Art Thoughts

Welcome, 2016.


Alphabet ©2015 Janet Maher, pigment print of original collage

As we grow older

the world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated

Of dead and living. Not the intense moment

Isolated, with no before and after,

But a lifetime burning in every moment

And not the lifetime of one man only

But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.   

~T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

The changing of the year has always been physically tangible to me. In the days of palm sized lockable five-year diaries I recall the thrill of the first day that I began to write, intending to visit my favorite Christmas present dutifully, adding four lines per day. I can will myself back to the image of an iced-over parking lot near my neighborhood on that cold clear day, as I looked out over all with heightened awareness and the goal to remember every sensation to record later. My diary did not get a year’s worth of faithful attention, much less did five more grade levels as the page design had allotted, and fear of my mother’s reading it kept me from ever truly baring my soul. It did, however, contain partial thoughts about my first big love and began a tradition of writing the start of journals, then letting them grow into free-for-alls, usually never completed. This diary became full of collage, perhaps my first artist’s book. I wish it still existed, like the two duffle bags that my mother would not store for me when I moved from her house. The homemade bags were full of notes that my boyfriend and girlfriends had passed to me in high school, and decorated letters from when we lived somewhere else for six months during grammar school. What is relinquished that should have been saved, I wonder? What is saved that should be released?

I don’t literally remember most January firsts, as I don’t remember most birthdays or anniversaries anymore, but I do remember eagerly anticipating and actively noticing the feeling of change. Somehow January first seemed the longest day of the year, stretching out into a far off horizon before which lay a landscape of possibilities. It was a clean day, new and hopeful. I wanted to savor it, vowed to use the next 364 well, to make the upcoming year especially matter.

It has been difficult for me to think far ahead like that for quite a long time. There have been too many losses, too many close calls, too many twists and turns in the narrative of my life to dare anymore to look too far into the future. In a mire of never seeming to be caught up with all my various projects before more “to-do’s” are added on, I live on a week-to-week basis, weekends woven into the mix of the work week and only slightly different. The turning of the year has become for me more about looking back. Whew, finally got through that one. Wow, did all that actually happen in only twelve months (or the past four)?

This year I intentionally paused. Like the adolescent I had been with her first diary I wondered if it could be possible to reclaim that state of being, even within the “unfinishedness” among the piles that surround me at home, in my studio, in my office. Rather than continue to feel that all must be organized and properly stored so as to be able to find what needs to be found again, might it be better to simply have a good, cleansing bonfire? Would that it could be so! (What is relinquished that should have been saved? What is saved that should be released, I wonder?)

In our vastly interconnected and fast-moving world we hear about global occurrences, feel everything as if it were just beyond our own doorsteps. We have the ability to take action on behalf of something outside ourselves that needs addressing. We are peripherally aware of what our friends and acquaintances are up to via social media and the deluge of events that come across our paths, possible opportunities for our participation.  How good is it to know, I wonder, about something that would be satisfying to do but cannot fit onto the list of the ongoing “must-do’s?” It seems increasingly impossible to fit all the parts of a life together. Time seems to have mercilessly sped up. Days of lingering moments, thoughtful, creative reverie and time to express what results from it have become shorter, more sporadic, then finally disappear, even as they cry out to be actively reclaimed. What does such a situation create in us over time? What happens to our psyche when the spiritual food of active life experience becomes mere memory?

Robin Dunbar, director of the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at Oxford University, by mapping the layers and levels of human engagement came to an interesting premise. Our brains can only adequately manage and we can only interact successfully with about 150 people. (He refers to significant relationships with shared history and mutual responsibility to and for one other.) I could not agree more, and actually feel the number should be less. How many directions do I feel pulled in, which ones demand to take precedence? Which ones must fall by the wayside, which ones do I miss most? Like the piles of papers and files that surround me, many of the most important relationships also seem lost in the shuffle. (What is relinquished that should have been saved? What is saved that should be released?)

The world is such a different place this year than it was even a year before. It seems to have gone a bit crazy. Killing is rampant and random as if secretly waged wars have suddenly manifested overtly everywhere, including in places we least suspected. The earth herself seems to be rebelling against our presence, erupting, drying out, alternatively washing so many of us away. Industries and regulations have worked against the health of all, and both the weak and strong among us succumb to environmentally-born carcinogens on ever-increasing levels. Having “survived” cancer once, having lost so many friends and family members already to it, knowing so many who are currently battling it, I retreat to my books. They require the least from me, nourishing and stimulating me instead. Tell me a story. Teach me about things I wish I’d learned years ago. Make me marvel. Make me cry. Turn my brain off, let me immerse into your words. Take me somewhere else.

It is another new year. I vow, somehow, to write the many letters that need to be written, send people the photographs and other things I have saved for them that have been sitting in piles for yet another year, reconnect with someone I have wanted to for decades. (I think her daughter should have her own drawing that I have treasured since we were undergraduates, one of my early trades.) I have also begun to sweep. I am sorting, giving things away (even books and art), recycling on a larger scale than that of basic weekly maintenance. I am trying to manage time such that my studio has adequate attention, which, of course, is where my most needed food is stored. Showing up, moving my hands, being in the still point of the endless present, the turning world, there is truly where my dance is.

It is difficult to dance when one’s brain is compartmentalized into too many sections. (Much more possible to write in that state, I have found.) Are 150 compartments too many? This year I will slowly reread Eliot’s Four QuartetsI will let him guide me back to the place I once knew so intimately, immediately, daily. Each changing year has been modified according to circumstances. In this one I will remember the girl and her diary. I vow to use future days well and to make 2016 matter differently than other years have. I vow to release that which no longer needs saving, creating space for something else to enter. I want to savor this January, look out from it as if it could stretch through to a horizon full of possibilities, clean, new and hopeful.

©2016 Janet Maher

All Rights Reserved

Art Thoughts Collage

Thank You to the Baltimore Print Fair

©2015 Janet Maher, As Yet Untitled Collage Series, in progress, not glued in this shot
©2015 Janet Maher, As Yet Untitled Collage Series, in progress, not glued in this shot

“Most people don’t know there are angels whose only job is to make sure you don’t get too comfortable & fall asleep & miss your life.” – Brian Andreas

When I made my first major art purchase I was able to pay for it in installments over many months. At the time I was living paycheck to paycheck and was the “breadwinner” (such as it was) in a relationship. Something in me believed that one day down the road I would live in a house where I could have this large lithograph on permanent display. I had a frame made by the local person who made some of my own frames, and I archivally matted Dan Rizzie’s print. It was one of the possessions that traveled with me across the country when I started another chapter of my life, and it has lived with me for more than twenty years.

I have a large collection of art, much of it acquired through trades since undergraduate years with other artists, but increasingly more through outright purchase. There have been some impulsive regrets that I may someday donate to something or other, but in general it is safe to say that mine is a better than average collection. Preferring to live among others’ works, my own art is mostly in my studio. This past year, however, I began to bring some recent pieces into the home mix, testing their hold on me/us. Do I like them as much as those by others that continue to claim places of honor on certain walls in certain rooms? All these choices represent enthusiasms and relationships over a lifetime of making. There is something comforting about being surrounded by my friends and memories in this way. Every work has a story and a person attached to it, beyond the fact of its existence in its own right.

This weekend I made my third most expensive art purchase. It was something that had to happen. When I saw the new series of collage monoprints that Robert Kushner produced at Wingate Studio, I lost my breath. There was barely a moment between “Oh, my God!” when I saw the first one, to “I need to buy this.” I excitedly looked at all six that were available, easily coming back to the first one I saw – and that my husband agreed was the best of the group – now temporarily protected in a foam core folder at the foot of our bed where it will eventually hang on the wall archivally matted and framed. (Ours is not depicted online.)

The event of becoming an owner of a Robert Kushner during the Friday night opening of this year’s biannual Baltimore Print Fair at the BMA, was followed by something even better. The next day in my studio I produced NINE new collages and by the day after had glued three of them in place! This included several steps similar to Kushner’s as well as running them through an etching press and setting them to dry slowly under light weight. Though inspired by him, mine look like the kind of collage and mixed media work that I do. They do not have anything printed on them (like his do), but some may end up with a touch of pencil — maybe. I’ll see if any need that when they all get up on my studio wall.

The school week has begun again, and thus my 10+ hour days at and/or for my job. The Print Fair weekend already seems like a month ago, my mind having shifted back over into another space-time continuum. In the wings I know that some part of me has the anticipation of gluing up six more pieces, the process having already safely begun. The act of finishing is doable when there is no open-ended time available for brand new creation.

Inspiration comes to me from within my own studio. All I need to do is show up. It is my desert island where I could likely exist for years. (It will take years to work my way through the piles of source material/starts I’ve generated and left percolating there.) It is rare, however, that inspiration occurs through seeing most artwork anymore. Perhaps I simply see too much student or derivative work. Or maybe I don’t get out enough or far enough away from my increasingly narrow physical radius. This year the Baltimore Print Fair seemed to have come to town particularly for me. It fed me in a way I have not been fed in a very long time, and I intend to use its memory as a touchstone for as long as it can last.

Gratitude to the BMA, Kusher, Rizzie (who also had some beautiful new prints there) and to the work of several other artists who made me stop and take notice of them, inhaling deeply and holding them in. I felt a bit like Rip Van Winkle coming out of a long sleep. Now continues the life-long process of trying to remain awake.

©2015 Janet Maher

All Rights Reserved

Anna Held Audette Connecticut Woman Artist Honoring a Teacher

Anna Held Audette, in Tribute

Detail ©2009 Anna Audette; collection of Janet Maher
Detail ©2009 Anna Audette; collection of Janet Maher

Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail. – Emerson

Teachers are brought onto the paths of our lives in many ways. Some appear briefly, but notably, never to be seen again. Others reappear at important times when we least expect them. We may remain connected to others forever in some form, whether or not we are regularly in their presence. We choose literal teachers of courses within an organized center for learning and may or may not develop relationships with them beyond the classroom. Most of my teachers have been in the form of relatives, friends, or lovers, balanced with healthy doses of necessary solitude. Conflicted or negative relationships have also provided important lessons for me. Learning somehow to contend with negativity has helped to toughen me, allowing me to endure stronger difficulties that I could not have known would lie ahead.

Many of my most important teachers died relatively early in their lives, and hence, in mine. Some of those passings left me feeling as if I were free-floating in space for years after. Anna Held Audette has numbered among the significant people in my world. My thoughts about her are accompanied by a deep gratitude for being fortunate enough to have been one of her many students. Anna Audette has exhibited widely and her work is included in many important collections; however, she is not represented in all the museums in which I and many others believe she should be. Given that her archive has been expertly taken care of and is in the process of being fully catalogued, I hold out the hope that she will yet be given the accolades she is due.

Anna Audette, who died on June 9, 2013, was a master of her craft, beginning as a prolific printmaker and maturing into a large-scale painter. Her increasingly complex compositions, tumbles of shapes and lines in objective abstractions, were perfectly and delicately balanced, fascinating to visually untangle. For many years she addressed the concept of the decaying American urban landscape. She visited buildings that had suffered immense damage, scrap metal junkyards and old ships docked close to each other, observing their intricate architectural forms and positive-negative shape relationships among all the elements she chose to include from them in her own interpretations. She limited her palette to neutralized hues and tones associated with wear, use and decline, while creating lively and technically astonishing works of art that transcended their ravaged sources.

Although I had known that her father, Julius Held, was a prominent art historian and that she had studied at Yale, it was not until her death that I learned she had been a Smith College graduate, studying there with Leonard Baskin. She was inducted into the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Letters and was a Fellow of Morse College at Yale, where she had studied with Gabor Peterdi. Her mother, Ingrid-Marta Nordin-Petterssen, an art restorer, had been the conservator for the New York Historical Society.

I was fortunate to see a small exhibition of Anna Audette’s in a Southbury, Connecticut, gallery one holiday visit and acquire a painting of hers. Entitled, Detail, it may have been a copy of part of an earlier painting of her own when she had already begun to lose some of her abilities. It is a beautiful work, nonetheless, that quietly hangs on our wall at the landing of stairs leading to the second floor, and we see it multiple times a day. Without planning to I have been able to make a practice of collecting work from my most important art teachers. To be able to purchase a painting of hers was a gift to me on many levels. Now that she is gone this work is ever more poignant, living as it does at the heart of our home.

The crisis or death of any important person stops us in our tracks to varying degrees. Some of us may recall the sense of the world standing still after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Seeing our teachers break down in tears and our being sent home from school made many of us never forget where we were when we heard news that we didn’t comprehend in the moment. We watched television for days with our parents and deeply learned about the significance of certain deaths. Little could we have realized that this assassination would be the first of several more. A series of discrete tragic moments altered the functioning of our government and stripped us of our innocence. We shared our collective losses then. What must it be like for students today who live in an increasingly chaotic time in which deaths occurs randomly, and entire groups are senselessly purged with regularity around the globe?

Whether a figure is famous or simply important within our private circles, someone’s passing may cause us to become emotionally paralyzed for a time. We are cast back to a Pandora’s Box of memories that begin to roll out in waves of no apparent order. For weeks, months, years, they may continue to reveal themselves, brought on by the most innocuous of triggers in any given time or place. Memories of Anna Audette are interwoven with four particular years of my life in which I was blossoming as a young woman. I had very little sense of how I might ever be able to live and support myself as an artist or move forward to the next chapter meant for my life upon college graduation. We who couldn’t afford to nor had the where-with-all to figure out how to get further away from our hometowns had ended up in what may have simply seemed a small state college. We could not have known that the art department in the seventies at Southern Connecticut was a hotbed of talent, both within the student population and among the artist/teachers there – which included Anna Audette.

“Mrs. Audette” seemed stern and illusive, a bit forbidding initially. She taught etching, a form of printmaking that required a pen and ink-type approach to drawing rather than the graphite and pastel manner that was mine. This kept me away from her, even though her classes were held on the opposite side of the print shop where my friends and I spent countless hours drawing on lithographic stones. A bit of a tug-of-war existed between the two sides of the shop, as both printmaking teachers had their own cadres of students who were loyal to one side or the other. My dear friend, Linda, helped me bridge that divide. We both drew, although she didn’t like the painstaking and mysterious process of lithography. Linda, a classic “free spirit,” inspired me in many ways. She was willing to question the norm, to reach beyond the confines of school and explore the best parts of New Haven. She introduced me to coffee shops, going out to hear live music, and to drawing at the weekly nude model sessions at Creative Arts Workshop that could provide more technical practice for us. (In turn, I was the one to introduce my other close friend, Kathy, to the first vegetarian café of its kind in New Haven. We would often go for lunch to Annie’s Soup Kitchen*, then owned by the wife of one of my teachers, who later moved coincidentally to New Mexico, as did I. Our other printmaker friend, Trish, introduced us to thrift-store shopping and the finding of discarded furniture on the streets of the wealthy neighborhoods before trash pick-up days!)

Linda worked as an au pair for the Audettes and lived in their peaked roof bedroom attic. I’ll never forget the day she invited me to visit her there, showing me what seemed like an artist garret in Paris. Linda had decorated her room in a style reminiscent of the Symbolist and Decadents’ works that she so loved. It was equally astonishing for me to actually be inside our teacher’s elegant home, where I knew she had children and an entire domestic life in addition to her prolific art career. Some seed was planted then that made me believe such possibilities could exist for me.

A few years later, before Linda moved away forever, she came with me and another friend to visit a group of his musician friends in Vermont for the weekend. It turned out that Mrs. Audette’s mother still lived there and Linda wanted to visit her. Another beautiful memory—getting to meet this gentle woman who seemed as if from another century, living amid the wild and glorious landscape of Vermont’s countryside in what seemed like a European cottage. Would the stars align such that I could ever live in Vermont? An avid vegetarian then, a bread baker and yogurt-maker with a bedroom full of houseplants, I wondered if and how I could ever become a gardener there and raise produce for restaurants or bake bread for them while making art. (The Tassajara Bread Book was my bible then, and chef Alice Waters was beginning what would eventually become a revolution of farm to table eating.)

It may not have been until my senior year that Mrs. Audette suggested I try out the intaglio side of printmaking. I had already become a full-blown lithographer and had been accepted into both a national and international juried competition. Although I still did not fully embrace intaglio, I recognized this teacher as a mentor, so much so that I accepted her suggestion to do an independent study with her in my final semester. Returning to drawing, she suggested that I take all my many figure studies and practice sketches, and literally tear them to pieces, recombine them into new structures and draw back into them to create new, abstract works of art. Thus began my life-long love of collage, introduced to me in this way by Anna Audette. I did four very large works in this mixed media series using graphite, charcoal and pastels upon various colored papers attached to a support. They were significant pieces for me, one of them receiving First Prize in a juried exhibition in 1978 at the John Slade Ely House in New Haven. Unfortunately, the use of archival materials was not a focus of ours, and only one of them survives.

In the fall of my graduation year I became the only art teacher in a private high school. One day I arranged to visit Mrs. Audette at Southern and she took me to lunch on campus. It may have been then that she told me I could call her “Anna.” (This was as notable to me as the emotional moment I dared to say aloud to someone that I was an artist—a title I was not yet sure I had earned.)

Anna kept me on her mailing list and I would hear from her from time to time about exhibitions she was having. For the first of what became several large group projects I organized and produced, I asked her to script the title page for an artist book that documented the project in which she had participated. Anna had such beautiful handwriting, and I was honored that she actually agreed to do this. Fast forward another decade and I recall our catching up at a College Art Association meeting in New York, when she gave me an inscribed copy of her wonderful book, The Blank Canvas: Inviting the Muse. She wrote me a letter of recommendation for the position for which I was hired the following year, at Loyola College (now University), where I still teach. A few years later she asked me to contribute one of my own original drawing assignments and the work of one of my students to include in her second book, 100 Creative Drawing Ideas.

This summer Anna Audette’s work was featured at Waterbury’s Mattatuck Museum as part of a touring exhibition from the Smithsonian Institution entitled The Way We Worked. Anna’s husband, Louis Audette, gave a talk and presentation about her art there, which I made a point of driving up to attend. How does one contend with another’s lifetime production of work that has been left behind—work one has seen in progress, on exhibit, has been helping to store for decades, having accompanied the artist on the adventures during which she found her source materials? It is a daunting task, as anyone who has cleaned out a relative’s home understands, but in this instance what remains are living works of art by a singularly important person that still demand and deserve to find proper homes. As a husband, partner and soulmate over a tapestry of decades together, Louis Audette was able to place Anna’s work into context for the audience. He not only explained her process and the essence of the works he featured, but for a brief time he brought Anna Audette, herself, back to life. He has created a database of 742 of her works, and organized a retrospective exhibition for her in 2012 at the John Slade Ely House.

Hearing of Anna’s decline from frontotemporal dementia brought tears to some of us. This was something too awful to imagine. And yet, it may be that Anna Audette served as a teacher even then, having been the perfect case study for this disease. Painting through to the end of her life, her style began to gradually regress as one set of higher cognitive functioning skill after another was stripped away. While her compositions remained strong, her works became less intricate to the point that she finally painted again like a child, as she had begun some seventy years earlier. Throughout her decline she was carefully studied by a doctor who may eventually publish his further findings about humans’ stages of cognitive growth and expression. Whether through this aspect of her work or through the final recognition of her body of creation, the name Anna Held Audette deserves to accompany one of her favorites—Kathe Kollwitz—within the litany of major women artists of all time. A unique teacher to the end, the work of Anna Held Audette lives on, and through it she does too.

©2014 Janet Maher

All Rights Reserved

*I am not aware of the ownership of the cafe that exists in Albuquerque today, but the distinctive name may linger from the New Haven one, transplanted into New Mexico decades previously.