Right and Left and Life

When I was her age, and we were about the same age, I couldn’t have told you who among my acquaintances was a Democrat and who was a Republican.  Looking at this drawing now, I can’t even tell you who was president when I drew it.  I’d have to think back, find a date, and do the math.

Moreover, it would never have even occurred to me then that anyone looked with suspicion upon people of a different political stripe (who are the intruders in our midst?)  — or cared much about the answer to questions of political identity.  When and why did life get so politicized?  I knew people with strong political views, but they were distinctly a minority.  In my circle, no one wore their politics on their sleeve. The community around me was never focused that far away from home.  We looked at our private lives as our particular sphere of influence.  Indeed, I’d say we held private life in higher regard than today, for that’s where we thought our actions could matter.

Looking back at drawings I made a generation ago, I realize that more things entered into the picture than I knew.  The whole idea of just drawing a person being herself.  Do young artists do that now?  I hope they do.

I drew this woman for hours, and I realize now that I would have no idea how she thought about American’s political questions, then or now.  And I like the mystery of that.

[Top of the post:  A Drawing of My Friend, pencil, by Aletha Kuschan]



Isn’t it visible on her face?  The inner decision that seems outward-looking, but is really her contemplation of the past in a long journey backwards through time…

I dimly recall reading a quote from Degas where he spoke of the beautiful smudginess of Velasquez …. Whatever it was, it was so long ago, quite apart from Velasquez and the qualities that Degas associated with his works, I had long wanted to create a soft chiaroscuro in my drawing, in emulation of Degas’s drawing techniques, that would suggest not just the atmosphere of air surrounding us all — but the mysterious atmosphere of thoughts.

A friend of mine agreed to pose for me one afternoon at her house.  I drew her in her familiar surroundings.  Drawing is wonderful that way.  You need so few supplies.  You don’t have to pack for a safari.  A notebook, some pencils, a sharpener, an eraser, and you’re ready.

We sat in a little nook off her kitchen where a broad window offered a view upon fields of corn.  Her hair was blonde, the color of straw.  And the light passed through it, and it was shot with gold.  She was going through an acrimonious divorce.  And she had been turning to her faith for answers.  Some part of her meditation found its way into my drawing.  And I was not even aware.

[Top of the post:  A Young Woman Staring into Space, pencil, by Aletha Kuschan]


Drawing from life has no match.  Nothing comes close to it.  Drawing from a good photograph, which I’ve done many times and love doing, can provide a rich supply of visual information from which one makes a picture.  But drawing from life is to photography what looking at pictures is to being somewhere yourself.  I can look at a book on France all day, but it will not compare with travel.

Drawing from a photograph is an art exercise.  You can try out different techniques.  It can be quite inventive.  Most the drawing I do of figures I do from photography these days since it’s difficult finding someone to pose.  But a drawing from life is a completely different experience.  Sometimes just getting the “likeness” — or even getting the “image” — can be exceedingly difficult.

A model moves.  Even a model who knows how to pose well moves subtly.  But more challenging than the physical movement is emotional movement.  Another human being who is sitting there doing nothing is thinking about things.  And the thoughts cross a person’s face like clouds cross a sky.  Trying to capture these fleeting thoughts — some of which you are not even aware you’re observing until much, much later — is as challenging as painting a sunrise or a storm.

I made this drawing a long time ago.  The model was going through a family crisis, and though I was unaware as I drew, bits of her crisis were captured in the image.  I was striving for something related to my artistic goals — certain kinds of lines and tones.  What I found was a picture of a human being, with the privacy of her thoughts rendered more starkly than I ever could have realized I was doing.

I drew her in summer.  And it is summer still.

[Top of the post:  Pencil drawing of a Woman leaning back with eyes closed by Aletha Kuschan]

Sea Shell

Summer thoughts lead one to the oceanside.  I’m far inland, and yet I still have ocean thoughts.  I’ve taken a long walk this morning along the sandy paths of the neighborhood that once were ancient ocean floor.

This shell wafts in on ocean currents that began when I was in high school.  I had a friend named Walt Wooton, and I visited his house once during summer vacation. Walter was a writer.  In his family’s cool basement we talked.  I happened to express my admiration for a beautiful sea shell on display.

Some days later, Walter arrived unexpectedly at my house.  He had a gift for me.  It was the same sea shell.  In every era of my artistic life I have turned to this shell to explore ideas.  Its forms are as great and as varied as a continent’s.  I will never discover all its passages and shadows, its paths and heights.  But I return to it again and again to make my journey.

[Top of the post:  Sea Shell by Aletha Kuschan]


We’re following the sun, the family and me.  I’ve traveled south and will be writing the next several days from North Carolina.  A change of situation helps a person discover new thoughts.  I’ll be a traveling correspondent from the South — not only from this particular region of Carolina (I’m in the Sandhills), but from a destination that is the Idea of South.

During the 19th century, the magical South of art was located in France, and artists retreated there to discover brilliant color.  Of course, when Van Gogh traveled South in search of inspiration, it represented his Japon.  It’s a good thing he lived before the advent of flight because you know that this whole business of Arles which is really Japon has got to be confusing to the travel agent.  Goodness knows where his luggage would have ended up!  (Meanwhile the only luggage I want to lose is worry and inhibition.  Let me be a bold artist!)

It’s high time we shifted the goal to the USA, and so I’ve come here to find magic and wonder.  This is my France and my Japon.  And my Polynesia, too.  From the Bora Bora of my thoughts, I salut you.  We’re raising the flag as I speak, claiming this territory for our particular exploration.

I will try to be footloose in thought, as well as in fact. Heliotropic artist, following the sun in search of energy and ideas.

[Top of the post:  Sunflower, colored pencil, by Aletha Kuschan]

More stuff artists need: a Scrapbook

Artists need books for storing all the scraps of paper that have pictures they like.  In this respect, artists are basically like squirrels.  Some people have a very Romantic idea of the artist as a person swept along by passions.  Keeping neat little notebooks doesn’t jibe with that idea of the mad genius.

Aspiring artists needn’t fear.  Having a scrapbook (or books) will not hinder you from losing your stuff.  Quite possibly it may even broaden the number of places where you can hide things from yourself.  Certainly I can assure you that merely storing favorite images in scrapbooks will be no guarantee that you can find the image that you need for whatever project you have at hand.  I hide stuff from myself all the time and never realize that I’m doing it.  Or why.

These are mysteries of the mind and its hidden ways.  Anyway, you don’t keep scrapbooks to be organized.  You just keep them.  To keep.

[Top of the post:  one of the author’s scrapbooks partly assembled.  Photo by Aletha Kuschan]

Stuff artists need: a Curiosity Cabinet

Every artist needs a few objects that are loved deeply for no discernible reason other than indulgence:  a little, chipped milk pitcher that is creamy white with a crisp, commercial litho flower printed onto it — or an empty bottle of St. Dalfour that catches and distorts the light and whose pretty blue French label has a busy design — or a cheap brown flower jug from Target covered in white “balloons” — or a blue tinted pear-shaped water bottle — or a multi-pronged bud vase from Portugal that one found at a thrift store.  People called it “still life” when you paint this stuff — but in reality it’s a whole world.  You paint the world-as-you-know-it, you paint yourself, and your soul.  And you paint the stuff too, of course!

[Top of the post:  The author’s still life cabinet interior.  Photo by Aletha Kuschan]

Heirloom Apples

The whole sweeping range of the human spirit’s expression is manifest in the history of art.  The images of the past are like an enormous dictionary of ideas and forms that an artist can consult for the purpose of creating something new.  Many artists have been taught that to make something new you have to depart from the past.  But the “old masters” believed just the opposite: that to make new things you begin with the past starting with the motif, which has been passed down many times, like shoes, from one generation of artists to the next, from sibling to sibling in one big family.

For the motif of this collage, I reached way back in the family closet.  I reached as far back as ancient Rome to the Garden of Livia at Primaporta.  I used a branch of one of the painting’s fruit bearing trees and “translated” it into the medium of collage.  This collage is made of paper colored with kids’ tempera paints, which I then cut into shapes (à la Matisse), “drawing” the forms by cutting and assembling.

I reached very far back for my image, far away in time and space, plucking an apple from an espalier centuries old.  It ought to astonish us that today an artist can do this more easily than at any other time in history.  One thing that makes the “modern” world what it is, in fact, is our unprecedented, easy access to the Past.

[Top of the post:  A study of branches from the “Garden of Livia,” collage of colored papers, by Aletha Kuschan]