The Biggest, Scariest, Most Exciting Project I’ve Ever Worked on

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Throughout my life as a student, professor, and artist,  I’ve worked on numerous projects, all of which have challenged me in different ways. I’m always looking for new artistic initiatives that will build upon my prior experience, but that will get me to exercise new muscles and take on new risks that will stretch me to new places I didn’t even know existed.

My graduate thesis Digging was the first time I had considered creating an interdisciplinary project, where multiple bodies of work in contrasting media existed under the umbrella of one core concept. Wading was a project where I began to explore a new depth of emotion and atmosphere in my work  that I had previously avoided. Falling was by far my most ambitious project at that point: the sheer quantity of drawings, prints, and sculpture that I produced, combined with the deeply personal subject of my long history with depression, demanded an immense emotional and professional investment that I had never experienced before.

Clay Portrait Sculpture

My mystery project, which will be announced in a few weeks is a completely different beast than all of these prior projects.  I see this new project as a culmination of literally every single experience I have ever had in my entire life.  It encompasses the moment I was able to pick up a pencil and draw as a young child,  the rush of joy working in my elementary school art class, my anger and frustration as a high school student desperately to find a way to rigorously study visual arts, the euphoria of attending art school, teaching studio art at the elementary, high school, and college level, working as a gallery director, and finally, my ongoing studio practice as a professional artist over the past 16 years.

The tasks involved in this project could not be more diverse and different than what I’ve done in the past: I’ve sifted through archives of photos I shot 15 years ago, revisited wrinkled paper handouts given to me by my professors when I was a student, rummaged into the corners of closets to find tools and art supplies that have been hibernating for years, reconnected with former students, colleagues, and friends, and asking for help and favors from people I’ve never met before-and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Inevitably, everything I take on asks me to draw from my previous experience in some form, but this project is on an entirely new scale that for me is completely unprecedented. In general, I have a monstrous work ethic, and I’ve always been known for attacking my projects and teaching with a feral vigor that can be intimidating for some people. Relatively speaking, the intensity and amount of work I’ve invested into this project makes it appear as if I’ve been slacking off for the past 20 years.

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Sara BloemCasey Roonan  •  Annie Irwin •  Lauryn Welch
Yves-Olivier Mandereau  • Alex Rowe


Another major difference is that I’m not alone in this project.  I have an amazing partner who I feel so incredibly fortunate to have met, an outstanding team of 6 former students, (see above) and a group of 9 interns.  The extraordinary momentum that we’ve built together over the past year and a half has been tremendous.  In my rough moments of doubt and worry, my team has picked me up and pushed me forward with their unwavering support and zeal. They have brought a range of expertise, opinions, and perspectives that cannot exist in one person. I’ve never experienced anything like this before, and I feel constantly energized by everyone’s collective passion and dedication to this project.


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Ask the Art Prof Live #3: Personal Themes, Never Too Late to Start Drawing


00:00

Is it a bad idea to show deeply personal themes in your artwork?
Mentioned: Nan Goldin, Edgar Degas

Nan Goldin     Degas Dancer Adjusting laces


Student drawing based on flashbacks of his mother’s death:

MO8


Student drawing based on Starbucks:

Starbucks


05:36
Artists have to be able to speak about their artwork.

Student drawing about her personal conflict about her religion:

SB8


12:52
Am I too old to start learning drawing?

Edgar Degas’ figure sculptures:

Degas Figure Sculpture

Henri Matisse’s cut out collages:

Matisse Collage


17:18
Experience can be a crutch for some students.


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Ask the Art Prof Live is a weekly live video broadcast on my Facebook page where I provide professional advice for art students and professional artists. Ask the Art Prof began as a written column in 2013 and was featured in the Huffington Post from 2013-2015.  See the full archive of columns here. Ask me your questions by commenting on the live video post as the video streams, and I’ll answer right away. I’ll discuss being an artist today, art technique & materials, work strategies for artists, career advice, teaching art, and more. Like my Facebook page and you’ll receive a notification when each live video begins.


Related Live Videos
#8: Should I do the Starving Artist Phase in New York City?
#7: How do I Improve My Art?  How do I Find My Artistic Style?
#6: Teaching High School Art, Teaching Color
#5:  Starting Art School, Avoiding Cliches
#4:  Oversaturation, Brainstorming, Beginning a Series
#2:  Aches While Drawing, Professional Artwork vs. Student Artwork
#1:  Graduate MFA Programs

Back in the studio

Studio View

I had my first day in the studio today after being away from 2 months. I have had a lot of anxiety about getting back into my artwork after being on hiatus for so long. I think it’s similar to not exercising for a long period of time; you know that first day back at the gym is inevitably going to be really painful. When I sat down to work on some thumbnail sketches this afternoon, I initially felt disoriented and had trouble concentrating.  I spent a lot of time just looking at my reference photos, just to remind myself of the kinds of images I had to work with.  It felt weird at first, but once I started sketching, everything immediately felt better.

Once I had the thumbnail sketches done, I starting sketching with vine charcoal on top of a figure drawing that I had started two months again. This was also an awkward start, as I don’t usually take two month breaks in the middle of a piece. Vine charcoal is extremely forgiving though, and once I started making a mess I loosened up and began to develop a sense of focus. My plan is to start two more new drawings over the next two days.  That way, all three drawings that I have to finish this summer will be started and it will much easier for me to gain momentum. I have found that working on multiple pieces together feels more productive than creating one piece at a time.

The other recent development is my course load for this summer just doubled.  I am now teaching 4 courses in the RISD Pre-College program, which is going to really cut into my time in the studio. I had planned on getting the bulk of the work for my solo shows done this summer, but that is no longer an option.  I am pushing most of the work to September and October, since two of the three shows open in November. It’s a little tight, but I looked over the schedule carefully the other day and know that it is definitely manageable.

Progress

I am finally taking some steps forward with this project.  I wouldn’t say that I had a breakthrough, as much as I started looking at what I already had in a different light. I sat down the other night with my husband to brainstorm by talking out the themes that I was interested in. We came back to the initial idea of a smiling/placid face on an anguished body, only this time we talked about what I could do stylistically in terms of my approach to drawing. The idea would be to have highly contrasting drawing styles between the face and the body. The face would be accurately rendered and realistic, while the body would be very violently drawn, with a strong sense of gesture and movement, verging on abstraction, extremely expressionistic, almost as if the body were tearing itself apart. I started to get excited about potentially using tools like palette knives and brushes (as opposed to just my hands) to apply the etching ink to get these kinds of effects. The approach would be closer to painting than drawing, which would be very new and different for me. I could play with the transition from the face into the body, sometimes making the transition smooth and slow, while other times it could be abrupt. Another component would be the figures eventually being swallowed by darkness, to represent time and moving deeper into the night.

There’s no way to know if this will work until I do some sketches, but already I’m feeling excited about the possibilities.  I know that this project would challenge me in a number of ways, which is exactly what I’m looking for.

Impasse

Over the past week I’ve been trying to buckle down and brainstorm alternatives for “Hiding”. Unfortunately, despite my daily efforts, I’ve found myself at a total deadlock. I know what kinds of ideas and themes that I want to communicate, but I’m having a difficult time coming up with imagery that isn’t terribly cliche.

One of the major themes I want to convey is the concept of leading a dual life when you have to hide your depression. There’s the public life that you lead during the day, when you smile, act well adjusted, and tell everyone who asks that you’re doing great. Then there is the private life that you lead behind closed doors, at night, when you can finally emotionally explode. The concept is there, but the imagery isn’t. All I can do at this stage is keep pushing through the bad ideas hoping that eventually, something will emerge.

Follow Your Fear

This week I was asked to write a blog post for the TEDWeekends section of the Huffington Post.  The blog post I wrote is in response to Alexa Meade’s TED talk “Your Body is My Canvas.”  I had strong reservations about submitting what I wrote, as I discussed in this past blog post.  Below is the post, please let me know what you think, I would love to get feedback.

Following your passion sounds like a no-brainer, but it is a path that is frequently full of intense fear and major risks. Fear is common for many artists, and is frequently a primary hurdle in the creative process. As an art student, I was so afraid of failure that I exclusively made artwork that was technically accomplished in order to guarantee “success.” I created paintings and drawings that were accurate and visually beautiful, but which were completely devoid of content and purpose. At the end of four years of study, I found myself with nothing but a bunch of pretty pictures.

I took the completely opposite approach with my current project: I followed my fear.

Three years ago, I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety. Having lived with this condition since age 10, undiagnosed, I found myself so deeply buried in the emotions of depression that I had no sense of self. When I received the diagnosis, it was an incredible shock to see myself clearly, free from the disease for the first time in my entire life. After treatment, I realized I had an extraordinary narrative that I could express through my artwork, but I had deep reservations about telling my story. Doing so meant publicly revealing my history with mental illness, which even in today’s world carries a heavy stigma.

Self-Portrait No. 7, version 2

I had never felt this strongly about a subject before, and I knew that I was on the verge of something tremendous. I knew the only way I wanted to represent the subject was directly, depicting the visual brutality of depression through the vehicle of the human face. I imagined Falling, a series of fifty self-portrait drawings, drawn hyper-realistically as a means of heightening the savage reality of depression. As I conceived the project in my head, I realized that I couldn’t ignore the idea. The only way to relieve this fierce compulsion was to make the artwork.

I am now three years into this project, and the fear that I experienced at the beginning has never really subsided. In fact, it seems like my fears have only increased as the project travels further out into the world and is seen by a wider audience. Most people are afraid to talk to me about the subject matter of my artwork, and I’ve noticed that my conversations at my exhibitions are limited to technical questions about my art materials. Instead, I’ve received moving emails from people sharing their experience with me, describing how much my artwork affected them. I’ve had students of mine approach me privately in order to reveal their struggles. Never before have I witnessed my artwork stimulate such a dramatic emotional response from my audience. Many people have told me that Falling is my best work to date.

In order to realize your passion, you have to be willing to embrace fear and take the necessary risks. Now, I see fear as the ultimate signal that I’m headed in the right direction. I intentionally assign tasks to myself that initially feel insurmountable and intimidating. In the case of Falling, it was the gargantuan task of creating 50 4′ x 3′ drawings, a quantity of artwork that I had never even come close to in my previous projects.

Self-Portrait No. 23

Every semester I tell my students that their artwork should never be easy, convenient, or manageable. I encourage my students to test their limits. I ask them to empower themselves by harnessing their fear as motivation to create their artwork. Recognize your fears, confront them head on, and use them as an impetus to drive your work forward. In this way your passion will be realized.

Who is this work for?

Digital Sketch

My experience at Waltham Mills Open Studios, and the blog post I wrote for the Huffington Post’s TEDWeekends this week has gotten me ruminating obsessively about why I’m making this work, and who the work is for.

I see my artwork from Falling as being as unpopular as art gets. The combination of the work being figurative, drawn in black and white in a realistic manner, and the disturbing subject matter makes the work toxic for most people.  I feel that I am making artwork that no one wants to go near. There was an article in the New York Times about photographer David Jay’s project about breast cancer called “The Scar Project.” I found these images more riveting than any article I could read about breast cancer because they say “this is what breast cancer looks like.” The images are incredibly difficult to look at, which is what I think makes them so powerful. I think in some ways I’m trying to do something similar with depression.

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David Jay, The Scar Project

Ideally, I see this work as belonging in a museum.  I think in a museum people are more likely to accept being challenged by an artwork than they would be at a commercial gallery. I also accept that these works will likely never sell.

I wonder if part of the reason why I’m making these images is to increase awareness of mental illness. As a young adult, I had no idea what depression was. I didn’t know that you could seek treatment and support for the kinds of emotions that I was feeling, which is why I lived without a diagnosis for over twenty years. It hurts to think about all of those years, and I constantly wonder how different my life would have been had I received treatment from the beginning.

It seems to me that there are basically two reactions to the work:  1) people who are shocked by the images and say nothing and 2) people whose lives have been affected by mental illness, who come to me privately to express what an impact my work had on them. Am I only making the work for the latter audience? Are they the only ones who are willing to go near this work?

Who do you think this work is for?

Digital Sketch

Digital Sketch