Alexandra Sheldon

Spring Thursday Class #3

Alexandra SheldonComment

Dear Marsha, 

Class#3: Mainly we played with Gesso, a white acrylic paint with ground chalk in it. I use Artist Grade Utrecht Gesso. It is nice and thick. We designed geometric stamps using Creativity Foam (available at places like Michaels and ACMoore) on cardboard. A great way to make a fast homemade stamp. I had everyone design a couple of stamps. Then brush Gesso onto the stamps and stamp into painted papers and/or directly into the collages. When the Gesso stamps are dry add a wash of paint (I also call this a 'glaze')  for a nice pop. This is a nice way to add grid-like structure back into the collages.

Constructing collages can be a balancing act between adding structure and tearing down structure. I like to show examples of how Robert Motherwell and Richard Diebenkorn constructed collages. The chaos and the control, the loudness and the calm. I compare making a collage to building a house: start with the foundation (space, color, light, texture, atmosphere). Start building the scaffolding (grid elements, forms and shapes like squares, images, horizon lines and verticals). Finish work: plastering and painting, details (drips and splatters, decorative stamps, painting). It's kind of ridiculous trying to describe art-making with so many words. Better to be in a room doing it. Mainly collage-making requires hours of trying and redoing and getting rid of and tearing off and adding back in. Put on some music and mix up some paints and paint back into the pieces (a great way to simplify a too-busy collage) and just go at it and have fun. Many of my students get together to make collages because it feels good having company and while it is fun to make art it is also hard, so to be together bolsters us up.

Spring Thursday Class #2

Alexandra SheldonComment

Dear Marsha,

Thursday night class #2: Working into the 'grounds' (the airy, space filled fields of color and light) by adding geometric shapes like lines, triangles, circles and squares. It's always helpful to go back to the grid. Cut strips of colored papers and collage them in. Absolute attention to color at this point. Feel the palette, intuit the colors, ask the piece: what do you want, what do you need? This is not about thinking, this is about following the feeling of the piece. I do not plan, I go one step at a time, always staying in the moment. Some people plan a collage and figure it all out before they glue anything down. This can be a great way to work and I am always intrigued by those who work like this. This is not my process though. I change one thing at a time and it shifts the piece into a new place. I suggest working on a series of pieces so that you can put things up on the wall and let them rest. Look at a piece from a distance. The image of the artist standing back and looking at the canvas on the wall is very true. Let stuff breathe, it will tell you what it needs if you let it. Suddenly you may get a message: more black in the upper corner. Listen, open, always asking the questions: Does it need more light? Does it need an image? It feels static, what could I do to enliven it? It became atonal, what can I do to the color to enhance it? I really like to work on a few pieces at a time. This way, when I get stuck, I can switch to another. Or try this: if you are stuck on a piece keep your hands moving - work thru the block. Every once in a while someone in the class says: I'm throwing this away and I run over and get the piece and ask "Can I sand it down with my electric sander?" It's always fun to take the sander and go at the rejected collage. Then, put a glaze of color over it and often you have another beautiful 'ground' to start fresh on.

Tonight I talked about abstraction versus using images. I don't see much difference. One learns what one wants. Jim Dine, the printmaker, talked about "needing a hook to hang his hat on".  He figured out that he needed an image, something realistic like a bathrobe or a heart to anchor him. I have a student who makes collages that are like drifts of colors, ethereal clouds moving through dreams. Her abstraction is what feels right to her. I travel around as an artist not unlike a hummingbird: I want to visit every flower; I draw houses and trees and I make very abstract collages too. What do YOU need? In art school I was told by a teacher named Don Moulton to visit many museums and shows and to find out what I loved to look at. He said to pay extra attention to the art that made me feel: "I know I could do that - THAT feels familiar and exciting". Maybe that's what inspiration is: when you can't wait to try it. It's contagious. 

Spring Thursday Class #1

Alexandra SheldonComment

Dear Marsha,

Here we go again: a new semester. Thursday Night Collage Bee Notes. We began with drawing grid elements on large sheets of white sketch paper and/or newsprint. To do this I take a nice charcoal pencil (but you can use any kind of pencil) and a ruler and I randomly start making lines and grids. We did this for twenty minutes and put lines into three papers. Naturally I had to talk about the grid in art and how it shows up everywhere.

I had a buffet of mixed colors on the table. Acrylics mixed to the consistency of cream (diluted with water). Next: we took wide nylon brushes, about two inches wide, and we began painting the papers. I encourage using the paints thinly and building up interesting layers of colors. I especially like to paint a swath of color and fold it over to make a print on the other side of the paper. This paper later becomes the foundation for the collages. I call it the "beautiful background" material. Of course to say 'background' is kind of silly; everything in a picture is important. Let's call it an 'atmosphere' or a 'sky'. At this stage in the class I like to run around and show many different artists approaches to 'background': the rich honey air of Rembrandt, the scumbled colors of Deibenkorn, the skies of O'Keefe. Think of background paper as similar to silk, to long flowing curtains in a room with a draft. Atmosphere and airy beauty. Space. looking out a window in an airplane. The grid lines are nice and get covered up and some radiate thru the paint.

Next: As this painted paper dries fast, we then mounted the paper onto heavier paper. Collages need a nice strong surface. Lately, I've been using Staples Cardstock, 110 lbs. For this class I gave everyone three 8"x8" cards. Lay a card down onto the painted paper and outline with pencil. Cut painted paper out using scissors and collage down to heavier Cardstock using acrylic matte medium (I prefer Utrecht brand sold at Blick). We also did three miniatures: 5"x5".  This takes us to the next class. People will be going onto the next stage of working into these backgrounds.

Composition + More Composition

Alexandra SheldonComment
After Dennis Parlante

After Dennis Parlante

After Dennis Parlante

Dear Marsha,

Tomorrow night will be our last Thursday night class for the winter semester. I have been pushing composition, composition and more composition. It's hard to write about composition; easier to show it with a big marker on a big paper tacked to the wall. One Thursday afternoon, in preparing for class, I looked thru a stack of collage books. I began doing little studies of the compositions I was looking at. I found this guy named Dennis Parlante in the Masters Collage book (2010 Lark Crafts). I made two collages in the style of this man. Copying can be a great way to see how someone does something, how they structure their pieces, arrange their compositions. His palette is mostly earth tones and he begins by collaging together old antique letters and papers. Then he adds contemporary painted lines and designs which he makes using black ink.  So there is this nice old and new feeling, to and fro, back and forth. I also went online and was able to find some pictures of Parlante working in his studio. I could see that he did these bold abstract paintings in ink on separate pieces of paper and then he would collage them onto his vintage materials. It is so useful to research an artist. Go to museum and if you see something you like, try to see more, read about the artist, try to figure out what they did. I talked to the class about Braque and Picasso, the real fathers of contemporary collage (with Max Ernst). The way they upended pictorial space and played and danced with it. They ran with the ball that Cezanne had thrown into the sky: Cubism. Illusory and flat, all at the same time. Stare at their early collages and you see all this space (a shape put in front of a shape put in front of another shape) made and broken down, made and broken down. Watch how Picasso drew into his collages with charcoal as a way of reinstating illusory space. I showed the class how Robert Motherwell absorbed Picasso's influence and pushed further, getting wilder and messier. Motherwells early collages are beautiful and fast and slapped together and then he does this big black drawing of a stick figure (totally Picassoesque) over the whole thing to pull it all together. He also limits his palette and often paints areas of a collage over to simplify it, often 'cinching' in the waist of the piece by painting the entire sides a neutral color like light grey or soft yellow. It's awkward to describe compositions, I'm better at running around the room with my iPad or an art book showing this stuff to the class.

Recently I've been reading the Ann Patchett book "This is the story of a happy marriage". It's filled with essays and wisdom about creativity (and everything else too). She helped me when she described the beginning of writing a book. How her idea was like a iridescent multicolored gorgeous butterfly and as she mused on the plan of her next story it got more and more beautiful and twirled around her and she would feel downright giddy with inspiration, But then she had to capture the darn thing and pin it down and watch it die as she actually tried to write the book. I do this almost daily: I am inspired, I see the light on the river and I can't wait to get to my studio to make a collage about the light on the river. Only it looks flat when I start making something and then I go get a cup of coffee and the sky is doing this amazing thing and I can almost taste the spring and I come back and try to put the feel of the impending spring into my piece but it looks stupid. Sometimes I give up - the gap between what I dream of doing and what I actually do is sometimes too wide. Mostly though I don't give up. I wake up every single day wanting to bridge this gap. Hope springs eternal. Nature is what inspires me. Every day. Almost too much. There are times I need to burrow away and read, or watch movies. My depression does not stem from not wanting to do anything. It stems from wanting to do everything, go everywhere, paint everything and not being up to the task. Lately I have taken up the practice to thank the Gods for so much inspiration (and to ask them to help me deal with it more gracefully).

Oh! And you must look into this 80 year old artist named Mary Bauermeister who is having a show at Smith College in Northampton and doing a residency there. Very interesting collage, sculpture and paintings. Xx

Nice Textures

Alexandra SheldonComment
Example of miniatures cards (5x5")

Example of miniatures cards (5x5")

Dear Marsha,

Ok I need to catch up on two classes. I would have written this Friday morning but Charley Pearl had her yearly check up first thing in the morning and then I had to get to the studio to mix up over 50 colors for my Saturday workshop ("The Sky is the Limit").

Save packaging, like cracker, tea and cereal boxes. Save any weird packaging and open it up and unfold it. Collage this stuff down. I like to use it blank side up, another words so you don't see any words or colors. It can be stubborn to get flat but keep at it with your Matt medium and your scraper and it will get flat. Collage a bunch of different papers and packaging materials down to whatever size substrate (Bristol paper or cardstock - a good strong surface for collage). Do a couple of these and maybe even more. Lately I really encourage people to work in a series.

When you have a few of these then take sandpaper (I like a medium to rough sandpaper) and rough up the surface. Next: take an Xacto blade and score the surface of the collage. You can either do long drawing-type lines or slashes. Mix up a dark color. I had mixed up some really pretty darks: black and blue to make an indigo. Alizarin Crimson and Pthalo Blue to make a deep purple and my favorite: Sepia (any dark brown mixed with black). Water down the acrylic paint considerably and cover each collage with paint. Then wipe it off or use a brayer or a scraper. What is nice is that the paint will go into the Xacto marks and stay there and will also look cool on the sanded areas. I have these old letter presses and we played around with hammering marks and numbers and letters into the collages before putting on the dark washes. I also got out my cardboard letter stencils and letter stamps and we played with those. So far, what is created is a series of backgrounds. Now time to collage into them. Add grid elements. Stencil letters and numbers into the collages using paint. Start adding cut shapes and images. We began using some fabrics - I like to put a thin coat of medium down and gently pat the fabric down (I'm not so crazy about glue over fabric, I find it rigid looking although I have seen it work, like in Rauschenberg's combines).

Remember: If you do the dark washes then introduce light back into the pieces. Stencil pastel turquoise letters onto a sepia toned piece for a pop. Introduce grid elements like thin strips of paper in a light color, maybe the color of honey.

Lately, I have been handing out miniatures cards (5x5") in class. It can be fun to do a series of little pieces and then blow up the scale and do them bigger later. Do whatever it takes to relax and have fun.

To get ready for my sky workshop, I sat down and collected pictures of the sky in a stack of magazines and it was so totally fun. Today, during the workshop, I found myself using these little chunks of sky pictures in my collages along with my painted papers. Whatever floats your boat.  

Example of miniatures cards (5x5")

Example of miniatures cards (5x5")

Recently I spent the day teaching kids over at Maud Morgan Art Center and these two girls asked me, toward the end of the day, if they could make drawings and NOT take them home. So I said "Not only do you NOT have to take them home - you can rip them up and throw them away!" The girls got SO excited and they made drawings for the last 45 minutes of a very long vacation art day, drawing with gusto and enthusiasm, and then there were peels of giggles when they could rip up the art and throw it away. I learned something (as always do around kids): that it is tiring to always be so invested in the finished product and that what we are really after is a sense of freedom and abandon. So make stuff and see if you can have fun doing it, regardless of the finished object.

3 Steps Collage/Making a Soup/Tones

Alexandra SheldonComment

Dear Marsha,

Okay, so last night was our third class. Because everything is such a giant struggle right now with all the snow we only had four people. Last week (class#2) I had everyone paint (using acrylic paint watered down to the consistency of heavy cream) atmospheric grounds: painting creams and soft greens and browns (all colors, though subdued, like clouds, air, sky) on plain white sketch paper - doing that printing thing a little of folding the paper over on itself to make little veils of colors. We also did a small amount of transfers from magazines but subtly with the aim of making an atmospheric ground, a beautiful broth. I am making many comparisons to the metaphor of a big soup: you have the broth (atmospheric, light, color ground).  Next you add the stuff: peas, carrots, celery, pasta, beans: imagery, geometric shapes, structure, grids, abstract or not (doesn't matter - I treat abstraction and image-oriented material the same way). The last step is seasoning; salt and pepper, herbs perhaps: drips and splatters, painted dots, finishing touches.

Of course it can be absurd to assign to art-making a formula but we teachers do it all the time. Because it's so helpful to have some limitations. So I tell people to veer off if they get the urge. I notice that certain people love steps. Step 1.  Step 2.  Step 3. This week end I am doing a workshop called "3 Steps Collage" as a matter of fact.

Last night I talked at length about TONES. Way back in art school I used to have to do these black and white still life drawings where everything had to be different gradations of tone. The darkest black and the lightest white with all the shades of grey in between. And I'm not referring to that dreadful book. This exercise was really valuable because I learned that colors also have levels of tones. The art school exercise was done in black and white and grey to simplify the entire concept of tone. When we graduated to tonal studies in color we were reminded to imagine putting on special glasses that would render all color in black and white.  If a collage looks a little dead notice if all the colors have a similiar tone. Look at your piece and see if it has a variety of deep darks and bright lights, notice if it is atonal (this might not be dictionary correct but I'm thinking of 'atonal' as tones all similar and therefore creating a kind of sameness, flatness, deadness). From my days and years actually as a landscape and still life painter I remember well my searching for the darkest darks and lightest lights in my compositions. While making your collages see if they need more variety of tone. As with everything concerning art: there are no rules. You may want a pastel, soft piece, with no deep darks or bright lights. But lately I am noticing that there is often a sameness in people's colors and I think tone is the problem.

See you next week,
Alexandra

Fyfe DesignComment
bio-IMG_0335.jpg

As twenty something offspring shoot off like morning glory vines, spiraling away, climbing toward the sun and away from us the parents, well, there is a great emptiness and sadness.  I am employing all the usual suspects: good food, yoga, teaching art and being connected to others, coconut sorbet, coffee (well can't be perfect) and probably most importantly - studio time.  I am going through my piles of painted papers and assembling quick collages that I think of as drawings.  I work on several at once.  I was questioning why I needed so many hours a day to get into the groove of making (a minimal of 4 hours really helps) but now I think I understand that this process is akin to being a jazz musician.  Now, I have never been a jazz musician but I would imagine that it helps to play A LOT to get into the improvisational pull of the music.  This is where I want to be: in a improvisational trance, letting go and allowing my intuition and body to take over. I want to let go.  I've seen it done, in Helen Frankenthalers stain paintings, in Matisse, in Lucien Freud.  They let go, they did not hold back.  I want a taste of this creative abandon. This is real rest from the mind, the past, the worry, and the grief that can be such an old habit. Yesterday I touched on a few moments of this freedom and I was able to celebrate that my youngest is having the time of his life with four companions in Athens.  By tapping into the universal flow of music & creativity that unites us all I could let go and sightsee in my own beautiful ruins.

Study in collage of that night

Fyfe DesignComment

On Tuesday night I drove to Harvard Square to go to my non meditation class (the leader Joel, says that if you are meditating you are working too hard - it's really about relaxing). I parked near the Commander Hotel and walked through the Cambridge Common.  It never ceases to amaze me that I live where I grew up.  As I walked I mumbled under my breath: here is my old stomping ground (where I cavorted as a thirteen year old on Saturdays and Sundays when there would be free concerts....) Tonight was one of those spring evenings when EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED, the sky filled with Zeppelin clouds and great cobalt blue and grey rain clouds. Some bright lighter blue out there too closer to the horizon and the fierce sun crackling through everything. The trees were starting to bud out and fan out their copper and bronze color which was all lit up against the sky.  I was taking mental notes: coppery mustard color against cobalt blue fudge color (Marion from the meeting said there was lavender in that blue color, she is a painter too and this helped me a lot because I was completely confused by that blue - just couldn't figure out what I was staring at).  The Harvard spire was a gleaming white lance reaching into the sky, the clouds were moving, the illuminated tree buds were like lacy jewelry.  I am trying to do something different these days with my inspiration.  The old patterns are that I get overwhelmed and feel grief that I am missing everything - that I'm not painting and capturing what is so gorgeous and I might throw in some added self-torture by thinking of artists like Sargent or Fairfield Porter who would just grab it and paint it. The new patterns I'm working on are this: get inspired, fill up on it, take mental note and work in the studio tomorrow on it (that lit up coppery mustard against the cobalt bruised and pregnant sky!). Go to your wonderful meeting Alexandra, the one that is teaching you so thoroughly to relax in the present, to love the present, to understand that the grief, the panic and the regret are the old habits.  I will do what I can, be filled up with awe and make a little painting about that night.  And even if it is just a study of two colors I will be grateful to Cambridge and to the Springtime.

Rip Up and Cut Down

Fyfe DesignComment

I am learning something from taking pictures of the work with my iPhone. I photograph parts of my pieces and always like the details better than the whole thing.  But it seems like the process requires making a bunch of stuff and then trying to simplify simplify and then simplify some more.  Lately, I have been working on some biggish pieces (big for me), @ 24"x28" but find that I have to rip them up and cut them down.  I constantly show people how they have made several collages in one and that there is too much going on.  Hence, I make a big emphasis on making a really strong background and often people will say: y'a know I think this is finished.  Because they have made a lovely space (all prepared like a garden plot ready for planting). It is visually more pleasing to have an underworked piece than an overworked one.  Many of us feel that the main story is still missing (even with that gorgeous background) and that there just isn't enough.  So how to fill up and whittle down?  How to have breath and space yet a piece strong enough to work?  Add onto this predicament another layer: the work that I personally want to do, that I dream of and chase speaks of something doubtful and sure, strong yet tentative, delicate but solid. I began making art and writing as a way to quietly and discreetly fit into my world.  When I try to work big and boldly it usually crashes and burns.  I might have to find my strength in the small, the delicate and the private places.  I began earnestly expressing myself writing as a teenager and even now my artwork instinctively stays on the same scale as books.  There is always this funny predicament: how to avoid clutter and overkill and how to get simplicity and strength. And how to be brave and expressive and feel safe enough to even do it.

Make Anything

Fyfe DesignComment

I get to my studio with a nice big full day in front of me and then I can't focus or work. I eat my lunch at eleven and my thermos of tea is finished by noon.  The week end was very distracting.  I pulled a muscle dancing at a party and feel best reading or sitting quietly.  I walk around mumbling: do what you tell your students to do: Have fun, Do something joyful, Just draw or doodle to warm up.  Instead I have laid out all these largish paintings that I thought about all week end and want to finish.  But my muse is on vacation (or more like a dog on a leash who refuses to budge and sits down in protest) - working on these pieces is simply not forthcoming. So, I do what I constantly recommend to others: keep my hands moving by making ANYTHING.  The terror and pressure of art making has to be picked up like a soccer ball and bunted with one's head swiftly out the window.  I take one of my small blank mixed media books and I put Pandora on and I begin to play, glue, draw, splash paint. No pressure, no expectations - just the reason I became an artist in the first place: because it was fun.