Archives for the month of: June, 2009

That’s what my father said to me.  His interest in my work and praise were rare, so I wasn’t quite sure how to take his comment, “That’s the best piece you’ll ever make.”  He referred to a portrait I had painted of my mother, having come up with a technique that was very innovative back when I was in high school, which was when this took place.  I do believe he truly meant it as a compliment, yet after a while, the words started to sound dismissive. You’ll never do anything as good, so why waste your time?

I continued to paint and draw, pushing myself and my materials to the farthest reaches of my imagination.  Time and again I would hear, “Remember that portrait of your mother?  Well, I still say that’s the best piece you’ll ever make.”  Okay, so my Dad really loved my mother, and I’m sure that had something to do with it too.  Yet this comment touches upon something  important.

[Plato and Aristotle in a detail from Raphael’s The School of Athens. Plato is holding his Timaeus, a speculative scientific work and pointing upward, while Aristotle is holding one of his books on ethics. Click here to view images of the entire fresco and find out who’s who.]

The results of creative experimentation are rarely easily or immediately digestible, mainly because the true explorer is seeking to discover something, rather than just render what is already known.  That new thing demands of both artist and viewer an open mind, a fearless attitude, courage, patience, tolerance.  If it’s new, maybe you don’t know how to look at it yet.

Over the many years of my career, I’ve frequently encountered the phenomenon of having people scratch their heads over my current work, while exclaiming they love the body of work I had finished previously.  Yet that same work they now love had them mystified when it was brand new.  Why didn’t you just keep doing what you were doing before?  We loved those pieces!  Remember when you used to do x?  Why did you stop?  There tends to be a predictable time lag before people are ready to embrace the new work, and it’s usually about the length of time it takes for the new work to become old, supplanted by even newer work.

For some people, their practice is about doing what they did before: making a formula, and repeating earlier successes. That’s enough.

Not long ago, someone struck up a conversation with me about art, and asked me what I was up to.  “Experimenting away with a new body of work,” I explained.  “It’s the most exciting part, when an idea starts to take shape, and suddenly you can make the leap over the big crevasse, and you’re on the other side — a new landscape with new possibilities!”  The person’s eyes opened wide at my mention of such risk and experimentation.  “I knew an artist,” he recalled, and went on to tell me how he used to travel and repeatedly purchased prints from a particular artist.  But one time, he visited the artist’s studio, and saw instead sculptures and paintings.  They were totally different!  And terrible!  Being outside of what he had narrowly come to expect from this artist, he couldn’t accept the artist’s need to explore.  As far as he was concerned, the prints were the best work the artist would ever make.  Dumbfounded as to why the artist would change, the collector never returned.  If the artist’s work was good enough to attract the collector in the first place, it seemed unfortunate to me that the collector would not have enough faith in that artist’s talent to give the new work more than a cursory glance.

Therein lies a great challenge for the artist.  There’s a temptation to repeat what works, to please the audience, to make it easy for them, get work on their walls and put food on your table. Not every artist embraces risk and experimentation.  You risk making mistakes. You risk looking foolish. You risk your security.  You risk harsh criticism.  But then, to quote Aristotle, “To avoid criticism, say nothing, do nothing, and be nothing.”  I’ll take my chances.

My father worked hard and had many things to occupy his mind.  I understand if my personal pursuits were not his priority, and sadly, he’s not alive to defend or explain his remarks.  Still, it would have been nice if he had said instead, “That’s the best piece you’ve made yet.” Naturally, some works will shine more than others, but on the creative journey, the goal is discovery and improvement, and the best always lies somewhere in the future.


Timed nicely to dovetail with my open studio this Sunday, Manhattan Times, our city’s only fully bilingual paper, has featured my work in their hot-off-the-presses home delivery edition (this image on the cover, and article p.15).

In an effort to be helpful, I provided more information than the Editor could ever possibly use, given space considerations.  I’ll try to get a copy of the article posted on my website soon.  In the meantime, here’s a recap of the Q and A.

Title of artwork: This piece is so new, it’s not titled yet.  Occasionally a title will come to me while I’m working on a drawing, but mostly I have to wait and live with it a while before the title becomes apparent. For now, I just refer to it as ‘the new brown one.’ If you said that to me, I’d know what you’re talking about.

How did you create this piece? I draw working on the floor.  Starting with handmade, colored paper from Japan, I draw each bubble one at a time by bending over the paper and blowing a mixture of ink and water very carefully through a tube. I create my composition by crawling around the paper on my hands and knees, stopping from time to time to put the piece up on the wall, so I can check how it will look from the proper perspective. If you came in and saw me engaged in this activity, you might kindly suggest that I get my head examined.

Special materials or process: I had to create a formula to facilitate making bubbles with the ink and water.  But like many formulae, it’s secret! It took a lot of experimentation to get the formula just right, and I adjusted it and my technique frequently to get different effects in the drawing, such as tone, depth, and line.  There were some happy surprises along the way, but also many frustrating disappointments.  The humidity and temperature affect how the materials behave when I’m working, and I always have to take that into account or risk ruining a piece that has taken a very long time to make.

How long did it take to create? All my work tends to be very labor intensive and time consuming to make.  I dream about being able to just dash off a brilliant drawing one day, but in reality, the methods I come up with all seem to take forever.  In the studio, I am very unaware of the passage of time.  I often work concurrently on more than one piece, moving from one to another, which makes it harder to gauge how long it takes to complete any single work.   A California ceramic artist, Liz Crain, gives an excellent description of the two kinds of time that each piece requires. To paraphrase what she wrote: One part, hard time, is more active, involving the hands-on time actually applying ink to paper and dealing with creative and technical challenges posed by the piece and test pieces.  The other, equally important soft time that one puts in it is more hands-off, and involves research, contemplation, looking, waiting (for clarity, inspiration, the ink to dry), and a lifetime of learning and experience.

What’s the meaning of the work to you? A fascination with the abstract essence of nature is at the core of my work. I find that drawing helps me understand a deeply felt personal bond with nature: our place within it, our relationship to it, and our responsibility to care for it.  Lately, I’ve been contemplating water as both an inspiration and a drawing material. The bubbles are a means of making marks on the paper, yet they also become evocative of other things, like eggs perhaps, or clusters of stars or galaxies.  Blowing bubbles is one of the joys of childhood (and adulthood, for some of us), but it’s impossible to ignore that they are heartbreakingly fragile and short-lived – a metaphor, if you will. By using art to investigate and interpret the systems, structures, and wide-ranging ways that we connect with the natural world, I hope we might come to understand our crucial vulnerabilities and respond meaningfully.

What do you want people to see when they look at it? I would like people to see something that engages and excites them.  I hope to encourage a feeling of possibility, and perhaps wonderment.  Our sense of vision, like our sense of smell has the power to connect to things deep in our minds in a way that has nothing to do with spoken language.  I would like people to see something in the work that they realize they somehow recognize, without necessarily having the need or ability to name what exactly it is.

Why did you want to exhibit this piece in this location (at my open studio)? For me, the studio is the place where curiosity always trumps cynicism. The fun of having an annual open studio is that I can meet art-lovers in person in a more casual setting than a formal gallery show.  In the studio, people get a chance to view not only my current work, but some earlier work as well, and even some things that may have never been shown elsewhere.  Seeing the variety of ideas and approaches affords a broader understanding of how the work has evolved. An open studio provides a valuable opportunity to interact with the public about the work and its many layers of meaning.  In my experience, these exchanges strengthen the appreciation of both the creative process and the importance of the arts as part of any dynamic society.

[image above, Untitled, copyright Sky Pape, ink on handmade paper, 39”h x 25-3/8”w, 2009. Photo: Jean Vong.  See more like this here:]

To tell you the truth, I thought it was supposed to be an interview with one guy bearing notepad and pencil.  Then they showed up with cameras!  Good thing I had my Minnie Mouse gloves at the ready.

For those of you who know me, you know I adore my neighborhood, Inwood, here at the far northern reaches of the island of Manhattan. does a wonderful job chronicling the people, events, and rich history of this area.  I’m flattered that they came to visit my studio, and went to such an effort to feature it on their site.

As part of the Uptown Arts Stroll, I will be having an open studio this Sunday, from 3-7 pmDetails are here.  I welcome you to stop in and say hello, and make a day of visiting the studios of other local uptown artists.  Music lovers will not be disappointed either! (Again, see details.)

Apologies for the prolonged absence.  Chalk it up to writer’s block, or more accurately, to having too much else on my plate.  I seem to be wearing many different hats, and none of them especially stylish.  But I don’t want to bore you with excuses as to why words have escaped me.  I will just dive back in, as if I’d never left the conversation.

The gallery crawl back in late March, which I never got around to writing up, had some surprising highlights.  The most memorable to me were Laurie Anderson’s show at Location One, which achieved very high-tech seeming results using very low-tech methods.  In a darkened room, a miniature Laurie, with her dog in a chair beside her, appeared as convincingly as a hologram.  Her storyteller’s voice mesemerized as much as the visual experience.  In fact, it was not a hologram at all, but a tiny white plaster sculpture of Anderson and her faithful pooch, upon which a video of the two was projected.  Part two of the installation duet: In another dark space, standing on a white spot on the floor, one was treated to an extraordinary auditory experience.  Also achieved with low-tech means, the sounds of nature seemed so real as to almost emanate from within one’s head.

Showing nearby were two noteworthy videos by  Sun Xun showing at the Drawing Center’s Drawing Room.  “The Lie of the Magician” was an especially captivating piece that made use of a frame-by-frame technique in which the artist used his own body as a canvas on which he drew and animated images of nature (rain, clouds, seeds, roots), moving through a cycle of life and creation. (Here’s an incredibly small, hard to see version of it.)

And since then, there’s been a lot more that I’ve taken in, about which I’ve neglected to write.  There was the utterly superb show of Georgio Morandi‘s work at the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC, for instance – the mere memory of which sends me into rhapsodic reverie.  Also in DC at the same time, worth seeing and worth mentioning, were Philip Guston in the Tower at the National Gallery of Art (up until October 2009), Robert Frank’s monumental show “The Americans” (also at the National Gallery, coming to NYC’s Metropolitan Museum in September 2009), and Kathleen Kucka‘s new paintings at Marsha Mateyka Gallery. Maya Lin’s show at the Corcoran Gallery of Art had two intriguing room-sized installations, one of which was quite magnificent in its monumentality, but the rest of the show felt a bit scattered, unpolished, and disappointing.

I hadn’t been to DC in a long time, and was happy to visit some of the gallery spaces there, including Hemphill Fine Arts, and Andrea Pollan’s space, Curator’s Office, which is perhaps the tiniest gallery I’ve visited – but don’t make the mistake of underestimating it!

There was also a field trip, on my list for many years, to visit the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center in The Springs, near East Hampton, Long Island.  The P-K House’s Director, art historian and critic Helen Harrison, gave an lively, informative tour of the house and studio used first by Jackson Pollock, and later by Lee Krasner, until the end of her life.  Harrison knows about all there is to know about Hamptons Bohemia, and has a gift for doling out some of the juicy bits.  Currently on view in the house was a small but strong exhibition of portrait drawings by Hedda Sterne, the one female pictured in Nina Leen’s famous Time/Life photo from 1951 of  “The Irascibles.” (That’s Jackson in the center, second row from rear, and one of my teachers, Richard Pousette-Dart all the way on the left.)

Back in SoHo, which is now practically off the beaten path unless you are shopping for shoes or hitting the Apple Store, The Painting Center has been putting on several outstanding shows lately, and James Little’s exhibition of large oil and wax on canvas works at June Kelly Gallery was a knockout (See Joanne Mattera’s write-up.)

I could spend more time catching up, but that would only serve to point out all you’ve missed, and how lame I’ve been about keeping up with posting.  So instead, I will look ahead, and begin afresh.

[above images: Sun Xun, Still from “Lie of the Magician,” 2005. Single channel video, 4:14 minutes. Courtesy Fortune Cookie Projects, copyright Sun Xun; Kathleen Kucka, “Ephemeral Apparition”, 32″h x 28″w, acrylic on linen, 2009, copyright Kathleen Kucka, courtesy Marsha Mateyka Gallery, DC.]