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JILL CLIFFER BARATTA: HAIR ON FIRE

Jill Cliffer Baratta is an artist whose work www.jcbarattasart.com is all over the map.  She creates for herself first and like me, believes variety is the spice of life.  She has clear, definite thoughts about her work and art in general.  Here’s our cool chat…

“When I get there, I am overflowing with appreciation for the privilege of that time … so basically, I'm painting like my hair is on fire; pulling all of my emotional, mental and physical resources to the task.” 

MICHAEL: Hi Jill, First off, your work ... You have this unique ability to paint lovely, charming scenes, but I also see some harder-edged, hip works as well.  Is this intentional on your part?

JILL:  I'd like to think that all of my work is driven with conscious intent, but once you make your artwork, it takes on a life of its own, at least to some extent.  So, there are both intentional and unintentional results. The diversity of my work is one of my strengths, but perhaps a weakness from a branding standpoint. I mean, I consider myself "all over the place." Versatility only benefits the self, as I enjoy jumping around as much as I enjoy delving intensively into things. If you want to sell on a wider scale, I think you have to create an identity or predictability. I don't think I'm very good at that or maybe just not up for it - which is probably one of many reasons why I decided long ago to focus on teaching to support my habit. However, now I'm trying to get focused. 

MICHAEL: And so, what’s your actual background?

JILL: My background is in watercolor and I had a lot of training leading up to my watercolors. When I began to break away from that medium, it wasn't a clean break though, because I still teach painting, starting with watercolors, so I still do them to some extent, usually as demonstrations for students. Don't misunderstand. I'm not of the old-school belief that oil or acrylic painting are the real painting and watercolor is some kind of sketch medium. I have seen too many Homers and Sargents, among numerous contemporary artists for whom watercolor stands alone quite finely. However, for students, it's my belief that if you can learn watercolor first, oil and acrylic painting is easy. It's very important to get the feel of viscosity that watercolor offers, of understanding the suspension of pigment and of making use of transparency and layering as basic skills.

It's much easier to go from there to impasto than learning to paint thickly, overlaying any color over any (or almost), and then try to learn how to paint with watercolors. Painters I know who learned to paint oils or acrylics, tend to find watercolor daunting. This is assuming it is even desirable to know both.  But I digress. The way it has turned out is that when I want to work in watercolors, I tend to work very literally and my proclivity is to work realistically. Even though I can work loosely, it's a tendency to, "paint lovely, charming scenes." I needed to expand beyond that and it was learning printmaking that offered me the ability to loosen and develop what I wanted to come next, which had to do with adding photographic imagery to my work. Printmaking offers the opportunity to repeat the same images with unlimited variations, whether in technique, inking, color or combining media. So from my beloved watercolor painting, where I was taught not to "report," I find that my work, while perhaps "charming," got stuck in a what I judge to be more of a reporting mode. So I push myself to form more complicated ideas and feelings and find other ways to build them or let them evolve

I think what you refer to as "harder-edged, hip works" are those where I've pushed myself and my imagery to really say something. Nice "pictures" are wonderful, and can free the soul, but at a certain point, some of us must depart and move further. With all that said, what might look like versatility, or inconsistency is also a product of work that is really spread out over time. The more one works, the more one has the luxury of "pushing" the concepts, ideas, materials and imagery. I suppose I could also do this with my watercolors, but I just became so enamored with printmaking, and now also with mixed media. It all takes time!

MICHAEL: For some reason, whenever I hear the term, "mixed media," I think of that old saying, "Variety is the spice of life." LOL.  What do you think?

JILL: Absolutely. Who wants to eat a plain, dry chicken breast or Cheerios every day for a year? As Grace Slick once said to a crowd of university students in the 1970's, chanting their request for "White Rabbit!", "Sometimes," she said, "you get tired of peanut butter and jelly!" Well, at least the peanut butter has some jelly to go with it. She never did sing "White Rabbit" that night.  It's not just variety with my work, though. I really need new challenges. I know, "mixed media" even sounds dry by now. Maybe I bore easily. I like to keep moving and the work is really, seriously, about transforming stuff that's inside, in order to be happy.

I've been thinking about the term "expressing." I don't know where that started, but I'd guess that it was before "expressionism" became an "ism." I think it has more to do with taking our very complex brain activity, including our complex internal emotional landscapes (brainscapes?), and being able to put them on an "express train" to consolidate what they really mean (taking out the stops?). In a most metaphoric sense, one finds a way to bring it - the brainscape - from the inside to the outside where we can see it and reflect on what it looks like as a manifestation in material. So art materials are prescribed almost organically according to what needs to be done.

My most recent piece, "Nine Rips," is really about living with three total sports fanatics and not knowing how I fit in. Well, two of them now live out of the house, but are only a phone call away when the game gets intense. While it's not really so relevant to the state of the world, perhaps, it's very personal and at least partly a gender issue. I can enjoy a good baseball game and have sat through many good and terrible ones, but perhaps true to the impatience with repetition we're talking about, I get tired of game after game after game. It all starts to look the same, even though I totally get how my husband breaks it all down and I've lived with this silly fanaticism (or love of the game, if you prefer) for over 30 years.

It has really liberated me to put my collection of ripped baseballs in the ordered world of drilled holes and encaustic squares to set them off.  It's sort of whimsical on the surface, humorous even, but there are layers of being a "girl" in a "boys'" world in this piece, as well as the symbolism of 9 squares - 9 players, 9 innings. I have an older brother who wouldn't let me play ball with him when I was a kid. My mother steered me to the more feminine world of ballet lessons - that's what girls do.  I thought I'd escaped that karma when I married a musician, but alas, he turned out to be even more fanatical than my brother.

So this "mixed media," isn't really about the media much at all. It's about what is this ball-breaking game is doing in my house! Haha. Well, I thought your question only really required a short answer, but there it is. We must find a way to grow ourselves beyond the things that continue to plague us. "Your joy is your sorrow unmasked" (K. Gibran). Once it's out there, perhaps others can relate to some part of the imagery and it will speak to them as it allows the artist to "speak" about things that might not have a verbal solution.

MICHAEL: When you're actually standing in front of the canvas, what's going through your mind?  What are you thinking ... or feeling?

JILL: There is an awful lot of meditation and planning that I do before I ever get to standing in front of the canvas. So when I'm there, implementing my plan, what's going through my mind is some tightrope walk between grappling with my materials, working with my plan, and often, being ready and open to changing or improvising on the plan. Often, my teacher’s voices are there with me, guiding me, along with my instincts. Usually, I've been through a pre-production process, so when I get that very precious stretch of time directly with the work, I want to be in the flow of it. At best, this is also matter of being present in the moment with the work. At worst, there are disruptions or interruptions that take me away from it. I try my best to avoid the latter, but I am not in some protected atelier, so that's why the time there is so precious. When I get there, I am overflowing with appreciation for the privilege of that time, but maybe also remorseful that I haven't made more time available. So basically, I'm painting like my hair is on fire; pulling all my emotional, mental and physical resources to the task. 

MICHAEL: What you've just described could/should really be a metaphor for life ... grappling, working, being ready and being open to change or improvising. Brilliant!  But that's SO hard to do because we always want the result NOW... No?

JILL: Instant gratification is not always possible! While "we" want the result NOW, I know from deep in my life that that is often not possible. All causes lead to effects, and some happen miraculously in the moment, but there might still be years or decades of work behind that moment. If something happens quickly, that doesn't mean that the doer just did it without any training or background. Sometimes it can work that way, but for the most part, those untrained happenings are of lesser quality and less deserved than for those who invest in the long haul.  Even if one stumbles upon success in a serendipitous moment, it is unlikely that that moment's success can be sustained over time without training or some previous knowledge of how to sustain efforts within one's technique. If you have instant success in something, you'd better do some quick research in your field of success if you want to continue and not just be some flash in the pan. A good example is a monotype. It might take a very short time to put a monotype together and come up with an interesting or moving image. However, one must know what a monotype is, the different techniques available to attain one, the different inks and their viscosity upon use, choices of paper and experience making marks to get the result one is after - or a result that happens within that result. None of this comes out of nowhere. Then one must figure out how to present it - frame it, mount it, suspend it or add it to another element of work.

Why is patience so important? I made a choice to have children when I was in my 30's. I wanted to put my life into those kids, to ensure their mental health and as much success as a parent can ever ensure (limited!). So I slowly, but patiently kept up my craft by attending classes, painting and showing very little when they were growing. Now that they are young adults, I am able to invest more time in my artwork, so this is why I "paint like my hair is on fire." 27 years was an awfully long gestation time for me. It wasn't all waiting, but I wasn't ready for prime time. I feel now I'm just getting to the point where I hit upon themes that I can work with, have enough techniques at my fingertips to execute them and am beginning to understand the ropes of promotion. It's a lot to line up and of course, now I'm "competing" with all those young does and bucks coming out of art programs who have so many more resources available to them, but perhaps not the artistic maturity. It doesn't really matter to me, because I know how to be patient (like my hair is on fire?).

MICHAEL: Given all of that, how do you prioritize things now?

JILL: There is a lot of important work out there besides us neurotic Americans transferring our emotional baggage onto our canvases or even reflecting the world back upon itself in order to enlighten people. However, it does make us healthier and has its place. I feel my job is in perspective. Really, my teaching is of huge (or huger?) importance than the manufacture of more art objects in an incredibly crowded field. So again, each thing I create is carefully thought out and hopes to be a part of a legacy of focused intent - not just another pretty picture.  

As for your statement about metaphor, yes, of course - that IS life - grappling, working, being ready and open to change or improvisation. But there is no separation between life and art - not to me. Why do you think people flock to museums and galleries? Sometimes it may be just to be cool, but even then, if superficial coolness opens their eyes upon contact, then good enough. Even better when people are moved to newer, deeper places by observing the efforts by those who pour their lives into these objects. In any case, there is a need for finding depth in life and at their best, those objects reflect the deepest examination their artists could conjure in sweating out the process. We should all live this way! Dig deeper and deeper until we find what we're looking for and then make it even better.

Looking is also an ever-changing process. We bring our current life in the moment to the moment of looking! My experience in front of a Kandinsky painting on one viewing may be entirely different looking at the same painting a year or a month later. My relationship with Pollock's art, for example, changed completely when I started trying to teach an integrated movement and art class to children. Before that, I was completely in the dark as to why he did and kept doing what he did and the value of the paintings. Life is process. Art is process. The artifacts are just the footprints we leave behind while making and exploring. That importance of work and change applies to any effort: farming, governing, cooking, teaching, learning, athletic training, just about anything.

Americans need to recognize again the importance of process, patience, hard work, and reward. We are far too impatient in today's culture. Our push-button world is wonderful, but the principles of creating value will always remain constant and it will always take nine months to make a baby (give or take)! Time is of the essence, as the cliche says. However, it may take a long time to do or say something. Let it take its time or finish it.  A true artist can determine when to start and stop.

MICHAEL: If you could change anything about the art world and/or art market, what would that be?  Do you feel part of the art world or alienated by it?

JILL: To answer your second question first: It does feel alien, but that doesn't mean I feel alienated. The former is a function of my having avoided it; the latter would mean I'd tried and failed or got frustrated. I don't feel like I've really tried to put myself out there; not into the bigger art world. I feel very much a part of my small circle, where I have private students without advertising, fellow artists in several groups I belong to, occasional group shows and occasionally I sell or get a commission in addition to a small, but fairly reliable income from teaching.

I was just invited to participate in an art fair in London, but that feels overwhelming. I can imagine shipping 10-20 pieces to England, at great expense, getting an expensive plane ticket, then sitting there for three days or whatever it is, and having wonderful conversations, but not making back my booth fee, let alone my shipping costs and plane ticket. I don't want to be part of that.  I like to participate in local shows and when I get into the shows sponsored by the National Association of Women Artists, of which I'm a member, I participate. I have yet to sell anything through NAWA, but it still gives me some sense of belonging, and validation, and I'm learning quite a bit. Meanwhile, I'm working on an art series that I think will be salable, at least as a one or two-person show. Up to now, my work has been in shorter spurts and now that I have more time, I'm willing to put more of a big toe out into that larger world. I'm not yet sure when or how that will happen, but it is a goal. I don't yet feel burned by that world, because I've purposely held back from it. I'm glad I have, because I don't think I've been ready. I think one has to be ready to produce, ready to market, ready to schmooze (sincerely, of course), and ready to meet any and all commitments. 

I felt burned by the world of illustration, even though I only put a couple of toes in there. That experience had to do with people's egos causing them to change my work in spite of a contract not to do so. That left such a bad taste, but taught me that I would be very careful, when moving to fine art, about commissions. I have done them and they can be grueling, but I'm only willing to do certain types. I want to work with people who trust and respect my artistry, just as any professional should be respected if they have a good track record.

MICHAEL: Absolutely.  That makes perfect sense.

JILL: The first question is harder for me, as I think all my statements suggest that I don't have a lot of experience knocking around the "art market" other than on a very modest scale.

If there were something I would change, it would go beyond the art world and market. It would be a change that would require more sanity and less waste, a less bureaucratic and more integrated and carefully prioritized government so that there would be more generous direct or indirect funding for the arts from government-sponsored cultural institutions.  This "saner" world … would value the humanities more, educating students without the elite restrictions that are becoming more prevalent as the more general population just struggles to make ends meet.  With all that said, though, expecting the government to do everything is clearly a pipe dream. In a way, there's really nothing wrong with the best rising to the top. Unfortunately the "best" in art is quite subjective. It may mean those with more business acumen, not the best artists. That's why representation becomes important at some point. My job, supported meagerly by my teaching and to fully disclose, my husband's more remunerative career, is ultimately to make art that fits my standards. As one of my artist friends, who has created success for herself says, "We do what we do."  She also has 'cultural capital,' though. The main point is not how you do it or what makes it work for you, but where are your priorities, that you do it, do make it work and balance what you need to in order to have the privilege to spend time making art. I'll have to get back to you later about the market. 

MICHAEL: Finally Jill, Given all of the work involved, why art?  What difference is art making in the world anyway?

JILL: I figure there are a few essentials to really cover human needs. The first two are food (including water) and shelter. Those two are both of equal importance, though sometimes we can survive without consistent shelter, and not without food. Once those are satisfied sustainably, next come good relationships, a mind fed by education to live correctly and contribute to society. Next on my list is culture, which includes all of the arts. My contention is that even if all the art, paint, brushes, paper and canvas, whatever we know as art materials, disappeared tomorrow, we would still start scratching in the dirt with a stick to transfer our thoughts, feelings and ideas to some concrete or readable form. This is a human need. Not everyone feels it to the same extent manifests it to the same extent (some might start scratching numbers in the dirt), but some of us are programmed to create. I'm not going to get into why some more than others, but for me, my father and grandfather were both artists. My mother somehow decided I was going to get an art education, so encouraged me along these lines. So for whatever reason, it's an imperative for me. I don't know what else to do. I could do many things, and I do other things, but I have a compulsion and I must follow it. Barring disaster that takes my first two essentials (or my health), I will forever pursue art. 

When I studied art therapy, it helped me understand what is going on with this compulsion. Simply put, people have a need to take what's inside them and put it outside. In pre-Freudian times and throughout history, this was largely manifest by religious imagery or visual story-telling. Once the camera came upon the scene, the artists' job changed and artists looked to use their materials for other kinds of exploration. If it were only about recording "reality," art would have pretty much stopped in its tracks after the camera took over. But the compulsion changed. You don't need (or want!) an art history lecture, so suffice it to say, what psychologists call "transference" and what is popularly called, "expressing oneself" whether in mathematical boxes or thrown or splashed paint or performance art, the difference art makes is that we feel better when we get IT out there so we can look at it. It transforms us from point A to point B and helps us feel that we're OK, and normal now that we've done this.

The difference art makes is that we can despair, get loaded on drugs, become violent or aggressive or we can put our dangerous feelings on a safe surface. For some, it may help to put idealistic images in front of them to feel better. It would be false to say no artist takes drugs or artists don't get depressed or aggressive, but if art is "used" properly, it can keep us stable and functional in the world. Some things can't be taken care of with words, "talk therapy" or intellectualizing. Some people are nonverbal. Visual communication is a way to transfer feelings without words. Children, after a disaster like 9/11 or after a major earthquake or other trauma, literally don't have words to show the angst they are experiencing. But give them some art materials and they'll show you what's on their minds. It gives them a way to show us. Then we can dispel their fears or simply let them know it's normal to feel scared or worried. Or someone is ill in the family. Some families deal with this easily, but others don't have a template for communicating. It's not only children who need help communicating. Show people a visual stimulus or give them a chance to "draw it out," whether they are artistically trained or not and ask them to explain their work, or their interpretation of someone else's, and you'll see what I'm talking about. Go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the MOMA any day and see the throngs of people looking at art. Why? Can we even answer this? Art is essential. It feeds our spirit.

MICHAEL: Thanks Jill.  You’ve said it well.

JILL: Thanks for your stimulating questions. I hope you've enjoyed this. It's been my honor to be challenged and it's great you are doing it.

Check out Jill Cliffer Baratta at www.jcbarattasart.com.



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