Tag Archives: Thirty in Thirty

Thirty-in-Thirty: Day Four . . .

ⓒ 2013 michaela harlow - thirty-in-thirtyWinter Pool I ⓒ 2013 Michaela Harlow – 14″ x 17″ – Pastel & Pencil on Paper

Thirty-in-Thirty continues with the start of a new series today. Having cut many saplings on the hillside slopes this fall, there are brush piles and branches scattered about, emerging from ice and snow. The native cherry trees have a glossy, red-brown bark; beautiful piled atop grey beech with their peachy, bleached leaves. I felt guilty for not finishing my autumn clean up by burning all piles. But in addition to providing inspiration for paintings, they’ve also become a haven for winter birds, squirrels and stealthy red fox.

An early start today means an early finish. Enough time left for a run into Brattleboro or perhaps even Northampton, to shop for needed supplies . . .

ⓒ 2013 - michaela harlow - thirty-in-thirty studio light

ⓒ 2013 michaela harlowWinter Pool I ⓒ 2013 Michaela Harlow – 14″ x 17″ – Pastel & Pencil on Paper

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Thirty in Thirty. Wrap Up: Restocking, Reflecting & Moving Forward…

Shopping Day…

After running on empty for far too many days –and procrastinating for almost a week– I forced myself off the mountain and down into civilization. There I found what I needed: turpentine, permalba, ivory soap and Aqua Net.

No. I’m not switching careers. Aqua Net is actually a great fixative for pastels, and although it stinks, it’s much less toxic than the workable fixative I used to employ. It’s pretty hard to find Aqua Net these days though. And I think —save some 80s hairband reunions, and perhaps a few octogenarians— I may be their last customer. Someone in Rite Aid is now looking at an inventory sheet, wondering if there is a Kiss concert in Keene, New Hampshire.

I thought I might reflect a bit on “Thirty in Thirty”, and what it was like to make it through the self-challenge.

1) Challenging! First of all, I admit that it was much harder than I thought it would be. But that’s good. It was hard to post something every single day. But, getting into shape can be a little bit difficult, and sometimes painful. In the end, some interesting things happened over the course of thirty studio days.

2) Productivity: It was an amazing work month. I  finished many unfinished pieces, and I started and completed a number of new pieces. I like that.

3) Structure: Through this exercise, I realized that for me, any kind of structure is actually more helpful than harmful; even self-imposed deadlines and rules can work if you make yourself somehow accountable. This is really important for me, because there are many things competing for my time and attention, and my artwork must always be my highest priority.

4) Organization: I found myself thinking about how I work in a way that I’ve never done before. My thoughts centered not so much my artistic process, but on my space and ways in which I can make things easier for myself. Some things came up that I want to address right away; like finding new ways of organizing and separating office space from work area.

4) Music: I love it. I need it. I want to improve my studio sound system. I can’t imagine working without music.

5) Support and Community:  It really mattered to me when I heard from friends via email and on various social sites, cheering me on. Studios are lonely places. And much as I am a lone wolf, I also need the pack more than I realized. I need to make it a point to get out and get together with my artist friends, see shows, and breathe life into my world.

So, thank you friends. Thank you for your words of encouragement, music recommendations and for following along.

Onto a new month, a new year, and a whole lot of new artwork. I will be committing to two posts a week in the month of February, and setting some more normal studio hours!

Phew. Good bye Thirty in Thirty!


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Thirty in Thirty. Day Twenty Eight: The Beginning & Mexico…

“The Flower Vendor” Diego Rivera 1941

People sometimes ask me if I can remember the moment when I first realized that I am artist. It’s a good question, and one many artists are asked. On one level, that could be tough to answer, because I honestly can’t remember a time when drawing and painting and cutting and pasting and making weren’t a part of my life. I have been creating art ever since I could hold a crayon. But engaging in an activity, and realizing that it is your calling, are two entirely different things. I have been thinking a great deal about what art means to me lately, and I decided to share part of the story here today. I will write more about the subject next month, when I switch to a different theme in my studio journal.

For me, the moment of realization came at the age of 12. When I was in elementary school, I travelled to Mexico City, Mexico, as an exchange student. It was the first extended period I’d spent away from my family. And while a bit frightening, at the same time it was also the most thrilling experience of my young life. I stayed with a host family in the very heart of the city. They were very excited to have a little American girl staying with them, and they planned our days according to my interests. I couldn’t have been more than 48 hours into my trip when I pulled out my sketch pad and pencils. We were visiting one of the sites in the city, nothing major or particularly memorable, except that there were some carved birds that caught my eye and I wanted to make a drawing to remember them. My hosts had stopped for lunch and I began sketching. I remember feeling the distinct sensation of being watched, and when I looked up, all of their eyes were glued to me and my drawing. I felt self-conscious and started to close my notebook. But my exchange mother stopped me, and she was smiling. They were all smiling. “Usted es artista”, “You are an artist”, she said, “That is a great gift”.

Diego Rivera’s historic mural at the National Palace in Mexico City (photo: Wikimedia Commons – click image for link). I saw this, among other works when I was 12. When I returned home, I began painting murals on the walls of my family’s cellar (I lead my much better behaved sister into this forbidden activity as well). At first I got into trouble for my graffiti, but eventually my parents gave in; allowing us to completely fill the walls with drawings and paintings. They are probably still there —beneath studded walls and sheetrock— in the present owner’s finished cellar.

I was twelve years old, and in spite of the fact that I was already compulsively creating art, no one in the US had ever said that to me before (at home or in school). I don’t think I really knew what it meant —to be an artist— but I got the sense that to my exchange family, artists were very important people, at least in Mexico. From that moment on, art museums, exhibits and tours became the central focus of our itinerary. They recognized, acknowledged and responded to a part of me that no one had ever noticed before. It was as if a door opened up on that day, and they lead me through it. It was an incredible act of generosity. And yet to them, it was merely an observation ,and a matter of fact. The Mexican culture values art and artists. I learned this major cultural lesson within my first two days in their country.

I saw the work of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo for the first time while I was in Mexico City. We visited the museums containing both artist’s work, as well as the childhood home and place where Frida Kahlo died (Casa Azul). My family took me on day trips to artist villages in the mountains, and an extended vacation to the town of Puerto Vallarta, where the Malecon and sculpture walk were beginning to take shape. I returned to Puerto Vallarta as an adult in the late 90s, and those early memories came back to life.

Casa Azul – The home of Frida Kahlo, where she grew up, lived in the latter part of her life and died. The house became a museum in 1958. I visited when I was 12 years old, during my visit as an exchange student to Mexico City in the 1980s. The way Mexican artists lived, and the way society viewed them, made a strong impression.

I have been thinking a lot about my time in time in Mexico. My memories were stirred earlier this week, when a new friend described some of her early art experiences in Spain, including the discovery of her chosen medium. I wonder how many artists discover their calling —or develop an unseen side of it— while traveling outside of their own country. Or more to the point, I wonder how many Americans need to travel outside of the United States to discover that they are artists, or discover their medium. I wonder how many artists are fortunate enough to have their talents recognized and encouraged at a young age by astute and sensitive adults. Finding and honoring your gifts is an important part of life. Perhaps our culture could learn a few things from our neighbors to the south…

“La Nostalgia” Ramiz Barquet 1984 (Photo ⓒ Shelby Karns via Puerto Vallarta Culture Pulse). Barquet’s “La Nostalgia” is one of my favorite pieces of three dimensional work on the Malecon. I was fortunate to meet Ramiz –and pay a visit to his studio– in 1998 when I returned to Puerto Vallarta, for the first time as an adult. His workspace was filled with plants and comfortable chairs, and it felt like home.

“La Rotunda del Mar” Alejandro Colunga 1997 (Photo ⓒ Shelby Karns via Puerto Vallarta Culture Pulse). Colunga’s “La Rotunda del Mar” is my undeniable favorite work of art in Puerto Vallarta. I love everything about this piece. Each of the characters in Alejandro’s group of sculptures has been transformed into a chair. They are wonderfully smooth —worn so by use and the elements— radiating cool in the evening and early morning, and heat in the mid-day. They have become a living part of the boardwalk, allowing visitors various seated vantage-points on the town, the immediate village, the city and the water. Children gravitate toward this grouping –climbing and sliping in and around these chairs– playing all sorts of games with one another. I love that. I love it when art becomes part of life and breathes with it.


To the Padres family, my hosts in Mexico, I extend a heart-felt thank you. My time with you meant more to me than I can possibly express. I am forever grateful to you for helping me to find my way.


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Thirty in Thirty. Day Twenty Seven: The Opinionated Artist & “The Artist Statement”…

Time to start the fire…

I mentioned yesterday that I dislike the artist statement, and that I will no longer voluntarily participate in the relatively new, unnecessary, and arguably harmful practice of writing Cliffs Notes for my paintings. I took mine off this site last night because I realized the entire thing flies in the face of everything I believe about art.

One of my favorite things about exhibiting my work is watching people experience my paintings and listening to their spontaneous reactions. I don’t want my words to get in the way of how others experience my art on that primal level. I don’t want to intellectualize and analyze that which comes from the non-verbal side of myself. And it’s not because I don’t know how to talk or write about my work. Oh, I spent a small fortune honing my writing skills as an English major at a certain New England University. I can write up a storm. But in the case of my painting, I prefer not to write –I prefer to PAINT. What a novelty!

If you do a bit of research, you will find that the artist statement is a relatively new, and dangerously effete modern requirement of the Western “art world” (which is another pretentious term I dislike, because art is always part of the world and never separate from the rest of it) that I feel is part of the harmful institutionalization of visual art. Why does the Western “art world” insist upon making art separate from everyday life? And while I’m at it, what is it with the big, intimidating desks at the front of galleries and museums? What is with all the high-brow attitude? Can you imagine going through that experience to hear your favorite band play? Of course not. It’s ridiculous and it keeps everyday people separate from the thing we SAY we want them to participate in: Art. Well, I don’t want that separation!

We say we want to improve arts education in this country. Well, let us begin that process by tearing down those artificial, divisive walls and ivory towers we’ve built around this pretend “art world”. As artists, we can really start the ball rolling on this by being honest about who we are. Let’s admit that we are more like musicians and dancers and actors than we are like tenured history professors. I will tell you truthfully that I do not sit around my studio pontificating about the message of my work. That sounds like a nightmare! I go into the studio to get OUT of my head: to feel and to act and to be physical with my materials. I just make art. Sorry, there’s nothing more to say than that. I am no different from the musician, aimlessly playing with an instrument, until something comes magically from that physical act of noodling or jamming with other musicians. And you know, it’s such a relief to NOT be on the right side of my brain for awhile. I love it when my blah, blah, blah finally shuts up.

While researching the history of the “artist statement”, I found this fantastic article “Are ‘Artists’ Statements’ Really Necessary?’ by Daniel Grant, in The Huffington Post, and it made me realize that not only am I not alone in my view, but that there seems to be a growing debate about this academic practice. What are we doing to art? Have we —as a culture— become so scared of our feelings, and so dependent upon our need to defend and explain everything that we no longer trust art? Can you imagine Vincent Van Gogh being forced to define and explain his work with words? It’s absolutely ridiculous. Look at the paintings. LOOK. You don’t need Cliffs Notes! Now, if you need to analyze the painting, go ahead and be my guest. Once my art leaves the studio, it belongs to all of you. I hope you will experience it in the same way you listen to a song on the radio. Just feel it.

So now what? Oh, I’m sure that somewhere, sometime in the near future, I am going to be asked for an artist statement. What will I do? Well, I really don’t know yet. As you can see from my kindling pile (pictured above) I have put my current statement to much better use.


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