Arts, Farts & Applecarts - Embracing Change

Blog #6 - Embracing (and Understanding) Change

The picture is me, in front of my MFA thesis exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1972. In my last blog post I discussed the importance of consistency in an artist’s body of work. But embracing change is equally important. An artist can get stale and repetitive, cranking out the same kinds of images month after month. The biggest reason for this is success. If the artist’s creations are selling well, that is a strong incentive to continue making them. I have had a lot of success in the last few years with my surrealistic digital paintings on environmental topics. My pictures that feature hot air balloons with houses hanging off of them are some of my best sellers. I’ve actually tried to paint more of these kinds of images, (because they sell) but I’m rarely satisfied with rehashing an idea from the past.

An artist can get too comfortable with the medium as well. I also have an iPad that I paint on. I use a program called Procreate. It’s totally different from the iMac that I use with Photoshop and ArtRage. With Procreate I draw directly on the screen using an Apple iPencil. I have managed to eke out a couple of successful pictures, but I’m still struggling with the interface. It is not yet instinctual for me. I’m constantly fumbling around trying to figure out how to make it do something or other. When I go back to my iMac and the programs I’m most comfortable with, it’s like slipping into an old, comfortable pair of slippers. But I continue to experiment with Procreate and the iPad because the images I am creating on the iPad are very different from the ones I am producing on my iMac. The medium is the message, as Marshal McLuhan says.

I’ve been working digitally for about 12 years but “technology” has been an important element in my work for much longer than that. I remember when I started using technology in my work, both as part of the process and as the subject. Flashback to the 70s as an MFA student in painting at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Back then the Chicago Imagist painters like Ed Paschke and Jim Nutt inspired the work of most of my fellow art students. I tried to fit in, creating agonized figures, mostly tortured by technological elements. But the paintings I produced were imitations. I really didn’t fit in at that school, both stylistically and physically. Remember back then? Hippies? Beatniks? All my fellow students looked like that. I didn’t.

As well as being a full time MFA student, I was an art teacher. Somehow I landed a job as the art supervisor at a south suburban school district. My only teaching experience was one year of teaching art at a high school in a small town near Kankakee the year after I graduated in Painting from the University of Illinois in Urbana. I had no idea what I was doing, or how to teach, but I was put in charge of the art program in eight schools, supervising three other art teachers and responsible for creating an art curriculum for K-6. And, I looked the part. I was (mostly) clean cut and wore a tie most days.

After teaching (or supervising) all day, I would go to my Art Institute MFA studio in an old building on Wabash overlooking the El tracks. Once there, and still wearing my tie, I would try to paint and fit in, but I never did fully bond with my hairy, unkempt fellow students. Even my teachers looked at me with suspicion.

That was my first year of a two year MFA program. Still working as an art teacher, I moved out of my Wabash studio into my own studio (and apartment) in Uptown, Chicago. I totally rejected the imagist style I was, until then, trying to emulate, and went in a completely different direction… the use of technology to produce art. And, so began my Xerography phase.

I noticed that when I made a copy of something on a Xerox machine, the copy was slightly different from the original. There was a tiny bit of distortion caused by the lenses. I found that I could cause interesting abstractions to happen in my drawings by continually copying the copy. As I studied this phenomenon and started making paintings using Xerox machines I actually got Xerox on board to donate the use of their machines in my experimentation. I even corresponded with Marshal McLuhan (the medium is the message) who was doing research of his own on the use of copying machines.

The culmination of my MFA career was my exhibit at the MFA exhibition in the galleries of the Art Institute. I exhibited several large, mostly black on white paintings, of my collaboration with Xerox machines. And I created several “books” that showed the progression of distortion of my images caused by the machines. But, my proudest accomplishment, which I also included in my exhibit, was a typewritten, 30 page scholarly dissertation on the topic of Xerography. I used the distortion process in my presentation of the dissertation. Each of the 30 pages was slightly more distorted by the machine than the previous page. For most of the book, the words were readable, but as you read page by page the words became more and more distorted. By the time you got to the final pages, they became works of Xerographic art… totally unreadable. I loved watching the frustration of people trying to read my dissertation.

I graduated with honors with an MFA in Painting and was awarded a traveling fellowship to Europe. I quit my job as an art supervisor, planning to hit it big in the art world. I got married to Marcia. (I met her when she was a student teacher at the same suburban school district where I worked during my MFA days.) Upon our return from Europe I had exhibitions of my Xerographic art at the First National Bank of Chicago and Deere World Headquarters in Peoria. I continued my experimentation with Xerox machines with a one man show at a new gallery on Ontario Street next to the old Museum of Contemporary Art… the Michael Wyman Gallery. That exhibition was called “My Brother’s Robot,” and featured Xerox aided paintings derived from my drawings of a robot my brother created in his high school days for a science fair project. The exhibition was grossly (and hilariously) misunderstood by Chicago critics, and it resulted in a total of one sale.

Marcia was teaching and supporting us. I continued painting my Xerography paintings, but no one was buying them. I felt guilty about not contributing any money to our household (Marcia’s mother was a little suspicious of my intentions), so I took a job as the art director at a fledgling instructional design company experimenting with video for teaching data processing topics. That’s when my love/hate relationship with technology blossomed and turned into a 20 year career as a media producer. My ambitions of being a professional artist were put on hold while we bought houses and raised children.

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  • Helen Rehn on

    There was a program on NPR talking about a digital painting that sold for millions of dollars. I thought of you. I loved your comment about Marcia’s mom❤️

  • Hillary on

    Did you save any of the “anguished” paintings? So curious! I’d also love to see what those critics said!!!

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