Retrospective: Drawings, Paintings, Sculpture, Pots, and Bonsai
For a year I’ve been dreaming about assembling my past artwork in a timeline. Almost everything I had needed to be digitized from slides and prints, the earliest from 35 years ago. Going through the big boxes of images took longer than expected, as I would drift into reverie over times long forgotten.
I enjoyed seeing the bonsai evolution here. For 15 years they remained unsophisticated and undeveloped. Then in the span of two years that changed.
There’s a LOT of images in this post, edited ferociously to just a few examples per creative period. It was a hoot to put together, and I hope you enjoy it ~
Left, birding in the Everglades, FL at age 11; right, at my drawing table in Ithaca, NY, age 20. By age 10 I had an art mentor, and at the time I was heavily into birding, so I drew a lot of birds.
These pencil drawings were made during college summer breaks. I apparently enjoyed Where’s Waldo—try to find the cicada with the cactus wren, and the waterthrush hidden in the ferny waterfall. I also enjoyed the gorges of the Finger Lakes region and how the streams cut through the shale bedrock. And notice the bonsai here. A couple of these date back to when I was 15, the skill level remaining essentially unchanged until my early 30’s. And yes, that mountain laurel is planted in a trashcan lid.
While not my first tree drawing, this was the first with a bonsai-ish feel. I was 20. The inspiration was a juniper seen at Mesa Verde, CO.
These were from my freshman year, an intaglio print, and two life drawings.
As a sophomore I found ceramics, and began making bonsai containers for my trees at that time. This is about as far as I got with functional tableware.
My undergraduate thesis show was in painting. They were all big, and the one over the wood floor was huge, 8′ x 8′. I was a biology minor, and looking through microscopes inspired that series.
I think this was my last painting, done just after I graduated college.
Part of a series I made to get into ceramics graduate school. These are about 3′ tall.
And in college, again the unimpressive bonsai. Two reasons may account for this: my creative energies were going elsewhere, and I lacked the techniques to make a tree say anything other than ‘Hey, I’m a potted plant.’
This is work from Indiana University. I was in that graduate program for one year. Then I transferred to the New York State College of Ceramics, Alfred University.
Early work at Alfred, my first year as a ceramic sculpture grad.
These pieces are from the second year. The monoprints were from an elective course.
A few pieces from my thesis show, which was one last experiment. It was the first time I’d done any writing. There were short prose poems printed very small which were read with a glass magnifier (which a glassmaker friend made). The feet were porcelain.
I usually resist the urge to explain artwork, but I know work like this can be confusing. So, let me try at least to describe the process. Work like I did in graduate school is often quite private, and often it’s never meant to be shown. You might call it journey work, one piece leading to and informing the direction of the next, using the subconscious as an ally, and learning from it. The pieces themselves are little more than a breadcrumb trail. They may ignore other’s ideas of beauty, or what’s pretty. There may be no effort to sell them. When released from those tethers, if lucky, the work can guide and teach the creator. And if very lucky, it can be interesting to others. But most important is to keep moving. To keep exploring. To be led by the work, by the products of the body and not of mentation. I still use this challenging, uncertain and yet edifying creative toolbox for so many things.
When I was in graduate school my father heroically leapt off a tram to recover a hat blown off my mother’s head, slipping on some rocks and getting a concussion that took over 6 months to recover from (beware, the heroic). The reason this drawing is crinkled is I’d used it as wrapping paper for a gift to my father in the hospital, thrown out and later saved. He was an entomologist, and making these insect people was my only way of relating to the fragility of a man I always thought was indestructible.
And once more notice the bonsai. These were from the graduate school years, in my mid-20’s. Their lack of sophistication was, as the years went by, in greater and greater contrast to the other work I was doing.
At the end of my term at Alfred I felt that I’d gone as far with sculpture as I wanted to go, and turned to making bonsai containers.
My potter years, 1995-2003, starting in Upstate NY and ending in Arizona. That last unfired pot seems to suggest I wanted more.
For most of my potter years the bonsai advanced hardly at all, still little more than toys. I didn’t take them as a way to journey, as I had with painting or sculpture. Then in the last few years as a potter this changed.
I love this photo on the left, from about 2002. I’m in the red shirt, my first teacher Boon Manakitivipart is on the lower left, Mr. Kimura is on the lower right, and my future teacher Mr. Shinji Suzuki is to the upper right. I had pretty clear aesthetic opinions by this point, and when it came to finding a master in Japan it felt like Mr. Shinji Suzuki’s work was the closest match. At the time of this photo I’d been studying with Boon for two years, and already my bonsai looked different. The techniques he shared felt like the beginning of a microphone for the medium. Then I went to Japan.
Work as an apprentice.
Here’s a smattering of bonsai made post-Japan. None of these are particularly traditional (plenty of those in my portfolio), save for the accent plants. It was only after Japan that I began to skip sideways with the trees.
This is a tiny home I designed and built in 2017. I knew almost nothing about architecture, but found many similarities to the arts I was more familiar with. For one, creation is a messy affair, with lots of aborted cul-de-sacs not seen in the final work (for the tiny home, thankfully, most of those were confined to my early SketchUp drafts).
What inspires us to create? A few early trips likely sparked much of the above, and I was 19 on the most memorable one. At Hamilton College in January we had a short ‘Winter Term’, when a professor could take a group of kids and do something crazy. We kitted out a van with a 55 gallon drum of water, eleven students, one brave professor, and left Upstate NY for Baja, Mexico. (Micha, I think you’re in the back row there by the van…) It was an ecology class, and the first time I’d ever kept a journal. Three weeks later we returned with no reported homicides though with various bruises, particularly to our van which had barely survived Big Bend National Park—one fender was bent at a jaunty angle, a perfect spot for our Big Bend bumper sticker. The photo of the streaks is my favorite. One member of the group had brought his tripod, and we both had cameras, so one night we stood on a hill overlooking the ocean and each took 30 minute exposures of the stars with a cable release. I didn’t know the fella that well, but we stood and talked of future dreams that entire hour, and I couldn’t believe the slide when I got it back. That the stars had such colors…and it was the first time the starry sky had felt 3D, like rain that gives body to air.
In my mid-20’s I went on two other trips: to the green roof of Upstate New York, the Adirondacks, and to England where I wandered about the Cotswolds and was taken with the welcoming wooden doors framed by semi-cultivated foliage, a wisteria planted at Kew Gardens in the 1750’s, the dry stack rock walls everywhere, and in London, tile steps where many feet had worn off the glaze.
Along with the bonsai progression, I enjoyed seeing how early on I was looking at entropy, time and nature in various ways, and that I now see as proto wabi-sabi interest, foreshadowing a deeper investigation in the bonsai that have threaded through all of this. And I wonder, what’s next for them?