When a writer pitches a novel to a literary agent, they are often asked between which books their novel would sit on a bookstore shelf. At first glance, this is an annoying question, since it seems driven by market considerations. And writers who let the market influence their own writing may not give themselves the chance to develop a unique and independent voice. Nevertheless, it does seem as important for the writer as it is for the artist to know we don’t exist in a vacuum, that we are in constant dialogue with others before and around us.
These days, one artist I always return to for inspiration is Gaylen Hansen, in whose inner landscapes I feel most at home. Modesty aside, I guess that if my art were a book, at this point in my life I would want it to be shelved between Hansen’s Kernal paintings and the exuberant palette of Niki de Saint Phalle’s early work, and in the immediate vicinity of Roy de Forest, Marc Chagall and Henri Rousseau. Olga Costa wouldn’t be far away either. All of these artists are, or have been, concerned with storytelling as well as with illustrating emotions. Their work conveys a childlike sense of wonder at the world that is playful even as it deals with somber issues. Take for example Gaylen Hansen’s visions of the fears and anxieties that can plague us at night: a wave crashes over the terrified insomniac in The Wave (1999), or giant dark buffalo jump over a person in a tiny bed in Three Buffalo (2000). The buffalo are outlined in black, while the prone figure is indistinct, blurry in a fragile-looking bed. Is he counting buffalo instead of sheep? Or have the sheep turned into a herd of stampeding buffalo in a mockery of the insomniac’s attempt to calm the mind? The painting makes me smile even as I cringe, as do so many of Hansen’s visions. I’ve spent hours staring at his paintings, enchanted by his sensitive use of color, analyzing the contrast between his loose, painterly style and his bold use of line, intrigued by the sometimes frenzied, sometimes distressed expression of the animals that people his canvasses. Magpies, dogs, wolves, horses, cats, salmon and assorted insects interact with each other and with the lone human. When caught in a joyful dance, their smile has a frantic quality that makes you wonder about the strain behind all the fun. Hansen’s alter ego, the Kernal, a character not unlike Don Quijote, appears to be on a quest to explore the natural world: he goes fishing for salmon larger than him, rides through landscapes of wolf-head boulders, dances with cats or engages in a staring contest with a unicorn goat. Like with Don Quijote, we know that his encounters have both a funny, joyful side and a tragic one, and we want to hear the full story.
Ultimately, that’s why I paint: to tell a story. But rather than painting a scene in a story, I want to illustrate the emotion behind it. Illustrator Katherine Dunn says that illustration “not only tells a story, it can create an answer to your own internal mysteries.” Maybe that’s why I want my art to sit next to Gaylen Hansen’s on that proverbial bookshelf. He seems to paint out of a need to grapple with strong emotions, to seek answers to maybe unanswerable questions, and uses relatable, almost archetypal characters to do so.
If you haven't seen Gaylen Hansen's work, take a look using the link below and let me know what you think: https://www.lindahodgesgallery.com/gaylen-hansen
Now, back to the studio.
I have painted and drawn since I was able to hold a pencil, and nothing has ever seemed to me as rife with promise and possibility as the blank canvas. Art has been the constant in my life, even as I changed jobs and cities and passions. Whenever I neglected to paint—during my years on tenure track at the university—I would have a recurring, and obvious, nightmare, in which I let a pet in my care die of starvation. Even though finding time for painting while teaching at the university was always an issue, I never questioned my artistic practice. Art created much-needed balance in my life; it gave me a desired identity beyond that of the stressed-out university professor. In the past several years, however, art has gradually become my central pursuit, my way of being in the world. The pet has turned into a large, ravenous creature, and it has started to ask me uncomfortable questions. How conscious am I really of what I'm doing as an artist? Why bother with art when everything seems to be falling apart around us? What is my social and political responsibility? Do I even have one? What can I hope to achieve as an artist? What does it mean to be an artist in a digitally enhanced world? Who are the artists that shape, and have shaped, my vision? And again: why paint at all?
In the coming weeks and months I’ll be using this blog to grapple with these questions, and, hopefully, to engage you, dear reader, in a conversation. Now, back to the studio.
A little about myself:
Hello there and thank you for visiting my website! I have lived in Spain, Mexico, France and the United States, but now make my home in Germany. I have a Ph.D. in Literary Studies and a Master's in TESOL, and have published several books for children, among them El Loro Tico Tango and El Fandango de Lola, a 2012 Ezra Jack Keats Honor Book. As a writer and an artist I'm in constant conversation with my own anxious mind even as I celebrate the joyful possibilities of our crazy, incomprehensible world.