Alice Wins A Gold Medal!

Congratulations Alice!  This pretty much raps it up for my coverage of the Cat Olympics.  There are still one or two more events, but none that include our Alice.  And, naturally, the whole Cat Olympics is now being eclipsed by the human version.  But I’ll keep you posted about Alice’s other adventures.  She always has some.  She’s quite a cat.

[Top of the post:  Alice with her medal, as drawn by the young artist.]


I hope everyone’s having a nice summer

I’ve had a cold!  I’ve been much too busy searching for the Kleenex box to write blogs. And we’ve been making preparations for a little trip.  And I’ve been rather busy just being mom.  Can’t complain, though.  Well, I could complain a little about my cold.  But regarding the last item in that list, I’m grateful for the opportunity.  Being mom is great, of course! My kid keeps me well entertained.  But being mom always been an great kick-in-the-pants artistically too.

I’ll get around to posting more frequently when the young one is back in school.  And of course, I have my koi painting on the back burner.  It’s been going really well.  I’m anxious to unveil it here.

Funny, we haven’t heard from Alice though ….

And then there’s tea

A certain kind of drawing is fast and free.  If you were trying to think out loud about something, you wouldn’t worry about eloquence.  And in a certain kind of drawing you don’t worry about eloquence either. 

It’s like writing a “to do” list for yourself.  It’s like quick catching a first impression.  It’s a form of play.  You create your own coloring book drawing, rapid-fire lines that you fill with color — or that you leave empty — it doesn’t matter.

It’s like mumbling to yourself.  Hmm … this goes over here.  This goes over there ….

It’s really not a big deal.  That’s a kind of drawing, too.  I drew this tea pot as casually as I would drink the tea.

[Top of the post:  Tea pot and Cup, by Aletha Kuschan, pencil and watercolor]




I made the drawing at the top after a Renaissance sculpture at the National Gallery.  The drawing below it is one of Ingres’s studies for Mme Moitessier.  I’d like to think there’s a little bit of family resemblance.  (Ingres is my hero.)

Children are not fashionable

When I was a kid, I remember there was a season during which this was my favorite painting.  Memory is fickle, of course.  I don’t know whether the season of my enthusiasm lasted a week or an afternoon.  I also don’t recall whether or not I had ever seen the actual painting.  It belongs to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, where we were visitors from time to time.  But my mother also owned a book on the museum’s “highlights,” and I liked to pour over the book during island moments of my childhood.

Certainly my choice of a favorite wasn’t fashionable.  Tiepolo hasn’t really been on anybody’s Top Forties List since the 1750s when this picture was painted.  But children don’t care about things like that.  Children love or hate with great abandon and with no respect for ceremony.  Pondering this now, I must say the subject matter looks rather politically incorrect.  And I can only surmise now what it was that attracted my childish attention then.  My guess is that I was reeled in on a draughtsman’s line

Drawing in Tiepolo’s works is so crisp.  The shapely arms and hands of the seated woman and the forceful, aggressive gesture of her would-be attacker (we might call him her alleged assailant) arrive on the canvas by means of the most thorough-going and keen sense of contour.  The artist’s love for dynamic, sinuous line is equally evident in a subordinate feature such as the rolling folds of the woman’s bright skirt.

If it happened that I had seen the actual canvas in childhood, I was no doubt impressed by scale, too.  Size matters.  This painting is 55 x 43 inches.  A large enough oval to command one’s respect — one that puts these persons quite resolutely into the dramatic space of the room. 

It’s not a family-themed picture.  From this distance in time, the museum seems unsure what to make of its narrative, calling the painting simply: “Scene from Ancient History,” though historian John Walker in the National Gallery’s 1975 catalog was venturesome enough to call it “Timocleia and the Thracian Commander.”  Enterprising readers can google that to see what pops up.  Suffice it to say, judging by visual clues alone, male violence is a central theme.  The soldier’s shoulder is the pivot point of the whole composition.  What befell poor Timocleia, I cannot say.

But I doubt I contemplated the question of its story very deeply.  I had as much narrative as my mother’s book provided — that catalog dated from 1941 when art historians were more garrulous.  The book now resides in another state, so I’ll have to get back to you regarding this cliff-hanger (in perhaps some future post).  Meanwhile, I suspect that my chief delight was visual.  In even Tiepolo’s violent image the bright, vivid colors abound — held tightly and tensely inside Tiepolo’s razor sharp lines.

Kids aren’t fashionable, and thus they provide a model for every artist to emulate.  A child likes what she likes, and artists do well to reserve the same whimsical and fervent emotions as their privilege.  The heart doesn’t really enjoy being asked to obey rules.  If you find yourself loving all the gauche things, care not.  You cannot fool your true self.  In finding what binds you to the world, you have to indulge some self-acceptance.

My first love for incisive line began somewhere rather near Venice of the 18th century.  On the map of my early enthusiasm I place a big “X” to mark Gallery 32 where Tiepolo’s painting hangs.

You have to know these things about yourself.  You have to discover what really matters, for from out of those things your own imagination’s designs grow.

[Top of the Post:  Scene from Ancient History, by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, c. 1750, Samuel H. Kress Collection, National Gallery of Art in Washington]

Shoes that make the man

Around the same period when I was painting a bird’s nest over a reclining figure, I painted these shoes over something that was pale green.  The earlier color shows beneath the salmon colored cloth.

I was studying Van Gogh, and I painted not only bird’s nests after his example, but also shoes.  Again, I felt qualms about emulating another artist so closely.  Yet these shoes are also so plainly products of my imagination and not Van Gogh’s.  So sometimes, you see, you must simply trust yourself.

I read this Hemingway quote today about emulation: 

“Y.C.: Listen.  There is no use writing anything that has been written before unless you can beat it.  What a writer in our time has to do is write what hasn’t been written before or beat dead men at what they have done.  The only way he can tell how he is going is to compete with dead men ….

Mice:  But reading all the good writers might discourage you.

Y.C.: Then you ought to be discouraged.”

[Originally from By Line: Ernest Hemingway, pp. 217-218.  Taken here from Ernest Heimingway on Writing, Larry W. Phillips, ed., Scribner’s; NY, 1984: p. 93]

When I painted these shoes, I remember I understood them as being a portrait of the shoe’s owner as well as a kind of self-portrait.  I was also very interested in painting the space between one edge of the shoe’s opening and the other.  The empty air seemed to me as much a subject as anything else in this picture, and I was fascinated by it.  I wanted to make it seem very much that the air was inside the picture, and that this should not just be a question of appearances.  And the ways that the shoe laces fell, the beauty of the lines they described — something that is charged with meaning by gravity and chance — these were also qualities I studied in it.

It turned out to be a very pensive moment.  Van Gogh was a hero to me, someone whose works gave me reason to believe that art was worth striving after, even against odds.  Hemingway’s idea of “beating” the old dead guys is a peculiarly male approach to an idea, but essentially I agree with him.  If knowing the great works that preceed you discourages you, then you should be discouraged — for those things are your teachers. 

This might seem odd commentary coming from me, to those who’ve read this blog before.  I try to encourage, but these are not contradictory gestures.  Even Hemingway doesn’t tell the “discouraged” writer to give up.  Such discouragement in one who wants the prize has to be overcome.  What Hemingway is really counseling is courage. 

I had all sorts of qualms when I painted this, but I painted it anyway.  And that was my courage.

[Top of the post:  A pair of shoes, by Aletha Kuschan, oil on canvas, c. 1988]

From that Nest Hatched These

I guess the nest pictured in the previous post hatched these.  (Making imaginative allowances for time.)  After I became a mom, actually some many years after I painted the bird’s nest, my daughter drew these baby birds.  I assembled them as a trio and put them into the nest she’d made.  A xerox version of them now appears in a collage I’m using for a picture I’m painting.  It’s the same collage of the “weird lizard.”

Under Cover

During the late eighties I took a figure painting class with an artist whose work I found interesting, Ken Marlow.  I already possessed then my own ways of painting, but I wanted to learn how Ken painted.  Granted the public character of a class would reveal only certain aspects of his approach.  Still, his class was there to take, and so I signed up.  He was a wonderful teacher, and had I been looking for instruction I couldn’t have recommended anyone better.  But as it happens, I had arrived merely to satisfy curiosity.

In the course of things, we did a nude figure.  Mine was painted on the small canvas above.  I cannot remember what it looked like or even whether it was a man or a woman.  At some stage Ken came round and offered suggestions, and he also offered to make some corrections himself to which I acceded.  Afterwards, though, the picture bothered me.  I can’t remember exactly why, but it had something to do with his having changed it.  It had stopped being my picture at that juncture. 

Had I been more mature … hmm… perhaps I would have kept it as a souvenir — after all Ken’s paintings command hefty prices now.  But I wasn’t interested in a souvenir.  I had gone there with curiosity only and persisted in curiosity only.  So at some later date, I decided to reuse the canvas, and I painted this bird’s nest over it. 

Now, maturer still … er … I’m glad I painted over the Me/Marlow life study.  I love this bird’s nest.  It is a testament to my other “teacher” of the time, Vincent Van Gogh.  As you’re probably aware, Van Gogh painted a series of bird’s nests early in his career during that period when his pictures were dark and overtly “Dutch.” 

When I painted this still life, I felt so much as though I was apeing Van Gogh that I was a little uneasy about it.  However, seeing it now I realize how thoroughly it was and is mine.  The round white stool was a regular bit of my life’s furniture, evocative of such personal memories.  The way that the bird’s nest sits on it, laying on a cloth (actually a piece of artist’s linen) is so much a gesture of presenting the nest — and animals and wildlife were a big deal in my formative childhood experience.  

That it covers over a different picture, one with interesting credentials, also fits in with the painting’s gesture.  I asserted my own life’s very different trajectory.  This painting was raw and unstudied — more a rough and rude Van Gogh idea than a smooth salon-inspired idea of art out of which Marlow’s visual sensibilities evolved.

Different strokes for different folks.  I realize the wisdom of that saying now more than ever.  The whole point of making pictures is to create something individual.  How else can one accomplish this except through the individuality of the self?
Come visit my store on CafePress!

[Top of the post:  A Bird’s Nest, by Aletha Kuschan, oil on canvas, c. 1988]

Making Difficult Pictures

One problem that artists have at the beginning arises from a misapprehension.  When seeing a painting in a museum, people often think that that’s it.  They see a complete, whole and finished thing and mistakenly suppose that the artist just painted it.  Such a task, anyone would acknowledge to be difficult, but to create ex nihilo — which is often what people mistakenly suppose artists do — would be really, very hard — perhaps impossible.  In fact most complex pictures have lots of studies that lie behind them.  Studies can take many forms, but usually they exist.  Typically they are not on display.  They reside in the background.  They lie stored in a drawer in the artist’s studio.

What defines a study?  One might say that it’s any work of art that takes a separate aspect of an idea and pursues it in isolation.  When you study old masters’ techniques, you find many such drawings that rehearse ideas that are later used in completed paintings. 

So, it’s “okay” to take an idea apart and pursue it in bits.  The drawing at the top of the post is that kind of drawing.  I was interested in the drapery and drew it in isolation.  To create this drapery I had first made a photograph — but even the photograph is part of the pursuit of an idea.  I’m still not certain where it’s going.  Or if it’s going anywhere.

The figure has no head or face and hardly any arms.  These details don’t matter at this juncture, and I left them out.  The details here are to drawing what scales are to music.  This is a drawing of riffs and phrases.  Such things have their own charms.

[Top of the post:  Drapery Study, by Aletha Kuschan, colored pencil on Nideggen paper]

Learning a Language

A certain way of painting nature belongs to the French.  And whenever an artist adopts that way, be it Jennifer Bartlett or Richard Diebenkorn or Winslow Homer, it is the same as speaking French.  Call it “visual French.”  I have myself been studying different dialects of it.  In this picture Bonnard was my teacher.  He has a certain distinctive accent that I think I caught in nuance, even though he never would have drawn in the medium I used, or drawn something this large or in quite this way.

Translation is a valuable metaphor for the exchange of ideas that take place among artists living in different eras.  I can talk Bonnard’s talk, but I still sound “simply and frankly American” (as Mary Cassatt once famously said).  And while I might adopt a second language to express my visual ideas, just like Polish Joseph Conrad became an English novelist, I am nonetheless giving my own opinions. 

People trouble themselves over much with the question of originality.  Yet one would be hard pressed to be anyone other than oneself.  I may speak a visual French, but the pictorial ideas are mine.  Thus the language is not quite French even, or English, or American.  In a final sense one speaks the language of the self.  Spoken earnestly, it’s a language that others can understand without a translator for it speaks to all the other selves in the clear tones of feeling and life.

[Top of the post:  Speaking French to the Trees and the Sky, by Aletha Kuschan, crayon on Canson paper, 60 x 47 inches]