As I am in the midst of a fallow period of making art, it seems a good time to pursue in earnest a book project that I have been thinking about for some time. It is very tentatively titled “WORD AND IMAGE”. In this book I will look at how writing or text, language, books, and book forms, intersect with my other methods of making art. I have decided to approach the book by organizing my thoughts in a series of blog posts.
As I look over years of work, I am surprised at how often the visual art and the written word are connected. And as I begin to analyze and choose the pieces to include in the book questions arise. What was the impetus for each piece? Does the work relate not only to aspects of my personal life but to the culture of the time? There is a kind of timeline which follows my life as an artist, but also, unexpectedly, as a writer as well. The book gives me the opportunity to see the larger picture of the journey as both visual artist and writer.
Some of the works I have decided to include in the book have appeared on this blog in the past, beginning with what I believe is the one of the first combining text and image, “The Male Audience”, 1980. (see “Works On Paper: A Feminist Aspect”).
THE MALE AUDIENCE 1980 Colored pencil, collage on Xerox text 8.5 x 11 inches
This piece reflects time and place in society at large and in my own personal life. I was in the midst of my last year of returning to school as a “mature” student to finish my undergraduate degree. It had to be in teaching. No studio specialty existed. It was a time of ferment, especially among female students. We were influenced and mentored by great faculty who brought to our small-town school people like Miriam Schapiro, exhibits from New York by people like the Conceptual artist Arakawa, a show of watercolors by “the” Turner, and more. It was a fortuitous gathering and an exciting environment in which we were encouraged to break out of old thinking and explore ideas that were happening in the faraway realm of “real art” in places like New York.
That year had a profound influence on my future as an artist and this influence is reflected in “The Male Audience”, created a few years later in 1980.
The text is from spirited feminist writing published in a 1975 journal about the value of women and women’s work in the arts in contemporary time as well as in history. The collaged figure is from a page in a Playboy magazine, commonly found in the Seventies and Eighties. Figures from this magazine provided me with collage and template material for figurative drawings and works on paper that expressed my feminist interests as I struggled to find my way as an artist.
The text in “The Male Audience” is meant to be read. The image of the woman calls up the male point of view, one that seems not to have changed much since the naked female picnicked among fully-clothed male artists in the famous Nineteenth-Century painting by Manet, “Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe”.
As mentioned in the earlier post on this piece, using a collaged image taken from a realistic photograph printed in Playboy serves the work better than if I had used one of my own figurative drawings. Knowing the source as a magazine that objectified the female body supports more succinctly my intention for this piece.
THREEFOLD 1980 colored pencil on folded paper 14 x 12 5/8 inches
A drawing which remains in my own collection is titled “Threefold”. It was done in 1980 as part of a series of folded paper pieces with impressions made by marking heavily on a separate sheet of paper on top of the intended drawing and then rubbing with soft pencil to make the lines emerge. I don’t remember the motivation to begin the series of drawings of which “Threefold” was one or why I decided to abandon figurative work. But I do remember that in childhood I was fascinated by discovering I could make “magic writing” appear by rubbing a pencil over the impression left on a sheet of paper beneath one upon which a message had been written. So perhaps that childhood experience, lodged deep in memory, forgotten even as it emerged in the art, was the inspiration for the method used in “Threefold”.
Another childhood experience, this by my four-year old son, could also be designated as having some influence in the creation of the series of “magic writing” pieces. Kevin was in the university library with me in 1974 as I studied. I gave him a notebook page and pencil so he could “write” as well.
The child’s imitative marks try to capture the act of writing but of course cannot convey a meaning. Years after making it I am amazed at how similar the marks in “Threefold” of 1980 are to the child’s “writing”. In “Threefold” the marks are intentionally meaningless. The “writing” is seen as object instead of understandable text.
Recently have I learned that “writing” or marks such as those in “Threefold” may be described as “Asemic writing”, or one with no semantic meaning. Asemic writing can span the practices of both visual art and writing. It can be done by children, as in my son’s “pretend writing”, as calligraphy, as code, or decorative marks. Perhaps we can assign the name to work by painters such as Cy Twombly or Jackson Pollack and others whose work is reminiscent of handwriting or captures the gestures of the hand in writing.
I remember also my interest in texts written in a language of which I have no understanding. To observe a Persian love poem or a lovely Chinese scroll or ancient clay tablets inscribed with a long-lost language remains mysterious and beautiful to me. A book page written in an incomprehensible language removes the words from literature to something else entirely. With no reference to meaning, what is found is simply pattern, or perhaps the illusion of secret messages. The viewer can only bring association to such images in much the same way that one would with abstract art of any kind.
As I always have considered myself a visual artist it was a great surprise to find myself beginning to write poems in the mid-Seventies. This was begun quite spontaneously and without forethought. I took that opportunity and continued to write. The writing continued for more than twenty years, up to about the time when a new challenge presented itself, what became “The Threads Project”.
A poem written in the Eighties seems now to provide some insight and a link from the writing to the visual images I was making, beginning in the late Seventies, into the Eighties. It was then that I became immersed in dreams and the metaphysical. This poem seemed to transport me to a place out of time.
I remember airless rooms
Where letters grow
From falling sand
As sturdy as the Pyramids.
I touch dry pages
And from ancient blood
Spring the sounds
Of sheaves long-stacked
There, on smoke-etched walls,
I see the dance,
The scripture of desire.
On faintest silk I recall
A blossom’s clear repose,
The unadorned and lucid word.
What delight is found in warm red wax,
Inviting the memory of lovers lost,
Their sweet despair.
The scent, heavy now,
Gathers in this dark-
The ashen breath of branded oaks,
The perfume of the sky.
How chaste the message of the sea.
Foamy fingers clutch at sand forever smooth.
Remember most wise scratches of the child.
They are the Myth of Innocence retold.
We begin again,
When time is full,
To a New Silence,
Leaving behind the old,
As the spirit slips away
From the flesh,
Having had enough of moonrise
From the beautiful chaos of life.
The title of this poem is “When Time Is Full”. I wrote it in 1999, about five years after the death of a dear friend. Her passing was a shock to me. Hers was the first death of someone close to me and stunned me into my first glimpse of mortality of a person my own age.
The cause of death was no surprise really. Kay was a long-time smoker and lung cancer was the result.
Sometime after her death I felt compelled to create some kind of art to express the deep emotions that I felt at her untimely passing. I was really only drawing in those days and decided to experiment with oil pastel.This piece remains as the single effort in that medium.
The little house is meant to symbolize the earthly aspect each person has in a lifetime. At death we depart our earthly dwelling of flesh for another form of existence.
Decades have passed since the loss of my friend. Time indeed has become full for others in my life. Other dear friends have ended the journey, along with my Mother. But it is most wrenching to think about the loss of my partner Scott, my love for nearly nine years, whose “departure” came only three months ago.
It was not unexpected but it was still a great loss. Those of us left behind find a huge emptiness created by the absence of his “force of nature” personality.
I consider how to express in a work of art what his departure means and how to capture the complexities of such a complicated human being.
For now, another poem from the same year says something about the preciousness of life:
Lying in some long-forgotten,
Unseen burial place,
Fragments of some striding man
Now crumbled into dust
Remnants of some long-ago beauty,
Of warm flesh,
Inhabited by spirit,
Animated by desire-
These bones speak,
Cry out over vanished time,
Speak of a lover’s touch,
Of arms entwined in sleep
Beneath the ancient new moon.
These bones speak
Of sweet joys and bitter sorrows
And private memories,
Of words once spoken
And dreams once dreamed.
These bones speak-
And we listen.
I am pleased to announce a solo exhibition of work from “The Threads Project (2001-2007)”. “Threads of Time” will open on the evening of Friday, September 18, 2015 at The World Trade Center’s Offsite Gallery in downtown Norfolk, Virginia and continue until October 16.
After showing many of the pieces from this project since its inception in 2001 in juried and solo exhibitions across the United States, I am happy to be able to have a fairly comprehensive selection of pieces on view. Visitors will be able to see approximately sixty of the several hundred works completed over the years 2001-to about 2007. Included will be textile pieces, drawings, works on paper, unique prints and works on paper derived from prints made at Crown Point Press in San Francisco, paintings, and a sculpture.
The blog covers in detail the history of “The Threads Project” and is a good resource for those planning to visit.
The Offsite Gallery is run under the auspices of The City of Norfolk through their Office of Cultural Affairs. It’s temporary gallery space is in The World Trade Center as its usual space was severely damaged by an explosion earlier this year.
This exhibition is a bit of a homecoming as I showed my work long ago in 1980 for the First Anniversary Exhibit in the original damaged gallery, The Selden Gallery in the historic Selden Arcade.
Of course I never imagined then that I would one day return to Norfolk. Some of the pieces in the exhibition have roots going back to that time. The technique of frottage or rubbing began after one of my first trips to Europe, to London, where I made tombstone rubbings at Westminster Cathedral. I enjoyed experimenting with it over time and when “The Threads Project” began several decades later it proved to be one of the important methods in my work.
“Threads of Time”~an appropriate title for a long journey.
I am pleased to announce my new book of photographs, “Child Revisited”. It is a deluxe book, with images printed on high-quality paper and bound in bookcloth with beautiful dust jacket. I am very pleased that these difficult to print images have turned out so beautifully. The book is available for preview at the Blurb.com Bookstore. You will find “Child Revisited” and my other books by searching “engstad”. Enjoy!
- CHILD REVISITED | Nancy Engstad | Fine Art Photography
- The photographs in “Child Revisited” document the magic of dreams, art, and the creative life. Photographed over decades, the sculpture called “Child Revisited” first symbolized the interior landsc…, April 13, 2015
Perhaps it is Spring that does it. Perhaps just time itself with long days and nights. But at last there is a bit of optimism that perhaps the art will continue. When the “blank wall” appeared in the past some little bit of art was made somehow, but it has been a long drought this time. What seems to have happened is that I let the painting, drawing and any other physical, “manual” form of art-making go. Just turned the canvas to the wall, closed the studio door as well as that mental door through which ideas slipped into conscious awareness in the past. Even the dreams have been vacant of ideas or references. A true creative desert!
But holding onto that metaphor, an oasis seems to have appeared. The instant gratification of photography has proved to keep a path open. The subject has been with me since 2005. It is the sculpture made for “The Threads Project”, “Child Revisited”.
Let this post be a short one, to celebrate. I have written before in this blog and in the book “What The Surface Reveals: The Threads Project 2001-2007” about the significance of “Child Revisited”.
In the next few days the new book of photographs of “Child Revisited” will arrive and prove that a new chapter has begun. Once it has been reviewed, then more about the book and the photos. For now, an introduction~
Part of the process of starting to make art again after a long absence is, for me, to look at earlier pieces and to go through notes and drawings.
This gives me the opportunity to look at relationships and see the development of ideas over time. It also gives me the chance to see the origins of ideas and how long before, if ever, they come to fruition in one form or another.
The two newest works on paper, as of now titled “Study One” and Study Two”, follow “Mind’s Eye”, completed at the end of 2012, which was also done on Okawara paper as these were. The idea of shaped paper seems to indicate a series in process. Looking back over earlier notes I began to see the origins of these pieces and I have included some of the notes to illustrate.
First, “Study One”~
Both use stains of fluid acrylic on Okawara paper, with gold fabric paint. This one also has been pleated as well, with the ridges highlighted with color.
“Study Two” also began with staining followed by my “search for pattern”, using the gold fabric paint to define. The staining process followed by the linear use of the gold closely resembles early textile wrk with dyes and fabrics. The Okawara paper could easily be fabric in this case. This is the “affinity” of cloth and paper that relates to earlier work.
I wondered, why the choice again of a shaped piece? I realized upon looking through notes from “The Threads Project” that there already existed ideas for such pieces. This page from 2006 shows ideas that I was working on with the “stitch-mark”, the triangular stitch used first with textile pieces and then adapted to drawings, paintings, and other works on paper.
(Over time, I’ve noted on these pages when the idea came to fruition. On this page is noted that “Stone”, a drawing in fluid acrylic on Okawara paper was completed on 12/06.)
“STONE” 2006 acrylic on Okawara paper 39.5 x 36.5 inches
There also followed a drawing on canvas with Nupastel. I wanted to answer my perennial question of “What if?”, meaning what would the idea look like in a different medium, or support, or size, for example. ( This question gave a basic methodology to “The Threads Project“.)
“SMALL STONE” 2007 Nupastel, acrylic on canvas 24 x 24 inches
The idea of pleating the paper as well as the overall surface of “Study One” made me realize again that this could well be a textile piece. And I then realized that not only was I finding my way from the earlier ideas, I was also looking forward to a new body of work for which I have been making notes for several years. Thus, the designation of these paper pieces as “Studies” is appropriate, as will be shown in future posts.
July 31, 2014-August 7, 2014
The 30 by 40-inch painting on canvas, “Origin”, marked the first new work this year. It was a difficult painting, laden with starts and stops and layers of decisions as I built up the surface searching for the final state.
ORIGIN 2014 30 x 40 inches acrylic on canvas
Even as I struggled with this work, I sensed a change. Questions come to mind. Have I finished with this series of dot and stain pieces? If not, where am I going? And significantly, what connections are there to my past work and to contemporary art being created today?
As I mentioned recently, the creative well has been severely depleted. So it is wonderful to be working at all. As in past times of such depletion, I am slowly emerging from the anaesthesia. I am looking at art again, art of all kinds. I am looking at what is happening in the capitals such as London where The Tate Gallery is of course in the forefront of exciting contemporary art. A link from The Tate’s website to the iconic institution WhiteChapel Gallery has led me to their series of anthologies, Documents of Contemporary Art . Historic and contemporary aesthetic ideas and issues are written about by artists, curators, and scholars.
My first two choices in the series are “Time”, edited by Amelia Groom, and “Chance”, edited by Margaret Iverson.
I chose the volume devoted to “Chance” because I had been thinking about the switch about a decade ago from work that was primarily figurative to non-representational work or abstract. I had been thinking of conversations with a colleague who was struggling with her first attempts at abstract painting. I offered the advice to “search for the pattern” in the marks already made in her painting. This led me to analyze my own process, particularly in the ongoing series of stain/dot paintings. I had been thinking of the staining aspect in terms of “chance” and was considering a blog post on this process about a year ago. My tentative title, “The Game of Chance And The Search For Pattern” now seems flawed, at least in reference to my own work.
Rather than chance, especially in this recent piece, perhaps accretion would better describe the process.
The origin of the staining method began with the textile work decades ago. The application of fluid color onto the stretched canvas, a fabric after all, causes a similar result as my old dye processes on silk and cotton. There is a slight sense that the stain begins with no authority of mine, But that’s where any possibility of chance ends. By tipping, blotting, spraying, I guide the flow of color as much as possible. I search for a pattern, yes, but one that fit my sense of composition on the surface.
These photos give a bit of of the steps in the process of trying to work out this painting. As the top photo shows, it as a difficult process, with attempts covered over.
At some points, it seemed the solution was in hand. But no, the painting was far from the final state. I was tempted to resist the usual complexities of the dots, to leave the composition in a far more spare state of positive and negative.
But there seemed to be in irresistable force at work. I felt driven to continue finding “islands” of color and dots in the field of the canvas.
This photo gives the “terrain” of the painting. From these “islands” developed the pattern that also sustained the stains from which the picture began.
Here are details of the finished painting~
The process of naming this painting was just as difficult as making it. I really searched my associations for a title which would not be trite or overly suggestive and narrow. In the end, a television program on until now unseen formation of stars gave an idea. Photographs beamed from distant space showed what astronomers called a “natal environment”, a place where a new star might be born. This painting was actually a beginning in a sense. It did record, in the process of its making, the state of chaos that precedes solution or manifestation. So rather than the rather unpoetic “natal environment”, the title “Origin” seemed appropriate.
In answer to my question of whether these dot and stain paintings have come to an end, the answer is no. The blank canvases await.