Pointing elsewhere

Will hopefully have time next weekend to put type out some more thoughts about Distributism or sehnsucht. We’ll see., but in the meantime have been adding some works to my sculptural website. See what’s new from the Paul Nielsen studio at pcNielsen.com.

RIP Reinhold Marxhausen

Reinhold Marxhausen, an innovative Nebraska artist of some renown, died last week. Here he is on Late Night with David Letterman in 1986.

Marxhuasen is known in part here in Nebraska for a mural in the Nebraska State Capital building. You can read a little bit more about this explorative sculptor on the Seward Concordia Neighborhood blog.

Where does content in an artwork come from?

Image Journal featured artist John Frame in their last newsletter. Frame’s work is fascinating, and slightly disturbing, and in an interview he says a couple of things I felt the need to respond to in some form or fashion.

The subject matter of art can be anything that the artist chooses. The content however will always and only be who the artist has made him or herself into.

There is a lot of truth in this statement. I’ve said before, particularly when talking about painter Thomas Kinkade, that the subject matter of art is not something I’ll debate with an artist. I may not appreciate every subject, I may not be drawn into every subject, but subject matter is up to the artist. Frame’s point about content being separate from subject matter is not something that I’ve considered, at least not using those terms.

Subject: An object, scene, incident, etc., chosen by an artist for representation

Content: Something that is to be expressed through some medium, as speech, writing, or any of various arts

In general I think of the subject of a work of art as a tool for conveying what Dictionary.com suggests as the content (more commonly referred to, it seems to me, as the message or meaning). Frame’s comment about content seems to born out of Modernism, which commonly glorifies the individual. Curiously though, his observation seems somewhat aloof — if I can make this kind of judgment based such a brief video interview. For some reason, the comment comes across as academic more than personal.

This is an age-old debate really, one that is not a stranger to The Aesthetic Elevator. How much of the artist should come through in a work? Is serious artwork self-expressive or reserved? Is the content of a painting negated by the raucous lifestyle of of the painter?

We expect each artist to have his or her own style. We each work a little bit differently. We each respond to inspiration around us in our own way. Each artist has their own process. We each come from different roots that color our approaches, our choices on subject matter and so forth. Each artist has a different passion that will show up over time in their style. But is this, “who the artist has made him or herself into,” really what amounts to content, the meaning of a work? Frame talks about meaning a little later in the interview.

When people ask what the work is about, the real answer is that it isn’t about anything and that’s not to say that it’s meaningless rather than it carries its meaning in its own way and on its own terms. And I really think the only way to understand that meaning is by looking and letting go of thinking.

Again there is truth in what the artist says, but I can’t agree wholeheartedly. I’m not going to argue with an artist about whether or not there is intended meaning in a work. That’s for the artist alone to know, and share if he likes. Of course, content, meaning, comes through regardless of an artist’s intentions. I appreciate Frame’s emphasis on looking, but I’m not certain why letting go of thinking needs to be part of viewing art.

I do agree that our own roots, preconceptions, baggage as it were impede looking. If he means that we should let go of or carefully moderate these sometime hindrances while viewing a sculpture or painting I agree. If he’s suggesting that we should check our intellect at the door of the gallery, I disagree.

Still, it’s a good interview and fascinating interactive sculpture. Have a look.

Craft as connection between generations

Fiber artist Betsy Timmer rightly observes that “There’s a growing value on things that are handmade . . . and it’s almost a reaction everything being so mass produced.” She’s interviewed in this really nice little spotlight on the Harveyville Project in northeastern Kansas. Timmer continues, “It’s just a reaction against everything being so slick and, you know, assembly line, made in China.” Have a look.

Christmas XI

Crocheted icicle ornament with wool

The icicle to the right is a handmade ornament by my wife, who is getting deeper and deeper into her fiber arts. She finally has a drum carder for prepping fibers to be spun, and I’m actually wondering with all of the fluffy wools floating around the house how I might incorporate the fibers into my sculptures.


And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christa the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.”

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.

Christmas III

A CNN story via InternetMonk, a commercialized Christmas is bringing Christ to China:

It is even Christmas in China these days. And while we continue to complain here in the West about the commercialization of the season, it is exactly this commercial aspect of Christmas that is allowing missionaries and others to explain the real meaning of the holiday. An interesting turn of events, don’t you think?

Sculpture from lead pencil studio, Non-sign ii, via Design-Realized

Approaching forms as an artist

A recent series on drawing from the New York Times, given by James McMullan, makes two points worth repeating, especially as I delve into figurative forms again.

The first is that the “process of drawing is a really live process and not like a dead thing, ‘Oh my God I can’t change anything because I made that line five minutes ago.’” If we didn’t learn this from all of the gestural drawings we did in college, I don’t think we ever will. This is, I believe, what paralyzes a lot of people who do not have artistic training (or even artistic ambitions) when they think of drawing. They have this idea that your first line has to be perfect. Not so.

McMullan’s second interesting point is that people tend to want to compete with a photograph when they are drawing. From there he says “I’m trying to show people is that a much more vigorous way of seeing the body or seeing the head is to look at the big forms first . . . we tend to concentrate on the eyes and hairstyle and think that that is what gives people their visual personality.” He continues by pointing out that visual personality comes actually from basic visual forms — the slant of the brow, how much the nose protrudes from the cheek — and not so much the things we usually concentrate on.

I wish McMullan would have expounded on how we tend to compete with photographs as we draw (or sculpt in clay as well?). He may have been trying to do so with this important notation on how we perceive the human countenance, but there is something more to be said about how that perception is shaped in an environment canvased with such realistic human likenesses. Before photography — yes, there was such a time — how did we look at a portrait as a viewer? How did we approach an object, a figure, as an artist?

Regardless, these two points came at just the right time for me. Drawing (with graphite or clay) is a living thing shifting throughout the creative process — a responsive process drawn from observation of both the actual and perceived. Figurative countenance is defined by basic forms. Now off I go to sketch a few more faces from Flickr before putting those forms to clay.

Unfortunately the video seems to be hosted on the New York Times website and can’t be embedded. Watch it in its entirety via this link.

In the Studio: The first head

I actually started and bisque fired this piece before moving back to Nebraska, so it’s been waiting for some kind of finish for about two years. It made it through my first pit firing, and a few weeks ago I finished it with a little gilding. I’m very happy with the result.

I’ve continued with the heads now that storm season is over. (A number of my cloud forms didn’t make it through the recent bisque or pit firings. Some were a porcelain I was trying out that just didn’t work with this kind of dynamic form.) They will be my winter project, in essence. I’m happy with the four or five more I’ve carved out so far and have tentatively begun sketching the human form again in order to hone my craft and inform the series — which for the moment is being referred to as “Us.”

There are some gorgeous results here from the pit firing, very subtle variations. The lack of detail in the face is intentional, a result of using a groggy clay at a small scale (about 7″ tall). This also makes the work a little less personal and more representative of the series’ generalized title.

Sculpture for the Christmas tree

I’ve been getting quite a bit done lately in the artistic department (if you hadn’t noticed by my recent posts), including some work on ornaments.

The wife and I started out with the ornament idea with a specific goal — combining her fiber craft with my clay craft — but it’s ballooned beyond that. The most recent Christmas tree ornaments from my ceramic corner of the house are represented by the following three images.

As I find myself doing more and more often, these were inspired by a texture created with a found object. The object was found in my backyard while playing with the puppy, and couldn’t be more plain. It’s part of a stick, or twig, a very tiny part fallen off of a rotten hackberry branch. Not even as big around as my pinky.

I rolled a slab, used the weathered stick-part to pattern the slab and then cut around the pattern as I saw fit. The resulting texture reminded me of wings so I’ve tentatively titled these “Abstract Angels.”

The red is what I had left of a Duncan underglaze purchased roughly 10 years ago. This is the sad part of this post: I’m now out of this color and I’m not sure Duncan is making it anymore. What I like about this underglaze is that it fires over greenware like a glaze. It comes out glossy and mottled (with a few bubbles from time to time). If Duncan’s quit making the color or changed the recipe, I’m going to have to see if I can formulate it myself. All I know is that it contains cadmium.

I’m very smitten with these 14 abstract angels. I don’t know how many I’ll be able to part with, but a few of them will be for sale in downtown Grand Island at The Milestone Gallery.

In the Studio: Metal leaf over clay

Finally getting around to working with metal leaf. Here I’ve used it on a wall hanging inspired by the pillowy mammatus that float over the prairie. I love the way it broke over the textured clay. There’s a glaze (I think it was an opalescent recipe that didn’t turn out as opalescenty as I hoped) surrounding the piercing.

I’m not exactly sure where my interest in gilding — as well as gemstones — began (this is actually “imitation” gold leaf), though it may stem in part from an interest in the idea of an icon, a sacred object. I haven’t thought about this at length yet; I should in the near future.

This piece is for sale with a few others at The Milestone Gallery in Grand Island, Nebraska.

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