July 20, 2008

Dichotomy and Wallowing

I've noticed myself swinging between extremes in the artwork I'm creating. This really should come as no surprise to me, since in all other aspects of my life I tend to do the same thing, and I seem to be a living dichotomy. (Division into two mutually exclusive, opposed, or contradictory groups.)

I've settled into a rhythm of working on one piece at home and one piece in my studio. At any given time I find that I'm working on one big, loose painting, and one small, extremely detailed one. In a recent post I mentioned that it wasn't my 'style' to do really tight detailed stuff, but I'm finding that it is, indeed, part of my style.

I've spent a lot of energy trying to disown that part of myself (and in art school I was informed that being tight and detailed was 'wrong'. Except, of course, in graphic design, where it was essential). I'm a Virgo, but never felt that I could relate with her. Here's Virgo's definition- meticulous and reliable, practical and diligent, intelligent and analytical, fussy and a worrier, overcritical and harsh, perfectionist and conservative. Well, as much as I don't want to own a lot of that, I can see those traits come out in myself from time to time. And I'm learning that it is OK to be those things, even though I've painted a picure of myself in my mind as being pretty much the opposite of that. So by embracing that 'dark side', and welcoming it into myself, I can be a whole person.

I digress. This piece is from a series of photos we shot of the horses one day in the pond in their pasture. They were showing off and hamming it up, the more pictures we took the more they pawed and rolled in the water. They stopped when I stopped taking pictures. I used a 5"x7" (!) clayboard and painted the basic shapes and colors over it with gouache, and then scratched away the highlights (much like black scratchboard). Then I layered some colored highlights on it. I was very intimidated by the idea of doing water, because it is hard to make it look 'real'. But it took on a life of it's own, and I felt that I was just revealing what was already there in the board.

July 19, 2008

This weeks projects

This week I completed "The Itch" and started on two new pieces. I've noticed that most of the stuff I've been doing is horizontal, and I wanted to create a piece that was vertical. I've also wanted to continue to work with and experiment with gouache, a medium I'm fascinated with but haven't mastered. So I did a piece of Wenona's face, using abitrary color. I ended up trying to put as many colors in the piece as possible.
I've done several other watercolor and/or gouache studies in the past few weeks, none of which I've felt compelled to post.

The next project is a painting I've been wanting to do for some time. I want to do more pieces with women and horses together, but I find that I am intimidated of doing the human figure, unless it is stylized. I had my daughter take some pictures of me on Luna, so I could study the body and how it forms and shapes around the horse.

There were a few decisions I had to make about the painting as I worked though it. I had a general vision in my head of how I wanted it to turn out, but as always, I trusted that it would be involved in its own evolution, and give me the answers I needed as I work through the process. As I began to ponder what I was going to call it, the idea of a kelpie kept coming back to me.
A kelpie is a magical horse who emerges from the waves of the ocean and tries to seduce people into riding it. Once they get on it's back, it runs back into the ocean and the person is lost forever. Appearently, if you can get a halter on a kelpie, it will do your bidding. As I was riding Luna in the photo, she kept inching deeper and deeper into the water, and I had to pull her back around and out of the water, because I was afraid she was going to try to roll in the water (which she did after I got off of her). I decided to erase the halter from the picture and have the figure just grasping the mane, so that, if one knows what a kelpie is, the painting tells it's own story.

This painting, like "The Itch" and "Tails" is done in livestock marker (or cattle marker) and oil pastel. These are basically like giant oil pastels. They are for marking cattle and livestock, so they are very permanent, but oily and mallable before they dry. Fun!

I finally got photoshop after several years without it.. this was a cool image I made, by layering the finished painting at 50% over the photograph.

Here's the final painting...


The past few days have been an artistic whirlwind. I've got one project going on in my studio at the barn, and another here at home. It's been so hot recently that I don't spend more than a few hours at a time in the studio, so I decided to set up a project here at home as well so I could continue working, and not have to drag everything back and forth.
I've started to feel a little bit manic- every spare minute I'm not taking care of the girls, I'm painting. I swing back and forth between house chores/caretaking and my paintings, and by the days end, I can't seem to slow down and unwind. I can't fall to sleep and my head swims with ideas about what I'm working on.
In the past when I've gotten manic like this, I've just run myself into the ground, then burnt out and run into a slump of unproductivity. This time I'm seeing the warning signs ahead of time, and am trying to put on the brakes a little, so that I don't burn myself out and loose all of the wonderful momentum I've got going. Now I purposely stopped working by late afternoon, and have decided to take breaks in the form of a few hours here and there, or maybe a short trip into the mountains next week.
I'm feeling some resentment and frustration about having to take care of the girls at the same time I'm working on my art, being regularly interrupted, and having to stop working to make lunches or dinners. My mom has been very supportive and helpful, taking the girls a few times a week. And my older daughter (11 years old) has made a point of keeping herself busy and giving me my space when I'm working, for which I am very grateful, and proud of her for being so thoughtful. This has been an ongoing struggle since the girls were born, so I've gotten used to it, and I don't let it drag me down like I used to. I just keep moving forward. I did write a blog about this a few years ago... http://xtaabay-steely.blogspot.com/2006_10_01_archive.html
In the past year or so I've grown and matured, and have finally learned how to find more balance in my life, or at least be concious of the need to do so.

July 14, 2008

The itch

Both Luna and Wenona get udder and belly rubs when we catch them and put them in their corral each day- it is much stronger reinforcement for coming in than a cookie or a pat on the head. It has become a ritual. Usually I'll lead Wenona into the corral with the halter, and Luna will follow. As I stand there with the gate open, Luna will stop outside of the gate and lower her head, as if to say "I'm staying out here." As soon as I start to scratch Wenona's belly, Luna comes rushing in, stopping right beside Ana and stretching out on her tippy toes in back and front to expose as much belly as possible. Ana and I spend the next five or ten minutes rubbing bellies and udders and scratching all over, and get reciprocal rubs with the extended upper lips of the horses if we put our hind ends within range. This is reciprocal grooming- horses do it all of the time with each other. Luna never nips, but I have to watch out with Wenona sometimes because if she is in particular exctasy, she looses control and the teeth get involved.

This morning Ana and I went out early to let the horses loose in the pasture for a few hours of grazing. No matter how hungry she is, Luna has gotten into the habit of hanging around for an udder rub even though the other two horses wander away into the pasture. Today Luna hung back for "the treatment". Wenona started to head out, but turned and came back, which irritated their pasture mate, Fire. I thought Wenona wanted a rub too, but rather than stopping and lifting her leg for her rub, she circled around us, curving her body around me and walking by several times. Fire was ready to go out, and not pleased about what was going on, so she started kicking at Wenona, which she stopped quickly when I took a menacing step toward her. Wenona was inviting us out into the pasture with this tight circling behavior, and with a pain in my heart I had to decline, because I was on 'human time'.

This snapshot of Wenona asking for a scratch has inspired me to do a painting. I lover her stance and the motion of the mane and tail, and the shadows of the gate. I'll post the artwork as it comes along.
In this painting, I'm using livestock markers and oil pastel on a black gessoed canvas. I love this medium! The final piece- this photo doesn't do it justice.

Luna Eclipsed

The other day at the art supply store I walked past the scratchboards. I haven't done a scratchboard project since art school. Something about the medium is very appealing to me, even though I tend to avoid details and perfectionism in my art. It is incredibly satisfying to coax an image out of the black background, using a minmal number of scratches and lines to convey shapes and emotions. It is the opposite process from most mediums, rather than adding color, on scratchboard you take it away. To me it's like solving a problem. I have to think backwards, and use the empty spaces to 'tell the story' rather tan filling them in. And I also get a lot of satisfaction out of the minute details, which, as I said, is usually against my nature.

So I decided to do something refreshingly different, stretch a different part of my brain, and I bought an 8"x10" board. This project felt like it drew itself. It only took me half of a day to complete it.

Horse butts


Last week I asked Ana to sponge the horses off and I took a series of shapshots of them standing by the shadows of the panel gate, coats gleaming in the glaring sun. I was amazed how, in the photos, the blue of the sky actually reflected off of their wet black coats. One shot I took was of the mares from the rear- I love their black and white curly striped tails.

I liked most of the shots quite a lot, as studies or compositionally. Trying to decide which one to work on first, I kept coming back to the one of their butts. I thought, who is going to want to see a painting of a couple of huge horse butts? I heard a little voice in my mind, my mother's voice,

"Why would you paint that?"
"Who wants to see their butts?"

At that point I decided, very deliberately, to paint them to thumb my nose at my inner critic, and make a bold statement that I didn't care what anyone thought, I was doing this for me and out of my creative drive rather than what others wanted or expected.

When horses don't want to talk to you or if they want to show you their indifference, they turn their butts to you. Couldn't have been more appropriate.

Ironically, Mom came over the evening I was almost finished with the painting. I really debated showing it to her- even though I am a grown woman, and we've never completely agreed on our taste in art, there is a little girl in my who wants her approval. Right before she left I handed her the photograph.

"Horse butts." she stated.
I pointed across the room to the painting.
"Oh. "
"Why are their tails curly?"

Somewhere inside, I felt my little girl droop like a hot flower. Soon Mom left, and after the door closed I started laughing. In my mind my little girl started dancing and giggling, with a growing awareness of a new sense of freedom.
I'd like to add an addendum to this post. This painting was a turning point for me. Since I did it, I have really lost my need for others' recognition or acceptance of the artwork I'm doing. This has freed me up tremendously, not only in my art but in other aspects of my life as well.
I'd also like to add that my mom was always my biggest fan, encouraging me and believing in me when I didn't believe in myself. Her influence was a gift then, and continues to be so as I learn to trust my own inner wisdom.

The Girls

We got Luna in December of 2006. She is a BLM mustang- she was rounded up from the cold high desert of southern Wyoming when she was barely two years old. She was adopted by a loving couple who adopted several of the mustangs, and spent the next two years gentling them, so when we got her she didn't have any training, but adored humans. Luna was pregnant when she was caught, and gave birth to a filly a few months into her captivity.

We bought her when she was four, and her baby was almost two. It broke my heart to part them, but at the time I didn't have the time and energy to take on two big projects. I trained Luna from the ground up, and now my daughter is riding her. Early this summer my farrier told me he had just worked on a horse that was the spitting image of my mare- he described her and I realized that it was Wenona, Luna's baby. She had been sold and put out to pasture because her new owners didn't have time to work with her, and she was for sale. It seemed to be more than coincidence (the chances of him running into her were phenomenal- the geographic area between our home and where I bought Luna is probably a hundred miles) and I felt compelled to act on it. I called the owner and explained the situation, and she was incredibly tickled to think that Wenona could be back with her mom. In short order I was unloading our new filly (now 3 1/2) at the barn, anxious to see how the reunion would go.

Their original owners told me that when I took Luna away, Wenona had gotten very depressed for almost six months, and had also gotten very sick when the herd caught strangles. So I figured she'd be exstatic to see her mom again. Luna recognized her immediately, but Wenona acted as if she didn't recognize Luna. After a lot of sniffing over the fence on Luna's part (Wenona didn't want to give her the time of day) I turned them loose together. I was worried that Wenona would beat up on her mom, because she was extremely agressive in her previous herd. As soon as they were loose, Luna started chasing and scolding Wenona, who acted completely submissive and took her scolding in stride. After about half an hour of this, they settled in beautifully, and acted as if they had never been apart. Getting acclimated to the other horses in the herd was a lot rougher, and there were several fights.

Wenona came home around the 10th of May. I got on her back in the round pen for the first time on the 14th of June. She was a bit confused because her leader was on her back. First thing she did was pick up my cap that I had thrown on the ground in exchange for my helmet, and started chewing on it as if to say, 'ha ha! Now's my chance- I wouldn't be able to get away with this if you were down here!" She is very oral, always exploring and communiating with her lips, she uses them like hands- to look for reassurance and to touch and commune, I think it is her way of trying to speak my language, since I touch and rub her with my hands all of the time.


I've begun working on my horseshoe series. I've taken old horseshoes and primed and stretched canvas in them, creating little vignettes. I still haven't quite figured out how I'm going to hang them or set them up on a table, but that will fall into place eventually.

I'm drawing on my style of primal cave-art horses, and adding the personalities and colors of the horses at the barn. Some of them have the goddess figure riding them, other's don't. I found most of the shoes at this barn, either inside the barn itself hanging on the wall braces, or out in the pasture where some horse lost a shoe long ago. They are all rusty and aged, and each one tells a story- the shape of a particular foot (no two feet are the same exact shape on a horse, which is why a farrier needs to shape each shoe to fit the hoof). The wear patterns are indicitive of the horse's way of moving or lameness. Some shoes were pulled or thrown before much wear set in, others are almost worn through at the toes. Each shoe wears slightly differently on each foot. The front and back feet are shaped quite a bit differently, as well. The front feet tend to be rounder, and the hinds narrower and oblong. The shades or rust or metal and the shape of the shoe is speaking to me as I work on each one, hinting at what colors I should use, and what sort of figure I should paint.
I finally cleaned out the home schooling materials from the motorhome and replaced them with my art supplies. It is parked at the old barn where I keep our two black mustang mares, Luna and Wenona.

After years of fits and starts, I'm ready to focus on my fine art. I've worked off and on for the past twenty years in commercial art- graphic design, studio management, murals, portraiture, etc. But now I'm ready to start creating for myself and for the sheer joy of it, and I want to share this ongoing journey with anyone who would like to come along.

Having the girls close to my studio is incredibly inspiring. When I'm ready to take a break and get a breath of fresh air, I just have to walk a few hundred yards to where they are (unless they are out in the pasture), and they are always happy to see me. This is how I've always envisioned being an artist- being surrounded by beauty and life, and translating it into artwork.