Break the rules before you (un)learn them.

Break the rules before you (un)learn them.

If you were once one of my art students, you can preemptively put your finger underneath your jaw and apply a little pressure– just to keep it in place for what I’m about to say. 

Most days lately, I go into the studio without a plan or a sketch. Without so much as a notion. Typically this is fine on a small canvas. Small canvases are innocuous little things, easily repurposed or discarded. The paint “wasted” is negligible. 

But a large canvas, I once proselytized my students into believing, requires a level of planning. It demands at least a thumbnail sketch or two. We’ve got to get in there and figure some things out before we go big, before we’re four tubes of titanium white in and decide it was all for naught. 

I wish I had told them that their lives are full of changing seasons and the one that existed in that classroom –3201– was one where we needed to experience thorough planning if only to roll down the windows of our training and let all of it just fly out when the days got shorter or the leaves started falling. 

The season I am in now is one where risks feel powerful and trusting my intuition important. With school back in session, my studio time, while still limited, has become undisturbed once again, and I have felt forcefully pulled toward it, wanting to dive in headfirst, wasting no time in the abstract but getting right to the physical act of applying paint to the canvas. This week, I did just that. Without planning, fretting, designing or rethinking, I jumped right onto a large three foot by four foot canvas. Painting big allows me to use my whole body; this one felt satisfying not just in the colors and shapes but in the actual movement. 

I tried not to think about it too much and moved intuitively from one color and shape to the next. I reserved (somehow) my judgments, and let it be whatever it would be. I recently read a beautiful book called The Wisdom of your Body. In it Hillary McBride describes the healing nature of intuitive movement and dance. My studio practice recently felt akin to that kind of embodied and yet unselfconscious kind of expression. 

The painting I began isn’t finished. I don’t even know if I’ll still like it the next time I walk into the studio, and by that time it may be a new season, one of refining, thoughtful decision-making, and even a healthy dose of frustration.  

The saying goes that you have to know the rules before you break them, and maybe that can be true in certain seasons. But don’t we, more often, break the rules before we’ve ever heard of them? We stumble before we know the mechanics of walking, babble before we understand nouns and verbs, wiggle before we pirouette. Learning the rules is applying structure and guidance to what we have already intuitively experienced, expressed, and lived. 

When my world feels hyper-defined by written and unwritten rules about who, what, and how I should be, I find the practice of intuitive painting liberating. Let me know if you have any similar experiences with your intuition and I’ll keep you posted on how this piece develops.

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Break the rules before you (un)learn them.

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If you were once one of my art students, you can preemptively put your finger underneath your jaw and apply a little pressure– just to keep it in place for what I’m about to say.  Most days lately, I go into the studio without a plan or a sketch. Without so much as a...

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Draw the line.

Draw the line.

What’s something you like that a lot of other people don’t?

I was asked this question in an interview recently. It took me a minute, but I landed on cutting the grass. There’s so much I like about it– the smell, the exercise, the heat, the music pouring into my ears from my headphones, the discoveries– a grasshopper or frog moving quickly out of the way, a weed/flower I’d never noticed before. But what I think I like most is the lines. Those glorious rows the lawnmower makes and the way they slowly start to take over an entire lawn. It is so satisfying. 

Let’s talk lines.

I think I’ve liked lines, particularly making them, for as long as I can remember.  I used to live within walking distance to the Tchefuncte River, and when life felt most beyond my control, I’d walk over to it and stare into the place where the water met the sky. In that space, the trees, usually dripping with Spanish moss, reached upward, but their reflections shone clear on the surface of the brown, still water. They were between two great and expansive mysteries. There was so much above and below them.

I wouldn’t have been able to tell you then why that sight was reassuring to me and why I started painting large abstracts with lines through the center shortly thereafter (even though most of my work was and still is representational), but I think now I can. 

The line is a separation, a marker, a definite in the sea of infinite. Where the river touches the sky there is an explosion of finite grass and trees, leaves, and light. Above that and the sky goes on forever, beyond what we can know or see. Below, and the water holds its own depth and mystery. I have lived many of my days and many of my hours in the past or in the future and in all the things that hum around the here and now. I have wished for things never to come and pined for times long gone. 

And I’ve learned how to spend more and more time in the present– that line between what has been and what will be. When I look at horizons, I see precision surrounded by mystery, and I feel safe. 

What would Jesus do?

In the Gospel of John, when the rule-obsessed and duplicitous Pharisees are asking Jesus whether they should stone a woman (supposedly caught in an act requiring another person who is notably absent from the makeshift trial), instead of answering them right away, Jesus bends down and writes with his finger in the ground, the dirt, the earth. I have often wondered what he may have written, what kind of lines he drew with his hand, and if he just needed a second to connect to the here and now instead of all that surrounded it. I find this simple image of him one of the most interesting and compelling displays of his humanity in all of the gospel stories. I am fascinated by it and why the author chose to include it but not a description of what he wrote. The story ends without the condemnation the Pharisees are thirsty for. They can neither condemn the woman nor Jesus. Not one stone is cast. You are not above or beyond this woman, I think he somehow tells them by stooping down and making marks into the ground.

Roads Travelled

Timelines, horizon lines, the dash between our birth and death dates. The lines we draw to make words and the way they cut into the vastness of a piece of paper. Our signatures or names carved into a tree or the sand at the beach. We are here. We are now. We exist. And it still matters in all that vast mystery that surrounds it. 

Below is a gallery of my abstract line paintings from over the years. They began in 2015. I’ll admit when I went through my archives to find them, I thought I’d have four or five. Turns out I’ve been working on this more often than I’d realized. 

I’ve been making paintings about this for years now, and I don’t have any intention of stopping. I’m not switching careers into lawn care, and I won’t cut your grass (my yard gives me all the satisfaction I need) but I would love to chat with you about the lines and marks you make and see. I would love to know which ones inspire or intrigue you. I would love to draw a line between us.

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If you were once one of my art students, you can preemptively put your finger underneath your jaw and apply a little pressure– just to keep it in place for what I’m about to say.  Most days lately, I go into the studio without a plan or a sketch. Without so much as a...

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Comments

Imperfection + Persistence

Imperfection + Persistence

 

“Persistence” 15×30, oil on canvas

This is a backwards “s” painting. I’ll explain.

I’ve been having this memory playing on repeat in my mind recently. I was around six years old and reading a book with my dad. I don’t remember the book, only that it had one of those “This book belongs to” pages in the beginning. My dad asked me to write my name, which I did. Both the “s’s” were backwards. So he told me to do the one at the end of Hopkins again. So I did. Backwards. Try again he urged. Backwards again. I just can’t do it, I told him. He didn’t let up. Perhaps uncharacteristically calm, he just assured me that I could and remained unconcerned that it was taking so many missteps to get there. I remember that I was writing in pen and absolutely horrified that my mistakes were being so permanently recorded in an actual book. 

I have a very clear picture of two rows of backwards “s’s” ending in one that faced the right way. Something like this:

This isn’t the part where I tell you that practice makes perfect. 

Because it doesn’t, and it can’t.

What transpired in that children’s book was what has transpired ever since. The result was far from perfect. My name had at least ten too many letters at the end, the majority of which were backwards. But my dad looked at it with a pride that engendered some in me too. I had finally figured it out! 

I’ve been working on the painting that begins this post for years, and it was always just a little “off.” There was never a human figure in it until recently, and when she came into the painting, she did so slowly. I was cautiously thrilled to discover her, and I kept thinking, “Finally.”

The iteration just before this final version included a vase, the textures of which you can still see in the woman’s face— those textures are my backwards “s’s,” and, unlike when I was six years old, now, I adore them.

I am more proud of this painting than I am of the ones that came swiftly, without trial, error, sweat, or tears. 

I think this might be true: There are never too many tries. No wasted efforts. No such thing as perfect, and beauty to be found in every crevice. 

“Persistence” hits the website along with 14 other new paintings Tuesday, April 26th at 9 am. It will also be available as a print. Subscribers will get special pricing. 

As always, I’d love to hear from you in the comments. Let me know what you think and if your imperfect persistence has ever paid off.

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Break the rules before you (un)learn them.

Break the rules before you (un)learn them.

If you were once one of my art students, you can preemptively put your finger underneath your jaw and apply a little pressure– just to keep it in place for what I’m about to say.  Most days lately, I go into the studio without a plan or a sketch. Without so much as a...

read more
Imperfection + Persistence

Imperfection + Persistence

  This is a backwards “s” painting. I’ll explain. I’ve been having this memory playing on repeat in my mind recently. I was around six years old and reading a book with my dad. I don’t remember the book, only that it had one of those “This book belongs to” pages...

read more
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I was looking through an old journal recently, skimming it for inspiration. What kind of inspiration I was looking for, I’m not sure, but even though I’m not a very consistent journal keeper, I always know I can go back and find some insight you can only get by...

read more

Comments

Painting what I once most feared.

Painting what I once most feared.

 “Flew The Nest” 18×24, oil on canvas

What do you call a cross between a daydream and a nightmare? Whatever the word is, I had a recurring one when I was a kid. I would often imagine that I had a very rare disease that unbeknownst to me made all my thoughts audible to other people. My parents, having been told about the disease from doctors and knowing it would prevent me from functioning in the world if I knew about it, conspired with the whole community to keep it a secret from me. Laws were passed that stated no one could so much as lift an eyebrow to react to whatever they heard in my thoughts no matter how crazy, funny, outrageous, or ridiculous. There was no hiding anything from anyone. I was thoroughly and perpetually exposed, and, in the world of the dream, just beginning to realize it. 

I’m not sure exactly why I let this dream play out so many times other than I felt sure that the most terrifying thing in the world would be to have my innermost thoughts exposed with no ability to filter, control, edit, or even misrepresent them. 

Lately I’ve been painting women with, for lack of a more eloquent way to say it, “stuff” on their heads. When people ask, I tell them all that “stuff” is their thoughts. It’s always just a touch chaotic even when it’s blooming or beautiful. 

It occurred to me recently that, in a way, I’ve been illustrating one of my greatest childhood fears– the thoughts are not invisible and stored internally but take on actual shapes and contours that manifest themselves outside the bodies from which they come. They have weight. In “Flew the Nest” in particular, the swirling thoughts started to form what looked like a nest to me. So I, at the very end and without having planned to, painted a hummingbird near where the heart would be. The bird has left the comfortable nest of thoughts. The invisible and abstract have taken shape, have been made visible and concrete. They were let out. Shared.

It turns out, I don’t have the audible-thoughts disease. My thoughts and ideas, like yours, are invisible until I let them out– in a conversation, a look, a gesture, and more often than not, a painting. I get to control when and how and in what context they are revealed. I get to share them when and how I choose to. I’m not a bug, pinned and wriggling on the wall (hat tip, Prufrock) and how good that is. 

I’m learning to have a healthier relationship with my thoughts. In a perfect world, I’d never bury them or let them take over entire canvases. I’d look at them and let them go. I’d share when they beckon and keep them inside when they are content to be there and I am content to host them. The ones that fly the nest would do so without fear or judgment. They would do so with sincerity and kindness.

I didn’t start “Flew the Nest” with any of these ideas about it. They grew as it grew. I very much relate to Joan Didion’s famous line, “I don’t know what I think until I write it down.” So often I can only understand what I’m thinking after I’ve written about it. But before even that, to understand my own interior world, I’ve got one more step before writing. I’ve got to paint about it. 

Not all my paintings make me feel particularly proud, but “Flew the Nest” does. It reminds me of how far I’ve come– from a soft-spoken and reserved child to someone who discovered her strength was located in the very thing she used to most fear– vulnerability. This painting has a gentleness to it I’ve tried to replicate and can’t quite. It went through countless changes, additions, and rounds of scraping off; there was doing and redoing. There are layers. It makes me think. 

If anything in “Flew the Nest” speaks to you, I’d love to know about it in the comments.

Walking around in your underwear (sorta)

Walking around in your underwear (sorta)

It’s why my son says he’s the best runner and world champion marathoner Paula Radcliffe says she has areas where she could really improve. Why kids at lemonade stands brag about their business skills and CEOs of successful companies revamp their entire strategies. 

If we didn’t, in the beginning, believe in our own genius, our own capacity for greatness, I doubt we would ever pursue anything at all. Thank God for blind, ignorant, audacious confidence. Thank God we can so often at least begin with voices more encouraging than we deserve instead of those that tell us “what’s the use” or “this will never work.”

I didn’t take a formal art class until college. I knew so little that I strutted into an art major, confident as my dog in pursuit of a squirrel (don’t tell her she’s 0 for 1,758). In my second year, one of my classmates was preparing for her senior exhibition, which she entitled “Walking Around In Your Underwear,” a phrase our professor would use a lot to describe what it feels like to share your art with others. The thing was, it didn’t feel like that to me at all back then. It felt neither vulnerable nor very personal. It felt more like walking around in my GAP jeans, sweater, and LL bean backpack– nothing too remarkable nor scary about that. 

It’s twenty years later, and I’ve painted more and in more cities in the last few months than I did in all four years of college. And every day when I show up to my newly opened gallery, stride past the hardware store on my way to grab a cappuccino from the coffee shop down the road, I give myself a little pep talk to ward off the insecurities. It’s not that I feel like I’m walking around in my underwear. It’s more like I’m walking around with some enormous and ridiculous hat– one that has the ability to talk and every so often just blurts out some random or incongruent idea at passerbys. My art now feels deeply and unavoidably personal. 

I know so much more now. Namely, that what I don’t know is infinitely bigger than all the things I will ever know or could ever know. That painting each day is acknowledging limitations but also not letting them get the best of me, using them even. It’s acceptance. It’s giving the bird to the idea that what I offer is not good enough to exist, that perfection should precede expression. 

I think that’s the spirit by which this new series was born. The women in these pieces mostly have their eyes covered. Half the time I don’t know where I’m going and despite all the long-term goals I try to make, I often can’t see beyond my next step. I think these pieces are equally about being hidden and standing out, equally about humility and confidence. They are the reflection of a racing mind and an overwhelming peace that presides over the noise. And of course, that peace, for me, quite often looks like a bird. 

This post feels just about as vulnerable as the paintings behind it. But I’ve got this tiny little metaphoric bird ever at my shoulder. She’s part the poems that guide me, my late Aunt Catherine who taught me art and therefore bravery, and part that heavenly peace that surpasses all understanding, the one urging us forward and on and around and about no matter how silly it all feels. 

I am so grateful at this moment for the confidence born of ignorance that propelled me into this new shape-shifting world where I feel less certain of each step and yet more eager to keep taking them. 

I’m getting this small series ready for the gallery (and the site). They will be available Friday, November 26th at 10 am.

A few days ago I shared the piece that starts this post as well as another painting from the series on social media and asked for feedback on what ideas, feelings, or thoughts it conjured for my followers. Having not yet shared this post, which I was working on, I was a little astounded at the answers I got and how deeply they resonated with what I felt about this body of work. You can read some of the responses below and if you aren’t on facebook or instagram, well, first, congratulations! and second, I’d still love your feedback, right here on this old school blog. 

Five Years of Failure and More to Come!

This post is the result of a heart over pouring with gratitude. Where to start. Five years. I’ve been at this five years. An eternity and a microsecond.

When I launched Denise Hopkins Fine Art officially on April 1 of 2014, I was in my early thirties, jobless, broke, and living with my parents for the first time since high school. I wrote the following about the pelican painting I’d just posted:

“I’m beginning my [first] thirty paintings in thirty days with this little guy who is flying on top several failed paintings. I can’t even remember what the surface originally looked like, but I love the way you can see some of the darker layers underneath the yellow/orange/pink in the bottom left corner. I’ve started listening to several artist podcasts lately, and one of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned thus far is that EVERYONE, and I mean EVERYONE, makes bad paintings every now and then. If you use oils, you can wipe the surface clean and start again. But the virtue of acrylic is that it dries so quickly you are left with two options– throw it away or paint over what’s already there. There’s no wiping, scraping. And what’s underneath, the failure, sometimes helps what’s on top, the re-done painting, to succeed. I’m in love with the process of painting because it reflects the process of life. I’m slowly learning the difference between setback and failure. Maybe even the importance of “setback” in the process of success. I’m becoming more and more convinced beauty is often planted in pain, stems from it. Still can’t get away from the image of the pelican– her head turned toward me as she flies against a fiery sky.”

I wish I could count the bad paintings of the last five years, but I swear I’d run out of time. Besides, I still, five years later, love what they do for me. Love that they still create a whole host of interesting surfaces on which I can create, repeatedly teaching me about process, effort, dedication, ego.

I have about three thousand twenty two ideas about the last five years– what I’ve learned and how far I’ve come. I’ve taken to facebook and instagram to thank some of my very first collectors, but for this post, I want to focus on my friend and teacher, failure.

Thank you for all you’ve taught me. The “no’s” that led to “yes’s,” the rejections that turned into awards. Thank you for the roads on which you’ve guided me. Thank you for repeatedly taking my stubborn ego to task, rejecting my insistent “shoulds” and replacing them with “what now’s?” and “what ifs?” Thank you for landing me right here– a million miles travelled and infinity still to go.