Thursday, November 11, 2010

Unexpected Lesson

When I teach, I never know what the lesson will truly be.

That's the gift teachers are given, I think. We plan, but the lesson might be something far more profound.

Last week I was in Atlanta as Artist in Residence for a national mental health organization. I teach on the Youth Track, 13-25 year olds. I'm there, techically, to teach a photography workshop, but it's really a three-part session on self-expression. The work produced each year knocks my socks off.

The first session is shooting. We find an area near the hotel that will provide the richest amount of content for the photographers. This time it was Centennial Olympic Park. Coming back from the park, I was in the rear of the 21-person group walking with a straggler. As we neared the hotel, we saw a loud, energetic picket line of workers protesting low wages.

"This is my first protest!" The student, a high school junior from Montgomery, AL, was beside herself with excitement. She ran to document it with the few shots left on her camera.

Flushed and animated, she returned. "Do protests work?"

"Sure," I said. "Peaceful, powerful protests work all the time. The ones that work are the ones that have clear goals."

"Huh?" She had no idea what I was talking about. I tried to make it more personal.

"Do we have Jim Crow laws anymore?" I asked. I thought a light bulb of instant understanding would go off in the head of this African-American girl from Montgomery. The civil rights movement was seminal to forming everything that I am as a person, as an artist, as a political being. It's a touchpoint. Sometimes I forget that not everyone thinks the way I do and that it was 50 years ago. Those events are history to this child. Ugly history. Maybe even boring history.

"Jim Crow? What are those? I don't remember."

Really? A girl from Montogermy, AL, didn't know what Jim Crow laws were? I couldn't decide if that was great or tragic.

I tried again: "Are there separate water fountains for blacks and whites anymore? Can you and I go to the hotel restaurant and have a meal together?"

She was starting to understand.

"Protests work," I said. "You are growing up in a different world than I did because of peaceful protests."

I got a look of "wow." We spent the next 10 minutes talking about the power of peaceful protests. We talked about the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Freedom Riders who came from all over the country to protest Jim Crow, Dr. King, the sanitation worker's strike that cost Dr. King his life. We talked about what she might want to change in her life.

That a peaceful group can band together and work tirelessly to change a wrong turned out to be the lesson of day. For one girl. From one teacher.

Art Saves Lives.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Using Art to Change the World

Is there a more versatile method of communication than art?

Art can tell a story, retrieve a memory, provoke an argument, inspire a movement.

Art saves lives. Art can change the world.

My dear friend and conception artist/sculptor Ilene Berman likes to say, "If art doesn't change the world, what's the point?" Indeed. Her project, NODhouse, is calling attention to inequities in art allocation resources in an area that is deemed "undesirable." Ilene's art will change this part of the world.

Dare to Touch the Face of God
is another of those projects. It's my most ambitious project and, frankly, I need your help.

DTFG (it's too long to spell it out all the time!) is my response to the vitriol, hatred and fear mongering that seems to ramp up everyday because it's easy to victimize and demonize people we don't know or understand.

For a thousand years in Europe, if something went wrong, you could be sure it was the Jews' fault, or the Gypsy's. We know how that ended.

Today, it's the Muslim's fault. Yes. It's the same song. It's the same root cause. It's the same fear.

It has to stop.

But it's not just Islam that is feared and misunderstood. We don't really talk about religion. It's not polite. We don't know much about other people's faiths. We don't understand. Our prejudices are under the table.

Polygamists are creepy pedophiles. Catholics want a lot children and do whatever they're told by the Pope. Buddhists are godless. Pagans eat babies. Jews are rich and controlling. Amish are backward but quaint. Atheists are communists.

Muslims are terrorists.

Don't tell me you haven't heard this. I know you have. And worse. And we can reject every one of them... and still be afraid. Why? Because it's not the stereotypes that do the most harm. It's our inability to think of members of different religions as people. And then to respond to them that way.

Dare to Touch the Face of God
is a project to put a human face on faith. The series is intended to capture to breadth of religious understanding among people, and to further the definition of God. My goal is to put a human face on faith traditions or practices we might not understand or know about. Put a person -- famous or not -- with a practice or an idea. My subjects will be people who are willing to work with me to communicate their faith through a photograph.

Simple. Human. Delicate. True.

The project has been accepted as a Kickstarter project. Kickstarer helps innovative art projects secure funding from ordinary people who want to support the arts.

That's where you come in. Your support of this project is essential to it's success. Thank you!

Have an idea for a subject? I'm looking for your input on that too. Send me a private message or use the comment section to start a conversation. A separate website, will be live by Oct 6.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Oh Sure! Anyone Can Do This!

Some art collectors like to denigrate photography.

"Anybody can take a picture," I'm told.

You cannot image how many times I've heard this. It's said to my face because the patron thinks I'm being paid a compliment! It's said as he or she is looking at my Polaroid Paintings, where I use the emulsion as a painting medium. Because I've altered the image by hand, the work has been elevated to the realm of "art." I'm no longer "just" a photographer, but an artist.

"You've almost made art here!" one woman gushed in appreciation. I took a breath. Yeah, I thought. I came THIS close!

Can anyone take a picture? Sure. Can anyone pick up a brush and paint? Sure. Doesn't mean it's going to be art.

It's such a narrow definition -- art. And made more complicated in the field of photography because of the easy availability of cameras. Everyone has one -- or three. Pull out a phone, and pull out a camera. People have stood in my booth at art fairs and scrolled through dozens of "great" pictures they took. They're saying to me: See? I can take good pictures too! We're part of the same club.

Maybe we are. It's a pretty big club and they're lots of room for everyone, but that doesn't mean all the work is the same.

I will agree with the idea that "anyone can make a picture." But that's not the same thing as creating a work of art in the medium of photography.

"Is photography art?" is an argument as old as the medium itself. Every generation takes it up again and makes new rules. In the digital age, there are some who call themselves "purists" who insist that if the image is not captured on film and developed in the darkroom, then it's not "real" fine art photography.

Oh, feh! I've seen plenty of crappy work come out of the darkroom. Honestly, if you want to be a "purist," then coat your own glass plates and make images on those. If not, then shut up with the arrogance.

It's not the tool or the substrate that makes the art (though please don't take iPhone pictures and call them art. I know -- that's my arrogance -- but please!!!!) Then what is it?

It's the
ability to take a great photograph... and then do it again.

It's the
courage to try something new, and learn from it.

It's the
thoughtfulness to create an image in your imagination, then transfer that image to film or paper or sensor.

It's the
knowledge of how to transfer your ideas to paper or film, without guessing or hoping for the best, but knowing.

It's the
deliberate and purposeful communication of an idea or a feeling or a mood with an image ... without adding anything words or explanations.

It's the
commitment to create a body of work, in your vision, that is recognizable as yours.

It's the
confidence to let your work speak for itself, and allow the viewer to add his or her own interpretation.

Art takes time. Art takes thought. Art takes labor.

There's a reason it's call a
work of art.

Arcadian Dreams #12, Infrared photograph ©2010 Jeane Vogel. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

If They Gave Awards for Art Fairs...

If they gave awards for art fairs, then Marion Art Festival and Deb Bailey would win one.

What are we waiting for? Let's create one. Let's call it the Nancy Saturn Memorial Award and give it those art fair directors who care about artists only more than than care about art. We'll give it to directors who want to bring the best art to their community, who treat the artists with respect, who want more than to line their pockets... well, you get the idea.

I should back up a bit. Who was Nancy Saturn and why name an award after her?

Nancy was the owner of the American Artisan Gallery in Nashville. She died in March 2010 of breast cancer -- a cancer she thought she beat years ago.

Nancy and her husband Alan were well known as philanthropists and lovers of art and fine craft -- and artists and fine crafters -- far beyond their Nashville home. For the last 40 years, Nancy and her team hosted the American Artisan Fair in Nashville's Centennial Park on Father's Day weekend. An artist could apply to be in the show, but Nancy hand picked and invited the artists.

Once at the show, the artist was Nancy's guest. She visited each of the 200 or so artists during the 3-day show. On the first night of the show, she opened her home to the artists for a feast worthy of a wedding. She told us what she liked. She told us what to work on. She was generally right.

More than that, Nancy cared about the quality of the show, the quality of the work and the needs of the artist. She fed us, she encouraged us, she nurtured new artists, she commiserated with the old artists.

She knew the power of art. The show has donated more than $1 million to Gilda's Club of Nashville, to support people with cancer. Most of us donated work to be auctioned off for Gilda's Club to supplement the fair's contributions.

Nancy's daughter, Samantha, and her team continue the tradition. This year's fair, June 18-20, will be especially poignant. Nancy is gone. Alan died a few weeks before last year's fair. And Nashville has been devastated by spring floods. We miss Nancy and Alan and wish only the best for Nashville families who are recovering. We will come to Nashville and hope our art will hasten the healing.

So why give this award to Deb Bailey?

Deb, with her team, runs the Marion Art Fest, in Marion IA. It's a small town near Cedar Rapids. It's a gem of a show and Deb pulls together 50 artists from all over the country to share with her fellow Iowans.

Now don't be confused. Iowa is a not back-water flyover state, contrary to the opinion of some jaded city folk. It is a stated filled with some of the most educated and sophisticated art-lovers in the US. They know art, they like art, they buy art. And they count on Deb to bring the best and most varied work to their town. And she does.

But more, she cares about the artists. Her emails are personal and fun. Her directions are clear and specific. Her rules are minimal but intended to put on the best show possible and annoy the artists the least.

She markets the show. She brings in the right patrons. She feds us dinner and hands us a glass of wine. She makes artists feel valued and welcomed. Trust me, we don't get that very much.

Congratulations, Deb. The first Nancy Saturn Memorial Award for Excellence in Art Fair Management goes to you. And thank you for setting the bar so high for all of us.

Artwork pictured: Last Stroll, ©2010 Jeane Vogel, Polaroid Painting.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

What If My Work is Boring?

I had two fears heading to a recent trip to Costa Rica. One, was a fear of heights. I'll write about that later.

The second was that the work I would do there would be boring.

I traveled as a chaperon on an 8th grade Spanish class trip. I wanted to travel with my daughter (nine days, no fighting, personal record), brush up my Spanish a bit and, of course, shoot. A photographer always shoots.

But there was a nagging worry: what if I came back with dull, lifeless work? I was on a tour and not in control of my schedule. I had to shoot when I could, not hold up the group, and still find time to be inspired and thoughtful. What if my work looked like everybody else's - the same old shots of a Latin America country?

I had three goals:

1. Make some Infrared images, which are difficult under the best circumstances. Infrared requires a tripod, long exposures and often many, many shots to get it right. I didn't have much time.

2. Capture images that would stand alone as fine art, and some that I could copy onto Polaroid film back in the studio.
3. Take typical touristy pictures for fun.

I knew I could make the images, but how could I make them uniquely mine? I think every artist goes into new projects with deafening self-doubt. What if all that other work is a fluke? What if I have to be in my "safety zone" to make art? What if I'm a fraud?

These worries are the curse of the artist who tries to put meaning and soul into every piece. The artist who makes "pretty pictures" has not a care in the world. He already knows what he's going to do. He's done it thousands of times before.

Three days into the trip I knew what I wanted to capture. There's a saying in Costa Rica that means "no worries." You hear it everywhere. Pura vida. The bus is broken down. Pura vida. We'll get it fixed. It's raining. Pura vida. But's not cold. The ice cream has melted. Pura vida. Now it's like a shake.

Pura vida. Literally, it means "pure life." That simple idea dismissed the fear of coming home with boring work. How could it be boring? I put my soul into it. Pura vida.

New work pictured:
Pura Vida #6, Infrared Photograph, ©2010 Jeane Vogel

Bailarina #1 (Little Dancer), Polaroid Painting, ©2010 Jeane Vogel

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Art is Great, But Is it a Profession?

I was supposed to be something important when I grew up... a constitutional lawyer, actually. That was my dad's plan for me. He starting educating me and grooming me for a career as a civil rights defender when I was about 10.

That's also about the time I drew the little mouse that I found on the ad on the back of a matchbook and sent it in to the correspondence art school.

Whoa! You should have heard the yelling when my dad was called by the school and asked to pay for the art lessons I had "qualified" for.

Art is great, but it's not a profession.

I didn't go to law school (was two weeks away when I came to my senses and just couldn't go). I never gave up art, but it took me many, many years to become a full-time studio artist.

Art is great, but it's not a profession. Or it's a profession for somebody else. Somebody with money ... or access to it. Lots of it.

Why is this still haunting me? Why does it permeate a lot of our thinking?

Why? Because we don't really value art in our culture. We certainly don't value artists.

A couple of weeks ago I was at a party talking to someone I didn't know. The room was filled with people who had committed their lives to improving the world. Some are nationally known for the causes they have championed.

This stranger turned to me: What do you do, she asked.

I felt myself getting sheepish. That's a new experience for me. But still, I was a little embarrassed.

I'm an artist.

Really? She was impressed and wanted to hear about all it.

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm proud of my work, but at that moment, I felt intimidated by the power in the room. Lots of those people I knew well and they don't think I'm an idiot or unimportant. At least they don't say that to my face. Many of them collect my work.

So why did I react that way?

Because in a dozen ways, every day, we get this message: Art is frivolous. Art is a hobby. Art is not important. Art is not a profession.

Don't believe me? How much education funding has been cut from art departments in the last 30 years? How many schools have art education (or music or acting) as part of the core curriculum? Any? How many parents want their children to grow up to be artists?

Well, art is important, art is a profession, art is not frivolous. I can't do anything about art education and I can't change people's attitudes, but I can make art.

I can make art with an intention to keep it meaningful, expressive and thoughtful. I can strive for excellence in craftsmanship. I can be willing to talk about the inspiration behind the work.

Art is important. Artists are important. As a culture, let's try to value both.

Savannah Breeze, Polaroid Painting, ©2010 Jeane Vogel