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Madison MondayMindful Thoughts

Madison Monday: Our local art scene and lessons from a self-portrait

By January 31, 20115 Comments
Galatea’s Art Supply Store

You might be surprised at the scope and variety of the art scene in Madison given the size of our town and its location (not being in France or New York or the Southwest or whatever particular location you associate with art). Nonetheless, I’ve found that if you turn over a rock in Madison, there very well might be an artist underneath. I won’t speculate on what they might be doing under the rock, but I feel certain it would be artistic.

We have several galleries (an exact number is hard to come by, as they come and go and some are multi-functional), including the Artisan’s Gallery in Madison Table Works, the recently relocated gallery of the Madison Art Club at the corner of 2nd and Jefferson, and the West St. Art Center (aka The Feed Mill) where local artists gather on Tuesday evenings to paint. I have a soft spot for the West St. Art Center/Feed Mill, as its where I got hitched, against the backdrop of many nudes and a big beautiful trio of portraits of the Marx brothers. Up the road, we have Hanover College Greiner Art Gallery, curated by my good friend and sculptor Leticia Bajuyo. The works of local artists are also scattered around town in frame stores, bars, coffee shops, the sides of buildings, and along the riverfront. So it’s nice that most recently we added an art supply store as well, Galatea’s Art Supplies on Mulberry St. Our purveyor of art supplies is Amy, and starting this month, she organized a slate of art classes out of her store, ranging from cartooning to oil painting, to linoleum block printing and calligraphy.

Bottom line, if you’re looking for a small town with a fairly high per capita artist population, Madison is for you. I would hardly count myself among this burgeoning population, but I did sign myself up for one of Amy’s oil painting classes this month, the last of which we had today. And if this comes off sounding like a ringing endorsement of Amy’s classes, that’s alright, but here are some of the interesting things I learned (because when it comes to painting, I don’t know much). Also, the next round of classes at Galatea’s will be coming soon!

Lesson One: Paint like you write. Painting is like writing, in that it behooves you to just get some shit on the page/canvas and worry about what it looks/sounds like afterwards. As an academic, I’ve spent quite a bit of time writing, including a 200 page dissertation and more recently, a 568 sociology of gender textbook. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned about writing is the importance of revision. Revision frees you because it means in the initial stages, you’re just vomiting stuff onto the page. I frequently use this vomiting metaphor, I think because sometimes getting it out can feel like that…projectile. If you don’t just get some shit on the page, you won’t write, or at least I won’t write. I will sit and debate about what the absolute perfect way to say something is, and then I will write nothing.

Bernard, the art dog

Who knew this is also true about painting? Amy, and probably a whole bunch of other painters, did. Amy kept telling me to just put some paint on the canvas, and I kept shrinking from it, thinking to myself, “But it’s not perfect.” The beauty of oil painting is that, like writing, you can move shit around, scrape it off, and start over. And what’s more, sometimes in the fiddling and the messing up, you find something that actually works really well. I’m sure this is nothing new to many artists out there, but was something of a revelation to me.

Lesson Two:  Eyes are stupid. Yet another thing that I knew, but didn’t really know. I remember an optometrist taking a picture of my retina which I could then see on the computer screen. If you’ve seen a retina, you’ll see a network of capillaries laid across it. If you think of the retina as a projection screen, these capillaries are laying across the top of the screen like electrical cords. But when you “see” the world, you don’t see that network of capillaries as black lines across everything. I asked my optometrist why not and he told me your brain just makes the rest of it up. We don’t see in all those spaces where our capillaries are lying on top of our retina, but our brain just fills in the blanks.

Oh, Van Gog’s irises

Painting, it seems to me, kind of relies on the tendency of our brains to just make stuff up. Specifically, it relies on the brain’s tendency to try and make pictures out of what is really a collection of various colors and shapes. If you’ve looked at any great work of art in a museum up close, you’ve seen this. If you stand right in front of Van Gogh’s irises, they’re nothing but an incoherent collection of blobs. Well, this works for your own painting, too! Who’d have thought? And even shape isn’t so important as compared to light, dark and color. Thank god for the stupidity of our eyes (and to be fair, mostly our brains).

Lesson Three: Never decide that you can’t do something. Until a week ago, I had never, ever attempted to portray a human face. Okay, that’s not absolutely true. But the attempts had always felt so painful to look at that I just gave up. And I’ve seen many a misguided attempt at self-portraits and faces. At some point I said to myself, “You can’t really paint faces. So just don’t.” I was trying to subtly steer Amy away from self-portraits, but sure enough, when I came in last week, she had mirrors set up on our easels. Luckily, one of my personal commandments for my happiness project is “Step outside your comfort zone.” So I reluctantly dove into the self-portrait.

My (unfinished) self-portrait…
I can’t tell which eye looks better,
though they don’t currently match

It was not pretty, and I’m not even talking here about the painting. What was not pretty was my level of frustration and unhappiness with the whole process, and especially the product. It didn’t look much like a human, let alone the human called me. I stared at my painting and my painting stared back at me and neither of us were very happy. I had run smack dab into the wall of believing that you cannot do something (I wonder if believing you can do something is as dangerous, and I’m inclined to think the answer is, no).

This morning, Amy made me work on the self-portrait yet again, as I hadn’t had time to properly dispose of the damn thing. But in the intervening week, I had spent a lot of time looking at my face as essentially a collection of different colors, and I found this was a rather liberating way to think about one’s face. So I sat down again and just looked at what was light and what was dark, what was warm and what was cool. I tried to see my face as its constituent parts, rather than as the whole, that whole carrying with it its own emotional baggage. I changed my eyes and moved my chin (because I had already learned that you can do that with painting, just like you can with writing). And gradually, two things happened.

First, I actually started to enjoy painting. I realized that if I goofed up, it could be saved. I could move my nose and move my nose yet again. That was alright. And I realized that seeing the world in this way, as collections of light and dark and color, was pretty cool. Second, the image in front of me actually started to look vaguely human and just a little bit like me. You can judge for yourself, but it got close enough in moments for me to say to myself, “You can, in fact, paint a face.” My decision that this was something I could not do was, after all, premature. I’m not saying there’s not more work to be done, but it should be moved out of the “can’t do” category.

I should add that this was also something I already knew. When I was a kid and would come to my dad with the next thing I wanted to do or be (a tennis player, a photographer, an actor) he would nod his head and say, “Yeh, you can do that. You can learn that.” There was always an emphasis on “learn” that made me think there were a whole bunch of other things out there that I couldn’t learn, but that this, this thing, boy, was I lucky, could be learned! It’s sad that I forgot that lesson my dad tried to teach me somewhere along the way.

Mary Cassatt, the artistic cat at Galatea’s

So as with any great class, the things I learned in oil painting were not all about oil painting. Why do we decide we can’t do things? It’s fine to decide we don’t want to do things, and maybe sometimes we get those two confused. But it seems you should be trying for a very long time before you decide you really and truly can’t do something, and how many of us make that effort before we give up?

If you have made it this far through this rather windy entry, I feel compelled to apologize for tricking you into reading a blog entry that was supposed to be about Madison and turned out to really be all about me. There’s a kind of anthropology called auto-ethnography in which some anthropologists have decided that you can never really know the “Other” (fill in Native Americans, tribal New Guineans, Aborigines, etc.) and so shouldn’t even try. All you’re ever really doing is studying yourself, so why not just do that? So I could call this auto-ethnography–I’m telling you about Madison through telling you about myself. But instead I’ll just promise that next week they’ll be less me and more Madison.


  • Robyn, I enjoyed your musings muchly. I'm forwarding it to my husband, who teaches art, because I think there is a lot of good stuff in there. May his students read it?

  • Robyn says:

    Sure, Emily. I'm sure there's some research out there on how our brain gets in the way of our attempts to paint as beginners. Or maybe it's our long history with coloring books, I don't know. Glad you enjoyed it.

  • Excellent scatological metaphor! Just get it down there and worry about perfection later – as you say, it works as well for writing as painting.

    When I had some painting lessons I was told to cover the canvas in paint, and then work on the lines, and bringing it into focus. I love that bit, when it doesn't matter whether it works or not!

    I also love to write in a visual, painterly way because that seems to me the easiest way to try to involve the reader, but that's another matter…

  • Amy says:

    Robyn, I can’t believe I just stumbled upon this! It’s really interesting to here what you took away from the class. I plan on painting in the mornings and you’re more than welcome to come along to different spots around madison! What a fantastic blog!

    • Robyn Ryle says:

      I should’ve sent you the link ages ago, Amy, but glad you found it. I might take you up on the offer for some morning painting sometime. Thanks again for the great class.

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