As the President of the William G. Baker Jr. Memorial Fund, I could not be more proud nor impressed with how far the Baker Artist Awards have come in the past 10 years! It’s hard to express what a privilege it has been to be so involved with the Baltimore artist community through such a wonderfully transformative platform, to see how immersed it has become within the community, the connections it has fostered, and the lives it has changed.
Every year I look forward to my chat with Rhea, my dear friend, on the MPT ArtWorks program as we announce the winners of the awards.
Above is the 2018 episode as it aired on May 18th, fast forwarded to my interview with Rhea, but be sure to watch the entire segment either here or on the MPT website to see this year’s amazing and well deserving artist awardees!
Here are a couple of thoughts about 2017 and how to make sense of it. I am NOT going to expound about the state of the world and the hideous political situation we are in. Instead I am going to talk about a subject that I love – my photographs and how they have changed in the course of the year.
The year started off with a big bang which never let up! I shot more images in 2017 than ever before in my life. Of course, not dealing with film and processing makes a HUGE difference, but that is not all. As I look in the rearview mirror I see that not only am I over the hill, but halfway down the other side! Instead of slowing down however, I have sped up.
In 2017 I had 88 different shoots – which translates to 1.7 shoots a week for 52 weeks or .25 shoots a day for 365 days.
To show how my work has changed over the last year I have divided the year in two parts; pre and post my Vatican visit.
Emphasizing the edges and scratched surface of the mirror lends a shattered feel to my Pre-Vatican images such as in Untitled #05-01-17-819. A large triangular shard cuts into the frail, broken figure, making him appear thin and brittle. This shard, ending in a cracked point in his leg, implies fragility, uncertainty, pathos, and even hopelessness.
The trip to Rome this fall had to include, of course, a chance to worship at the feet of one of the greatest geniuses of all time – Michelangelo. For more on my trip to the Vatican see Blog Post Want a lesson in how to ruin brilliance?
Michelangelo did not let me down. From despair to rapture, the expansive expression in his paintings at the Sistine Chapel, stunningly depict the extremes of the human condition – and he did all of this within the framework of Christianity. As a non–Christian it was easy for me to ignore the religious overtones and contemplate the momentous figures sculpted out of paint.
Back in my studio I studied the dark, grim figures on the wall. I loved them (still do) but I wanted a shift – to what, I did not know. The shape of the mirrors has been my major concern for the last couple of years, which means emphasizing sharp edges, breaks, points and cracks. But with a minor change in focus I made a MAJOR shift in seeing! I moved my focus from the surface and edge of the mirror to the figures. The mirrors are still defining the forms, but without the cracks, scratches and marks on the surface I began to explore lines and forms. Ask anyone who has ever studied with me – I LOVE LINES AND FORMS!
Without faces and heads the work becomes less psychological and more gestural reminding me of images I have made in the hot tub through the years.
When I started this journey in 1983 I had no idea that in 2018 I would still be on it. As I look back I don’t see a straight path, but rather a spiral where I periodically come back to similar visual concerns. The first time I explored the form of the body (eliminating the head and face) was in 1992, I picked up on it again 14 years later in 2006. 12 years later I am once again concerned with the forms and lines of the body but this time I am doing it, not in a hot tub, but in a studio with mirrors.
I was in Rome recently and was anxious to revisit the Sistine Chapel. I had a “skip the line” tour (with Context Tours – excellent! I highly recommend them) so the wait was only about 30 minutes. The walk through the Vatican museums was wonderful but once we got even near the Sistine Chapel the mass of people started growing. By the time we entered the Chapel we were in a sea of people – stuffed! Elbow to elbow or in my case their elbow to my head. We could barely move – I am not exaggerating. I was so afraid of losing Patricia that we literally held onto each other. It was that close. Tring to elevate myself above the situation, I began staining my neck to view what I had been anticipating for so long. I was being drawn in to the paintings when a red plastic bag knocked into my face (it was empty so no harm done) but then the loud speaker came on admonishing us for talking because “THIS WAS A SACRED SPACE!” in several different languages, every 15 minutes. The circumstances were too much for me to overcome. I was moved along by the sea until I was out the other end, utterly exhausted and seriously disappointed.
I am not and have never been a fan of the Catholic Church but I found this experience to really show their colors. This chapel is truly a sacred space, with figures sculpted out of paint, the ceiling transformed by paint and most importantly infused with the complex extremes of the human condition – literally ecstasy to agony. But the experience is completely ruined because of greed – packing into the space as many people as could fit (like being crammed into a Japanese subways.) They could have taken a page from the Peruvians who severely limit the number of people that can visit Machu Picchu a day enabling the experience to be full and enriching. Besides which, it cannot be good for the paintings with all this carbon dioxide being pumped in the air by the sea of visitors.
It reminded me of a recent trip to Bejing and the Great Wall where the crowds walking on the wall were so dense you couldn’t see space between the people. The Great Wall, built in the 15th Century, was not designed to have thousands of people a day walking on it and the Sistine Chapel, built in the late 15th century, was not designed to be used as a commercial business.
Perhaps the real miracle of this experience is that, in spite of all this, I actually WAS deeply affected by the Sistine Chapel paintings! I didn’t realize it until I got back to my studio. Looking at my work with the recent experience with Michelangelo, I decided to make a radical change in my approach to shooting in the mirrors. It might be viewed by outsiders as an insignificant one – but to me it is monumental!
Ready for it?
Instead of focusing on the surface of the mirrors I am now starting to focus on the figures!
I do believe that Norway is one of the most beautiful places on earth. The light is special. I am writing this from Provincetown – known for its gorgeous and spectacular light that Joel Meyerowitz so beautifully articulated in his book Cape Light. Norway’s light has a similar luminosity, and a clarity that makes me blink a lot. Being there a week before the summer solstice and therefor the “midnight sun” gave me almost 24 hours a day to enjoy it.
It was a long flight with many magical moments, and a stopover in Oslo gave us time to go to the Munch museum – one of my long time heroes. Here is an inspiring thought from him:
On to Inderoy and the lovely Nord Photography Workshops. The most spectacular part of the trip was not the light, fjords, and breathtaking landscapes – it was the people. For the second year I taught a workshop at Nord Photography in Inderoy and had, for the second year in a row, a group of wonderful students with a lovely combination of fun and seriousness.I thought shooting in water on our first day would be too much so Elisabeth, who can do anything, get anything etc, found us an empty pool!
We did advance to a pool with water for the last two days. Not just a pool, an infinity pool overlooking a fjord. Breathtaking view and breathtaking freezing cold water and air. But Norwegians are hardy stock as they express their pride in their Viking heritage.
Wearing a bag of rocks to keep her from floating, the intrepid Sheila Alnes pushes her vision!
Our goal was to learn to use the camera as a tool to discover new ways of looking at and interpreting the human form. The subject the human form, the nude, is the most popular subject throughout the history of art. I encourage an intuitive visual approach in photographing the body. This may sound simple but is extremely hard to do but each of my students embraced this notion. While everyone worked extremely hard, they managed to take a playful attitude towards their visual growth and development, photographing as a means to explore and enlighten.
I could not be more proud of the work my students did in this workshop!
As the exhibition at Y:ART approached, press and publicity was building and we seemed to be getting a lot of great media coverage. I was thrilled with so much of the attention we received in print, online, and even on public broadcast through MPT, all of which generated a lot of interest and attendance at the gallery. Perhaps the most thorough feature however came after the show had come off the walls…
When I was approached by Gabriella Souza of Baltimore Magazine, I expected an interview like most others, with all of the usual questions and answers. Gabriella’s approach, however, was anything but typical.
Gabriella was already familiar with my work before coming by for what would turn out to be only the initial studio visit. Her questions were not only in-depth, but had me thinking about my work and articulating my process to her in a way that only happens with people who have a genuine interest in the work and respond to it in very special, personal ways. Our conversations were instantly intriguing for both of us, and I looked forward to every one. Gabriella kept in touch throughout the process of organizing and arranging the exhibition, even visiting the gallery while we sequenced and hung the work. I loved sharing this part of the creative process with her while discussing the creation of the work itself.
I LOVE how the article came out!!! Gabriella’s writing is wonderful, and I was very impressed with how she managed to weave so many different elements into one piece. I also love the layout- I think it is graphically well done, the font they used for the title is very cool, and I’m very happy with the images they chose to include. I’m also thrilled with the portraits shot specifically for the piece. My longtime assistant, student, and dear friend Cory Donovan is a frequent contributor to Baltimore Magazine, and it was fitting that they gave him the assignment to photograph me for the article. Cory coordinated with the magazine’s art director Amanda White-Iseli and myself to come up with some very cool ideas for how to approach the shoot, and I think it all paid off in the end. They featured him on the “Contributor Page” (see below) for the piece, with a little blurb about the images:
“I wanted the materials she works with to become visual elements that echoed those of her mirror work”, he says. “She sits in front of the large mirror she photographs into, and you can see various details of the studio surrounding her”.
2016 ended with such a bang, it’s now February and I’m STILL working on a “Year in Review” blog post to try to summarize the immense creative growth, productivity, and excitement that came with it. Everything in the last year has motivated me to keep working, to continue pushing the envelope of the ever-evolving creative process, and to seek new discoveries in my work.
That said, 2017 is off to another fantastic “binge-shooting” start. I have been absolutely captive behind the lens. The new year encouraged me to overhaul and upgrade much of the studio I shoot the mirror work in, including working with lights that allow for increased color variations and great-big-giant-drop-clothes for different textures and backgrounds. (Don’t worry: we’re still using a pickup truck to break giant mirrors).
Embracing the experimental attitude that opened up so many new doors in 2016, I’ve continued with a more hands-on approach in working with the mirrors. I’m still responding to the visceral quality of the mirror shards themselves while incorporating mannequins with real human forms. In some of the latest images, it is being pushed to the extreme- taking a bare minimum of both body forms and blending them together in ways that, although are conceptually nonsensical, work on a visual level that still manages to identify them as “body”. In places, lines and shapes come together in the most elegant way, while in other areas the connection might be more imprecise, jarring, and/or disparate.
Squeezing in multiple shoots every day, I’ve once again found myself wonderfully buried in new images. I’m eager to continue exploring, and I’m excited for feedback on the new work – I would love to hear your thoughts on this image!
BmoreArt, the award-winning Baltimore online journal, has done a wonderful job documenting the art community and evolved to engage a broad local and global audience.
As Baltimore’s cultural scene has grown and gained momentum, they launched a podcast series in 2015 to dive further into the arts community. “Conversations” brings insightful and in depth audio interviews with local artists and creative leaders to their already extensive coverage. Every episode has a corresponding blog post on the Conversations page of the BmoreArt website, adding visual content that fleshes out each installment and offers an even deeper look into each interview.
To coincide with the retrospective exhibition at Y:ART Gallery, I was honored to be interviewed by Liz Donadio for Episode 15 of the series, which just launched today. Liz’s questions allowed us to explore all of my favorite topics on the creative process, including intuition, mythology, discovery, and deeper connections to one another through the power of art. We also discussed my work with the William G Baker Jr. Memorial Fund, the Baker Artist Awards, and the amazing arts community we have here in Baltimore.
Last Thursday, MPT ArtWorks aired Episode 507, highlighting their theme on “Photographers”. I could not be more thrilled with their segment on yours truly, which featured an in-studio visit and interview with my dear friend Rhea Feikin. I thought the images looked great, and Rhea’s thoughtful questions focused on core aspects of my work and process that I was eager to share.
Standing in front of the Rembrandt’s Night Watch in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum was beyond stunning. He was a true master of so many things – If I were a painter I would be mesmerized by the variety of his brushstrokes. Often he will use what can only be imaged as a tiny, miniscule brush to get the splendid detail so characteristic of his paintings, while at other times he seems to use a pallet knife in a sweeping gesture ala the 20th century British painter, Francis Bacon.
Nothing, however, captivates a photographer like light. And Rembrandt’s light is nothing short of brilliant. A basic photography class, or any photography class, should be required to study this painting to understand how light defines form and creates a sense of dimension, as well as defining space and depth in an environment. In addition, Rembrandt uses light to draw our attention to different parts of the canvas as well to tell us the level of importance of the figures. The most important figures are lit the brightest to show us their glowing significance. As the intensity of the light fades, we realize, so do the status of the figures. As they become darker and darker the figures become less prominent in the painting until they are barely distinguishable from the shadows. The light itself tells a story, as it highlights “moments”, a discussion between two aristocrats, a little girl watching them with a distressed look and the men in background loading rifles, beating drums. It is the light that creates this electric atmosphere full of intrigue and mystery.
After a while, perhaps twenty minutes or so, I turned from the painting, the only Rembrandt in the room, and was struck by the dullness of every other painting. As if they were all painted in mud. And flat – no depth at all. Just as suddenly I felt a gripping need to breathe fresh air. I had to get outside. I craved a Coke. It was as if I had a sudden heaviness in my head that felt a little like having a cold and fever. Once Patricia and I were sitting outside, I was gulping a Coke, sucking sugar and caffeine as fast as possible while she poured cold water just as quickly down her throat, and we talked about the experience. She had felt it too. Immediately overwhelmed and immediately exhausted.
We had become afflicted by the Stendhal Syndrome – also known as the art disease, the Florence Syndrome or the “hyperkulturemia.” The cause is exposure to a concentration of overwhelming beauty – such as is found in a museum. It is a documented disease with a wide range of symptoms including anxiety, confusion, and disorientation. The effects don’t last long and don’t require medical attention. They are clearly real, however, and can’t be ignored.
This syndrome was named after Stendhal, the pen name for the 19th century French author, Henri-Marie Beyle during a visit to Florence. In his book titled Naples and Florence: A Journey from Milan to Reggio (1817) he described his experience:
“I was in a sort of ecstasy, from the idea of being in Florence, close to the great men whose tombs I had seen. Absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty…I reached the point where one encounters celestial sensations … Everything spoke so vividly to my soul. Ah, if I could only forget. I had palpitations of the heart, what in Berlin they call ‘nerves.’ Life was drained from me. I walked with the fear of falling.”
Being overwhelmed by emotion is more commonly recognized in other areas, such as sports. I admit, I was an Olympic addict this summer, watching as often as possible. Indulging in women’s wrestling, dressage, mountain biking, archery, field hockey, fencing as well as the traditional swimming, diving, track and gymnastics. Many times, as an athlete won an event he or she was so overwhelmed (with joy? excitement? relief? the undefinable?), they would break down sobbing. Is it that the emotions at that moment are too intense or poignant to actually experience?
When my nephew and his fiancé asked if Patricia and I would officiate their wedding I burst into tears. I had no choice. It was immediate. I was thrilled beyond what I could feel at the moment. What all these situations have in common is the ineffable quality of being emotionally overwhelmed.
During my time with the Night Watch I was held captive, engaged with the mastery of Rembrandt’s technique on one level, but clearly, on another level, I was experiencing the profound and acute power of true beauty. The Stendhal Syndrome does not come on slowly, giving hints as to what is about to happen. It comes on immediately and takes control.
I now understand what Thomas Mann meant when he said “Beauty can pierce one like a pain.” (published by Buddenbrooks, 1900, by Thomas Mann).