Wednesday, November 9, 2022

Post # 190 Ninety-Nine Faces on the Wall




You all remember the old camp bus song, “Ninety-Nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall”, well, several months ago, for some totally inexplicable reason, I began to obsessively draw faces. all kinds. old, young, pretty, not-so-pretty, men, women, etc. I think I stopped around the 99th. Although I always started out with a real person whose photo I cut out of a magazine or newspaper, the finished portrait never had the slightest resemblance to it. It was as if my hand was no longer in charge and the face in front of me had acquired a life of its own. This went on for several weeks at which point I exhausted both myself and my paper supply, ending up in bed with some kind of puzzling flu that required over a week to get over.

The process by which I produced this Rogue’s Gallery of faces was pretty weird in itself. I would cut interesting subjects from the local newspaper, or the New York Times and begin to sketch them on soft newsprint paper with a pencil or piece of charcoal. That was when the magic took place; the image on the paper would take over and I was no longer in control of what I was drawing. The face in front of me bore no resemblance to the photo I was looking at. Someone or something else was now in charge.

Day after day new faces appeared. My studio walls became obsessively covered with them. When I ran out of wall space, I brought down huge sheets of triple ply cardboard from the attic and covered them, front and back with faces. I finally exhausted both my paper supply and my well-being, ending up in bed for over a week with a strange flu. I’m lucky it was only my health and not my sanity.

I wish I could explain what happened, but I can’t. It was as if I had been consumed by pandemic loneliness and a need for “company” and my subconscious mind responded by creating its own crowd.

Thursday, September 8, 2022

POST #189: REAL LIFE, NOT ART

 

I’ve never believed in miracles or magic or a God who cares whether I live or die. I wasn’t taught to believe at an early enough age to accept things that don’t make sense. There’s a rational explanation for everything and if I don’t know what it is, it’s only because I haven’t learned it yet. There is no one to answer my prayers, no matter how nicely I ask, and If things go wrong, I have only myself (or society) (or just plain bad luck) to blame. God had nothing to do with it. He/She/It couldn’t care less. I am not even a mote of dust in the eye of an unfathomable universe. The truth is, I matter to myself alone and to an ever-diminishing circle of family and friends. I’ve never depended on luck, played the lottery, bet on horses, or tried to convince myself that a serial philanderer would make a good husband (as one of my friends just recently did). I’ve always been realistic about my chances for success. I may not like “reality”, but unfortunately, it is what it is. I’m rarely disappointed because I was taught at an early age to only expect what was possible.

“There’s no pie in the sky when you die. It’s a lie!!” (Depression era song)

While I’m probably never going to be in a Whitney Biennial (my goal was to be the oldest artist they’ve ever shown), there are some things I might realistically expect: I can hope to keep getting better, producing artwork that doesn’t go straight into the dumpster after I’m gone. I’ve had a long, interesting life, a loving marriage, contributed to my community and raised three outstanding children and six dynamic grandchildren with my first great grandchild coming in a few weeks. I try to get to my studio every day; I’m not always happy with the results, but at least I try to produce something worth keeping after I’m gone - and not just to re-use the canvas.

The last few years of the pandemic have been difficult for everybody. We choke behind masks, avoid our usual haunts. I haven’t been to Curley’s Diner (my favorite hangout) for years! My main form of socializing is an infrequent trip to the city dump (aka the Katrina Mygatt Recycling Center). Don’t laugh! it’s the most interesting place in town!) I come home triumphant, with books to read, old records to listen to, and beautiful dishes to give my granddaughter for her new apartment in Brooklyn.) A free treasure hunt; the best kind.

Speaking of God (see first paragraph), I had an interesting encounter with Him a few nights ago, just as I was about to fall asleep. It turns out that He does look like the image of God in the Sistine Chapel Ceiling (who knew?) with a long white beard.  I was in a good mood; I’d had a very productive day, and despite my lack of any religious beliefs, I found myself saying “Thank you God” while I was falling asleep.  And, much to my surprise, God actually responded from up     above me somewhere - in the deep, sonorous voice one would expect Him to have. “You’re welcome,” he replied politely. Oh my God, God has good manners? I started to laugh, and God, catching on to the absurdity of our interchange, started to laugh along with me, a hearty belly-laugh that spun its way through the Universe.


I fell asleep, happy to know that God (whoever or whatever) and I had a similar sense of humor.

Monday, August 8, 2022

Post #188: Matisse and Me

 

Oil, Charcoal and Collage 60” x38”

I just finished a book by Picasso’s most accomplished and literate mistress, Francoise Gilot. Of course, Picasso sued her after it was finished. She writes, knowingly, about the “friendship” between Picasso and Matisse. I use quotes because both of them were vying for the title of “greatest artist of our time” and truthfully, couldn’t stand one another. I’ve never been much of a fan of Matisse, although this book has persuaded me to upgrade my opinion. Picasso, whether you like his work or not. was undoubtedly the greatest artist of the twentieth century Despite Gilot’s treatment of the two artists as equals, it’s pretty obvious that while Matisse was the graceful matador, Picasso was the thundering bull.

It was interesting to me to note that both men died at 92, the age I am now approaching. They were still producing great work. Matisse and I have grown closer as we age, both having tired of easel painting and looking for more inventive forms, mainly cut-paper figures on a monumental scale. Matisse, bedridden, had a staff of assistants who were able to do the bulk of the physical labor for him. He would take sheets of paper his helpers painted in colors of his choice, using a giant pair of scissors to create cavorting figures, often floating in space, while I, without studio help, have turned to using the overhead project to create monumental forms that I photograph for “posterity.” I add color from my stock of colored cellophane (another story) rescued from the all-purpose dumpster outside my former studio at Yale & Towne. By moving the projector back and forth, my cut-outs – mostly 4”- 6”, create images   as exciting as those by Matisse. (if I have to say so myself.)

Mural design by Renee Kahn 1976
Lower Summer Street, Stamford CT
Photo by J. Edward Greene 1989

Those of you who have known me a long time remember my first foray into public art, a project in 1976 for Stamford’s Bi-Centennial celebration, a giant, two-sided mural on a derelict wall on Lower Summer Street. I put a slide projector on the roof of a car in the parking lot, got scaffolding erected, volunteer painters with cans of brown paint, and projected images of historic Stamford on the wall. It lasted almost twenty years much to everyone’s amazement. And it was certainly more interesting than the multiplex movie house that currently occupies the site.

Monday, July 4, 2022

Post # 187: Creating Company…

My late husband, a Clinical Child Psychologist, rarely “analyzed” my art. He felt it was an unwarranted invasion of my privacy, only occasionally coming into the studio while I was at work. Most of my early work was figurative, as if I were trying to create company for myself. In fact, he would often mumble “Only an only child would do this!” I secretly envied friends who came from large families, had lots of siblings, not realizing that being one of many had its own drawbacks. However, after birthing and raising three lively children, I had enough “company” for a while and was ready to move on, creating art that was mostly a mix of architecture and surrealist dream states.

This past year, probably because of the loneliness caused by the pandemic, I began to create “company” for myself again, a crowd. The walls of my studio are currently filled with faces: young, old, black, white. Beautiful and not so beautiful. You could fill a subway car with my characters. Sometimes they are inspired by a photo in the newspaper; most of the time they come unbidden from the giant file cabinet in my head. Being alone so much of the time has set off my urge to be with people, people to talk to, to hang out with, keep me company. I’ve got a wall full of faces staring at me now, and I know them all.

 

One of the great joys in my life is my “house band,” country music players who rehearse in a rustic (Appalachia style) shed on my property, replete with wood-burning stove. This week, however, they asked if they could use my big painting studio; it has a two-story ceiling and the acoustics are amazing. They said they wanted to record some demo discs and this was the perfect place. It just so happened that I’ve been working on a wall-full of “portraits,” a built-in, imaginary audience that seemed to enjoy every minute of their performance.  I keep adding to the crowd and there seems to be no end in sight. 

In a few months, when - and if - the pandemic subsides – I’m hoping to hold some outdoor events on my property. You’re all invited and I will let you know when, or if, anything happens. Bring a chair, a bottle of “something…” and enjoy coming back to life. The “Webb’s Hill Center for Music & Art”, featuring the “Webb’s Hill Mountain Boys” (or whatever they call themselves) will, hopefully, be open to the public. 


P.S. my new website is www.reneekahn.com


Monday, January 24, 2022

Post #186 Ode to a Paper Plate


 One reason I was such a good art history teacher was that I taught the subject from the viewpoint of a working artist, like myself. I could turn out a credible Renaissance “Madonna” on the blackboard in the blink of an eye.

But here’s the meat of my blog: My favorite period in art history has always been Ancient Greek ceramics, preferably from the 5th and 6th century B.C. I connect it to my childhood love of drawing on paper plates. In fact, I got my “start” as an artist in kindergarten by creating a much-admired paper plate. I don’t remember what it looked like; all I remember is that my teacher held it up to visiting parents as an example of the quality art produced in her class. It sealed my fate. My mother was besides herself. And when, as an adult, I made the connection to Ancient Greek pottery, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to create plates all my own. Off I went to the local Party Shoppe at the Mall, bringing home stacks of paper plates, all kinds: shiny black ones, cheap white ones. 100 to a pack. I was in creative pig heaven. During the many years I worked for the City of Stamford as an architectural “consultant,” I survived endless boring meetings by drawing on my lap under the table on the paper plates that were brought in to hold inedible snacks.  My unwitting models, the people who sat at the meetings with me, never knew they had been captured for posterity on a penny’s worth of cardboard.


Over the past dozen or more years, I have carried the Art of the Paper Plate to a higher level, this time Inspired by the ancient Greeks, not boredom. I bought a package of black construction paper and, with a pair of incredible pre-war German scissors I found at a tag sale (they read my mind), I proceeded to create my own Classical art. From my subconscious, no drawing required, the cheapest material imaginable, I began to cut out a cast of characters: silhouette figures based on my love of Greek ceramics. There was never a story, just whatever the scissors came up with. I have stacks of images. I could literally paper entire walls with them (and one day may do just that).

The moral of the story is, you don’t need expensive materials to create a work of art: just your imagination and the willingness to let your subconscious lead the way.  I’m already on to my next step, life size “murals” using the overhead projector. I project my small cutouts to whatever size I want, from inches to feet. These are ‘ephemeral’ but can always be captured with my IPhone or cut out of sheets of brown wrapping paper. I can’t wait to see what happens next. Many years ago, I picked up some colored cellophane from an industrial dumpster and now I can add color to my images. Wait until you see them!

By the way, check out an old blog of mine, Post #  1  called “Arte Povera,” (literally “Poor Art, ”a movement that began in Italy after World War II that emphasized using “humble, non-traditional materials like concrete” (or paper plates).

Sunday, November 7, 2021

POST #185: CITY OF MY DREAMS

New York was an artists’ paradise. Despite the poverty of the Great Depression, the city was alive and in the middle of a cultural Golden Age. Like most Golden Ages in history, it didn’t last very long, a decade or two at most, but during that time the arts flourished: painters and sculptors were subsidized by federal programs and art was found everywhere. I consider myself hugely fortunate to have grown up in a world that now exists only in the memory of the few who survive. I lived in the outer reaches of the city, adjacent to Woodlawn Cemetery, one of the great park cemeteries popularized during the mid 1800s. At night, I would sit at my fire escape window and look out at the lights of the city, the skyline and the necklace of bridges that surrounded it.  Each weekday morning, I walked the ten blocks or so that took me to the last stop of my subway line, the D Train that led to Manhattan and the riches it contained. I was fortunate to have been accepted to attend the High School of Music & Art, an institution for the “gifted” created by New York’s quirky mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia.


On weekends, I explored the city, walking for hours, sometimes stopping to sketch or take black and white photos on my $2 Brownie Point & Shoot camera, (the one that required no skill to operate.) I still have an envelope full of snaps and negatives of the Lower East Side (in its heyday) that continue to inspire me. Unlike today, where culture is costly, museums were free and all within walking distance of a bus or subway. I was often joined by my best friend, Joan, who got on the train to meet me. My stop was 205th Street, hers was 168th; 75 years later, I still remember. Together we roamed the city, wisely limiting ourselves to one neighborhood at a time. One Saturday afternoon, we would explore Broadway and Hell’s Kitchen, the next week was the Lower East Side, Little Italy and the Bowery. Chinatown required an afternoon of its own as did Greenwich Village with its side trips to the artisan jewelry makers on 4th Street. Heading downtown eventually got us to Canal Street, a mile-long playpen of industrial detritus. Getting there, however, required scooting through SOHO, a trek that involved evading the catcalls of the factory workers who hounded us along the way. My companion possessed an ample bosom that always evoked admiring comments.


We rarely ventured beyond Manhattan, a decision I now regret. There seemed to be enough to keep us occupied without crossing any bridges. Sometimes we rode the few remaining elevated subway lines allowing us to stare into tenement windows along the way. Other times, we just walked without a destination. We also had the option of climbing on one of the double-decker busses that crisscrossed the city. Public transportation cost little, although ‘on foot’ remained our preferred way to go. It allowed for occasional shopping “sprees” or lunches in Chinatown or the Lower East Side, neighborhoods that provided delights unequalled by any museum. The signage alone was enough to make a young art student’s head spin.

I don’t want to overwhelm you, just give you an idea of the riches we encountered. There was Harlem, but you had to stay on 125th Street, then Spanish Harlem with its “under the el” shopping stalls, Yorktown with its great German food and “Jews not welcome” vibe. Heading downtown we encountered the great (and free) museums: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of the City of New York, the New York Historical Society, the Museum of Natural History. I could go on for another page. We stared at glorious architecture everywhere we went, not the boring glass boxes one sees today. There were Gothic Revival churches, Renaissance palazzos, neoclassical townhouses, all free of charge. I shiver just remembering it.

And then there was the endless shopping: window and otherwise. Everything from the luxury of Fifth Avenue with its designer clothing and sophisticated window displays to the exciting streets of the Lower East Side with its bins of “schmattas,” cloth remnants gleaned from the dress industry that dominated the city at the time. Or Chinatown with its windows full of cheaply-made imported trinkets and toys. Canal Street with its industrial detritus; the second-hand bookstores that lined 4th Avenue below 14th Street, the bargain clothing stores that overlooked Union Square. The Bowery with its lines of blank-faced men. I get out of breath just thinking about it. You could walk for days without seeing the same place twice.

 

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Post #184: How to Hold Your Audience



I taught art history for 22 years at the University of Connecticut’s Stamford Campus (the “Branch,” as it was dismissively known.) Despite my lack of a PhD and formal book learning, I was rated one of the best teachers and my classes were always full. I was a “performer,” thanks to my just-out-of-college teaching stint in the South Bronx (see above). Since most of my readers (so they tell me) dread public speaking, I thought I’d give you some tips. It’s a question of practice and the confidence you get from experience. I do, however, have some pointers you might find useful.

1)     Do not read your lecture. The minute I see someone take out a written lecture, I tune out. Unless it’s a technical subject with numbers and formulae, like quantum physics, wing it. If you don’t know your material well enough to just go with some notes, you shouldn’t be up there. Avoid writing on the blackboard while you are lecturing. The class can’t listen and copy at the same time. Just put your main points on a card and TALK! Look the class in the eye to see if they get you, and if they look dazed, start over. 

2)      Maintain eye contact and PERFORM. Put the technical stuff in a handout to be taken home and reviewed. Give out a vocabulary list of unfamiliar terms. Don’t expect the class to know your jargon. That’s what you’re there to teach.

3)     Draw on the blackboard. It’s very entertaining. If you can’t draw, use a slide or an overhead projector to project the image, trace it and get the students to copy it.

4)     Don’t be afraid to be a little bawdy or risqué. Not vulgar, just amusing. Tell a saucy anecdote. It will keep the class awake. They won’t forget it.

5)     Do not permit any side conversations. Stop the class and stare down the guilty parties. You owe it to your students to avoid distractions. You might even want to permanently separate repeat offenders. 

6)     Love your subject and let it show. If you don’t, get another job.

 


At the end of every semester, the students were asked to grade their teachers. I always came out quite well even though I was usually only a chapter ahead of the class in the text. The fact that I was a “working artist” gave me an edge over the academics who usually taught art history. I understood how an artist thought and functioned. What I lacked in book learning (I still can’t do footnotes properly) I made up for with hands-on experience in the art world. I managed to convey love of my subject in what otherwise could have been an awfully deadly hour and a half.


Renee Kahn,
Artist first,
Art Historian second,
Writer third