A Meditation on Artists’ Residencies, a Dune Shack and the Twilight Zone
Sometimes I find myself scrolling Instagram on a dark day in February or March, just wondering what it would be like to make art in a lighthouse…or in Robert Rauschenberg’s old fishing shack…or in a Florida swamp…or in a small RV in a Utah ghost town…or on an island in Italy. Artists’ residencies are a nice thing to dream about when you feel stuck or in a rut and when life is wearing you down with mundane pressures. Sure, there are the big ones like MacDowell and Yaddo, but those are uber-competitive and hard to get into. There are so many other off-the-beaten-path secret outposts that will happily allow a creative person to try on their lifestyle for a bit. As an artist, it’s so helpful to get out of dodge now and then and hit the road for new sights and sounds.
Last year, I watched a TikTok video where Kiersten Lyons, an actor, was hilariously recounting all her many misfortunes in love and career. Her whole video read like a voyage of self-discovery through rejection, a tale familiar to anyone pursuing a creative life. It was part of a trend on the app that encouraged creators to pair their comeback stories with a gospel song: In the Sanctuary by the Kurt Carr Singers. In the Sanctuary is one of those songs that seems to end, but then a few moments later, starts up again. And this plays out over and over, to almost comic effect, until you don’t know if it will ever end. And it really struck me as an analogy that could be widely applied to all the arts.
Ruby Palmer’s new acrylic and Flashe paintings, currently on display in her solo show Shift at Morgan Lehman through June 30, look like colorfully doodled Rorschach tests. Each work is densely populated with swirling kaleidoscopic symbols like flowers, feathers, and geometric shapes, all set over jewel-toned or neutral grounds. At her previous exhibition with the gallery, she showed wall sculptures made up of painted clusters of basswood, and her new paintings seem to take those networks of wood a step further and expand them outward like Hoberman spheres in a big-bang fashion. It was my pleasure to speak with her and find out more about this exciting new direction in her work.
In an online artists’ talk in January 2022 between artists Chie Fueki, Alexi Worth and Catherine Murphy at DC Moore Gallery (produced by Painters’ Table), Murphy mentioned that her paintings were occasionally based on dreams. She revealed that her most recent show at Peter Freeman Inc. included two dream paintings: Flight (2020) and Begin Again (2019). “Flight” shows a gingham apron splayed at the bottom of four carpeted stairs and “Begin Again” shows five blue hand outlines on yellow-green wallpaper. During the course of the conversation, Worth also noted that Jasper Johns’ Flag painting came from a dream. And it got me wondering: How common is dream inspiration in art?
“There’s always time to do what you really want. When I had children, I worked when everybody went to bed, after 11pm. I would set up at the kitchen table and clean it very well before I would start.”
Remember in the darkest, most locked down days of the pandemic, when all of us were stuck within our own walls, and many of us had kids at home too? And we found ourselves having to resort to making work at the kitchen table in between the cracks of work and school. Well, it got me thinking that this was nothing new to the history of making art: a history that wants us to think that its entire timeline is full of swaggering guys in big New York City lofts, hands-on-chins, undistracted by life’s mundanity. But, in fact, the reality of being an artist is rife with personal stories of people who had to make it work. They, like us, squeezed making art in between the oven timer and the kids’ nap, or in between the hours of a demoralizing 9-5. And quite frankly, those artists that find a way to eke through those tough years of limited space and time are the artists that have the swagger that impresses me the most.
Once, my day job was a freelance graphic designer and I worked from home in Brooklyn. My desk was in a corner of the combination living-room-kitchen-dining-room, right next to the TV. I had cable, and while I worked, I would put on Turner Classic Movies because they didn’t play commercials. And those of us who worked from home during the golden age of cable know that the middle-of-the-day commercials were the most depressing.
TCM showed black and white movies from the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s in an unending ribbon of celluloid, one right after the other. And after months of working like this, it began to amaze me how little the films stuck in my head. They just pleasantly wafted into one ear and floated out the other. There were two exceptions, though, that seemed to have the ability to stick: Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odyssey and The Bells of St. Mary (starring Casablanca’s Ingrid Bergman as a nun). And this forgettable/unforgettable phenomenon got me wondering: Why those two? Why did they stick and not the hundreds of others that I had watched?
Gather round, me hearties, and let me tell you a tale: a tale about a much-dreaded comment received by many an artist on Instagram and during a studio visit. This comment can sound like a terrifying roar made by a fearsome beast. And it’s called—the “Leave-It-Like-That.
It’s the kind of comment we might receive on our works-in-progress (a struggling fawn just starting its wobbly walk). And we may have blithely thought to ourselves, “Hey, why don’t I post this WIP on the ‘Gram and give people a window into my process!” But…Beware ye who enter here. This generous sneak peek could attract a Leave-It-Like-That (or even its frightening brethren: the “Stop-Don’t-Touch-It” or the “Looks-Finished-To-Me”).
Do you remember how people were bingeing TV shows like The Sopranos or Mad Men during those long pandemic days and nights? Well, I was also bingeing–but on that old television chestnut, Columbo. If you’ve never watched it, Columbo is a detective murder mystery show, but…it’s an anti-whodunnit. The show always opens with all of us witnessing the villain committing the crime (off-camera—which is much appreciated by the squeamish). It’s a unique formula for a detective show because we know right from the get-go who the killer is. The audience watches Peter Falk as Detective Lt. Columbo, guilelessly but cunningly noticing clues, making connections, and solving the case, all the while hilariously pestering the murderer to distraction.
As an artist, have you ever looked around and felt ancient, withered, and uncool? Well, this pep talk is for you, because we’re about to find out how later in life, big bangs can be the bravest and most creative big bangs of all.