Newton’s Third Law of Motion

I’ve been thinking a lot about forces – things in my life that appear to be pushing or pulling me.  I can’t really figure out when to push back, when to resist, and when to succumb to the pressure.  It’s both a creative and a personal dilemma.  As often happens, my artwork seems to be the place where these struggles play out.

The creative dilemma goes like this: My work has evolved such that I now have to spend many, many hours making precise shapes and lines and thousands of tiny marks over the initial chaotic shapes I create. It is tedious and slow work, and there is almost no joy in it – except the joy of seeing the intricacy of the final piece.  What I love about making art is playing with chance, letting things happen, immediacy, acting on “instinct”, serendipity.  Not giving my mind time to interfere.  But, inevitably, when I work this way, I look at my paintings and think they need structure; something deliberate that gives them shape and holds them together.  Hence the lines and dots and shapes.  I feel pressure to create order, and a simultaneous pull toward chaos.  The painting below is in progress, but pretty much sums up how I feel.  In my head it is titled “Tangled Bird of Prey, Dying”.  I’ve never been one to shy away from melodrama 😉

This leads me to consider Newton’s third law of motion: Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Is it preferable to find a balance between unrestrained, chaotic mark-making whose movement is outward and explosive, and precise, deliberate scaffold-building whose movement is inward and toward containment?  If making these structures is mind-numbingly boring and I feel a huge resistance toward it, should I desist, or work through it, like a runner getting past “the wall”?  There is a force within me urging me to stop, and another urging me to continue.  Is Newton’s third law of motion describing an impasse?  In which case, shouldn’t it be avoided if progress is to be made?  I guess it depends on the story I choose to tell myself.  Either, my inner child is pushing me to cut loose and she’s the one who drives me to make art in the first place so I better listen, or, art requires work, discipline and surrender and the uncomfortable stuff is probably the stuff I most need to learn so get on with it and stop whining.

Structure beginning to appear out of chaos (work in progress).

Thousands of dots emanating from a chaotic spill – the movement outward loses momentum and dissipates (work in progress).

Trying to avoid the issue all together, I ended up making sculptures last week 🙂

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Newly Addicted…In Search of Support Group.

It’s taken me some time to get my head around my month at Vermont Studio Center.  I haven’t really had the words to describe the profound impact it has had on me. I still don’t. But I will try, because I want everyone I know who makes art of any kind to consider applying for a residency there. And those who don’t have art to make but are art-lovers, consider supporting this place in any way you can. It is truly a gift.

So what happened to me?

I found kinship and community.  This was a place of no judgement, of utter support from people I only just met who were filled with goodwill, generosity, excitement and curiosity.  I ate with them 3 times a day, listened to their stories, learned about the particular passions that make them them, found inspiration in their approaches to life and creative processes, swam in rivers with them, traveled to French-speaking cities, danced, sang loudly, jumped off high rocks into deep pools with their encouragement, stayed up all night, watched horror movies, shared Bowie-love, and laughed. A lot.

In these circumstances, it was easy to feel the flow of creative energy.  It was visceral. It made me sleep for only 5 hours a night. It actually hurt at times, when the adrenaline rush of being in love with so many people just wouldn’t quit. I lost 8lbs. I believe they were the 8lbs of ennui slowing down the creative momentum in my daily life. I plan not to regain the weight.

And somehow, with this creative fervor flowing directly into my veins, that rigid exoskeleton I hide inside (and take full responsibility for sculpting) was shed. I was fearless. I even wrote a poem about it – something I haven’t done in years.

In this state of fearlessness, I was able to look at my work anew. I was pushed to think about it in new ways, both by other residents and visiting artists.  I was able to expand past the self-imposed boundaries of my mind, and find a physical and emotional connection to my work in a way I could only theorize about previously.  My utter fear of “feeling” and my need to put it in specimen jars, where it can be observed coolly and contained, was dismantled.  I existed on edges.  Found a place between thought and feeling, known and unknown, self and community. I came alive.

If it sounds like I was high, I think I was.  My body reacted to that place, that time and those people as it would a drug.  The chemicals in my body – the dopamine, adrenaline, serotonin to name a few – were going crazy.  And like all highs, there had to be a come-down.  It’s been harsh. Really harsh.

So now the hard work begins… How to create some semblance of this community and energy in my everyday life? Pack up my studio and move to Vermont?! I thought about it. But then I remembered that I have a fantastic group of friends here in the Bay Area too, bubbling with creative energy – if only I can persuade them to let me tap into it and get my fix.  And surely there are more creatives out there, if only I can learn to be fearless in the real world (where the stakes are higher) and find them. I have been changed by this experience, and there’s no going back.

So, I’m going to get more involved here in the Bay Area; join groups, attend shows and poetry readings, make things happen, and apply to more residencies!

Universe, I’m going to need your help.

Here’s a video of me creating a new piece during my stay at VSC.

Some links to the work of other artists and poets/writers I met at VSC:

Ben Steele

Artist Residency at Vermont Studio Center!

(Above: Work in progress – VERY large)

I’m very excited to announce that I was offered a residency at The Vermont Studio Center this summer, so will be busily making new art in Vermont for a whole month, without the distractions of everyday life.  I’ll be there with 49 other visual artists and writers, and 5 “visiting” artists, so will need to overcome my fear of new people and get yapping.  I’m really very, very excited about it as it’s my first ever residency, and a pretty prestigious institution.

My only worry is that I’ve run out of steam making the current body of work – in fact, to tell the truth I’ve hit a pretty major creative block that’s lasted for 5 months and counting – so I’m afraid I’ll get there and stare at the wall/floor for 4 weeks.  All the advice I’ve heard about residencies tends toward the “go with no preconceptions and no plans” kind, so maybe that’s what I’ll do.

Maybe, like the way my artwork evolves, I’ll start with no ideas, stumble around in the fog a bit until something exciting happens, and then follow the path that opens up, figuring out the structure as I go along – and only at the end (or maybe weeks later) will I have any understanding of what just happened.  Art, and life, are much more understandable and meaningful in retrospect.

Here’s a video explaining what it is.  Writers and artists, take note.  You might want to apply too.

Got Blogged

It’s super nice when people like your work so much they blog about it and promote you for free, without you even asking 🙂

Medusa Jewellery – thanks for the kind words on your blog!  

And by the way, she makes very ornate and beautiful one-of-a-kind beaded jewelry.  Check it out.





Foreign Body

Here’s my latest artwork – it’s a video!  It’s pretty experimental and I’m still learning what the process of stop-motion animation involves, but nothing ventured, nothing gained right?


The Gods and The Press.

Had a great couple of weeks since my show opened at a.Muse gallery – 3 pieces have sold (including one to a local collector), a few more sales are looming, and I’ve been in the press a couple of times!  Here‘s an article by Cynthia Popper about the show, and here‘s another by Jeremiah Barber for KQED that references the collaborative piece I made with Todd Anderson for the show about Time (the piece is mentioned at the end of the article, so keep reading!).  I also managed to make an appearance in Alan Bamberger’s photo blog featuring local exhibitions.  All together, not a bad few weeks!

I’m starting to learn that although I hate networking and schmoozing and self-promoting (she says as she writes a blog about herself), some really great connections and opportunities arise when you put in the effort – and I don’t just mean sales.  For example, because of all the promoting Lori and I have done for my show (Lori owns a.Muse where my work is currently exhibited), I was contacted last week by two curators who have started an interesting on-line gallery idea.  The website is called Violet Strays.  Here’s their current offering:

PROVISIONAL ENGINEERING from Lauren Klenow on Vimeo.

It differs from other on-line gallery sites in three important ways.  Firstly, it appears to be by invitation only, meaning the quality of work shown is of a high standard – not the mixed bag you often find on other art websites.  Secondly, only one artist at a time is featured on the site, much like real galleries.  Each artist is given a week long exhibit, then once the week is up the work is removed and the next artist gets the full attention of each visitor.  As an artist I love the space for reflection that this system promotes.  This is not an art superstore whose goal is to show you as many artworks as possible in a short space of time in hopes that you’ll find one you like, and buy it.  Instead the viewer is offered the chance to ponder deeply the meanings and intentions of a select few artworks, sometimes just one.

Lastly, the intention of these curators is evidently not to make money, but to foster creativity and make connections with artists.  When they approached me about creating something for the website they left it wide open.  It was as though I was being dared to do something new – something I hadn’t shown the world yet.  Fully bake a half-baked idea.  In any medium.   After working so hard to complete a body of work for the “Occupied” series this was just what I needed.  A chance to go back to the drawing board and try something that didn’t have to relate to anything else I’d done.  Just grab one of those random, fleeting ideas and make it real.  So I think I’m going to try some stop-motion…. with drawings of bodies.  Then again, maybe I’ll make a kite.  Or a sculpture of a kitten. Or a massive installation that records all the creative thoughts that enter my head in one day.

Another amazing connection that came out of this period of focused promotion was the discovery of an artist called Kirsten Stolle.   She contacted me after someone sent her a link to my website (or my show, not sure which), and a brief conversation ensued.  I asked for links to her website, and I fell in love immediately upon seeing her work.  There are some obvious connections between our work – scientific references, and a fondness for repetition and drawing.  Seeing her work has encouraged me to try to return to painting on panels instead of on sheets of polypropylene, and to experiment more with mixed-media work.  I can’t wait to get to Dolby-Chadwick gallery here in SF and see her work in the flesh.  I’m actually so enamored with the work that if I can afford it I’d love to buy one of her pieces, and start my collection of scientifically themed art!

So what’s the point of this post?  I suppose mostly that if you put in the effort to do the stuff you don’t like (promoting yourself), the gods will sometimes reward you with new sources of inspiration.  And the press is one way in which these fortuitous connections happen.  If nobody knows you’re out there, they don’t even know to look for you.

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Todd and I Have Ants in Our Brains.

My good friend Todd Anderson and I have been getting nerdy with ink and video and software and stuff, and have created a collaborative project called Ink Space/Ink Time.  I have to admit that I don’t really have the brainpower for this amount of nerding, and have mostly relied on Todd’s colossal brain to do the hard work.  You can read more about the project here, and you can also see some awesome videos of the process.  But, a brief synopsis of what we’ve been doing is this:  Taking a chaotic event (releasing sumi ink onto a puddle of water), and videoing the transformation of this event over time.  Todd then takes the video and stacks the frames of the video on top of each other using fancy software.  This creates a 3D model of the event.  Finally, he uses a CNC router (or we’ll be using a 3D printer if we can afford one) to cut the shape from high-density foam.  Then I paint it and make it look like an iceberg 🙂

Here’s a photo of what one of the sculptures looks like:

On the surface, the project was about letting our curiosity guide us.  I have always loved watching the way the ink interacts with the water as I paint.  Todd was fascinated by it too.  I could see the neurons firing on all cylinders while he watched the blackness creep outward in fractal-like shapes.  Over the next few years, as Todd finished his PhD, he began to play around with ideas of using custom software to capture the event and make it physical.  Then he began dabbling with machines and routers.  He’s one of those guys.  A genius tinkerer.  His brain seems inexplicably drawn to complex things.  Like a colony of ants it starts to explore and map out the new territory, biting off chunks and returning it to home base for processing.  And once all the interesting pieces have been collected, investigated, tagged and stored in the big messy Cave of Stashed Info that’s been collected over the years, connections start to happen.  Sometimes unlikely ones.  Sometimes more obvious ones.  And so, like dot-to-dots, a line was drawn between the software he used at work, the machines he was playing with at the Tech Shop where he liked to tinker, and the ink blossoms I showed him.

Why am I telling you about Todd’s brain? Well, because I think it illustrates an important issue in the making of art and in the living of life.  It seems that it is important to play, with no goal in mind.  Just spontaneous action guided by curiosity. The ant colony inside your head wants to find new things, learn new things, without judgement or purpose.  It also wants to assemble new ideas and make new connections using the stuff its already stashed.  From what I understand from brain research, your brain really needs to be doing this.  You don’t want the neurons to keep firing down the same old paths.  Apparently, learning new things (such as a new language, dance, quantum physics, knitting – anything) can help stop or slow down the onset of Alzheimer’s and other degenerative brain issues.  It’s also just fun.

And when the ant colony is doing it’s job, creativity happens.  Ideas start looming in the fog, getting clearer and clearer as more connections are made.  Sometimes, if you’re lucky, they just burst into existence, fully-formed. But they’ve still come to you via the Cave of Stashed Info.

So the moral of my rambling is this:

Feed your brain.

And find yourself a Todd.  Sometimes your ants need to meet new ants.

Oh, and stay away from anteaters.

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My new show opens in 2 weeks!

My new show, titled “Occupied: The Experience of Inhabiting a Body” opens on October 13th at a.muse Gallery in San Francisco.  I am furiously trying to get everything finished this weekend so next week can be spent framing and promoting, but as ever, the creative spirit is fickle and stubborn, and does not understand deadlines.  So there are some good days, when she visits and whispers good ideas in my ear, and bad days, when she sulks in the corner of my studio because she has been ousted by Anxiety.

All the pieces in the show, bar one, are brand new and making their debut at this exhibition.  It’s always both an exciting and a terrifying moment when you present new works.  You never know how they’ll be received, especially when you’ve departed quite significantly from older pieces.  Truthfully, these new pieces are more an extension of some earlier pieces; a more in-depth, deeper exploration of some ideas I had about how important the body is.  So I don’t think anyone will be utterly stunned by the differences, but there are some very large, less controlled and almost violent pieces that I love, but am not sure everyone will.

More info about the show can be found here

The opening reception is on Thursday October 13th, from 6:00 – 8:30pm

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Sketch Tuesday at Minna on 9/27!

So, I’ll be participating in 111 Minna’s next Sketch Tuesday, which will be on September 27th.  If you’ve never been before it’s a fun way to hang out at a bar, watch artists make sketches, and possibly buy yourself an original piece of art for cheap!  I don’t know who the other artists are yet, but there are usually between 10 and 15 artists participating.

Sketching starts at 6:00pm and goes until about 10:00pm.

You should come.

Photo courtesy of Arrested Motion


Why It’s Good To Get Out and Get Over Yourself

Last night was the opening reception of the “Flow” show at Arc.  Here I am grinning like an idiot next to my piece:

Before attending this show, I stopped by another show opening in a tiny little gallery called 60six in upper Mission.  The opening included a performance piece by artist Anastasia Faiella, and was my first performance art experience.  I usually cringe and cower at the idea of “performance” in any form, but this woman’s work was all about mark-making which is right up my alley so I figured time to bite the bullet  – try to keep an open mind and a straight face.  Stupidly I had imagined that the performance would go on for quite a while and that I could just wander in like one does at a regular reception.  So I got there at 7:40 – 10 minutes after the posted start time – to find a locked door and the sound of a satisfied audience clapping appreciatively behind it.  Damn my infernal powers of disorganization!

Anyway, luckily the artist had the foresight to video the event and then project it back in a continuous loop on top of the drawing once the performance was over, for those as useless as me at getting anywhere on time.  Here’s an example of one of her performance pieces – though not the one from last night.

And my response to this very public expression of one’s inner self (which sounds horrifying and hellish)?  I liked it!  A lot.  I was afraid that the artist was going to be a bit, you know, attention-needy because (I thought) why else would anyone want to subject themselves to something as awful as dozens of people watching and silently judging you – your art, your body, your talent, your soul exposed.  Maybe it was because her movements were very elegant and strong, and really much more like dancing than drawing.  Or maybe it was because I have performed the same exercise alone in my studio so could connect with and understand what she was doing.  But either way, somewhat like when a nude model first de-robes and you have to train your brain to get over the raw nakedness and all the social awkwardness that you would usually feel, eventually the instinct to look away subsided and I could actually see form, beauty, movement and rhythm. I was offered an opportunity not only to connect with the intention and sentiment that this artist was expressing, but also with myself.  Without judgement, I saw that I had brought my own issues – about performance, being on show, exposing myself – to this piece and these became part of the experience for me.  I saw myself standing in the way of an opportunity to connect.

When I was able to step aside guess what happened?  WHAM!  An awesome idea popped right into my head, almost fully formed.  An idea that fits right in with the current work I’m doing, but extends it in ways I had never thought of before.  And, of course, it’s going to require me to do some performance art myself, and face my demons.

That’s all I’m going to say about it right now.  But I’ve made a commitment to it, so here goes.  I’m busting out the yoga pants and legwarmers.