I found it necessary to "leave" myself earlier this year. To detach and look down and really see who I was. For the first time I think. Sometimes you see things in new ways, in ways you thought impossible, but that are necessary and insistent. My vision was refractive and provided a split view of myself. This happened before my depression and anxiety got really life-alteringly bad, such that I needed serious multiple interventions.
Depression is an infinite number of physico-psychic threads attached to your body and soul at every point. It's a metaphysical gravity, dragging you toward the center of Earth. I often found myself compelled to the floor, slipping into slow motion. I watched with incredulity as I tried do simple tasks only to find my body an uncooperative 1/2 numb object, with my will trapped inside. It was easy to give up on simple tasks or my daily work and sit with my head on my desk for 20 minutes. I listened to a lot of Radiohead during the last two months, which probably didn't help me at all. I get a twisted satisfaction out of feeling anything in those situations even if only despair. It was perversely familiar and tangible.
My depression came in daily cycles. Usually I'd get to work and feel ok, having started in on my coffee. Then it would hit with clockwork consistency and I'd spiral downward. Once my classes started I might be lucky enough to fake being ok and get distracted with work. On other days I had to be honest with my students that I was about to crumble. When my planning period came around and I was alone, I fell back into the pit. After lunch and afternoon classes, I sometimes managed to claw my way out of the emotional well. But the pain of the day was usually far from over.
Anxiety characterized my evenings at home. It occurred to me about a month ago that I had never lived alone. I've always had roommates, family, a girlfriend etc. to be around. Suddenly I was keenly aware that in a few months I'd be on my own for the first time in my life. I don't know how to do this. Much of my anxiety stems in part from this root.
I've had two periods of depression in my life. Three years ago and this year. The experience is familiar and unmistakable. There is an obvious trajectory as I feel it taking root. Anxiety is different. I'd heard of others dealing with Anxiety and never took it seriously. In my ignorance I thought anxious people were just failing to deal with irrational fears. When I fell into it, the feeling was unmistakable and terrible. If someone genuinely faces Anxiety, they are a pitiable soul.
Anxiety limits my view to the immediate worse case future. Suddenly I forget any reasons I have to hope or know things will be ok (though a sober assessment of my life suggests strongly that I have plenty of good things going on). I'd get overcome with desperation and fear of the various possible outcomes during my night, week or month. Luckily, in the last few days my anxiety medicine has kicked in and my body is responding well. I feel relieved of much of the worry that previously plagued me.
I've cried and broken down several times in the last two months. I've had two panic attacks and staved off others through breathing and the help of others reminding me of what's true and good. Many of my days have been chemical journeys. I don't advise alcohol as a means of managing either anxiety or depression (especially given the synergistic effects). I find it only opens emotional floodgates for me and compromises my ability to deal. So I have to be careful to attend to my interior life if I consume alcohol and make sure I'm around other people. G.K. Chesterton had wise words when he exhorts us to "Drink because you are happy, but never because you are miserable..."
The way out of my pit has been multifaceted. When I was initially burdened with anxiety and depression I looked to people around me for help. Close friends and family proved the most immediate and sensible way to get help. Often the burdens are too much for one person to carry alone, especially when they are dealing with their own struggles. I can't emphasize this point enough; we may have an infinite capacity to love but our finite bodily existence limits the extent to which we can support others in their trials.
I learned that its important not to rely on any one person disproportionately. If you do this you risk literal idolatry. To elevate any one person as an ultimate is foolish, short sighted and dangerous. Our beliefs often manifest in our actions and if we see ourselves acting in a way that suggests we are completely dependent on another we have evidence that they are playing the role of God in our lives. This is an unsustainable way of life. They will fail us, so spread your burden around.
Going forward, I have to ask myself, what will bring unity to my experience and what's my life's foundation. My various crises have forced me to take these questions seriously for the first time in more than a decade. I can't be complacent and comfortable any. Mere survival won't do.
Update: (6/13/18) Since my original post (about two months ago) I've identified the main sources of my anxiety and taken active steps to remove my self from certain situations. As a result, I've been able to stop my anxiety meds with no negative effects and take a lot of power back in my life. I continue to get support from my close friends and family, for which I am eternally grateful.
Self portrait with a Turban.
My most recent portrait is in the style of Jan van Eyck. It's a very diminutive work and the composition is simple. The head sort of floats in the dark and the red turban is vibrant against the black back-ground. While painting this I was reminded of the scarcity of blues in paintings over 200-300 years old (the master work that inspired me was painted in 1433). Reds and blacks were plentiful though, mostly in the form of Earth Oxides. I am lucky to have Cadmium at my disposal for reds. The black I used is Chromatic black, a mixture of green and red pigments.
This is the first portrait I've painted using oil in the last 13 years or so, and in those past portraits my marks were more loose and spontaneous. With this work I wanted a more polished, finished look, like that of Northern-Renaissance painters. I had been using Gouache and acrylic for my smaller portrait work lately, due to the easy clean-up and quick dry time, usually painting using glazes. By using Gamblin's alkyd-based oils I was able to blend the brush strokes and produce gentler textures. I was really encouraged by the experience of doing a portrait this way and will most likely paint most future portraits with oil. I have yet to make a frame for this picture. I'll get some moldings from the local hardware store and try to recreate something like the frame on the van Eyck original. I did something similar in my last portrait, where I tried to recreate the frame on a recently auctioned Da vinci.
Painting a master copy always comes with many lessons. Trying to re-create something in the style of another artist teaches you about composition, color mixing, and breeds appreciation for the work of others. It's also empowering to complete a decent approximation of what's considered a masterpiece. After each picture I complete, I get more ambitious. The hardest part of any painting for me is having the patience to study the original/source material through drawing and actually working through the revision process that is painting itself. If I settle for my first attempt at a picture, I'm usually being dishonest with myself and sacrificing quality. Painting really is laborious if done right.
I have a lot of fun imitating things. From an early age I enjoyed doing impressions of TV personalities and cartoon characters. There's something about pretending I'm something else that's always appealed to me. Painting for me has always also been a species of pretend and imitation. My recent work in iconography is a prime example of this.
Many an art student will relate to drawing on 8.5x11" printer paper. In high school, you might get a 9x12" sketch book from your teacher in Art 3. This increased space is a new world to be explored and an expansion of boundaries. One's limits are still there, just greater in extent. Still more do you feel your limits increased in college when you move on to the 18x24" drawing pad. More revolutionary still is cutting your own paper to size from a roll. We tend to adjust to and accept our limits as conditions of existence.
Zion is was one of my favorite parks to visit this summer. There are plenty of places to go hiking and for me the geologic history is fascinating. Each layer of rock tells a story of past conditions and events. The whole park is a record of Earth's history and one can still see the forces in action today that formed the topography over tens of thousands of years.
This location really lends itself to representation with a complementary color scheme. The greens and reds of the scenery play off each other nicely and contribute to the overall vibrancy of the composition.
Not only do green and red complement each other visually, there is a geochemical/biological connection in nature between the two. These two colors are intimately related in that the green chlorophyll of the plants makes photosynthesis possible, which itself produces oxygen as one of its products. This atmospheric component was/is responsible for rusting the Iron that went into the rocks we find all over Zion. These rocks tell us a history of ancient climate/atmospheric conditions and indirectly tell us what life was like on Earth so long ago.
Driving through Yellowstone, one is almost guaranteed to see several kinds of large mammals. I've seen Grizzly Bears, Black Bears, Bison and Elk all from the road. On one occasion I was fortunate enough to snap a few pictures of Big-Horn Sheep, which are imposing and impressive in many ways. These creatures have a large set of horns made for running into things. Plenty of reason to keep your distance. Luckily we saw them from the car about 100 feet off the road.
One of the challenges you face in painting Wildlife and Landscape in the West, is communicating colors in interesting ways. For this painting I chose to increase the vibrancy of the colors from the photo. The source colors for this composition were rather dull, but lent themselves to complementary & split-complementary color schemes.
Yellow and violet are complements on the color wheel and on either side of yellow are green and orange. Adjacent to violet are red-violet and blue-violets. These opposing colors harmonize really well with each other helped me by placing constraints on my color choice. Using a color scheme and limiting one's choices like this is analogous to composing music in a particular key or selecting certain chords to create the effect. Cool purples, blues and greens tend to recede in this painting while warmer oranges and yellows provide contrast and move forward visually.
I once again used my preferred medium of Gamblin Fast-Matte Oil to paint this picture. After about three days of drying I will protect the work with Krylon UV-blocking Gloss varnish, which is easily removed.
Prints of this work are available Here.
Recently, my El's Clay colleague Maribel and I, performed at the Terakedis Gallery in downtown Billings. Our show consisted of three hours of live dance and drawing (see the short clip below). This type of venue/performance was a first for us. Our last show consisted of both drawing and dance, but not simultaneously, so we both learned a lot.
Several visitors stopped in over the course of the evening and many paused outside the gallery window to look in. One of our goals as an organization is to bring attention to the Billings Art Scene and this performance succeeded in that respect. There are many creative people in our city and they often go unnoticed. By putting on performances like this we hope to connect more people with art and artists and build a richer sense of community.
I ended up completing three more-or-less life-sized drawings (see below) while Maribel danced. Periodically she paused for extended poses so I could work on the composition. Each drawing is about 4x5 feet in size. I had not drawn for this kind of extended period since college, so I was reminded of how taxing it can be. Maribel was tired as well, but remained graceful and energetic through the end. She definitely worked harder than me and is truly a professional dancer.
The next El's Clay event will be at the First Congregational Church UCC in Billings on August 4th as part of the Billings Artwalk. We will have live poetry readings, drawing and dance at this event as well as information about El's Clay. This event will run from approx 5:30 to 9 pm with refreshments provided . We hope to see you there.
I've always thought it's important to revisit things. Feelings, subjects, themes etc. Especially when it comes to my creative process. The riches of a subject are rarely exhausted by one visit or experience. We as viewers/creators change as well, which guarantees a novel encounter with the other. We never really see the same thing twice. If what we see has a soul, then we never see it with our eyes. We see an ever changing body and presumably don't encounter a soul unchanged by it's own experience the second time around. If I see a mountain one minute it is changed the next instant. It has gained parts or lost them. In light of this, is there anything that ensures the continuity of such a mountain? Is there an essence to such things?
My most recent act of re-visitation was my drawing of DFW above, inspired by two classic works below. Velasquez executed the painting below on the left around 1650. It is of Pope Innocent X. Later, Francis Bacon, a 20th century painter, copied this master-work in his own grotesque and evocative style, seen below to the right. I learned about both of these works/artists in college. I became and remain an admirer of both and now find myself situated in an artistic lineage wherein the younger artist pays homage to the earlier by reinterpreting his work. That's what I've tried to do in my drawing. In creating this work, I honor both Bacon and Velasquez and keep my memory of David Foster Wallace alive.
After painting a small (6x12") version of this composition (see my earlier post) I decided to scale things up a bit. I chose to stay with the double-square format, so I could bring attention to both the Bison and field vegetation. I had a piece of plywood handy, which was about 2x4 feet, so I primed it and set to work. I used a combination of cadmium red light acrylic, mixed with clear acrylic gesso, to provide the ground, then began blocking in large areas of color (see time-lapse below).
The main difference between this and the earlier smaller bison, is the size of mark I used. On this scale I intentionally use larger brushwork, it just makes more sense in the context. In the same way, I used larger charcoal a while back to draw my large Tetons picture (seen here). The resulting larger Bison has a stronger presence, not just because of the increased size, but the increased color exploration I can do in that space. The smaller Bison painting was a study, because it forced me to look at the subject for a prolonged period of time and get acquainted with the colors and composition. When I painted this larger version I didn't really refer back to the smaller one. I re-examined the picture I was working from and tried to see more detail the second time around. The result was that I found more colors in the big painting. It's not necessarily a better painting, but it is different.
I framed this with a simple oak frame, mitered at the corners. The plywood I painted on is dimensionally stable and will not warp. On future panels, I'll use thinner plywood, maybe 1/4 thick to minimize weight, as plywood can get heavy and be an obstacle to hanging the picture. This work is currently at the Art House Cinema and Pub, in downtown Billings.
If you're hiking in Yellowstone, you shouldn't approach certain animals, especially Buffalo. But sometimes, they put themselves right in your way and you stumble upon them suddenly. This is what happened to me last October while hiking in the backcountry. My two friends and I had to go off trail to avoid this bull. Behind him were numerous others in his herd and he seemed to be standing watch. It was obvious that we weren't going to use that section of trail so we quietly scrambled up a nearby hill to avoid being gored or trampled.
I took the photo above about 30ft away and was pretty nervous as we crept by. We had one more similar meeting with a Buffalo on a later hike. It's surprisingly easy to miss something so big as you crest a hill, but it happens and reminds you that you can't let your guard down that far from civilization. Luckily we didn't have any bear encounters during our time in Yellowstone, though there was no shortage of bear tracks and scat. Healthy reminders.
A few days ago, I decided to work from this photo and experiment with some recently acquired oil paint. Traditional oil paint takes several days to dry, unless you add dryers and mediums to it. I purchased Gamblin's trial set of their Fast-Matte colors because I wanted the working qualities and open time of oil without the days of waiting. The difference with this paint is that it's composed of both oil and alkyd resin, which explains the quick dry times. The Paint also dries to a matte finish, so it must be coated with gloss varnish if you want saturated looking colors.
I was very pleased with how this painting turned out in terms of working qualities of the materials and the formal elements of the painting. My first paint layers were dry and ready to be worked on top of after one day. By day three I was finished with this picture and able to varnish on day 4. This pace was very satisfying and I can see that this paint is going to open some creative doors for me. My next project will be a larger version of this same composition. The larger scale will create a very different experience of the Buffalo, and further enrich my appreciation for this creature.
I can't overstate the importance of reworking an image (and while I'm at it,re-imagining work). This is the time and context in which we rethink and re-examine what we're doing. Re-visiting an image forces us to confront the prejudices we bring to the experience of translating a scene into a shareable medium. This experience has a strong analogue in daily life. It's of at least equal value to regularly examine how we experience, think about and inhabit the world.
Having long ago come to terms with being an artist, I realize how iteration fits into my everyday life. Each day presents me with opportunities to relive the ordinary and be-in-the-world differently. My most recent series of drawings is no exception to this. One of the most compelling and moving sights is the Teton Mountains in Wyoming. They are fault-block mountains and rise dramatically from the valley floor. I've visited the mountains several times and on my last visit took several photos of the range one very cold morning.
My first step on this project was a smaller drawing, 8.5x24 inches. The second was larger, 30x44 inches. Finally I scaled up the image to an imposing 42x84 inches (7 feet wide). This is one of the larger drawings I've done and in so doing, I was reminded of how important scale is. The effect of working large is that the visual presence of the source scenery is retained. A larger format requires different marks and mark making devices. As a result I resorted to a 2x6" inch piece of specialty charcoal from Nitram. This stick of charcoal was reminiscent of smaller vine charcoal in terms of texture and pigment darkness. It didn't give the darkest blacks, but was very good for initial expressive layout marks (See Video at the end of the post).
Surprisingly, each of the three drawings took about two hours. This was a very satisfying series to complete and I now have works that can fit into a variety of display spaces. I'm also left with a deeper appreciation for the sublimity of the Tetons.
Last year, I was struck by the tragedy of Alan Rickman's death. It was especially poignant because he died on my birthday, January 14, 2016. Rickman was always one of my favorite actors. He was unique and I found myself enamored with his characters, no matter the role. Rickman was the perfect actor to play Professor Snape. Sinister, mysterious and subtly endearing. I thought it appropriate to honor him and his work in my most recent Icon painting.
J0hn Hunter Speier
Recent work, and explorations of techniques, aesthetics and poetics.