Friday, October 5, 2018

Solo



If you’re not an artist, you probably don’t really know why I’d be so excited to have a solo show.  It’s kind of a thing, a landmark moment, a big deal.  It’s something to put on your resume or CV; it’s an honor and an achievement.  It means a gallery owner saw your work as valuable enough to put on their wall for weeks at a time.  And yeah, I’m super excited about all that, but I’m more excited that I get to make a sort of visual journal for anyone who might come see it.  It’s my greatest hits. 

A solo show will mean having 60-75 pieces of my art in one place.  It’s never happened before, even in my basement.  It’s hours and weeks and months of my life.  More, it’s a roadmap to how I think, a chance to connect the dots in what I’ve made.
If you’ve seen the kind of work that I make, you know I’m “diverse.”  In the art world, that’s not necessarily a good thing.   However, if you see enough of my work up on the wall, you can begin to see how they share themes, colors, and movement, even if the materials are different.  An encaustic piece shares the same kind of strokes as an oil on canvas.  A resin construction has the same floral style of an ink on yupo.  Fascination with construction of layers is everywhere.  But I’m starting to sound too artsy.  Let me break it down.

(drum solo)

I’m what you’d call a self-taught artist, although that’s far from what actually happened.  What it really means is I didn’t go to art school.  I was taught by artists in the town where I grew up.  I was in walking distance a pretty good museum.  Summer was longer then (8 lousy weeks for my kids) and I spent quite a bit of it in art class.  I took art in high school.  My awesome neighbor down the street (a professional artist) gave me lessons.  I volunteered teaching art at a half-way house when I was in college.  I painted in my dorm room, in my first apartment, when I rented a room in a stranger’s house.  I created things: a lamp from a vase my cat broke, a shower curtain from laminated poetry, a bed skirt from triangular fabric scraps.  I wrote.  I worked.  I moved.  I read.  I got my MFA.

Wait.  What?  Here’s the bridge. 

Yes, I have an MFA.  It’s a studio art degree, but it is in poetry.  Most people don’t even know it exists, but it is a degree that certifies (?!) that I have spent several years studying the writing of poetry.  We studied structure and history and other famous poets, but we also spent required hours in workshop, listening, critiquing, editing, and putting it all out there.  It was a wonderful time in the company of other people who really think about the world we inhabit.  They sit with it.  Then it comes out in these beautiful, gut-poking, sneaky ways. 

So that’s where I’m coming from when I’m putting this show together.  It’s me, untrained by a system of art.  So, sometimes I use mediums in ways they maybe shouldn’t be used or make shadows the wrong color.  However, it also means I have a way of looking at things as a poet.  I see the underlying structure and how missing a supporting column makes you go back and look at what’s shaky.  I think in building ways, putting unrelated things together to make a metaphor that rings.  I understand juxtaposition, alliteration, and allusion and I paint with them. 

When you look at my encaustics next to my resins, a little piece next to a huge piece, paint next to ink, try to think of them like lines of a poem, or poems in a collection.  Because that’s what they are.  I wrote them into being.  They are how I see things: in pieces, separated, coming back together, everything loosely connected by beauty. 

(That’s my big finish.)

studio visit



The video portion of the interview.  Just so you know, she totally sprung all these questions on me.  Absolutely no prep.  So, just keep that in mind.


Behind the Scenes with Artist Shelley Helms Fleishman

Interview


One of my galleries has been working on my bio and this most of the written portion of the interview:  Me. Art. Nutshell.  

How long have you been doing what you do?  Like, for real?  I think I did my first “holiday market” at my gym in 2014.  I’ve always made things; I’ve always created.  I just haven’t tried to sell stuff to other people.  I’ve made light fixtures and sewing patterns and furniture and paintings for myself.  I’ve always painted.  But just for fun.  Because I liked it.  Not even because I was the best painter.  My brother was always the one who was supposed to be an artist.  He got all the awards when we were kids for his drawings.  We thought he was going to be an architect.  Mice and men.  Mice and men. 

Where did you grow up and where do you live now?  I grew up in Columbus, GA, within walking distance of the Columbus museum.  I took classes there and classes from Marge Tilley who was an artist who lived two houses away.  She was the bomb.  Now I live in Roswell, in one of those older communities with the really weird contemporary houses.  Ugly on the outside, but wonderful space and light on the inside.  My neighborhood is filled with artists of all kinds.  Like a commune, but without nudity and shared farmland. 

Describe any special concepts/techniques/tools/materials that you use.  Oh, honey.  I use everything—I use trash!  I love textures and materials, so I am always buying more things and trying new things.  Right now I am totally in love with encaustics.  I love the naked wood.  I love the smell of melting beeswax.  I love the fire.  I love how the colors move and meld differently with the heat.  I love the satin feel of a finished work, its weight, its subtlety.  IN LOVE.  But it is totally different from painting big with a brush in oil or acrylic on a canvas.  I stand.  I move.  I gesture.  There’s a healing in that, too. 

What makes your art different?  You know, I’m not the best judge of that.  My art is different for me because I make it.  The process challenges and changes me.  I’m both happy and frustrated the whole time I’m working.  I would say it is different because it is a working out of what is in my head.  And I’m pretty sure what is in my head is different from what is in anyone else’s.  

Why did you chose the medium that you use?  Who said I’ve chosen?  I also write.  I write poetry.  And I think it is much the same thing: taking otherwise inexpressible kinds of thoughts and making an observer understand a part of what is inside you.  It is a kind of sharing.  For me, it’s all the same.

Why do you like to make art?  See the previous question.

What or who inspires you?  Nature.  No question.  I see patterns and underlying color.  I see shadow and shape.  I have yet to completely capture how light hits the trees in my backyard, how I see it.   I hope to spend a lifetime trying. 

What does your art signify or represent?  It is simultaneously a simplification and a study in the complexity of texture.  The simplification is often shape, sometimes color and light.  It is our fascination with layers of paint on old buildings and the millions of colors in a plain, old brown leaf. 

What subjects do you prefer?  Why?  I prefer abstracts right now because they are the flowers, the cells of the flowers, the movement of the flowers, the competition of the flower against the negative space of the background.  All of it. 

Describe your art in one word.  Exploratory.

What are your goals and aspirations as an artist?  This is complicated.  I want a certain level of success – financial success – so that I can keep doing this.  It is hard to be a constant draw on the family bank account.  But that’s not really the reason we create.  Artistic ambition is a weird mix of immediate gratification, expression, ego, and philosophical interpretation of the human condition.  We create to show we feel and see.  We create to understand what we feel and see.  We create to help others feel and see.  But we don’t mind a pat on the back from time to time.  I’d like to have a daily practice where I can create without worrying about selling art, to make what I feel like making (and a few challenging commissions from time to time) and to know that it won’t languish in my basement forever after.  I want it out there, appreciated, valued, bringing joy. 

What path brought you to be an artist?  My path is long and winding.  It includes a certain level of self-awareness and a true and driving need to do something for myself.  I’ve had many careers: gerontological social worker, network administrator, application developer, college instructor, group fitness instructor, free-lance writer. Being an artist allows me to have a new path every day. 

What do people say about your work?  I have no idea.  I’ve often wanted to be a fly on the wall.

What excites you about your work?  The tactile creation of things is amazing.  I’ve always admired construction workers and plumbers and metal workers for being able to make things that weren’t there the day before and that stand after they are gone.  To be able to put your hands onto something and make a new thing is absolutely the best.

Where can we find you when you are not working?  Shuttling children.  Sigh.

Share your educational background.  Well, I went to SMU for undergrad.  Graduated with a degree in Psychology and English with a concentration in creative writing, a minor in Economics.  I went to grad school at Washington University for an MSW but never finished.  I came back to GA, worked in IT for 7-8 years and started going back to school at night for an MFA in poetry at GSU.  Got married.  Finished the degree by the time I had my first.  Taught a bit at GSU and Spelman – basic English courses and workshops for their writing centers/freshman seminars.  Haven’t been to school in a while.  Miss it. 

Anything else you like to tell people?  Thanks for listening.


Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Wings


Sometimes I wonder what I am doing.  You know, with parenthood, with trying to be a fully realized person, with art.  There are SO MANY artists out there, so many wonderful, talented, driven artists with really great hair and darling babies and so much more energy than I have.  I scroll through Instagram and depress myself with all the people I follow who A) make a new painting every day --or like 3 new paintings--or B) just have talent oozing from their golden fingertips like they’ve eaten Midas. 

Then I make something that I think is really cool.  Like today.

Actually this isn’t something I made today, it is something that became fully realized today.  Or almost.  I still have a little “finishing” to do.  But, people!  It happened.  I brought some things together that didn’t go together before.  I had a problem inside an idea and I solved it.  It looks pretty.  It means something.  It WORKED.

If I were in better shape I’d be jumping up and down.

Can I tell you about it?

It’s called Flight Pattern.  Or Flight Path.  Still thinking. 

It started a year ago as a coaster – or really a remnant of resin from another project.  I had a little square silicon mold and I poured the leftover resin in it, then added some thematic elements: a wing, an owl face, some feathery ruffles, the word “flight”, a little gold.  It was cool.  No idea what I was going to do with it. 

The next time I had some resin leftover, I made another.  They developed in theme.  They were all girl power.  They had feathers and wings and metals and words about the future and flying and… girls.  Every one different. 

They weren’t even my colors.  I didn’t have a plan.  Every now and then I’d take them out and think about what they could do. 

Turns out they were lousy coasters – too uneven.  They became “tiles.”

But a funny thing happened.  They started to mean something.  I realized I was putting together little snapshots of girlhood and feminism. 

It is not new for me to struggle with how being a woman looks for me and what that means for my daughter.  I still have all the hang-ups of wanting my child to be polite and sweet, but I have seen the TED talk and the articles about how that parenting approach only ensures that she will be left behind after elementary school and trained to only follow the rules, never to push them.  She’ll be well-behaved, but never fly above expectations.  I don’t want that.  That’s what happened to me.  I want something different for her.  She’s funny and so very, very people smart in a way that I never was.  I want to praise her crazy-strong body and her loud voice, her chance-taking and her questions.  And even in wanting those things, I hold her back in little ways.  That’s on me.  It doesn’t mean I don’t see and appreciate the fierce joy and possibilities that her self holds.  I do, but I'm not always the best at fostering them.  I’m learning that I’m not going to be the one that is able to teach her how to go beyond.  I only have to get out of her way so she can rise.  All that.  Tile by tile.  A little gold.  A butterfly we found on the front porch.  Some darkness, some places clear. 

Still, these thoughts were a stack of tiles, connected in color and theme, but going nowhere. 

Then my mother-in-law brought me some ceramic pieces from a totem she made for her garden.  And I started thinking structurally, how I could connect her pieces into a hanging sculpture, or a resin piece that would echo the circle and line abstract work I’ve been doing.  And in thinking about how I could make a piece for her ceramics, I thought maybe I could make a piece for the girl tiles.

I turned a deep panel over and painted it and poured clear resin, then added a path in copper and white and blacks.  It sunk and moved as it took two days to harden, but turned out pretty cool.  Now, how to attach the tiles?  I was initially thinking I would drill a hole in the resin and hammer in pegs, but I went to Home Depot to see if I could find something better than just pegs.  I did.  I have no idea what they do in real life, but they are these little copper tubes that flare a bit on one end – just enough to hold if I poured another layer of resin, which I did.  First I had to mark where I wanted the tiles and make sure the pegs would stay in the tiles.  Found the right drill bit to keep the tiles on the copper pegs, and… (angels singing.)

I mean.  I just love this stuff.  It’s a weird sort of problem solving, making something like this.  It has absolutely no purpose, other than depicting my own sort of feminism motherhood journey. (The path goes down, gets dark, then goes up.)  The tiles are even interchangeable; it doesn’t have to be MY journey.  But dang.  I just love it so much.  It’s like pulling out thoughts I didn’t even know I had and making them physical.  That has to mean something, right?  Being able to say something with things? 

Maybe someday, when my girl and I can’t stand even looking at each other and she doesn’t think I understand a single thing about her life, maybe something I make will have a voice she can hear.  Maybe she’ll see herself in the skateboarding silhouette or the “future interests” I have sharing space with music in this piece.

Maybe she’ll understand we both make our own paths, but I tried to let her fly. 


Friday, August 10, 2018

Encaustic?


This is not an essay about life. It’s a straight-forward explanation of one of the ways I paint. When I talk about what I do, most people don’t know what I mean when I say “encaustic.” Some of them don’t know what it is, but don’t want to ask. If that’s you, then here’s the answer to the question: “Encaustic? What’s that?”


Basically it is painting with wax. Just like oil paintings are made with pigments suspended in oil and acrylic paintings have a base of plastic, encaustic paintings have a wax medium. It is different because the mixture of encaustic medium (beeswax and tree resin) has to be kept on a heated surface and painted quickly, before it re-hardens. Each layer is reheated with a heat gun or blowtorch so the layers fuse together. Otherwise, the wax would eventually just separate from itself and its support.

Lately, I’ve been making my own medium at home. I still have to order the refined beeswax and damar (the tree resin) from the internet or the art store, but I can customize the ratio of beeswax to damar if I make it myself. It requires a pot and a ladle that you never have to use again for anything else, a heat source, and silicon muffin molds for keeping the medium in a useable size once it cools. Crush and melt the damar first – it takes a while – and then mix the beeswax into the damar. When I’m painting, I melt the medium down in little tins on a hotplate – the same kind you use to make pancakes – and I can mix colors in the tins or on the surface of the hotplate.

For me, the exciting thing about encaustic work is the variety of ways you can use it. It can have many, many layers, but the wax stays somewhat transparent, so the depth is fantastic. You can color the wax with dry pigments and mix your own, buy bricks of very intense colors, or mix in oils (as long as you don’t overheat them -- then they become toxic to the artist.) You can transfer charcoal or dry pastels on top of the medium or imbed fabrics, papers, or images. You can dig into the wax to create texture or work for a surface as smooth as a baby’s bum. So. Many. Options.

However, the reason I really keep coming back to encaustic because of the almost meditative nature of this medium. The wax on, wax off (ha!) simplicity of it, with the pause between each layer for heat and smoothing, is a very healing and creative rhythm. It requires a certain level of letting go. Some colors and elements react very differently to heat and may move over the work in unexpected ways. An encaustic artist has to be able to enjoy a little loss of control.

The loss of control is fully balanced by the depth, challenge, excitement, and peace in encaustic work. It’s a marvelous medium, like yoga on a hotplate. Well, without the burns. OK, with some burns. But not on purpose. Anyway, it is amazing. My hope would be that you get to try it some day. In lieu of that, please buy some of mine. Because I want to make more every day. It's that great. Here, have a wax muffin, on me.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

What Listening Looks Like


I don’t think I have ADHD.  I say this having a child who has been diagnosed with ADHD.  I see, outwardly, the manifestations of this thing in him: the constant movement, the need to be focused before he can hear, the inability to filter.

Hmmm.  Maybe I do have ADHD, without the H.  I have no problem sitting still for really long periods of time.  My head, though, my head is always moving.  When I “don’t hear” it just usually means that whoever is talking to me didn’t pull me out of my head before they started talking to me, so I just missed paying attention to the first things they said.  I caught the end.  I mean, my actual hearing is fine.  I’ve had it checked.  Twice.  You just need to call my name and pause until I’m with you.  I can hear you.  Really.

Strangely, this is not what I was going to write about.  I was going to talk about how I can’t seem to settle into one kind of art, one kind of career, one kind of… anything.  But that’s a decent illustration about how I get off on a tangent.  What I’d love to be able show you is that these tangents are all parts of the same thing.  I’m going to try to tell you.

My fascination with art supplies is only rivaled by… every other artist’s fascination with art supplies.  You see it on Instagram all the time – pics of mounds and mounds of new paint tubes or brushes or shipments of canvas.  We all love it.  How could we not?  It represents endless possibilities.  However, I can’t seem to stick to one thing.  I don’t abandon anything completely, but I don’t want to reexamine the examined.  When I say that I mean I don’t want to redo things.  There are lots and lots of artists out there whose work is instantly recognizable because they basically paint the same painting over and over again.  It’s sort of a variation of Monet’s haystacks.  He sat himself in the same spot and painted the same thing, painting it at different times of the day.  These artists are exploring some sort of expression or body or movement over and over. 

That is so hard for me. 

I have found that if I do a work and I feel it is successful, that when I try to do something like it again, it is usually worse than the first one.  I’m not passionate about it.  I’m not feeling it.  I’m not hearing. 

However, if I am saying something with a different material (aha!) then the work can be as interesting and challenging and the end result can be as “good.”

As you can imagine, in my work this looks like a hot mess.  In my studio, too.

When you start to look around, though, it begins to make sense.  I do a flower piece in resin that collects papers and metals and thoughts about selective beauty.  I do a flower piece on canvas with different papers about education and the arts with a really dark back ground.  I do a dark background in encaustic that shows light filtering down.   I do an abstract in oils that explores the light changing from dark to light and the prismatic effect in between.  I do another mixed media piece that has the prismatic effect with elements of flowered papers in different colors that viewed from far away look very neutral. 

Of course, then I make a coffee table and it throws the whole thing off.  But I’m ignoring that right now.  You should too. 

My point is, it’s not different.  Not really.

If you look at my resume, you won’t find this at all surprising.  I went to school for English/Psych and got an Econ minor.  I went to grad school for gerontology/social work.  I got a job in IT, worked help desk, did some network admin work, some coding.  I went back to school for poetry.  I taught at the college level, worked in reading centers.  I had a kid or two.  I taught fitness classes, did some writing on the side.  I started my own business. 

Where’s art?  Art was always there.  It is in the background, in the art supplies I brought to my teeny weeny college dorm and used to make gifts.  It is in the painted television I made for myself in grad school (the first time.)  It’s in the classes I taught at the half-way house where I did coursework.  It’s in the design I built for the website.  It is in the light fixture I made for myself, the painting I made for a friend, the class that I took at the community center.  It is the market that I entered at the gym. 

I forced (or I allowed) art to be a side.  Until now.  Now it is the focus.  I heard it call my name and pause. 

And you know what is great about art?  It doesn’t require that I do the same thing every day.  Clearly, that is not for me.  I have too many interests and too many fairies in my head for me to sit down and explore the same answers to the same projects every day.  Art welcomes my ADHD – or whatever it is – with open arms.  Ultimately, my art exploration has a path.  If you pay attention, that path is a path of learning.  It is learning how materials work, how colors work, how to build, take away, or change. It is exploring. It is paying attention to the world around me and putting it down in another form. 

I think, all along, that’s what I’ve been doing.  Paying attention.  Even if it doesn’t seem like it. 


Monday, August 6, 2018

Wake Up, Becky


I want to talk about Becky. 

Becky is a work of art.  She’s beautiful, graceful, confident, maybe even smart and well-meaning.  Becky is white.  Becky is safe.

Becky is a mixed media piece I made last year and she is a product of some things I’ve been learning about myself and where I fit into the world. 

I know.  I’m too old to be having an adolescent, coming-of-age story.  I’m 45, a little overweight, going gray, can’t see or hear, and smile too much.  But I’m still figuring out where I fit in things.  I don’t think that’s bad.  In fact, that’s one of the things I like most about myself: that I’m still thinking about things, that I’m still looking around and reassessing what I “know.”  Despite how I present myself sometimes, I’m not infallible.  I don’t know everything.  I am wrong.

Josh says I never say it.  But there it is in black and white.  I FEEL it a lot, but I don’t always let it in – I don’t always explore what makes my blood pressure and voice rise in a discussion.  Usually, that means I’m defensive about something.  Granted, I think there is a possibility that those things happen when someone isn’t listening to the points I’m making; however, they can also happen when the points the other person is making are hitting some soft spots. 

Becky is about some seriously soft spots.  It’s really the first time I’ve explored something so directly in my artwork, which I why she gets a feature here. 

Here is your warning.  I’m going to talk about race here.  I’m going to talk about sexism.  I’m going to talk about white women and their role in white supremacy.  If that alone makes your blood pressure rise, well… you might need to stop reading and think about why that is.  You might have some soft spots.  If you’re still with me, great.  Please understand that I made Becky because I have those soft spots.  Not because I’m spot-free.

So, I’m struggling with my spotted self in this spotted world.  My brother and I share this self-examination gene and it often gets us in trouble, because we become mired in blame and disappointment because our expectations are not met in reality.  We analyze how we should be moving through this life pretty harshly.  I don’t think that’s what this is.  I think this is a reflection of what I see going around me and what I want my contributions to be.  It’s about learning.

And nothing’s wrong with learning.  Can’t think of a single thing.  OK.  Except maybe learning too early how horrible people can be.  Clearly that’s not the case here.  I’m way too old to be just getting around to this. 

Really, that’s part of what Becky is.  She is me learning about me.  And she’s me learning about how horrible people can be.  She’s me learning I’m part of how horrible people can be. 

Maybe that’s given you pause.  (And isn’t pausing a wonderful thing?!  That’s another essay.)

Am I saying I’m horrible?  I hope not.  But I’m not independent of all the things that happened before me.  I am dependent on all the things that have happened.  I am where I am because they happened. 

When I say that I mean:

My parents had the right to go to good schools in Alabama in the 50s.

My dad got to go to college and dental school because his parents benefitted from the sharecropper system that allowed them to own and farm land.    

My parents don’t really remember what Birmingham was like in the 60s.

I grew up in small town in Georgia.

I lived in a mostly white neighborhood surrounded by black neighborhoods.

My schools were not segregated, but the social groups were.

I was a debutante.

My family mostly attended Baptist and Southern Baptist churches while I lived at home.

I fill a traditional role in our family, as a SAHM (mostly) and the one who shops, cooks, etc.

Etc., etc., etc.

You probably have the idea.

If you look, these are all facts.  None of them bad, per se.  It is what it is and I am grateful for all the opportunities I have had and have.  I have benefited by these things in my life.  I’ve gotten peace, protection, money, love, inclusion, and… everything. 

BUT

This kind of life ignores – and even encourages – the kind of systems that result in the ugliest things in our society.  Because I have benefited from these ways of doing things, I am a racist.  There, I said it.  It’s kind of freeing.  I am a racist.  I’m not wearing a hood.  I want the best for all kinds of people.  I have a pretty good heart.  However, I’m part of the problem if I am not actively trying to break down some of these systems; that makes me a white supremacist.  I’m figuring out what I’m doing with that.  I won’t go into what charities I give to or where I spend my volunteer hours, but I’m doing something.  It doesn’t change the world, but it changes something, and it changes me. 

And Becky?  Becky is made of album notes.  The artist has a big ol' country beehive with one of those scarves my grandma wore between visits to the salon.  Becky is made of the lyrics to those country song -- racist, sexist songs that I sung without realizing what I romanticizing.  Becky is made of wedding lace and maps of witch country (Salem) between her legs, because I was taught white women are some sort of mysterious vessel.  Becky is made of pictures of buses from the 60s because that is my past’s past.  Becky is made of little white girls who are princesses and little white boys who are cowboys, because those are lives we are taught to emulate.  Becky has a chicken at the pit of her belly because I am scared to be wrong.  Becky has the word “sad” caught in her throat. 

Becky is naked, asleep, blissful, against a dark background, a black garden growing behind her that she doesn’t see. 

I am Becky.  I think that much is clear.  The face even looks like me a little.  I never really intended her to be a self-portrait, but she is in the way that matters.  She is my acknowledgement that I am the product of some sick shit. 

So I met an artist this week, a young artist I found on Instagram (@negress.supreme) who makes beautiful woodcut work of women of color.  She has this way of doing portraits that are looking right at you, so direct.  I told her they make me feel beautifully indicted.  She has this one piece where the woman is made up of motherboards, currents, and code.  It made me think of how we are all influenced by our programming, but it doesn’t MAKE us.  She calls her piece The Architect. 

I made Becky.  She is my programming, my code.  She is my distant and recent past.  She is some of my darkest secrets and regrets.  But Becky doesn’t make me.  I am the architect.  I will make my own choices, my own mistakes.  I will own the ones I’m made in the past (so many) and I will try to do better in the future.  I will make Becky my past self.  I will build the new woman from new pieces, new books, new articles, new hope.  I made Becky.  Now I will unmake Becky.  Wish me luck.