My Experience in Learning How to See

When I make a painting, my first priority is always to create space. The subject matter, or model, isn't unimportant, just secondary. How it fills the rectangle is much more interesting - to me, anyways. Other people have other ideas and that's OK.

I was taught to see space and what creates space by an artist from Eugene, Oregon named Tom Blodgett. Blodgett took me in as an apprentice when I was 23 years old. I studied under him for about 5 years and those 5 years were to change my life and the way I perceive the world forever.

At 23, I was interested in art, but couldn't 'see'. I didn't know at the time I couldn't see or that there even was such a thing. My aim was to try to "make a living doing something I love" and the apex of such ambitions was to create album covers or illustrate the packaging of environmentally friendly consumer goods.

I had previously attended a 2 year trade school where I learned how to draw an elipse and we worked from live models and observed how apples weren't really red and that kind of thing. I then started attending art classes at a community college in Eugene doing much of same thing in order to refine my skills when I met Blodgett through a friend.

Until then, nobody had ever really critisized my work before. Years of attending art classes, years of praise, never an unkind word from anybody were all about to come crashing down in one session. I proudly trotted my carefully arranged portfolio up to his studio on a hill the day after we were introduced. Blodgett didn't hold back.

I was hit from every angle. He seemed to look right through me and cut to the core, not of my crappy little paintings, but me, as a person, because of what I had made and the audacity of calling myself an artist. This particular quality of Tom Blodgett didn't make him a popular figure in the Eugene art scene, which he held in the highest contempt. His ability to boil down a painting to a character flaw was uncanny. The point was - that he saw me in my work and my work wasn't going to get any better until I did. True to the masochistic nature of any type of artist, I was hooked and our journey begins.

I don't remember how long it took. Three or six months maybe. I was sitting in Blodgett's studio watching him work on 12 notebook sized oil pastel paintings that were tacked flat against a wall over an open fireplace. The paintings were thick with soft pastel. He'd slash and crush the medium against the surface. Sometimes he'd push so hard, sticks of pastel would become embedded to the face of them. Then it happened. I heard a literal pop in my brain and the paintings came alive.

I saw movement in art for the first time. I saw space jiggle and adapt to each new mark. Realizations about physics and the science involving objects in space flooded my mind. I was learning how to feel with my eyes. I was realizing that the truth wasn't just a pretty word. I guess you could even say I became a little bit religious and felt closer to God and what it means to create.

Outside, I could take my new perceptions of movement to nature. I saw how physical objects like a tree or a rock connected with visible, tangible lines that, when flattened, continued into a mountain that was miles away. I saw lines bump into objects that created explosions of energy that swirled and branched out into new lines. Infinity in nature.

Under Blodgett's direction, I hit the library and started devouring art books. The Impressionists were the easiest for me to see at first. They painted according to these lines. They connected energies in space with short, textured strokes where the textures became more important than the subject matter itself to create a whole statement which added up to an infinity. I saw Seurat, I saw Van Gogh, I saw Pollock, I saw Japanese woodblock prints. Quotes by Cezanne deepened my understanding.

Moving forward and backward in time, I saw that all art followed these principals. Everything from the cave paintings to Warhol started to make a certain sense to me. I suppose it would be foolish to say I "understand" them or it (art), but rather I learned how to appreciate them in a new way. I no longer refer to artists that survive the test of time as "popular", as that 23 year old me trotting up to a real artist's studio for the first time would have, but give them the respect they've rightfully earned.

As for my work now, at 48 years old, I think it's good. I know that I'm no Rembrandt or Picasso or Blodgett. I don't know if it can stand the test of time or if it will disappear when I do. My favorite hope is that perhaps through this work, a new artist may be inspired to create, maybe someone of great genius or maybe someone like me who feels the urge to contribute some beauty and a truth here and there to a troubled world.
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