skies and four birds. But I think I’ll continue to work on the ideas behind A View From the Other Side.
There are plenty of barns in Iceland. And there is plenty of appeal for me in a barn: a long, low, simple building, a blocky shape dropped onto the landscape with little innate beauty. Its utility is not obvious from the outside, and any windows are placed too high to peer into (or out of). There’s not much there to see, and a lot to overlook, which leaves me with plenty to work with. It’s almost like a blank canvas.
Here are a few new paintings, on the small side:
I’ve also just finished this large-scale drawing, which joins a suite of other drawings of similar size and subject matter. The other drawings can be found on this page, along with more work in my Iceland/Ísland series.
This next one is encaustic on paper, but because the image itself is such a flat rendition of a barn, I wanted it to sit flat on the wall. So that ruled out a conventional frame that adds depth. Instead, I made a rust-patina steel frame that screws the drawing directly onto the wall.
Here are close-ups of the frame, and a photo showing the surface sheen and texture of the encaustic:
And, finally, something a little new, perhaps moving me into another direction: a barn with the addition of a figure. I haven’t done much figurative work for a while, so it was interesting to go back to the figure; I found that I wanted to work it in a flattened manner like the landscape work I’ve been doing.