Author sara genn

Letters Wunderbild, 2018
Acrylic on draped canvas
by Katharina Grosse (b.1961)

Recently, a young artist who is self-taught and self-employed asked if I might help with a letter of recommendation for grad school. Knowing her work and self-starter style, I agreed and asked her to draft the letter herself, in order to feature the details she thought would be most helpful. She replied with a list of bullet points about what drew her to the school’s program, her artistic aspirations and a mostly completed letter draft. She also sent me an updated CV listing the eight shows she’s participated in since graduating from university in 2017.

Letters The Runaway (1958)
photograph (left) oil painting (right) 35 x 33 inches 
by Norman Rockwell (1894-1978)

Norman Rockwell never called himself an artist. When I met him in his studio some years ago, he made it clear to me that he was an “illustrator.” I told him I loved cruising his paintings up close because his surfaces were so interesting, and that made him a “painter.” He told me he didn’t think painter was a bad word.

Letters Tips For Artists Who Want To Sell, 1966-68
acrylic on canvas
68 1/4 x 56 1/2 x 1 1/2 inches
by John Baldessari (1931-2020)

In 1970, John Baldessari was teaching studio art at Cal Arts, while enduring a crisis of faith in his own semi-abstracts. He took everything he’d ever made to a San Diego mortuary and cremated it, baked the ashes into cookies, stuffed them into a bronze urn shaped like a book, then engraved a plaque with the destroyed paintings’ birth and death dates and the recipe for the cookies. “It was a very public and symbolic act,” he said, “like announcing you’re going on a diet in order to stick to it.”

Letters Diorama of Jackson Pollock in his studio (c. 2000-2019)
by Joe Fig

Model-making artist Joe Fig has produced a remarkable book, Inside the Painter’s Studio, in which he visits and photographs the studios of dozens of well-known New York contemporary painters. He also records each artist’s answers to a number of set questions, many of which are practical ones concerning studio layout, painting processes, work hours and habits, clean-up times, unique tools, titling, the use of assistants, and advice for younger artists. His second-to-last question, “Do you have a motto or a creed that as an artist you live by?” picked up a range of answers, both predictable and insightful.

Letters Bella Plus Connectors  in the Inside/Out Room, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia. 
Daniel Boud photo

My friend Carla co-leads exhibition tours at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney. She does it as part of Bella Plus Connect — a monthly community drop-in program for people with disability or access requirements. Art enthusiasts of all ages and abilities are invited to meet and connect with each other and artist educators to explore the galleries and develop their own art practices.

Letters Detail: Glazed and scumbled, the effect can be enhanced or minimized

On Saturdays, my mom used to take me along when she went shopping in the big department store. Inevitably we rode the elevator to “Notions” on the third floor. “What are notions?” I asked one day on the way up. “They’re things you didn’t know you needed, but when you see them you have a notion to get them,” she told me. Mom seemed to wander around in a mental daze, picking up things like needles, buttons and cuticle remover. She once bought a red pincushion “so grandma can have a place to organize her pins.”

Letters Nature Abhors a Vacuum, 1973
Acrylic on canvas
103 1/2 x 112 1/2 inches
by Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011)

When asked recently about plans for my work in 2020, I found myself struggling for words. I wanted to please the person who had asked, but I simply didn’t know the answer. How does one predict the future of the most powerful and mysterious, unfolding force of one’s life? While the nuances, challenges and pleasures are all-consuming, they remain impossible to plan or describe before they appear. Even the process is in flux. And while many artists find talking aloud useful for keeping them on track, for me, there’s a kind of guilt when I do it — as though I’ve somehow betrayed the gift of my Hero’s Quest. My Quest only reveals herself to me when I pick up my brush.

Letters Mike Kelley 1 (2007) at the Cleveland Clinic by Jennifer Steinkamp (b. 1958) 
Steve Travarca photo

Meanwhile, in Canada, doctors are prescribing museum visits with the cost of admission covered by universal healthcare. “We know that art stimulates neural activity,” says Montreal Museum of Fine Arts director general and chief curator, Nathalie Bondil. The program, piloted last year, is an extension of the museum’s work with their existing Art and Health Committee, where they participate in clinical trials studying the effects of art on people with eating disorders, cancer, epilepsy, mental illness, and Alzheimer’s disease. This “museum as hospital” idea also has legs for older people, the physically disabled and others with mobility issues. Because looking at art bumps cortisol and serotonin levels in the brain, it produces an effect in the body similar to exercise.

Letters Spider, 1994
Bronze, silver nitrate and brown patina, and granite
274.3 x 457.2 x 378.5 cm
by Louise Bourgeois (1911–2010)

I’m in my studio most mornings about five. As far as I can see, it has something to do with the idea that I might be able to fix the thing I was working on the day before. While it hasn’t always been this way, lately it’s been getting worse. Or better, depending on your point of view.

Studies by neuroscientist Dr. Ying-Hui Fu of the University of California indicate early risers may be living with a mutated gene. I can handle that.

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