For Sir Ken Robinson: Art Making in the Age of Mouse Clicking

There is so much to like about Sir Ken Robinson's TED talk -- Do schools kill Creativity -- that I hardly know where to start. That said, here is a single sentence from his TED talk that deserves affirmation and discussion:

"We think visually, we think in sound, we think kinesthetically," Sir Ken points out while discussing different types of intelligence.

 I give a particularly high value to kinesthetic thinking. As I have come to understand after teaching studio art for over 25 years, the connections between our minds, our senses and our physical bodies need to be constantly tested, developed and refreshed to help us reach our intellectual and creative potential.

As a painter and a painting teacher I am constantly impressed with the power of the kinesthetic learning that goes with art making. I also worry that this type of learning is being undermined by our increasing embrace of technology and electronic devices. There is a reason that every graphic software has "brush" tools: it is because technology is trying very, very hard to emulate the subtlety of expression that only a physical brush applied a human hand to actual materials can truly offer.

Technology offers striking and obvious educational and intellectual benefits, and using it does have kinesthetic aspects. Children across the globe are indeed becoming highly proficient in aiming cursors, clicking mice, and touching screens, and they sometimes do these things while receiving an education of one sort or another. Students are also keyboarding and that is kinesthetic too: experts say that keyboarding develops "perceptual motor skills." Of course, from my perspective, the skills practiced in the utilization of technology are just a fraction of the skills that need to be practiced. They pale in relation to the subtle kinesthetic skills used in traditional art making.

If you are a digital artist or animator, or if you love Pixar movies I probably just offended you. Without getting too off topic, let me just say that I am moved and amazed by what can be done on a computer, but I think that Rembrandt had skills -- especially kinesthetic skills -- that today's most accomplished digital artists would and do envy.

 I wonder how the learning that goes with clicking and keyboarding compares to the learning that has gone on for thousands of years as children learned to write with pens and brushes. In learning penmanship and its more refined cousin calligraphy children had to develop dexterity that demanded a subtle and complete mind-body-hand connection that is no longer required. There is a reason that the ancient Chinese felt that an educated individual should master the rendering of poetry and images using a brush and ink: doing so took the development of the mind-body connection to its fullest potential.

When students learn to draw, paint or sculpt they are engaging in very challenging forms of kinesthetic learning. Yes, some have an easier time than others, but the arts offer an infinite set of challenges even for the naturally gifted. The problems posed by drawing a human hand or painting a tree with oil paint are enormous and there isn't a student in the world who won't benefit from holding a pencil or brush and struggling to render those familiar things. I know that outside my classroom many of my students are Zen masters when it comes to handling an Xbox controller, but those same students will falter when they have to hold their brush steady and add the right degree of shading to the nose on an oil portrait.

By the way, I haven't missed the fact that touch screens and tablets have made something very close to drawing and painting possible with digital tools. I am happy about those developments, and my daughters love to borrow my iPad and draw animals with the Zen brush app. Of course, even if technology is allowing increasing subtle kinesthetic learning, it is simply giving us new tools. There will never be better tools than pencils, sticks of charcoal, brushes and oil paints: there will just be newer and different tools.


Where I teach -- at a California Community College -- I spend every Friday watching beginning painters learn to paint. As the semester goes on the room gets quieter and quieter as my students become more confident in what they can accomplish. It is a process that takes time, partly because so many faculties are being engaged and made to work together. To make a successful painting each student has to form a vision, and that vision comes both from what they see in the outside world and what they can conjure in their mind's eye. That vision has to travel from the eyes, through the mind, down the arm to the hand. In the hand, the mind reaches into the world of the canvas through the sense of touch. When you see a finished work of art you should always recognize that you are seeing the endpoint of a unique journey.

 Making works of art is, and always has been, a way of challenging and stimulating creativity. Of course many Postmodern works of art come more from the intellect than from the body and that worries me. When artist friends tell me that my ideas about art are conservative, I remind them that Ai Weiwei is my favorite Postmodern artist, and that he learned to write with a brush and then was trained as a painter. He had to right tools to develop into a shrewd, subtle and imaginative thinker, and I would argue that his experiences with brushes made him a more potent Postmodern artist.

Works of art that come primarily from the intellect have their place, but creating them is not necessarily rich in kinesthethic terms. A huge number of artworks in the future will be made with digital tools, but I hope that there will be a continued respect for traditional tools as well. With that in mind our department has recently applied for a grant to set up a traditional "Atelier" or workshop style classroom where incoming art students can learn and practice hands-on skills while working with an accomplished master artist.

Is there, or will there ever be, a better way of bringing together seeing, feeling, and imagining and connecting those things to the body, than through the physical act of making a work of art using tools that have been around for centuries? I say "no." In a consumer society where less and less of us are making things with our hands, the act of making a physical work of art with traditional tools is not only creative but verges on being counter-cultural.

When the connection between the hand and the mind isn't developed completely I believe something extremely precious is lost. When that connection is developed something extraordinary is gained. What exactly is that thing? Let's let the next generation tell us what it is in their terms. If we make sure that they have brushes, charcoal, pencils and clay they will tell us things they couldn't possibly say with the click of a mouse. I am optimistic that giving students old tools will result in their being able to create something completely new.

 It was his early mastery of the brush, and of representational painting, that launched Picasso's revolutionary creativity. There is a reason that Picasso was chosen to appear some years ago in one of Apple's iconic "Think Different" ads. Yes, let's give our schools computer labs and iPads. We just need to be sure that we don't shut down painting and drawing programs to pay for the equipment.

Alan Feltus at the Lux Art Institute

Normally, if you wanted to drop by the studio of painter Alan Feltus and see what he was up to you would need to fly to Italy. Feltus and his wife -- the painter Lani Irwin -- have lived for 25 years now in the hills behind the town of Assisi, just 20 minutes from the  Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi and its incomparable frescoes by Giotto, Cimabue, Pietro Lorenzetti and Simone Martini. However, during the month of November, Southern Californians have been dropping in to meet Alan and view a selection of his paintings during his residency at the Lux Art Institute in Encinitas, California, just north of San Diego.

The Lux Art Institute
The Lux "Artist's Pavillion," a sleek five year old structure which hovers above a coastal canyon, includes a visiting artist's residence, a studio and an exhibition space. The Institute treats its resident artists very well. Alan Feltus arrived to find that foods he had requested on his shopping list -- which included Cafe Bustelo organic coffee, whole milk yogurt, granola and dried fruit -- had been stocked in his kitchen. In the studio he found Blue Ridge oil paints along with solvents, varnish, and brushes.

Feltus is a veteran representational artist known for his close-hued paintings of figures who carry an air of self-absorption tinged with melancholy. Remarkably, Feltus works without models, and for years has used mirrors, referring to himself as the starting point for the faces and bodies of both his male and female figures. Seeing his works together is just a bit uncanny: it's a bit like attending a Feltus family reunion. The upstairs exhibition area at the Lux has 14 Feltus originals on display -- a dozen oils and two drawings -- where they emanate burnished quietude and a hint of august strangeness.

Two oils by Alan Feltus: "Mermaid's Story," 2003, and "Studio Days," 2004
On display at the Lux Artist's Pavillion
Feltus has set up a small studio area in the north corner of the gallery where he has been recreating a 1994 painting, "Angel of Santa Felicita," that was destroyed in a fire in a collector's home. As Feltus explains, his painting process is variable, and it isn't his intention to make a precise copy of the original.
I'm not making a duplicate of the lost painting, but a variation on that earlier painting. It has already changed a good bit in the last two weeks. I have to allow a painting to change and grow as I work on it. I want changes to take place from day to day, layer to layer. At first the changes are to locate things, which means to shift them around until the relationships between the parts (the objects or forms), and between those forms and the edges of the painting, are what I consider right. They have to take on a meaning in terms of the composition. They have to become right in my judgement.
Alan Feltus' easel with his work in progress

His setup includes a selection of postcards that are there to provide inspiration and guidance. The early version of "Santa Felicita" is there under Francisco Zurbaran's "A Cup of Water and a Rose," along with a Hellenistic Venus, paintings by Balthus, Courbet, Gorky and others. Feltus moves easily between the classical and the contemporary, as his sources demonstrate.

Alan Feltus' source images
During my visit, when I chatted with Feltus, or took in his work while he chatted with others, I was able to appreciate just what a remarkable situation the Lux Art Institute has created. Seeing him there among his works, engaging in conversation was like being in a Feltus painting. Having his studio, which would normally be private, in a public setting was also revealing and stimulating.

Alan Feltus chats with visitors to his Lux exhibition
"I am guided by instinct as I watch what evolves on the canvas," Feltus explained in an email he sent after my visit. "Nothing is planned, anything can happen, but the changes that happen are within the context of my paintings over decades of painting this way. This is how most painters work. What unfolds is from within. In that sense it is personal."

Alan Feltus, "The Best of Times," 2007, Oil on canvas, 47 1/4 x 39 1/4 inches
At the Lux Institute, Alan Feltus has allowed this personal artistic process to become public and transparent. If you live within driving distance, you should see it for yourself.

Alan Feltus will be in residency at the Lux Art Institute through December 1, 2012
His works will remain on display through December 29, 2012

David Lenz: The Egalitarian Realist

When David Lenz, a realist painter born and based in Wisconsin, was given the chance to create a portrait for the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. he had to consider a limitation that challenged his egalitarian tendencies. The NPG's charter clearly states that it is to collect portraits "depicting men and women who have made significant contributions to the history, development and culture of the people of the United States." For Lenz, who has built his singular reputation by portraying the common folk of Wisconsin, the idea of celebrating an individual who was already a known figure went slightly against his grain.

Ultimately, Lenz tried to convince the officials of their gallery to enlarge their definition. "Everyone is important," he argued, and the compromise that followed -- he would paint a portrait of Eunice Kennedy Shriver accompanied by five Special Olympians -- resulted in an unforgettable painting: "Rare Halo Display: A Portrait of Eunice Kennedy Shriver." Brandon Fortune, a curator at the National Portrait Gallery who has looked hard at "Rare Halo" has this to say about Lenz's capabilities: "He (David) has a clear vision of what his paintings will be and how they carry meaning. Also, he is a consummate master of his materials."

Eunice Kennedy Shriver / David Lenz, 2009 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; Commissioned as part of the First Prize, Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition 2006
Oil on linen, 36 x 70 inches

One of the themes of the completed canvas is that life's apparent limits can dissolve in the presence of personal heroism and divine oversight. Transcending expectations is a recurring theme of  Lenz's portraits and also a theme of his life. Acutely sensitive to life's problems and possibilities, Lenz is a realist -- as a man and as an artist -- but also a visionary who carries an innate sense of overarching justice.

Lenz grew up in family that was deeply involved in art. His grandfather Nic Lenz was a painter and illustrator and illustrator, and his father Tom -- now a private art dealer -- ran the Lenz Gallery on West Pittsburgh Street in Milwaukee. "There was wonderful American art around," David recalls. "My father had a Norman Rockwell at one point, and I also remember him coming home with four large paintings of animals by Carl Rungius."

Inspired by the art in his home, and by visits to his grandfather's studio -- he still remembers the smell of gum spirits -- Lenz decided by the age of 10 that he would be an artist. He had an early success, winning the "Kiddie Corner Art Contest" offered by a local newspaper and winning the first prize of a $10 savings account at First Wisconsin Bank.

As an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee in the early 80s Lenz majored in Visual Communication -- Illustration and Graphic Design -- when he realized that there was a "big divide" in the art department after being juried out of a student art competition. "Doing representational paintings made me an odd duck," Lenz notes, "doing something that was considered passé and out of date."

After graduating Lenz spent four years as an art director and then made the risky decision to become a full-time fine artist. Initially he painted landscapes, set in both Wisconsin and Canada, which have a luminosity reminiscent of Hudson River School paintings. After moving to the east side of Milwaukee the human figure became central to his practice as Lenz painted a number of children set in their urban environments. As these pictures developed, Lenz's ability to empathize with his subjects while also portraying them with unflinching realism became increasingly apparent.

David Lenz, "Hooded Boy," 1998, oil on linen, 19 x 20 inches

In 1997 Lenz and his wife Rosemarie Feiza-Lenz welcomed their son Sam into the world. Sam, who was born with Down syndrome, was the subject of "a few small paintings" as a child, but between 2000 and 2005 Lenz was mainly occupied with a series of paintings of dairy farmers Ervin and Mercedes Wagner. In terms of style, subject matter and setting these paintings are about as far from "New York" as possible, reinforcing Lenz's commitment to painting people and places that he feelings a direct connection with, and also his lack of interest in art world trends.

David M. Lenz, "Thistles," 2001, oil on linen, 32 x 54 inches

After seeing an announcement in ArtNews for a National Portrait Gallery competition Lenz realized that it was time to paint his son Sam. Lenz dedicated an entire summer to executing the painting, a risky move for a family man whose sole income has always come from his art and who has never been represented by an art dealer. "I'd actually grown discouraged from entering art contests," Lenz later told a reporter. "Realism has been out of fashion my entire career."

When he picked up his brushes in May of 2005 Lenz started by asking himself a question: "What should this portrait be?" As the answers took shape, so did the canvas. "What kind of background could describe his place in the world, " Lenz pondered, " and who he is in this place?" The answer to those questions is described by a metaphorical setting, as Lenz explains:
We own a little piece of land -- near Wagner's farm -- where we pitched a tent and got married on the land. It is a pastoral landscape that serves in the painting as metaphor for Sam's place in the world. The trees have been cut down and the land has been manipulated for farming. In a sense, it is an alteration of the Garden of Eden -- as given by God -- that has been made useful for man. Because of the 'perfection' we prefer -- suburban laws trimmed and sprayed with pesticides, shiny cars with no spots -- we have damaged nature.
If the re-shaped landscape of the farmland is a metaphor for the situation of the environment, the barbed wire fence behind Sam -- another man-made element -- is a metaphor for discrimination. "Sam will never fit the definition of what society considers perfect," notes his father. "He will always be his own person, and what is offered by the landscape beyond the fence will always be difficult to reach. "

David Lenz, "Sam and the Perfect World," 2005, oil on linen, 44 x 46 inches

In the finished portrait eight year old Sam peers inquisitively forward while a haloed sun appears over his shoulder. Lenz painted the halo as a "big wonderful graphic element" and also to add a hint of the divine. "I've always loved the idea of halos -- it came from Hudson River paintings -- as a metaphor for God looking down on the earth. The halo reinforces that idea; 'God is looking down on this world. And we can wonder: what does He think of all of this?'"

In June of 2006 "Sam and the Perfect World" was awarded first prize in the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition, beating out nearly 4,000 other entries. David Lenz received a $25,000 cash prize and also the commission to paint a "remarkable American" that would result in the Shriver portrait. In a sense, "Rare Halo Display: A Portrait of Eunice Kennedy Shriver" continues and extends some of the themes of Sam's portrait.

Painting portraits of people with intellectual disabilities has become what Lenz thinks of as the "third leg of the stool" in terms of his subject matter, and the fact that Sam has participated in the Special Olympics made Eunice Shriver -- the program's founder -- an appealing subject for his commission. "I went to meet Shriver in 2007," says Lenz, " and we spoke for about 45 minutes. She wasn't particularly interested in being in the spotlight, but the idea of sharing it with five Special Olympic athletes seemed natural to her. " As he considered Shriver's life and achievements, Lenz found a great deal to admire.
She worked for five decades to improve the life of people with disabilities and had started when nobody else was talking about it. After her sister Rosemary, who had a mild intellectual disability, went through a lobotomy that left her incapacitated, Eunice pushed the family to talk about her sister. She wrote an article in the Saturday Evening Post, which made her sister's condition public knowledge. And she started a civil rights movement on behave of all people with intellectual disabilities.
Detail: "Rare Halo Display: A Portrait of Eunice Kennedy Shriver"

For the setting of his painting, Lenz depicted Shriver on the beach near her Cape Cod, Massachusetts home. She is joined by four Special Olympics athletes and a Best Buddies Ambassador: Airika Straka of Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin, Katie Meade of Des Moines, Iowa; Andy Leonard of Reynoldsburg, Ohio, Loretta Claiborne of York, Pennsylvania and Marty Sheets of Greensboro, North Carolina. Behind them, the sun is setting and a halo similar to the one which appeared in the portrait of Sam appears. As Lenz explains: "If you look carefully you will see two bright dots -- sun dogs -- and a pillar of light. When you connect those there is a cross in the sky. It is there as a metaphor for Shriver's life and work."

Detail: "Rare Halo Display: A Portrait of Eunice Kennedy Shriver"

Of course, the painting isn't just about Shriver: it is also about those who she helped lift up. Speaking about the individuals who join Shriver in the painting Lenz notes that "They would never normally make it onto the wall of the National Portrait Gallery. But, after the unveiling there were so many inquiries about them that a secondary label was added."

"There they are," Lenz says with pride, "as big as life." Since the painting is a tribute to the vitality and humanity of subjects, making them "larger than life" wasn't necessary. Lenz realized that they were already perfect, and just painted what he saw.

Kim Frohsin: Portraits of Numbers and The White Dahlia Series

It's a good thing that the Paul Thiebaud Gallery in San Francisco has two floors. Kim Frohsin, whose work will be on view there through December 22nd is currently taking advantage of both levels to present dual shows that she sees as "totally separate." Together, they form a striking essay in aesthetic agility.

On the gallery's first floor is a grouping of vivid, stripe-infused images of numerals, executed in mixed media: Portraits of Numbers: 2011-2012. On the second floor is The White Dahlia Series, a selection of 96 life drawings that Frohsin made of female models who were asked to pose with a "noir" theme in mind: death. As a tribute, and a kind of coda, there is also third small show also on view featuring selected photographs by the late Philomena Ryan, who documented Froshin at work with her models during the creation of The White Dahlia Series. Something about working twin artistic tracks, which Frohsin has done now for over a year, stokes her creative fires. "Last year in the studio was great," she says, "I worked at full force... didn't even get a cold."

Kim Frohsin, "#80: A Nautical Woman," 2012
Acrylic, ink, gouache, dry pigment and pencil on archival board, 22 x 22 inches
 Kim Frohsin: Drawings from the White Dahlia Series

Frohsin's number series came about as the result of an invitation. Asked to prepare for a 2012 "Portrait Show" at Fort Mason, Frohsin balked at the idea of portraits of people: "I wanted to make portraits of ideas," she recalls. Frohsin began with a portrait of her favorite number -- 21 -- and the series took off from there in non-sequential fashion. When developing the number paintings Frohsin generally has an association or personal connection in mind. For example, she thinks of 21 as being "somehow black and white perfect: it gives me comfort."

Kim Frohsin, "#21 and Stripes," 2011
Heavy acrylic, ink, pencils , 24kt gold leaf, dry pigment on archival mat board, 22 x 22 inches

Other numbers, 27 for example, started out free of associations, but took on meanings over time. "I randomly chose 27," Frohsin notes, "It seemed to go nowhere. Then I went to Wikipedia: I never knew about the 27 club -- which is made up of popular musicians including Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Kurt Cobain, who all died at age 27 -- it changed the course of the piece. It all turned white.... I whited out everything and left floral veins of blue... that's the only color that came through."

Something similar happened when Frohsin took on the number 80. "Well," she recalls, "the font is something I took from a photo I shot of a Deco building in the Marina district. Then the palette made me think of water and the 0 is like a porthole: thus the "nautical" aspect. Then, if you look up meanings of the number 80 your will find it is a feminine number. So, voilĂ : #80 is A Nautical Woman."

Kim Frohsin, "27 Club," 2011
Acrylic and mixed media on archival mat board, 22 x 22 inches
Whether a number begins with a "personal encrypted reason," as 21 did, or takes on associations later as 27 did, the random mix of ideas and poetry gives her the fuel to bring the work to its physical realization. "All these numbers are super layered," Frohsin observes. "I use power tools to build up and sand down the layers. I hardly ever use paintbrushes, but instead use palette knives, razor blades, tape, and dry pigment as "seasoning."

The White Dahlia Series came about after Frohsin was struck by a theme that she wanted to work with: death and crime. In a sense, the drawings that resulted have an aspect of collaboration and performance: "Not your usual figure drawing session..." is how Frohsin puts it. As she worked with female models who struck seven minute poses on an all white stage, the artist asked the models to imagine death and gravity. "How they felt, how they fell, how they abandoned themselves, how they let go... it was a special challenge."

Frohsin's models had very vivid reactions to her requests and to the emotional suggestions of the poses they created in response. "Taking on such poses," one of them told her after a session, "simulating death: it all makes me wonder what my own final death pose shall be, you know?" As Frohsin has written:
"Many of the models related to me that in taking on these 'death poses' their minds lead them to dear ones in their respective lives who have passed; they felt transported and saw the 'work' as a sort of therapy to evoke deep/buried memories & recollections of family or past loves and the broader, abstract aspects of being."
A group of drawings from The White Dahlia Series
Some of the drawings have hints of eroticism, which Frohsin says came directly from the models: "That wasn't my prompting." Although Frohsin acknowledges that an erotic charge may be present, she is more interested in the spiritual and ethereal aspects that came through. She is hoping it will appear "as if these women/bodies, found in my lines, present as transcendent, angelic entities: anonymous 'white figures' floating in space and time."

The two approaches on view at the Thiebaud Gallery may seem divergent, but they share Frohsin's energetic willingness to explore new artistic territory. "I have been pigeon-holded as a Bay Area Figurative," Frohsin relates with some annoyance, "but I don't want just that label. I have to use my drawing skills, and also keep pressing forward in other media. For example, since June I have been exploring the world of experimental pinhole photography...with a little bit of Baldessari as an influence. That's how I roll."

Kim Frohsin: Pinhole Self-Portraits, 2012

Kim Frohsin
Portraits of Numbers: 2011-2012
The White Dahlia Series: 2011
Paul Thiebaud Gallery
645 Chestnut Street
San Francisco, CA 94133
Opening Reception: Saturday, November 3, 4 to 6