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Creativity Q+A with Susan Tusa

Photographer Susan Tusa learned her craft in the days before digital, and plied it in the field of print journalism. She was a staff photographer with The Detroit News; and The Detroit Free Press, from which she retired in 2012 after 22 years. Susan is the recipient of numerous awards, and has exhibited her work in Michigan and France. During her decades as a news photographer, Susan created lyrical images that hinted at the kind of images she might create when not tasked with the work of reporting. She resides in Empire, Michigan.This interview took place in April 2021. It was conducted by Sarah Bearup-Neal, GAAC Gallery Manager, and edited for clarity.


What draws you to the medium in which you work

That’s a difficult question at this point in my life. I’ve been photographing pretty much daily for 40 years. It’s just what I do.

Did you attend art school or receive any formal training in visual art?

My formal training was very limited. On a bit of a lark, I took a photojournalism course at Michigan State University and fell madly in love with the whole thing: the going out and shooting, and coming back and processing the film; then it magically appearing like a memory. I was at MSU thinking I was going try to become an environmental reporter. It hadn’t been a well-formed idea. I was just taking courses. And then I took a photojournalism course [in 1976-77], and completely changed directions. It hadn’t occurred to me that a person could make a living doing something they loved. I had purchased my first 35 mm camera a year earlier with money from unemployment checks [1]. I took a couple of courses per semester so I could work at the college newspaper [State News], and then doggedly pursued a career in photography. I started at small town weekly newspapers photographing things like little league tournaments and Farmer of the Week.

When so many people are working with digital cameras and technology, that darkroom magic is unknown or foreign to them. Is this a loss, the lack of direct experience in the darkroom?

Yes, I do think it’s a loss.

I think the more we know about, and the more we experience, in regard to any art we are practicing, widens our view. Having firsthand knowledge of different aspects of craft deepens the experience of not only practicing art, (in this case photography), but viewing it, and understanding it. I’ve met young photographers who have never even focused manually, and always use auto exposure, and I wonder how they can possibly get the results they want. The camera certainly doesn’t know, at least not yet. I think it’s really important to know the equipment you’re using and what it’s capable of. I also think that instant results cultivate unreal expectations, and an impatience that can be detrimental to producing good work.

I think there’s less time for contemplation, and that sense of what a photo actually is: a moment in time, a recent memory. The darkroom experience really illustrated that. You watched this moment from a while ago slowly appear. It’s a ghost, a mirage, and then it’s solid.

How did your formal training affect your development as a creative practitioner?

Like I said, my formal training was limited. The photojournalism courses introduced me to the basics of black and white 35 mm photography – exposure, the function and relationship between shutter speed and F-stops, controlling depth of field, that sort of thing. I learned how to develop film, make black and white prints, and the importance of getting to know your subject.  One of the first assignments I recall, was to come up with 10 portraits of people on the street – perfect strangers – and hand in not only quality prints of each person, but brief biographies. I discovered that I loved talking with strangers and finding out about the different lives they lived. And I was surprisingly comfortable doing it. (I’m not sure why, maybe from years of watching my mom talk with cashiers, plumbers, the guy on the phone, the mail carrier, pretty much anyone she came in contact with.)

The rest of my education was trial and error. Lots of error. I remember while working at The [MSU] State News, my boss, a prickly sort, sent me to shoot an advertisement at a women’s clothing store. He loaded me up with a closet full of equipment I had never touched — lights and batteries, umbrellas and light stands — and sent me off to shoot the ad. He was a bit terrifying. So, rather than speak up and admit that I hadn’t a clue how to use any of the equipment, I muddled through with predictably terrible results, and got fired. It took a while, but after a lot of experimentation and wasted film, I learned to manage lights quite well. After I was quite comfortable with them, I found myself avoiding them whenever possible anyway, even when shooting food or fashion. I always prefer shooting on location or using window light and reflectors. Too much equipment always feels like a barrier to me, and I never thought that the artificial light I created was as pleasing or effective as the light of the world.

Describe your studio/workspace.

Workspace, Empire, Michigan. 2021.

I practice photography everywhere: inside my home, outside, wherever I am or wherever I am assigned to go. Most often, these days, it’s wandering the trails and shore of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

My editing/printing space is in the bedroom/office/laundry room in the little house I just moved into. It’s tight, but it works – a perk of not needing a darkroom anymore. Years ago, pre-employment, I made prints in my bathtub. My enlarger was on small back porch that I blackened with dark plastic bags, towels and lots of duct tape. Now I do all my “developing” on the computer. I’m quite comfortable doing what I used to do in the darkroom, in Photoshop, and since I left the Detroit Free Press. I’m learning to feel free to make more adjustments than I was ever comfortable with. When working as a photojournalist, it’s not acceptable or ethical to alter photos in any way. Basic toning — that’s it. If I photographed someone and didn’t notice the bushy tree in back of them looking like an eccentric’s hat because of the angle I chose, well, too bad. We don’t alter reality. I get so angry at people crying “fake news” when I’m well aware of how the vast majority of journalists and photographers work so hard to produce an accurate representation of whatever the subject, story, or situation is. Even now, when I’m doing a close up of something in the woods, I feel a twinge of guilt if I remove a twig from the scene; but I’m getting over that little by little as I work on artwork. I’m becoming a bit more playful, because I can be.

You have been in the process of transitioning from your professional work as photojournalist with the Detroit Free Press to the work of a studio artist.

I left the Detroit Free Press at the end of 2012. I don’t consider myself a studio artist. I approach my work in much the same way I always have.

How are the two forms of photography alike or different?  

Susan Tusa shoots President Barack Obama after he speaks at the Labor Day celebrations in Detroit September 5, 2011. MANDI WRIGHT/Detroit Free Press

I don’t think there is a big difference between the work I did at the Detroit Free Press, and the work I’m doing now except the content and pace. I rarely have deadlines, don’t have daily assignments, and live in a different place. I’m still photographing most days, and when I’m not, I’m editing, printing and trying to figure out ways to make this daily practice of mine useful. I’m trying to sell my artwork, which is relatively new to me. I’m fumbling my way around the art world, figuring out pricing, limited editions, that sort of thing.

Which of your photojournalist’s tools/equipment have transferred to your studio work? 

My tools are pretty much the same, except that I don’t have as many cameras and lenses. The paper used to provide whatever we wanted in terms of equipment, and now I have to buy my own, so I can’t afford the really long lenses I’d like; or to replace my older cameras with the newest, better, faster versions.

What did you bring [visually, philosophically, aesthetically] from your former profession into your studio work?

Street Photography, Detroit, Michigan, 1986.

My visual, philosophical, and aesthetic approaches to my work have developed throughout my career. And they continue to develop and change as I do. As a photojournalist I’ve had to photograph everything – portraits, prison riots, fires and fashion, the rich and famous, the poor and impoverished, violence, kindness, mayhem, quietude. The challenge was always to get to the truth or essence of whatever it was I was shooting, make it visually interesting/artful in terms of composition and content, and fulfill the needs of the paper – the space it was destined for. The difference now, is that I’m most often photographing with no assignments, deadlines, or the demands of a particular publication.

But I always have a camera, and inevitably something will catch my eye: a shift in the light, a sound, some movement on the ground or something incredible at my feet that I’ve never seen before. Whatever it is summons me to stop and look more closely. I’ll begin shooting, and then I’m pretty much lost to whatever drew me in. I’ve always loved being in nature, where life and death and the whole mysterious mess becomes less scary. The “I” is replaced by a kind of mindfulness.

Please elaborate.

When I begin photographing something, and “working” it, nothing else exists. I’m not thinking, just seeing and making adjustments in focus, depth of field, shutter speed, changing my position — standing, kneeling, laying down, watching the scene or whatever it is change in the viewfinder, shooting frame after frame. I’m not thinking about the past, or worrying about the pandemic or politics, mass extinctions, what I’m going to make for dinner, or the million other things that are always scrolling through our minds.  All I’m doing is seeing.

In the Washington Post article  about the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, which your photographs illustrated, Rebecca Powers said you “often recite poetry while hiking.”

Deer tracks ascending a dune just south of Sleeping Bear Point in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, June 4, 2020.

I don’t have a lot of poems committed to memory, but sometimes I’ll think of a part of a poem and look it up. I like trying to memorize poetry while hiking. I find it easier when I’m out walking to memorize things. Sometimes walking, a poem will occur to me, and I’ll incorporate it in the pace of my steps. A few poems I know by heart are like prayers, particularly a couple by Mary Oliver. She’s so in tune with nature. It’s a nice way of centering.

Thinking about poems doesn’t take away your focus from your walk, and the seeing part of your walk.

It’s almost like the walk and the seeing conjures up the poem. I never memorized a lot of poems throughout my life; but now, it’s probably a good idea. My legs are moving. I want to get the brain to do a little work, too.

I used the verb “illustrated” to refer to your images in the Washington Post article; but I don’t think that’s accurate. Your images stand on their own as much as Powers’s words stand on their own.

The words and photos aren’t supposed to mirror each other. Ideally they work together to communicate and make a connection with readers/viewers.

What themes/ideas are the focus of your work?

Life, death, the all of it, I suppose.

How much pre-planning do you do in advance of beginning a new project or composition?

I’m not a pre-planner. I might return to something I’ve seen when the light is better, which for me usually means softer or darker. Even when I do still life photography, there is no real plan. I begin with something I might’ve picked up — a rock or dead bug — and go from there.

Do you work on more than one project at a time?

I always have several things going at once; but I’m very unorganized and photograph an unmanageable volume of work. I have hundreds of thousands of files and negatives in boxes and folders, on hard drives and my computer desktops that need editing. During the summer months, when the light is harsh, and the heat and chaos are a bit much for me, I spend time inside editing and trying to create some order out of the chaos. I have an embarrassing number of folders on my desktop computer, and lately I’ve been doing nothing with them except adding more images. Each of these folders represents a potential series or project; but at this point they are becoming less defined and more unwieldy.

What’s your favorite tool?

Whatever I happen to be using or have with me on my walk. My Canon 5D Mark II with various lenses is what I like to shoot with most; but it’s also heavy and weighs me down [2] when I’m walking a few miles at a time. Sometimes I’ll carry a point and shoot, and always my iPhone. If I leave the Canon behind, I can be sure I’ll come across something particularly beguiling and I’ll regret it, so I try to have my camera and at least one lens with me. I purchased one of the new iPhones, simply for the camera. I justified the purchase while dealing with a shoulder issue not too long ago. The capabilities of that camera are astounding; but I also have to be careful not to submit to the convenience, because the days that I do, are inevitably the days when I’ll kick myself for not carrying the heavy stuff.

Do you use a sketchbook? Work journal? What tool do you use to make notes and record thoughts about your work?

I always carry a notebook and write down random thoughts that might occur to me, or that I might want to expand on. A couple of years ago I completed a master’s degree in creative writing [3], and am in the process of trying to combine the two arts. It’s really a difficult and interesting process. I’m still a novice in terms of writing. My writing is about as organized as my images. Folders, both physical and virtual, notebooks, scraps of papers, piles of them all over the place.

How do you come up with a title?

I’m terrible at titles. Generally, I try to keep them simple: a geographical location, a botanical I.D., or “untitled” if I can’t think of anything. My daughter cured me of trying to come up with meaningful names when I was getting my first exhibit together. We laughed pretty heartily at how lame the names I was coming up with were. She is my go-to editor. Never afraid to tell me the truth or hold back an opinion, and I trust her eye and judgement.

What’s the job of a title?

Bluff along Lake Michigan just south of North Bar Lake, December 30, 2020.

I’ve learned, that for me, a title is simply a point of reference. Like a number. If the image is particularly abstract, perhaps a word or two as a way to orient the viewer. I don’t like titles that qualify the subject in anyway or tries to induce a reaction in the viewer. I never use a title to spell out a particular emotion or whatever it is that I’m trying to communicate. I think it’s somewhat disrespectful to the viewer. If what I was trying to communicate isn’t within the photo, the image failed.

When did you commit to working with serious intent?

When I took my first photography course.

What role does social media play in your practice?

I’m active on Instagram and follow visual artists from all over the world. Looking at images every day is inspiring. Paintings, photos, sculpture, all of it. Every encounter we have with art affects us, I think, and influences the slight shifts in direction our own art takes. Whether that encounter or immersion is via social media, an art gallery, in books or films, it all becomes a part of us.

What’s its influence on how you let the world know about the work you make?

I think it’s a way of getting work out there. As your community grows, so does exposure. I’ve gotten some freelance work that way, sold some art, and was asked to participate in an exhibit through Instagram.

What do you believe is the visual artist’s/creative practitioner’s role in the world?

To make art.

What part or parts of the world find their way into your work?

I believe that everything is connected to everything else, our memories and histories, all of it affects who we are and our world view. I guess every part of the world I’ve had the privilege to be exposed to – physically, virtually, intellectually. All of it has somehow found its way into my work. I could look at one of my recent photos and say, for example, this photo is because as a child I went to a Catholic girl’s school or because I recently read a novel by Chris Abani, or because I took a walk and saw that dead mouse, all of it’s in there somewhere isn’t it?

How does living in Northern Michigan inform and influence your creative practice?

Grasses along old logging road in Benzie County, Michigan, August, 18, 2020.

Nature is pretty much center stage here, and since I moved to Empire full time a couple of years ago, it has taken center stage in my work too.

Is the work you create a reflection of this place?

I think my work is definitely a reflection of wherever I am, both physically and mentally.

If not directly reflected or depicted in your work, are there other [unseen] ways Northern Michigan informs your work? 

I’ve spent the majority of my life in Michigan, so my work most likely carries the sense of Michigan.

Would you be doing different work if you did not live in Northern Michigan? Would your work have a different look or appearance?

There would be different content, of course, but I’m sure there would be similarities in the mood or texture of the photos. I lean toward the quiet, and solitary, sometimes dark, whether in color or black and white. My color photos are most often monochromatic. That said, if I lived in Cuba, say, I’m pretty sure I’d be photographing the rich color palette there.

Did you know any practicing studio artists when you were growing up? 

Just an uncle who I rarely saw.

Who has had the greatest and most lasting influence on your work and practice?

When I was younger, I read a biography of Georgia O’Keeffe, and was awed by her vision and the way she lived her life. That might have been one of the sparks that first pointed me in the direction of visual art. I didn’t grow up in an artistic household. I took piano lessons in the first grade; but a cranky teacher convinced my parents that I was not musician material (and this was after having just mastered “Yankee Doodle”). I have no memory of trips to art museums, art lessons, things like that.

It’s difficult for me to name one person. I’ve had the privilege of working alongside some of the most talented photographers and editors out there – Eli Reed, Stephanie Sinclair, Taro Yamasaki [4], Joel Meyerowitz, Joyce Tenneson, Romain Blanquart, Kathy Kieliszewski, David Gilkey at the papers I’ve worked at, on various assignments, and during different workshops. Some are well known, some are not. But their collective knowledge and different ways of seeing widened my vision and continues to do so.

Where or to whom do you go when you need honest feedback about your work?

My daughter. She’s not afraid to say exactly what she thinks, she’s smart and funny and has an incredible eye.

You’ve moved from having a reliable, regular platform for your “showing” work  — i.e. The Detroit Free Press — to a place where you are asking people IF they’d like to show your work.

Detroit Artists Market.

Entering exhibitions — I didn’t even realize that that was a thing. The first exhibition I was a part of, I was contacted by a man who was curating exhibitions at the Detroit Artists Market. I just thought gallerists found you. I’m starting to learn the process.

Exhibitions are prohibitively expensive in terms of getting the framing done. I’m particular and don’t make frames myself. And then you have to figure out prices. I have a friend who’s been doing this for a while, so she’s been advising me on the business end of things. It’s probably a good thing I had a regular job because I’m really bad at it. I’m trying to get better because I’d like to get my work out there and sell it.

What is the role of the exhibition in your practice?

I’ve only been involved in a handful of exhibits. I suppose their role is to release the work into the world, and hope it speaks to someone. Exhibits also provide deadlines which for someone like me who has spent most of her shooting life with daily deadlines, is really helpful. An upcoming exhibit is a sure way to get moving on some of the series in those bulging folders I mentioned earlier.


Footnotes

1.)  Susan had found employment as an EKG technician, proofreader, cashier at a bookstore, and waitress.

2.) Susan estimates “heavy” at 20 – 25 pounds.

3.) Susan received a BS in cultural anthropology from Grand Valley State in 1975; and an MFA in creative writing from Pacific University in Oregon, fiction, 2018

4.) Taro Yamasaki, a Pulitzer Prize winner, resides in Leelanau County.


Susan Tusa is represented by the Sleeping Bear Gallery in Empire.  Learn more about Susan here.

Sarah Bearup-Neal develops and curates Glen Arbor Arts Center exhibitions. She maintains a studio practice focused on fiber and collage.

Thanks to Susan Tusa for generous use of images.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Creativity Q+A with Michelle Tock York

Michelle Tock York, 60, is a sculptor working in clay, and with a wide range of intriguing found objects — from organic finds [e.g. driftwood gleaned from the beach] to trinkets and forgotten objects scavenged from antique stores and other treasure troves. Her goal? To turn all these disparate materials into “cohesive” works that tell the stories this Traverse City artists wants to tell. This interview took place in March 2021. It was conducted by Sarah Bearup-Neal, GAAC Gallery Manager, and was edited for clarity.


You work with clay in a sculptural way.

I do have a potter’s wheel … but I’m definitely not a potter. I love hand building. I had to know [wheel] pottery well enough to teach it at the high school level [1]. I taught the [college level placement] classes.

What draws you to the medium in which you work?

I love the push and pull of the clay. I was a print maker in college. I loved manipulating the [printing] plates; but it’s the actual touching the clay that’s exciting to me. I love creating something out of a blob of dirt. As a child, my parents loved antiques. They would drag me to every antique store, and I began to love the found objects, the cool old toys that I’d find in there, wood that had a patina  and a history … That where the found objects come it. It’s so cool to be walking down the road and find rusty metal or a broken part of a muffler. I always see something in it, and what I can do with it. In fact, the old men in the village I lived in [Goodrich, Michigan] before moving to Traverse City used to leave boxes of old relics at my door.

Did you attend art school or receive any formal training in visual art?

College for Creative Studies Ford Campus, Detroit, Michigan.

I went to the Center For Creative Studies in Detroit. I have a BFA in printmaking. I went back to Wayne State to get my art ed degree [graduating in 1986 [2]]. My first job in Bloomfield Hills was to teach clay … I also took classes at the Flint Institute of Arts for years just to be able to do something for myself, and to become a better ceramics teacher.

How did your formal training affect your development as a creative practitioner?

I learned to work and play obsessively. It taught me the value of a good work ethic, and the freedom to learn through play and exploration. Working in a shared studio created opportunities for critiques and camaraderie amongst my peers. It also helped me as a teacher. The importance of keeping a studio organized so that many different students can work in a community without too much strife is important. Developing a work ethic was the biggest thing that I learned, and I’ve been stuck with it ever since.

Describe your studio/work space.

Studio view.

This is my third studio [approximately 250 square feet]. The one I had in Goodrich was above the garage. I had windows that looked out on a beautiful backyard with trees. Everything was in one room — all my found object inventory, my clay, everything. This studio in Traverse City is in the basement. It takes up the majority of the basement — I share a little bit of space with my husband …The main portion of studio has a station for working in clay, a wall to photograph work, a sink that collects all the clay sludge, a shop area with work bench and drill press, a 2D area with my father’s old drafting table, and lots of storage for my littles [3] in cabinets. I have a slab roller that’s portable … I have two easels for when I work on relief pieces — when I’m embellishing them I like to work the easels. And then, I have an entire other area that’s just for my inventory, which I didn’t have before. It’s good, and sometimes frustrating, because I have to go back and forth trying to find the perfect piece or the perfect base; but it’s not far away. It’s very organized.

Is this high level of organization intrinsic to you? Or, the result of years of having many studios?

Studio storage.

Years of having many studios, and years of learning from my mistakes. When I’m working in too much chaos, I get lost, and it takes more time. Someone who’s very organized would say, She’s a hoarder; but it’s organized chaos. I know where the majority of things are … When you work with clay — can you hear the raspiness in my voice? — and after 30 years in a classroom with no ventilation, it’s vital that I keep it clean. The sink is big deal to me. We put a ventilation area in here, a fan that will take the dust outside. I keep a Shop Vac in here with a HEPA filter. If I don’t keep it organized in here, it’s bad for my lungs.

What themes/ideas are the focus of your work?

I’m inspired by a sense of place, by nature, by environmental issues, stories, people, figures and an otherness or spirituality that is felt in the natural world. Sometimes I’m just inspired by a piece of junk I find on the side of the road. Some of my work is silly; some people would say “whimsical.” I hate when they say it’s “cute.” People might think “cute” because I love fairy tales. There’s also a dark side to them, and I love the illustrations [of classic fairy tales] … I grew up with a George Roualt print in our house. That print’s illustrative quality influenced me.

Your work is sculptural and figurative. Describe it for someone who may never have seen it.

Celestial Mother, clay and wire assemblage, 25” x 15″ x 23”, 2019.

I’m working with a figure, whether it be an animal or a person. It’s not always in proportion. I like to exaggerate different features to hone in on a feeling. Often the hands are small in proportion to the head, and the feet are large. Faces, many of them have closed eyes in contemplation of what’s going on. If I’m working with driftwood, the driftwood has this beautiful texture to it, a softness from the water. Maybe insects have created lines throughout it; but if I use it for legs or arms in a sculpture, they’re not going to be in proportion. They’re going to be gnarly, like an old person’s arthritic hands. Like my hands. I like that. It adds more to the story for me. It’s not about perfection.

What is it about your work that would prompt someone to describe it as “cute”?

Sometimes people lack the vocabulary to describe it any other way. For instance. I just did a whole series of rabbits. They have expressions on their faces, and their ears have a beautiful suggestion of line to them that takes them beyond “cute.” They’re smaller pieces; but because they’re bunnies or rabbits, people would automatically say the subject matter is “cute.”

Your work is also reflects what you’re thinking about, here and now.

These are the things I’m thinking about here and now: escapism, to be able to go outside. Through this pandemic, and when I was child in difficult times, I would escape to the woods or the fields. It’s my sense of heaven. My sense of peace. That’s been my escape, to try and get outdoors once a day, and hike the power line. The rabbits [have left] footprint in the snow along the power line — no one is going to know that looking at my work — and then there are the coyote footprints … Also, the predator — man — in the environment … We live in an unattached condo where the houses are really close together. In the back of the neighborhood, the builder took out five Mack trucks full of trees. That’s where the bigger home are going to go. It’s cheaper to take the big trees down. It just breaks my heart … I’m making the best of it … and enjoying nature; but that has had a big effect on me. It makes me very sad.

What prompts the beginning of a project or composition?

Sometimes it’s a found object. I’ll find a rusted piece of metal, and it could be a skirt; or a muffler, and it looks like the body of horse. Sometimes my doodles will prompt an idea. Or, I’ll find a stick with a burl, a divot, a pattern created by insects that are so lovely I [see it] as an arm or a leg. Sometimes it’s just getting the clay out, and my thoughts lead me in one direction or another. I’ll pinch it, and it will look like something, and the whole thing that I planned changes.

How much pre-planning do you do in advance of beginning a new project or composition?

Michelle’s sketchbooks.

I’m going to be in a show in August about heroines.[4] I’ve been doing a lot of research and pre-planning for that. I’m looking up specific women in history who’ve led the way for all women … Right now I have sketchbooks filled with ideas for the heroines project, as well as names and ideas; but I’m working on all of the other pieces for my other galleries.[5]

Do you work on more than one project at a time?

Yes. Always. I work in wet clay, creating enough parts to fill a kiln, and my kiln is out in the garage. While those pieces are drying and firing, I’ll be glazing another group of pieces. And when those are done,I  begin the assembly process. That can take up the entire studio …

Do you work in a series?

Often, but not always. I find myself leaving a series, then coming back to it at a later time. I’m not sure why. Perhaps I think I’m done with a particular thought; but it keeps coming back in my doodles or play time.

It sounds like doodling opens up portions of your brain to new creative thought.

It does. I think that our sketchbooks are more telling about who we are rather than major pieces of work. There’s a rawness that comes out.

What’s your favorite tool?

A tin of tools from Michelle’s father.

My hands. My eyes. Even when I’m not working, I’m seeing on my daily walks along the power line, through the fields and the woods. Working in clay is all about sense of touch, being sensitive to the various stages of the clay — the dryness, the plasticity; it’s vital to the process. Beyond that, I have a tin of clay tools from my father. He was a sculptor and also a clay modeler at General Motors. He made his own tools in art school. I cherish them.

Your sketchbook is another valued tool.

I love sketchbooks. Because my mind can be scattered and I have a bad memory. I know where drawings and lists are in certain sketchbooks. I use them for recipes for glazes, vocabulary terms, for ideas, my imaginings.

How did you think about handwork before you began practicing seriously?

I don’t know that I really thought about it because I’ve always done it since I was a small child. It wasn’t anything I thought differently about. That’s why my hands are my favorite tool. I have to keep them busy. As an educator, I knew the concept of kinesthetics … Knowledge travels from your fingertips to your brain, and it helps memory and fine motor skills and problem solving. That’s not to say that working with computers or working digitally in the arts is a negative thing; but even the educations I worked with who taught digital arts — graphic design, photography, which became all digital — they would have the kids work with their hands as well, using a work journal, writing and drawing …

Why is making-by-hand important to you?

It’s my way of communicating with people. My words are not the best part of me. Working with my hands is my voice.

Why does working with our hands remain valuable and vital to modern life? We’ve moved away from it. We’re computerized, and most “handwork” is keyboarding.

True; but I think we’ll come back to it. Just like we got rid of all the shop classes, the woodworking classes — they’re coming back. Our brains all work differently. Many children will be lost if they are only working digitally. Some of them will have an opportunity to have more growth, and be more intelligent if they can work with their hands … [Handwork] helps young people with their fine motor skills and it helps improve their brains and problem solving …

How do you come up with a title?

It varies. I collect names; the sketchbooks are a great place to store my collection of names. I find them on road signs, poems, in cemeteries. I used to live down the road from a small village cemetery in Goodrich. I wrote down all the interesting names I could find on the tombstones. Often a found object will have a name or number embossed into the metal, and that becomes a [title]. Also, just going on a map and looking at different places. [A “name”] could be a place. When a sculpture is a person or animal, it’s like having a child and naming that child. Sometimes the title is a commentary about what’s going on or a commentary about the piece.

What’s the job of a title?

The job of the title is for me to express what I’m thinking about that sculpture. For some people who see that title along with the piece, they may be affected by it because the title may have something to do with something that’s important to them, or someone who was or is important to them …

When did you commit to working with serious intent?

Never Say Never, clay and found object assemblage…antique clock-body, antique filigree, clay, driftwood, saxophone key, glazed, 17.5″ x 11″ x 4″, 2020.

After art school [1983] I was in a slump. I couldn’t figure out what I wanted to say with my art, what I really wanted to do. Did I want to be a person in their studio working all the time? Did I want to work in a gallery and make my art when I wasn’t making money? Could I make enough money from my art? I couldn’t figure out where my next group of pieces were coming from. I didn’t have a printing press; but I loved to draw and paint. I wasn’t really much into the clay at the time. I received a gift from my father out of the blue [1984]. It was a box filled with menus and labels and newspapers, and postcards, magazine ads, et cetera. He’d kept all of them from the 1950s. They weren’t precious because they were scraps; but they held the key to something new, and I began a series of collages with them. And, drawings with Prismacolor pencils. They were small, very intimate little pieces. I made 30 of them, and I had a one-person show at Paint Creek Center for the Arts. It was the kick starter. That’s when I became serious.

What role does social media play in your practice?

I use it to stay in tune with other artists, to find competitions, and to share what I’m doing in the studio. I love podcasts. I really hadn’t listened to them until the [COVID] pandemic; but I found a few. Hearing other artist’s stories — they may not be working in the same medium I am; but I love interviews with artists as well.

What about Facebook and Instagram?

It’s a way for me to get my work out to the general public, and to receive comments back. Unfortunately, Facebook — there’s a small group of people I hear from. I don’t always get a whole lot of commentary back except for : That’s nice. Instagram — I’ve been able to have more followers and follow more people who I’ve learned from … I used to got to national clay conferences, and would meet famous people in the clay world, who’ve passed away now: Peter Voulkos, for instance. I felt so separated from them until Instagram and the podcasts, so I can actually see what they’re doing on a daily basis, and learn from them. I’m also taking clay workshops through ZOOM. It may not be something I’m learning a whole lot from, [but sometimes there’s] an a-ha! moment [that reveals] a great technique … Instagram, ZOOM, the podcasts: They’ve been educational for me more than they have been something that allows people to find my work …

What do you believe is the visual practitioner’s role in the world?

To share a passion and stay relevant. We’re visual storytellers. History has been told through the unearthed relics, paintings and sculptures. We are such a visual world. Visuals are everywhere, so if artists can be those storytellers, I think that’s a great education for the masses.

What part or parts of the world find their way into your work?

The outdoors. It’s ever-present in my work.

You respond to world events in your work, too.

Batsh.t Crazy, clay and wire assemblage, 16.5″ x 11″ x 9″, 2021.

I’ll respond to that question with the piece Batsh.t Crazy. She pretty much is a reflection of how the world has affected how I’ve felt over the past four years. I’ve seen people who are batshit crazy, and I’ve felt that way. The constant news, the division. I’ve tried to deal with it with humor, more than anger. I did a couple pieces that were more like the [Edvard] Munch painting, The Scream, well. A little more serious, not quite so humorous. It’s gotten to the point I don’t even know how we’re all going to come together anymore.

How does living in Northern Michigan inform and influence your creative practice?

It’s a constant. I’ve wanted to live here since I was a child. There’s something about the light, color, skies and the hills. I’ve never fallen in love with them like I have here. I love Michigan. And, I love Northern Michigan — that there are people who had the wherewithal, the money, the means and the dedication to create the different land conservancies, to make the Sleeping Bear Sand Dunes and national lakeshore so everyone can enjoy it. It’s very special.

Is the work you create a reflection of this place? How would we see this?

Absolutely. Many of my pieces have driftwood in them. I’m influenced by the color of the water and the grasses … And the ever present wind we have here. It’s those colors that I’m hoping find their way into my work.

Would you be doing different work if you did not live in Northern Michigan? Would your work have a different look or appearance?

Perhaps, if I lived in a city, and I was driving on the expressways, I think my work might even be less representational; but I’ve always been surrounded by nature. I’ve always loved it. So I think the themes are more intensified right now. Maybe it’s because I’m retired; I have more time to be outside.

Did you know any practicing studio artists when you were growing up?

My father, Michael Tock. My dad worked with found objects … And he was a clay modeler [at the GM Tech Center] … I was surrounded by art. We had so many art books and his art throughout the house, and the artwork he’d bought early on in his career. I remember that I got called in by my kindergarten teacher because I was drawing naked women. My parents had to sit down and talk with me. And I said, I don’t understand. They’re all in the art books you have all over the house. I was very influenced by that. But also, by other artists — because my dad would take me to the DIA.

Who has had the greatest and most lasting influence on your work and practice?

I would say my dad; but also children books. Those illustrations, those fairy tales. …. My parents were very different. My dad, the artist. My mom, the educator, who loved books. She loved to weave a story. In my quiet way, I fell in love with the two personalities of my parents as seen in those children books and stories — the drawings in them and the tales being told. I could live in my own little fairy land.

How did your father nurture your creativity?

He would be my biggest critic, and it was the best things ever. He wouldn’t say, Oh, that was a pretty picture. He’d truly talk to me about what needed work, and I needed that honest criticism. If he wasn’t sculpting, he was always drafting ideas for homes, or building things.

Where or to whom do you go when you need honest feedback about your work?

My husband, Ed York. But I do have a dear friend who is a fiber artist, and we will text images back and forth for honest opinions. I did belong to an artists’ critique group when I first moved here, and we’d gather once a month. That was very helpful.

What is the role of the exhibition in your practice?

It’s my opportunity to have an audience. The process of making is more important; but exhibiting is an honor. It gives me a chance to use my visual voice to share my story, and hopefully strike a chord with the viewer. When someone purchases my work through an exhibition, it means a great deal to me. I appreciate that they’re willing to spend their hard-earned money on art …

Did your teaching cross-pollinate with your studio practice?

Inventory.

Yes. My mantra was: Practice what you preach. I was an artist-educator. I would bring my work into the students … We would critique their work, and they would critique mine as well. I would bring my [advanced placement] students to Goodrich. I would show them my influences and my studio. And take them to Flint Institute of Arts. I had a lot visiting artists come in as well. I would let them see the life of being an artist. I also thought the kids influenced me. We learn so much from people of all walks of life. Teachers don’t know it all, for sure. We learn from our mistakes. One of the reasons I didn’t want to become a teacher in the beginning was that I was terrified that I might say the wrong thing, and a child might not like art anymore. I felt like they didn’t all need to be artists; but they needed to work on not losing their imaginations and understanding the art world …

Were there challenges to doing your own artwork while you were working outside the home?

Yes. I was tired a lot. You get lost in your studio space, and next thing you know it’s 2 am and you have to be up at 4:30 am. It was more of a challenge raising children [6] and teaching full-time and being an artist. As those times became more difficult, and getting a higher degree at the same time — I don’t know how I did it all — that’s when my sketch books came into play. I knew I had to be creative in some way. I couldn’t just set it aside. So, the sketch books are where I put all my creative energy. I still go back to those. If I’m stuck for an idea, I still have those drawings and doodles to bring out inspiration.


Footnotes

1: Michelle taught visual art for 30 years in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, in both middle and high schools. She retired in 2016.

2: Michelle also received a Masters in Humanities from Central Michigan University in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan in 2000.

A drawer full of “littles.”

3: Michelle’s “littles” are “are my collections of small items such as miniature antique shoes and old hardware (nails, screws, hinges, etc…).

4: Heroines – Real and Imagined, at Higher Art Gallery in Traverse City, Michigan. The dates are August 6 – September 5.

5. Michelle is represented by Higher Art Gallery; Sleeping Bear Gallery in Empire, Michigan; and Twisted Fish Gallery in Elk Rapids, Michigan.

6: Michelle and her husband Ed are the parents of two children, 31 and 27. Between 1993 and 2011, Michelle was dividing her time between parenting, professional work and her studio work.


Learn more about Michelle Tock York here.

Sarah Bearup-Neal develops and curates Glen Arbor Arts Center exhibitions. She maintains a studio practice focused on fiber and collage.

Creativity Q+A with Nancy McRay

Nancy McRay, 65, is “a fiber artist … mostly a weaver” of tapestries who pushes the medium out of its historic, domestic context, and into the Capital “A” Art world. She holds a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Michigan/Fiber Art; but getting there wasn’t a straight line in an academic system that lodged the fiber arts — weaving especially — in the home economics department. Nancy has worked as a studio artist and community arts organizer since 1994. This interview took place in March 2021. It was conducted by Sarah Bearup-Neal, GAAC Gallery Manager, and was edited for clarity. Nancy lives in Williamsburg.


Describe the medium in which you work.

The work I do is tapestry weaving or multi-harness weaving. [1] Tapestry is weft-faced weaving, which means you only see the weft. The warp is covered. The weft is discontinuous, which means that if the weft goes from one edge to the other edge throughout, it’s a striped rug. It’s not a tapestry.

What draws you to the medium in which you work?

I almost feel like I wasn’t given a say in the matter. I’m mysteriously drawn to it. In fact, there have been times I’ve said to myself, I don’t care about fabric; what am I doing?  And yet, every time I try to turn aside from weaving and try to pursue something else — like drawing or painting or sculpture — that’s fun, and I enjoy it; but it’s like, Now I have to get back to my work. I’m pulled back in. I don’t feel like myself unless I’ve woven that day.

It’s not just yarn. I enjoy knitting and crochet and even quilting and sewing; but that’s not my work. I used to own a yarn shop [2] so I would be seduced by soft yarns, textures, colors. My customers would be, as well. When I started a spinning group in my shop I … was bemused by their level of interest in the fiber. They were passionate about which sheep [wool the yarn was made from], the crimp, all of these technical terms. I understood; that’s how I feel about weaving. When I opened [Woven Art] I was intending to sell some yarn; but I was mostly intending to create a weaving center where I could have looms and teach people how to weave. Not everyone is as passionate about weaving as I am, so the direction of the shop became very supportive of knitters.

How did your formal training affect your development as a creative practitioner?

I’m going to tell the story of how all that formal training came about. My parents gave me a [floor] loom when I graduated from [Michigan State University, 1997] with a degree in advertising. My mother was a potter, and she wanted me to have something was just for me, and about me, knowing that I was going to get married and have kids and jobs. She wanted me to have this thing; I don’t know why she chose weaving, but she did … I started taking classes through community ed [East Lansing Arts Workshop.] A teacher, [weaver and gallerist, the late John DeRosa] encouraged me to go back to school and study art. I was 30 at the time. I had three small children, but I did that, and I studied for two years at [Michigan State University] to get just a foundation in art. Up to that point, I was doing some pictorial work and I think that’s why John sent me in that direction … After two years at MSU studying composition, color, painting and drawing and sculpting and all of it, I had this revelation that MSU didn’t have what I needed. In the midst of that realization, I had a conversation with a professor. I was very excited. I’d just been accepted into the East Lansing Art Festival, and I was thrilled. I was going to have a booth. I was a real artist. So, I was telling this professor about that, and he said, Aaaarrrgh, the East Lansing Art Festival. If you want to be in a real art show, the Snake Rodeo [3] up in Old Town [Lansing] is the real art show.

I was so angry at him for devaluing my moment. I lived about a mile-and-a-half from campus, and I remember clearly stomping all the way home. When I got there I called the art department at the University of Michigan, and was able to talk to Sherry Smith and she said, Bring some weavings down. She let me in as a special student. I studied with her for two years. I think that experience taught me that I craved exploring weaving as an art form. When I realized I wasn’t getting that, I went and found it. UM helped validate pursuing fiber as a fine art. After two years, I did make my way into the graduate program.

Media, such as fiber, is still perceived as a domestic material. At MSU, was the message that weaving/fiber weren’t Capital “A” Art disciplines?

There was absolutely no support for me as a fiber artist, although in order to get into the [MSU] program, I gathered up all my weavings to show the dean [of the art department]. She looked at my weavings and said, They’re very painterly. And I thought, I don’t know what she means by that ….. The dean of the college saw the value in pursuing fiber as an art, but she could see I needed a stronger art foundation. None of the professors there acknowledged that I was a weaver, or that I should look deeper into that. They wanted to teach me how to draw, how to work on the computer, how to work in color — but never in the context of fiber. If you wanted to weave, you had to go to home ec … A large part of my practice is helping people understand fiber as art.

A rigid heddle loom in Nancy’s studio.

Weaving is a partnership between the maker’s hand and the machine [loom]. What have you learned about handwork from weaving?

Every loom I work on presents a different relationship with my body and my hand. One of the great things about weaving is your hands are involved; but really, your whole body is involved. The rigid heddle loom …. presents different possibilities from a floor loom, and not just the fact you could put it under your seat on the airplane; but also, it involves your body more directly. I believe that has an impact on the finished product, although that impact is incredibly subtle — especially since [some] weavers’ goal is to replicate what a machine will do. On the tapestry loom, that loom holds the warp thread rigid while I place the weft thread in, so my impact on the weaving is based on the tension of how I pull the threads in, and how I pack them in. Again, I can replicate what a machine can do, or I can choose not to do that.

So, your loom becomes your partner. It’s another set of hands.

Shuttles

It’s a tool. People often refer to it as a machine. I tend to think of it as a tool I control. My role is the passing of the weft back and forth, and deciding which threads are up, and which threads are down; trying to do my part to keep the weaving even — how I put tension on the weft threads as they go back and forth; but also, there’s a third element. That element has to do with the subtle variations in the yarn. It has to do with the subtle variations of my application. No matter how hard I try to control it, there are variations every time I throw the shuttle [4] I’m handling it differently, and it shows up …

I’m interested in your comment that some weavers strive to replicate what a machine will do. What does that mean?

That is not my goal; but I have been the member of many guilds and taught at guild meetings, and I teach at [Northwestern Michigan College in Traverse City] … and [based on students’ comments] I will know if what they’re trying to do is to make something perfect that could be passed off as a machine-made object. They fret about uneven spacing. They fret about uneven edges. And I will give them techniques to improve those, but I really hope that instead they will fall in love with the act of making, and what happens at the intersections, how it feels, how it functions. Did you sew your own clothes when you were younger? I did. I recall thinking it was a high compliment for someone to say, That looks store-bought! … I don’t see the point in doing [replicating machine perfection]. You can go buy machine-like perfection.

Before people achieve mastery of their materials and tools, things never look machine made. They’re wonky. I would liken it to an English teacher who begins teaching the rules of composition and grammar, which one can later break.

Yes. You’re right. It’s much like that. I do agree with that — to some extent. I had a spinning teacher at my shop who worked with beginning spinners. Their first yarns were lumpy, irregular, and she would take that yarn and hold it up to the person, and she would say, You’ll never be able to make yarn like this again. 

The classical Art world worked diligently to erase any trace of the maker’s hand. The fiber arts, however, are especially amenable to showing the maker’s hand.

Maybe, the fact that the fiber arts tend to show its hand makes it more personal and intimate than those other art forms, which can make [fiber art] more terrifying than those other art forms, which is why it’s more suppressed.

Everyone has had personal experience with a quilt or a rug. So people already know fiber — the material and the medium.

Right. And they don’t want to understand it in a different way. That requires something of them.

An entire retooling of their world view?

Right.

How did you think about handwork before you began weaving?

I thought that it was part of who I was. From an early age — 8, 10 years old — I always had a project. Embroidery was my first fiber art project. I think I was annoying my mother, so she took me to Michael’s and bought me an embroidery project … I also explored needlepoint, cross stitch, knitting and crocheting. I always, always had a project. And, I sewed some of my own clothes.

Did you regard that handwork as a hobby, as a diversion, as pleasure?

Yes. All those things. Not as art. I always followed someone else’s pattern, until I got into college [MSU], and then I took a couple of art classes in college, which, in my mind, were completely separate from the needlepoint project I was doing in my dorm room.

Why does working with our hands remain valuable and vital to modern life?

The maker’s hand.

I think often about what is the benefit of what I do, and on dark days  [it seems] there’s no benefit to what I do. You should go march. You should go volunteer somewhere significant … [Working with one’s hands offers] an immediate and obvious benefit to the maker …. There is science that backs that up. It lowers your blood pressure. It calms you. It absorbs you. So, there’s a ton of benefits to the maker; but what about the benefit to people other than the maker? The recipients? The viewers? This is what I wrote this morning [in her journal]: In order to get that benefit, the viewer, user or recipient must first stop and consider the maker. So, the viewer has to try to find out why it was so important to the maker to put in that time, that effort, those resources, and all that thought, into the making of this object … The viewer has to stop and pause for a moment and consider … If they’re willing to do that, the benefit is similar to the benefit of listening to a poem or wonderful music. If you an open yourself to it, you’ll begin to comprehend it’s a language you can only understand fully with the non-verbal part of you. We’re communicating with viewers on this level that is so deep, there aren’t words. My fear is this benefit is lost. It’s very subtle. You have to work to get it. Our society, our world is not amendable to putting in that work to get that benefit. We haven’t been taught how, from grade school on, how to pause, look and consider.

Describe your studio/work space.

Studio view

It’s in my house. One of my daughters became an architect, and she designed our house. She knew the studio was going to be the most important room for me, and she talked to me extensively about how we wanted it to be … It’s about 12 feet x 20 feet. It has windows on both ends; one of the windows overlooks our lake [Elk Lake]. The other window overlooks the swamp on the other side of the road. I’ve got lot of natural light. I’ve got a wall of shelves that holds yarn and books. I have a big, 4 foot x 6 foot table the builders built for me. It’s basically a large table on saw horses. And then, on top of that, is a separate plywood board that has been grided off [into 1-inch squares] … I love my table. I have many looms. Some of them are in drawers. Some of them are under tables. I’ve got three looms functioning at the moment … I have one floor loom. I would love to have more than one floor loom; but I don’t have that much floor. I have a table loom that’s functional right now. The tapestry loom needs to sit on a table top. They’re upright.

How does your studio/work space facilitate your work? Affect your work?

For the most part, everything I need is right here. Over the years of dabbling in lots of different things, I have lots of different materials that I use if I break away from the loom for a minute. I have to do that from time-to-time. I have to step away from weaving to draw or paint with pastels or play with wire. I say “play,” and I mean play. It’s engaging my brain in a different manner; but I need to do that to stay fresh, and to stay engaged.

A cartoon for Nancy’s series of weavings about the Birch trees growing on her road.

Talk a little bit about the cartoons [5] you make for your tapestry.

Weaving with cartoons is something that has happened more recently. Flow: Blood Breath was the first time I used a cartoon. It’s an interesting switch for me. Developing the cartoons is painful. It’s that design process where you’re tweaking and working on it … I think I do most of my composing in my head, when I’m walking, when I’m sleeping, when I’m taking a shower. I’ll do quick sketches in between to try to capture a thought, but most of it is done in my head.

What themes and ideas are the focus of your work?

It tends to be nature based. It tends to be what I see. The area in which I work [Northern Michigan] has had a huge impact on the way I work …

Improvisation is also part of your process.

Right. In fact I think that’s one reason I’ve been resistant to cartoons. The openness to improvisation in my work is important to me. I tend to surprise myself, and it’s very entertaining. It keeps me going.

How do you think of “mistakes” in your work?

Sometimes a “mistake” is something you have to go back and repair, especially in a weaving. Many, many times, more often in painting and drawing, I see [mistakes] as a message from myself, from the deeper self I’m trying to get to. It’s a message: Look at this. See what that is. What is that about?

What prompts the beginning of a project or composition? A theme? Or, something that’s pulled out of thin air?

Both of those things can happen. As you get more into a working artist mode, then it could be you have a show you have to do something for, and it’s a themed show. So that prompts the work …

How much preplanning do you do in advance of beginning a new project or composition?

That varies a lot. I like to work both ways — where I spend a lot of time thinking and planning it, being very intentional. I’m noticing I’m going deeper and deeper into the design process, but I also really love just seeing what happens, which is more difficult with weaving …

You have to be alert and open to the opportunities when they present themselves. How do you keep your mind open? Is it training? A muscle?

The River panels were created from 2019 to the present, and are based on portions of a Michigan hydrological map. Each panel measured approximately 48″ w x 57″ l.

It must be a muscle. It’s very rewarding if you can open up to accept that. Let me give you an example. I made two major pieces I did in that last year — one is the River panels, and one is Flow: Blood Breath. Now, I want to make [more work] in response to those two piece, so I’m carrying this [idea] around in my head. [Recently] I’m taking a walk on my street, the same street I walk daily, and these birch trees [along the street] practically throw themselves onto my path and say, Weave me, I want you to weave us … They’re nondescript birch trees … The next time I took a walk I took a camera, and I took a photo of these birch trees, and they’re now on my loom. I’ve walked by these birch trees a hundred times, and this time they said, Weave us. I swear …

Do you work on more than one project at a time?

Studio view

Yes. The other day, I was writing in my journal and I was describing my studio, and I thought it’s as though I’m sharing the space with six artists. I have three looms set up. I have a collage station that is a rut-buster set up. I begged for a tiny press for my birthday … It’s an open-source, 3D-printed printer … You can print a one-inch square print on it. It’s fun. It’s fascinating, and it’s occupying a quarter of my table. I’ve got all these things spread out around my studio, and I’m also trying to intentionally draw something every day. I have two pieces intended for shows [upcoming], and I work on them at least an hour-and-a-half every day.

Do these activities cross-pollinate?

I’m sure that they do. It’s hard to notice, though. It’s a tiny percentage. It’s like cross training. I’m not a runner; but if you are a runner, you really should do some weight training also, to balance your body. That’s the reason I have all these other outlets. I see it as cross training. It helps balance my art brain. It keeps the creative blood circulating. It must have an impact. Sometimes it’s really direct, but that doesn’t happen very often.

Do you work in a series?

Weaving of the birch trees in process with cartoon beneath.

Sometimes. But it’s not always obvious. Like I said earlier, I’m weaving the [Birch] trees as a response to the Rivers series, but I don’t know if that really a series.

What’s your favorite tool?

Nancy’s Norwood floor loom.

I really love all my tools. I think, sentimentally, my cherry Norwood floor loom is my favorite tool. It was gifted to me by my husband one Christmas when my youngest was 1, and I remember wanting the loom. The purchase of this really big loom was symbolic of his acknowledgement of the importance to me … Once it was in my living room, in place, I sat down at the loom with my baby in my lap and I felt complete … It felt like a big part of my personal puzzle had clunked into place.

Do you use a sketchbook or journal? What tool do you use to make notes and record thoughts about your work?

I journal every morning. And the function of that is twofold. The first function is to clear my mind of debris: to respond to politics; if there’s a family issue, I put it there; just other stuff. And then what happens rather naturally is I start to get to deeper questions. Sometimes work comes from that.

A page from Nancy’s sketchbook.

For weavings, anything that has to be done on my floor loom, there’s extensive math and planning that goes with that. I do have a notebook full of those notes: How many yards do I need in warp and weft? What’s the dye formula for this yarn, and what’s the dye formula for that yarn. Technical note taking happens there.

In terms of how I record my thoughts for other pieces, it feels a lot more scattered than that. I cast about for clues everywhere until something falls in place … [After journaling about a weaving in process] I realized [the journal entry] was incredibly autobiographical. I’d [recently] experienced a series of blood clots in my lungs and legs. That was resolved; but it happened again, so I have this underlying concern about my blood flow and the health of my lungs. It’s everpresent. I’m not even aware I’m thinking about it; but on that night when I was journaling I thought, This is what [the weaving Flow: Blood Breath] is about … It’s about [Northern Michigan]; but it’s also about me overcoming the event. That’s where the red spiral [in the weaving] comes in. The rest of it is pretty straightforward: It’s veins, it’s lungs, it’s lakes, and then the red spiral is representative of my own spirit, which overcomes.

How do you come up with a title?

A title is a clue to what the artist is trying to present, that a person might not see just by looking at it. It’s another way into the piece. The best titles cause you to stop and question and look harder in order to find what [the maker] is saying. But sometimes a title is just a label.

I come up with a title in the same way I come up with my next subject. I think and ruminate, think and ruminate, and then it slips into place. It’s not a good answer for someone who’s trying to figure out how to come up with their own titles, except to write about it a lot, pay attention to your thoughts during the day — sometimes it will sneak up on you when you’re cooking. It goes back to trying to remain open to what you’re looking for.

When did you commit to working with serious intent?

It goes back to that teacher I had in the community-based art class who told me I needed to go to art school. The suggestion landed. Before he said that I hadn’t considered that, and then making the commitment to go to school [in the late 1970s] to pursue art.

What role does social media play in your practice?

In my mind I feel deeply that making art is a way of communication, a way of having a conversation with people I will never meet. Social media is an easy way for me to get an image out into the world and get a reaction. I don’t use it well for self-promotion. That’s not usually my intent. My intent is to get an image out into the world, and get a reaction to it … To get feedback from an informed, critical thinker [via social media posts] is something I crave and would like more of. I [also] love to scroll through and see what other people are doing.

What’s social media’s influence on the work you make?

I sure it has some, but I’m not aware of it. I’ve spent too many years battling what other people expectations of my work are versus what it is I want and need to make. I’ve been trying to intentionally hear and listen, but not regard it as direction.

What’s social media’s influence on how you let the world know about the work you make?

I would say there is some pressure on artists to share their work on social media … It’s an expected thing that you should put your work out on Instagram.

What’s the expectation about?

To know you’re visible, I guess. Being an artist is lonely. You work, generally, by in a space by yourself, with thoughts you’ve generated by yourself …. So, if a tree falls in the forest, does anyone hear? If creating in your studio on your own, by yourself, you want to share it. You want someone else to see it.

What do you believe is the creative practitioner’s role in the world?

It’s related to the question of skepticism, and believing or not believing in science. Science and art are two sides of the same coin. It’s my belief that the role of science in our world is to explain the way things are, how they function …. Art explains to the world how it feels … It helps you to see the world in a way that’s more human. They both have a role in explaining the world; but art explains how it relates to your soul.

The Birch tree weaving on Nancy’s loom.

What parts of the world find their way into your work?

I think everything. I really do. And I’m not even aware of it until sometimes later. I’ll look at it and realize what was bothering me or what was in my mind. Obviously, the natural world that I live in influences my images, and I hope to communicate my reverence for my external world, through loving portraits.

You’re involved with a group of fiber artists who collaboratively work on activist projects.

GRETA — Generating Responsibility for the Earth Through Art — is a group of artists, many associated with North Central Michigan College in Petoskey. They generally make collective responses to environmental issues. The first project was the Tempestry knitting project. Each member knit a long panel documenting temperature changes over the course of several years. I did not take part in that. But it was cool! The next project was in response to the problem of invasive species in Michigan — each artist chose a troublemaker to make their image of. The only restrictions were that it be framed in a 12 by 12 inch frame, and that it be fiber based. We also did a series on climate change, in which we all chose some manifestation of what could be our reality in 20 years. I chose climate-driven migration. Currently we are working on a series to complement the invasive species “Rogues Gallery.” This one will feature endangered species. All present in Michigan.

Is this a way for you to comment about the world?

A Karner Blue Butterfly, Nancy’s contribution to GRETA’s endangered species project.

I’ve done some work that’s overtly political … In that case, it is a way to comment. Many years ago, during the Gulf War, I was compelled to make a weaving about the Gulf War. I needed to say what I needed to say in thread. It ended up being a large wall hanging that incorporated garbage bags — that were also made out of oil — an aerial view of the Persian Gulf desert region with … oil wells flaming. Hidden in the desert were missiles, airplanes, helicopters. It didn’t help anyone but me, but I needed to say what I was going to say.

How does living in Northern Michigan inform and influence your creative practice?

My parents retired to Old Mission Peninsula in the mid ‘70s. I visited them extensively, and I felt a really deep bond almost immediately, so that when I’m not in this region I feel out of place. I lived in East Lansing for many years, and always felt like I needed to move. Five years ago we finally moved here — built a house on a lake, and I feel so incredibly grateful that I’m finally being in the place I feel I’m supposed to be. Before I would never have entertained the idea of being a landscape artist. I didn’t think that’s who I was, but I’m loving it. It’s an homage to being home.

Is the work you create a reflection of this place?

Yes. Pretty directly. I have a tapestry of what I see out my window. I have a tapestry of a field I walk past. I made the River panels as a comment on the vast water system we enjoy here. And then I made the deeply personal Blood Breath piece that includes that the lakes embedded in my body. I hoping that my work moves more in that direction: that it’s a less literal reflection of what I see, and more about my relationship to this area.

Would you be doing different work if you did not live in Northern Michigan? 

Absolutely. I don’t know what it would be because I don’t live here … I’m sure it would reflect where I lived; of if I didn’t feel so deeply attached to where I live, perhaps it would be more overtly political.

Did you know any practicing studio artists when you were growing up?

No. I don’t believe I did. My mom was an avid potter, then later a painter; but she was adamant that she was not artist because artists were unreliable and weird, and maybe that’s why I didn’t allow myself to think of myself as an artist until I hit [age] 30. It’s really ironic. She was the one who dictated that I have a loom …

Who has had the greatest and most lasting influence on your work and practice?

Most likely it was my mom — both her pushing away from and embracing the duel messages I got … The collective experience of grad school had the most lasting impact. I can’t point to one particular person. Again, it was a mixed bag of messages. I was mostly focused on doing work documenting the impact of DDT in the air from Mexico on the Great Lakes. I had a large committee of professors who looked at my work. The messages I got back from them were really diverse. At one point, I remember feeling like I was in a free fall. I felt no support, and I didn’t know where I was going. In retrospect, there was some value in that because I had to put myself back together before I hit ground, and determine who I was and figure out that even though my existence depended upon their opinion of me, it didn’t. I had to find my way through them — not because of them, but instead of them. That was empowering. It took almost all three years to get to that point …

Arlene Raven

Closer to the end of my grad school experience I [took a workshop] called “Writing For Artists” with Arlene Raven. She was, at the time, the art critic for the Village Voice. She wrote several books about art and feminism. She helped me clarify my thoughts through her process. I spent the week writing about my art, and lo and behold, I had my thesis at the end of the week. When it came time to present my work in the final defense, I had those words I’d written under her guidance. At the end of it … several professors came to me and said, I had no idea the depth of your work before listening to you now.

Where or to whom do you go when you need honest feedback about your work?

I’m looking for a community to do that. I get a little of that with Shanna [6]. She’s terrific, but mostly I know my work needs something more when she doesn’t say anything. I miss the critique part of being in school, where you get insights. I’m not looking for people to tear the work down or to say critical things that aren’t helpful; but critical things that are intended to be helpful and kind are a great gift, and it’s hard to come by.

What is the role of exhibiting in your practice?

I see art making as a form of communication ….. where I’m making a statement that can’t be made with words; but it’s not complete until someone sees it and responds. That completes the work for me. Even though in most cases I will never know what they think, I’ll never be privy to their thoughts, I’ll know that it was completed because someone else looked and thought.

Do you teach?

Currently, I have an online class for NMC. I much prefer teaching in person. I would love to have fiber studio with all the stuff in it where I could teach more.

How does teaching cross-pollinate with your studio practice?

I think that it reinvigorates my love [of weaving] when I see someone else fall in love with the process, or see their joy or frustration in it. I relate to that deeply and take that back to the studio with me.

What challenges does teaching present to practicing your own work?

Just time. It takes time out of your studio day. It’s the excuse that I lean on … It doesn’t detract from my creative energy.


Footnotes

1.) Nancy writes:Within a multi-harness loom are frames that contain heddles. Each warp thread must go through a heddle. The order in which you thread the heddles, and on which combination of harnesses, determines the possibility of patterns. The more harnesses, the more complex and greater variety of potential patterns.

2.) Woven Art in East Lansing, Michigan, which Nancy owned from 2005 – 2015.

3.) The Snake Rodeo was renegade art fair staged in Lansing by Michigan State University and Lansing Community College art instructors. It emerged yearly for an indeterminate number of years until the mid-1990s. In 2013, there was an attempt to revive the Snake Rodeo. Read more here.

4.) A shuttle is a fundamental weaving tool. Read more here.

5.) A cartoon is the tapestry’s design, which “took the form of a painting—made on cloth or paper, the same size as the planned tapestry. This cartoon was either temporarily attached to the loom, flush against the backs of the warp threads, and visible in the gaps between the warps; or it was hung on the wall behind the weavers, who followed it by looking at its reflection in a mirror behind the warps …The cartoon was not physically part of the completed tapestry, and could be reused multiple times in order to make duplicate tapestries.”

https://www.metmuseum.org/blogs/now-at-the-met/2014/making-a-tapestry

6.) Shanna Robinson is a retired professor of art living in Boyne City, Michigan, and a founding GRETA member.


Learn more about Nancy McRay here.

Sarah Bearup-Neal develops and curates Glen Arbor Arts Center exhibitions. She maintains a studio practice focused on fiber and collage.

Creativity Q+A with Terry Wooten

Terry Wooten, 72, is an oral poet, a bard in the truest sense. This Antrim County artist has authored more than 500 published poems, and memorized 567 poems. Until the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, Wooten regularly traveled to work with school children throughout Michigan on an array of poetry and oral history projects. And, every summer for more than three decades, he lit the fire that illuminates Stone Circle [1], an 88-boulder, three-ring circle on his property 10 miles north of Elk Rapids. Before COVID, under the summer stars, anyone who wanted could recite a poem or tell a story at these Saturday evening gatherings. Unlike the petrified stones, poetry is a living thing and a way for Wooten to talk about everything that interests him in the world. And, by the way, April is National Poetry Month. This interview took place in January 2021. It was conducted by Sarah Bearup-Neal. GAAC Gallery Manager, and was edited for clarity.


Describe the medium in which you work.

I’m an oral poet. I’m a performist poet.

Your work seems to be divided into three boxes: Your own writing practice, working with school children, and Stone Circle.

Actually there’s four boxes. I do the column [2] for the Record-Eagle, too. A lot of times I’ll take the prose of my newspaper columns, and after it’s published, maybe a year later, I’ll concentrate it, change it around into a poem. So I use some of those columns for poetry.

Stone Circle during the day.

Sometimes when I’m working on a poem and I haven’t finished it, or there’s a line I don’t understand what to do with yet, I’ll perform the poem to kids anyway, and will make up something while performing the poem. After I’ve performed it three or four times, I’ll take the one [version] I like best … and that’s what will become the finished product. Also, you get a lot of insights into your poems when you perform them in the schools and Stone Circle. There might be a line the kids don’t understand, or seems vague to people, and I’ll realize I have to touch it up a bit … [Once, while] working in the Traverse City schools, [a sixth grader who] was born on Sept. 11, 1990 and turned 11 on 9/11 [September 11, 2001], told me the story of going to school and waiting for her mom to bring the [birthday] cupcakes … And it didn’t happen. She felt so violated. During my workshop, I teach kids to talk to write. I told her she should talk that and write it, and she did … I came home and wrote a poem in her voice, and sent a copy to the school. The teacher called me a couple days later and said, You’ve got to come back [to East Elementary]. The Record-Eagle has come to interview Jessica, and we want you there …  

Describe your writing practice.

Very seldom do I get an idea for a poem writing at my desk. That’s where I write them, but I might be sitting out in the sun behind my garage … My granddaughter, Annie, we have a game she likes to play. She’ll sing a song from Frozen [3] and then I’ll do a poem, and then she competes with herself, jumping. One day she jumped so hard she fell on her butt backward, she got up and sat on the swing, wouldn’t look at me or cry, but turned around and said, I landed so hard my front baby tooth hit my shin. It’s loose. Now I have two teeth I can wiggle. The Tooth Fairy will be coming soon. She doesn’t have the [COVID] virus. No fairies do. I was sitting out behind my garage later that day and I thought what a beautiful insight into a 6-year-old, and how they’re dealing with the virus. Fairies are immortal. And so, I came into the house and wrote it down real quick; if I didn’t, it would disappear.

What draws you to poetry?

Marion Hardware circa 1960s. Image courtesy of the Marion Area Historical Museum.

That changes as you grow. When I was a youngster — 8th, 9th grade — there was a controversy in our school about the books Catcher In The Rye [4] and Lord Of the Flies. [5] Both of those books were banned in my school. The same teacher assigned Walden [6] by Henry David Thoreau— she wasn’t even my teacher. She was in the high school. I got a copy of Walden before they banned that, too … and I read the essay “Civil Disobedience,” [7] and it really touched me — that you could disobey civilly against authority. I remember … walking down this main street in Marion, Michigan, my home town, right in front of [Marion] Hardware, thinking, I want to be a writer. I want to disobey. Civilly. [8] That was the beginning, although I procrastinated two or three more years before I really got into it. But I kept it hidden for three or four more years. I started writing about my senior year; but I was a football player, and I didn’t think that football players were supposed to write poetry. One of the messages I give high school kids is: Go ahead. If you’re a football player, write poetry.

Did you receive any formal training?

No. Other than that one teacher who assigned those books. She was a closet beatnik. Didn’t last too long in my hometown. She was too progressive. She opened me up. She insisted you write your own feelings, and I became addicted to that idea. I only lasted two years in college because my family couldn’t afford college for me. After two years, I quit Western [Michigan University], but I had this attic apartment that my boss-friend [rented] to me for $40 [a month]. I used the university library. I went through a heavy Shelley/Keats/Byron [9] phase, and then I remember when Ezra Pound [10] passed, I went up to the library to look Pound up, and was blown away by the Imagists [11] — some of the first poets besides Walt Whitman [12] who didn’t rhyme … I lived in that attic apartment for seven years in Kalamazoo and read voraciously. I was just fascinated by lines. I even keep notes in lines. [13] I’m somewhat dyslexic, so the line structure and the stanza structure makes my poems a lot more accessible for my eyes. I’m writing more now, more than I could memorize.

You immersed yourself up in the attic, and read, read, read.

Yes. It was a nice little apartment. I have fond memories of it. Sometimes I wish I could go back there and stay there for a week.

Terry Wooten’s writing studio.

Describe your present studio workspace.

I have a wood stove. And I built the stone wall behind it. I have three, 4 ft. x 8 ft. bookshelves. I have a window looking out west, and there’s a lot of boulders out there. I’m into visual feng shui. I love the arch of them. Behind that is a white pine forest. I’m constantly watching deer walk by. Squirrels that drive me nuts. There’s a bird feeder. To the left of the wood stove is a big glass door so I can step out. I have three pear trees out there. I’m constantly watching deer, coyotes, porcupines … It’s about 16 ft. x 24 ft. [interior].

It doesn’t sound like your studio space is confined to the four walls of that room. It sounds like the outdoors is as much a part of your work space — at least in your mind.

Yes. I’m an outdoor person. I’m not well suited to be a writer. You’re not going to catch me at my desk all day long unless it’s bad weather in the winter, and I’m transcribing interviews for my Elders Project [14].

What is the work that happens in that studio space?

Very seldom do I do any memorizing in here. Most of my memorizing is done outside when I’m doing odd jobs around the farm or my home or my mother-in-law’s [15]; but once I get the idea for the poem, or a few lines, I work on my computer. I do most of my composing on the computer. I’ve taken to writing a lot of haikus during the pandemic, and usually I write them out on a piece of paper, and type them out.

What is about the pandemic that has prompted a lot of haikus?

They’re healing. A lot of people really like them because you can remember the beginning by the time you get to the end. Sometimes with a 30 or 40 line poem, you have to read it a few times; you have amnesia, and forget as you go down the poem.

They’re healing and uplifting. A lot of people are dealing with a lot of anxiety and depression. Even as I’m writing something that’s serious, I try to keep it upbeat. I love to use humor. Mark Twain [said] that one of the greatest thing we can do about the human situation [is] that we’re here, and we really don’t know why we’re here, and not going to be here someday, and one of the greatest weapons against that is you can throw your head back and laugh.

Does your workspace facilitate your work?

Studio view.

I do a lot of pacing when I’m writing. And this big glass door is nice. You just get up and stare out the window. I can see the Stone Circle from my room. So it gives me room to walk around in.

How is pacing part of your process?

I’m writing when I’m doing that. I’m constantly composing and memorizing. I like to observe people. And before I became really well known, my wife [Wendi] used to get this question: Now, what does your husband do? It doesn’t look like I’m doing anything. I might be standing on the street, listening to people. I hear the human voice like music. Sometimes, something will come out of someone’s mouth, like: Get a job! When I mowed over my wife’s grandmother’s flowers by accident, she said, What’s wrong with you, you’re a poet. Poets are supposed to love flowers, not mow them down. And that, of course, became the idea for a poet: “What’s Wrong With You.” 

What themes/ideas are the focus of your work?

My themes go all over the place. The first few years, when I was young, the theme was myself, my experiences. [Other ideas came out of] the Elders Project. I would bring 8 – 10 elders from the community into the school, and I teach the kids how to interview them, and the kids will listen to the tapes, and take one story and transcribe it. You never know what the elders are going to tell you about … Sometime I run into veterans. There were two teachers in Elk Rapids and they’d both been at Iwo Jima and they didn’t know because they didn’t talk about it … When I was listening to the tape, transcribing it, one of the guys got really shaky. When I found out about this, I called him and asked if I could come over and talk to you about this? It was the beginning of a good friendship. I wrote a whole series of poems on Iwo Jima and his battle experiences. He was on the beaches for five-and-a-half days with what they called a “Beach Party Group.” It wasn’t hot dogs and potato chips. They worked with explosives … He lost his rifle in the first five minutes.

The themes that are the focus of your work could be anything.

Yes. You just don’t know what’s going to come out of someone’s mouth … I got started on the Elders Project by interviewing my wife’s oldest uncle, who was on the Baatan Death March [16]. They were always told not to ask question it. I ended up doing five or six interviews with him, and ended up writing a book called Lifelines. It healed him. He’d never gotten those words out. He’d carried those words around with him for 60 years, and it changed him; but it depressed me …

It sounds like you need to be a very present listener, or you might miss something.

The Stone Circle is a 2017 documentary film.

I use tape recorders … I have a friend who produced a film about Stone Circle [17] but he said the first time he met me he had the sense I was very, very aware of the space around me. I guess I am. I hear voices. It doesn’t have to be a World War II veteran who experienced the Baatan Death March. It could be a little girl telling me about how fairies don’t have the virus. All conversation has that potential for a poem.

How much pre-planning do you do in advance of beginning a new project or composition?

When I write my own poems, very little pre-planning. An idea might just come to me, or something will happen that I’ll want to entertain. With Elders Project — a lot; I have to teach the kids how to interview … Then I have to transcribe the recordings. Once I get all the rough prose down I put switch things around … There’s a lot of satisfaction in taking someone else’s story and turning it into a poem of it and giving it back to them. It helps them tell their story. A lot of them can’t write … It’s healing, although it can be dangerous for me.

Do you work on more than one poem at a time?

Sometimes yes, sometimes no.

Visual artists sometimes have more than one thing on their studio wall. When they hit a block, they’ll move over to the other things, and work back and forth.

I don’t do that so much. I have things in a folder, and I’ll pick things out. I go through phases.

What’s your favorite tool?

Pencil and paper and computer. Another one of my tools is my voice. Just saying the poems, and using your ears. I’m efficient with paper [he cuts an 8 ½” X 11” sheet into quarters, and writes notes on a quarter]. I’m just writing down the initial idea, and then I’ll switch to computer.

When did you commit to working with serious intent? 

I was 18, 19, my freshman year in college. I was already doing things I wasn’t supposed to. I was supposed to be doing my homework, but I was writing a poem instead.

There are two rules at Stone Circle: No swearing, and poems must be recited by memory. Why by memory?

You can swear down at Stone Circle, but I don’t want the big bad swear words. It depends on the audience, too … As far as the memorization, rules are made to be broken. If a little girl or boy would come to Stone Circle with a poem he or she was going to read, and I said you can’t do that, it would cause more damage than good. I do allow some reading, sometimes.

Why is reciting poetry valued at Stone Circle?

You really get to know a poem … when you memorize them. I take a poem on a piece of paper and carry it around in my back pocket and memorize one or two lines a day. As you’re memorizing a poem, you might realize that a word isn’t working right, or you don’t like the rhythm, and I’ll change that …

Memorization has something to do with embedding the poem into your DNA.

The fire is lit at Stone Circle.

For a while you see the words, and after a while you don’t see the words. It’s just there. It’s interesting — you mention the word DNA … I think fire and telling stories is in our DNA. When people come to Stone Circle you can’t sit around the fire and not want to hear stories. It’s there. We’re wired that way.

There’s a lot of competition for people’s attention today. We’ve moved from making our own entertainment to consuming it. How does Stone Circle stand up in the 21st Century?

Terry Wooten: Illuminated by the fire circle.

It’s something about sitting around on those boulders, in a communal atmosphere and listening to those words that sound like songs and seeing the pictures in your imagination — it pulls us back to an early time. What goes on down at Stone Circle could be 40,000 years old. When we captured fire, it expanded our time. And when we expanded our time, we didn’t just curl up when it got dark. We started sharing stories. There wasn’t TV. There wasn’t radio. And with language came stories and poetry. It’s almost like a psychedelic experience: expanded consciousness. I think people, whether they realize it or not, when they’re down to Stone Circle, it’s something really old that touches them. Some people — they’re not so impressed by it. Fire is a very simple tool, but it’s very old. Consciousness and language have grown up together.

What role does social media play in your practice?

Very little. Every now and then I’ll post a poem on Facebook, just to say, Hey! I’m still out there. It’s kind of like frogs singing in a pond. There’s a January poem I post every year, and people have come to expect that. I post my [Record-Eagle] columns.

How did the column come about?

I wrote the editor of the newspaper and told him about my Elders Project, and asked for a column to expose that. That’s how I got started. I own my columns. I can’t give away the copyright to my art.

What do you believe is the writer’s/poet’s role in the world?

Percy Bysshe Shelley said writers are the unacknowleged legislators of the world. I like what Gary Snyder [18] said in his book The Real Work — that we give voice to animals and critters. They don’t have a voice. I can write and give those animals a voice. They have spiritual rights. To me, it’s the poet’s job to give voice to the birds, to the wooly worms, to the frogs — as well as the other people who don’t write and can’t share their stories.

How does living in Northern Michigan inform and influence your creative practice?

I write in lower Northern Michigan, so a lot of that appears as a background in my work. I think rural Michigan is my voice. I write in that vernacular, too.

Did you know any practicing poets / writers when you were growing up?

Marion High School football team. Terry Wooten is #80 [front row,second right]. Image courtesy of the Marion Area Historical Museum.
I didn’t have any aunts or uncles who were poets. I came out of the blue … The teacher who got me started writing by assigning  books that were banned in her class, her husband was a poet and radio personality, came to our class and recited a few poems, but I didn’t really know him. There was a poetry club in my school, but I wasn’t a part of it. I was a football player.

Who has had the greatest and most lasting influence on your work and practice?

Two people. Undoubtedly, Max Ellison [19], who recited his poems by memory. I met him Labor Day Weekend in 1980, and had 20 poems memorized by the next weekend. He blew me away. And, Glenn Ruggles, [20] an oral historian who was recording voices and writing down in interviews. There wouldn’t be an Elders Project without Glenn Ruggles …

You’ve incorporated elements of both these people’s work into your own practice: reciting by memory and recording oral histories.

Max — I’d never met anyone who recited poetry like he did, or made a living at it. I’d been writing for 25 years and still struggling, I had a little boy, and working on my wife’s [Antrim County] family farm, but within four years I was making a living as a poet. Unfortunately Max passed. Glenn opened me up to oral histories, or HERstories. It’s not just HIS story; it’s HER story, too …

What was it about connecting with Max that put a booster rocket under your poetry practice?

I just didn’t know you could make a living outside a university. And, because I didn’t have a degree, I was being shunned by university poets. Max had been working in schools for years. When he passed, everybody just picked up on me, and invited me [to teach poetry in schools]. One of the reason I dropped out of college, other than there wasn’t a lot of money, is there was a [required] class [in which] you had to teach people how to write and sing a song and get up in front of an audience. I quit the class, and here years later, I make a living as a professional speaker. Where’d this come from? Max.

Where or to whom do you go when you need honest feedback about your work?

That’s easy: My wife. I get mad at her half the time. Especially my columns. She criticizes them, and at first I’ll be disgusted, but then realize she’s right. Not much with my poetry. Feedback for my poems comes from my audiences. I have an advantage over other poets. I’ve been touring for some 30 years in schools and Stone Circles, conferences, and festival. There’s built-in feedback.

Beside the feedback you receive from audiences, what is the role of the performance in your practice? 

It makes the poem come to life. If you do write something down, it’s there. But if you say to them, there’s the power of the oral tradition: You pass them on … Someone asked me once why I broke with tradition by doing my poems orally. I didn’t break with tradition. It’s very old. Chaucer [21] went to Italy and discovered The Decameron tales [22]. He memorized them went back to England and wrote The Canterbury Tales. He couldn’t have done that without the oral tradition. People have passed things down for thousands of years through the oral tradition … There’s a power to the spoken word. I catch that too with my Elders Project. The people say the stories, I transcribe them down into poems, then you turn around and re-memorize them and put them back into the oral tradition. They’re more crystalized. Tightened up. When I teach kids to write, I talk about power words and nerd words. Nerd words are words like: and, really, very, almost, about. Try to get rid of as many of those as possible. Power words are: turtle, trout, belt.

Do the power words hold up better when spoken out loud?

Yes. When you write something like: That’s pretty tough. It’s not “pretty”; it’s tough! We’re sloppy like that when we talk. [When teaching kids] I compare it to making maple syrup. You’re tapping into yourself or you’re tapping into an elder. You’re getting the sap, and you boil it down during the writing process to get the poem …

Will Stone Circle return in 2021 after going on COVID hiatus in 2020?

Terry Wooten getting vaccinated during another pandemic — polio — in 1956 by Dr. Douglas Youngman MD, in the Marion Public School gym. Image courtesy of the Marion Area Historical Museum.

I hope so. I was at a loss last year. Depends upon the new strains of the virus. I don’t want Stone Circle to end because of the pandemic. We did three or four small [Stone Circle gatherings] last year, but it’s not the same as when you get 100 people. A lot of our audience come from hot spots downstate. You could social distance down there, but at the same time, I blast, I push the words out in the air. It just depends on the pandemic ….. and the red shouldered hawks. If they start nesting down there, it’s going to be a real problem. Two years ago we had some Red Shouldered Hawks build their nest about the Stone Circle wood pile. They’re aggressive birds. I talked to Rebecca Lessard [23], and she said to acclimate yourself to them. Talk to them. Take a radio down there and play it. Recite poetry to them. I still got dive-bombed five times. It’s like being buzzed by a 10 pound hornet … That’s the only times we’ve been closed — for Red Shouldered Hawks and COVID 19. I’m still healthy. I’m a year older than Max when he passed, and that’s a sobering thought, but the fire still burns in me … Not bad for a football player.


Footnotes

1: Read about Stone Circle here.

2: Terry Wooten’s Traverse City Record-Eagle column is Lifelines. It is published the third Sunday of every month in the Northern Living section. He began writing the column in 2010.

3: Frozen is the 2013 animated Disney film based on the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale “The Snow Queen.”

4: Catcher In The Rye is a novel by J. D. Salinger, partially published in serial form in 1945–1946 and as a novel in 1951. It was originally intended for adults but is often read by adolescents for its themes of angst, alienation, and as a critique on superficiality in society.

5: Lord Of The Flies is a 1954 novel by Nobel Prize-winning British author William Golding. The book focuses on a group of British boys stranded on an uninhabited island and their disastrous attempt to govern themselves.

6: Walden is a book by American transcendentalist writer Henry David Thoreau. The text is a reflection upon simple living in natural surroundings. It was first published in 1854.

7: “Civil Disobedience” was published in 1849. In it, Thoreau argues that individuals should not permit governments to overrule or atrophy an individual’s conscience, and that they have a duty to avoid acquiescing to enable the government to make them the agents of injustice.

8: Terry writes: “You’re not supposed to be able to make a living with poetry without working at a university or academy … Being a folk or peoples’ poet was my form of Civil Disobedience. The essay also came in handy when I was resisting the Vietnam War. I was drafted three times, kicked out of Fort Wayne and finally visited by an FBI agent. Turned out my draft board had broken as many laws as I had, and the FBI got me a deferment. Recently I wrote a few poems about my resistance.

9: Percy Bysshe Shelley [1792-1822], John Keats [1795-1821], George Gordon Byron [1788-1824], all English Romantic poets.

10: Ezra Pound [1885-1972] was an expatriate American poet and critic, a major figure in the early modernist poetry  movement, and a fascist collaborator in Italy during World War II.

11: Imagism was a movement in early-20th-century Anglo-American poetry that favored precision of imagery and clear, sharp language.

12: Walt Whitman [1819-1892) was an American poet, essayist, and journalist. A humanist, he was a part of the transition between transcendentalism and realism.

13: Terry writes: “Strong lines of poetry were also something I wanted to emulate. When I was trying to write Lifelines, the story of Jack Miller’s experience of the Bataan Death March and being a POW for the entire war, the story was so gruesome I had to find a more accessible form or eye friendly structure. I started breaking the poems up into stanzas and varying the lengths of the lines. This makes the poems more eye friendly and less intimidating to the reader.”

14: The Elders Project uses oral history interviews to create poetry based on the stories and lives of elders in the community. It was initiated in 2003. In 2013 it won the State History Award in Education from the Historical Society of Michigan.

15: Terry writes:  “In 1975 I married into family of [Antrim County] cherry farmers. They also grew peaches and apples. A year later I started working with McLachlan Orchards. It was a big farm, and I spent a lot of time alone trimming trees, picking up rocks and roots, or thinning peaches. It wasn’t all that inspiring unless you had a poem in your pocket that you were memorizing. Early on I memorized a lot of poetry that way. Before long I started working full time performing poetry. My father-in-law and his two brothers have all passed on now, and most of the land has been sold. But there are still two barns and three other building to keep up and grass to mow. I call this “the farm,” but I never really considered myself a farmer. All the boulders for Stone Circle came from my wife’s family farm. I also help my 90-year-old mother-in-law with her house and lawn. I don’t memorize as many poems as I used to, but I have to keep polishing them up, while working on “the farm” or working around my own house. If I don’t they will fade away.”

16: The Bataan Death March was the forcible transfer by the Imperial Japanese Army of 60,000–80,000 American and Filipino prisoners of war onto trains. The transfer began on April 9, 1942.

17: The Stone Circle, a 2017 documentary written, directed and produced by Patrick Pfister.

18: Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gary Snyder [b. 1930] is known as the “poet laureate of Deep Ecology.” In his 2015 book The Stone Circle Poems, Terry writes: ” Influenced by … Gary Snyder’s vision of a poet in a more primitive sense, a sort of cultural adhesive that helps hold a community together with its stories, I started building my own poetry forum, which I called Stone Circle.” [p. 20]

19: Max Ellison, Bellaire, Michigan bard and the unofficial poet laureate of Northern Michigan, died in 1985. He was 71.

20: Glenn Ruggles taught for 35 years at Walled Lake Central High School. He was a renown oral historian who summered in Grand Traverse County.

21: Geoffrey Chaucer [c. 1340s-1400] was an English poet and author. Widely considered the greatest English poet of the Middle Ages, he is best known for The Canterbury Tales.

22: The Decameron is a collection of novellas by the 14th-century Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio [1313–1375]. The book contains 100 tales told by a group of seven young women and three young men; they shelter in a secluded villa just outside Florence in order to escape the Black Death.

23: Rebecca Lessard is a Leelanau County raptor rehabilitator and expert. She is the founder of Wings of Wonder, a raptor education center.


Learn more about Terry Wooten here.

Sarah Bearup-Neal develops and curates Glen Arbor Arts Center exhibitions. She maintains a studio practice focused on fiber and collage.

 

 

 

Creativity Q+A with Angela Saxon

Angela Saxon, 59, is a self-described “mark maker.” That’s her calling and the basis of her creative practice, which is about seeing more, getting beyond the surface of things, and depicting layers of time in her paintings, prints and drawings. The materials she uses don’t define her. She moves fluidly between them, looking for the best combination of tools and processes to interpret the local landscape’s ephemeral essence. Year-round. This interview took place in December 2020. It was conducted by Sarah Bearup-Neal, GAAC Gallery Manager, and was edited for clarity. Angela lives in Leelanau County, Michigan.


 Describe the medium in which you work.

I work at making visual things. I currently use acrylic paint, gouache, crayons, pencils and printing ink. That’s for now. I use scissors. That’s not to say it won’t change. I think I’m a mark maker, and that became apparent to me once I started printmaking. If you’d asked me 10 years ago, I would have said I’m an oil painter … But now, I would not say I am an acrylic painter because the media that I use is not as important to me. I’m just always looking for new ways to make marks.

What draws you to the medium in which you work? 

Angela’s plein air set-up

I do a lot of plein air [1] work. Currently, gouache [2] is a perfect medium for me for plein air. It dries quickly. It’s water based; I don’t usually have to carry water with me … I paint beside lakes and rivers, so I just dip the water. But gouache, also, you can layer it the same way you can layer acrylic paint. They’re not the same; they have the same properties. I choose gouache because I want to go outside and paint, and I want it all to fit inside my backpack. I choose acrylic [paint] in my studio because it dries fast, it’s non-toxic and I can layer quickly.

You’ve cited layering a couple of time. Explain what that’s about.

The concept of time is increasingly important to me in my paintings. By applying the paint in layers — especially if they’re somewhat transparent layer visible to the viewer — you get a sense of time; not only the time it takes to make the art work, but it also helps me to describe the time of looking, which is a big part of art to me. I spend so much time outside looking, and a lot of the time I don’t even have drawing materials with me. It’s this layered look. I’m not trying to capture the way the camera captures an exact moment in time. I want to capture hours or minutes or years of looking, so layering really adds that element of time into the work. Plus, it’s literally what happens. Sometimes I intentionally put paint on a little bit thinner because I don’t want to hide that underneath layer. There’s a thought [in the underneath layer] that’s an important thought.

You’re a time-lapse painter.

Kind of. It has slowly been revealed to me through my process — I didn’t start with this intention; it has taken me a long time to figure this out … I think I was always jumping ahead to the next thing and the next thing and the next thing. A number of years ago, I had a health situation arise that forced me to slow way down … I didn’t have much energy, so I just went out and sat where I would normally be painting big canvases on location, and I just didn’t have the energy to do it. So, I just started looking. And it was: Dang! This slowing down … Now I feel great, and I can paint in whatever I want. I still spend a lot of time sitting and looking when I go out to work. I realized that was important. That slowing of time. That appreciation of time. 

Slowing down is intrinsic to the creative process.

If you go to fast, you run over the idea. You get in front of the idea … If you’re already thinking three steps ahead, you miss [a developing] idea, and then it gets buried. Years ago I looked back at a snap shot of an earlier version of a painting, and I thought, Where’s that painting? I buried that painting. That was a really good idea. I wish I would have stopped there. Artists say that a lot. People ask that question, too: How do you know when to stop on a painting? I think you have to go really slow to know when to stop. My paintings spend a lot of time in process now. I start them, and if I’m not absolutely sure what the next move is, they just have to sit there and wait. It could be weeks.

You have an established reputation as a painter. Describe your migration into printmaking. 

Angela and Traverse City artist Royce Deans working the Conrad press.

The printmaking came about out of curiosity [three years ago]. Anne Corlett, my very close friend who lives in Saugatuck, has a beautiful, big Conrad press [3] that she has had for 30 years. It sat, not used, for the duration of our friendship; I’ve known her for 35 years, and there that press was. I was curious about it. So, I started bugging her about it …… Like crazy people, she and I and [Traverse City painter] Royce Deans did a little bit of research. I figured out what kind of ink to use because I wasn’t using anything toxic at that point. I found this soy-based ink. I ordered the sampler kit, a couple brayers, some Plexiglass plates. We didn’t know what we were doing, but the three of us like to work together … Anne had taken a [printing] class 30 years ago [at the Art Institute of Chicago].

So, it was just curiosity. I always thought why on earth would you make a monotype [4]? Why wouldn’t you just paint? Why would you bother putting the ink on a plate and then transferring it to paper? You only get one [print]. It’s not like we’re doing editions? So, why is it any different than a painting? I think that was the big question I was trying to answer.

How did you answer it?

The answer has to do with time and the visible layers. When you make a monotype, the layers all go down on the plate at once. Then, you pull the print. You don’t know what you’re going to get … When you’re making a painting, you make a mark and then you step back and look at it. You make another mark, and step back and look at it. When you’re making monotypes, especially if you’re doing a one-impression monotype, it’s not as clear what you’re doing when you’re working on that plate. It’s not as easy to see what’s going to happen. There’s something about that mystery, that intrigue — it’s fascinating. And then it prints in reverse. It’s a way to look at your own creative process. Artists use mirrors to look at their work. By looking at your painting in the mirror, sometimes you can see what’s wrong with the composition because you’re looking at it in a way you don’t normally look at it.

How do your decades as a painter come into play in your monoprint-making?

I think that approaching monotype as a painter I’m a little more liberated to try things. Not saying that other printmakers don’t try things. I don’t really know the “rules.” I know how to be a painter, so I approach the monotype in a painterly way … [I] apply the ink like it’s paint, but it’s not paint. There’s been a tremendous impact on [her work] as a result. [ I ] have this whole new language of mark making [to] bring back to the world of canvas.

After you’ve pulled the monoprint, do you ever go back in with paint brush, and paint on top of it? [IMAGE monotype printing]

Angela monoprinting

I don’t. But lots of times I’ll make multiple impressions. That’s one thing that’s different than painting. You can make them a lot faster. In a painting, all those ideas get buried in one painting. When you’re working in monotypes, maybe over the course of a day I might make three or four monotypes of the same idea. I was working on something prescient that foretold my descent into printmaking. I was out painting plein air one day, and I had this idea that maybe what I should do is make four paintings to equal one, as if they were on transparent layers; but they weren’t on transparent layers. They were on four pieces of paper. I put all lights on one piece, all the darks on another, I put the flowers on this one … It was like I was looking into the piece and separating the layers … It was a funny thing. I thought, Gosh. Am I a printmaker?

I don’t think you allow yourself to be confined by any one thing.

I’m not really willing to have a label. When I was in college, I was in a BFA painting program [at Indiana University 1979 – 1983], we were supposed to stay in our discipline, which is really too bad.

How did your formal training affect your development as a creative practitioner?

It forced me to think about developing bodies of work. That might be the single, most important thing I got out of [college]. They didn’t teach me a lot about how to do things. Mostly like: There you are in your studio; make something. And then, defend it. We had to talk about our work. We had rigorous critiques, to defend your body of work … that you’d been making over the semester … [The student would] stand up and talk about it [to an audience of BFA and MFA candidates], and say what you were doing and deal with the barrage of comments and criticisms that came at you. I think it taught me how to talk about work, and to try to think in a focused way about a body of work.

What’s the importance of developing a body of work?

By developing a body of work you get to take an idea or a set of ideas and explore them fully. At the time I was painting interiors of spaces, and I was interested in pattern. So by forcing myself into a size range, using the same medium, using similar subject matter … I think artists can be very excited by what they see, and it’s easy to go from A to Z and back again, and you can end up with a lot of fragmented ideas. In hindsight, I wish I’d learned more practical things. [5] When you’re young and pushed into a place to be a mature artist: good luck. It was hard. It made me so ready to be done with school ….. I was tired of being told what to do. But not really told what to do.

Describe your studio/work space.

Angela’s studio

It is a separate building adjacent to my house. It’s in a country setting. My husband Erik designed our house and my [400 square foot] studio, so it’s a building designed for this purpose and use. It has a lot of natural light, but not direct light in my painting area. The windows are up high so they don’t shine directly on my canvas. It has tall ceilings in my painting area. And, carefully designed artificial lighting; the light’s really consistent in [her studio].

And, my studio is outside as much as inside. Everything I make originates from my experience outside. All the ideas come from there. All the visuals come from there. I choose to work in my studio so I can approach those ideas in a more meditative, rational manner. I can really tease them apart and see them. When I’m outside, it’s all pretty exciting and emotional. There’s that big response, which is why I work small when I’m outside. The landscape is my studio, for sure.

What themes/ideas are the focus of your work? 

My work is really is about the landscape. For the most part. But it’s also about looking. I do work in the figure … It’s a great aspect of my practice, but it’s not a theme I naturally gravitate to.

What is it in the landscape that compels you to paint it?

Mother Of Pearl, monotype, 24″ w x 18″ l, Angela Saxon, 2020

When I moved here 33 years ago, I never thought I would be a landscape painter. Coming from Chicago, I had a stereotype in mind. I’m still reluctant to say I’m a landscape painter. But when I got here, the landscape overwhelmed me. This is going to sound so cliché – but the scope of [the landscape]: It makes me want to cry a lot. Maybe it’s about my interaction with the landscape. This summer I did a series of paintings about waves … I paddle board, so I’m out on the lake a lot …  out on the surface of the lake looking down into the water. I was out on these really big waves and I just stopped [and thought], Maybe I’m just going to look at these waves. Have a little conversation with you guys out here.

You said, when you moved here, you came from Chicago with a stereotype about landscape painting. What was that stereotype?

I think I thought it was not modern enough. Not contemporary enough. Not cutting edge enough. I was young.

How old were you?

I was in my mid-20s. You have ideas when you’re young. You think you know stuff.

What prompts the beginning of a project or composition? 

Gee Creek, Hiwassee Ocoee State Park, Benton, Tennessee.

Experiences that are similar to what I was saying about being out on the water. I tend to have an experience, or a series of experiences, but [the inspiration] can surprise me. A couple years ago, Erik and I went to Benton, Tennessee. We were camping. He was busy during the days, so I went off hiking [in the Hiwassee Ocoee State Park] with my backpack and paints. There was this beautiful creek [Gee Creek] tumbling down out of the mountains. I was absolutely overwhelmed, gobsmacked by this creek. I compulsively painted for the week we were there, then came home and made 50 paintings of this creek. I didn’t really want to paint waterfalls or moving water … I cried when we left. I had to say goodbye to the creek.

My current series is of beach grass, and I think it reflects the slowdown of this pandemic. You just have to lie down on the beach and turn your head sideways and just look because there’s nowhere to go. I just started looking carefully, and then I was lost in that world.

How much pre-planning do you do in advance of beginning a new project or composition?

Once I have the idea, I go back to the same places over and over. I’m gathering material. When I come into my studio, I have all this information, and that’s what I work from. If I could work from photographs, that would be awesome; but it doesn’t work.

Why doesn’t it work?

Because I’m capturing this idea of time, and photographs freeze something. Sometimes I shoot little videos on my phone and go back and look at them. The lens makes decisions that are different than your eye can make.

Do you work on more than one project at a time?

I do.

Do you work in a series?

Treasure, monotype, 48″ w x 36″ l, Angela Saxon, 2020

I do, but sometimes little branches pop off the series. I try to stay focused but I also let myself wander a little bit. Right now, I’m working on this beach grass series … but I’m also working on — which seems totally not-related — these very large graphite drawings, which are abstract. The abstract drawings let me spin off my energy. It’s a simplified process. They’re just graphite and paper.

These things all cross-pollinate?

They do. I don’t know exactly how, but it always ends up that they do. I was struggling with creative block for two years. It’s so frustrating. I was working, but it was frustrating, and I couldn’t figure out how to get out of my own way. So I started this series of abstract drawings, 9” x 12” paper, graphite, trying to not doodle, but to work abstractly. It was really hard. I worked through many of them, and started working larger. What was revealed to me in that process was when I took the subject matter out of what I was doing I could feel the real creative me underneath there. And it just opened my paintings right up. I could see again. It was miraculous. It sounds so simple; but it was big. Maybe that’s why I hang onto the graphite drawings. They’re my life boat.

What’s your favorite tool?

I don’t have a favorite tool. I’m interested in mark making, so whatever tool I happen to need. I’ll use anything I have. It depends what mark I want to make. I don’t rule out any possibility. Sometimes I just lay my paintings flat on the ground so I can pour paint and just drag it around.

What tool do you use to make notes and record your thoughts?

I work in pencil on paper. Super simple. I tend to have more than one sketchbook, three or four. I always wish I could be tidy, and have one sketchbook and finish it and get the next one, but I’m absolutely not that person. I just grab whatever’s close.

How do you come up with a title?

Super hard! I try to offer a perspective, an entry point, for the viewer with a title, without being overly emotional or descriptive. There’s also the need for me to have it reference the painting in some way so I can remember it. It’s bad, but when I’m lazy, I’ll say, Wave Series 1, 2, 3, 27, 42 … Titles are a challenge; but when they’re right, it’s so good. I wonder if there’s any artist who says, Oh! I love to title paintings? Sometimes I call my daughter, who’s the English major, and we just talk. She’s great because she doesn’t tell me words; she helps me think about what I’m thinking.

When did you begin working with serious professional intent?

I think I’ve been a professional artist from the time when I was in my 20s. When I was in college, I defined myself as an artist. It wasn’t a hobby. I was approaching it with a very serious intent. I do think that intention really matters. About six years ago, I decided I wanted to do less design work [6] and more painting work. It’s interesting when you say that out loud to yourself. It really started to shift.

What role does social media play in your practice?

Social media [Instagram and Facebook] is a wonderful tool to connect me with other artists all around the world. There are artists whose work I would not know. I think about when I was in college and we relied upon art magazines, and someone else was deciding what art we were going to see — unless you could go to a major city; but, again, a gallery is deciding [what you see]. In that sense, [social media] is great. I love that connection with other artists. And, it’s a great way for me to share what I do.

What influence does social media have on the work you make?

I’m careful about what I post of my own work. I like sharing my ideas, but I do try to be careful not to share them before I’m ready for comment … There are points in the creative process when you’re at a delicate place. You have to be careful who you show something to, or what they say — you can’t un-hear things. It’s a tricky thing, knowing when to share and when not to.

Is this different than getting together with people to do a live critique? 

In a way, it’s the same thing … I try not to share during those delicate times because the piece doesn’t have enough substance yet. I want it to be my substance. I don’t want [the work] to be influenced by other people’s comments. Even if they’re positive.

What do you believe is the creative practitioner’s role in the world?

I think we’re interpreters and translators. And, we’re scientists, too. We make something from nothing:  There’s not an idea, and then we have an idea, and then we manifest something. And, much like a scientist, we try a million versions until we land on the right “vaccine.” As a visual artist, and specifically, for me as a landscape painter, I like communicating the way that I honestly experience the world, the landscape around me, wherever I am. Artists offer these perspectives that not only make other people’s visual experience richer, but expand visual language, expand visual possibilities for somebody. Maybe they’re sitting at the beach one day looking at the grass and they think about one of my paintings, maybe they’ll look at it differently and see more. And who doesn’t want to see more?

Conversely, what parts of the world find their way into your work?

Superstructured, graphite, 34″ w x 43″ l, Angela Saxon, 2021

I don’t believe my work has a political component to it. I come back to the word “beauty.” By acknowledging beauty [in her artwork] does it remind us to seek that balance somehow? [The graphite drawing hanging in her studio] it has layers and layers and layers on graphite on it. I’ve been drawing on that piece of paper for three weeks. And I really think it’s a lot about how we’re connected and not connected right now. A lot of the drawings I’ve been working are super pandemic-related. Another one has all these little shapes — I’ve been thinking about us all in our little pods. It’s a little bit literal for me. In a way, the drawings are exploring some darker ideas.

It can be hard to focus right now. The drawings help me ground and focus my brain in a visual way. I’ve heard a lot of artists in interviews say that, strangely 1.) The pandemic isn’t that different from my normal life. This is what I do: I stay isolated in my studio and do my work; and 2.) There are some positives. Some of the pressure has been taken off. You don’t have to paint for shows. No exhibitions to organize. That productivity piece — as in having shows and getting work to galleries — has been backed way off. In a way, it has allowed my mind to expand.

How does living in Northern Michigan inform and influence your creative practice?

It certainly heightened my awareness of the landscape. It’s spectacularly beautiful all the time, even in the middle of winter. The pace of life here makes it easier to see that beauty, too.

The local landscape is an intrinsic component of your creative work. The local landscape is also influenced by human activity, climate change, commercial interests, and other modern-day impacts. You don’t work in a static, hermetically-sealed “natural” environment, but one that continues to change and be changed. How do you reflect upon that reality? 

I feel that anyone who is awake to the world around them sees what is happening to the natural world. Up here, in the supposedly pristine north, it is a bit more hidden. Of course we see the lake change; but it’s not changed so much that we can’t swim in it due to pollution, so it’s harder to feel it personally. I grew up on a very industrial part of the lake in Gary, Indiana. With steel mills surrounding my beach. The water there is very compromised due to pollution, yet the sunsets are brilliant because of that same pollution.

I feel such big emotion when I’m outdoors. That question about politics and art making is very hard to sort. I have strong beliefs about what is right and it doesn’t involve any more degradation of the natural world. Mine is a quieter protest. A reach for awareness. We all need to open our eyes and look more, at everything: ourselves, our impact on the world and on others — right? The more we look the more we see. We say that all the time as artists, to help us learn and refine our craft. Well, everyone needs to look more.

When did you take up residence in Northern Michigan?

1987.

What brought you here?

Erik was working for a sail-making company in Chicago. We had an almost 1-year-old child, and we were living in Chicago and thought that maybe we didn’t want to raise a family in the heart of the city. I’ve been a sailor all of my life, and sailed on Lake Michigan. So, we knew this area because we’d sailed on the water all around it. A lot. I’m very connected to Lake Michigan emotionally, and would find it hard to live away from it.

What was your sense, when you moved here, of the creative atmosphere and community in Northern Michigan?

It took me a while to find the artists up here … The Traverse Area Arts Council [7] was where I landed. And, through that organization, I found my peeps. I did not know anything about Traverse City. I don’t know why I agreed to move here. Eric said, You want to move to Traverse City? and I said, Where? Erik and I used to deliver sailboats. We’d sail the Mackinaw race [8] and get paid to drive [sailboats] back to Chicago in the summer. He said, You know, it’s that place where we drive by the Holiday Inn? I didn’t do any research. I left my best friend … and all these [Chicago] artists.

What’s your current perception of the creative atmosphere in Northern Michigan?

There are so many brilliant artists who live here. The artists per square mile: It’s got to be a big number. And we all live without the support of a big city up here. You have to be very self-reliant to be an artist up here.

What big-city supports aren’t here?

Opportunities to have big museums, and lots of galleries, and art supply stores. I miss just wandering around the big art supply stores. You get ideas. I found a jar of pink tempera paint on the sale rack when I was living in Chicago, and it launched me into a year-long series — I was painting interiors — and I made so many paintings. There’s more opportunities to sell work. If you live close to a lot of galleries, you get to learn where your work fits in. It’s just a little easier. But you pay the price for living in city. The pace we have up here is much more conducive to the creative process. I think. I have great artist friends here. I feel very supported.

Would you be making different work if you didn’t live in Northern Michigan?

I think I’ve come to the understanding that my work reflects my life. If I lived somewhere else, I would be responding to that landscape, to that culture, to that society. Wouldn’t that be a fun idea? I’ve done a lot of do-it-yourself residencies … where I just go [to a different place] with my paints, and make my own paintings for a couple of weeks.

What does transplanting yourself to a new place do for you?

The more we look, the more we see. That’s the part of my brain I’m continually training. If I was someone who was interested in linguistics, the more languages I understood, maybe the more I would understand the subtle nuances between languages. As a practitioner of making visual things ….. Those waterfall paintings? Directly influenced two years later a series of wave paintings I made this summer. And I didn’t realize it until I finished the wave paintings. Oh maybe all those waterfall paintings I did, maybe I learned something there that enabled me to see water in a different way. I never wanted to paint waves. And I still don’t like to paint waves literally. But it’s the feeling of the wave, and I think I got that from the waterfall paintings. It all layers on top of each other.

You work en plein air almost year-round. Do you paint in the winter?

Angela: plein-airing earlier this winter, on the lakeshore.

I draw [outside] in the winter a little bit more. I’m not going to go out in a blizzard, but a couple weeks ago, it was a beautiful weekend at the lakeshore. I’ve got my boots and [snow] pants. I’ve got a big sleeping bag that I drag around with me. I flop it on the ground and sit on top of it. I’m out of the wind, and it was great. The light is so different in November and December. The sun is so low. It’s way more dramatic. Whenever it’s all snowy like it is now, the trees jump out and say, Look at me! Look at me! I don’t think I’m going to make paintings of snowy trees. They’re really hard to sell. People aren’t too into seeing winter.

Even though you don’t make paintings about winter, it sounds like the work you make isn’t dictated by your sense of what sells and what does not.

Correct. I also think that it’s just part of the practice of being outside and observing. I’ve realized it’s as important to be outside walking around looking as it is to be sitting drawing, in my studio painting. They’re all part of the same process. So even if I’m just hiking in the winter, I’m observing color, I’m observing pattern, I’m observing texture. It all counts. My cousin, who is also a painter, said to me, What would you do if you lived in California? — because the light doesn’t change very much. And, I hadn’t really thought about that. It’s hard to imagine. The winter up here provides us — winter plus pandemic — with a fallow time to digest. I have a lot more studio time in the winter, which I really like, too. I’m not as compelled to be out in nature for eight hours a day. I can just go for one, or two, or sometimes maybe three [hours].

Did you know any practicing artists when you were growing up?

The Art Institute of Chicago

Yes, but not intimately. My great aunt bought my family a life-time membership to the Art Institute of Chicago. I grew up in Gary [Indiana], so Chicago was right there. I went to the Art Institute all the time — as a kid, with my parents, later in high school. That museum was my early influence. I don’t know why I wanted to be an artist because I truly did not know what an artist was. When I went to college, I had no idea. None. Totally naive.

Who has had the greatest and most lasting influence on your work and practice?

It was probably the Chicago Art Institute. My love of various artists has changed over the years.

Where and to whom do you go when you need honest feedback about your work?

I have a few close friends … We communicate daily, or every other day. We share pictures. We talk about work in development. We talk about ideas we’re thinking about. There are times you just want to show something  [without receiving feedback], but that’s pretty rare. I have a deal [with a critique pod]: OK. You’ll tell me if I’m really going off the rails. I might want to; but you tell me. That’s a really valuable thing. I feel so fortunate.

What’s the role of exhibiting in your practice?

That’s interesting asking that question now. I think exhibitions are really tricky. In one sense, it’s super exciting to have a body of work assembled in one place, and get to look at it all together. It’s fantastic for me and I think for viewers. It’s something I love to do, to go to see an artist’s whole idea, and it’s all there in one place; but the practical aspect of that is challenging. Depending upon where an artist is in their creativity/productivity formula, it can put a lot of pressure on you. Some people work really well under pressure. I tend not to. I like to build a body of work and then see if I can find someone who wants to show it — as opposed to the other way around.

You’re proactive about finding exhibition opportunities.

Yes. Or, I work with a few galleries who watch what I’m doing, and might see a body of work developing, and reach out to me [for a solo show]. That happened to me with the waterfall work. I had two, concurrent shows. And I didn’t sell a thing … But because I had two shows, I forced that series to expand it and keep going. “Hey wait: I need 10 more paintings.” It’s like the toothpaste tube was empty and I kept on stomping on it. But now, a couple years later, some of that work is selling. Exhibitions are expensive to do. The gallery doesn’t pay for your costs to mount the exhibition. Yes, they host it, and they do promotion, but you still have to make all the work, ship it and aaarrrgh … It’s going to be a long time before I do a solo exhibition.


Footnotes 

1: Plein air painting is painting outdoors, versus painting in a controlled, indoor environment, e.g. a studio.

2: Gouache is a quick-drying, opaque water media.

3: The Conrad Machine Co. was founded in 1945. It began manufacturing printmaking presses in 1956. It is located in Whitehall, Michigan.

4: Monotype is printmaking process. Monotypes are made by drawing or painting on a smooth, non-absorbent surface. The image is transferred onto a sheet of paper, usually using a printing press. Unlike other printmaking processes, monotypes produce a single print versus multiple editions.

5: “Practical stuff I’d like to have learned in school: What a working artist out in the world actually does (interaction with galleries, patrons, writing grants, applying to shows). More fundamental study (drawing skills, mixing colors, styles of painting). I was accepted into the BFA painting program at the end of my sophomore year and at that point was required to focus specifically into a style to produce a cohesive body of work. ? Why go on to get an MFA? If you want to teach, that would be a good idea. What does it mean to teach? None of that was discussed.”

6: Angela and her husband, Erik, are partners in the Traverse City graphic design firm Saxon Design Inc.

7: The Traverse Area Arts Council was active from the mid-1970s through early 2000.

8: The Chicago Yacht Club Race to Mackinaw is a 333-mile, annual yacht race starting in Lake Michigan off Chicago, Illinois, and ending in Lake Huron off Mackinaw Island, Michigan.


Learn more about Angela Saxon here.

Sarah Bearup-Neal develops and curates Glen Arbor Arts Center exhibitions. She maintains a studio practice focused on fiber and collage.

 

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