Y'all, I'm so excited. I've been head down working on this for six weeks or so. And it was amazing to be asked to do this. I had sent them my Greensward essay a couple of years ago, which found a quick home at Memphis Magazine, bless them. Then in late January, one of their newer editors was going back through old submissions, said she loved my style, and asked if I had any more stories to tell.
I've done over 30 sketches since we got a general direction in mid-February, and it's just about to go off to the copy editor and layout folks for approval. The last step will be for me to hand letter all the text to fit into the correct spaces, but I'm ahead of a pretty tight deadline. It's so good to know I can work this quickly when I need to. I'm still struggling with long Covid fatigue, and this has been the just the right project for this spring. It's all small enough to do sitting down and even in my lap on the sofa, but it's new and exciting and something to look forward to. So perfect.
I cleaned off the porch at the beginning of the season, removed the second hammock chair that crowds it (no one ever really sits out there with me anyway), and have been spending lots of time out there lately. It's been a great joy. I did a line drawing of this scene some days ago in my smaller journal with the new Sailor fude pen, and I decided to have it in the Quarantine Journal as well. I was down to the right hand side square, and it probably would have benefited from being more horizontal, but it shows the critical elements of the scene, along with my new bird book, a long distance present that I am really enjoying. Spending this much time on the porch has me watching the birds more intently than ever before, and it's been deeply satisfying.
I'm showing off my deeply ugly house shoes in both of these sketches, but they're incredibly comfortable for standing up painting and print work, and I have to say that they are also fun to draw.
I did the Memphis Maker Market, coordinated by Muddy’s, this month. They are the most well organized, hospitable show I do, and there’s always a goodie bag for participants. In addition to a couple of hot drink coupons to get you through the cold day, there was a gray paper sketchbook with a white and a dark charcoal pencil. Bought, beautifully, from our local independent art store The Art Center. I’ve parked it on my coffee table and added a larger graphite crayon to go with the smaller pencils. It’s been really fun to have an easy to grab sketching opportunity at hand for the evening. If I’m settling in to read, I try to do one quick sketch first, especially if Mr. Darcy is posing cooperatively. I don’t often work on toned paper, and having the white to add as a highlight has been really fun to play with.
I have a new art hero. The Orsay had a solo retrospective of Berthe Morisot while I was there, and I was transfixed. I’ve always been drawn to her paintings when I’ve seen them, but (unlike so many of the other Impressionist painters who seem to be ubiquitous), there just aren’t that many out there in museums. A telling fact in this show was that fully half the paintings were in private collections, which was a shocking percentage. What it means is that museums weren’t collecting her when they were eagerly buying up works by her male peers. Monet is in a category all his own for me — he invented a new way of painting, and while all artists (especially prolific ones) produce some uneven paintings, every period of his work is fully realized and exquisite, which is not something you can say about all artists. Even great ones. But I feel that Morisot holds her own with any of the other Impressionists and more than outdoes some of them.
I spent a lot of the show tearing up, frankly. It was amazing to read that she began showing at the Salon, the pinnacle of the French art establishment, at the age of 33 and continued to do so for a decade, barring one year when they rejected both her submitted works. I kind of doubt it’s a coincidence that that year was the same year she also showed in the very first Impresssionist show (called the New Painting). She exhibited with that group as well for all eight years of their organized shows. She participated with them against the advice of male painter friends, including Manet. She knew what she wanted for herself, and she went for it. She also continued painting under her own name even after her marriage to Manet’s brother. I have to think it would have been advantageous for her to assume that well known name, but she wanted to paint under her own name on her own terms.
Morisot was written off by many for painting mostly domestic scenes, much like her contemporary Mary Cassatt. But Degas painted a ton of interiors and women at their own daily lives scenes and never got downgraded for it. Even more, Vuillard made a career of interior, domestic scenes, but it’s ok if you’re a man. Morisot’s work reminded me of Vuillard and the Nabis as well as of the other Impressionists. Both groups of artists looked at Japanese prints and worked on compositions echoed the flat picture plane of those prints. Vuillard and Morisot both went further and echoed a lot of the surface pattern found in many of the prints. Look at this fragment by Vuillard on the left (it’s part of a huge piece, so I couldn’t get it all) and a very early portrait of two sisters by Morisot. I’m also adding a second, very typical Vuillard that has both the sense of pattern and the domestic interior theme.
Morisot subverted the domestic conventions, though. She painted women at work, even if it was the domestic work in her home and in her circle. These women have more dignity and power than many of the other Impressionist paintings of women at work in cabaret settings, where they were often victimized by men. She also painted her husband and her daughter repeatedly. In a striking role reversal, these pieces show her husband entertaining and caring for their daughter while she is the one at work. It was a quietly revolutionary act.
Her self portrait as an artist, holding her palette and looking out at the viewer full of self confidence, moved me greatly. I did a small sketch of it in my journal. I couldn’t catch the likeness, but it was good to spend that time looking deeply. I also enjoyed studying the way she used paint. One contemporary art critic called her “the angel of the incomplete.” Her brushwork depicts objects with a spare, graceful economy of paint. She catches the essence of things quickly without overworking, and she uses the bare canvas in bold and radical ways. Apparently not everyone understood this, and that very boldness was denigrated as feminine tentativeness and indecision. Some thought she was afraid or unable to push her pieces across the finish line. But she knew exactly what she wanted from each canvas and didn’t feel the need to keep working to appease some outside sense of what a painting should look like. She said what she wanted to, and she left it to stand.
I especially loved the paintings of her daughter Julie. These late ones have an almost Munch-like feel to them to me. Morisot nursed Julie through influenza before dying of it herself, far too young. I would have loved to see where her art took her next. Please excuse the glare on these shots. They’re all just my camera phone as I passed through the exhibit, but I wanted to show you some of the pieces I saw and let you get a taste of the show.
I’ve been working more slowly this week, struggling a little with a cold, so stand up painting has been out, but prints lend themselves to sitting quietly. I’ve carved this one pretty fully at this point. It’s based on one of my larger waterscapes, but I liked the image enough to want to play with it in carving as well. I’ve tested it in black and white and in color, and now all the options are hanging in my work room while I ponder them and decide what I want the final edition to be. I like several options, so I think it will end up a “varied edition” where there are a total number of final prints, but they don’t all look the same. That way people can choose which they prefer.
I also pulled out an older block I had abandoned several years ago and did some more work carving it. I like the moon, but it needs something to go with it. I’m pondering using it with two different other blocks I already have that I would like to revisit and use in different ways. I tend to think about one single image at a time, and collaging prints like this is good mental stretch for me.
So lots of smaller things are happening at once around here, which is great for prints, because you can let one project dry while you work on a different one for a bit.
I’ve been having a little trouble with my printer and also taking all my free time lately to dive back into oil painting, so I haven’t done any scanning yet. I am, however, doing some home sketches along the way. Here were a couple of teacups that started the year, along with a couple of Mr. Darcy sketches. And one more self portrait. I’ll try to get organized to share the rest of what I’ve been doing lately. On the organization front, I did spend all morning doing end of the year book keeping yesterday. The less fun part of owning your own business. Today I will be joyfully back to painting on my water landscape series.
Martha Kelly is an artist and illustrator who lives and works in Memphis, Tennessee.
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