View of Brantome, France by Marilyn MacGregor
I've been working with my sketchbooks lately, creating hand-colored prints and hand-made books out of hand-drawn memories that span many years. My sketchbooks make a huge, ragged pile of all shapes and sizes: large journals, ring bound notebooks, small moleskins, hard bound, soft covers, etc. The drawings are done with fine ink pen, pencil, watercolor, ball point, colored pencil, and anything else that seemed a good idea at the time. I have a selection of the hand-colored prints up at Fine Art America - they're fun to do and make nice gifts so please take a look.
'Summer Travels' by Marilyn MacGregor 2011
My artist book using a few of my sketches is in the exhibit 'The Decorated Book' at the Athenaeum in Philadelphia (through March 9, 2012). The title of the book is 'Summer Travels - rightly so, though some of the drawings were part of other seasons spent living in England and France - there is a kind of 'summer' mentality to travel that pays no attention to the calendar.
Study of 4 Male Heads by Rembrandt 1635
As a sketchbook artist, I am in good company, both historic and contemporary. 'Keeping a Sketchbook' (or a journal) has a kind of Victorian ring to it - it may be partly because bound sketchbooks didn't really exist much before that. When Rembrandt, the great master of loose spontaneous drawing, made sketches they were just that - loose (both senses of the word) sketches - rather than a bound collection. Like any artist who prizes the collaboration of mind and hand, he used his sketches to learn and explore, sometimes in the interest of a planned work, but surely often for his own enrichment.
Looking Back to Pic de l'Oeillette JMW Turner 1802
By contrast, when Joseph Mallord William Turner set out on his extensive travels, his baggage must always have been stuffed with a selection of sturdy books, most if not all of which can now be viewed, cover to cover, page by page, via the website of the Tate Collection in London. A trip through any one of his sketchbooks is a journey through the art of drawing, the ever-curious mind of an artist, the ever-observant eyes of an artist, the daily cares of a 19th century traveler, and the unfolding possibilities of a newly met destination.
Look to his earlier books for tighter, more academic drawing, watch him loosen and become confident with any visual challenge, and have the delight of seeing him toss off late sketches with an unconscious grace. The last sketches are almost conceptual art - more suggestion than closely written description.
Two Women and a Letter JMW Turner 1827
Sun Behind Clouds JMW Turner 1846
Page from Hokusai's Sketchbooks late 19th c.
Another of the great 'sketchers' is Hokusai, the exuberant Ukiyo-e master of 19th century Japan. A famous published edition of his 'sketches' (the word in Japanese translates as 'Manga',) edited by James Michener, the author, is a most delightful panorama of Japanese life in all its small interesting detail. Unlike Turner, however, Hokusai's 'manga' are not immediate drawings - instead his sketches were first turned into woodblock prints and arranged on the page (some say by Hokusai himself, some by the printers.)
Stoke-by-Nayland John Constable 1814
Another of my favorite 'Sketchers' is John Constable, the celebrated artist of English Romanticism - I once saw an exhibit focused on his sketchbooks in which it was noted that many had been picked up for nothing at London Flea Markets. Artists were along on many famous explorations, including Napoleon's expedition to Egypt, Darwin's epic journey of discovery, and the Lewis and Clark trek through the Louisiana Purchase in 1805. In a number of these cases the artist was also the scientist - this sketch page of a Salmon is by Meriwether Lewis.
Study of a Dog John Constable 1814
Salmon by Meriwether Lewis 1805-06
Market scene by Isabel Fiadeiro 2011
The art of sketching is alive and well, in case you're wondering. I belong to a group called Urban Sketchers - they started as a blog and now have a world-wide presence with contributors from all over the world. The range of styles and perspectives is breathtaking - I'm always torn between admiration and jealousy! This colorful watercolor sketch is by Isabel Fiadeiroof Mauritania. I believe I'm the only member from Philadelphia - if anyone else is out there drawing, let me know and we can start our own chapter!Explore Turner's sketchbooks http://www.tate.org.uk/servlet/BrowseGroup?cgroupid=999999995
Get to know Urban Sketchers http://www.urbansketchers.org/
Work by Karen Akester
Scotland was in Philadelphia last weekend, in the person of 25 extraordinary artists at the Philadelphia Museum Craft Show. Each year the Craft show highlights the finest craft work of a particular country - this year it was Scotland, and what a rich showing these northern folk put on. I didn't get to talk to all of them, unfortunately, but I'll point out a few that stopped me in my tracks.
I'm always on the lookout for drawing, even if I'm not aware of it, so Claire Heminsley's booth drew me in like a magnet. I felt like I'd found a long-lost sister when I saw her loose line drawings and saw her tribute to her artist dad who taught her about drawing (my father did the same - we used to go out sketching together.) Much of Claire's work involves fabric - printing her drawings on practical items like aprons or tea towels, as well as on multimedia work that combines stitching, typography, printing, and found objects. Her marriage of the ordinary with the ethereal adds up to a wonderful sense of serious fun. See more - and much better images - at http://www.incahoots.org.uk/index.html
Stacey Bentley photo by MMacGregor
Across the aisle, Stacey Bentley was drawing too, this time in metal jewelry. Stacey is one of those lovely, well-groomed women whose appearance belies the tough reality of the process behind their work - industrial enamels, twisted and soldered metals, multiple firings - her work has a kind of brawny industrial feel in miniature, with an effect that mixes delicacy and grit. Stacey calls it an 'urban aesthetic' and cites influence from what she observes in her travels. See more at http://www.staceybentley.com/index.html.
Brooch by Stacey Bentley
by Jilli Blackwood photo by MMacGregor
Fabric is the medium for Jilli Blackwood. Her extravaganzas, some wearable, some decorative, shout excitement across the room but also pull you in close to examine her marvelous, infinitely adventurous play with cloth, embroidery, stitching, color, and texture. Process and imagination for Jilli, as with most of these artists, are tightly interwoven. She talks of color and hand dying as the entry point for developing her ideas and bringing in the unique personality that marks each piece.
Jilli Blackwood photo by MMacGregor
She described one piece as based on elephants she observed while creating costumes for the Commonwealth Games in India - it made sense as she pointed out sinuous lines that recall an elephant's flexible trunk, and the grey green texture of cloth that stands for an elephant's tough hide, and then in, on, and around those concrete images she wove her magic to conjure up a whole visual narrative of association through stitch and color. See more at
by Carla Edwards
Carla Edwards resin jewelry matches Jilli's work for color but is a world apart in texture. Her softly bright pendants, earrings, and brooches, inspired by natural shapes and forms, have a smooth, inviting visual and tactile feel. See more at
by Karen Akester photo by MMacGregor
The haunting charm of Karen Akester's small evocative figures is still vivid in my mind - her work was one of the most memorable experiences of the entire show (which, of course, also included so much fabulous work by American artists from everywhere - see my posts from other years about this great Crafts Show.) Karen, educated at Edinburgh's School of the Arts and working there in one of several art communities supported with private and government funds (from what I heard from these artists, the US could learn a lot from Scotland about supporting the arts) was not only delightful to talk with, but an artist whose work rises to that rare place of brilliance in conception and craftsmanship.
Karen Akester photo by MMacGregor
She creates with glass and metal, sometimes together, sometimes separately, but her figures always add up to more than the sum of their parts. Using vintage photographs of schoolchildren as her starting point, she makes small standing figures, a bit woebegone and melancholy, that quietly spill out an intense sense of dark whimsical mystery. It's impossible not to want to know more - or to start telling yourself their stories, which are surely full of guilty mischief, punishments involving bed without supper - or worse. See more at http://www.karenakester.com/
If only my MacGregor ancestors had been better behaved in the 18th century - if they hadn't been run out of the country as outlaws I might still be there, working and hanging out with these warm, friendly, interesting, gifted artists. For more information about Scotland's Craft Artists and the artists who participated in the Philadelpjhia show go to http://www.craftscotland.org/about-us/our-work/PMA/Which of these works and artists do you find most interesting - and why? Leave a comment!
There's a lot of art to see in Old City Philadelphia, but currently there are two shows that stand out. In medium and execution they're at opposite ends of the spectrum, but if you're interested in thoughtful, careful work by sophisticated professional artists, you should see them both. Dust and Shade, Drawings by Charles Ritchie, at Gallery Joe, brings you into a quiet, small-scale world of finely observed detail. Ritchie has 4 sketchbooks in the show - see them first, and you'll understand a lot about his approach. His rich delicate watercolors and tiny spidery handwriting bring to mind 19th century Victorian sketchbooks, but when you examine the framed drawings on the wall you see that he brings the same detailed awareness of the possibilities of the ordinary to his finished work.
A dark night, a suburban house under a streetlight, a scrim of bare branches - this is Ritchie's touchstone. The same quiet neighborhood (his own, in Maryland) figures in many of the works. There is a suggestion of eternal fall, but then comes a scene with snow - the white mounds feel inevitable, as if they're guarding the house through the winter. Subtle tricks with the light and shadows give a slightly surreal feeling and bring to mind Magritte's painting, Empire of Light.
Interior scenes are soft, graphite stills of life interrupted for just a moment, but look closely and watch the tiny spidery handwriting emerge around the edges. You're back to Ritchie's sketchbooks and his gift for detailed observation of life as it happens.
Snyderman-Works Gallery, an extraordinary, impeccable place that has been championing fine art/craft for almost 50 years, is showing Sonya Clark's deeply intelligent mixtures of craft, art, history, and tongue-in-cheek humor. Like Ritchie, has a touchstone in the ordinary, but for her it's not the romance of a familiar neighborhood, it's the edgy duality of a simple plastic comb. The stunning centerpiece of the show is a wall-hanging portrait of the African-American entrepreneur C. J. Walker, who, in the late 1900's, made a fortune with hair products, including one that helped prevent scalp disease. From a distance it appears photographic, perhaps an extreme enlargement of a daguerrotype, or even a cut paper silhouette, but in reality it is made of hundreds of the banal black plastic combs that figure in many of Clark's works. For this portrait she manipulated her medium, breaking out teeth and crisscrossing the combs to give her a surprisingly fluid vocabulary.
Hair, real or imitated with yarn, is at the heart of the work on display. Some examples are blatantly humorous - Abraham Lincoln on a 5 dollar bills sports a 70's era Afro - but peel back the layers and you'll find the Emancipation Proclamation, the plight of freed African slaves newly dependent on making an elusive, money-driven living, etc - to the present day. 'Diaspora' appears fairly simple at first too - tiny white canvas squares, each with a long tail of dark braid, cluster on a wall, but watch and think and you almost see them start to move, for escape or betterment, and leaving trails of identity and tears.
I was especially struck by 'Comb Carpet' a dark square that is, as it states, made of combs pointing their little spikes upward. It looks like black Astroturf, but as you imagine yourself settling down for a picnic or a nap, you feel the jabs and notice the ripples that disturb the surface. No easy seat this - this is history in subtle, pointed relief. Clark's work is significant - the show at Snyderman-Works is her first one-person show in Philadelphia.
Dust and Shade, Drawings by Charles Ritchie is at Gallery Joe through October 22.
Sonya Clark is at Snyderman-Works Gallery until November 19.
Note: Old City Philadelphia is gritty, lively, edgy, exuberant - a perfect place for the battery of energetic art galleries, studios, hip little shops, and brash neon bars that defines it. First Friday in Old City is, month after month, the best city art party I've ever seen. If you haven't been to it, you're invited, so go!