Be Still My Art!

First of all, I apologize for the terrible pun- gotta find some way to jazz up the ol’ still life. Still life, as a genre, sort of gets a bad rap- traditionally it’s ranked dead last in the hierarchy of artistic genres. We were once sworn enemies, only for Wayne Thiebaud to forever change that. Most of my senior work for my BFA was paintings of objects (not fully posed in a still life, but still with the same idea.) But since graduating I’ve taken a bit of a break from painting objects to painting faces. So, it was pleasantly refreshing to take a still life workshop at Scottsdale Artist’s School to revisit the unique challenge presented by the genre.

I gained a real appreciation for the complexity that exists even in really “standard”  traditional still life setups. You not only have to “pose” objects in an interesting configuration, but you have to consider the relationship between those objects (is there enough variety of shapes, textures, colors, etc?) as well as light the scene in a way that will showcase them to their fullest potential. Just finding objects that would relate to each other effectively was a big challenge.  As with making any piece of art, no matter the style or genre, it all just boils down to problem-solving.

After a lot of mulling and moving different objects in and out, I eventually arrived at this setup:

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I loved the yellow bowl, and kind of tried to find objects to complement that. I decided that the purple onions were a natural source of contrast, while still having a similar shape. The leaves would draw the eye down to the focus of the piece.

The class was taught by modern master of the still life, Jeff Legg. He was a fantastic instructor, and I love that he spent so much time doing demos for us. I got to see him make multiple paintings (pretty much) from start to finish and was excited to experiment with his own way of working influenced by the old masters. His technique is so different from my own way of working- in that it involves a lot of glazing, working from a toned canvas, and the use of black, which I tend to use sparingly at most- that it felt refreshing to try something different.

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And here is the finished product:

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oil on canvas

I’m pretty happy with the result! I’ve definitely learned to appreciate what a privilege it is to be in a classroom setting and to have an (immensely skilled!) instructor sharing with you and looking at your work. Even if you’re an incredibly self-aware person, you still tend to fall back on working in ways that feel comfortable and/or familiar. That’s why we all need to dive into something new every once in awhile, if just to keep us on our toes!

Body Image and Life Drawing

Recently I started to do some portrait modelling at an art school. I’ve been on the artist side of this equation many times, but this is my first time being the model. Remaining still, being stared at, and sitting and re-sitting in the exact. same. position. for extended periods of time is definitely harder than it looks. It’s also weird to walk around the room and see other people’s paintings of me, even though I paint myself all the time. And it’s just nice to be in the classroom environment again.

I didn’t opt to do nude modelling, since I was kinda unsure about doing it and that’s something you need to be REALLY sure you want to do (I had a few models in college that were clearly very nervous and uncomfortable which then creates an uncomfortable energy in the room.) But I did get to talking to a few of the more seasoned models at the school about their experiences. We talked about how life drawing/painting classes are a truly  unique context to see a naked body in, while also being probably the most positive and affirming. I honestly think everyone should take one of these classes if they can.

A life drawing class at Vassar, from the 1930′ s. Image via

So many people aren’t used to seeing the naked human form, especially the naked female form, in a non-sexualized context. So, when I took my first figure drawing class my sophomore year in college, I guess there was some initial awkwardness. Life drawing is a different kind of objectification- you’re seeing the body as it really is, as the point of the class is to replicate what is in front of you with observational accuracy. You break down the body into shapes, planes, values, etc. just as you would with any still life of actual objects. Simply as a fellow human being with a body of her own, observing a variety of body shapes like this honestly made me feel more comfortable in my own skin. Seeing that everyone has somewhat uneven skintone, birthmarks, scars, stretch marks, and other features that we all stress waaay too much over and will oftentimes illogically think that we’re the only ones with these flaws, feels almost therapeutic.

I’ll leave you with Stephen Colbert (as Chuck Noblet in the excellent Strangers with Candy) doing life drawing modelling because… reasons ( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)

gif via

Obligatory Reflections

Even though my rational side understands that the concept of a “new year” is just an arbitrary marker of the passage of time, which is itself a human construct and we will all die alone in the end…. I admit, I become much more reflective during this time of year. I can’t help but look back at the work I’ve been making and the progress that I’ve made as an artist.

2015 was my first full year of being a post-BFA graduate. I was thrust into “real life” without the constant supervision of my professors and peers. Upon graduating,  I essentially felt like that guy from the first Jurassic Park movie who, upon sitting down for a leisurely poo, watches all four walls of his little outhouse fall to the ground around him like Popsicle sticks, revealing a hungry T-Rex just outside its (in actuality, probably cardboard) walls. To make matters worse, and more comical (in the movie at least) his pants are down. In this metaphor, the T-Rex is REAL LYFE!!11! Just a few hours after graduating, I remember sitting in my room when a wave of dread and panic came over me. I couldn’t help but think that the T-Rex of REAL LIFE was going to thoroughly kick my ass and I would end up one of the many BFA grads who ends up not producing any new work shortly after graduating. But really, nothing so tragic or dramatic has happened. I’m still making work, and even thought it doesn’t always feel like it, said work is developing.

I went through this whole year making work in a pretty wide variety of media- everything from watercolor, oil, acrylic, various other painting mediums, mixed media, even embroidery.

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a sampling of my “2015 best 9” posts on instagram, which showcases the variety in my work this year pretty well.

I kind of have 3 main “series” of work that are in progress. Because of this, I basically felt like I was all over the place, because I kind of was, medium-wise.

I have my “Doe Eyes” series, which really just started as small sketches, but gradually turned into a series of small mixed-media works on paper:

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Doe Eyes: Green Mascara | gouache, watercolor, crayon on paper | 5×7″

Then, I have my Fixation series, which is mostly done in acrylic paint/mediums on canvas:

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Fixation: Eye III | acrylic, false eyelashes on canvas | 12×12″ |2015

Finally, I have my “Clown” series, which is the most recent. It’s a series of self portraits:

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Self Portrait: Clown III | oil on canvas | 20×30″

All three of these series, although different medium-wise, share a common thematic concern: they all have to do with feminine beauty rituals: the type of beauty that is dabbed, smeared, and applied. It’s not like I’m never conscious of this commonality while painting, but I can’t help but feel like I’m all over the place when I’m jumping from watercolor to oil to acrylic gel. I even went through some old portfolios and ended up destroying a lot of things from school in the name of new year’s cleaning (sorry, Mom,) where I also ended up finding a lot of examples of me exploring these kinds of ideas as early as freshman year of my BFA. It’s interesting to see how far back the core ideas for work that feels “new” often go.

So, 2015 was a year of experimentation, but experimentation with a pretty focused set of concerns and ideas. That seems to be a pretty good place to be in. I’m also pleased to say that I sold my highest volume of work this year at Art One Gallery. I still have a long way to go in my burgeoning art career, but I look forward to continuing to explore and develop in 2016, hopefully with less existential fear of T-rex attacks.

Ghosts of Painters Past

I’ve been reading a book called Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland, and one particularly salient point I found (among many) was this:

“Your reach as a viewer is vastly greater than your reach as a maker. The art you can experience may have originated a thousand miles away or a thousand years ago, but the art you can make is irrevocably bound to the times and places of your life.”

Which also reminded me of a conversation I had with one of my painting professors, where he essentially said that “you have to live in your own time. You can’t be Monet.”

This is incredibly valuable advice. It’s normal to be a student or developing artist and to have artistic heroes- people who you look to and just think, “wow, if I could paint like that…” The problem comes when you essentially try to replicate work from a certain artist or era with the intent that it all but pass for one of those works. There are plenty of painters out there, for instance, who fancy themselves to be Monet-esque impressionists. But their work, being produced in the present and therefore divorced from the context that the original impressionists painted in, just looks like a cheap imitation- and that’s because it is.

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The Impressionist’s work was highly innovative in their time because from their cultural context, they were solving a problem and presenting something new to the world. They actually took incredible creative risks in doing so. People today who try to imitate these artists (or artists from any other historical period,) however, are merely piggybacking off of their innovation and banking on the nostalgic feelings that some retain for the group. As Bayles and Orland go on to say, “There’s a difference between meaning that is embodied and meaning that is referenced.”

Admiring artists from the past is completely natural, and a great way to see different approaches to solving formal or even thematic issues. And I know and understand the whole Joseph Campbell, “nothing is truly original” thing and all that. But taking bits from the past and mixing them with your own personal point of view and painting style derived from the actual, present world around you is much more worthwhile and brave than just chasing after the ghost of Monet.

 

The Secret

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                                                       Getting from point A to B.

People pursuing creative careers often look up to the very successful for guidance on what to do. Creative careers don’t have the benefit of a rigid, structured career path, which is part of the draw of them. The freedom! The independence! But the main disadvantage of that is, of course, that it can sometimes feel like all your efforts are leading nowhere, or not in the right direction, or to something you don’t really want (or, maybe you’re not even completely sure what you want in the first place.)

Feeling directionless is not pleasant, especially when you look around at your peers and see them all in their structured, cushy jobs while you’re still trying to nurture an art career. At least if you want to be a doctor, there’s a way to figure out EXACTLY what you need to do to get there (not that actually BECOMING one isn’t hard, but at least you get a road map.) Artists don’t get a road map. There is no one, formulaic, way to become a successful artist. And that fact can sometimes be refreshing, oftentimes maddening.

I would take any opportunity to ask successful people in my field the question: any advice? What should I do? And they pretty much always say the same thing- just keep on making work. Okay. I would get so frustrated with this answer, because I felt like they were deliberately keeping some secret from me. I wanted to shake them and say “but what should I really DO! JUST FREAKIN’ TELL ME THE SECRET!” That answer is frustrating because it negates the idealistic fantasy that there is some sort of “secret formula” for success. That you can just gather the right ingredients, cook it under the right conditions, and BAM!, you have success gumbo.

So I’ve started to realize and accept this fact. It’s a scary thing to accept as a young, aspiring artist because it means accepting that you’ll have to go out and make a lot of calls for yourself, and that you will have to trust yourself to make said calls. Not crumbling when you make a bad one is where the “keep making work” advice kicks in. Gathering the strength to keep going, despite failure, or hopelessness, is really what “keep making work,” means. Although it’s no secret formula, it is great, valuable advice.

BFA Blues

Created with Microsoft Fresh Paint

I  very recently graduated with my BFA, and I must say, I have some mixed feelings about it. Part of me obviously feels really great to have graduated and to be done. Another, strong, part of me really didn’t want to leave.

Art school is a very nurturing environment. In my case, I had even secured a shared studio space with some friends for my senior year. We had a keurig in there and everything! My professors would visit and give impromptu critiques on what I was doing! I could take a painting straight from class to my studio space for more attention!  It was great. And I even had a life-affirming experience there on Spring break. My solo painting show (that I’ve already posted about!) was happening right after break, so that was truly the cutoff point to finish any paintings. So, I ended up driving down to the studio just about every day of what was supposed to be my vacation like it was my job- coming in in the morning, leaving in the evening. I remember driving there- to my studio, to work on my paintings, and feeling like “this is it. this is the feeling I want to have every day of my life.” And now I’ve moved out and graduated and it feels like all of that is gone. It feels like I spent all this time building something over 4 years and now I have to start all over.

We art students are human. We feel all the time the subtle (and rudely unsubtle) disapproval from others for daring to pursue a creative degree (apparently, to them, universities are just glorified vocational schools.) But in the supportive environment of art school, you get positive affirmation every day from fellow students, mentors, and professors. You have an (albeit insular) place where you belong and are appreciated. Then, you graduate and  it can feel like you’ve been cast out of Eden or something.

Then I snap out of feeling sorry for myself and realize that this uneasiness is pretty natural for recent grads. It’s natural that, after four years of structured schedules and assignments and being surrounded by people literally being paid to help you, being spit out into the world where we have such an abundance of freedom can feel overwhelming. I now have to find my own place in my art community and eke out a career for myself and that means putting myself out there without my professors standing beside me. And that’s scary. But that’s okay. Looking back, every positive change that I’ve gone through started with me feeling at least a bit uncomfortable in the beginning. And that’s what this is: a beginning. I think I and other grads should take comfort in the fact that this uncomfortable feeling, like all things, will eventually pass as we settle into lives of our own creation.

My First Solo Show!

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This is a belated post, since the event in question happened back in March… but, this semester I passed a milestone in my career- I had my first solo exhibition! I had to apply for it and everything! It was certainly one of the more challenging things I’ve ever done. Certainly just making a body of work that was both large, cohesive, and of enough quality was a challenge, but so was doing the multitude of smaller tasks associated with the show. Choosing a font for wall vinyls and ordering them, printing postcards, sending invites and trying to get press, and installing the show all took a toll and tested my patience at times. But the show went up and I celebrated. I definitely hope that this is truly just the beginning of many more in the future.

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The show took place at ASU’s swanky new Step Gallery, located in Downtown Phoenix!

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If you want to take a closer look at the pieces in my show, as well as the artist  statement for the work, be sure to check out my new (independent domain!) website: megankoth.com !

 

It’s What YOU Make of it

Lets just say that sometime in the recent past, I saw a really, really terrible senior show at my school. Just terrible. And these were seniors. People who had, presumably, been here for four or so years honing their craft, diligently listening to professors and peer criticisms and suggestions. I was baffled. How could this be all they have to show? This is their “cream of the crop?” And it dawned on me that some people are just completely and utterly unwilling to learn. Militantly resistant, even. Unfortunately, I see this all too often in the weird world of BFA pursuers.

One often overlooked quality that makes a creative degree uniquely challenging is in how lofty its value can be. Being on the cusp of graduating myself with a BFA, I’m tempted to compare the act of pursuing this degree to say, deciding to backpack through Europe for a few years, to “find myself.” Now, I’m not saying this in a derisive way, but only to make the point that the value of this thing that an art degree is is not just contingent on showing up and doing what needs to be done, acquiring easily defined skills in the process to list on some resume- but in “what I make of it,” as cliche as that sounds. Just as someone could trudge through Europe with a closed-minded attitude and end up wasting four years, someone could similarly trudge through art school for the same amount of time, emerging no more capable of producing even decent artwork than when they arrived.

Basically, the biggest demand in the successful acquisition of an art degree is in being internally motivated- motivated to learn less fun and more academic things like perspective, anatomy,  replicating objects and the human figure from life (NOT PHOTOGRAPHS OMG,) and in delving into mediums and subjects unfamiliar to you. In order to succeed as an artist, you have to be motivated enough to learn the stuff you don’t like, because ultimately, at least some of that stuff is gonna make executing the stuff you do like to make a whole lot easier (or even just slightly more possible.) In fact, what you like making may be kind of boring, actually, because it’s 1. stuff you feel comfortable doing for a reason, and 2. stuff you’re making with very little art historical context/life experience behind it. For instance, I used to really hate still life. Thought it was dumb, because all I’d been exposed to were weird, dark, Renaissance-era paintings of fruit and dead chickens:

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Sorry, but I’ve always found paintings like this to be super tacky. But then I was exposed to Wayne Thiebaud, and all was right with the world:

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My point obviously being: I changed. As a result of going to school, allowing myself to be exposed to new things, I changed a really myopic view (more like bias) of mine for the better. And I’ve made a myriad of other positive changes as well. I’ve become a much better figure painter/drawer, not without struggle, mind you. I somehow learned to like watercolor. And I’m really proud to say that I feel that I’ve successfully befriended all of the studio professors I’ve had. And some students just don’t seem willing to do that. They go to every critique as if ready for battle. They see any honest attempts at criticism as personal attacks, undoubtedly feeding into their own self-constructed persecution narrative. “They just don’t understand my ART!” They’ll think. I had a classmate in a figure painting class once express frustration during a critique that he was “sick of being objective!” i.e. he was sick of being expected to paint what he actually saw in real life. He wanted to paint these crazy fantastical scenes and put in fairy girls or whatever. But you know what makes painting a kick-ass fairy nymph a whole lot easier? knowing how to paint an actual human girl accurately first. And he clearly was not there yet.  I see so many people like this- students who want to skip squares one, two, and three all the way to four. These are people who take some sort of weird pride in resisting internal change. Like they’re some rebel defying the evil institution and professors encouraging such things as personal growth and artistic development. They somehow have twisted their own immaturity into an achievement.

Look, we’ve all had slumps. The thing with relying so much on being internally motivated to better yourself and your craft is that it can be draining. And sometimes I find myself closing off to criticism that I really need to hear. But the thing is, I eventually reflect, and realize I should listen to that advice, and I move on. And my work gets better in the process, adding value to my education.  Unfortunately, some make the mistake of letting that “slump” last all of four years, ending up  not only wasting the time of their classmates, professors, and loved ones, but their own. At least they’ll likely have some sizable student loan debt to keep them company.

Abstracting Realism

Last semester, in one of my painting classes, I was given a rare challenge. I don’t tend to be much fazed by the assignments my professors throw at me, but this one was surprisingly difficult. The premise was simple and maybe even trite- take a largely representational/realistic painting and abstract it. I chose Vincent Desiderio’s Sumo:

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Vincent Desiderio, Sumo, 2008, oil on canvas

I was drawn to the sense of movement and weight of the forms, which I thought may translate well into abstraction. This was my result:

Sumo Abstracted Megan Koth (400x318)

Megan Koth, Sumo, Acrylic on Canvas

During the whole process, I was constantly having to stop myself from making it too realistic- pretty much the opposite of what I had planned in my head. I approached the project thinking “I’m gonna make this so abstract as to be mostly unrecognizable to the original.” Obviously, that didn’t happen. I think that challenge came because my abstracts tend to be almost strictly formalist- I don’t look at references or have “subject matter” in mind when doing my abstract work. So, having to look at some serious subject matter while doing an abstract painting was a huge challenge for me.

I’m not necessarily happy with his painting in the sense that I think it’s a really good painting and I would put it in my portfolio or anything, but I’m happy with the painting in relation to the original and the assignment. My current professor said something partly in jest yesterday that I think apt: “your guy’s problem is that you all want to make good paintings.” Sometimes, we have to abandon our tried-and-true tendencies (especially as students!) and be willing to fail, in order to truly be challenged, and therefore to grow, as artists.

Done with Art History??!!

 

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Every art student, no matter their major, has to take at least one art history course as a part of their course requirements. I, being a painting major, am one of these people. And I don’t mind. I don’t always love it, what with the sometimes bad projections/photos of paintings, the occasional droning voice of a less than enthusiastic professor, and the sometimes intense speed at which works and time periods can be moved through. But I bear with these small hiccups, and end up learning a lot about the field I’m trying to break into. However, I hear more than enough of my fellow students decrying their art history courses. Now, being a junior, I hear a lot of people saying that they’re so excited to be “done with art history.” I find this to be kind of an alarmingly sad statement coming from studio art majors.

Now, like I said, art history courses can sometimes be boring- maybe your professor has a weird voice, they’re a little boring, whatever. In my opinion, these are things you just have to get over. It’s not their job to MAKE you interested in the material- you chose the course. What I find alarming about an art student wanting to be “done with art history” is that, in my opinion, to make art, you should have some sort of knowledge of what came before you. A lot of people with the “done with art history” attitude tend to be really invested in the fallacy that by not learning art history, they’re somehow producing their own work in some sort of vacuum of ultra-originality, free from outside influence. It makes their artwork more “unique!” i.e. immature and suck-ish (sorry, way harsh, Tai.) But seriously, whether you want to remain ignorant of it or not, your work is influenced by other works, which are in turn influenced by other works, and so on. So, if you choose to remain ignorant of that fact, you’ll also be ignorant of when you’re treading on familiar ground, maybe very familiar ground, and your self-constructed world in which you’re oh-so original will come crashing down once someone who knows about these things sees your work, as tends to be the case.

And overall, my work has only improved from my learning art history. We don’t really learn how to”read” art when we’re in high school, so a lot of artwork that had seemed esoteric to me before became really interesting or even inspiring to me. Did I like every painting that I learned about? No. But I learned about some artists that I’d never heard of before, or gained new understandings of ones who I had. Connecting art with an actual time period or movement puts it into context, which makes it much easier to appreciate. Looking at Mondrian works, for instance, is hard without knowing of the De Stigl movement.

Piet Mondrian. Composition No. II, with Red and Blue. 1929 (original date partly obliterated; mistakenly repainted 1925 by Mondrian)

Piet Mondrian, Composition with Red and Blue, Courtesy of Moma.org

Who knew that this image is representative of a movement fixated on a utopian and spiritual mission? Also, knowing this, one becomes privy to just how incredibly influential these simple works have been:

Yves Saint Laurent 60’s Mod dress.

Learning art history just helps you understand the world more- specifically visual culture. And this is, you know, pretty important to an aspiring artist! Honestly, I couldn’t imagine ever being “done” with art history- I have so much to learn and understand; and as we gain understanding of the works of others, we also get closer to understanding our own work as well.

Banner image courtesy of wired.com