Monday, August 30, 2010

Why Me as Your Guide?

My mother used to tell me I loved to draw from the time I could hold a crayon. When I pleaded with her to help me learn to paint, she found a neighbor who gave lessons on her kitchen table. From 8 years old until I could travel the subways on my own at 12, I went to her apartment once a week after school and learned how to make pictures with oils. The lessons involved copying calendar photos, circus posters, or landscapes in magazines. At 12, I traveled to the loft of a “professional artist” somewhere in the West 70s. He continued my training and perfected my ability to make “realistic” paintings my parents loved.

If I visited the New York City museums at all, I found the work in them, if not a mystery, at least food for silliness. At the Museum of Modern Art, for instance, my best friend and I would try to figure out how the titles fit the picture. For example, for Yves Tanguy’s, Mama, Papa is Wounded!, we decided Papa was the right- tilted, vertical projection on the right because it looked hairy and Papa needed a shave. Mama, we decided, had to be the small, green, headless thing in the far left shouting at him to shave because his stubble made her face sore. Papa felt wounded because Mama’s criticism hurt his feelings.

Yves Tanguy, Mama, Papa is Wounded!
1927, MoMA

When I went to college, I took the required art history course, and I generally fell asleep when the lights went out and the images flashed on the screen. I majored in English, not art or art history, and earned a MA degree from the Pennsylvania State University.

After a year of teaching, I traveled through Europe and saw the sights. I visited the Louvre and found the Mona Lisa. There it was, encased in bullet-proof glass, smaller than I expected, and surrounded by hordes of people. Tour guides, speaking numerous languages, told us about it.

From them, I learned: Leonardo da Vinci was a genius of the renaissance period. His skills were legendary - painter, architect, engineer, mathematician and philosopher. The name of the subject was believed to be Mona Lisa del Gioconda. She was the wife of Francesco di Bartolommeo di Zanobi del Giocondo. She was believed to be 24 years old at the time her portrait was painted. Her enigmatic smile has captured the imagination of people for centuries.

I also learned: Da Vinci started to work on this painting in 1503; He spent four years on the portrait; It is painted on 77 x 53 cm poplar wood; He never sold the portrait; Some believe the portrait of the Mona Lisa is in fact Leonardo's female version of himself; On August 22, 1911, the Mona Lisa was stolen but soon recovered; In 1956, an acid attempt damaged the lower half of the painting and the restoration took several years.

I did not care about any of this, and I could have saved a lot of money and time by staying home and looking up all these “facts” in any book (in 1963, we did not have the Internet, where I currently found all the above “facts” listed).

I wanted to know why it was a work of art. I wanted to know why I had traveled so far so see it.

I wanted to look at it and understand it.

As you can tell, even though I loved to paint, art, what it was about, what it meant, what I could learn from it, baffled me.

If I had not stumbled into a painting class, many years later, at the Delaware Art Museum taught by Wilmington artist Edward L. Loper, Sr., I might never have changed my mind that looking at art did not seem to be worth the effort.

Ed Loper not only engaged me in a visual adventure, teaching me a new way of seeing that changed the way I made my pictures, he insisted I study at the Barnes Foundation. He had preceded me there by 10 years, and he told me Miss de Mazia would “sharpen me up.” Never one to mince words, he essentially told me I knew nothing about art.

I studied at the Barnes Foundation for 10 years, first in Miss de Mazia’s class, then in Angelo Pinto’s, and then for 8 more years in de Mazia’s seminar.

Since then, making pictures, teaching art appreciation, and writing about art fill my life. If you wish to see my paintings, go to You will find a more detailed and thorough biography on that website. In my book, Edward L. Loper, Sr.: The Prophet of Color, I tell the story of Ed Loper’s life and work as well as the influence he has had on me.

My next post, "Why Look at Art?," starts the process.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Why Look at Art?

“If you’ve seen one ruins, you’ve seen them all,” my daughter told me as I was preparing to visit Sicily. I had asked her if I should take a side trip to Agrigento.

Perhaps you do not find her comment shocking, but the backstory may explain why I did.

This 40-year-old woman grew up in a home with an artist-mother (me), and she painted pictures, extraordinarily good ones, from the time she could hold a brush through high school. The pictures won awards, and they earned her a scholarship to college (which she turned down to major in journalism instead). When she was12 years old, she accompanied me on a trip to France as I helped chaperone a Claymont High School senior trip. I showed her the artwork in the Louvre and everything else we managed to fit in, including the Bayeux Tapestry in Bayeux Cathedral (which she found more interesting than the 18 year olds traveling with us). She studied at the Barnes Foundation while she attended high school. She visited museums and galleries with me. Whenever I needed help in understanding one of my own paintings, or I was unsure how to fix one I was working on, she could tell me. She had a good eye. She knew how to look at pictures and understand them.

Now, a mother herself and a professional writer, she finds looking at art “so not me,” as she would say. To celebrate her 40th birthday, for instance, she is going to Italy, near Florence, “not for the art, Mom,” she told me defiantly. “I am going to relax and to attend a cooking class.”

“How can you go to “near” Florence and not go to the Uffizi, the Accademia, the Pitti Palace?” I wailed. “You must, at least, see the Duomo,” I begged.

“I don’t care about the art,” she said.

I no longer think she is unusual.

I meet too many people who either have no interest in art or simply go through the motions because they believe sophisticated, well-educated, and intelligent people should be art knowledgeable. If asked if they get excited about artwork, if they learn anything of value from going to museums or galleries, they often say, as my daughter would, “not so much.”

I meet many other people who collect art, who make it their business to seek out work to buy. When I ask them what they get out of doing this, they usually tell me they do it to make money. In other words, they buy art for the same reason people buy stock or gold: as an investment. When I ask them if the art they buy teaches them a new way of seeing, for instance, they look at me blankly. “What’s seeing got to do with it?” they ask.


We call it visual art for good reason: we must see it to understand it. Artists make pictures. Pictures are simply two-dimensional representations of something. That “something” may be immediate and observed as they begin to work, or it may be a visual memory they transform into a picture. No matter its origin, the “subject” they choose becomes “subjected” to a visual idea. This “picture idea” is born as the artist takes that first interested look.

Notice how all my words come back to seeing: visual; observed; memory; look.

In these posts, I will share with you how this works. I will provide you with simple explanations for the terminology I will introduce. I will show you why art matters.

I have taught this way of appreciating art to six-year-olds as well as seniors, to elementary and high school students, to college students, to my own kids, and now to my grandkids.

All you need to do is follow along, think about what I will share with you, and then try it out for yourself.

I guarantee you will develop a set of tools enabling you to see the art in works of art. In so doing, you will learn to see the way artists’ see. When that happens, you will transform the very world you thought you were seeing every day, as you go about your daily activities, into visual adventures. You will be equipped to do this work without research, without reading the wall charts in museums and without using the information headphones. You will do it by learning to see.

That is the topic of my next post.