Saturday, November 1, 2008

An Emotional Approach to Painting

What follows is an interview of Cathy Locke (CL) by Jennifer Almodova (JA).

JA – When did your perceptions of how you give value to art move to a new paradigm?

CL – I began seriously painting as a fine artist in the early 1990s. I studied with lots of people and took every workshop I could afford to go to. After about eight to ten years of painting, I began to notice that everyone’s work started to look the same to me. Of course there were variations in skill, but the work looked basically the same, one painting to the next.

At this point in my career as a painter, I was very obsessed and decided to get my MFA from the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. After several years of painting seven days a week, I came right back up against that ugly wall of technique vs. emotional quality in my work. There was an old pattern carved into my being that just kept turning out paintings that strived for perfect technique, void of emotion. It was at this point my journey as a painter started to shift. I began to forge a new path that was by no means particularly clear. I started working with a painter at the Academy, Carolyn Myer, who had me begin journaling. She had me make lists of various emotions I wanted to capture in a painting, and then do small abstract paintings of those emotions. The experience allowed me to detach from the emotions themselves, I became like an archeologist of emotion. I was asking myself, “How could I show this emotion visually, what marks do I need to make on the canvas? What colors, what tonal value should I use? What movement should this piece have? ”

I continued on feeling pretty blind, I was certainly in uncharted territory. It is important for me to mention this, because for many years I really felt very alone and lost. When you are trying to build your skills as a painter in the terms of technique, the path is pretty clear. You just keep searching for that teacher that has better skills than you. Once you have mastered a comprehensible level of skill, you move on to the next master. When you are judging your work in terms of technique it is visually very easy for the artist to see how good their work has turned out. When you shift and start judging your work in terms of conveying emotion, the parameters that measure your success totally change. I can’t tell you how many times I would finish a painting and just sit there with it as if we were intimate strangers who spoke different languages. Was it good? Was it bad?

JA – Since you were in ‘uncharted territory’ with no prior experience from which to discuss this, how did your time studying in Russia in 2003 help you?

CL – There was already a groove of frustration started inside of me! I had spent an immense amount of hours perfecting my art, only to build layers of frustration. Though I was getting better and better I wasn’t happy with the work. The ratio of getting better was not equating to getting happier with my work. The better my technical skill got the more unhappy I got with the art. I was carrying a bundle of frustration inside of me.

As far as the people who were teaching me at that time goes, their words were holding less value to me. In addition I was questioning all of the artists who were around me. I was starting to separate off onto my own path. This whole process has been a lonely, self-searching, questioning path. Until finally I became the one little rag-tag student who said, “I don’t completely agree with you; what you are saying doesn’t really ring true to me.” My fellow artists at that time thought I was crazy, and they said so much! It wasn’t that I didn’t respect those teachers at all, it is just what they were teaching didn’t resonate in me.

It was right after I returned from Russia, studying Russian painters in 2003, that I first started changing my perceptions of how I judged art. In Russia I was able to stand in front of painted canvases of work that I had never seen before. I was experiencing the work from a completely new paradigm. Since I had no intellectual data stored in my brain for these paintings, I was not able to analyze them from the thinking part of my brain. Instead for the first time, I read the paintings by feeling them. This planted a small seed inside of me.

JA – Sounds to me like even in grad school you were making a change from a skillful intellectual technique based reality to a more inner guided reality, more emotional and visceral. Going from an outer criteria, to an inner criteria. You were coming into your own authority at the time, in an educational context that didn’t understand or highly support this. Even your fellow students were unaware of what was taking place within you. That you were on a path that was not part of their lexicon, nor your instructors for the most part.

CL – About half-way through grad school I started to find a number of instructors who really got me and spoke to me on a different level. As I came off of a path of technical focus and onto a path of emotional focus, I was a beginner on this new path and these professors were already farther down this path. Though they were speaking to me from a different level than other students, I don’t mean to say I was at a higher place; I was just beginning this new path.

I also started to notice that my approach to the very way I worked on a painting began to be totally different. When I was technique focused I would carefully hover over a canvas for hours on end. Changing my focus to be emotionally based, I find I explode with energy all over my studio, and occasionally some of the paint lands on the canvas! It becomes much more about what emotion I carry within me and physically how I go about expressing that emotion. I seem to fill up my large beautiful studio space now, where as before I physically felt crammed into a corner. My painting process has become more of a spiritual experience; it is much like being an orchestra conductor of energy and movement. Which means I have to feel it or there is no painting that day.

Color is also a large part of the energy of my paintings. I love to control the palette, so you will notice that all my work deals with strong color. I think about the emotion I’m trying to convey and what types of colors and mark making I can do to best display that emotion on a 2-D format.

For my pastel work I use Wallis paper dry-mounted to smooth plywood so that I can wet it without danger of it buckling or bowing. Since I start with acrylic washes the paper gets really wet. The emotional concept of not being able to control a situation is all part of my painting process, so I often let the acrylic washes just run down the paper. I describe light in my paintings through a strong color and value theme, building layers to create depth and mood.

JA – In doing this work there is a difficulty in that this work forces you to forge an alliance in your own being. This is not to suggest that there aren’t others who have tread this path, it is just a different language. The language of realism is universally recognizable. I want to suggest that language of the realm visually that you are working in now is very different and there aren’t systems of codification, to be able to critique the work from that point of view. It is exercising the feeling and emotional muscles, as opposed to just the visual muscles. In being in an educational context, how did you negotiate this?

CL – It has only been very recently that I could even use a word like “negotiate” it. When I finished a painting I would feel like I was sitting with an intimate stranger, and we didn’t speak the same language. Before when I did strictly realistic work I would finish a painting and pretty much frame it right away. I was treating it like its worth was only financial. Now, I find I finish work I set it aside and I move onto the next. I reserve judgment on it. I am waiting until I am seven to ten paintings into a body of work before I even begin to “judge” the work. It is a much more freer way to work.

JA – You have a little more intimate relationship with the work, where the work itself has its own life and you are nurturing it to bring it to whatever place it needs to be without time or financial restraints. What does this do for your work, your relationship to the work to not have those time and financial restraints?

CL – Financial pressure is not void in my life. Instead of getting one or two paintings in a gallery or a show, I am now doing larger shows where I have to deliver 15 to 20 paintings. This gives me more breathing space to develop a body of work.

In terms to process, I have a detachment to the work even though it is emotionally based. The whole process is different. I move from within to out. I am physically moving, my whole body is moving. I am walking back and forth; I am using my arms in very expressive ways. It is more of a physical dance or painting yoga. My entire body is involved. One thing I do is close my eyes and dance with the pastel or brush touching the canvas. I want to feel the emotion in my body and as the brush dances across the surface that feeling gets conveyed onto the painting. I focus on building motion. Usually the least moving elements first, then the ones with the most movement last.

JA – So it is more kinetic rather than intellectual exercise, you are engaging your senses in an entirely new way when you paint. To me it sounds like you are engaging your entire being. Rather than this intellect guiding it is being more of a holistic process.

CL – Exactly. It has more of a beginning to end. When the energy inside of me starts to drop, I stop painting. Before, I use to just paint and paint and paint. I find I am in the studio a lot fewer hours. I set up a much more strict environment in the studio. I often talk about it as being a bubble. Where as I create a bubble for myself, where all the “worries” that are very much a part of my life are kept at bay. I enter my studio as if it were completely isolated from any concern or worry. Then I begin what I call a spiritual dance.

JA – This is really fascinating to hear you talk about this because I am sensing there is really a sacred aspect to creating your work. It seems like you are transported and your are transforming at the same time.

CL – I want to talk about students. A lot of people have come to me to be their teacher. It is difficult to teach what I am talking about. Students have to bring some of this themselves. It doesn’t necessarily have to be something spiritual in the sense of religious. I am just talking about creating your own bubble. Every human being I have ever meet has something to worry about. We all have worries. It is a ceremony I do, where I close the doors of the studio where all outside tension is not allowed in this space. So I can now focus on what it is I am trying to bring forth with this painting. If I were going to teach a student one thing, I would say it is really like being a conductor of movement or energy. You have to trust that all of the things you have learned will be there, but do not let that be the forefront. It is interesting, that most of my students have an enormous amount of education and training. My students could all be my teachers; I don’t seem to attract beginner painters.

It is difficult for me to teach my painting process, because it requires the student to be honest with his or her own emotions. This process requires the painter, the person, to be authentic. When you truly allow yourself to be authentic with your work, uniqueness comes forward. You go for what you want, what you love and you allow yourself to be okay with whatever comes forward. You have to allow yourself that exposure. I find some students don’t even want to expose their emotions to themselves; they want their paintings to just magically appear to have an emotional quality. Other students are so much in their minds, I want them to close their eyes and paint what they feel. But the mind has just taken over and they can’t even comprehend working from a feeling platform.

JA – What would it be like to have a student come to you who had no experience?

CL – I don’t think I could really teach that kind of person. You have to have a background. It would be beautiful if you could come onto this work from a feeling place and just allow the technique to follow. I know there are schools that try to teach this way. Most of the students who come to me want to maintain a high level of technique, just add emotion to their work.

JA – I think that is an honest answer and I appreciate it, because we are both teachers. Often a student will come into one of my classes and say I don’t want to learn how to draw or learn about color, I just want to do it. I always find that a bit daunting, because it feels like it disregards so much that has gone into the making of so many artists. It isn’t to say that someone couldn’t come in and do this work. It just feels like the path of the person would be just not analogous to what we are talking about here.

CL – I agree. I also teach on an undergrad level. It is almost unspoken among artists who have a lot of work under their belt, where there is a very deep respect that they all have for all of their teachers and all the people that have come before them. It is an “ah”. This is part of what I saw in Russia. First, I was an American who had been kept from so much incredible art. I was just in “ah” at how much these artists have done and sacrificed.

JA – This takes me back to an earlier question about the Russian art. It is what brought forth this initial “a’ha” moment. Was it the paintings themselves or a readiness within you? Or something about both that gave birth to this new seed of awareness?

CL – I think the readiness in me wasn’t like I woke up that morning and felt a clearness in me that I was now “ready”. In this entire path of getting to this point, I never had any clarity. Right now I have enough history which to pull upon, so I am beginning to have some clarity. It was more like a breaking down was going on inside of me.

JA – It sounds like you were tracking the frustration, you were noticing it; you were having a diminishing return with your realistic work. Sounds like the ability to commune with these paintings in Russia were the affirmation you needed to take you and turn you.

CL- All the artists I went with were experiencing their own “ahness”. We were all individuals taking in that “ahness” in different ways. For me I just take things in on a spiritual way, that is just who I am. The big players, the Picassos that we had never rested our eyes on, those types of paintings I was astonished with them because of their beauty and uniqueness for the time period upon which they were painted. There were a lot of paintings like that. The work of Nicoli Feshin I was very impressed by the layering and abstraction of the work. It wasn’t until you walked back from the painting that all the forms came together in a realistic way. But it was seeing a large body of Kandinsky’s work that was a big “breakdown” or “break through”, for me. Because I could see how Kandinsky started off realistically and how he was breaking down form, breaking it down, and then went completely abstract. I could see how he moved into being a conductor with music or pure energy. It was an explosion of emotion to me. I had studied him for years, but it was very difficult to feel that in a book of prints of his work. To stand in front of an entire body of his work was a huge break through to me.

JA – I think we are really hitting on some key important things here. I know Kandinsky’s book on the spirituality of art is what I make my graduate students read.

CL – I had read that book too. I read that book more with my intellect. When I saw his work it was more of a visceral experience.

JA – It is the difference between sitting in an airplane on the runway and actually taking off. They are two different things.

CL – Exactly.

JA – Were there other Russian painters who helped open the door for you?

CL – Not really, there was beautiful work – Serov, Levintan. Work I would love to take home should the Russian government ever decide to part with their treasures. I have great appreciation for that work, but it is appreciation of their skill set. What I am talking about is something that over takes your body.

JA – One of the issues that are fascinating to me is the criterion upon which you judge your work has really changed. It goes from an intellectual critique to an emotional sense. Where you say that the most successful paintings are ones that physically move you.

CL – I am judging the finish piece by whether or not I am moved. Usually a successful piece is one that physically moves me toward it. It is a feeling of having a string in the middle of my chest that pulls me to the painting.

JA – This visceral aspect is harder for the average viewer to get a handle on. It engages a different muscle. It almost becomes incumbent on you to create by your own rules. In that way it is a more verified place to work from.

CL –The artist’s world is already lonely and this path has been very lonely. A lot of the work I complete I have it sit there for a long time. I don’t have that feeling that it must leave the studio right away. I am thinking more in terms of creating an entire body of work. Often I don’t know what that body is going to look like until I am 10 paintings into it. Each painting emits an energy, it is actually a noise to me. They all have their own song, they are like sonnets.

JA – It sounds very magical. You are working with forces and processes that we don’t have a system of cogitation or structure. It is a very solitary pursuit.

CL – I think it will just take many years of experience to which I can develop some sort of system to judge this type of process.

JA – If you were going to offer advice to someone who is feeling this type of frustration in their work; for those who realize they have something more to offer but can’t figure out how to do it; how would you suggest they proceed?

CL – I feel like I am talking to myself here, as well as other people. The most successful thing for me has been this bubble. It is not just in the studio, but it extends out. It is often the ones you love the most who give you the greatest lack of support for your work. And, of course the rejection from the gallery circuit will make you ditzy. So, I create a bubble around myself most of the time.

My husband gave me this very funny cartoon the other day. It showed this artist who says that he knows still lifes and water paintings sell. So he was painting a still life on top of a boat. Most of the people in my immediate family life feel I should be doing these types of paintings, and they don’t understand my work. Is it good art if it sells but you as the artist feels no connection with it?

About Cathy Locke
A seasoned creative professional with over 25 years of experience in the creative arts, Ms. Locke’s track record spans multiple disciplines including fine art, commercial illustration, graphic design, and teaching. She has worked with several Fortune 500 clients such as American Express, Bank of America, Kaiser Permanente, and ITT. As well as with some of the world’s premier agencies, such as Pentagram, Grey Advertising, Landor, Foote Cone & Belding, and Chiat/Day.

Ms. Locke has received many accolades for her fine art, the list includes the Pastel Society of America, the West Coast Pastel Society, Pastel 100, the Northwest Pastel Society, New Mexico Pastel Society, Florida Pastel Society, Salon International, OPA and Connecticut Society of Portrait Artists. For her commercial work she has received accolades from Art Directors Club of New York, Society of Illustrators in Los Angeles, CA Magazine, Creativity 37 and Campaign Papers. Ms. Locke began my education with traditional art history, including studying in Europe at the Art Academy in Paris, with extensive study at the Louvre, as well as the London Polytechnic Institute with work at the Tate Gallery. In the fall of 2003, she was able to study art in Russia. Ms. Locke holds a BFA from Art Center College of Design and a MFA from the Art Academy of Art, both with honors. She exhibits and sells her paintings throughout the United States.

About Jennifer Almodova
Jennifer Almodova earned a B.F.A. degree in Sculpture from Scripps College in Claremont, California, and a M.F.A. degree in Ceramic Sculpture with an emphasis in Watercolor Painting from San Francisco State University, where she studied with both Wesley Chamberlain and Stephen DeStaebler. She taught undergraduate and graduate courses at Louisiana Tech University in Ruston, Louisiana from 1985 to 1988, taught at the University of San Francisco from 1994 to 1996 and has taught at the San Francisco Academy of Art University for the last 15 years, since 1993.

In the last four years, Jennifer has conducted private workshops throughout the western United States including California, Hawaii, Washington and Montana. She exhibits and sells her paintings in California, Hawaii and Montana, and her work hangs in collections across the United States, Europe and Asia.

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