Studio Practice: Working in Series
By Krista Svalbonas
This year I found myself blankly staring at the walls of my studio slightly unnerved and maybe even a little nervous. I had just completed a wonderful collaboration with Lisa Pressman, whose work you will find below, and moved from my urban home in Jersey City minutes away from New York to a very suburban home in rural Pennsylvania, hours away from New York. As I stared at my most recent body of work and looked out of the studio window to see rolling hills instead of rows of buildings, I knew that I needed to start anew. The question was how and where to begin? After a rocky start a new series began to emerge and I found myself asking how other artists start or finish a body of work. What leads them to new territory and to close the door on what is familiar?
Below are excerpts of quotes by various artists in the ProWax Facebook group, as we discussed ending and beginning a body of work.
Pam Farrell : My process is not very linear. I am often working on numerous processes concurrently–for better or for worse. As for the question of doneness, I prefer an ellipse to a period, and think more about pausing in a series than ending it. So much of my work is about ambiguity, and I suppose that extends to the process as well. I’ve become much more comfortable with this open-endedness, though I recognize the very idea could be anathema to some.
David A. Clark : For much of last year I felt that the impulse that had driven much of my previous work was spent and that I was clinging to elements that had passed their usefulness; I was working hard on other things: my health (I had several health challenges last year) and also my work with the museum. With each day that I didn’t fully engage in the studio, I felt like I was moving farther and farther away from the impulses that populated my thoughts until finally one day when I just went in and got to work. I’m glad I got to work. This new stuff I am working on feels like my most organic work. I’m trying to do as much of it as I can. I’m stockpiling supplies, paint and paper. I’m being selfish (the good kind where I take care of myself first) which means blocking out time that is inviolate. And I am working, working, working on recording the impulse that is very fully present now, because I know that it will, at some point in the future, fade. It’s a good impulse, so I want to record as much of it as I can before it goes. It feels greedy and wonderful. The moment when I start to look elsewhere and think, “What’s next?” is the moment when this series will be done, and then it will be time to move on.”
Milisa Galazzi: When I think I am at the end of a series because I have said everything that I thought needed to be said, I stop and step back metaphorically. I really study the work and what I really like about that series or what was particularly successful. Then I take one element from that body of work that I particularly liked or am presently drawn to. Once I sit with that element for a while, I think about a way to ramp up that element: make it bigger, more pronounced, make the work all about that particular element. Sometimes that’s an exciting jumping off point for a new body of work that is still in some ways connected to the last body of work but is new.
Heidi F Beal: I am usually working on a lot of different things at the same time so any of those pieces can take me down a new road. Often themes overlap. I find my themes tend to morph naturally so I don’t find myself planning them out that definitively. But I do know I’m done with a particular series because I just don’t find myself needing to “say it again.” In some cases, I’m so done with it that I’m tired of it. That pretty much lets me know. If I feel I’m in between stuff, I usually use the time to play, putz, putter, edit photography, read, and write. Out of that time, I find myself directed on a new path.
Debra Claffey: For me it’s done when I find myself procrastinating in the studio. If I have to muster up effort to work on the series, it tells me, usually belatedly, that I’m finished and should move on. Then I do as David said, just make something and find out where I’m headed next.
Graceann Warn: I’m in that position right now- ending one big group of works and starting another and this next group will be of a larger scale than usual. I find myself walking around my worktable, staring into space, watching tennis, cleaning and organizing, doing some conjuring. On Saturday, my Paula Roland HotBox arrived and I gave myself the day to play with it. I have no idea where I’m going with it but the surprise elements that came from experimenting somehow loosened my mind up so that now I’m working anew with vigor. I give people this advice (experiment, play) and finally I took it for myself and-wow! That’s been good advice!
Paula Roland: I try to allow myself a period of time to experiment and play without expectations–at least one to two months a year, usually in off-teaching seasons like winter. This time can build on previous series, as well as interests that emerge during the year but are not part of my focused work, or there can be completely new explorations. Most of my series morph one into the other, and the more uninterrupted time I have to work on art, the more the prints and paintings relate even though they are different processes. However, as some have said, when a series is done it is done.
Howard Hersh: I never know how long a series will last. For me, they’ve been anywhere between one and eight years. The current one is always a process of development. Hopefully, new ideas on the backburner will surface as the current series matures. I spend a lot of time staring too, but I do think it’s important to keep making something. In these two paintings, you can see how I’ve transitioned from one series to another.
Cheryl D. McClure: I usually paint something I want to explore more of. It is rare that I plan a series. And when I do, it still evolves as it wishes. I may paint six to eight or into 30-something. I, also, will revisit at a later date.
Joanne Mattera: I like to work in series. My Uttar series lasted for seven years, 2000-2007. I quit at #301. During that period I began another series, Vicolo, which was suggested by the way I scraped the surface of some of the Uttars; it was a smaller series, 65 pieces, but had just as long a run: 2004-2012. About two-thirds of the paintings in both series are 12×12, while the others range from 18×18 to 48×48. Vicolo is finished unless there’s a commission. What kept me at them for so long? Uttar was extremely successful commercially–it was the series that allowed me to give up freelance writing–but I loved making the paintings. Vicolo has a physicality; I responded to the act of digging into the surface. It was a workout.
Silk Road started in 2005 and is ongoing. All of the paintings are small (12×12, 16×16, with 18×18 the largest). They have to remain small because of the nature of the surface. The paint goes from edge to edge in one swipe. I love making them, and because they are commercially successful, particularly with one gallery, I will keep making them until they stop selling. (I make my living from art.)
The new geometric paintings are theoretically limitless in size, because of the way I make them. I am gearing up for big. And varied. I’m responding to the crispness of the taped line.
I think of my oeuvre as coming from a pool of ideas, and that pool is bottomless. The boundaries of what and when are fluid.
Karen Nielsen-Fried: I’m very process-oriented and often don’t know that I’m working on a series until I’m well into it and find that there is a strong impulse to continue the same thought process and work path, so a series comes. And then, one day, I will realize as I begin to work that the idea I’ve been exploring doesn’t intrigue me in the same way, and I know I’m done with it, at least for a while, because my ideas seem to circle around and return to me. If I’m lucky, I will get this ineffable feeling about the “what” that I want to start focusing on, and then my work will be about finding out exactly what it is that I’m trying to get to. It sounds murky, but for me it can be a wordless thought process through which I’m trying to get to my most authentic work; it is about feeling and energy and essence more than conceptual thought. Often it takes lots of bad studio days to figure out my next direction. I will have lots of bad starts and that feels pretty disheartening, but I just keep making things. And I can feel rather bereft when I put a series to rest, or if I’ve delivered new work for a show and am left to try to figure out the next big thing. Days of flipping through sketch journals and reading poems, writing, looking at colors (I have an enormous collection of color swatches from various sources), sitting quietly and staring (YES, I agree that staring into space is a VERY important part of studio practice); all of that helps move me forward. It’s not only about ending/beginning a series, but also about process and what moves process.
Lisa Pressman: I have always worked in a series. It dissolves the preciousness of each piece and always leads to growth and conversation between works. After working for so long now I am not sure a series can be called done. For myself, my vocabulary and imagery spirals around and appears years later, sometimes in surprising ways. That being said, I recently having focused my energy on a single image for two years and feel ready to move on or in through the image. In that sense the series may be on pause. However, I pulled out a selection of works that I thought I were finished and decided it might be interesting to make more work for that particular series. It begins again.
That single image that read as a vessel/bag has now become a Cairn (a pile of stones that marks a place, such as the place where someone is buried or a battle took place) I think of it as marking a place along the journey.
Tracey Adams: I’ve worked in series for many years, cycling through similar shapes (circles, ovoids, rectangles) finding permutations of each to develop and expand the motif. It’s not so much knowing I’m done with a series. I usually return some time later to do further work on that series. I like what Lisa said about putting it on “pause.” I have moments where I become restless and need to explore elsewhere, to deviate from the path. I don’t have an answer for how I start a new series. Last year, I was invited to be Visual Artist this summer at the Music at Menlo Chamber Music Festival. My series, Revolution (2006-2008), was chosen for the poster, concert book, preview flyer, etc. I took that opportunity to return to working on that series. It has taken some interesting twists and turns since I began working on it in December. Red Tide is the latest in the series.
Marilyn Banner: I know when a series is done when I am bored or start to repeat myself or things start feeling stuck or stiff. Sometimes a series goes for two years, sometimes six months or so. To start something new I need to have an idea that excites me, makes me eager to get to work.
Deborah Martin: My work has always evolved around issues – and a series for me is the best way to explore. My last series “Save the Elephants” was prompted by what was happening to these beautiful, sensitive, intelligent creatures. I stopped investigating this when I really couldn’t progress any further. I then returned to my “Gulf of Mexico Series” which explores the continuing damage on the Gulf by the 2011 BP oil spill. Viewers still need to be reminded about the fragility of our environment.
Elise Wagner: My work is not always intended as a series but evolves into them as I work. I start with a loose framework, keeping past themes in mind that I reference in the present. In a way I have several series going on at once. I’m currently titling my new work for my July show and just yesterday saw a link between three of the pieces that will be titled “Astral Transits.”