how to succeed as an artist

Talking to Women with Power Tools

How to Succeed as an Artist

Let’s face it, the art business is tough. And the gage of “success” is a moving target. Is it money? Accolades? Galleries and collectors? Museum shows?

Or…maybe true success is found by looking inward. Maybe success comes when you reach the point where your creative vision and expression unite as an authentic work of art?


If successful artists are those who have found the freedom to create and have learned to actualize their vision, then I believe the sculptors in a show I curated for the PACE Center are tremendously successful.

Women with Power Tools,” May 16-July 6, 2023, turned a spotlight on four sculptors who probably don’t spend too much time worry about the definition of success; they simply are successful.

A Note About This Exhibit & Blog

A few years ago, sculptor Autumn T. Thomas told me a story about buying a table saw she needed to create a new series of work.

how to succeed as an artist
Autumn T. Thomas in the studio

She researched the one she wanted and found it at a hardware store. When she finally flagged down a salesman to help her load it onto a cart, he looked at her and said, “You don’t need that.” 

And then he walked away.

I was dumbfounded by this story, though I shouldn’t have been.

Autumn isn’t the first female artist to run up against such chauvinism and won’t be the last. But it got me thinking about the tough-as-nails women sculptors I know who have created important and monumental works, chauvinists be damned.

“Women with Power Tools” isn’t about “women” artists, not really, anyway. It’s about great art. Ingenious art. It’s also about perseverance and determination and the drive to press on past every obstacle, not the least, your body’s physical limitations.

Because the show is comprised of 3D works, I interviewed each artist for didactic wall materials. This blog is an edited version of those interviews and focuses on the qualities I believe make each artist a success.

 A shout out to my dear friend Todd Pierson who photographed the sculptors in their studios, which, for me, was frosting on the cake!

Madeline Wiener, stone sculptor

how to succeed as an artist

My mother saw me as a nice, little housewife. 

“I remember, in my mid-20s, I was running a brush through my hair when my mother walked by and noticed the definition in my arms. She was appalled. She said, “Women are not supposed to have muscles.” I thought, how ridiculous was that? Welcome to the 20th century, Mom.

“I was studying painting at the New York School of Visual Arts. I wanted my paintings to pop off the canvas; I wanted my work to look as dimensional as possible. And I was always sketching sculpture and people. One of my teachers said, “Have you ever thought of carving?”

“For the first seven years I carved in soft stone with a hammer and chisel. I love that sound. The stones were 35-40 pounds—whatever I could carry up two flights of stairs to my studio in New York City.

“Now I’m working in tonnage. I use a folk lift, grinders, diamond cutting tools. I’m 75 years old, so my assistant of the last 40 years does my chainsaw work. I’ve carved more than 60 private and municipal sculptures and learned early on to accept help.

“I had to learn by myself because my stone carving teacher was a bronze sculptor. He didn’t have the knowledge I needed. 

how to succeed as an artist
Madeline Wiener in the studio

The book “Contemporary Stone Sculpture” by Dona Meilach—a woman—taught me everything I needed to know. I still use that book today when teaching new artists. 

“The other person who taught me about power tools was Frank Swanson who put a grinder in my hand and walked away. That grinder started arcing the second I turned it on, and I threw it across the studio floor. When I brought it back to him, he said, “You broke it, you fix it.” It was his mean way of making me become self-sufficient. He did me a favor that I didn’t understand at the time.”

To learn more about Madeline Wiener, visit

Autumn T. Thomas, wood and mixed media sculptor

“I’ve become attuned. If I’m cutting wood and it has tension or a knot, I can feel that through the vibration of the tool, so I know if I should slow down.

how to succeed as an artist

There’s a different language that you learn when working with bandsaws and table saws. Blades sing or vibrate differently.

“There are nuances with power tools. You have to trust the tool’s power and respect it. Once you do that, you can sort of wield its power to your advantage.

“My pieces are fragile. When I started out, it was devastating when something would break. But now I think it’s the nature of art. There are no mistakes. There are no rules. I’m making something that doesn’t exist. I’m making something that no one asked for. If I make a cut too far, I accept it and embrace it. This understanding has allowed me to be freer.

“I’m a spontaneous sculptor. When I’m at the point of cutting the wood, that’s also the point in which I’m developing the idea. When I’m taking away from the wood, this is where I’m embedding my ideas and feelings into the piece. I have to be in tune and focused to be safe. All these ideas and feelings combine with me and the power tool to go into the wood. Once I’m finished cutting, the wood is imbued with emotional power. The final step is to take it from a beautiful piece of wood into a beautiful piece of art.”

To learn more about Autumn T. Thomas, please visit

Pati Stajcar, bronze, wood, and stone sculptor

“I’d always been the wild child. Definitely not a girly-girl. Using power tools was just a means to an end. I never thought I was doing anything different than anyone else.

how to succeed as an artist

I’ve got more diamonds than any woman I know. And they’re all industrial strength.

“When I was learning to carve wood, I only used hand tools. It’s a really good way to learn; you get the feel of the wood. When I got more confident and started using power tools, I had to learn to go slow and work in stages.

“The first thing you have to master is confidence, that you’re not afraid of your tool. That confidence comes with the comfort of the tool in your hand.

“I love mistakes. I have almost never made a piece that came out the way I envisioned it first off. Every time I’ve had an accident—might not even be my mistake, it might be in the material I’m working with, a rotten piece in the middle of the wood—once it’s exposed, I learn how to get around it. If I go in with an open mind and let the wood or marble take me on its journey, it becomes a better piece than I envisioned.”

To learn more about Pati Stajcar, please visit

how to succeed as an artist
Pati Stajcar in the studio

Alex Branch, interdisciplinary

“In college, I had a drawing instructor who made us keep a sketchbook. I started sewing objects onto the pages of mine and attached different materials that made the books become three-dimensional. At one point my teacher told me that was a strength, my use of materials.

how to succeed as an artist

I’ve always liked to take things apart and put them back together.

“I spent a lot of time on a decommissioned lighthouse boat that’s docked on the Hudson River. In the hull, I noticed how the sound from outside resonated like the body of a cello or guitar. And the boat’s rigging lines made it look like an instrument. I thought, what if I intentionally made a hybrid of the two?

“When I was living in New York City, I didn’t have a space to make a boat so, I got a residency in New Mexico, which is ironic because there’s not a lot of water there. I had to make a boat in six weeks. I used an old form of boat building called “stitch and glue,” which is a descendant of the sewn boat building technique.

how to succeed as an artist
Musician playing Alex Branch's Piano Boat for the Rio Grande

“I play guitar but I’m not a musician. I think there’s a difference between someone who plays and someone whose medium is music. I can play my boats but something different happens when a musician plays them.

“It’s mysterious where ideas come from. You get an idea, and you go after it. You catch the scent of it and go after it and you don’t know what will happen along the way.”

To learn more about Alex Branch, please visit

Subscribe to my blog to get news of new writing, and please feel free to pass on my blog to others. As always, thanks for reading!

How to get into galleries

How to Get Into an Art Gallery

With so many online opportunities to sell your art, a lot of artists are wondering if getting into galleries is worth pursuing. This month I’m exploring the pros and cons of working with a gallery as well as offering professional insights on how to get into a gallery, should you decide to go that route. 

I asked dealers I know to give me their thoughts and best advice. Special thanks to Doug Kacena, K Contemporary, in Denver, Maria Hajic with Gerald Peters, in Santa Fe, and Nikki Todd of Visions West Contemporary, Bozeman, Livingston and Denver, for sharing their thoughts.

Readers, if there’s something I didn’t cover, please leave a comment below so I can answer it for everyone! 

where do you find new artists?

The answer to where dealers find new talent was unanimous: 

1. Art fairs (prime territory to consume a lot of art in person, says Nikki);

2. Instagram;

3. Through trusted artists.

Maria Hajic cites museum shows, independent curators and fellow dealers as other great resources. 

Where dealers are NOT finding new artists?

From people who drop in and make cold calls.

“People do wander in off the streets wanting to show me their portfolio,” Doug Kacena tells me, but warns, “it’s not a good idea.” 

He says the worst possible time to hit up a dealer is during an opening, which happens surprisingly often. “When artists do this,” Doug says, “I usually ask them to imagine this was their opening. How would they feel if my staff and I were off in a corner looking at someone else’s website instead of tending to your work? They usually get it then.”

How to Get Into Galleries
Doug Kacena, K Contemporary Gallery

What About Emails?

Doug put it this way: “Have I brought on an artist from a random email? Yes, but I get more artists through recommendations from artists I currently work with.”

The Big Takeaway

1. Put yourself out there where people in the biz can find you. 

2. Keep your Instagram account populated with strong visual content.

3. Getting seen at an air fair requires a dealer to take you, which may sound like a catch-22, if you don’t have a gallery that attends art fairs. An alternative is to applying to Calls for Entry to shows that dealers working in your genre attend. (Subscribe to my site for my e-Book, “Upping Your Game” for help with this process.)

4. Ask artists you know about their galleries and if they would put in a good word for you. 

How Important Is Your Online Presence?

Social media is definitely a factor these days. And though posting can feel like shouting into the void, there are things you can do to increase your visibility, such as having a business account and using hashtags wisely. 

You should expect that when a dealer does reach out, chances are good that they’ll ask what kind of following you have. 

Beyond social media, make sure you have an up-to-date website. If you don’t have a website or are frustrated with you current site, check out FASO sites. You can be up and running in an hour. 

Other online opportunities include having your work listed on Artsy

“Artsy is gallery driven; you have to be in a gallery to get on Artsy,” Doug says, “which means you’re in important galleries, because Artsy is not cheap, but it’s important. If your gallery puts you on their Artsy account, that means you have a following and an audience of people interested in purchasing your work.” 

Keeping up: Tips for Managing Social Media

Concentrate on just one or two social media outlets. 

Convert those outlets to business accounts and keep your posts professional.

Be positive and spread the love by commenting on other artist’s work and successes. 

Share great posts you see, especially if they’re coming from a gallery you’re interested in joining. 

Set a timer to remind yourself to get off the infinite scroll.

Look into time saving apps such as Later or that will help you broadcast to various platforms.

Canva is an invaluable tool for creating exceptional creative materials and they have a feature for scheduling releases over several weeks.

Qualities of a successful Artist-Dealer Relationship

“I look at this as a business partnership,” Doug says. “We do a lot of development strategy with our artists, mainly, how do we get them in front of collectors and in museums? So, for me, I want to know: is the artist all in? Is this their job? Is this how they’re making a living?”

How to Get Into Galleries
Maria Hajic, Gerald Peters Gallery

“Professionalism,” Maria says, citing that this is her favorite trait in an artist because it encompasses things like time management, attention to details and deadlines, and indicates that an artist is a clear communicator, and responsible. 

And she adds, “Honesty, clear boundaries, willingness to collaborate, flexibility, and a sense of humor always help during a rough patch.”

The artists become like family. We are lucky to count several of our artists as close friends. I think when artists really listen to our advice and know that we are striving to advance their careers as much as just selling the art and putting money in their pockets, that's when I feel like we have reached a successful place in the partnership.

Doug adds, “When I sit down with an artist, I am always asking, what’s the next goal, what are we trying to achieve? Each artist is different, and each has a different path, but they are serious; this their career.”

Interestingly, he says having multiple galleries is a good thing. “I don’t think it’s the same for all galleries but I think it’s better to have multiple galleries supporting them. It’s in everyone’s interest.”

How to Approach Galleries: What Not to Do

#1 response: Do NOT show up unannounced. 

“I would advise never just popping in and asking for the work to be looked at on the spot.,” Nikki advises. “We get that so much and it just shows lack of respect for the business and for the artists that are hanging on the walls.”

“Respect our time,” Maria says, and adds, “No cold calls, please. I prefer an email approach as I can give the artist’s submission my full attention when I am free.”

According to Doug, the biggest issue he sees is that many artists are not self-aware. “You have to be honest with yourself about where you really are in your career and ability,” he says. “And if you can visit a gallery in person, do so before reaching out. Get a feel for the price points of the artists that gallery represents.”

how to get into galleries
Nikki Todd, Visions West Galleries

So, though it feels like a catch-22, if your prices aren’t there, hold off on applying until you’ve built your career up to that point where you’re pricing is commensurate with the others in the gallery. 

Another major faux pas is submitting your work to a gallery online when it’s clear you don’t know anything about the gallery, the kind of work they carry, their goals, and mission. 

“I will tell you that 99% of the submissions that come in are from artists who haven’t done their homework. It feels like artists send out blanket submissions–copy and paste–without researching the gallery.”

Fun Fact About Most Dealers

“Even though, on the website, it says we’re not looking at new artists,” Doug says, “I do love looking at art.” He says he used to respond to everyone who emailed but now he doesn’t have time. So, whether you get a response or not, know that Doug, as well as most other dealers, are looking at every single solicitation they get via email.

Tips for Submitting Your Work

Don’t send materials through the mail. No one wants to deal with returning them to you.

Do send via email:

Multiple jpgs of current images


Artist statement

Cover letter

Do you need help creating cover letters, artist statement, CV and bio? Schedule some time with me to get this done. Click Here and scroll to Calendly to book time.

Is the Process Worth It?

“Galleries are the king and queen makers,” says Nikki. “I don’t think that will ever change. Galleries will take artists to fairs and give exposure that is impossible to achieve from Instagram or a website presence: a brick and mortar place to exhibit; dedicated staff whose sole job is to promote, sell, organize your work and career; and networking with important clients, institutions and museums.”

“If you want to sell online, you have to continually feed that beast,” says Maria,” which takes precious time. Most, though not all, artists would rather concentrate on their art. Cultivating relationships with clients and viewing artwork in person is very different than viewing it online. Of course, a gallery must do both in this digital age. Does an artist have time for all that?”

Doug agrees and adds, “You can’t go to an art fair without a gallery, and every curator in the country shows up to fairs. I know some artists who have gotten big enough that they don’t need a gallery and can do it on their own. But how do you think they got there? Other people were doing the work for them.”

Ultimately, dealers are taking care of you while you’re concentrating on your work. They’re motivated to make sales for you because it keeps their doors open and the lights on. They’ll handle the negotiating with collectors and make sure your work is put in front of the right audience. They speak for you when you’re not around.


Final Thoughts: Playing the Long Game

Only you can decide whether it’s worth the effort to get into galleries, but consider the vast benefits that come when you do find the perfect fit. 

Understand that this is a process. You will get rejection letters–or simply not hear back–don’t let that stop you from trying. It’s a business, so keep searching for galleries and dealers who are excited about your work; they’re the ones who will become the kind of partner, promoter, and confidant you most need.

Check out my blog The Artist Curator Relationship for a deeper understanding of the nuances of working with professional dealers and curators. 

Do you need help putting together your presentation pitch to galleries: cover letter, artists statement, CV, etc.? I can tackle this for you. Schedule some time with me to discuss.

The End of an Era

This month, March 2023, marks the end of an era. After 27 years building the Coors Western Art Exhibit & Sale, an exhibition under the auspices of the National Western Stock Show, several men on the Board of Directors at the Stock Show, none of whom collect art anymore (or ever did), have decided to eliminate my position as curator. 

Yes, you read that right: the Coors Show will no longer be an independently curated event. A committee will decide. 

The art, I have been told, will reflect them (white men) and their traditional values, whatever those are. 

Is the hair on the back of your neck standing up? Art + committee + traditional values…. Yeah, it hurts my heart, too. 


This is an old story. Art exhibition has great success; egotists take over after deciding they can do it better despite having no understanding of the art market; art show dies; no one cares.

It’s not just art shows either. Think of all those funky neighborhoods where artists lived and worked until someone thought it’d be really cool to buy up the shabby-chic (read: cheap) real estate and suddenly the neighborhood becomes a cookie-cutter version of every other formerly artsy outpost. Rents go through the roof and the artists can no longer afford to live and work there. Creativity grinds to a halt without artists and soon the cool neighborhood becomes another cliche. 

The Big Backlash​

When I told the Coors Show artists what was happening and that I wouldn’t be back, many  reached out in texts and emails expressing their anger and incredulity.

One conversation in particular set me back on my heels. Melanie Yazzie, master print maker and a university professor said that this kind of thing was happening all over academia.  

What we’re seeing across the country, she told me, is a backlash against the #MeToo movement. Out of fear, certain people are doing everything they can to maintain control. They’re deceitful, conniving, and ruthless.

As she talked, I flashed back on the years working in the National Western culture of good old boys and saw vividly the scene that decided my fate.

Minding My Manners

Last year, I and two other women filed a complaint against the CFO of the National Western for bullying, harassment and retaliation. The president of the National Western, which is the company I worked for as curator of the Coors Show, hired an outside firm to interview everyone and, well, cover their asses.

Well behaved women rarely make history.

Our intention in filing a complaint with the National Western was not to be litigious but to make the bully stop. 

What happened, however, was jaw-dropping. The man with the outside firm who conducted the study came back with his findings: the women were not credible; the man was. 

When my contract was up, I was offered a “constructive discharge,” i.e., a contract written to force me out. In the contract were two stipulations. One, that the National Western would select a committee to curate the show with me (that committee would then take over in a couple years, presumably, after I trained them), and two, because of my “problems” with the CFO, I was not allowed in the offices where he was–which are essential to doing my job.

The bully is protected. The bullied is shamed and fired.

Yes, this is still 2023. I just checked.

When Committees Tell Artists What to Make

There are numerous reasons why art by committee guarantees a weak, milquetoast exhibit and mediocre art. 

First is the committee itself. Who joins a curatorial committee? Often it’s collectors with a limited palette. They have, thus, a dog in the fight; their goal is to substantiate their own collection and stoke their egos. They often know enough about art to be dangerous. They purchase what they like, not what is artistically important. 

Next is the problem of casting off anything that offends anyone on the committee. When all the offensive work is removed, what’s left is safe, mediocre.

And then there’s the issue of censoring and silencing voices. Artists who need the show and rely on those sales will rein in any thoughts of pushing themes or style or subject matter. Safe gets you in; experimentation and expansion of ideas gets you kicked out. 

When Politics Trump Art

Throughout history, politicians and religious figures have imposed their will upon artists, writers, and philosophers. In 1633, Galileo was found guilty of heresy for saying the earth rotated around the sun, not the other way around. He lived the rest of his life under house arrest. By the way, it took the Catholic Church more than 300 years to admit they were wrong and clear Galileo of heresy. 

Oscar Wilde was convicted of gross indecency with men and jailed from 1895 to 1897. 

And then there were the artists in Europe in the 30s and 40s who had the audacity to make work that pushed forward the ideas of what art is and its purpose. When Hitler came to power, part of his hatred was turned on modern art and the “degenerate” artists who made such things. The only art permissible was that of bucolic countrysides or heroic images of beautiful Germanic people.

Stalin, too, mandated that art could only depict the communist party and people in a positive light. Art created during his reign was used as propaganda to convince citizens to fight for the motherland and that the conditions under which they lived were really not so bad. 

From where I’m standing, I see modernist structures, and the only hint of a classical building I can see is the top of the U.S. dome. That is not what our founders had in mind.

In 2020, then President Trump signed an executive order called, “Make Federal Buildings Beautiful Again.” This order, which has since been rescinded, put forth that all new federal buildings should be beautiful because the “modern” federal buildings, according to Trump, are “just plain ugly.”

Ah, hubris….

Forgetting we belong to each other

Western art is the ugly stepchild of the art world, with good reason. Traditional Western artists who strictly adhere to the genre are often white men who paint pictures of cowboys and Indians. These old tropes are not only derivative but reductive; they perpetuate prejudice and lies. As Dakota Hoska, the curator of Native American Art at the Denver Art Museum curator put it: “Why don’t they tell their own story?” 

My goal as a curator of “Western” art was to exhibit art pertaining to the Western U.S. that was relevant and vital and alive. Because we are a strong community of artists, the vast majority of whom want to create work now, not work that looks backwards.

Curating the Coors Show for nearly three decades was more than a job to me. It was a community of people who brought fresh ideas to the table, each and every year. We made something that challenged the common perspective but did it in a way that invited conversation. The show was, ultimately, a place where artists could be seen and have a voice. 

It’s bigger than a job. It’s bigger than sales. It’s about being part of this life. It’s being human and understanding the true meaning of what Mother Theresa diagnosed as the ills of this world when she said, “We have forgotten we belong to each other.” 

Blessings in Disguise

Recently, over lunch, I told a dear friend what happened. After listening patiently, he sat back, took a breath and said, “Congratulations!” 

He meant it. And though I wasn’t quite ready to look back and laugh, his comment did help me put things into perspective. 

After nearly three decades working to build something, it was time to move on. I would not have left had I not been pushed. 

And, so, what else is there to do but feel grateful, turn the page, and start anew.


Since posting this, I’ve been told that the people at National Western who did this–and signed the contract that fired me–are telling people my blog has “gross inaccuracies.” So, here’s what you need to decide for yourself….

1. Here’s the proposal I sent the CEO of the Stock Show: 2023 Curator Compensation Proposal.

2. Here’s a copy of the contract I was presented: NWSS Best and Final Curator Contract offer.

3. Check out the site Non Profit Light. They list earnings and salaries for the National Western Stock Show. Note that Paul Andrews is paid nearly half a million a year and that all but one of the directors are men. 

4. And here’s the ethical standard for non profit pertaining to paying commissions, which they call, “not appropriate.”

The Death of Art Criticism

The loss of local newspapers has led to the decline in coverage of the arts and the near extinction of art criticism. 

I get it. Papers have had to slim down, cut the fat, make their staff wear many hats. I also understand that reporting on the arts is not exactly hard-hitting journalism. But what really frustrates me is that papers have deputized any old staff writer as “Art Critic.” The result is that the deputized journalist is let loose to wander into the art world with a head full of hubris and a mind lacking true understanding. 

A Tale of Two Meanings: Crit-ic (noun)

Definition one: 

A person who judges the merits of literary, artistic, or musical works, especially one who does so professionally, as in, “A film critic.”  

Similar: commentator, observer, pundit, expert, authority, arbiter, appraiser, analyst.

Definition two:

A person who expresses an unfavorable opinion of something. 

Similar: detractor, censurer, attacker, backbiter, vilifier, denigrator, belittler, traducer. 

What's in a Name

The biggest problem with the ersatz art critics of the world is that we have come to accept their writing as actual art criticism. It simply isn’t. It’s just one person’s negative opinion, i.e., too much backbiter and not nearly enough authority.

Because knowledge is power, I’m diving into art criticism and what makes this form of writing so valuable and what we’re missing when we don’t get real critics to do this work.

Wayne Thiebaud on Left-handed Compliments

In my 2009 interview with Wayne Thiebaud (1920-2021), I asked about Edward Hopper.

Thiebaud called Hopper a very good painter of whom the art world had done a disservice. He brought up Clement Greenberg–arguably one of the most influential art critics of the 20th century–as an example.

Greenberg says something like this, and it’s an art world kind of way of putting down someone but not too far because they are so well considered by so many people…Greenberg says,

“If Hopper were a better painter, he wouldn’t be such a great artist.”

You give that to a student and the student has to puzzle that out. If you are useful to the student, you make sure that he understands something like that because it’s a central question.

Tennis, Anyone?

Speaking of left-handed compliments, here’s one I recently endured courtesy of the Denver Post’s “art critic” Ray Rinaldi.

The annual Coors Western Art Exhibit has been going on for a good 30 years now and, like a lot of things at the National Western Stock Show, its value comes from the fact that it never really changes.

From here Rinaldi talks about how the show has expanded and diversified…so not stayed the same. Then he writes that the scenery is on repeat, which he follows with a comment stating that the show is staying current by raising issues in the West. It continues in this manner–a nauseating set of left-handed compliments–to the end.

To make matters worse, he sprinkles in his own experience at the exhibit, complete with misspellings and personal meanderings that reflect more about himself and almost nothing about the art.

Nancy Bass, "At the Museum (After Mel Bochner)

At one point Rinaldi states that “walking into the show can be a lot like joining a family holiday.” But that’s the extent of his analogy; he never completes the thought beyond suggesting that artists in the show get on his nerves.

He does list the names of artists he’s familiar with–and with whom the art world greatly respects and so he can’t say anything too terrible about, as Thiebaud suggests. But he then goes on to belittle and dismiss everyone else. Sadly, he misinterprets one piece based on its title. This becomes a missed opportunity to delve into the artist and backstory. Not only does he glance over the sculpture but he misidentifies the work as a “hog,” not a coyote. Had Rinaldi looked just a little longer and dug just a little bit further he might have learned not only about art, but about animal behavior that so brilliantly sheds light on human behavior. 

Most unfortunately, what we never get from Rinaldi’s writing is a true dialogue about the show, the subject matter, the artists, or the reason for the show. 

In other words, his job of guiding us through an exhibit as an authority who is judging its merits never happens. The “review” comes off as petty. In fact, we learn more about Rinaldi’s temperament and inability to extricate himself from an experience than we do about the experience. 

Ah, hubris.

Christopher Knight: the Unicorn

So what does good art criticism look like?

There’s a reason Christopher Knight won the Pulitzer Prize in 2020: he’s really good. He brings a depth of knowledge and intimate understanding of the LA art scene from museum to street level. He looks. He digests. He finds meaning. He does this by spending time with art in order to understand the work and make important connections, which actually help us interpret it and, thereby, our world. 

Knight shines in his review, “Unicorns are just one of the wild rides in the Getty’s ‘Marvelous Book of Beasts,'” from July 23, 2019, LA Times.

In it, he draws on his vast knowledge of art, history, and Christianity. He kicks off the piece with a bit of insight into the life of Marco Polo who had thought he’d seen a unicorn on his travels, which he wrote about as, “‘Tis a passing ugly beast to look upon.” Of course, Polo hadn’t seen a unicorn, Knight points out, but probably glimpsed a rhino. 

Here’s an excerpt:

Unicorns proliferate in the first room of “Book of Beasts: The Bestiary in the Medieval World,” a sumptuous exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum. An animal surrogate for Christ’s cleansing purity, unicorns turn up in pictures drawn and painted in the vellum pages of books, carved into the side of an ivory box and the seat of a parade saddle made of bone, woven into a wool and silk tapestry, stained into window glass, hammered into a brass dish, molded to form a ritual water vessel and embroidered into delicate linen cloth.

Knight proceeds to walk us through the exhibit as if we were asked to join him. He regales us with more insights and points out hidden gems along the way. He refers to the curator’s writing and didactic materials, and soon an exhibit that, upon first glance sounded like a stuffy theoretical walk through the Getty archives, has come alive. 

But when he takes us to the final room in the exhibit, he offers this: 

If only the exhibit had also ended there. Unfortunately, there’s one more room to go, and it misfires.

Wait! What?

I’m hooked on this show because Knight has, through his well-trained lens, offered me a deeper understanding of the exhibit and drawn insightful connections to the human condition. But why did the show misfire? My curiosity is piqued and so I read on.

Seventeen minor specimens of Modern and contemporary art…suddenly catapult us almost 300 years into the future. The exhibition’s closing narrative is disjunctive. What happened between the 17th and 20th centuries is anyone’s guess. 

What We Learn

Personally, as a curator, I truly appreciate and am grateful for this section of the review. First and foremost, I want to get better at my work, so hearing why an exhibit misfires is instructional. But too, I know I’ve fallen into the trap of trying to do too much, thinking more is better (which would have been a legitimate critique of the Coors Show).

Knight gives us the reason why this final room of art does exactly the opposite.

Art museums now seem to feel that topical relevance is somehow served by appending recent art to exhibitions otherwise anchored in a historical epoch. Here, reducing the medieval bestiary to a contemporary footnote makes for a listless conclusion to an otherwise strong and compelling show.

I Think I Finally Understand

Rinaldi’s article showed up on one of my social media feeds along with his comment, “I think I finally understand the Coors Show.” If he did finally gain some understanding, he didn’t share it with us. 

The late, great art critic, Peter Schjeldahl, in his farewell column to readers of the Village Voice, beautifully addresses the kind of ambivalence Rinaldi stumbles over: 

I hazard that about 80 percent of my Voice writing was strongly affirmative in tone, with about 10 percent strongly negative and the same proportion sullenly mixed. Regrets? A few, mostly in the “mixed” category. Critics should shut up when they can’t decide how they feel, not that it’s always possible on a deadline.

Amen to that. 

Check out these Critics to read more good writing about art...

Peter Schjeldahl (1942-2022) wrote for The New Yorker for many wonderful years. Here’s a link to “T.C. Cannon’s Blazing Promise,” the review of the 2019 retrospective of Cannon’s work at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.

Cannon dealt directly with being at once Native and American and, while he was at it, a citizen of the world. He did so in the name of a higher, though difficult and lonely, allegiance. He wrote in a letter from Vietnam, “How thoughtful of God to provide such a life-stream such as art.” -Peter Schjeldahl

Rebecca Solnit is an incredibly prolific writer. Here’s a quote from an article in Cosmo titled, “How I Became a Writer, Historian, and Activist”:

Counter-criticism… seeks to expand the work of art, by connecting it, opening up its meanings, inviting in the possibilities. A great work of criticism can liberate a work of art, to be seen fully, to remain alive, to engage in a conversation that will not ever end but will instead keep feeding the imagination. Not against interpretation, but against confinement, against the killing of the spirit. Such criticism is itself great art. -Rebecca Solnit

Roberta Smith is an art critic for the New York Times. Check out “Roberta Smith on Donald Judd’s ARTnews writings: ‘A Great Template for Art Criticism.’

Everything around you can be analyzed in terms of its visual presence…the great thing about art is that there’s more than you can ever know about, you can’t learn it all. And you’re lucky if you get to spend your lifetime trying to. –Roberta Smith

Michael Kimmelman, critic for the New York Times has several books out. One of my favorites is “Portraits: Talking with Artists at the Met, the Modern, the Louvre, and Elsewhere.” I’m including him here because he’s not the usual critic. Here’s an excerpt from an interview about his book, “The Accidental Masterpiece”:

To keep your eyes open can be remarkably difficult. People typically go to museums and feel that unless they have been told where and how to look, they won’t know what they’re seeing. So they don’t trust themselves to look. No wonder they’re resentful and feel left out. I know the feeling. It took me a while to learn how to open my eyes. Talking with artists helped. I once wrote a book about going around museums with artists and I saw how they looked at the same art differently, through their own perspectives, which proved that there is no single, correct way to look at art. That’s the essence of art—good art—that it refuses to be reducible to one message or idea, so the more you look, the more you can find. It’s a metaphor for life, I think. –Michael Kimmelman

For more insight into the history and genre of art criticism, check out “16 Art Critics Who Changed the Way We Look at Art,” in Artsy. 

Want to read that entire Wayne Thiebaud interview? Here ya go! Enjoy.

Tilting at Windmills

As one of the judges for the 2022 Breckenridge International Snow Sculpture Competition, I had the opportunity to ask a bunch of artists one of my favorite questions: Why? 

In this case, WHY create art out of snow, under these conditions, knowing it’s gonna melt–that it’s probably melting as you work?! Talk about a bunch of incurable optimists….

A Container of Essence

In the art world, we’re all about collecting and preserving things that are important testaments to our life and times. And other cool shit. This ideal gets challenged hard when presented with objects that weren’t preserved properly or couldn’t be preserved–frescos, old photos, film, paintings on unstable substrates, stuff like that–or with art that was never meant to be collected in the usual way. 

Sand mandalas created by Buddhist monks come to mind.  In this case, the “art” is not the end result but the process that brings forth “an internal awakening to the desire to let go of attachments.” The act of wiping away the mandala, therefore, is part of the art because it completes the “letting go” process.

But, geez, there’s nothing left and hardly anyone got to see it! (And by “anyone,” I mean me.) 

Earthworks and land art, in a way, are the creation of mandalas on a monumental scale. The “canvas” is nature which, for a time, allows the artist to create a transformative experience and bring attention to important issues, such as the environment. These works of art are transitory but, for the time they are around, we get to see the familiar through a different lens. Land art isn’t, in my mind, so much about letting go, however, as it is about realizing what we unwittingly let go of when we stopped caring, or weren’t paying attention.

Here’s a wonderful article in Artland Magazine, about pioneering earthwork artists.

So, you may be wondering, what kind of zen fools make art like that? Excellent question. Honestly, I don’t know. I do have a guess as to Why, though.

A Place Where Art, Nature & Booze Collide

Partaking in the festivities with sculptor and co-founder of the event, Rob "Carvin' Marvin" Neyland

I had the great good fortune of being asked to help judge the 2022 Breckenridge International Snow Sculpture Championships along with Alex Kendall and Tina Rossi of Breckenridge Gallery and sculptor Dwight Davidson.

I must admit, this task made me nervous. I do a fair amount of judging and jurying of art exhibits, but snow sculpture–monumental snow sculpture–was a first.

Turns out judging a new medium was the least of my concerns. I hadn’t fully accounted for the conditions. Obviously, it’s gotta be cold to sculpt snow, but this means judging happens, basically, in a meat locker. (Thus the booze, I’m thinking.)

No Pansy-ass Power Tools Allowed

The day I arrived, sculptor teams of four had already put in three grueling days carving with hand tools (power tools are strictly prohibited), on 12′ x 10′ x 10′ packed blocks of snow. That night, while I was tucked into a warm bed, many teams were working until dawn to complete their sculpture by 9:00AM when judging was scheduled to begin.

Yup, snow sculptors are some hearty folk. I’d go so far as to say that if snow sculpting were an Olympic sport, these artists would be the biathletes–you know, the crazy cross country skiers who stop every so often to shoot at, I don’t know, slower skiers? Snowboarders? (Seriously, who does that sport?)

Now that I think of it, snow sculptors would totally do that sport. All this to say, snow sculptors are tough as nails. And zen as hell.

A Quixotic Journey

Founders of the Breckenridge Snow Sculpting Championships, Rob Neyland and Ron Shelton, have competed with their own team all over the world for the last 40 years and have a bunch gold, silver, and bronze awards to prove their chops. 

Their understanding of the art form and how these competitions unravel was vital knowledge for us judges.

In a nutshell: teams spitball concepts, someone is then tasked with the duty of creating a clay maquette (a miniature sculpture of the idea), the team applies to competitions, and, if juried in, they put themselves through four intensely exhausting days of carving under pressure, in extreme conditions. Fun, huh?

Here’s a pic of Rob Neyland and team’s maquette for “String Theory.” 

Teams are not just competing against each other’s concept and sculpting feats, but they are also working against the elements. A bright sunny day could weaken a sculpture to the point of collapse and utter ruin. Nights that don’t adequately freeze also spell danger because the snow doesn’t have a chance to freeze and begin its transformation into its more stable crystal-like form (think of snow as very, very slow running water). 

Here’s the completed sculpture. Note to man standing to the left to get a sense of scale.

And then there’s the rather dubious blocks of snow these sculptors get to carve. For example, the block provided by the Milwaukee Zoo, Rob told me, was replete with camel dung and the block in Moscow’s Gorky Park was laced with cigarette butts and beer cans. 

But like the weather, funky blocks of snow are part of the challenge and the thing that ensures everyone starts on a level playing field.

FYI: Breck snow is some of the best in the world, naturally. 

Here’s a pic of Team Breck’s gold-winning sculpture, “Frozen Moment,” at the Milwaukee Zoo competition. Note the lovely camel dung patina. 

Cross Your Fingers

The morning of judging, Yours Truly–bright-eyed and bushy tailed (well, sober anyway)–arrived at 8:00AM, with my fellow judges to get busy sussing out the winners. Holy moly, what a transformation! The biggest change for most sculptures was that all supporting pillars of snow had been removed (check out before and after pics below).

I can only imagine how nerve-wracking that must have been, taking off the supports and hoping you got the weight ratios right. Apparently, this requires a slow and methodical approach where snow is gradually whittled down to a silver dollar-sized connection. Then, a few deep breaths and Hail Marys later, the final connection is severed about an hour before judging begins.

We judges were told that, if something collapsed into a pile of rubble before judging got under way, we could still consider that sculpture based on original concept and what we’d seen the night before. Thankfully, nothing went down in flames. 

Team Wisconsin hard at work on "Digital Divide", 9:00PM the night before judging. To the right: Digital Divide 24-hours later. The only thing holding the wall of numbers upright are finger tips and a lot of good karma. OK, some well-planned engineering, too. They took home the gold.

Transformative, Indeed

The thing that struck me about this whole event was that, once the sculptors put down their tools and stepped back, what remained of a 25-ton block of packed snow looked a lot like marble. There were even striations running though some works and large ice crystals that looked like chert.

Like stone, these sculptures also carried a sense of the memory of the hand that worked it, of the body that had to understand the need to go slowly, to feel and listen for the warning signs of a deep, internal fissure that might let go at the wrong moment. 

There was also a sense of relief, a long exhale: the engineering worked. The temperature fluctuations were just right so that the snow became a different thing, a more solid form. The magic transformation that these sculptors listen for had happened: the dull thunking sound of hand tool against a freshly packed block of snow had taken on the singing quality of wine glasses meeting in a celebratory toast. 

Breckenridge Snow Sculpting Competition Bee Sustainability
Team Wisconsin's Bee Sustainability, at 2022 Breck Snow Sculpture Championship, bronze winner

The Futility of Preservation

And so I asked the question of many sculptors over the days I was in Breckenridge: Why do something that can’t possibly last? Rob Neyland’s response is my favorite: “The notion of permanence is an illusion.”

Team Germany wins silver at 2022 Breck Competition with "Float"

Art created from snow sticks around for only a handful of days. You had to be there to make a memory, which is the only thing that remains of this art. All of which begs the question: What is art? Is it the final product or is it the effort, the performance, the motion of the body in rhythm with some flicker of an idea?

The men and women who compete in these events are artists, engineers, stone workers, restoration contractors, and other similar professions. They come for many reasons. Teams are tight-knit and have leaned over the years to move as one, in tune with each other and the sounds of the snow. 

They also have a mindset grounded in humor that may stem from an understanding that all their planning and hard work could, if just one thing is off in the slightest, crumble into a heap moments before the competition ends. Which may be why they are also such soulful artists. I love what Team Germany wrote about their piece, “Float” (edited): “The subject lies in the geometric creation of order and maximum reduction to attain ‘esthetic essence’. It’s about balance and transformation. The goal of art is to develop objects for spiritual use, much as man designs objects for material use.” 

How Do You Hold a Moonbeam in Your Hand?

Rob Neyland explained one of his team’s more esoteric works, titled “Water Song,” as capturing water for the briefest of moments and suspending it against the sky. He said, “We cast our fleeting form upon it but our vision is short-lived; it soon melts and resumes its journey to the sea.”

And so, as soon as the artists have set down their tools, the sculptures have already started their retreat back to ground. On the final day the exhibit is open to the public, there is a ceremonial bonfire lit within each work, hastening its journey back to the sea. The next morning, the site returns to a bustling parking lot. 

I guess it’s a lot like life. No matter how hard we try to hold on, try to preserve beauty, beauty resists, beauty stays in motion. Memory, thankfully, lingers.

Maybe art is, as one sculptor put it, like a gourmet meal with friends; long after the food is gone, the joy of being together, rejoicing in the moment, stays in some permanent place inside your heart.

Team Breck's 2005 entry in the Breck competition, Water Song. They won bronze.

Wanna learn more about the Breckenridge International Snow Sculpture Championship and see who won? Here’s a link to the 2022 Guide: Click Here.

If you enjoy this content, please consider subscribing, sharing, and leaving a comment!

Karmel Timmons The Waiting Room pencil

Making a Case for Contemporary Western Art

In the summer of 1996, I was hired to curate a small, regional show in Denver, at the National Western Stock Show. During the Stock Show and Rodeo. In January. 

I had never been to either the fledgling Coors Western Art Exhibit & Sale or the Stock Show, but the idea of an art exhibit in such an off-beat, unexpected venue struck me as a unique and exciting challenge.

Obvious hurdles aside, (a blizzard shutting down the city on opening night, for starters), I enjoyed puzzling out the curatorial questions that came with this show, such as, how do I get successful artists to participate in an exhibit held at a stock show and rodeo? How is Western art defined? Is there room to broaden the conversation within that definition? Could I invite artists who didn’t create traditional fare but were technically “western” artists because they lived and worked in the West?

Could I, I wondered, blur the lines between traditional and contemporary art?

Don Coen Airbrush Baa Baa Brown Sheep Where Have You Been
Don Coen, acrylic airbrush, Baa Baa Brown Sheep Where Have You Been? 60x60"

What’s Scarier Than Naked Women?

Back in the early days, the Coors Show was flying under the radar. I took this opportunity to try out my theories about pushing boundaries with artists whose work didn’t fall squarely within the stricture of “Western.” It helped that I had few guidelines to follow beyond finding living artists whose work reflected the Western way of life. We were a fine art show that included photography but not crafts such as pottery. Oh, and no nudes; strictly PG.

Taking on an unknown show at an unproven venue meant that I had little or no shot at getting the big names in traditional Western art. Yes, I tried getting them, but they were busy or didn’t return my call. I couldn’t blame them. The Autry had the Masters of the American West, and the Cowboy Hall was killing it with the Prix de West. Great exhibits that showcased the best in traditional Western art. The tiny Coors Show simply could not compete.

Skip Whitcomb pastel Road to Dayton
Skip Whitcomb, "Road to Dayton" pastel, 17x28"

I rang up old friends, explained my idea of opening up the conversation about the West and the art that’s being made here, and was able to get Len Chmiel, Skip Whitcomb, George Carlson, Steve Kestrel, and others to come on board. They lent their good names and reputations to help me jumpstart the show. Lots of artists who saw those names on the roster gave us a second look. Still not the traditional artist, though. But I was OK with this. I had other ideas in mind.

Two Roads Diverge

In the art world, when you toss out the word “contemporary,” people hear things like “abstract,” “challenging,” “confrontational,” and “hard to understand.” Say “Western” and slap “art” onto it, however, and people see illustrative works that tell stories, ala Charlie Russell and Fredric Remington. Western is definable; you know it when you see it. Contemporary, well, that’s out there in the wilderness making stuff up and getting all emotional about it.

Despite the rift between philosophies—traditional vs. contemporary—finding a singular path for the Coors Show was top on my list. I wanted artists who were the best at what they did, who took on subject matter with masterful skill and conviction. I wanted artists who were unafraid to be authentic, even vulnerable. 

The other thing I really wanted to build was a show that gave voice to our great artists who didn’t fit neatly into either traditional or contemporary venues. I wanted to show Daniel Sprick and Dean Mitchell alongside William Matthews and Barbara Van Cleve.

More importantly, I saw a niche in the market no one was tapping into: a contemporary-realist focused exhibit about the West. The only catch was I couldn’t use the word “contemporary.” Not at first, anyway.

How to Offend a Curator

I look at the art of curation much like throwing interesting dinner parties where disparate guests discover they have a lot in common. Or things devolve into fisticuffs. Either way, I’m happy. The idea of curation, in my mind, is to create opportunities for conversations that get people talking. Even better, opportunities to show my audience their familiar surroundings in a new way. Putting contemporary art alongside traditional work, well that, my friend, is a heck of a dinner party!

Theresa Elliot oil High Noon
Theresa Elliot, High Noon, oil, 60x60"
Theodore Waddell, Motherwell's Angus, oil, 72x72"

I will admit, my open arms approach has ruffled a few feathers. I get it; art is personal, but the extent to which some folks have gotten upset about art, at times, has surprised even me.

One of my favorite stories happened the year I hung Theresa Elliot’s hyper-realistic cattle paintings (think the Mona Lisa, if she were a cow), across from Ted Waddell (think Motherwell meets cattle). An old rancher came in, found a volunteer to let her know he was there because he felt he needed to come see the art show each year. She graciously welcomed him and let him know she could help if he needed anything. Not too many steps into the gallery and he was confronted with Theresa and Ted. He stood there a long while then went back to the volunteer and made her join him between the works. He pointed to Theresa’s paintings and said, “These paintings are incredible.” Then, turning to Ted’s work, he said, “But these! These are a colossal waste of paint!”

The volunteer was afraid to tell me this story, but when she did, I hugged her. This is what curators live for: eliciting a response, evoking emotion. That rancher really looked at the art and had a reaction. Western art got under his skin and made him feel something!

When was I offended? That happened when a local art critic whose opinion I valued (and still do) wrote something to the effect of, “the show is filled with bucolic paintings.” Bucolic! Here again the volunteers who happily taped the review in the breakroom at the gallery, were stunned that I’d taken offense. Bucolic. She might as well have said I lulled patrons to sleep with my vanilla curation.

After that review, I redoubled my efforts to bring interesting and thought-provoking work to my audience. Not to offend, I really don’t want to offend anyone, but to present ideas and a unique lens with which to view the familiar.

David Carmack Lewis, Relic, oil
David Carmack Lewis, Relic, oil, 48x36"

Crossing the Line

The amazing thing about having a show in a non-traditional setting like the National Western, is that nearly 40,000 visitors from a diverse cross-section of our western population stop by. Because our audience is made up of people who live and breathe the western way of life, I believe we owe them authenticity. Traditional or contemporary—these things are stylistic choices. Authenticity is a core principle. The very nature of being an artist is to take on subject matter with masterful skill and conviction. But also, to be unafraid to be authentic, even vulnerable. 

Many Coors Show artists were born and raised in a traditional western home. Don Coen, for example, grew up in Lamar, CO on a working ranch that, until he turned 12, had no running water or electricity. His only complaint was that he had to ride a horse to school—all his friends had bikes. But Don, like others in the show, puts the exploration of what it truly means to live in the West first. He knows why he’s creating this work: it’s intrinsic to who he is and decidedly not what he thinks the market wants.

Melanie Yazzie mono print Building the Future
Melanie Yazzie, Building the Future, monoprint, 35.5x47.5"

Another tenet of my curation: if we’re going to show work about Native Americans it needs to be created by Native American artists. In a conversation with Denver Art Museum assistant curator of Native American Art, Dakota Hoska, on the triggering effect of traditional Western art that depicts Indigenous people in historic settings, she said, “Romanticized art has the effect of flattening the Native American experience. It’s reductive. They want to paint our culture but only the part before someone tried to destroy us. Our people were here 13,000 to 50,000 years before white people showed up; we never got to see how our society would have ended up.”

And, as Donna Chrisjohn, co-chair of the Denver American Indian Commission, said of Fredric Remington’s stereotypical portraits of American Indians, “it leaves us frozen in time and largely contributes to our invisibility today.” 

These days, I ask why. Why is an artist doing this work? Why now? Why are they the ones to tell the story? As curator for the Coors Show, I believe it’s my responsibility to present contemporary artists of all walks of life and allow them to hold the stage and tell their story. I am consistently buoyed by the support of collectors, especially younger collectors, who seek out contemporary, authentic voices.

Looking to the future, I would love to see more open mindedness and space for alternative—yes, contemporary—voices to be heard. I truly believe, for Western artists, this is the only way our genre will be recognized in the larger arena and ultimately, stay relevant for the next 100 years.

Embrace Change Like An Artist

Over the course of curating and installing the 2022 Coors Western Art Exhibit & Sale, I noticed something quite remarkable. The entire show from paintings to sculpture, photographs, and prints, has an overwhelming sense of calm. 

But why? Truly, of my 26 years curating this show, why is this year so much different than any other? 

I mean, it’s not like the world has gotten safer and we’ve beat the pandemic, cured cancer, and handed out cute puppies to all. Certainly, artists have suffered through this weird, stressful series of dramatic cultural changes just like everyone else. 

If anything, the pandemic hit the art market especially hard–and we’re already one of the most fickle and flat-out unstable places to work as it is. Galleries and museums closed their doors overnight, shows were postponed indefinitely, and workshops canceled, which meant artists were suddenly stranded, cut-off from patrons and collectors.

And yet, the work that these artists in the Coors Show produced over the last year–the work I had just watched my installers hang–is inspired, hopeful, and stunningly harmonious. 

I have a theory

2022 Coors Show Gallery Preview

Whether you like change or prefer the status quo, I think it’s fair to say that the changes thrust upon us all thanks to COVID have stretched the limits of even the most amenable among us. 

I suspect, however, that for artists, once the initial sense of terror settled down, a long, slow sigh of relief rose to the surface.

Suddenly, artists everywhere were summarily relieved of deadlines. One day it’s the grind of constant nagging stress, the next, there’s room to step back, to think, to play. 

Don’t get me wrong. Every artist I talked to has struggled with COVID and isolation. Despite the common depiction of the artist as loner, most artists will tell you that they heavily rely on gatherings of their peers to paint and draw together, and critique each others’ work over bottles of wine. In other words, inspiration is often found in social interaction; art is very much a team sport. 

And, so, standing amid so many truly authentic and subtle works of art, I had to wonder:

Are artists uniquely capable of adapting to change more so than others?

The Psychology of Change

Times of upheaval–great depression, wars, a pandemic–create interesting opportunities to observe evolution. Humans are in the petrie dish, so to speak. The question of the hour is: how quickly can we change and adapt?

Or not.

For some, this disruption in the status quo has been cause for panic, even anger, and the need to dig one’s heels in while pushing back with great force.

But why is change so hard for some while others, albeit not thrilled, seem to roll with it? 

According to a 2012 article in the SAGE Journal titled “An Analysis of Resistance to Change Exposed in Individuals’ Thoughts and Behaviors,” by Lena M. Forsell and Jan A. Astrom, “all psychological resistance is built on a fear of change where the outcome could result in a worse situation.”

Everyone experiences resistance to change to some degree, but most of us think things through and deal with it. However, research shows that the ensuing fear of change can often be traced back to “the attitudes and behaviors of the [person’s] parents or other adults from their childhood.”

Yep, that’s right. Go ahead and blame your parents for this one.

That’s science, my friends.

Hoping to Sprout Wings

Though I’m in the camp of folks who get peevish with the status quo, I’m not the most confident of women, by a long shot. I do admire it in others, probably because I recognize that it doesn’t come easily for me. I bring this up because I don’t think an abundance of confidence is the key ingredient to an artist’s ability to adapt to major societal changes, such as a pandemic, and not just because I don’t have it.

It’s a strange kind of push-pull, in my mind, to love change, even the change that feels like you’re walking off a cliff, hoping to sprout wings, and yet struggle to ask for help along the way. Asking for help always feels like admitting failure. That I’m a fraud, an imposter. I’ve written about the imposter syndrome and the fear of failure in my blog post, On Voice, because a lot of us in the art world suffer from an overactive inner critic.

Either way–too much or too little confidence–my guess is that we can toss confidence out the window as a factor in my theory as to why artists seem to have weathered the pandemic better than others. 

A Little Fear Goes A Long Way

Art is, by its very nature, abstract and ephemeral. Not all minds can hang in that space for long. But for esoteric, searching thinkers, this is home. Change in this space is ever present and, if not always readily embraced, it is, generally, quietly accepted.

Accidents lead to innovations that are frequently lauded among peers. That giddy feeling of being on to something profound–or stepping off the precipice into the abyss–can be an incredibly exhilarating space. 

If the nearly 400 harmonious works of art in the 2022 Coors Show are evidence of anything at all, I think it’s that art thrives when the mind is free of deadlines and the demands of the market–something that happened overnight when COVID struck. 

There was also no time for self-doubt; artists had to keep making art because it’s what they do and who they are. 

An artist must trust that art makes the world better because it gives meaning to, well, everything. As unstable as a life in the arts may be, it very well may be the safest place for the wild minds that strive and survive in spite of societal upheaval. 

Embrace Change Like an Artist: PART TWO

I recently curated one of the most impactful shows I’ve ever worked on. Mental Health Through the Eyes of Artists ran this fall at the PACE Center, Parker, Colorado.

While COVID has been a global trauma, the artists in this show struggle with internal trauma, physical pain and disabilities that left many contemplating ending it all.

Art became the eye of the storm.

Surreal depiction of Ethan's story

This show came about thanks to Idaho artist Scott Switzer whose recent body of work tells the story of a friend’s schizophrenic son who was killed by a police officer. Ethan, 24 at the time, was shot in the back while running from a homeless camp. He had committed no crime, was shirtless and shoeless, and had no drugs in his body. He was in the midsts of a psychotic break. 

Ethan’s death hit home for Scott, who also has a son with schizophrenia. And Scott, he deals with his own mental health issues. 

Just as asking for and accepting help has been difficult for me, this show brought to light just how difficult it is for some people to talk about mental health. Yeah, I’m including myself here.

But why? 

Isn’t this reluctance part of the reason we have so many people struggling and isolating themselves when they need help the most? Hell, isn’t this why I’ve stayed stuck in bad situations, growing more and more angry with myself for my inability to get unstuck?

Scott’s work and willingness to speak openly about his son and his own challenges sent me down an incredible path. I knew this was an important topic and that art was the perfect vehicle with which to start the conversation.

And, because I wanted to include Colorado artists, I reached out to the Denver Veterans Association. Wow. I had no idea that I would get to know so many truly brilliant artists whose work brings to light such honest, open, and vulnerable emotion. 

Many of these artists are dealing with PTSD, depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, and constant physical pain.

More than one artist told me he had held a .45 to his head, thinking of ending it all. Their stories of finding community through the Veteran’s Arts Council and how creating art allowed them to face some truly astounding challenges gave me unforgettable and precious insight into the resilience of the human spirit, and the unique ability for the act of creating art to heal. 

A Man with a Vision is Never Truly Blind

Jim Stevens was one of those veterans who thought of ending it all. A Long Range Patrol Leader in the Army during the Vietnam war, Jim was shot in the head while on a combat mission. Though he recovered, the bullet left fragments in his brain that gave him severe migraines, which he still endures to this day. 

When he returned home, he took a job as a professor at the University of Colorado and resumed his art practice, something he had done his entire life, starting as a kid when his grandmother taught him to paint.

In 1993, that all changed when a migraine caused a bullet fragment to move and trigger a stroke that, in 30 minutes time, took his eyesight. 

“I found myself divorced and the blind single parent of two preteen daughters,” Jim told me. “I lost my job and all confidence in my art.”

At that point, Jim sank into anger and depression.

“I was so angry that I destroyed my motorcycle with a crowbar and trashed my unfinished art pieces with a baseball bat and ripped up most of my notes, drafts, and records,” he said. “It took many years to accept being blind.”

Through it all, his daughters kept asking him to make art. Finally, in 2000, Jim went back into the studio. 

Heading the Call for Help

Legally blind, Jim sees the world through pin-pricks of vision. He told me that, when in front of me, he could see one of my eyes but to see my nose, he had to move his eyes to focus on that. Everything else was an empty void.

Obviously, his initial attempts back trying to make art were slow and frustrating. His initial attempts were rough, but he soon discovered that the more he created, the more he felt he could accomplish. “I kept working and relearning the craft, learning how to do my art without the eyesight an artist so desperately needs.”

With patience, he was able to remastered the skills he’d learned before the war and his injury.

Then this happened. From the backyard, one warm summer afternoon, he heard the pained cry for help from his six-year-old grandson. While practicing his casting, the line from the boy’s toy fishing pole had gotten stuck in a birds nest. As Jim stood in the backyard, hands full of tangled fishing line, he thought, “Yeah, right, the old blind guy’s gonna fix this.” But then a cloud moved over head and blocked the sun. Through his pin-pricks of vision, it created the illusion that the monofilament line was rippling in his hands.

“I couldn’t get that image out of head,” he recalled. “I kept thinking, how could I create something out of this material?”

Side view, Jim Stevens monofilament painting

Soon Jim began experimenting with monofilament, trying to recreate that sensation, but how? After much experimentation, he realized he had to lay out the fishing line on a grid. From there he started painting on the individual stands of monofilament which he then stacked in separate layers, one on top the other. Together the disparate layers filled in the missing notes and created a complete image. 

With the aid of special lenses, Jim has been able to  create art that not only communicates his inner vision but also, in a way, allows people to get a glimpse of the world through his eyes.  

Jim Stevens peering through lens

“I paint each layer with a slightly different shade, so that paint pulls your eye through,” he explained. “It takes about two month to paint one work of art because each layer has a complete painting on the monofilament.”

Jim Stevens monofilament painting Embers

Jim has, in this work, brought us into his mind’s eye, which is decidedly not blind. “With these monofilament paintings, I’m literally painting one strand at a time, straight ahead. The abstract linear paintings, those portraits are hundreds of individual lines.”

Between the lines, there is nothing. Just like his vision, it is empty. “The way I paint reflects the way I see the world. I can see your eye. I can see that one strand. But for me there’s nothing on either side. I have to move my eyes to see where that is. When I look at one spot, it’s just empty.”

Jim’s work continues to evolve despite his physical challenges. His latest portraits are painted on a clear acrylic panel that he floats over an abstract painting on komatex panel. “The portrait is painted without shading,” he said. “The abstract painting creates all the shading in the portrait.”

What's Your Motto?

I could stop there, with Jim’s art and his incredible spirit, but I’m sure you already guessed that Jim has impacted lives beyond art. In 2015, he and his fellow creative veterans banded together to create the Veteran’s Arts Council (VAC) at VFW Post 1, in Denver. The program gives veterans a place to gather and create art and show their work. Jim insists on bringing vets into the mainstream with the Arts Council, as well, by holding first Friday openings and finding new venues to showcase the art of his fellow soldiers. The VAC even pulls in non-veteran artists to participate as well. And, naturally, Jim has been asked to help start VAC programs across the country. 

For the opening of the PACE Center exhibit, we had a panel discussion, Bringing Light and Love to Mental Health. Scott Switzer and Jim Stevens were among the panelists who spoke openly and frankly about mental health and healing through art. Many artists from the show were in the audience and contributed to the conversation that emphasized the importance of talking about mental health as a way to lessen the stigma surrounding the topic. 

One of my favorite moments in the conversation was when Jim explained his approach to working with veterans who are struggling to see a good way around their problems. 

Scott Switzer "Ethan's Kisses"

“I tell them to focus on one line for life,” he explained. By this he means, find your motto, keep it simple, reflect on it daily to stay focused. Don’t try to solve all your problems in a day; that simply won’t happen. 

Upon hearing this, Scott said, “I think my motto is: I know there’s a god and it ain’t me.”

Amen to that.

Here’s Jim’s motto and mine. 

“A man with a vision is never truly blind.” -Jim Stevens

“Ask for help; there is grace in vulnerability.” -Rose Fredrick

To learn more about Jim Stevens and how he creates, check out this video.

Thanks for reading! Please share your motto below.

[Mis]Understanding Art

"Filter", Sophy Browm, 36x40 inches, mixed media

I was recently asked to write a response to a person who was upset by Sophy Brown’s depiction of horses that we are showing in this year’s Coors Western Art Exhibit & Sale. This was a bit of a head-scratcher for me; how were Sophy’s unique, thought provoking paintings of horses upsetting? Sure, you have to dig a little deeper for meaning, maybe ask some questions…perhaps get a little more of the backstory but what’s so troubling about that? Heck, I could give her context galore! 

So, I tackled her grievance head on and wrote: 

No horses were harmed in the creation of this work!

I went on to talk about how Sophy grew up in England, the land of great equine artists such as Munnings and Wootton and Seymore. And how she herself was a horsewoman, dedicated to the welfare of horses!

Then I hesitated. Was this person really interested in art or was she simply wanting to vent a preordained opinion? 

Alfred Munnings Horse Racing
"Lord Astor's High Stakes with Sir Gordon Richards Up at Newmarket", Sir Alfred Munnings, 20.5x27 inches

Ah, yes. Hope springs eternal.

I decided to take a chance–at this point, I was kind of on a roll–and went on to explain that, not only were Sophy’s paintings anything but an aggrandizement of the abuse of horses, they were actually not about horses at all.

Sophy Brown’s paintings were, in fact, self-portraits. 

I realized this was a lot to take in, especially for someone who most likely searches for literal meaning in art, but it is the key ingredient to accurately viewing Sophy’s work. Seeing horses in difficult predicaments is tough, I agree, but I thought if she knew these works, for the most part, are figments of the artist’s imagination and, more importantly, that they are an outward representation of her very real inward pain, grief, anger, sorrow emanating from a place of unfathomable loss, perhaps she’d register some understanding beyond her own limited vision? 

Real art conveys emotions, truth, feelings

At some point in writing this response to a person I have never met, and for all I know, has no interest in art but, as I mentioned earlier, probably just wanted to vent, I realized that this was a much larger conversation and one that probably wouldn’t be well received via email. 

And yet I went on, talking about how the manifestation of grief could be seen on the surfaces of Sophy’s work–thrown paint splatter and dripping down the canvases,  spray paint obliterating aspects of the work, and carved mark making peeling and pulling away at the layers.

"Coverage", Sophy Brown, 48 x 62.5 inches, mixed media

Indeed, some of Sophy’s paintings from two and three years ago, when she first went back into her studio after so much debilitating loss, were pure madness, pure emotion. Pure art.

As a curator, my job is to put together a collection of fine art. I’m sure there are many definitions of fine art but an important aspect, in my mind, is that it is a reflection of the artist’s soul. Patrons know it when they see it because it stirs emotion inside. This emotion has propelled viewers, at times, to try to destroy great works of art, I think, as a way to escape feeling so deeply. But for me, I know I’ve put together a truly important collection of work when patrons are moved by the feelings stirred inside them.

As I concluded my letter, I asked this woman to go back, now armed with context, and take another look at Sophy’s work. Here’s her response:

Dear Ms. Fredrick,

Thank you for getting back to me.  I can only imagine her loss.  We will have to agree to disagree on fine art vs the glorification of animal abuse.  I still feel the way I do about her pieces on the site.

Have a Merry Christmas.

"Lockdown", Sophy Brown, 20 x 18.5 inches, mixed media


Agree to disagree?

Merry Christmas?!



“You,” I wrote back, “have a cold, cold heart.”


Don’t worry, I didn’t hit send because, honestly,  would it have mattered?

She never would have understood that we all carry our own baggage into every experience. To accurately interpret art, the viewer has to be aware of this and then get out of the way and let the art speak. Sophy isn’t asking anyone to like her work; it is hers alone, her heart, her soul. She is not creating for an audience; she is creating to find meaning in this messed up world.

All we need to remember is what a privilege it is to bear witness.

Steven Yazzie’s Upside Down World

Navajo artist Steve Yazzie is circling back to painting after year of exploring video and film and installation art. I first saw Steven’s work at the museum at the Institute of American Indian Art. He was part of the show curated for Crystal Bridges by Mindy Besaw, Candice Hopkins and Manuela Well-Off-Man, called Art for a New Understanding, Native Voices, 1950 to Now.

The work they had was an installation of his Drawing and Driving project. He had built a cart and attached a small easel to the steering wheel and frame. The idea was to hop on and set off down a hill and at the same time, start sketching what you saw flying by at ever increasing speeds. Fun. Harrowing. But, yeah, fun!

As part of the project, which began at a residency at Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. It grew into a larger venture when he took his vehicle to other sites in the West and invited fellow artists and friends to hop on board and give it a go. And though the idea may seem absurd–attempting to draw while steering a cart down a hill–it’s kind of how we’re seeing the land, whistling down the highway and top speed, glimpsing bits and pieces out of the corner of an eye. We take it all for granted, so why not draw and drive, if only to scare the bejesus out of yourself and, maybe, snap yourself out of the trance of modern life if only for a short, rough ride?

The painting in Allegories of Transformation is part of Steven’s return to the studio to paint. Check out his website for his many videos and other paintings. And, of course, to read more about Steven, go to his site and ours at the PACE Center.

Diego Romero, Pop-Native-Fiction

Diego Romero’s work does this crazy thing: it draws you in because it looks like very old, traditional pottery but then, when you get up close, it’s like a little kid jumped out from a closet and shouted BOO!

Lest Tyranny Reign, 7.5×17 inches, ceramic

He’s clearly having way too much fun.

Diego’s pottery is based on techniques that are thousands of years old. Holding his work in your hands is surprising. It feels like touching an egg. It’s lighter than it looks and, as he points out, incredibly durable. And yet, if you drop it, it will shatter.

American Diastrophism, 30 x 27.7 inches, lithograph

One of his newest pieces, Lest Tyranny Reigns, is based on the story of the great Pueblo leader Pope who held off the Spanish invasion for a hot second. And because of his bravery and cunning, he has become a folk hero, the story of which lends itself beautifully to Diego’s work which gives a nod to the comic book illustrators he loved to read since childhood and still collects to this day.

Comic books, American films and pop art also influence his print work, which he creates with Black Rock Press in New Mexico. He loves appropriating cultures–after all, he’s seen plenty of people appropriate his culture. But it’s such a wonderful way to start a conversation: draw people in with something that is known and comfortable, then add the twist, the thing that makes you stop and think and ask questions.

To learn more about Diego, visit his gallery, Shiprock and check out our site, PACE Arts.