July 25, 2011

The Very Necessary and Precise Task of Eating Cupcakes

A good friend of mine recently had a birthday.  She's always been one of those genuinely supportive friends-- the type that gives you a thumbs-up or drops you a "good luck" when the cynical, broken, husk of your former self isn't expecting it from anyone.  She's promoted my stuff without me even having to ask, and she does it time and time again, past the point where I'm sick of talking about it.  She's always one of the first to get behind what I'm doing, even when I suspect she's unsure sure of what it's really about, because often I'm not sure of it.  So to wish her a happy birthday, I wanted to paint something original, even if humble.

See, she's also one of those cupcake people.

You know those cupcake people.  Since this is the Internet, odds are very good that you are one.  Cupcake people love everything and anything that is cupcakes, every aspect of em, the process and paraphernalia.  I don't even think it's about the cupcake as a food item, but rather an object in and of itself.  I can't help but think there are cupcake people that might be severely diabetic, missing their tongue, teeth and both hands, also they don't own ovens, but they would still enjoy and celebrate the very existence of cupcakes.

Personally, I prefer the communal and disassembly-required cake.  Maybe that's because the cake is more inline with the traditional canvas or blank scroll for the artist/writer.  Maybe it's the complexity and mystery of the varying layers.  Maybe, and far more likely, it's that a cake is just one thing to prepare and decorate rather than a series of small things... things that usually require some uniformity or theme among them.  A cake is a single project that's often challenging yet fulfilling, and can be completed without several espresso breaks.  Icing a batch of cupcakes is six to six-hundred tedious, tiny and nerve-wrecking projects.  Making cupcakes requires either waking up at or stay up until 3:00 in the morning.  I am not a cupcake person, but I credit them for their resilience in the face of repetition and the refilling of piping bags.

Painting a cupcake is a bit different, and I have to admit, getting the reference shots for this painting was very enjoyable.  It left me with a sweet and spongy layer of fatty guilt, which is one of the best types of guilt.      

I'm something of an inverted dieter, meaning what most people refer to as dieting must be a constant state for me rather than a periodic endeavor.  Between that late twenties plunge of an already crap metabolism, unfortunate genetics, and the very sedentary nature of many of my hobbies and usual career circumstances, I have to be something of a calorie nazi with myself-- especially if I want to stay under a second-airline-seat or TLC-reality-series level of fatness.  It's annoying and it sucks but it's the reality for me.  As a result,  I've gotten a pretty good handle on the calories-in vs. calories-out tedium that will keep me from ever returning to my high school weight.  I know that's the reverse goal of most people but my prom dress was a size thirty-two, nine sizes larger than my current dress size.

That said, there are occasions in which the definition of indulgence gets a little blurred.  Sometimes indulgence means allowing a package of pasta in the cottage or accidentally letting those extra croutons fall onto my spinach salad.  Other times indulgence means... well, indulgence.  Specifically, buying cupcakes and having to eat one or two, albeit systematically, for the sake of a painting.

The best subjects King Kullen's bakery had to offer the unemployed painter. 

Not wanting to travel to ritzy Huntington Village, to one of those smancy bakeries or cafes where cupcakes are the size of soup mugs, under a bulletproof showcase and sold individually for around $12.00 each, I picked the best my grocery's bakery had for sale.  I have to say, in addition to paying $2.50 for the half dozen, I was glad to have some leeway for bite screw-ups.  If I smudged the icing swirl on one, I had five others with which I could try, try again. I had multiple sprinkle and icing configurations to choose from, and a chance to see which icing flavor would better hold a bite mark.  These cupcakes were also on the smaller side, giving some semblance of restraint and sensibility to this yummy project.

Like the "Brewing" photography session, setting the shoot was easy enough: formerly-unstained white tablecloth and a white mat board gave me a simple background.  The tricky part would be keeping the cupcake in the same spot and keeping it as upright as possible as its mass and stability decreased. (While my mass increased-- ha, beat ya to the joke!)

Since I wanted to keep the icing light and give contrast to the rainbow sprinkles, my first victim was vanilla. I intended to keep the icing vanilla for the painting but eventually switched over to pink. The painted shadow on the vanilla with a white background made the flavor feel gray.  I'm sure you can do some lovely things with a gray cupcake, but that's not what I'm going for with this painting.

On top of feeling guilty for simply eating the cupcakes, I have to admit the photo process started to feel a little creepy and predatory.  Carefully evaluating each cupcake to select the most appealing, placing it on a precise spot on the table and peeling back the wrapper so the ruffles were just right, exposing the soft cake-- it just seemed so... wrong.  I'd be capturing the slow, methodically dismemberment of this little subject, all the while experiencing a shameful enjoyment.  If there's such a thing as cupcake snuff, I think this is it.

This photo shouldn't feel dirty but it sure does now... Anyways.

Even though the vanilla iced victim had more the look I was seeking, chocolate icing did a better job of holding that essential bite mark.  If you've ever looked at the photos on the side of a Mr. Softee truck, you've probably noticed how critical a role the bite mark plays in the advertisement.  A ice cream bar without a bite mark is just a brown rectangle with a stick jutting out.  A well defined bite mark is what makes it a sweet staple of all that is summer time goodness.

This is where it started to get a little hard to maintain stability on all fronts-- from keeping the wrapper flat, to standing the cupcake upright with enough of the top and sprinkles still in view. Since I lack air conditioning at the cottage, and this being a July day, I had to work efficiently before the icing got a little droopy-- because that's what happens to delicious fat in the heat.  And as we all know, delicious fat is an essential part of cupcake icing.

Back to vanilla since the icing on this single bite shot was actually better than the chocolate counterpart.

And with that last, spent piece and those few brave clinging sprinkles, the cupcake was impossible to keep upright in either shot.

And there you have the empty, stained wrapper.  A metaphor for oh-so many things.  Things I don't want to think about, but do and will.  Boy this post got a little dark.  I have the urge to go wash my hands and brush my teeth... maybe I should take a shower. Ugh.

July 19, 2011

Chicago Artist and Fellow Etsy Seller, Jane Sloss - A Look at Her Work and Process

Just a few short weeks ago, a fellow artist and Etsy seller by the name of Jane Sloss was kind and generous enough to make me a featured artist on her blog.  I'm in very good company, as Jane has featured many talented individuals.  It was super exciting!

Naturally, I had to interview and feature Jane here, not only because it's the least I could do to show my appreciation, but because I am genuinely interested in her work and her process.  The more I've examined my own stuff over the thus brief life of this blog, the more I've become curious about other painters and craftsfolk.  And while I probably seem a little too good at blogging about my own crap, it was way more interesting to hear from someone more established with such a unique source of inspiration.  

So here's a closer look at Jane's inspiration, process, a few lovely pieces... and her feelings on beets:

Jane, according to your blog, you’re not a fan of beets.  Is it a taste or a texture thing?  For example, would you be okay with beet-flavored pasta, as in veggie rotini? Also, please tell us about yourself.

I’ve tried to love Beets.  For two summers I had a great CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) share through a farm called Growing Home.  I loved supporting local agriculture, but struggled to love beets (which we got a lot of).  I guess it’s the flavor to which I object.  I did find one recipe I really liked: Cold Beet Soup with a scoop of basil lime sorbet.  About me, I’m Chicago-based watercolor painter and architect. My adventures in painting and architecture have taken me all over the country. Prior to Chicago, I spent a year living in a town of 2,000 people in West Alabama and designing a prototype for rural, affordable housing. I appreciate the pure pleasure and meditative qualities of painting, as well as the opportunity it offers to chart our course through life, our interests, our evolving abilities.
Logan Square - I completed this painting after spending part of a Saturday afternoon walking along the stretch of Milwaukee Avenue, which cuts through the Logan Square neighborhood, in Chicago.  I have spend a lot of time along this stretch in Logan Square, traversing Milwaukee on Logan Boulevard to visit friends, enjoying lovely dinners at Lula (a favorite cafĂ©), attending several good concerts and one bad concert at Logan Auditorium, and indulging in many affordably delicious Mexican dinners at El Cid.  I find that in creating compositions I am often drawn to that which feels familiar and therefore nostalgic. This painting of Logan Square is a pleasantly familiar reminder of the interwoven history I’m creating in Chicago through experience and memory.

Your architectural interest really comes across in your work.  Are there specific structural or perspective elements you seek out when creating a painting?  It is just a matter of what catches your eye at a particular moment in time?  In other words, do you chase after your work or does it find you?

My background in architecture definitely informs my painting work.  Specifically, I tend to be drawn to composition, spatial relationships, and the interaction of light with the built form.  In the early stages of an architectural project I am often required to document the context surrounding the proposed building site, the existing related resources, and the vernacular architecture.  This background is sometimes activated in researching and selecting the subject matter for paintings.  I'm generally fascinated by light. It was a Winslow Homer exhibit several years ago at the Art Institute, in Chicago, that inspired me to dedicate more energy to painting.  Homer had an incredible mastery of light.  When I’m looking at the built environment, I tend to be drawn to the scenes where the light is creating an interesting effect.  I am also interested in compression and expansion that we experience when in moving through urban spaces.  It is wonderful to go from a really narrow, possibly dark alley, into a big open plaza—very dramatic!  I tend to go after work with intention.  Riding my bike around the city, taking photographs, making notes.  When I actually sit down to paint though, I find that I my mood often trumps the best laid plans and I end up painting that which has inspired me that day.
Frozen Lake - While making this painting of a frozen lake I was thinking of what Andrew's Wyeth has written about fall and winter, "I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape - the loneliness of it, the dead feeling of winter.  Something waits beneath it, the whole story doesn’t show."  I have a similar feeling about the winter months.  Our emotions and our perceptions of the world around us seem just a bit clearer, a bit crisper, and perhaps a bit closer to surface, without the lushness of the summer foliage.  In creating this image, I enjoyed the beauty of the dawn light bathing the frozen lake as it cracks dramatically.

Do you work from life, photographs, notebook sketches? Do you listen to music or make sure to have a cup of coffee nearby? Can you briefly take us through your process, painter’s ritual, or any quirks that take you from a blank canvas to a finished painting?

I love working from life, particularly painting outside.  I learned to paint during a year spent studying Rome, as an architecture student.  During that year, I spent many hours sketching and painting in the piazze of Rome and other Italian cities and towns—there is nothing quite the same as sitting in the sun, painting a beautiful duomo or palazzo.  Living in Chicago, though, there are many months when painting outside is impossible.  Last November, I reconfigured my studio space a bit.  I think it is important to create a warm, inviting space in which to work.  I definitely love to sit down with a cup of coffee early in the morning or sometimes a glass of red wine after dinner and dive into a painting project.  I tend to listen to podcasts a lot when I paint, perennially This American Life and recently a podcast called WTF.

The way you use a muted color pallet makes your work very recognizable and distinct. After viewing the paintings in your shop, I’m sure I could pick out a Jane Sloss from across a room.  Has this always been a conscious style choice?  Was it something that evolved over time?

In addition to sketching and painting in Rome, I learned to paint in the Beaux-Arts style as an architecture student.  This meant painting large sheets (24”x30”) to render my architectural designs.  The work tended to involve meticulous depiction of the building components and many layers of watercolor washes.  A muted pallet seemed appropriate in creating these renderings.  As my painting style evolved, I think I continued to be drawn to what felt like the somewhat ethereal aesthetic of delicate watercolor washes.
West Cortland Square - I have often quoted Nelson Algren, who said that loving Chicago, is "like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real."  This quote so aptly summarizes the delight of Chicago for me. I was mindful of that quotation as I made this painting of an uncelebrated spot on West Cortland Street, in Chicago. From this vantage point on an old truss bridge, one can see the old Finkel Steel Factory, the north branch of the Chicago River and the Chicago skyline. This scene is on the surface "broken": the factory which no longer functions a reminder of the decay of Chicago's industrial past, the river likely fouled by pollution, the vegetation un-manicured. The image is simultaneously so lovely in its "real-ness." The vibrance of the color of the rusting metal panels, the freedom in the wildness of the trees and vines, the reflected light of the river, and the grandeur of Chicago's skyline. I am often drawn to images which embody history as this image does. In a country where we often encounter the newness of strip malls, condo buildings, and arenas named for corporations, there is great appeal in the places, which tell a story of an earlier time.

I commend you on the texture and feel of your urban pieces—all those bricks and windows rendered with such truth.  Do you find these repetitive elements an enjoyable or relaxing part of painting or a bit of an undertaking?

I don’t mind painting hundreds or thousands of bricks as necessary to complete a painting.  I do find that it meditative.  It’s easy to get lost in thought or perhaps to allow the repetitive motion to quiet my mind a bit.
Chicago Christmas Lights - I made this painting in December of 2009 as a reflection on the change in season.  December in  Chicago tends to be marked by the initial shock of the crisp, cold air. The bare trees and low winter sun can make the city feel stark and clear. The start of winter also brings the twinkle of Christmas lights mingling with the glimmer of the Chicago skyline and snowflakes fluttering gracefully to the ground. Fresh snow coats the trees, each branch left glistening white. The snow reflects light and the newness of the season on gray winter days. Unlike the bleakness of the days which come after several months of icey coldness, on December days I often feel refreshed by the change in season, sentimental about winters past, and hopeful.
As someone who has never been to Chicago, it’s enjoyable to visit it through your eyes.  Can you tell us more about your relationship with this city?  What makes it such a prominent subject for you?
Chicago certainly does provide my largest source for artistic inspiration.  I think I feel particularly connected to the city because of my background.  Growing up, my family moved six times, so I never really had a city I called “home.”  When I moved to Chicago almost four years ago, I felt that I had found a place I could call home forever (or at least the foreseeable future).  I find myself wanting to invest in the Chicago by developing a social network, exploring its neighborhoods, and creating work, which reflects the city. The unique architectural character of Chicago’s neighborhoods, diverse cultural influences, and the natural beauty of the city parks and Lake Michigan provide me with artistic inspiration.  My recent work through the Western Avenue series has been focused on documenting the portions of the city, which are not consider traditionally glamorous or beautiful.  These hidden corners of Chicago and other cities are a reflection of the spirit and humanness of the place, the positive and the negative.  My objective is that my paintings feel honest, as well as recognizing the ambiguity and complexity of truthful images.

And last but not least, do you have any advice or seeds of artistic wisdom you’d like to impart to any readers out there?

My only advice would be that if you want painting or another art form to be a part of your life, pursue it with intention.  About four years ago, I decided that I wanted watercolor painting to be a bigger part of my life and have found that unexpected opportunities may come if you develop your art through regular practice and intentionality.

Many thanks to Jane for sharing her wonderful artwork and for her thoughtful answers to my questions!

Make sure to view Jane's watercolor paintings and handmade wedding invitations and accessories storefronts on Etsy.  You can commission a custom piece
If you or someone you know has a wedding in the works, check out some of her hand-painted invites and maps.

Don't forget to visit her blog: A Good Day's Work: Jane Sloss | Watercolor paintings and get the latest on her awesome, twenty-four piece Western Avenue Series.  The series is nearing the halfway mark and in expected to exhibit in 2012.

You can also stay updated on Jane's work by joining her official Facebook page.  Drop her a post, or better yet, own some of her great work!