The slow improvisation approach to art

I have always found something soothing about sewing – ornamental sewing, not practical where something needs mending or fixing.

The making of one mark, repeated by others, over a period of time, forming a larger image or pattern – my eye likes this too.

I loved reading and words first, since before I thought about expressing myself with images.
So I’m a sucker for artwork that involves words and letters.
And am especially drawn to “artist alphabets.”

Anne KIngsbury beaded letters

Beaded letters from Anne Kingsbury’s Pataphysical Alphabet.

Recently I had the great pleasure of seeing an exhibit of Anne Kingsbury’s beaded alphabet, accompanying drawings, and unrelated journal entries.
It was like a visual meditation for me, looking at all the tiny beads and imagining the artist sewing each one into the leather backing, over a period of time; then stepping back and synching that thought of one bead followed by another bead and another, comprising the whole image of each fantastical letter.

Beaded bird drawing

Drawing from 2016 “daily bird” series, augmented with beads.

In an interview, Ms. Kingsbury made mention of “slow improvisation” in her approach to making art.
Always conscious of time (how much, how little, what is yet to do within it), I find myself mulling the thought of mark-making over time, whether with ink or thread or beads, to take a longer journey toward the whole.

'Dot' drawing creature

Beginning of “start with one mark” drawing. Begun after seeing Anne Kingsbury’s journals and beaded letters.

Beeswax candle dipping = Aromatic sculpture meditation

We are interested in bees as pollinators and part of agricultural life cycle (bringers of flowers, fruit and vegetables). On those auspices, we took a class on Beeswax Candle Dipping via the Driftless Folk School.

Candle types: Dipped beeswax candles

Candle types: Dipped beeswax candles

Instructor Martha Buche had the wax already a-melting so the classroom smelled great as soon as we began. As a sculptor I have worked with wax in other processes: making plaster mold castings into which glass or bronze was poured, doing a bit of carving and shaping directly into the wax before they were burned out to make the permanent castings. I had never worked with wax by dipping it. Martha also has a formal art background, and shared with us a bit about her non-wax sculptural work.

Beeswax chunks and candle wicking

Beeswax chunks and candle wicking

The process of building up wax thickness slowly but surely via layers was a gentle and subtle reminder of the power of time. The process of dipping – circular paths around the melting table, slow enough to let wax build along the wick – was a form of meditation

Candle dipping sequence

Building up beeswax slowly along the wick, through a series of dips into hot liquid wax.

Discussions ran from art to agriculture to homesteading and DIY – the practice of making candles with beeswax touched all of these areas.

Beeswax candles hanging to solidify

Beeswax candles hanging to solidify

We speculated what it would be like – in a longer class – to harvest the wax and then make the candles, starting earlier in the wax-making process by getting to know the wax-makers: the bees. Discussion got fanciful and spun our theoretical class into a week-long workshop in which attendees would learn beekeeping, harvest wax and make candles, harvest honey, and turn some of the honey into mead!

Seph and I each made several dipped beeswax candles during class, in an assortment of lengths and thicknesses.

Seph and I each made several dipped beeswax candles during class, in an assortment of lengths and thicknesses.

We learned that this class was conducted on January 31 specifically because the first few days of February is a significant time of renewal and new beginnings in several traditions, including Candlemas, Groundhog Day and St Brigid’s feast day. In recognition of the day being a good time to celebrate new things and affirm intentions for the coming year, we all made wee promise candles and lit them in a circle.

Wee "promise" beeswax candles

Lighting “promise” candles on Candlemas to reaffirm and set intentions for the coming year.

The class engendered a sense of restful contemplation which will not leave me any time soon, and spurred new insights into how different art processes – welding, grinding, drawing, painting, writing, candle dipping – engender different “head space” for me, from meditative to agitated watchfulness.

Winter = Pay attention, already!

Winter enforces its own kind of focus on my surroundings. As an artist, I find myself most attuned to this change in focus when spending time outside.

When color and mass are gone or muted, other elements come to the foreground of my attention: lines and silhouettes; individual plants or details rather than the bigger picture.

Dried plant in snow

Dried plant in snow

A stand of trees in the summer presents itself as a mass of foliage and dappled light / shadow. The winterized stand of trees is a study in structure – with leaves long gone, the “skeletons” of tree wood draw attention – and a changed perception, highlighting how individual trees mass together to form a whole stand of trees.

Young Forest In Winter

Young Forest In Winter

Pattern catches my attention in a different way too: winter branches in wind scratch against the sky like writing; summer leaves heave and ripple together as one mass of green like a swell of the ocean.

Birch Bark Pattern

Birch Bark Pattern

Winter’s starkness is revelatory, giving me lessons in studiousness and perceptiveness that I try to remember when the riotous colors and smells of spring herald the turn to a fuller time of year.

Talent, You Fickle Wench

A recent reading of “The Interestings,” about friends who first meet at a summer camp for the arts, spurred thoughts about the nature of talent. The degree to which talent is exemplary enough to be career-worthy, vs just being an avocation or amusement, can provide fame, income and a career – or bitterness and heartache, depending on the ability for objective analysis about one’s depth of talent and the world’s value on it.

Even exemplary talent needs the right circumstances to thrive – cultural / marketplace opportunity, timing, financial backing, mentor sponsorship, business / networking connections – along with other qualities in the talented (perseverance, work ethic etc). Public appreciation for talent doesn’t always last over time, and sometimes the talented veer onto other paths with their gifts, or find their “run” cut short by age when their talent is tied to physical ability.

I frequently contemplate the nature of talent and its expression when viewing art, especially by artists I know.

Whimsical bench by Tom Loeser on display at the Museum of Wisconsin Art. I greatly enjoyed having Tom on my Master of Fine Arts committee during my MFA study at UW Madison.

Whimsical bench by Tom Loeser on display at the Museum of Wisconsin Art. I greatly enjoyed having Tom on my Master of Fine Arts committee during my MFA study at UW Madison.

A recent trip to the Museum of Wisconsin Art stirred up more thoughts about talent and how these artists have acted on their talent.

Canoes by Truman Lowe on display at the Museum of Wisconsin Art. I was privileged to study under Truman during his tenure at UW Madison.

Canoes by Truman Lowe on display at the Museum of Wisconsin Art. I was privileged to study under Truman during his tenure at UW Madison.

There are many potential paths for artistic talent. A classic path aimed for by many of us earning our MFAs was the university professorship combined with a healthy schedule of gallery exhibits and possibly punctuated by a fellowship or guest artist stint at other universities.

The “art star” talent path is less regular and burns brighter: No regular professorship but perhaps occasional guest lecturer / fellowship gigs strung together with grants, artist-in-residency postings and hopefully semi-regular press in major art publications.

A comparison between “classical” art careers and my own is inevitable, but these days it follows a more meditative and less self-critical path than it once did.

I too contribute to the artistic arena by producing and selling art. My earlier work was self-reflective and sometimes poignant, shared with the world via gallery exhibits.

"Who knows when we started keeping secrets?" Mixed media piece with photographs on transparency film, leaves, words and etched wood.

“Who knows when we started keeping secrets?” Mixed media piece with photographs on transparency film, leaves, words and etched wood.

My recent art is decorative and seen online or at craft shows, and the pace of creating / showing has been erratic at best this past year.

Welded steel plant sculptures with lampworked glass flowers.

Welded steel plant sculptures with lampworked glass flowers.

My artistic output now occurs in much different spheres, to different consumers, and at a widely irregular volume than it once did. I have begun to realize that the conversation and commerce exchanged about my art now is just as valid a contribution as what I contributed in a different, more regular and traditional way earlier in my career.

This sense of equilibrium with my talent is new – being comfortable with contributing on a very different scale than I used to, and vastly different than some of those with whom I studied and mentored. Like the characters in “The Interestings,” I am reaching my own level of contentment with my talent, how it is expressed – and how much of it I draw upon for my sense of identity.

Kayaking and hiking feeds my art, spiritually and literally: I was a photographer long before I sculpted, and make yearly calendars of my water photography.

Kayaking and hiking feeds my art, spiritually and literally: I was a photographer long before I sculpted, and make yearly calendars of my water photography.

What DOES it mean to be an artist?

My friend Eyvonne interviewed me for a class about artistic identity. The questions — and the process of answering them — got me thinking and articulating about my artistic process in a way I hadn’t for quite awhile. The interview questions and answers follow, puncutated with photographic illustrations.


Instructor notes: Work to draw out detailed responses. Do not accept short
answers. Write a narrative summary of no less than three pages which
presents the information gained through the interview. You may summarize the
interview or present the narrative in a Q&A format. Your objective in this
assignment is to find out as much as possible about what it means to be an

Why do you do what you do?
Interesting question; could be very broad (why do I do art?) or specific
(why do I make sculpture vs painting) or even MORE specific (why do I make
sculpture of plants instead of people or abstract). Making my own art gives
me an outlet that nothing else quite does; not when I garden (which is also
a sort of creation) or cook (which is also a type of art) or marketing
(which is also a type of skill). I am lucky to be able to sell it as well;
otherwise I would drown in my own creations and probably end up stopping
making art, or switching to a non-permanent type of output (or give it all

Cermamic flower magnets (some with glass flower accents).

Cermamic flower magnets (some with glass flower accents).

Who do you do your work for?
Mostly myself, but I think a bit about what I think people might enjoy as
far as variety (different colors / shapes) and what I know sells well (blue!
: ) When I am working on a commission, it’s a blend of “my style” and what
the client wants. I don’t do commissions for people whose style is radically
different than my own, because I know the dissonance would be apparent in
the final piece of art, and neither of us (me or the client) would be happy.
Usually people who request a commission are familiar and resonant with my
work; I’ve only had to decline a few times.

Tree sculpture commission: steel tree with glass flowers and painted leaves.

Tree sculpture commission: steel tree with glass flowers and painted leaves.

Why have you selected the particular materials you work with?
The metal, glass and ceramic I work with are nature based, just like the
work I make with them (flowered plants and trees). I specifically do
oxy-acetylene welding because its appearance is more bumpy and organic, vs
something like arc or plasma which would produce a very clean, mechanical
line that would look more machine-made than “grown”.

Flat plate steel and flame-cut / bent steel pieces, ready for use in sculpture.

Flat plate steel and flame-cut / bent steel pieces, ready for use in sculpture.

How would you hope that people would respond to your work?
I love it when people smile. Some of them get entranced; some fall in love,
some just glaze by (these impressions are from when I’m exhibiting at a
show). What I would HOPE is that it presents them with an idea they are
pleasantly surprised by.


What does it feel like when you’re working? What is the process like?

Sometimes it is “itchy” and annoying, when I don’t quite know if something
will work out; sometimes it’s a chore (grinding metal -ugh); sometimes it’s
sort of busy-work, where I don’t have to think a lot but it’s still

"State of mind" map from 2008.

“State of mind” map from 2008.

How important is the final product? Are you ever completely satisfied
with it?

Usually I’m pretty happy. If I spent too much time tinkering with the
“final” stuff, I’d never make any new stuff! there are times when I have
gone back and re-done something because it just was not “right” – in balance
visually or physically. That doesn’t happen often though.

This is one of those pieces that just wasn't quite right at first go; too much silver on the trunk, which I went back and rubbed off.

This is one of those pieces that just wasn’t quite right at first go; too much silver on the trunk, which I went back and rubbed off.

What would you say are the personal benefits of being an artist? What do
you gain from your work? Are there disadvantages?

I always have a little befuddlement about people who don’t have much in their lives
other than TV and their jobs; I can’t imagine not being involved actively in things like gardening or community work or art work – something bigger than one’s own
self where you are interacting with the outside world. Especially when art gets sold
out into the world, sometimes to people i never see and don’t know (when I
sell via a gallery), it’s sort of the same feeling of immortality that I
think people with grandchildren must feel – that a little part of themselves
will continue into the world, long after they are dead and forgotten.

Welded steel spine with blown glass accents.

Welded steel spine with blown glass accents.

What does it mean to be an artist to you?
Above all it means creation, and translation – taking an impression in my
head and giving it physical form in our three-dimensional world. Then what
happens when other people look at it and get their own (sometimes radically
different) interpretations, is yet another evolution!

Community-wide project where each artist began with a hubcap to make their piece. Mine used welded steel, steel dust and lampworked glass flowers.

Community-wide project where each artist began with a hubcap to make their piece. Mine used welded steel, steel dust and lampworked glass flowers.

It’s not just an art gallery, it’s an artistic space-time journey!

I finished two sculptures for my gallery today, and drove them out. The gallery is about 45 minutes away in Spring Green, so gallery trips (which I only make a few times each year) are little meditative getaways for me.

Highway 14 takes me west of Madison through pleasant smaller towns like Cross Plains, Black Earth, Mazomanie and Arena, birthplace of one of my favorite beers (Lake Louie Warped Speed scotch ale). Various waterways wend their way on either side of the highway, including Black Earth Creek and part of the Wisconsin River watershed.

Stony Creek, off Hwy 14 West on the way to Spring Green.

Stony Creek, off Hwy 14 West on the way to Spring Green.

Spring Green is a smallish town with a nonetheless healthy tourist trade, driven partly by its proximity to nationally-known features such as the American Players Theater and Frank Lloyd Wright properties including House on the Rock.

The Jura Silverman Gallery in Spring Green.

The Jura Silverman Gallery in Spring Green.

I’ve been at the Jura Silverman Gallery since 1995. I’ve periodically been at other galleries in Madison, Verona and Algoma, but Silverman is the only one that’s been constant. I wasn’t even out of college when Jura agreed to represent my work, and I was lucky to benefit from her business savvy.

Because of her, I “balance test” all my sculptures to ensure they aren’t too easily knocked off-base by gentle bumps they might receive in a typical home. I also know that some people who purchase my work will visit it repeatedly, sometimes for more than a year, before making the purchase. I also know that blue tends to sell better than other colors amongst the gallery’s patrons. My last 2 sales, in July, had blue flowers and Jura asked that any new pieces I bring also have blue.

Two new glass flowered welded steel sculptures made for selling at the Silverman Gallery.

Two new glass flowered welded steel sculptures made for selling at the Silverman Gallery.

The gallery is just one outlet for my work — I sell more in volume via friends/acquaintances, etsy and art shows — but it’s an important part of the professional artist’s identity. I scouted and courted Jura for placement of my work in her gallery while I was still earning my MFA, and felt very lucky to be accepted.

Sometimes it’s surprising for me to see pieces of mine that have been “living” at the gallery for awhile – it makes me reflect on the evolution of my work. I wonder what I’ll be thinking and making in the future?

My work at the Silverman Gallery: 6 flowered metal plants / trees in foreground.

My work at the Silverman Gallery: 6 flowered metal plants / trees in foreground.

It’s like getting ready for an ‘art party’

Parties — any occasion where people visit your house — are fantastic motivators to clean up, repair, finish all the little things you’ve been meaning to do. Being in a craft show or art exhibit has a similar effect: not only does this public appearance inspire new work; it also makes me consider my promotional and online presence with a clear-eyed view.

My ‘Craft Show Prep’ task list includes items in the realm of art (making some new stuff), marketing (via etsy, Facebook, the blog, my web site, Pinterest, an email and a mailer), promotion (things I want to do differently at the booth itself during the actual show) and strategy (falling 4.5 weeks before Christmas, the show is ideally timed to capture the attention of potential customers who won’t necessarily attend the show itself, but may want to purchase holiday gifts – part of my reason for choosing to enter this particular show).

My two spring shows did the trick in motivating me to make new work… sadly, that didn’t carry through to publishing that work on etsy (my main buying channel). I did manage to take proper photos of the new pieces, and now I need to update my etsy storefront with them.

JenAnneTastic etsy storefront

Thinking about my booth and looking at my notes from past shows, I will pull the trigger on ordering a professionally-produced banner to replace the slowly disintegrating paper banner (a veteran of four shows now).

craft show table banner

My craft show table banner at the Winter ’12 Craftacular

The decision about making new work is reached by analyzing past sales patterns (does blue sell better than other colors? do sculptures in a $20-25 price range have more appeal than lower/higher?) and color spectrum: I like my product groups — necklaces, magnets, sculptures — to represent a wide palette. This fall, I find myself needing green, purple, yellow and white flower necklaces; orange, purple and pink sculptures; and dark blue, orange, green and red ceramic flower magnets.

Color range of my current sculptures reveals a need for orange, pink and purple.

Color range of my current sculptures reveals a need for orange, pink and purple.

The promotional efforts tie everything together, generating conversation and excitement about the show, even by people who won’t be attending – the conversation is my favorite part, and I can’t wait for it to kick in again!

Craft show popularity contest – pick me!

It’s popularity contest time again: applications for holiday season craft shows are flying thick and fast, and the jockeying is on!

It’s a bit like applying to grad school, or dating inside / outside of your known circle: there are advantages and drawbacks of being known vs. being new. If you’re new, you’re potentially fresh and different (in a good way) BUT also potentially a complete black sheep with dismal chances for acceptance, because you don’t fit in with the needs of the particular show’s audience, price range, etc. If you’re known, there’s the comfort of having been accepted before BUT also the danger of contempt-by-familiarity: seen that, accepted that last year, need to feed the audience something new.

I made first-time appearances at two shows earlier this year. The Warner Spring Show in April motivated me to enact new ideas for my booth display.
Warner Spring'13 Art Fair

The Baraboo show in May was my first outdoor show, and put the new displays (and everything else!) to the test with wildly fluctuating spring weather, including constant powerful gusts and intermittent rain and hail.
Baraboo Spring '13 Craftshow
At the Warner show sales were slow and I didn’t break even (cost of time/supplies to make all the items sold, plus show entry fee). Many other sellers said traffic and purchases were down from the previous year. At the Baraboo show, I did barely break even, despite the wild weather forcing us to close an hour early.

The holiday shows are usually the strong performers for sales, and they’re a bit like college applications: you’ve got your preference (based on entry fee, audience match with your product / price point, location etc), and you’ve got your “safety” options in case your first choice craft show doesn’t admit you — by the time a rejection notice comes through, it might be too late to apply for other shows.

I had considered Art vs Craft in Milwaukee, which has the bonus of being held the weekend of Thanksgiving (prime shopping time), and a proven healthy audience size drawn from the show’s location. The drawbacks for me last year were the show’s two-day running time (wearying to travel back and forth, or expensive to stay overnight), and entry fee. I noticed too late that this year’s show was down to one day (with a correspondingly smaller and more appealing entry fee).

My first choice this year is the Winter Craftacular. For me, this poses the danger of contempt via familiarity: I’ve been in two previous Craftaculars (one Winter, one Summer). So I put my application portfolio together carefully.

Craft Show Photo Set On Flickr

Flickr gallery used for craft show application.

From the Craftacular curator’s viewpoint, my strong point is sculpture (it offers variety to her audience, since most other vendors feature jewelry, household goods or wearables), so I made sure to put in a new piece finished since the last time I applied.

Hoarfrost welded tree sculpture

And I showed innovation, including a sculpture featuring a different type of ceramic flower I only recently began making.

Dahlia in a welded sculpture

Then there’s the dance and balancing act between what people are interested in (and what the ‘curator’ selects to offer the audience variety), vs. what actually sells. In my experience, most people are more comfortable spending on functional items rather than purely artistic items, so my magnets and necklaces sell better than my sculptures.

Most shows only have so many spots for “types” of vendors; if I apply and all the jewelry “spots” are gone, I might be offered a slot only to sell my sculptures and magnets, but not my necklaces. My necklaces sell better than the magnets or sculptures and have a great price point resulting in good ROI for me. Since I know there are many other jewelry vendors applying, I choose my application photos carefully to demonstrate innovation in my necklace product line since my previous application: 3 new flower styles using a wider color palette and expanding the price range.

Flower necklace variety
This helps to show that the curator’s audience will see something new from me, and that my jewelry will be different than other vendors’ wares – it’s all about the customer experience her audience gets when wandering the whole show.

I spent a lot of time concepting and building a new display for my flower magnets, and I make sure to include a photo of that in my application, since the creativity of a display has an impact on the customer experience too (and on my bottom line: a poorly-conceived or executed display can undercut even the best product and price).
magnet display board at craft show

By now I’ve sent in my application and fee, hoping to hear good news next week, meanwhile start working on new pieces for fall!

What’s that odd rhythm?

There are related patterns in nature, mathematics, music and art – the Fibonacci sequence, Da Vinci’s Golden Mean, and on.

My art is guided by a sense of rhythm instilled by my first sculpture professor at UW-Madison. Rhythm is a pattern (thank you, Fibonacci), and Professor Cramer’s teachings demonstrated that odd was more interesting than even in our sculptures.

Some of us internalized ‘the odd’ more than others. I think I was predisposed toward the ‘slightly off’ as opposed to the harmonious and well-balanced.

Oddness usually manifests itself literally in my artwork, most notably in the number of key elements. When I made lighted sculptures, they always had an odd number of lights (even if that number was 1).

5-Pucker Lamp

Welded and wired metal lamp with 5 blown glass blooms.

My flirtation with embellished monoprints found me using an odd number of natural pearls as a finishing touch for several pieces.

'Ice Falls on Spring' print

Monoprint with wire and natural pearls, mounted on raw silk.

When I made pieces with larger glass elements, they were odd in number and uneven in size to boot.

Art Brain welded steel sculpture with glass flowers

Welded steel sculpture with blue glass flowers

My modern tabletop plant sculptures nearly always have an odd-numbered total of glass pieces.

7-Flowered Purple Plant

Welded steel plant with 7 purple glass blooms

A sculpture I did for a charity auction conformed to the charity’s theme (inclusion of the color pink, wall-hung and no bigger than 8×8″), sporting 4 kinds of flowers (large glass, small glass, metal and ceramic), each in an odd number.

Anemonic Reef welded flowered sculpture

Welded steel wall sculpture with ceramic and glass flowers

The oddity is present at the micro-level, too: petals of my ceramic flowers are always in an odd number.


My ceramic flowers with petals in 5, 7 and a 9-7-5 sequence.

It’s getting to the point where ‘even’ looks very ‘odd’ to me!

I did some art on I-94

I took a little trip last week, and it was wonderful for my art.
Not one minute in the studio, mind you, but just as important.

I spent some quality time in a few art museums, did some window shopping, and temporarily changed my worldview by changing locations.

Yes, this all counts toward ‘making art’: my eyes and brain are energized by new input, whether it’s the countryside flying by my car window, the work of other artists, or the stark beauty of nature in wintertime.

This was a common topic of discussion in art grad school; many were the hands wrung over time spent in the studio but no finished or semi-finished art pieces to show for it. Often, the time instead had been spent listening to music, reading articles (usually about art, sometimes other things) talking to studio-mates. In other words, doing all the ‘behind the scenes’ things responsible for feeding inspiration, which in turn makes art happen.

Sometimes this comes about without planning or spending time in the studio: a movie scene, a snippet of overheard conversation, a memory evoked by a song, smell or meal can all become inspiration fodder, eventually producing things the rest of the world would recognize as art.

On my little ‘inspiration vacation’, I was reacquainted with the Milwaukee Art Museum – a gorgeous alchemy of architecture, natural setting and art collection.

Milwaukee Art Museum

Lake MI view from Milwaukee Art Museum

In one of the current exhibits was a painting by Kehinde Wiley that had a fascinating background flower pattern.

Flower pattern - painting

Flower pattern from Kehinde Wiley painting

The permanent collection also featured some flower pattern inspiration in the form of an engraved glass vase.

Flower pattern - glass vase

Thomas Webb 1885 glass vase

I also visited the Villa Terrace, a mansion-turned-museum on the lakeshore.

Villa Terrace back yard

Lake view from the Villa Terrace Decorative Arts musuem

One of the Terrace’s highlights is their collection of work by Cyril Colnik, the vaunted ironworker responsible for outfitting many Milwaukee mansions with elaborate iron gates, stair railings, and fittings.

Iron Rose

Iron rose by Cryil Colnik, at the Villa Terrace Museum

Ironwork patterns

Ironwork patterns by Cyril Colnik at the Villa Terrace Museum

A stop at Anthropologie yielded ceramic-based flower patterns, to complete my inspiration journey.

Flower Pattern - bowl

Flower patterned bowl at Anthropologie