by Dietlind Vander Schaaf
Last winter I found myself in a bit of an artistic slump. The flow of energy and ideas that had moved through me freely and guided my work for years seemed to have dried up. As winter gave way to spring, I reached beyond my studio walls to other artists in my orbit curious about what they were working on. How had they ridden the wave of creativity over the long haul? What did their daily studio practices look like? I wanted their insights. Ultimately their answers cast my experiences as part of a larger and ongoing conversation. As painter Gail Spaien notes, “painting is a physical manifestation of life…it brings us in closer contact with what it means to be alive and heightens our awareness about that which is not visible.”
Henry Wolyniec is involved with three distinct bodies of work at the moment. The first, which he has been working on for the last decade, consists of paper collage and relief printing. The second is a series of painted wire and paper sculptures started in the summer of 2017. The third is photography, which he has been doing for about three years. Henry says of his work that it is not concept driven or grounded in ideas; rather he continues at a piece until a series of visual decisions seem to come together.
Photography started as a fast and easy way for Wolyniec to capture an image. After a while, he noticed that certain kinds of images, specifically densely-packed compositions that included some form of overlapping shadow or reflection, kept showing up. Around the same time, he saw that his collages, in comparison, had gone flat and lacked composition. Recognizing he had worked himself into an aesthetic corner, Wolyniec realized photography would help him find his way out.
For Henry, navigating his need to have the time, energy, and focus his work requires has meant letting go of certain personal relationships not in sync with art making, as well as making specific choices around work and living situations that are affordable and studio friendly. Keeping life simple and uncluttered works, he notes, if money is not a motivation or within realistic reach.
Currently at work on a series that explores different color combinations, Ingrid Ellison’s paintings are an effort to balance pressure with open space. Her ideas come in the form of visual cues from nearly everywhere–the foggy harbor, a solitary mountain path, cracked and peeling paint, the shadow on a wall, a new tube of paint, passages from books and phrases from poems or songs, as well as time spent alone, out of doors, moving through space, woods, or water. There her mind empties and her thoughts are clearest.
Lately she has begun to explore writing as an extension of her creative practice. She keeps a visual journal that she takes everywhere, in which she writes, draws, paints, and collages.
Frequently she experiences a period in which she feels as though she has explored all her options in a particular body of work and were she to continue, she would begin repeating herself. This is usually followed by a series of unsuccessful paintings that she keeps making until something new reveals itself, and then she is off following that tangent. It’s a very experimental phase, she says, and one of her tricks to moving through it is to force herself to start differently.
Kim Bernard has been working with a quarter round shape that forms a particular mark. It took her weeks of focusing exclusively on this flow-like element to get the mark right. This was followed by several more weeks of figuring out what materials to work with and how to apply the mark. She says this period was characterized by quite a bit of dissatisfaction, but she dealt with it, because “the older I get, the less I am willing to accept something that’s not just right in my work.”
Movement has been a consistent theme in Bernard’s oeuvre, which ranges from kinetic sculpture and gestural painting, to painting with a pendulum, sculpture racing contraptions, spring shoes, and finger painting.
Recently, Bernard experienced a bout of creative block. She had finished her Amphibious Tiny House project, which consumed her for 2017. She felt a bit lost and spent the next few months fighting going to her studio because it was painful to be in there. To ease back in, she gave herself permission to do whatever she wanted, as long as she was in the studio. She messed around with paints, drew, took photographs. Most of the work she produced was not good, but she persevered , telling herself that nothing was guaranteed to happen if she didn’t try. And eventually something sparked.
During this period, Bernard read books about the creative process and listened to podcasts on creativity, all the while observing herself and taking notes. She developed a workshop called “Cultivating Creativity,” in which she guides students through playful exercises that inspire, build creative confidence, and generate ideas, leaving them with an arsenal of go-to strategies they can revisit for inspiration.
Bernard just turned 53 and she feels a sense of time passing. She has become increasingly selective about the kind of work she does and where she exhibits. “I don’t want to waste time and energy spinning my wheels on what’s not meaningful.”
Throughout her career, Gail Spaien has explored the question of how to bring the natural world into a static gallery setting. Her paintings translate the sensations around her with concentrated detail, depicting an idealized view of nature and a denial of unpleasant things. She paints the world as she would like it to be and invites the viewer to experience a painting as an object that holds an opportunity for contemplation, physical intimacy and affective power.
A painter of ‘weather and seasons,’ Spaien feeds her studio practice by working in her garden. She says that she has come to appreciate the symmetry of landscape design through hours spent composing an image and arranging her garden to create a form of balance that is both stable and active.
And Spaien admits that she is lost a lot. Her strategy, like that of Wolyniec, Ellison, and Bernard, is simply to keep working. That is followed by taking walks in all kinds of weather, as well as looking at art in person and in books.
At this time in her career, Spaien refuses to worry about whether she is doing it right anymore. This has, at times in the past, hindered her ability to have a particular kind of freedom in the studio. When stuck, she returns to pragmatic, technically-based core questions. Throughout all of her work is the thread of her core inquiry. How, she wonders, can she give form to life’s paradox and poignancy?