Friday, November 5, 2021

What constitutes a portfolio?

This is the question I wrestle with periodically: what's my art portfolio? Is it all of a style - only landscapes and no tarot cards, for example? Or is it anything addressing a certain topic... except I don't work that way. That would be like making one's daily journal only address one's taste in shoes.

1. Baba Yaga, 2021, 
collage and acrylic on paper
14" x 17"

2. Your Worth Is Not Measured, 2021, 
pastels and acrylic on paper
14" x 17"

3. Inconvenient Feelings, 2021,
charcoal and acrylic paint on paper
9" x 11"

4. Fox Point Moods, 2020,
acrylic paint on paper,
11" x 14"

5. Fox Point Moods 2, 2020,
acrylic paint on paper,
10" x 14"

6. Golden Hill Ghosts, 2017,
acrylic paint on paper,
4" x 2"

7. Golden Hill Canopy, 2017,
acrylic paint on paper,
2" x 4"

8. Moreton Bay Fig Tree I, 2018,
acrylic paint on paper,
9" x 11"

9. Moreton Bay Fig Tree II, 2018,
acrylic paint on paper,
9" x 11"

10. Torrey Pine, 2017,
acrylic paint on paper,
9" x 11"

Sunday, August 8, 2021

Women in abstraction: a century and a half of female artists at the Centre Pompidou

The Women in Abstraction show at the Centre Pompidou was arbitrary, condescending, and totally worthwhile. I mean, Elle font d'Abstraction is just short of “Look! A woman can make a painting! How quaint!” 

Still, go. You won't regret it. They more than make up for any condescension... And if they don't, we're clearly hungry for this exhibit. I counted two women in attendance for every man – yes, really, I counted. 

“The utopian ideals of pure abstraction have allowed women artists some kind of entree into art, since a truly universalist art practice would be genderfree... but it was a myth.” - Mira Schor, 2009, from “Some Notes on Women and Abstraction”

On a personal note, I hadn't been expecting to have a night alone in Paris. I certainly hadn't expected to have a good time. I'd always associated Paris with exhausting in laws, arguments, and trying to keep up with fast paced conversations in a new language. But my flight out of Charles De Gaulle was scheduled to leave at 1 pm (it didn't, but that's another story) and getting there from Normandy in the morning would have involved leaving before the cows woke up.

I got off the train and headed straight to the Centre Pompidou, one of my favorite museums in the world. It seems permanently under construction, always springing a leak – and the views are the best in the city. Here's one such view, featuring two Ruth Asawa sculptures.

Ruth Asawa

Actually, maybe the views are better at the Eiffel Tower, but I've never been in any kind of mood to enjoy anything by the time I've made it up there... Whereas the Centre Pompidou rewards a person for their effort. They have lockers big enough for carry on luggage, bathrooms, reasonable lines, and wonderful gift shops. Even in a pandemic. They required proof of vaccination, and appreciated my negative Covid test, but that was the only potential glitch. 

Janet Sobel

Like many people, I had known about Janet Sobel, the true prospector in the drip method gold mine Pollock so often gets credit for. And any art history class will teach the paintings of Helen Frankenthaler, the installations and performance work of Judy Chicago, the sculptures of Louise Bourgeois. Some of us may have been introduced to the three dimensional paintings and videos of Howardena Pindell, admired the paintings of Joan Mitchell or Lee Krasner. We might have admired the work of Hilma af Klint, or Sonia Delaunay-Terk (though the collage pieces of hers in this exhibit blow her paintings right out of the water for me.) 

Sonia Delaunay-Terk

However, there were so, so many other artists I had never heard of. Here are two of them, followed by snapshots from the exhibition.

Georgiana Houghton (Spain 1814 – England 1884) was an English spiritualist painter. Her delicate line paintings create layered nautilus forms of a single color at a time, culminating in fine swirls and speckled curls as a totally visual poetry atop all the color. It makes me think of ocean tides and seaweed, and calligraphic decorations in mosques. Her paintings are already beginning to permeate and retrofit my visual memory of the world.

Georgiana Houghton

Mary Ellen Bute (Houston 1906 –  New York 1983)

I couldn't come up with a more West of the Mississippi name if I tried. In fact, I have a very colorful Iowan aunt named Mary Ellen (“If you all aren't nicer to me, I'm going to Cherokee!” she used to shout, referring to the nearby psychiatric hospital. That was not the time her television was struck by lightning after she was "calling down the demons.") Ahem. Unrelated. 

The music Mary Ellen Bute interpreted in the pieces shown at the Centre Pompidou modeled the Westward Ho!, Manifest Destiny kind of marching cowboy symphony that my Iowan grandmother loved. She also animated to Shostakovich, Saint-Saens, and Bach, but if those were on display I didn't see them. 

Mary Ellen Bute

Her work, no matter what the music, is a delightful encyclopedia of effect invention. I don't need to point out to anyone that there was no CGI then, and she did all her abstract visuals with paint, superimposition, extreme contrast, and all the other old school tricks – many of which I suspect she originated. The exhibit had several of her films, and they made me think of the concurrent film, Fantasia, released in 1940. Like Germaine Dulac, another filmmaker in the exhibition, Bute clearly worships in the cathedral of light:

“I wanted to manipulate light to produce visual compositions in time continuity much as a musician manipulates sound to produce music." from "Abstronics" in Films in Review, June-July 1954. Reprinted in Russett, Robert and Cecile Starr, Experimental Animation: An Illustrated Anthology (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1976)

And now, in no particular order, a peek at inspiring work from the show!

Still from Germaine Dulac's Arabesque

Helen Saunders

Olga Rozanova

Barbara Hepworth

Vera Pagava

Maria Helena Vieira da Silva

Aurelie Nemours

Arpita Singh

Etal Adnan

I'd booked myself a cute hotel room on rue Casimir Delavigne, with classic tiny courtyard, barely coffin sized elevators, and closet sized art deco room. I counted four bookstores within two blocks from the front door, and I don't think I saw all of them. I waited for an hour for a place at Le Comptoir, reading and skimming through the 113 photos I took at the museum.

Sunday, July 4, 2021

Hacked off – the drama of a bad haircut

I think that when the hairdresser heard me say I wanted my hair to look a bit “shaggy”, she must have thought I meant that I wanted to look like Shaggy from Scoobie Doo. What I really wanted was to take six inches off my pandemic long and messy hair. Not so radical, really.

Now I feel like an over-the-hill Anne of Green Gables. I’m hiding my head under knit caps in sweltering heat until the miracle of time makes me less likely to wake in the night thinking, “How could I have stopped her? Maybe if I’d had time to drink my morning tea before the appointment?”

I have curly hair. I learned at a young age to be mistrustful of hairdressers because they almost uniformly seemed out to humiliate me and make me wish for nice, straight black hair. Hairdressers have in the past made me look like Ronald MacDonald, or the ugly double of Molly Ringwald – and now one had made me look like Shaggy.

So, once I got home, I got out the scissors, trimmed off the lamb butts she’d left dangling around my ears, presumably to leave me looking feminine. This is the lesson that should have stuck since I’ve been doing it since I was four years old: the only person who can cut a curly haired person’s hair, EVER, is a curly haired person. 

When I was four, I ruined my mother’s plan for how a curly haired redhead should look when going to Easter services in Lutheran land. I don’t remember cutting off all my perfect ringlets, but I’m sure I had them when she put the little white dress on me. My hair goes into natural rag curls at a certain length. 

The following is the progression, from long to short: Janis Joplin hair → ghastly misshapen pageboy with cocker spaniel payos → perfect ringlets → Ronald MacDonald ’fro → sheep’s butt pompadour → rough hewn pixie cut. 

Back to the four-year-old Easter me: I remember reaching up to answer the door of the Northern Minnesotan farm. (We were not farmers, but my father’s family was.) I remember looking way up at my handsome grandfather – black slicked back hair, square jaw, charming smile, and a white or maybe tan suit – smiling at me. I don’t remember my mother screaming at me for an hour, which would normally have been part of the story. This was because my grandfather, who was no one’s angel ever except for that day, did his Cary Grant imitation, saying I looked “real cute.” I was hooked. I cut my hair on the regular starting then.

Periodically, I’d forget the lesson. Once, it was because I wanted to look like I had a pageboy for straight haired people (like a knight’s squire), and I knew straight haired people got those at hairdressers. So I’d get it cut. Then I’d be mortified and feel like the world’s biggest 80s failure because even Molly Ringwald’s red locks weren’t as puffy as mine. 

I’d let my hair grow for the next six years, brushing it inventively and covering it with a beret. When it was well below my shoulder blades, I cut it all off. Stunned members of my high school class were heard muttering, “I can’t believe she cut it off.” I wasn’t even remotely popular, so this concern seems outsized. It was a good cut, done by me, and they should have appreciated it.

Years later, when I moved to Providence, I forgot again. I made one last attempt at an adolescent cut, even though I was now 32, to have an English schoolboy/skater cut. I’d wanted to be an English schoolboy, a la Brideshead revisited, for as long as I could remember. Immediately after, I walked up, grinning, to my then husband and our friend, waiting at the park. (This friend’s own hair famously looks like it belongs to the 80s Greatest American Hero titular hero.) They said, “Ooo. Badd cut, hunh?”

When I got cancer the first time and knew I would lose all my hair, I had a professional hack it off. The hairdresser was kind and did a great job. This experience led to my (hesitantly) thinking an occasional cut might be doable. It might be nice and grown up to be pampered this way once in a while. Once my hair grew back in enough, a few years later, I got it cut again. This hairdresser blow dried it straight with one of those rolling hairbrushes, and I looked like a lady who lunches. It was fine after I took a shower. Success! I went to her again, and this time told her to hold off on the blow dry. Success again!

The third time was NOT a charm. I really should have been warned by that blow dry esthetic. It’s really all my fault. She immediately cut hair from the top of my head, beginning from the top in layering, which is something you NEVER do with curly hair. Unless you want to look like Lionel Ritchie singing Hello, Is It Me You’re Looking For?

Horrified, I told her the top was way too short, and she tried to fix it by making the rest way more revoltingly puffy. She felt terrible and wanted to get me not to pay, but I’m an artist and a teacher and know what having an off day feels like, so I couldn’t do that. I came home and started chopping off my hair. Then I numbed out by running, then watching television, then painting until bleary eyed. I woke in the wee hours wishing it had been a nightmare. I loved my hair, and now I have a misfired mop squatting on my scalp. 

This is SO trivial. People around the world are dying. I need to find new health insurance just in case I get major cancer a third time (the minor cancers didn’t count). But my vanity is really throwing me for a loop.

I started thinking about the fact that a headscarf feels too feminine, and lipstick is right out. It’s been a looong while since I could wear a dress. Every time I wear something feminine, it feels like I’m role playing. But I was okay with my hair. I’ve been surgically neutered in so many ways – no breasts, no ovaries, no uterus, no husband (divorce is very messy surgery) – but I was still okay with my pinned up hair. 

I want to be a nonbinary Edith Wharton character. A kind of Orlando with Virginia Wolff’s hairdo. A Miranda from The Tempest who never needs to be unmasked. Or David Bowie at any point in his life.

Instead, I’m a wide hipped mother (not even thicc, because that requires sexy clothes) who looks like she either plays softball with the coach from Glee or has simply given up all sexual appeal in capitulation to the stressors of middle age. Or both. 

I am grimly waiting six months for my hair to grow out to the length I’d actually requested when I went to the hairdresser. 

Friday, June 18, 2021

Frog Stripes - Continued Inspiration from Yayoi Kusama and the Influence of Printmakers

Stencils, stamps, and scotch tape... These are a few of my favorite things! 

Using some of the approaches given to painters by the printmaking world (more on this later – giving thanks to Edo Japan for opening up the ports to foreign commerce in the 1800s), I created the above video to show the process of playing with patterns.

My friend Rick Lescault's band, Skyjelly, created the music - Boy48 - and allowed me to use it. 

I also received permission to share work from two stunningly talented students, Courtney and Ananya. They produced their solutions to this prompt: How can you make a patterned frog and its environment co-dominant?

frog by Ananya copyright Ananya 2021, 
used with permission

frog by Courtney, copyright Courtney 2021, 
used with permission

Sunday, June 6, 2021

Hans Hofmann: teaching one abstract painting technique

Students are, as I have said before, the best thing that ever happened to my art making process. 

Case in point: I teach one lovely woman who works in a hospital by day, and is exploring color and expression through oil paint on her off days. 

We began with a simple-ish painting of a blooming dogwood in rain, but she quickly expressed a preference for the proto-Abstract Expressionist Hans Hofmann (1880 - 1966) paintings I shared with her. By the next week, she'd bought a book on the subject.

Miz—Pax Vobiscum, 1964
Oil on canvas
77 3/8 x 83 5/8 in. (196.5 x 212.4 cm)
Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, TX. Museum purchase (1987.3.P.P.)
Photography courtesy of Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth

“I told a friend about Hofmann,” she said, “and he said, 'Hold on!' He showed me a painting of colored squares he'd done. But … it was just colored squares on a canvas,” she laughed.

Already she understands that Hans Hofmann's paintings are not just squares of color on a canvas. It's wonderful when a student comes equipped with such sensibility!

We decided to reproduce one of his paintings by following his process. The end goal would be to create on canvas what Hans Hofmann called "push pull," and Josef Albers called "non dominance."

Elaine de Kooning (the better de Kooning painter, in my opinion, and an invaluable annotator of art history as she participated in it) laid out Hofmann's approach in this fascinating article in Art News.

First, a complicated subject is required. I chose chairs around a kitchen table.

study by Julia Gandrud

Hans Hofmann used a messy studio, and the predictability and familiarity of chairs and dresser legs, to help create a space we recognize in spite of the overlapping lines. 

He then blocked out what he wanted to sit back, creating a central subject. 

study by Julia Gandrud

From there, he began to wrestle with light, immediacy, and push pull by creating large rectangular areas in pure color. 

study by Julia Gandrud

As de Kooning notes, “By this time (after three hours’ work), the artist was holding fifteen brushes in his left hand, and his four original colors had each multiplied into as many distinct tones.

Try it out yourself!

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Color Wheels following 3 different rules

 Creating a color wheel may not be glamorous, but it's a great way to help beginner - and even some advanced - painters step up their color understanding. 

The benefits include: 

  • understanding the spectrum transitions
  • learning to mix tertiary colors
  • developing a preference for certain pigments
  • later use for color scheme selection

In this post, I will only address the approaches for the creation of color wheels. Color schemes will come up in another post.

Dark to white

Here is a 12 color wheel with an acrylic base. Each inner circle approaches white, while the exterior circle is mixed with black.

The pigments are: 

Quinacridone Crimson

Cadmium red hue

Cadmium red hue & cadmium yellow hue (more red)

Cadmium red hue & cadmium yellow hue (more yellow)

Cadmium yellow hue

Cadmium green & cadmium yellow hue

Cadmium green

Thalo blue

Titanium white & cobalt blue

Ultramarine blue

Ultramarine blue & quinacridone crimson

Permanent violet dark


In the following oil based color wheel I have chosen different pigments. I always use three different blues - you simply can't capture all the sky and wave colors without them.

This time, the center goes toward gray, mixing in both mars black and titanium white with each interior circle.

The pigments are: 

Alizarine Crimson
Cadmium red hue
Cadmium red hue & cadmium orange hue 
Cadmium orange hue 
Cadmium yellow hue
Cadmium yellow hue & thalo green
Thalo green
Thalo blue
Cobalt blue
Ultramarine blue
Cobalt blue & cadmium red hue
Dioxazine purple


In the final color wheel, also oil based, the concept was to focus on the neutrals. I did this by mixing a touch of the opposite color on the wheel (what I sometimes brutishly but not strictly accurately be called its complimentary color). The result can lead to some beautifully subtle colors.

The pigments are: 

Magenta (quinacridone & titanium white)

Cadmium red hue

Cadmium red hue & cadmium orange hue 
Cadmium orange hue 

Cadmium yellow hue

Cadmium yellow hue & thalo green

Thalo green

Thalo blue

Cobalt blue

Ultramarine blue

Cobalt blue & cadmium red hue

Dioxazine purple

In that last color wheel, notice the transition from the warm purple to cadmium yellow - I have often seen this color in the shadows of concrete structures.

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Moving on by writing it down - the potential healing power of telling your story

Normally, I am a painter and writer of fiction. I also write nonfiction blog posts about art and literature. 

Lately, however, I've been stuck in the writing. It's as if the task of writing will open up floodgates, but I don't have the key right now. I'm having a hard time moving forward with that.

For creative and healing reasons, I wonder if it might help to write parts of my story in long form, however informally. 

I've recently come out of a divorce, aka death of a two decade relationship. That was after a long struggle to find employment (substitute teaching filled the gap, until I found a better fit with art teaching), and a sense of impossibility for my life as an artist, leading to an emotional inability even to pick up a paint brush. 

The divorce was immediately preceded by a second bout of cancer, major surgery to remove my womb (read creativity and feeling valued as a woman) during a pandemic year. 

Thank goodness for teaching – without that, I would not have started painting again. I'd be as stuck in the visual arts as I currently am in my writing. 

When that first student wanted oil painting lessons, I felt a bit like a fraud. It had been so long, and my soul felt too ravaged. My creativity felt beaten down, a lifeless animal. I owe my students all my gratitude. 

Writing is a different story... hah. I don't know where the person who wrote to THE END on five first drafts went. I mean, I didn't polish and publish, but still. 

Maybe I'm too stuck in my own story. Would it help to write a memoir, clear the decks? If I wrestled through my own story, could I move forward with characters and perspectives outside my own again? Would it help me move on to write nonfiction books related to my own story, focusing on how to teach painting? 

I'd like to write a book, or several, that offers art teachers a few ways to teach painting. Teach others to teach color, pattern, and design non dominance – this is both political and aesthetic in the visual world – in a way that another artist could pass on to their students. 

Something is holding me back. I wish I could figure out what it is.

Friday, April 16, 2021

Tension between subject and background in painting creates visual democracy - Patterns

Supposedly, the placement occurrence of motifs in Penrose tilings are impossible to predict in 2, 3, or 4 dimensions. One looks a bit like a joker, another motif like a snowflake, etc. We can assume they will reoccur, much like we can assume that there are no end to prime numbers, but both of those assumptions require fancy mathematical proofs.

Whatever. My point is that some people think you can predict Penrose tiles in a higher (5th) dimension – planes upon planes colliding and multiplying, in a sense, but ironing out to something comprehensible.

Here is an earlier post on the subject: 

Caspar David Friedrich, Romanticism, Penrose, and the 5th Dimension

And then Yayoi Kusama puts a dot on it. Multiple dots. And psychedelic mushrooms in neon colors on black light. Fun. Why? Tension? Democracy of subject? That's my favorite explanation - visual democracy.

I wanted to work with students to create this competition between subject and background. We chose a lovely spotted frog as our subject, and a not especially aggressive play on the spots and patterns in the background. 

Frog in Frogland, by Julia Gandrud, copyright 2021, all rights reserved

I'll add a student's work when they are finished with it.