The color of artists

white petaled flowers
Photo by Flora Westbrook on Pexels.com

Brown. An undistinguished color, common as dirt.

In academic regalia, other more brilliant colors are claimed by various fields of study, but Brown – that turned earth color, that dirt-that’s-been-rained-on color, that sometimes mud color – is reserved for the Fine Arts. It’s apparently the color for the composers, the performers, the visual artists who are earthbound yet are called upon to touch, just touch, and to point out to something sacred in us all. That turned earth that’s been rained on? That’s us artists. That mud color? That’s us.

It’s in our DNA, I suppose. We are a blend of earthly material, physical matter with a density that results in a muddy color as when blending many paints. But the rain, the inspiration and the warmth can bring forth newness from the common dirt. Even cool temperatures can call forth life.

My hope for Fine Arts grads this season: Stay humble and enjoy your bit of earth. Cultivate it, prepare it, be ready like any farmer who watches and prays… like the farmer, the artist prepares to feed many people in and beyond acquaintance.

On his website, painter Madison Cawein writes: “Why do paintings hang on walls? To connect earth to heaven…We also stand vertically, perpendicular to the earth. Connecting earth to heaven is also our purpose.”

Congratulations, Fine Arts graduates. Now let’s get to work.

Commencement

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This morning I turned in my laptop, classroom keys and collected my personal belongings at the art school. After about 40 years in some type of classroom setting both as a student and as a teacher (mostly the latter), I finally left a campus for the last time. It took me a while to see that I was overly fond of all the rights thereunto pertaining to my advanced degree. Years ago, I convinced my parents that I needed an MFA to land a college teaching job; for my part, I was interested in further exploration of ideas from undergraduate school. But after graduation, the idea of getting a college teaching job loomed very large – I wanted to justify my parents’ belief in my education and gradually, I began to believe in the importance of this over anything else.

So, what’s next? Well, as my grad committee chair once told me “You’ll always have work.” Maybe not the universally recognized work of the “gainfully employed.” But work nonetheless. Satisfying activity. No advanced degree required, only the willingness to work diligently. As for subject matter and medium? Back to basics, it seems: drawing, like when I was a youngster and wanted to find only a blank piece of paper and a number 2 pencil…then anything could be “mine” for a bit. I actually feel like I’m beginning again, but this time I’m not going to cave in to the bid to be a socially-acceptable success.

I did enjoy my time in the classroom and the many faces that passed through my life as an educator. But last Christmas, my daughter gave me a Josh Groban CD. I was shocked when I heard the first cut “Never take a single breath for Granted” and I knew then and there that it was time to leave education for something more.

WomenArtMakers

Connie Jenkins
Mentor/professor/chair of my graduate committee and fellow painter Connie Jenkins with an Olga de Amaral piece in the Latin American Masters Gallery, Los Angeles, CA

In graduate school at California State University Long Beach, I belonged to a group of women artists who came to be known as WAM. We’d all taken a class called Women Art Makers (about women in art history) with a favorite professor Connie Jenkins, who always encouraged us in our work. The first informal meeting was held in my studio on campus and we subsequently kept meeting and exhibiting, visiting each other’s studios and even going on a retreat. As more members joined and younger members discovered the group, we offered what Connie had given us: permission to redefine and re-evaluate “women’s work” by encouraging other women in their creative endeavors.

Last year, WAM celebrated 35 years together in an exhibition that opened October 27 and ran through December 7, 2018 in Signal Hill, CA. It was great to see everyone again and it seems we may do this again!

 

Drawing 2

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©Anita L. Rodriguez, Breakthrough, graphite and colored pencil on paper

Drawing seemed like a simple dream when I was a kid. I could always find a pencil; finding a blank sheet of paper took more effort, but if none could be found I’d just fold up a piece of notebook paper (returned and scored homework) and work on that. I learned to ignore the lines and focus on learning how reflections appeared, how highlights looked, etc. I loved it. Sometimes when I came home from school and my parents wanted to know what I learned, I wanted to share my excitement over drawing discovery but I knew they wanted something else from me. At least, I always thought so back then.

By the time I went to community college and took Drawing 1 my parents were more accepting of my love of art. In high school, I’d been recognized as “an artist” so taking more art classes in college was natural. I loved learning new drawing media (especially charcoal!) and learning new techniques I never dreamed existed. Art history, life drawing and beginning painting all opened up a new wider world to me. I decided that sharing my love of art through teaching art was the way to go – and my parents agreed to support me in that endeavor.

So I had to ask myself: how are you going to teach others to do what comes naturally to you? Back then, if someone asked me how I drew something, I’d answer: “I just look at it.” Not something I’d say to a student…but not completely wrong either.

Looking is just the beginning. It’s seeing, focusing, responding. It’s a meditation, it’s a prayer, it’s a silent plea to be still and know…to know that the conversation goes on all the time and I need to pay attention now and then or miss out.

Life moves so quickly these days with the constant bombardment of advances in so many areas. But as Ferris Bueller once advised, if you don’t stop and pay attention, you might miss something. Finding the time to pay attention is no longer a luxury – it’s a must. Like the day my last day lily of the season appeared and I told myself “I should draw that” but before I knew it I was giving my attention to myriad other things. The day lily closed on another day – another lost moment of attention afforded by the act of drawing and getting to know and meditate and wonder.

Drawing

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As a child, I drew all the time – anytime, whenever I could find a blank paper (even in some of my mother’s books). Of course art school demanded more, and I had better materials and more subjects to consider. More drawing came in graduate school but began to drop off in the ensuing years.

In 2006 or so, I took my high school art class outside to draw. Since they were engaged, I decided to draw too and quickly discovered that I had no patience for this once-cherished activity. Stunned, I went home and launched a campaign to get drawing again. Some of my efforts were good, and all of them could have been better. I continued to draw whenever I could, but I soon gave in to the seduction of colors and painting with acrylics.

I began to feel some discomfort with painting recently, something I couldn’t quite name. Then I began to notice how often the subject of drawing came up: in books, in conversation, in art materials I was drawn to, in what I packed for a recent trip. I found a sketch pad small enough to get in my purse and when looking for a blank page, I found instead an earlier drawing with a note.

From me. To me. About a drawing of a trashcan.

“Drawing a trashcan is a humbling experience. Something so gross, so general. Why can’t it be more romantic? Yet the trashcan is what it is – a simple form in need of your awareness and attention at this moment in time.”

Time to revisit the bare bones as Georgia O’Keeffe might have put it.

Lifting my eyes

Teaching 8 am classes means 6 am wake-up calls for me. That doesn’t sound like much; lots of folks get up earlier. But let me put this in context: when I was young, I hated getting up early – I was more like, “Oh, it’s light outside, I should get up.” I never saw a sunrise. I never thought I was missing anything.

Until I landed my current teaching job.

Now when I wake, I try to focus my thoughts with morning prayer and thinking about the day ahead. If the weather’s good, I go outside to pray (being a little uncomfortable also helps to wake me up). While there, the sun comes up – a stunning event that rarely looks the same way twice! A couple years ago, I started taking photos of the sunrise and some twilight scenes. After years of looking down at water and rocks, I began to think of lifting my gaze and painting those moments.1491390722763

I actually began this series that I call Daybreaks late last year and have added 4 more so far this year. I love the colors, the spaces in between the trees and branches, the clouds or lack thereof. Where it will lead is unclear, except perhaps for a possible change of medium. Watercolor seems to be on the horizon.

Change of heart

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In the fall of 2000, I found myself really needing a win somewhere: I was rather broke with no prospects and getting really tired of the starving artist stereotype. I found an exhibition opportunity close by without entry fees that would afford the possibility of  my work being seen by many people who probably didn’t know me or my work. I jumped at the chance, hoping that at least new eyes would see my work and at most, that I’d make a sale.

Instead, I saw my work in a new light. And that’s made all the difference in how I approach my paintings.

That exhibition was held in conjunction with the Eucharistic Congress for the Catholic diocese of San Bernardino-Riverside, CA. It was titled “Christ for the World” and was held in the Ontario Convention Center. While not an especially great venue for exhibiting art, it did give me a chance to really see what my work looked like – especially as an expression of faith. I’ve always been attracted to matters of the spirit, but before this exhibition I’d never considered my artwork and spiritual content together. As I sat there in the lobby of the convention center and looked at one of my paintings in particular, I noticed the beautiful light I was always attracted to … and suddenly it was more than I dreamed, and it was also less than what I could say. Although I went home with all my inventory, I knew I would not be the same person who created those pieces. I was now on a slightly different path, one I’d not noticed before.

Christmases Past

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copyright Anita L. Rodriguez, Christmas Past, watercolor, 12×16 inches

I remember as a child looking at the lit decorated Christmas tree in our living room when everyone else found something else to do. I loved gazing upon the beautiful tree, especially these 2 ornaments. I’d dream, wish, pray for the new year soon to arrive.

Fast forward to my college years. I was still living with my parents and my mother decided we needed new ornaments. She asked me if I wanted any of the old ones and I said I wanted the shiny green and the red one. I then went off and forgot about them, Mom got new stuff and I figured she threw the old ones out. I simply decided that they were gone.

Not long afterward, I went to the garage to my father’s work bench in search of a tool. I was stunned to find my 2 ornaments near a window, out of harm’s way. They were dusty and less colorful, but no less cheerful. Like old friends, they waited for me even though I’d forgotten them for a time. And my father – like my heavenly Father – kept my dreams for me, out of harm’s way until I should come to my senses.

I still have those 2 ornaments, carefully stored in tissue within a sturdy box…but I think they need to come out. Dreams and wishes can’t stay hidden.

The Artist’s Collection

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Here’s a snapshot of a couple of my students at the local art and craft store working on a landscape painting. I love seeing a person gain confidence through some creative activity! And that thought spun off into this: what do artists like to collect? What captivates a person (especially someone involved with creating images) to obtain another’s work?

Wealth

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My other part-time job is painting instructor at one of the local arts and crafts stores. I had a student a few nights ago who, in the course of conversation, said that people who have nothing give of themselves (or words to that effect). Her statement struck me into considering something else.

A few days before that class, I volunteered to help serve lunch at the community kitchen. I chopped fruit, then served up the resultant fruit salad. I didn’t look at the people I was serving, mainly because I wanted the fruit salad to land on tray and not the counter or the floor. But I was also thinking of my Mexican grandmother who counseled to do what needed to be done and don’t look at who you’re helping – that is, don’t judge – and don’t worry about who’s watching you (don’t tally up brownie points). And anyway, I felt I had nothing to give but my time, which is why I was there.

Something happened to me on the inside while just doing what needed to be done. Years ago, I wrote a kind of credo that stated I had found my wealth in no thing. Nothing. What do I really have?