Saturday, June 29, 2013

What Elephant Seals Taught Me About Art

On June 14, after months of rehabilitation, four stranded North American elephant seals, abandoned by their mothers, rescued, and brought back to a healthy weight, were released into the ocean at Paradise Cove in Malibu, California.

I met three of them during my visit to Santa Monica in May.

My nephew volunteers for the California Wildlife Center, and he invited my husband and me to accompany him on a tour of the facility.  Jonsie Ross, the Marine Mammal Rescue Coordinator of this center, rescued one of the seals at Dan Blocker Beach in Malibu.

Here are a few photos I took of the three pups that were in their care when I was there:



Weighing about 80 pounds when rescued, the emaciated and dehydrated pups were treated for infections, taught to feed themselves, and reached a goal weight of 150 pounds before they were released.

Click here to view a video of the release: Video

These seals, and the people who help them, illustrate the relationship of art and life.

Jonsie told me she volunteered at the center for three years.  When she kept doing it and, as she put it, “they couldn’t get rid of me,” they hired her.

My nephew, Mikey, a statistician, told me he volunteered because he liked being outside and enjoyed the gorgeous scenery of the southern California coast.  He felt inspired by the effort and enthusiasm of his co-workers as they performed the difficult, sometimes dangerous, and often strenuous work of rescuing and rehabilitating these mammals.  He learned how to net them, lift them into crates, and carry them over slippery, jagged rocks, up steep sandy banks and uneven wooden stairs, to a waiting van. 

When I visited, I looked into one seal’s big, round brown eyes, and could grasp why Mikey told me they were intelligent creatures with individual personalities.  Then, when I watched the video of the release, I cried. 

I asked myself the same question Hamlet did as he watched an actor perform: “What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba/That he should weep for her?” 

Why was I weeping for joy over a seal pup going home?

Here’s why.

When I teach you and others to appreciate a work of art, the importance of doing this work resides not merely in the color on the canvas, but in the “clues and cues” to the art in living the work provides. 

On October 21, 1984, La Salle University awarded the degree, honoris causa, of Doctor of Fine Arts to Violette de Mazia.  In her acceptance speech, she said:

The principles that govern art, the qualities, the human values, that make art art are there in life itself, albeit diluted there by the practical concerns of having to live.  Qualities that pertain to art: order, unity and variety within that unity, an overall guiding purpose, an intrinsic appeal to and a stimulation of the mind, an individuality, a link with the past, a seeding for the future, an expression of meanings and feelings of an individual’s reactions to the world we are all given to live in, and a sharing of these meanings and feelings with other human beings: every one of these features and still others that are concentrated in the work of the artist can, should and would likewise prevail in our daily living, and do prevail, if and when our daily living is to be –as it can, indeed, be—itself a work of art.

That is the possibility that art affords to each one on earth—the possibility of making art and life kin.


To answer this question, I will revisit the painting I discussed in my last post, “The Poop in Plein-Air Painting.”

Bauman, Lake Louise, 2007, Private Collection

This is how I described the aesthetic visual information recorded in this picture:

1. The picture divides into 4 quadrants, demarcated by an X-shaped composition

2. Mostly vertical multi-colorful bands that were pine trees and/or reflections build a series of decorative motifs.

3. The top pyramidal quadrant (that was snow-covered mountain) recedes slightly.

4. The two side quadrants push forward.

5. The bottom V-shaped quadrant (that was the lake) displays a rich, cool series of greens, blues, and lavenders. This unit slides back in space while the pyramidal dock and red dome-shaped rowboats on it move forward and hang, suspended, in the foreground plane.

6. Within each quadrant rhythms of stripes and bands move back and forth in space reinforcing the picture idea.

This new color world opens to us because we know its language: we can read color.

The picture has an order, a compositional plan, which structures the visual meanings expressed.  It has unity, one idea varied.  The idea expressed in this picture is a series of multi-colorful geometric quadrants containing a variety of decorative stripes and bands that move back and forth in deep space.  Those banded brush strokes derive from Cézanne, but unlike Cézanne’s brush strokes, they do not build heavy, massive, set volumes.  Instead, they rhythmically enliven the surface with eye appealing variety.  I shared my discoveries with you by painting the picture.

A long time ago, when I attended a class taught by Edward L. Loper, Sr., he overheard me saying to the student next to me, “I feel stuck.”  I did not know what to do with my painting, and I felt frustrated.  “Enjoy your suffering,” he said.

An odd comment, that.  Do we enjoy suffering?  Negative feelings like frustration, anxiety, or fear, however, when understood and felt to be necessary and inevitable, according to Laurence Buermeyer, converts the bitterness of defeat into the peace of resignation.  “We possess at least this much of the lost good: a sufficient understanding of its nature to enable us to see what made its realization impossible,” he said. (The Aesthetic Experience, p. 85).

In simpler language: “it’s all good.”  No matter the feeling, once we perceive a universal quality and the relations this perception engenders, we feel the peace (satisfaction, delight) which comes with complete understanding.  We see the big picture.

As you practice the objective method, as you uncover by effort and concentrated focus the art in art, you also gain the ability to perceive the art in living.  You are able to subject any life experience to your interest and, by “seeing” the relationships and order in each seemingly random, ordinary everyday life experience, you can feel “this peace of mind, this domination of desire which comes when desire is imaginatively grasped and its purpose comprehended.”  You remake the world according to your heart’s desire.

When I felt exhilarated to see three seal pups scamper into the sea, I connected many pieces of separate events into a whole.  I knew how they were rescued and by whom.  I knew the degree of intensity, the quality of commitment of the rescuers.  I knew the rescuers learned to do what they did by practicing it, by training to do it, and by perseverance. 

I knew how fragile the pups were when they were rescued.  I knew that many others died, and many more would die.  I knew there were complicated reasons why so many seal pups were starving and dying.  I knew that the best efforts of the most committed people could not save them all. 

I needed to understand why the video moved me to tears.  Writing this post, telling my story, Buermeyer says, “is the consolation which art offers for our relatively infirm hold on the real world.”  































Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Poop in Plein-Air Painting

Last week, on a clear, dry, 70-degree day, I packed my car with all my painting gear and happily headed for the Red Clay Reservation, a private land trust adjacent to Mt. Cuba in Hockessin, Delaware. I have permission to paint there.

Once there, I drove deep into the park, pulled my car off the gravel road, and then I dragged my paint box, bag of necessities (like paper towels, linseed oil, and turpentine), a small, outdoor collapsible stool, and my stretched canvas a considerable distance over a grassy field to my spot. (I need to say here that, since February, I have acquired a pain in my neck, and this makes the physical effort required much more intense).

However, my subject is high above a valley with a view of a small pond and springhouse. I am alone with the view, the singing birds, and the breeze. 

This photo shows you my subject as it was in early May:

As I started to set up my French easel, I noticed a pile of animal poop nearby. I set up well below it, and I told myself I knew it was there, it surprisingly did not smell, and I would be fine.
About an hour later, as I backed up to review the work I had done, I stepped right in it.
Plein-air painting instigates challenges like this!
I wonder, when something like this happens, why I have been painting outdoors for more than 40 years and why so many other painters do as well. Why do we leave the warmth, safety, and comfort of our studios to paint outside where we confront changing light, unexpected storms, distracting onlookers, insects, and the messy droppings of animals?
In addition, there is the cost factor. A few weeks ago, I flew to California to visit a nephew in Santa Monica, to go to see paintings in area museums, and to scout for possible painting sites.

Look at this photograph of a salt marsh near Malibu:

I fell in love with it. Within an instant, I transformed it into a subject and felt that mixture of interest, excitement, and impatience to start painting. Then I thought about what it would cost me to return: airfare, about $600; rental car, $284; hotel, $2200; restaurants, c. $500—all together, a small fortune. Add to that its location: a long walk partly on a wooden walkway, then over sand; no shade; no ocean breeze due to its configuration. I would not last very long in the intense hot sun, even with an umbrella, and even at dawn. In addition, if I drove there from anywhere close by, I would struggle with the snarl of traffic on legendary Route 1, the Pacific Highway. 
I ruled it out.

As I think back to my many painting trips (from Key West, Florida, to Newfoundland, Canada, on the east coast; to the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and the Canadian Rockies; to France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, and Holland), I have spent years searching for new visual experiences to juice my creative spirit. 

However, dispiriting events can conspire to test the strongest drive: in Nova Scotia, near Peggy’s Cove, I tried to paint in West Dover, a small fishing village, and relentless fog, day after day, tortured me. In a campground near Gloucester, MA, I lived in a tent with my husband, three kids and a dog, when a hurricane threatened a direct hit, and we had to pack up and go home, my painting unfinished. I have had paintings blow over from a gust of unexpected wind and land face down in sand. I have persevered in numb chilling cold; I have traveled to Saint John’s, Newfoundland, could not find a subject I liked, and came home defeated.

I could go on listing the non-cooperation of nature or spirit. However, people also can get in the way.
In 1892, Renoir wrote a letter to Berthe Morisot. He said, “Landscape is becoming more and more of a torture for me, all the more because it’s a duty; evidently it is the only way to gain some understanding of one’s métier, but I no longer can plant myself out of doors like a street entertainer.” (Rouart 1950, p. 170)
I know how he felt.

In 2007, I painted a picture at Lake Louise in the Canadian Rockies, and each day I found myself surrounded by curious tourists. Some asked to watch; others asked to take my picture; others asked to stand next to me while someone else took our picture; others asked me to explain what I was doing.

In that same location, gnats swarmed all over me and stuck to my painting.
I persevered.

Because despite all the interruptions and the gnats, I made this picture:

Bauman, Lake Louise, 2007, Private Collection

Before we study it, here is a photograph of my subject and a photograph of me painting the picture:

If you react as I do, you are thinking: how did she make that painting from that subject?

I’ve discussed the answer to this question in a previous post, What Dreams May Come.

Click on the title if you wish to review how an artist transforms a subject into picture.
For now, let’s look at the picture upside down:

1. The picture divides into 4 quadrants, demarcated by an X-shaped composition

2. Mostly vertical multi-colorful bands that were pine trees and/or reflections build a series of decorative motifs.

3. The now bottom pyramidal quadrant (that was snow covered mountain) recedes slightly.

4. The two side quadrants push forward.

5. The now top V-shaped quadrant (that was the lake) displays a rich, cool series of greens, blues, and lavenders. This unit slides back in space while the pyramidal dock and red dome-shaped rowboats on it move forward and hang, suspended, in the foreground plane.

6. Within each quadrant rhythms of stripes and bands move back and forth in space reinforcing the picture idea.

Simply put, at my first interested look, I converted a much photographed tourist attraction into a decorative visual idea. 

Despite the cold, the gnats, and the tourists, the working out of my idea as I made my picture produced such an intense, concentrated focus, I felt totally transported to, and a part of, the new color world I created.

I suspect Renoir felt a similar aesthetic charge as he made Paysage des Collettes, a painting based on a subject he encountered in his Cagnes garden.

Here is a photograph I took of his subject when I visited Renoir’s farmhouse in 2011:

Here is the plaque that marks the spot Renoir worked on the painting:

Here is the painting:

Renoir, Paysage des Collettes, 1910, Musée Renoir

I urge you to study this painting and make your own list of what Renoir did to and with his subject. I assume you agree that there is very little in the photograph that predicts the outcome—the painting. The visual idea revealed in the painting crystalized for Renoir because of his background, interest, and sensitivity. 

Here is another example, a tree in Vence used by Soutine for seven different pictures. 

In 2011, I took this photograph of the tree:

Here is a photograph of the plaque marking the spot Soutine made the painting:

Here is one of the paintings Soutine made using the tree as his subject:

Soutine, Tree of Vence, c. 1929, Private Collection

All through the Nice area you can find plaques marking the locations where Renoir, Soutine, Modigliani, Derain, Cross, and others made their pictures. You also can do this in Aix where Cézanne lived and worked; you can do it in Arles and Saint-Remy and many other areas in France where van Gogh worked. Usually titled “Walking in the Footsteps of….,” the plaques mark areas where each artist stood and made pictures. And you can then compare the exact subject (somewhat degraded over time by the encroachment of houses, growing trees, and undergrowth) with the resulting painting.

Yet, interesting as it is, it does not answer my original question: why do we do it? 

I do it because nature provides “visual gifts.” These gifts arrive unbidden and unexpected—a certain slant of light or a particular color. When I feel particularly dull, when the voice in my head tells me I have no idea what I am doing; when I am in the muddle (a term coined by many writers describing the creative process as having a “beginning, a muddle, and an end”), I mostly go on faith—and sometimes something wonderful happens—a breeze turns leaves just the way I need them, a cloud fills a blank space in the sky area of my picture and is just the right shape, or, in Lewes, Delaware, a fisherman sits down on his overturned bucket and throws his line in the water at the exact spot on the dock I need a color shape for my picture. 

Here is the picture:

Bauman, Fishing in the Lewes Canal, 1985, Private Collection
As it turned out, my fisherman, feeling my eyes on him for several hours, stopped to talk to me. His name was Jim Sills and, a few years later, he was elected mayor of Wilmington. For almost 30 years, we both enjoyed telling this story.

Nature provides “visual gifts” that both give me ideas and teach me how to see, and working directly from nature is my way of saying thank you for the beauty and visual suggestions it provides for me to use. 

For example, here is a Renoir painting that captures the sparkle of sunlight:

Renoir, In Brittany, 1886, Barnes

Here is a cropped image of the shrubs on the left:

Here is a photograph of Winterthur in late March. The trees shimmered in the late afternoon sunlight, and I would not have stopped to enjoy them if I had not known Renoir’s work.

In March, I shot this photograph of the March Bank at Winterthur. It caught my eye because I knew the van Gogh painting, Undergrowth. When I spotted the March Bank, I thought, “Van Gogh would have loved this.”

Here are the two pictures:

  Van Gogh, Undergrowth, 1889, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

In a letter written to Emile Bernard in 1905, Cézanne sums it up this way:

“The Louvre is the book in which we learn to read. We must not, however, be satisfied with retaining the beautiful formulas of our illustrious predecessors.
Let us go forth to study beautiful nature, let us try to free our minds from them, let us strive to express ourselves according to our personal temperaments.
Time and reflection, moreover, little by little modify our vision, and at last comprehension comes to us.”