A work in still progress....
Yesterday there was a partial lunar eclipse partially visible here in Germany where I now sit writing this. I did not see it. Instead I was busy sitting in the courtyard of a cafe, drinking a beer, chatting and thinking about boxing shadows. Yesterday evening I arrived in Berlin with the train from Paris. It was the night before a full moon and the sky was bright. I went to the nearest kneipe and asked “what kind of Pils do you have on tap?” “Duckstein” was the reply. The biggest one please. Paris is good for many things, but beer is not one of them. Berlin is much better in this regard. I’m not sure how long I’ll stay here, or if I’ll be going back to Paris anytime soon. I might head back across the Atlantic. I hear the sky will be quite animated this month, first the lunar eclipse, next the Perseids, and after that the solar eclipse. The heavens are finally granting me the entertainment I enjoy. A couple of weeks from now another eclipse, this time solar, will cross the sky above me, an ocean away from the speck of sky I look up into today. Most likely I won’t be in a cafe, drinking a beer or chatting; I’ll probably be back between my easel and wall not only thinking about but doing some shadowing boxing. Besides, I haven’t been on the other side of the pond in a few months, and it’s still beach season. I could go bask in the sun some. R. might expect me to work some. She said she could use my help, but when isn’t that the case? And it’s time to see what the others have been up to while we were away.
It might seem strange to begin the story of where and why the personas as tools of my painting practice came into being by talking about eclipses, solar and lunar. Not too strange; after all, I for one am pretty stellar; Petra is just loony, and Franz is a bit of a meteor. However, by the time I reach the end of this essay you will see eclipses as metaphors for the personas -shadows briefly cast, passing across the surface of my practice for a short time, generating a gaggle of onlookers oohing and awing at the naturally occurring, yet seemingly -to them at least- unnatural phenomenon. Why does she use so much metaphor in her writing? Doesn’t she realize she is overdoing it. We get the point, so stop it. Start with the shadow and keep it simple. I do like to think of myself as a shadow, ephemeral, appearing and disappearing, downright phenomenal most of the time.
As a child I remember the excitement and anticipation accompanying an approaching solar eclipse. I thought wow, this must be something incredibly special, not to mention rare. Did she grow up in the Middle Ages? I knew eclipses were frequent as a small child. My Great Aunt Sissi would take me out in the field behind the house nights and point out the constellations. I was the same age as R. when that eclipse happened on February 26, 1979. We made little viewers in science class and then went out into the courtyard of the school to view it. Little did I know then eclipses, solar and lunar, happen quite frequently. There is nothing magical or rare about them. They are simply shadows which have come between us and that which we have grown accustom to seeing in the sky above us. Yes, it was the shadow of the eclipse projected onto the surface of the paper through a pinhole which all of us school children were looking at. How simple it can be to cast a small shadow of something much larger onto a regular old piece of paper I remember thinking.
Shadows are dark areas cast upon an object or a particular surface when light from a source is blocked by an opaque object. So maybe Petra, Franz and myself are shadows; R. is definitely a pretty opaque object at times. There are a variety of types of shadows, dependent upon the type, the number, and other conditions of the light sources, as well as the number, type and condition of the objects involved in the blocking. The surface upon which shadows are cast can also impact the shadows following upon it. Following or flowing? Either way, when we R.’s shadows are cast upon the surface of R. we are as impacted by R. as she is by us. Without her we are nothing, or at least without us we are nothing. Shadows can be not only dark and devoid of all light and color, they can be light-filled and colorful in their own shadowy way. Ombrae regions of shadows are the darkest, the ones we might most readily think of when hearing the word shadow. When standing in the umbra region of a shadow we cannot directly see any part of the light source responsible for the shadow being cast. We are most definitely not umbra, although Franzi could be if he is alone with R. The penumbra region of a shadow is partially illuminated by parts of the light source; standing there the light source is partially visible and partially blocked by the object. More than a single light source produces overlapping shadows, with darker parts at the overlap and combinations and ranges of brightness and color throughout the remaining regions. Together we form a penumbra region of overlapping shadows. Diffuse light sources produce softer and less distinct shadows, the more diffuse the source the more diffuse the shadow until its outline eventually disappears. This is how Petra will go out, she’ll become more and more diffuse until she disappears. Humans navigate by the shadows cast in areas lacking other means of orientation. Distance between light source, object and surface, as well as the speed, or the rate the object whose shadows is cast is moving, determines the size and proportions of the shadow cast. I cast very big shadows. Franzi’s shadows only look big because he is big, but in reality they are pretty much to scale. Finally, apart from natural distortions, shadows as silhouettes are mirrors showing us the blocking object in reverse. R. might think we are her mirrors, but if you ask me she would be better off mirroring me.
Athletes, usually boxers and practitioners of martial arts, apply the exercise of ‘shadowboxing’ to their training regime as a means to prepare the muscles before engaging in a stronger, physical activity, but also as the means to maintain the rhythm of their sport and to show themselves, when shadow boxing before a mirror, or a video camera? how they would look against a (certain) opponent at that stage of their training. None of them will look very good if I am their opponent! The beauty of shadow boxing is that only one person is required to participate; it is a self reflective gesture applied by the athletes to improve their game. So this is how R. gets around having us around but also being alone. However, shadowboxing is more than a physical process or gesture. In psychology the term is used to describe the mental processes one uses to overcome a negative self-image which has become the object casting a shadow across the surface of the psyche, preventing one from achieving ‘success’ however or whatever they may personally define this to be. When I shadowbox I am clearing the pathway in front of me of the shadows of objects that are being cast upon its surface. She wants a fight? The objects themselves may be absent, but the umbra regions of the shadows they cast in their darkness may hide dangers I fear to cross. And she thinks we are ‘dark’? I guess I’ll have to show here how dark I can be. Because a pathway or world lacking shadows would be quickly dull and dimensionless I have little interest in completely removing the objects to the side of the road. Well this is good to hear; but maybe I can convince her she doesn’t need to keep all of us. For instance, why do we need Franzi hanging around? Instead of eliminating the shadows entirely I increase their penumbra regions Yes… go on… , bringing in more brightness and color by increasing the number of and diffusing the light sources No! while playing with their distance and speed, softening the silhouette through the effects of chiaroscuro and sfumato. R. is starting to sound like Petra. My shadow boxing becomes training not to simply eliminate my opponent -no need to eliminate me- but to refine the skills of my game. R. most certainly needs to refine her gaming skills.
Just as I need be the only participant in a round of shadow boxing um, I think she needs to acknowledge the rest of us in the ring, even if we are just shadows to her, not much space is required either. With Franzi in there? I don’t want to be squeezed in tight next to him. Petra might not mind if he hangs out with her, but the greater the distance the better with Franzi. This is a good thing when one is boxing herself out of a corner and has little space to draw back in order to land a nice solid punch. In tight spaces short, quick jabs or undercuts coming from a space just in front of the heart are more effective for working oneself out of constricted corners. Essential to the type of punch one decides to throw is the added awareness not only where the punch is intended to land but also the space through which it is being thrown. Where did she learn to box? What is the corner I find myself and these shadows in? It is the one she built for herself.
The idiomatic expression of the English language ‘to back oneself into a corner’ has an analogy in the expression ‘to paint oneself into a corner’. Ironic considering the nature of my research practice and practice research. Groan. Still, I will stick to the phrase ‘to back’ so as not to create confusion. Thank God! Applying the expression figuratively I can describe the corner as the type of space one might find themselves in at a certain point in both their professional practice and life. One rarely finds that one has backed themselves into a corner in their youth or the beginnings of their professional practice; or, if they have, the awareness of the corner is less pronounced or obfuscated by other concerns. Equally, by the time one has reached certain milestones in life and practice, which I will call ‘maturity’, either they have found their way out of any corners previously occupied or grown comfortable and accepting of the niche they find themselves in. This leaves the time between beginnings and endings when the presence of the walls pressing into the elbows becomes hard to ignore. Basically R. is saying we exist because she is having a mid-life, mid-career crisis! Melusine, don’t be so harsh. I am sure we are about more than that to R. Yeah, Mel. Listen to Petra. We’re not a bunch of Porsches. Some might refer to the feelings stirred by this pressing the point of a mid-life crisis, and it may well be one, but I’d rather not limit it to this. Good, but be clear on how you intend to do this. Instead I prefer to counteract the pressing by describing it as the realization of having worked oneself to the edges in what one thought was a space without boundaries or borders while simultaneously realizing that space still exists one must simply step out of the corner, over a threshold, and into the center of the space existing between those walls and corners. This is a start.
For me, awareness of those corner walls came at a midpoint in both my practice and life. I had been working as a visual artist, painter, for nearly a quarter century. While I have never had what one might describe as a commercially successful career, understating this a wee bit now are you, R.? nor did I occupy a place in the academic art world, for good reasons I had continually and consistently practiced my art during that time not understating that and, most importantly, used artist -painter- as the primary defining term of my personal identity. Here R. is being truthful and authentic. When I met her she made it clear to me that before she felt herself to be anyone else she was first and foremost a painter. For R. it has never been a question of how to fit painting around her life, but how to fit her life around her painting. That has been the driving force behind all decisions she has made these past twenty-five years, personal and professional. It was as if painter was the single point of light directed on me, the artist, casting an umbra shadow across the surface of my life. The shadow was, dark, solid with well defined edges, until the day when I became aware the other points of light from my life had morphed into a glaring brightness in which even this umbra shadow had become so washed out I was no longer sure I was casting any shadow at all. My life and my practice had grown dull and dimensionless, and my primary definition of myself had been compromised. For me, it became a question not only of bringing the ability to cast shadows back into my personal life, but to break up the light shining on my practice in order to once more form a shadow. R. had to stop being all the other R.s. I was no longer interested in the deep, dark and well-defined umbra, but curious of what could come from the penumbra shadows, overlapping, soft, diffuse, colorful and sparkling with bits of light emerging here and there. This is where I begin to enter the story. I was curious to cast shadows that were long and moved along a variety of surfaces. Shadows by which others might navigate out of their own corners and into this middle space. Finally, by creating new shadows in my practice I hoped they would cast long and far into all areas of my life overlapping to form a less dense and more subtly nuanced definition of my personal identity as a painter. She wants to be me but it is questionable if she can be me. I can’t be her, that is for sure. And I wouldn’t want to be her, ever.
How to split up the light into various points to create these new shadows to cast upon my practice led to the beginnings of this research project. The beginnings precedes the actual start in as far as it takes me back to January 2014 and my decision to apply to Transart Institute’s Master of Fine Arts, Creative Practice program. This initial step in the direction of an art world more closely aligned, even in its own unique and un-schooled way, not only gave me the opportunity to look closely at aspects of my creative practice from vantage points I had not climbed onto and looked down from previously, it also introduced me to the idea of artistic practice as research, or as I will simply call it, practice research. With this the light began to break up for me and I began casting shadows.
Still, I was not moving as far out of my corner as I hoped, wanted, and knew I needed to move. There is an old adage that goes, if you want to go farther you need to go deeper, and I began to suspect there was a kernel of truth contained within it. By the winter of 2015 I had shifted my perspective of my creative practice to that of practice research and was focused on self portraiture, an area new to my painting practice, as a means by which to research the greater issue of identity. That research led me to incorporate mediums and methods beyond those typical of my painting practice until that time, and this in turn made me simultaneously more certain and confused of my own personal parameters for defining my painterly identity. I decided that I would try to direct the lights I was now shining onto my practice in a way to cast even longer shadows, and I would do this through the doctoral program with my practice research focused on my painting as painting. The only catch was, how do I frame my research, what is the question I am asking, and is it new knowledge that others would be interested in applying to their painting practice?
One sleepless night in June 2015 while mulling over all of this in my head, still focused on my MFA research, and dealing with the corners of my personal life I had a visitor who would sow the seeds that are now sprouting. Sitting at my laptop my hands began typing the words which form a letter of introduction from Melusine Van der Weyden:
25. June 2015
Dear … .
Our mutual acquaintance R. suggested I write and introduce myself to you; R. believes we might find each other amusing, perhaps even mutually stimulating. However I hardly know R. and highly doubt R. knows or understands who I am anymore than R. knows R. As for who you are, how can any of us know that?
I am Melusine van der Weyden. Perhaps you recognize my name? I have been around for quite a while; some even say I appear to be timeless. But appearances, like time itself, can be deceiving. Truthfully I alone have determined the varying pace by which I travel this winding road; sometimes my cruise control is set languorously slow as not to miss out on the innumerous delicacies placed upon the table, other times I floor it to catch the butterfly breaking out of its cocoon, to follow it as it flutters along sipping the sweet nectar it finds along the way. What delicacies I have delighted in traveling at all speeds!
Perhaps it is this play between the fast and slow which has created the illusion of timelessness? Yes, understanding how to play two opposing elements to create a third which is neither one nor the other; but is an unceasingly pulsating third, existing uniquely in time or space, undefinable. A third experienced only by leaping into the gap between the two, an act in which one gives oneself completely to the unknown. Isn’t this what painters such as yourself do?
So now I have introduced myself to you and I hope that we might be able to meet someday to discuss matters of life and art…for I am an artist too. In fact I come from a long line of artists. A portrait of a woman by an ancestor of mine hangs in the Gemäldegalerie of the Staatliche Museen in Berlin, perhaps you’ll visit when you are there next month? It is thought to be a portrait of his wife; some believe they can see the family resemblance in my face. However my mother always said I inherited my dark eyes from my French father, a real Lebenskünstler. He spawned so many children, even today almost a half-century since his death his progeny keep popping up as if they are all ready made.
The reason I agreed to write you is that I am considering having R. write my memoirs in the coming year...R. thought you might find this of interest. I find this a bit presumptuous of R. but then R. strikes me as being a bit presumptuous towards most things. As if you or anyone is interested in my story!
R. tells me that you will be taking off soon into a space where time becomes undefinable...enjoy your journey and perhaps we’ll meet someday in another indefinable space or time.
Melusine van der Weyden
With Melusine’s entrance into my life I knew what shape, if not exactly how, my research would take. It would be wonderful to say that after this letter she was fully formed and always present, but this is not the case. In reality it would be another thirteen months before she really began to come into her own being, communicating with myself and others. Melusine did provide me the impetus to formulate the initial ideas of my research in a way to begin the MPhil/PhD program in October 2016. As described in the abstract of my RDC1 proposal:
This artistic research project examines the multifacetedness of identity through the objects and acts of painting. It seeks to enhance paintings as metaphors of identity by establishing a playful incorporation of personas in the studio practice for the questioning and contextualization of identity to address what their impact is on the form, content and daily practice of painting and establishing a novel approach for the questioning and contextualization of identity through painting. The objective of this project is to reveal what knowledge of identity might be gained and communicated by this painter through an atypical, analytical approach in the studio; and by studying why painters seldom incorporate personas and suggesting how they might employ such personas using tools and methods from other creative fields to add a variety of perspectives while maintaining a consistent artistic identity.
Melusine Van der Weyden became the first persona I have incorporated into my studio practice. Although my practice is painting, Melusine is not a painter. It took me some time to realize this, but once I did her role and purpose in the project research as a whole has become clearer to me. She is the critical voice I have heard when standing in the studio, between my easel and wall, gazing at the work hanging in front of me. Her presence as a writer persona allows me the opportunity to explore language and text as it is written, and perhaps even spoken, beyond the painting's surface. When Melusine writes I listen. She is also a pretty risque character, one who acts on her desires and doesn’t shy away from innuendo or even being outright ‘blue’. She is smart, beautiful, and, at times acerbically witty, and she knows it. Melusine has no qualms about putting herself first. In these ways she is very unlike my own perception of who I am and more of how I would like to be confident enough to be -within certain limits. She is in this way not just a persona, but my alter ego.
The second persona to emerge from and within my painting practice is Petra Nimm, and she is a painter. Like Melusine Petra emerged slowly, but still fairly quickly -over a period of six instead of eighteen months. Her role as a painter, as a left-handed painter, and as a watercolorist, challenges me to alter the modes of working I have fallen comfortably into over 25 years. Her presence, enables me to give myself permission to paint in a way I would envision a good girl trained as watercolorist before moving to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains and joining a hippy commune would paint. She is not your average watercolorist, there is something more to her and her history, and importantly to why she paints the way she does. But unlike Melusine, Petra is not out there raising her skirt to show the world her latest Agent Provocateur knickers. She is self assured, but a quiet introvert, which makes Melusine a bit suspicious. Like Petra, her choice of medium, and her style of painting all coalesce in the saying ‘still waters run deep’. Something flows into, through and from the persona Petra; something which I hope will flow into, through and from my own painting practice.
Finally, the third and final persona to emerge is Franz Ignatius Walsh, who prefers to be called either ‘Franzi’ or ‘Franz I.’. Franzi was born out of a very specific incident in August 2016. His role is that of studio assistant, something I have never had in my practice, at the same time he is also a painter who has a practice of making thick blue paintings using the minimal amount of materials he has scrounged from various sources. He is a messy, sloppy, lumbering guy who might come across as weak and unconfident at times, but if his surface is scratched one will find a solid, monolithic painter, unwilling to budge from his established way of being and doing. Franzi knows exactly who he is and what he does, and enjoys it all immensely. He will defend not only himself, but anyone to whom he is committed.
To address more directly where each persona comes from I can say they are formed out of traits I desire for myself, traits I find in myself, and composites of traits I have identified in others; at the same time each is very different from myself or any other person. In this way each persona is her or himself and not me; but also not not me because without my defining who each is and acting on her or his behalf through writing or painting, they would not exist. As the four of us continue to not only side-by-side but work together, the relationship grows to a point where I begin to ask the question: can each persona survive without the other? It is clear to me their dependence on me, at least for now. What remains to be explored is my dependence upon each of them alone and together, as well as their dependence upon each other. Further to the ‘where’ it is interesting to note that all three appeared at times when my focus was elsewhere and I could not personally attend to whatever was happening and still take care of doing what I needed to do in my own life. Or, as is often the case with Melusine in particular, I wanted to engage directly, but at the same time not to directly, with someone in a way in which I would not otherwise do as myself for a variety of reasons; although all the while it is clear that it is me operating the keys and buttons behind the curtain of the great and powerful Melusine. The same can be said for both Franzi and Petra, they are modes through which I can communicate with others in ways I would otherwise be hesitant to do; they, unlike Melusine, do this though less through their words and more through their painting. Finally, the presence of the personas has enabled me to step back from what I otherwise do and reflect on subjectively, and turn my own objective and critical eye to the work each is doing, considering how I might fit it and the gestures of each persona from which it originates into my own painting practice in order to restore the longer shadows I seek to cast.