Thursday, May 4, 2017

Artist's Evolution Part IV

Getting into art school was easy.  When I went to my interview at The University of Hartford Art School the most important skill I had was how I talked about art.  By now I was a trained docent.  Discussing art was life and breath to me.

The intake counselor dismissed my drawing portfolio with a wave of her hand.  "You're a primitive" she said.  But she was keen on the things in my bedroom.  The metal file cabinet that had been painstakingly covered with fluffy pink feathers.  The stuffed monkey with a corkscrew stuck in his brain.  And most importantly, what was on my bedroom wall.  My wall changed as the light in the room changed.  I had cut small tear droplets out of thin transparent vinyl.  The back of the vinyl was sticky, like contact paper.   After I had cut out about a hundred tear drops, I took a long piece of string and tied a weight to one end.   The other end of the string was attached to the ceiling.  Gravity pulled the string in a straight line.  This line was a guide.  I stuck rows of tear drops from ceiling to floor.  They covered one wall.  The window in my bedroom cast light onto the wall.  This light changed as the sun tracked across the sky.  The teardrops were dark in indirect light.  But when sunlight directly hit the vinyl directly it shimmered and shined white hot.

The counselor said that my bedroom wall was "conceptual art" and could be used as a master's thesis when I went to graduate school.  I was immediately accepted into The University of Hartford Art School.   The appointment had been scheduled in order to find out what was possible.  But I was in.  The shock was a sweet, sweet high.

The summer before my semester began I took a watercolor class.  I had never painted before.  Not in any medium.

The students were from diverse backgrounds.  Our first assignment was to take a small piece of paper and do a watercolor.  The instructor wanted to establish a baseline, the level of expertise each student started at.  We were to observe an object and paint it.

On a sunny day I sat outside and decided to paint my mother's car.  I had a little artist's canvas folding stool.  It surprised me how the sunlight bounced off the white paper.  A lot of the light bounced off the paper and into my eyes, making me squint.  It was hard to see what I was doing. I started my painting moving left to right, the way one writes and reads.  First I painted the front hood and tires of the car.  However, when I got to the back end of the car, the car dropped off the page of paper.   The painting ended up being three quarters of a car.  Also, I did not think to put a background behind the car.  So that part of the paper was left blank.

The second class all the students lined up their paintings on a wall.  I was aghast.  I didn't realize how poorly I had done until I compared myself to the other students.  Many things I learned in the second class.  First, when outdoors, you need to work with your eyes in shade.  I bought a wide brimmed hat to cut the glare of the sun.  Second, a painting is prepared in the mind and often on the paper.  I was shown how to take two cardboard right angles and make a "window" in order to view a composition.  The teacher had brought a watercolor of his own (he was a retired dean of the art school) and on it I saw pencil lines under the watercolor paint.  So sketching a composition before painting became my method.   Third, all the paper should be covered in watercolor paint (except white highlights).  Objects sit in space with backgrounds. And lastly, a picture is created using highlights and shade.  Looking at light on an object is very important.  Light and dark is how objects are defined.

The next class I painted a bottle of Tylenol.  I used all the lessons I had learned.  The instructor happily exclaimed, "Its a miracle!"  At the end of the course I said to him that the way he talked about art reminded me strongly of my favorite Sunday school teacher.  He said that he was a deacon in his church.  I adored my first art teacher because he constantly got religion and art mixed up.  In this class I moved on from painting bizarre subjects (at least for watercolor)  to traditional landscapes.   It was a glorious experience to sit outdoors in a rolling meadow and paint a tree.

When art school started in the fall I signed up for two very different sort of classes.  There were the shorter hour and forty-five minute classroom classes.  And then there was one longer three hour studio class, Introduction to Drawing.  In all the shorter courses the teacher mostly lectured.  Our assignments were done at home and typically involved doing a narrowly defined art project.  When we brought our art project with us the next class we spent time critiquing.  This arrangement was a good fit for me.

By now I was no longer living in an apartment.  Before I had had a roommate.  Then I spent several weeks on a psychiatric ward in the hospital.  When I got out, the roommate no longer wished to live with me.  So I ended up living in a homeless shelter.  It was my second time living in that homeless shelter.  Since I was a student and owned a computer I was given my own room with a lock on the door.  In my little room there was silence and an intense feeling of privacy.  I could focus very well on making art in this environment.  However, making art during the the studio drawing class was difficult for me.   There was no privacy in the studio classroom.  The circumstance in which I make art matters to me.

Our first studio drawing assignment was to draw a chair.  The chair was placed on a pedestal in the center of the room.  All students sat behind easels in a semi-circle around the chair.    The teacher lectured on the difference between positive and negative space.  We then drew the chair while thinking about positive and negative space.   As we worked the teacher walked around and peered at the emerging drawings.  He spoke to us behind our backs.  I was told to bear down harder on my pencil lines.

There were several things that gave me discomfort.  Something that changed from pre-breakdown to post-breakdown (I am describing before and after the onset of mental illness) is how I relate to people.  A medication nurse once said, "Schizophrenia is a social disease".  I like that statement because it contains a lot of truth.  There is rawness and vulnerability to people who have schizophrenia.  It is most obvious in social interactions.  As a student at Barnard college, pre-breakdown, I only got a little nervous in classes.  A little bit self-conscious.  Then post-breakdown, after my two year stay on a psychiatric ward at The Institute of Living,  I took several courses at Trinity college.  At Trinity my anxiety was off the charts.  I was hyper aware of the other students.  Now I was so anxious in class that I sometimes took a tranquilizer.  A natural, protective barrier had been dismantled during breakdown.  Over decades that barrier between myself and others has been built up again.  Please note that healing does take place but it is at a very slow rate.  The drawing class was my only art school class where I had social anxiety.  Most of this was due to working without privacy or silence.  Also, perhaps I could not handle the fact that the teacher's aim was to criticize me and correct me as I worked.  I don't mind criticism after a work is finished.  But in the middle of the process of creation, it is deeply disturbing.

So as I drew the chair.  The event was toxic.  I was trying to immerse myself in creative flow while at the same time battling fear.  After the three hour class I walked back to my car in pain.  I was  deeply suicidal.  It was a raging war in my head.  Thoughts of  "I want to die" mixed with "I must live".  All I could foresee was the drawing class triggering suicidal thoughts again and again.  It was an easy decision to drop Introduction to Drawing.  By doing so I was being kind to myself.  However, this studio classes and many more were mandatory to getting an art school degree.  Art school wanted to teach me how to make art.  But I couldn't emotionally handle the structure of the studio class.   I was facing the reality that I would only be able to attend art school for one semester.  I was sad and solemn.

Then a strange thing happened.  I had an interesting conversation with my art history professor.  In his class he made us keep a drawing journal.  Each day we were supposed to spend forty minutes drawing an object.  Mid-term our journals were handed in to get a grade.  By accident I had a folded piece of paper in my journal.  It was a little piece of fiction I had written.  When I bumped into my teacher in the art school lobby he addressed me to tell me that he really liked my writing.  I told him that I had to leave art school.  He did not think this a catastrophe.  Sometimes, he said, school ruined natural talent.  He had had a college roommate who was a strong creative writer like me.  And he believed that school ruined his friend's talent.  The fellow had eventually become a book editor.  My teacher told me I could become an artist, or writer, without going to school.  Radically, he suggested that I may be better off not going to school.

So the idea was planted in my mind that leaving art school was not an end to my being an artist. 

Friday, March 10, 2017

Ren Hang

A question was emailed to me.  I can't tell how old the student is.  I assume that he is young.

Me and my classmate do a work about madness so we use some of your painting and we need some information about you. So we have questions for you. We read you used medicines to paint so why did you use that to do it ? In which circumstances do you paint? Thanks for your help and your time.  Have a good day, Stael Manoé PS: I love your work 

My answer is terse and wooden;

Medication is important.  It evens out my emotions.  It gives me energy.  Willpower is hard for some schizophrenics.  We are not lazy, but we may not have the energy or focus to do tasks.  Negative symptoms of schizophrenia are things that are lacks, or minuses.  Lack of motivation, lack of concentration, lack of desire.  Sometimes I think that what makes life hard for me is being too sensitive.  Medication shields my emotions a little, like a wall around my mind.   I hope this helps you.  Thank you for liking my art.  Sincerely, Karen May Sorensen

Then this came a day laterI am a little confused who is writing.  I guess that Manoe's teacher is emailing.  Communication on the internet can be difficult.  But I am really happy for the chance to give a better answer.

I am working with Manoé Stael (who send you an e-mail about your work because we are preparing a presentation about madness). I am sorry to disturb you but I am really interested by your art so I have other questions.
So here are my questions :
Is it difficult to paint when you have the effects of your medications ? Or is it easier ?
Does painting get a little something off your chest ? Do you feel you better after that ?
I’m sorry if I disturbed you, you are not required to reply at this e-mail.
Sincerely yours,
Célia Rouffiange. 

Now that the questions are clear my writing flows;

The medications help me to be a person living in society.  Making art is easy.  But having a relationship with a husband and family is hard.   Mentally ill artists who cannot live in society often do not survive.  They take their own life.  I believe this happened recently to the excellent photographer Ren Hang in China.  Or Vincent Van Gogh.  All artists have to have a level of emotional stability before they create.  My medication gives me the mental stability so that I don't take my own life.  The pain of mental illness is very strong.  Medication dulls that pain.  Medication also dulls creative thought and slows your mind down. So I take as little medication as I can get away with.  I don't know Manoe's age, but the threat to creative mentally ill people, of suicide, is high.  I hope he is old enough for the topic of suicide.  Making art is my natural gift, medication does not help that, it can only hinder it.  Medication helps me in that it soothes some pain.  An artist cannot live to make art alone.  Life for art?  No.  There has to be more to it.  Friends, loves, happiness, all these things outside of art are necessary to survive.

I love to make art because I am making the visions in my head real.  My art is painful.  It is colorful, and that is fun, and it is creative, and that is fun too.  But there is also so much sadness and darkness.  Probably my art tells the stories of my life.  It is a beautiful life with both joy and pain.  Am I better off because I tell my life stories in my art?  Yes.  Certainly. 

All people will have challenges in their lives.  The challenge in my life has to do with living with a mental illness.  This is a source of pain for me to overcome.  However, all people have sources of pain that they must overcome. The stories of peoples lives are all different.  But I don't believe anyone has things easy.  It is just the challenges comes in different forms.
The one physical thing medication does for me is give me a little extra energy.  I have to have energy to stand at my easel and paint. I have to be able to focus on my artistic task for many hours.  The medication helps in very small bits.  Just a little boost of energy and focus.  But it helps.  At high levels of medication it is both hard to focus and sedating.  I would not be able to work at a high level of medication.  So you see the question of medication is complicated.  Different outcomes at different dosages.

Please tell Manoe that he was brave to email me.  I like his courage.  What age is he and what country does he live in? I hope that I am able to help with the project on madness.

This is the response I got to my question;

Both of us are 17 and we live in Brussels. I think that your story is really interesting ! I really like your courage and I admire you. 
We are honored to speak about you and your art during our presentation. 
Thank you for your time! You help us a lot, thanks again, 
Célia Rouffiange.

Last week I read about the suicide of Ren Hang.  He was a Chinese photographer.  He was 29 years old.  Looking at his photographs I am struck by how effortless they seem.  I think that is part of his brilliance, making a photograph look effortless.  For example; a naked man hanging by a tree branch over a pond.  The crouch of the naked man in mid-air is perfect.  His leg covers his private bit.  But the crouch of the naked man is also perfect in that there is a feeling of joy and freedom.  I can feel exhilaration.  I can feel the physical prowess and beauty of youth.  Most photography leaves me a little cold.  It is not my medium.  But Ren Hang was my favorite photographer in the world.  None of his work is tepid.  He hits a note of beauty again and again and again.  Conceptually everything is new.  He summons poses for his models like a magus, straight from the Eye of God to the photographic paper.   His beauty almost always has an erotic element, so in this, his view and my view coincided.

I ached for several hours after I found out he died.  A cold feeling in my gut.  This had to do with the news that his death was not natural.  A Chinese newspaper had written that he jumped off the top of a 28 story building.   So he could have lived.  But he chose death.  In one article I read that he had trouble with depression and voices.  Another article said his trouble was cyclical depression. It feels like the world has lost another Vincent Van Gogh.  I wondered why, with this modern age boasting of treatments and medicine, how a Van Gogh can die.  Is the medication available failing for the living, or is it too poisonous for living.

Was Ren Hang's depression treatment resistant?   Or did Ren Hang reject depression treatment because of side effects of the medication?  And I'm not talking about physical side effects.  I am talking about the negative impact of psychiatric medication slowing down thought, diminishing interior vision, fogging up perceptions, and dismantling overall connectedness to the universe.  Artists are sensitive.  For me I am keenly aware that my artwork's quality is dependent upon emotional sensitivity to an inner world and the outer world.  And I also an aware that the medication I take builds a wall around my mind to prevent me from experiencing sensitivity.  My mental torment comes from an excess of perception and overwhelming sensitivity.  So that is why I take medication.  To numb me a bit.  Is being numb uncomfortable in and of itself?  Yes.  They are just different kinds of pain.  The pain of being medicated vs the pain of being medication free.  I am just lucky that my character is such that I can find joy and value in the narrowest of circumstance.

When I was 29 I faced an existential crisis.  It is no accident the age that Ren Hang died at 29.  He probably faced, in some form, the same existential crisis I faced.  The age of 29 is a rather visionary age.  You look at the landscape of your life.  You assess.  And you think, "This is what I can have.  And this is what I can't have.  Do I want to continue?"  When I was 29 I was a very immature artist.  Unlike Ren Hang I was not famous, I did not have a large body of work, and I certainly had not discovered yet a signature artistic vision.  So when I faced my crisis I had very little to lose by living.  There was so much of me and my work that was not defined.  My crisis had to do with accepting an alternative path in society.  I could not be the person I wished to be.  In my mind, at the age of 29, I wanted stereotype living.  I wanted to be a young woman like the young women I saw in movies.  A 8 hour work day, financial independence, friends and going to parties.  There is a temper tantrum element to suicide.  You think "If I can't have what I want, I don't want to live."

For me, the answer to life at the age of 29 was "Be humble Karen.  Walk very slowly and be humble." 

Friday, February 10, 2017

An Artist's Evolution; Part III

Working at the Wadsworth Atheneum changed my life.  It saved my life.

After living in a mental institution I needed to get back my self confidence.   Visitors could check in their coat and backpack with the security guard, and then they would talk to me.  Sometimes our transaction was only a matter of paying the entrance fee.  But about half of all the people who walked in had a question.  They might ask directions to a special show.  We provided maps of the museum and helped people find what they wanted to see.  And when we answered the telephone, we directed calls to curator's offices, or helped with traffic directions and parking.  In rare occasions we would be asked where to find a specific work of art.  Quickly I discovered that in order to do my job well I needed as much education about the Wadsworth as I could get.  When a new program of docent training began I applied and was accepted.

Public speaking is an old friend.  In high school my senior year I was captain of the debate team.  The learning curve how to be a public speaker had been steep.  When I had my first debate as a junior I nervously chewed on a necklace while I spoke.  And with the necklace in my mouth I whispered.  Because the judge couldn't hear anything I said the score out of a possible 50 points was zero.  After a zero score, there was no place to go but to improve.  Then I got it into my head that our school's bedraggled, losing, debate program could be better if I was captain.  So the summer before my senior year I went to debate camp at Baylor College and wrote a debate training manual.  They voted me captain not because I was popular or smart, but because I was the only one who had thought to prepare for leadership.  As a captain the way I helped the debate team was by emphasizing debate preparation.  I tried to make it fun.  I would schedule a study night at the town library with a spaghetti dinner afterwards at my house.   Before every debate there was study and a dinner at my house  With this strategy there was a huge improvement.  Our debate teams started winning big.  And for myself I had a year long run of perfect 50 point scores.  My partner was a freshman and the weakest debater on the team.  I wanted him with me so that my score would pull up his score.

So I had the skill to talk to an audience.  But why was I now interested in talking about art?  It was because with art I always asked the question "Why?"  As a child I had gone to art museums with my family and to myself asked questions such as "Why is this piece of garbage in a museum? Why is that considered art?  Why do I like this artwork?  What was the artist thinking?"  When it comes to art there are usually more questions in my mind than answers.  And I like to live with a longing to connect, both emotionally and intellectually, with a work of art.  I have been fascinated by art for a very very long time.  In college at Barnard my student ID gave me free entrance into any art museum in New York City.  On weekends I both studied and feasted on art at museums.  Bizarrely, it never occurred to me to make art an academic pursuit.  So the docent class at the Wadsworth Atheneum was my first introduction to art history and I was so happy to realize that many of the answers to "Why" about art could be learned by reading.

As a docent the best training advice I learned was how to activate a visitor's brain.  For example, when you read a book a specific percentage of your mental attention is activated.  When someone lectures to you, a different (and lower) percentage of your attention is captured.  And finally, if I stand in front of an artwork, the guaranteed highest percentage of attention I can get from the museum visitor is to ask a question about the artwork.  When you ask a question the listener searches their mind for an answer.  But ultimately I think the duty of a docent is to simply get the visitor to look at the artwork.  I like answers that lead the viewer back to the artwork.  It never ceased to amaze me how swiftly museum visitors flew through an art gallery.  A mere glance at most paintings.  As a docent I wanted to slow down the experience of looking at art.  I wanted the masterpieces to get their deserved attention.

How did working at the information desk and becoming a docent save my life?  It caused me to perform a task where I gave the best of myself.  Because I love art so much, I gave my all for it.  And in giving my all, I discovered that while my new mental illness came with deficits of cognition, there still was a lot of the old Karen left.  I had lost a part of myself during institutionalization and breakdown, but the core personality still existed.  The Karen who liked challenges still existed.  The Karen who was curious still existed.  The Karen who was ambitious still existed.  The Karen who had discipline still existed.  And the Karen who could talk to crowds still existed.  There was only one concession the museum had to make because of my mental illness.  It was a matter of time.  I could only do one tour a day.  I had tried to do two back to back tours (what all docents sometimes had to do) and had found that at the end I almost fainted from mental exhaustion.  I don't have the mental endurance that a healthy person has.  No docent liked back to back tours.  They were draining for everyone.  But I alone was excused from this double chore.  Because I had a mental illness.  And that did piss some people off.

There were so many experts who worked at the museum.  And every Monday morning (while the museum was closed to the public) the total docent body got an hour and a half lecture on either the newest exhibition or some other facet of museum life.  Docents were expected to always be learning.  And it was probably during one of these lectures, when a curator was explaining the skill behind a painting's composition, that the question first popped into my head, "Isn't he jealous of the artist?"  To know about art, and devote a career to explaining art I thought must automatically lead to jealousy of the artists you study.  Because it was the artist who knew the joy of creation.  All commentary afterword by the experts must pale in experience.  Did the experts mind living in the shadow land of the artist creator?

Of course swiftly the answers came to me.   I myself was jealous of the artist creator.  And people who have careers in the art world do not necessarily feel that they live in the shadow of the artist creator.  But the imaged fun that the artists were having making their art really did start to interfere with my satisfaction of being a docent.  I began to wonder if it was at all possible for me, a non-artist, to get into an art school.  In the same city as the Wadsworth Atheneum there was a good art school, The University of Hartford Art School.  Why not make an appointment and talk to someone about my chances of getting in?   I thought that for this interview I should at least have an artist portfolio.  So every day, for three weeks, I did a drawing a day.  I took a pencil and make a drawing.  Then I went over the pencil lines with a very fine felt tip pen in black ink.  And when the ink was dry I erased the pencil markings.  At the end of 21 days I had my artist portfolio.  The University of Hartford Art School was kind enough to let me come in and talk to a representative.

During this appointment I got a huge shock.  I will explain my shock in the next installment of "An Artist's Evolution".