Art as Transformation

An Interview with Jeri Griffith

Question

You were born in northern Wisconsin in 1952. What are your visual memories of the time and place?

Jeri Griffith

I grew up surrounded by forests. These were dense forests of evergreen trees—pine trees, fir trees, and in more swampy areas, tamaracks. Of course, we also had maple trees and oak trees that lost their leaves in the autumn. My first visual memories are of trees in winter. I recall dark evergreen branches blocking the light and the etched branches of deciduous trees against the sky. I remember the tall trunks like sentinels sticking up out of the snow. That kind of forest still feels like home to me, especially during the winter. When I first began to paint, I would lay out these intensely contrasting areas first. I’d determine the structure of the painting before adding other colors. I still do this, and I think it refers back to the trees. The forest is a structure, and in winter that structure is very visible. Shapes are either light or dark, and there are lots of lines drawn by branches. For me, that’s a kind of beginning. I suppose that, when I first start a painting, I actually refer to these first memories of trees. Also, there were many lakes and the water in these was very clear. One could almost always see the bottom as though you were looking through glass, but from a distance, these bodies of water reflected a particular shade of northern blue, something like the old Prussian blue tone that used to be included in most watercolor sets. I remember that color. I still relate very emotionally with the color blue. For me, certain shades of blue evoke a kind of ecstatic feeling.

Question

Your childhood was divided into two parts–the early years in Park Falls, in far northern Wisconsin, where your parents grew up and where your grandparents lived, and then Horicon, in your later years, where most of your schooling took place. What was your life like in Park Falls?

Jeri Griffith

Both of my parents grew up in that small town and so most of our extended family members lived there. My early life in Park Falls was about my maternal grandparents and my great aunts and uncles. I knew them all well, and their characters loom large in my memory still. Most of the men, including my maternal grandfather, had left the farm for steady work at the paper mill. Still, in order to get by, my grandparents gardened intensively. My grandmother took pride in having a few flowers, but the main purpose of the garden was to raise food, and because of the garden, they always had food. Beans, tomatoes, and beets were canned. Cabbage, potatoes, carrots, squash, and rutabagas were put down in the root cellar. My grandmother made pickles, jams, and bread. Meat and milk were purchased at the grocery store.

My paternal grandfather was the caretaker for the town’s cemetery. My grandmother worked for years at a factory that manufactured fiberglass fishing rods. They lived in a small, run-down house provided by the city. They were extremely poor and never had indoor plumbing until the 1960s. I suppose that their situation resembled that of people in Appalachia. They both smoked and drank beer, and sometimes, there was almost nothing in the refrigerator. Unlike my other grandmother, my paternal grandmother didn’t garden or cook. Her idea of a meal was a baloney sandwich on white bread. My father never finished high school. Although some of them did not survive until adulthood, he was the oldest of eleven children. He served in the Merchant Marine on the Great Lakes. Later he ran a small tavern, and was a part-time rural mail carrier. He loved hunting and fishing. This was another way for people to obtain food. My father hunted deer and grouse. We fished at all times of the year, even in winter through the ice. Later this interest led to his becoming a game warden for the State of Wisconsin and that’s when we moved to Horicon. But that’s another story. How did this time influence me? I never take food for granted. I learned about processes such as baking bread, making sauerkraut, and cleaning freshly caught fish. We’d forage for berries in the woods. I knew about pulling carrots and digging potatoes. In that kind of environment, there’s a very strong connection with nature and with the different seasons of the year. It was remote place, and people had to learn to get by with whatever was available to them. I think growing up in that way taught me to always be on the lookout for things I could use. I’m resourceful and that’s a good quality for an artist to have.

Question

When did the move from Park Falls to Horicon take place? What was the impact on your life and your family?

Jeri Griffith

We moved to Horicon in 1957 just before I started kindergarten. There, we lived far from our extended family. It was a five-hour drive back to the place that my parents always referred to as “home.” After the move, we became a nuclear family, and we related to the larger community through my father’s job as a game warden. This was particularly difficult for my mother, I think, because she was away from the world she knew and understood—a milieu of cousins, aunts and uncles, and old school friends. She must have felt a great deal of isolation, and even though she tried joining a few women’s groups and the Presbyterian Church, it was not enough to fill the void. We were completely dependent upon my father for financial support and for our identity as a family, and so, as his instability and drinking binges turned into a full-blown alcoholism, this affected us in a profound way. For me, the isolation was eventually alleviated by my participation in outside activities: scouting, piano lessons, youth group, church choir, swimming lessons, baby-sitting, and lots of school events and activities.

My mother had few things that took her outside of the house. Through my father’s job, we still maintained a strong connection with the natural world. We fished and we foraged for wild mushrooms. We had fruit trees and a vegetable garden. My mother raised raspberries. But she also became enamored of all the new processed food products coming out during that time. Instead of eating from the garden, increasingly, we lived on frozen fish sticks, boxes of macaroni and cheese, Oscar Meyer bologna sandwiches, and casseroles made with Campbell’s canned soups. It was a change in the general society, I think. Television commercials portrayed a vision of the perfect family where a 1950’s housewife cooked and cleaned for a father and two children who were away for most of the day at work and school.

I never imagined leading the life that my mother led. I always thought that I would do something different for myself. That put a wedge between us that only grew wider as I got older. We became more and more estranged from one another and she grew more and more angry with me when I could not give her the attention she needed and wanted. My father was with us, but he was also mentally absent in a certain way. This was partly due to his drinking, but also due to his many friends and interests outside of the house. Sometimes, he tried to share those with us, but my mother was left alone a lot of the time. In those days, a long-distance phone call usually meant an emergency of some kind. Her connection to her own mother and sister was limited to short weekly letters. My mother was not emotionally self-sufficient. She suffered, and we all suffered with her.

Question

One of the shocking things about your house that I remember when I first visited was the relationship with animals. Horicon was, and probably still is, a hunting culture, but because of your father’s job, animals, both alive and dead, were an ever-present experience in your house. You return to animals frequently in your painting. What do all these animals mean to you?

Jeri Griffith

There was a richness of animals in the northern landscape—deer, bears, raccoons, badgers, skunks, porcupines, otter, muskrat, wolverine, and opossum, to name a few. The list could go on, and of course, the list of birds would be even more extensive. I learned to observe animals in the wild, and sometimes we rehabilitated injured animals at home. I feel intimate with animals. For me, they represent our vulnerability. Unlike us, they live without walls or roofs over their head. We like to believe that we are protected, ultimately protected, but animals tell me something else. We have to live in nature. We are a part of nature.

One of my favorite animals is the otter. Amongst the birds, I like raptors. Hawks and owls fascinate me. I enjoy all the common birds that appear at feeders. It’s very pleasurable to observe crows, especially in winter when their sharp black forms stand out against the white snow. Each animal has a way of being. Even each type of bird makes very specific movements. I think Native Americans learned from animals about ways of being. They took on characteristics of the animals they observed, and this augmented their culture in a positive way. For me, the questions about animal intelligence are ridiculous. Animals are not necessarily intelligent in the same way that we are intelligent. They can’t, for example, figure out how to erect a concert hall or a sports stadium. But when we study them, we see that they have intelligence of a different order. When we do not respect and empathize with animals, I believe that something is lost. We don’t become more human. We become less human.

Question

At what age did you know you were an artist?

Jeri Griffith

I knew I was an artist at the moment I was born. I don’t think any of them remain, but I made images of butterflies at the age of three or four. Someone showed me how to put blobs of paint on a crease in a sheet of paper. Probably this was some form of finger paint given to children. You close the paper up and then you press the paint out to form the wings. When you open up the page again, you have a total surprise—a kind of mono-print with two identical images on each side. Each butterfly was different and interesting. I think I liked the serendipity, the unpredictability, of the process. You couldn’t really say what would appear on the page until you opened it up again. I remember that I used to make these pictures to send to my father when he was away training to be a game warden so that would have been pre-kindergarten. I was always involved with whatever art supplies were available to me.

Because my grandfather worked at the paper mill, he was sometimes given reams of paper that came out damaged, or maybe the color or tone was not quite right. Paper was always available for drawing. Later, I was involved with other art supplies. I had a kit with charcoal sticks for following a television artist called John Nagy. I would watch the show on Saturdays, and from it, I learned about light, shading, and perspective. In the beginning, my mother encouraged these projects. She liked to be a child with me and she enjoyed making craft projects from patterns. She read women’s magazines to learn how to make clever things for home decoration. I think the problem there was that I quickly outdistanced her, and she was hurt by this. My mind always worked very quickly when it came to visual language and processes. Once I learned about light and shading, I would see it everywhere. Even when I was just walking down the street, I would be looking at light and shadows. On Sundays, there was a contest that came out in the Milwaukee Journal. I can’t remember the name of it now, but it was essentially an art contest. You colored in the image that you cut from the comic section of the newspaper, but you could also form a decoration around it that reflected the theme. You sent your project in to the newspaper, and if you won you got some small prize, usually a little magic trick or figurine. I won the contest many times, and I had a collection of the little prizes. By the time I was in grade school, I felt that my life should be an expression of something that was inside me. I liked the concept of making things rather than buying them. For a while, I was interested in masks made of paper plates, paper bags, and later paper maché. I could not have articulated it intellectually, but art was always a way of finding a relationship between my interior self and the outside world.

Question

You had some teachers who were strong personalities, beginning perhaps with Hugh Lifson who taught you drawing at Cornell College and then again with the New York painter, Stanley Lewis, when he taught at the Kansas City Art Institute. What did you learn from your teachers?

Jeri Griffith

Both of these teachers had a tremendous impact on my work. Hugh Lifson was a man of contradiction. He taught in rural Iowa but he hailed from New York City. He had a deep knowledge of art history, but he was also steeped in the ferment of contemporary art. He was a man of ideas but also a person of emotion. In life drawing class, we worked in charcoal on large pieces of newsprint. It was very exciting, and I learned to lose myself for two or three hours as we developed our relationship with the model. We’d often begin with very short poses. One had little time to finesse. It was important just to get something down, some lines that might or might not be an image of the model but had something to do with space and with the experience of being there in the room with the paper and the possibility of creating something. He showed me that drawing was really an action—a gesture expressed on paper.

Studying with Stanley Lewis was a completely different experience. In his classes at the Kansas City Art Institute, we drew from the model, but we also drew from paintings and sculptures at the Nelson Atkins Museum just across the street. Lewis himself would draw right alongside the students. He had great intensity, and when he felt that he had discovered something new to him, his enthusiasm would overflow. Through drawing, he could demonstrate how a work by de Kooning related to a painting by Rembrandt or Rubens. Once we spent three or four sessions drawing a particular Hindu sculpture until we really understood what it was about—a dancer, static and carved of stone— but still moving. It was like learning a language—the language that artists use. I learned from him how to get some action going in a work, to make something start to happen.

Question

I’m interested in these two poles in your training—the one teacher emphasized drawing as a gesture in space, as I understand it, and the other emphasized drawing as a discovery of the structure of art. Is that a way to describe this difference? They both emphasized discovery, which must have been tremendously exciting to a student, but I’m trying to understand what they were helping you to discover.

Jeri Griffith

Actually, they were both trying to help me discover the same thing. Plastic art forms—meaning paintings and sculptures—are rooted in gestures that exist in space. These gestures are very related to our own scale and to the human body. There’s a language there that is about space and the way we relate to it and the way we move in it. To work from this standpoint is not the same as applying a style. It’s more like developing a relationship with reality—the reality of your own body and the reality of the space around that body. I think this can be seen very clearly in the paintings of Alberto Giacometti, for example. He works and works at the image until the painting almost seems overworked, but he’s struggling to relate with that space problem. It might be the space in a room. It might be the space in between the painter and the model. It’s not so much that he’s trying to close the space as that he’s trying to understand it. He’s making this attempt to grasp reality—the reality of space.

A sculptor such as Henry Moore does something differently. He creates gargantuan, archetypal forms and the forms actually define the space around them. Painters don’t do that. They’re restricted to a two-dimensional surface, so they have this other kind of problem to solve. They have to push and pull across that surface. That language of pushing and pulling—and this is seen really clearly in Van Gogh—causes the viewer to have some kind of experience of space. Without this, the painting would just seem flat and dead. Of course, some artists take advantage of this. They create that kind of flat surface that pushes people back out of the painting and there’s a certain quality to that too. It makes another kind of statement. The point is that art—painting, drawing, and sculpture—is a visual language, and once you learn that language, then it gives you a starting point. You have something to do, and you understand how to do it.

Question

I’m trying to understand your experience when you drew. I remember you returning to our apartment from the sessions with Stanley Lewis almost high. This was around 1980 or so. You had a sense that a big change was taking place in the way you worked and saw things. What were you discovering that you hadn’t known before? How did this feel?

Jeri Griffith

Before this, I thought that drawing was a kind of skill that was about eye/hand coordination. You looked at something, and you kept looking at the thing itself and then down at the paper, and you tried to make the lines or shading to show it. Or maybe you visualized something mentally and then tried to get that idea down. Essentially, you made a rendition of a form, perhaps a chair with someone sitting on it. You’d look at shapes, the outlines of things and so on, and then try to copy these in two dimensions. I drew this way as a child. Suddenly, I realized that there was a language for drawing, a language that is about space, about things being nearer to the viewer or farther away. The change was like walking and then suddenly learning to dance. It’s a difficult thing to describe in words. It changed everything. It changed the way I saw the world when I was walking down the street. The structure of things became so clear to me. I just “saw” it. I didn’t have to struggle any more. When we worked in class from the model, I could quickly get down the pose in a few bold strokes. I was no longer sketching and trying to find the form. I was just living the form, feeling the dance, and doing it.

Question

You now have more than 30 years of hindsight and working life behind you. Could you describe your artistic development through painting and drawing? I know it’s a huge question, but I’m wondering if you now see your development in ways that are clearly delineated.

Jeri Griffith

This is a little hard to talk about because if you’re working, you’re always making breakthroughs. You’re always coming to something new. You’re always returning to something old. But I would say that, like most artists, I’m captivated by certain images that I keep returning to again and again. One of these has to do with the idea of the figure or portrait pushing against the frame. I had years when I wasn’t working that much, when I really couldn’t work because of other things happening in my life. But even then, I was still growing, and so I often felt like a figure pushing against the frame—the frame of my life and its limitations.

In the mid-90’s, when I began to work on larger canvases, I discovered something that really changed my style and that was that painting is about the paint. Once I got the major sketch for an image down, I’d simply begin to paint. It’s hard to explain, but I might work across the whole surface without even thinking about the image but just making marks, adding color, and delineating lines. It’s funny, but that’s when I really felt that I became a painter: when I discovered that painting was about the paint. In the end, I think that an artist has to find some core thing inside him or herself to express. Artistic expression is a vehicle that has to go somewhere. For me, the destination should be an amalgamation of experience and knowledge that happens where art meets life. I don’t think things really came together for me until I reached my mid-forties. Then something happened. Something changed. I found a confidence and the means to say what I had wanted to say all along.

Question

Who are some artists who have inspired you? What did you learn from them?

Jeri Griffith

I’m not an artist who is in a dialogue with three or five people who are on the cutting edge of contemporary art. My dialogue is with the whole history of art. I can be inspired by sources so diverse—a medieval Russian icon, a painting by Rembrandt, a sculpture by Leonard Baskin, or a figurative work by an unknown Meso-American potter. I love art museums, and I go there to be inspired and to learn something about the fountains from which art springs.

But if I had to identify three specific artists who’ve inspired me, I might come up with a short list: First, there would be Paul Gauguin. I studied his compositions when I was in school. A few years ago, I walked into an exhibit at the MFA in Boston entitle “Gauguin Tahiti,” and I immediately said: Yes, you can use all these colors. It’s OK. Second, I might say that I love Romare Bearden. I saw his retrospective at the Whitney a few years ago and it was amazing. Bearden is an African-American artist who worked a lot with collage. I relate with his fractured spaces, his sense of pattern, and the way that he lays out his compositions. It’s improvisational and like jazz, also intensely colorful. Third, I’d name Frida Kahlo. And that would be because Frida Kahlo made it all right to use all sorts of personal iconography in a painting. She combined a personal message with universal themes. She was a woman and a painter. She just did what she did and said what she had to say.

Question

I’m interested in this personal iconography. I’m thinking of your black and white series (In Black and White), but also of many of your paintings and other work. There is this same mixture of the personal iconography with universal themes that we see in Kahlo, but handled quite differently. In fact, this is a major aspect to your work, almost a layering of your iconography. You can have an image of a fish going across the canvas. The viewer is forced to ask, what does this mean? It’s not jarring like a surrealist might do. It’s just there, part of the context. Or I am thinking of the image you return to of someone holding a globe or ball in their hands, which they are looking into.

The Psychologist from In Black and White

The Psychologist from In Black and White

On a simple level, it’s like looking into a crystal ball, but it’s more complex than someone looking into the future. It’s also about the person’s unconscious, which you often populate with iconography, a metaphor within a metaphor. It’s almost a joke, where is the unconscious? Is it outside or inside? You keep blurring the distinction between the inner and outer, until finally in some of the recent work, there is very little separation at all. Was it the commitment to the personal iconography that brought you to this point? After all, you could have said, what is this stuff?

Jeri Griffith

Well, you’ve described the evolution of this iconography as it developed in my work. When I began the black and white series, I really dropped all preconceptions about what I thought my work should look like. Before this, I’d always tried to work with a visualization of what I thought a piece should look like. I had a conscious thought and then, I’d try to execute that thought. The process was something like working out a recipe in the kitchen. I’d imagine the result I wanted and then try to use the materials to accomplish that result. When I began the black and white drawings, I somehow took myself out of the process. I stopped trying to visualize some outcome. I just approached the paper and drew what I saw at that moment. I suppose I’d had something of a personal iconography before that, but then it really began to emerge. Over time, I saw that certain iconic things meant something to me. For example, fish usually symbolize thoughts in the unconscious. It isn’t necessary for the viewer to understand this in order to appreciate a work. Still, I’m surprised how many people actually sense these meanings. It does make me wonder whether they are somehow universal. Another artist who developed a personal, visual language was Paul Klee. I’m not sure whether he did this consciously or unconsciously. I’ve studied his work for years in books and in museums. He’s another artist who had a lot of influence on me. I think I share his kind of impetus for making art.

Question

So you see a major transition in your work when you shifted from a visual outcome that you wanted to achieve to working intuitively without a preconceived image. How do you approach a painting then? I’m trying to understand what you are doing. Do you “see” internally what you need to paint in the moment?

Jeri Griffith

Not exactly. I wouldn’t say that I see it internally. It doesn’t start as an image in my mind. When I approach a fresh surface, I’m immediately dealing with problems of scale. An image that might suggest itself for a 7 x 7 inch square wouldn’t necessarily work for a mural. I approach the working surface without any preconceptions about what I’m going to do. Then the initial impetus appears. I don’t see the finished painting. I see the beginning of something that will need more development. I always begin with a drawing, often freely done with a brush. Once I have a drawing, I’ll begin to add areas of color and then the changes will start happening. It’s a reciprocal thing. I will relate with the image and, in some way, the image will answer me. It will actually tell me what to do next. The reciprocity that develops is spontaneous and intuitive. It is very much like a conversation with another human being.

Gradually, it becomes more and more specific, and then there’s a drive toward some conclusion. The finished product should have a life of it’s own. Afterwards, I really experience my work in that way. It doesn’t feel that it came from me. Rather it grew out of a process. It would almost feel more natural for me to talk about “the painting” rather than “my paintings.” I don’t feel that kind of ownership. The painting exists. Yes, I had a hand in making it, but somehow, it also made itself. That’s the really astonishing thing. It’s like arriving at an amalgamation of some sort. I get to a place where my interior world—thoughts, dreams, vision—comes into contact with something that isn’t exactly a part of me and then the two things mix themselves up in the creation of a painting.

Of course, there’s also some level of skill involved—knowing how to solve problems—having a repertoire of ways of doing things—feeling the rhythm of lines, patterns, and colors. But at this point, for me a painting happens without a lot of struggle. It develops like a piece of music or a dance. I move. It moves. We are partners, and then, somehow, the thing finishes itself. There’s some faith that, together, we will get where we need to go. I’m not working with an object, but with a living thing, and when I let it go, it will take on its own life. For example, it has the capacity to relate with other people even when I am not present.

Question

What interests me is that the painting doesn’t begin with a feeling then, does it? I suspect that would surprise most of the people who see your work and experience it as generating a feeling in them.

Jeri Griffith

I think that, in painting, a feeling is not a destination. If I try for a feeling, then usually that comes out to be maudlin, overstated. It may even be a trivialization of something that is, in reality, quite profound and complex. Then too, if I’m aiming for a feeling, then I already have an agenda. I have an idea of what I think I will discover and I’ve placed a limitation on my search for the image. And then, I don’t enter into the conversation. I’m not allowing the reality of that piece to communicate with me. Painting, to my mind, is an extremely intellectual and spiritual endeavor. It is not really about self-expression or any kind of propaganda. Of course, painters are shaped by cultural values. So many great artists worked in the service of the Christian church. There was a certain level of propaganda about that. And yet, in the case of someone like Michelangelo, the work lives. It is more than an illustration of a known trajectory. It speaks even to those who do not know the story of David or who have no familiarity with the Biblical tales represented on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel. Coming from a multi-cultural environment, I’m able to appreciate something like the thangkas painted by Tibetan Buddhist monks even if I don’t know what god is represented in a particular image. I can find some inspiration in a ceremonial object made by a Native American. I’m often influenced by what most people would call “naïve” artists because what they do is so direct and so related to their life conditions.

Question

That was actually my next question! I know you have been continually influenced by what may seem to be unsophisticated sources—the Inuit of Canada or the aborigines of Australia. I’ve joked with you before that you may actually be quite suited to their cultures. Maybe you’d miss the museums! What is it about these sometimes anonymous works that you are integrating into your own work?

Jeri Griffith

For many years, I’ve enjoyed looking at Inuit art, both the carvings in soapstone and the prints and drawings coming out of the workshop at Cape Dorset in Canada. So much of the early work done there is so fresh, and has such a direct relationship with remembered and lived life. There’s not so much attention to some sort of learned perspective as just to showing something—some event or situation or animal—and just expressing that thing the way it really is. I have a book I really love about Inuit women artists (Inuit Women Artists, San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1994). Each of them worked independently, and had such a different style. I suppose I also identify with their relationship with animals because it resonates with many of my own childhood experiences in a fishing and hunting culture. More recently, I’ve studied the aboriginal art of Australia and tried to understand what these images express for a people who were so tied to the land and to the mythology that helped to define their way of life. But beyond this, I think that sometimes these untrained artists aren’t hampered by ideas about how to do things “right.” And therefore, they just do things, and they come out better than they do for people who have ideas about how it should be done. And yes, I have an affinity for indigenous culture. I believe that I could live almost anywhere. Even in my urban life, I center a good part of my day around the preparation of food for my household. I like to do things from the bottom up—bake breads, make fresh pasta, and create dishes from basic ingredients. I’m a process-oriented person. I know how to spin and weave. I can do almost anything from scratch and without instructions or a recipe.

Question

There seem to be two aspects to your work—these complexly layered paintings, such as “She Is the Sea,” which seems to have some kind of archetypal meaning about female nature and take a long time to execute, and the more immediate drawings that sometimes even have social meanings.

She Is The Sea from "Regions of Identity"

She Is The Sea from “Regions of Identity”

I’m thinking about the black and white drawings, where, for example, the drawing called “Clockspeed” speaks about time in modern culture, or “Cancer Cells,” where you imagine cancer cells as conscious beings, or the war series, which you did around the time of the Iraq invasion. Are these two contrary aspects of your work or do they arise in the same way?

Clockspeed from In Black and White

Clockspeed from In Black and White

Cancer Cells from In Black and White

Cancer Cells from In Black and White

Jeri Griffith

They arise in pretty much the same way. But here, we’re also speaking about two inherently different working surfaces. It’s a very different process to make a drawing or a collage on paper than it is to create a painting on a relatively large canvas. For one thing, on a canvas, if there are areas that I don’t like, I can just paint them over with block-out white and take them back to the beginning. On paper, that’s not possible, and probably that’s why I sometimes use collage. Cutting and pasting allows me to shape or rearrange an image. So part of the difference that you’re describing arises from the dictates of the media in use. However, it’s probably true that I tend to deal with more complicated imagery in painting and with social or political problems in drawings. It’s not premeditated. It just feels natural. Drawings are more ephemeral, and the process is a little more immediate. It takes months for me to develop a painting whereas a drawing might be finished in a couple of days or even in a couple of hours.

Question

After many years of not even attempting to show your work, you’re now getting it out there. You had a decade of just working, of not showing anything. Some might see that as an extreme move on your part. Yet I don’t feel any anxiety in you about “losing” a decade to showing your work. Why is that?

Jeri Griffith

At a certain point, I realized that, while I was engaged with art almost all the time, I was mostly engaged with something outside of myself. I was thinking about the art of other people. I was imitating other artists. I could do something like this or something like that. Maybe I would make an image that looked like an O’Keeffe painting or I could do something that resembled a work by Max Beckman. I might look to any one of a number of other artists for inspiration. I’d done very few things that I felt I could really call my own. I needed to make a complete break with that kind of thinking and find out what would come out of me. At one point, I even threw away all my supplies. It was so tempting to continue turning out promising works even if they weren’t at all original. I started over with pencil and some notebooks with black covers. I just drew, and I made a thousand drawings. I selected a hundred of those to become the black and white series, and then things just took off from there.

I won’t say that I never experienced any stress about this. It is a scary thing to embark on a project with that kind of trust. I had to believe that something would emerge. The point is that we reach turning points in our lives. At some juncture, I thought: Well, I can just go on like this, or I can try something else. I knew that the result of continuing would be that I would just make imitative work. Maybe some of that work would even sell. There was a commercial aspect to that whole approach. People know who Georgia O’Keeffe is, and they would like to own a painting that looks like something she would have done. As an artist, I did not find this to be very satisfying. So I had to find out. I needed to discover what I might be able to do under a different way of thinking.

It was important not to show my work. If a certain aspect of my efforts made money or got some good opinions or approval, I would have been tempted to continue along those lines even if that trajectory lacked originality or authenticity. Some artists develop in relation to a movement or in relation to other artists. For me, it was important to go away and relate with something else. I needed the freedom to develop independently. This reflects my belief about the need to live an authentic life. No matter what their age, a person should always be involved in some transformative process. That’s what my art is about, and that is what my life is about too. I believe in constant growth and transformation. Without these, we are dead. Often, the growth is internal, and sometimes, it involves going through unpleasant learning experiences. But in the end, there are so many destinations along the way. At this time in my life, every painting or image I create is one of those destinations.