Abstract in Acrylic, #2

Abstract Painting in Blue

It’s the strangest thing, the most popular post on my whole blog, thanks to Pinterest, is a violet and orange abstract painting I did in 2004. Not a photograph, a painting. So when I found another painting in storage, that’s similar in style, I figured it would be fun to post it as well, and see what happens.

Violet, Purple, and Orange Abstract in Acrylic
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Is the violet and orange painting popular because of the colors? Is it just a fluke? Or will the blue and yellow painting find a few fans as well?

The blue and yellow abstract is actually much larger than the violet and orange painting – maybe four times larger. And when I put it aside in 2004, it felt “unfinished” to me, but I wasn’t sure what to do next with it. If you mess too long with a painting, you can completely spoil it, so I set it aside, and hoped that if I left it for a few days, I’d figure out what to do next. But I never did figure it out, and eventually I stuck it in storage, and now, ten years later when I look at it, I think maybe it was finished all along. I’m still not sure what else I would do to it, but more importantly, I think I like it the way it is. The violet and orange was my first painting, and I still like it best, and maybe that’s why I felt dissatisfied with this one? Because it was so different, and in my eyes, not as good. But now? Now I like it!

So what do you think? Finished or unfinished? Better or worse than the other? Is it worth hanging?

A year of commuting to Los Angeles

I commuted to Los Angeles, twice a week, for a full year while attending UCLA Extension’s Paralegal Training Program. It was 102 miles each way, and 204 miles roundtrip. So as a way to have a little fun, and to help document the year, I started to photograph an iconic building in Los Angeles that I passed on every trip into the city. I just held up my iPhone and clicked, without looking at what I was shooting – that was part of the fun – the randomness of what I was getting.

I didn’t edit the images, or even pay much attention to what I was capturing. I knew that it was unlikely the images would be very exciting if taken individually, but I thought they might be interesting, collectively. They show the passage of a full year–from June 2012 to June 2013–and you can see the change in seasons, the effect of daylight savings time, and when my own personal schedule was more erratic, and I arrived earlier or later in the day. You can even tell when my wind sheild was clean, and when it wasn’t! And the curvy wavy wackiness? That’s the result of a longish exposure, and camera movement during the exposure. It’s a little side-benefit of a very old iPhone, and I was definitely in favor of it!

Is it interesting? I think so. Is it too long? I went from hundreds of images shot over the course of the year to just these 30, but should I have edited it down further? Maybe. But for me, it’s a visual reminder of a very long year, with a very long commute…

Los Angeles Morman Temple

One final interesting note? I knew this was the Morman Temple in Los Angeles, but I had no connection to it prior to starting this project. It was just an interesting building that I passed on my way to UCLA – so it was a bit of a random choice, selected only because it was convenient. But during the year one of my cousins got married – at this very temple – and I watched her emerge with her new husband, from the side doors, after the ceremony. Kind of an interesting coincidence!

Baroque & Beautiful

I’ve mentioned before on this blog how much I love the Victorian ideal of a yard full of fruit and flowers – all together. They didn’t relegate their fruit trees to the backyard – they’d plant an orange tree right in the front yard, next to the roses. And grapevines would twist up and over the front porch, right next to a wisteria covered in blossoms. Fruits and flowers, in the yard, and in their art…

But the Victorians weren’t the first to love still life art consisting of fruit bowls and flowers. And in fact, during the Baroque period, a kind of art emerged that I personally find fascinating – called Vanitas, they were still lifes with rotting fruit and faded dying flowers, and sometimes the artists even included insects in their paintings.

Why would anyone want a painting of rotting fruit? Or dying flowers? Back in the 16th and 17th centuries, when the genre flourished, the religious message was that life is fleeting, and that death is inevitable, so you better get with it and live right! Rotting fruit and flowers symbolized how quickly life and time passes – and if life is brief, then you better get good with God now, rather than later, because it might be too late if you wait.

I remember seeing a huge painting of a dinner table in a museum in Paris in 2004. I had no idea what it meant when I saw it, but I was transfixed by the fact that the subject matter – imperfect fruit and flowers – was painted so perfectly, and so beautifully. It was this huge gorgeous painting, beautifully done, of wilting flowers and food that looked way past it’s prime. Gorgeous, but oddly disturbing. I stood in front of it far too long, and kind of fell in love with the strange genre of Vanitas art. But I never thought about creating any Vanitas art of my own.

But this summer, as I’ve watched the plants in my yard wilt and wither and suffer from the heat, and as I see some plants start to die back, as we head toward Fall, I’ve sort of enjoyed seeing overblown roses fade, and my lone Hollyhock come to the end of it’s blooming life. Everything in the yard is pulling back, and withering, and it’s not unattractive – it’s just different than the lushness of Spring. Everyone is drawn to the first perfect flower in Spring – but can just anyone also appreciate the last rose of the summer?

Yellow HollyhockFaded Yellow Rose

Pink Tea Roses

Pink HybiscusHollyhock

Rose of Sharon

Hollyhockpurple flowers

Pink Flowering Tree

So that’s my first personal experiment with the Vanitas genre – not exactly the most pure of attempts, but definitely inspired by the ideals of the movement! Art, even the oldest genres doesn’t have to be stuffy – it can be fun!

And I want to make one quick point – art doesn’t have to be time consuming either, or require a lot of thought or preparation. All of these were shot very quickly just after sunset, on two consecutive evenings. I started at 6:38PM yesterday and finished up at 6:47PM – so just nine minutes the first night. And then I started at 6:22PM tonight, and shot my last frame at 6:35PM – so 13 minutes tonight. And the processing of the images took about 50 minutes total. Writing this post was probably the most time consuming part of the whole process!

As for the technical details, the first night I shot everything with a 85MM lens and the second night I used a 50MM lens exclusively – and everything both nights was shot at f/1.8 or 2.0, except for the horizontal image of the pink roses, and the very last shot of the fushia flowering tree branch, which were both shot at f/3.5.

Not Hiring

Not Hiring, Ontario, California

I love this image! I mean, really love it! It’s so light and bright and the colors are so soft – but the subject matter is as hard as can be.

I’ve never seen a Not Hiring sign before, but I totally get why it’s necessary here. A construction project of this size on the side of the 10 Freeway is obviously going to be a huge magnet for all the unemployed construction workers in the Inland Empire. But how sad that it’s necessary! How sad that a company could be so inundated with job seekers that they need a sign to help stem the flow. Unemployment is at 15% in the Inland Empire right now – just way too high.

I’ve been playing around with the idea of a project – on the economic crisis. Not seriously pursuing it as a project, but just sort of toying around with the idea. And this image is the best of the lot so far – and the first to focus on unemployment. I’m still not sure if I want to make a full blown project out of this, but I do plan to continue playing around with it, and seeing if anything comes of it.

SOOC is overrated and PhotoShop gets a bad rap

If you’re not all that interested in the technical aspects of photography, you might want to skip this post – because I’m getting in deep!

When you hang out with photographers, when you’re Facebook friends with photographers and follow their Twitter streams, when you spend time on photography forums, you get exposed to lots of different ways of thinking about photography – which is great! But sometimes an idea gets picked up by the community, and elevated. And every once in a while I see an idea get tossed around, that leaves me a little baffled – like the idea that it’s best to show your images straight out of the camera with no adjustments, and that PhotoShop is bad. Now depending on the type of photography you practice, showing SOOC and limiting the amount of processing you do may very well be a smart strategy – but it’s definitely not a one fit solution for all photographers.

Back in 1994 I got a job in a portrait studio, and they hired me as a photographer even though I had zero experience. Why? Because they used one setup for everything. I had a couple of days of training to learn how to setup the lights, what settings to use on the camera, and to memorize the basic poses. It was photography by the numbers, for sure! But it worked, and we created some beautiful portraits. But after a couple of months I got bored. Really bored. I wanted to experiment and do new things and that was never going to happen in this particular studio, so I quit and went back to school.

Suddenly photography for me became art and science combined – it was the exact opposite of the set-it-and-forget-it style of photography I’d done in that first job. And I played with EVERYTHING! I spent 30 hours a week in the darkroom that first semester, and loved every minute. There were so many choices I could make and directions I could take. It started with film choice – color or black and white, low contrast or high contrast, high or low ISO? And then while shooting, did I want a narrow or a wide depth of field? Did I want a little motion blur? Did I want to expose for the highlights, or the shadows, or the midtones? Next came processing the film, where I could adjust the temperature and timing to get more or less contrast and more or less grain. And then in the actual darkroom? There were paper choices and filter choices and timing choices – and the ultimate bit of control – dodging and burning! And the final step – spotting the print – where you used a tiny brush and a special ink thinned with water, to tone down dust spots – and more. We called it interpreting a negative, and I spent hours in the darkroom and lab doing exactly that. There is art in the shooting, sure, but there was also art in the choices you made in the darkroom, interpreting that negative.

So jump to 2010 – and photography is almost all digital now. Instead of choosing the ISO when we buy the film, we set the ISO in the camera. Where we used to increase the contrast by choosing Tmax instead of Tri-x film, or developing the film longer, or using a #4 filter in the darkroom, now we change the settings in our cameras or in the post processing. Every choice we used to make with film, we still make now with digital – PhotoShop is the new darkroom!

There have always been photographers who don’t want to spend time in a darkroom or sitting at a computer – and for those photographers the ExpoDisc is a must-have – so they can color balance in camera. And for those same photographers, Canon Picture Styles and Nikon’s Picture Control allow them to customize a group of settings for portraits and another group for landscapes, and then flip between them at will – it’s very similar in process, to choosing film, a decade ago. And believe me, if I was shooting weddings, where the standard is to give the client all the files, I would definitely consider making more of the choices in-camera – so that the main post necessary would be downloading the images and burning a DVD.

But here’s the thing – if you’re not dealing with thousands of files, there is no benefit to doing it in camera, other than saving a little time in post. Anything you can do in-camera, you can also do in post – and instead of just blindly applying a group of settings as you shoot, and hoping it turns out okay, if you make those choices as you process, you can see what you’re doing.

Back in the old days I could ship film off to the pro lab, and get back beautiful prints – but when I wanted full control, I did it myself in the lab! It’s the same thing now – I could come up with a generic set of presets for open-shade portrait, backlit portrait, etc., and apply them as I shoot – but if I want total control, then I need to wait and process each file in post.

There is no right or wrong here, and every photographer will come up with their own way to work – but I can safely say that I will always be a “interpret the negative” kind of girl. And when I hear the phrase, “fix it in PhotoShop” used in a negative way, I cringe a little. It’s really not “fixing” it in PhotoShop – it’s interpreting it – working it – creating art.

I’m sure that showing files straight out of the camera works for lots of photographers – but is it right for every photographer? No way! For some of us, the lure of the darkroom is still there – it just takes place in a different arena. Same process, same creativity, different arena!

Crisis & Opportunity: Documenting the Global Recession

I’ve blogged before about how few artists seem to be creating work that references the current economic meltdown – but maybe that’s about to change?

In the spirit of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) of the New Deal in the 1930s, when photographers documented the hardship and proposed solutions, SocialDocumentary.net (SDN) is issuing a Call for Entries. We are looking for photo essays that provide insight into how ordinary citizens around the world are coping during these new “hard times” and how individuals, companies, industries, family businesses, communities, and governments are responding to the crisis.

One photographer will be awarded a $1,500 cash prize, and an exhibition of their work in a group show in NYC. The deadline is December 7, 2009, so not enough time for me to shoot a series worthy of entering, but I’m eager to see what does win!

More on the Housing Crisis

San Jacinto For Rent // Photo: Cheryl SpeltsLast month, after reading an article that mentioned how few artists were currently doing work that referenced the current housing crisis, I decided to go out and shoot – with absolutely no expectations. I wasn’t sure what I was after or what I was trying to say, and that was okay. It was just an exercise, and I blogged about my first attempt here.

That first attempt was shiny, happy, and glossy, which was a little surprising given the subject matter, but not totally unexpected, if you know me. And it truly was just the first attempt. If, and I do mean if, I pursue this as a full-blown project, I’m certain it will evolve, and could end up very different, once I figure out what I want to say – but I’m not in that mode yet.

Right now I’m in exploration mode, and this week that took me to San Jacinto, California and a little house for rent in the downtown area. With broken windows, a bare dirt yard, and a sign on the front door that declared it uninhabitable – poor little house!

So not quite as shiny this time. Or as happy. And certainly not glossy. But still me.

I’m still not sure where I’m going with this project – or if it’s even a project – it might just stay an exercise. It’s good to explore! Even if it leads nowhere special…

San Jacinto For Rent // Photo: Cheryl Spelts

San Jacinto For Rent // Photo: Cheryl Spelts

San Jacinto For Rent // Photo: Cheryl Spelts

Abstract in Acrylic

Violet and Orange Abstract Painting / Cheryl Spelts

I moved some of my things out of storage this weekend, and happily came across this painting I did several years ago. An abstract done in acrylics on canvas – in my favorite color combination – violet and a dark purple, with orange. I still love it, years later, and it makes me happy to post it here, and share it with the world.

I may not earn my living as a painter, but I think all artists play in other media at times, and this painting is just as much me as any photographic image. Who I am as an artist comes out whether I’m working with light sensitive emulsion, or acrylic paint, or millions and millions of pixels…

Model Homes

I read a quote from a magazine editor recently, that mentioned the fact that not many artists are creating work about the current housing crisis. She was speaking from the frame of reference of someone who needs topical content for her magazine, but it made me wonder – why aren’t more artists referencing what’s going on, right here and right now? And on a personal level, why aren’t I? It’s definitely impacted me personally and professionally. You can’t really get away from it in the inland parts of Southern California. If there’s anyplace where you’d think you could find art about the the housing market, it’s here.

That’s not to say that just because we’re here and it’s obvious, that Southern California artists have some kind of obligation to go out and make art about foreclosures! But at the same time, how can you avoid it, when it’s such a big part of the culture in the area?

My conviction, the more I thought about it, was that sometimes it takes time for an issue or a feeling or a problem to sink into my consciousness deeply enough, for art to result. Other times that process is almost instantaneous – in 2004 I remember getting back after a major wild fire that almost claimed my home, and immediately reaching for my camera, and going out to create art out of the ruins around my neighborhood. But it’s not always that fast. Art comes from feeling and emotion – obviously – but what if you don’t know how you feel? This isn’t just an economic downturn, it’s not just the almost 14% unemployment in the county I live in, and it’s not just a bunch of empty, abandoned houses – it’s a lot of hurt people. People I know and love have been hurt. Loss is everywhere. So yeah, my feelings run deep on this, and that’s obviously the place where art *can* start…

So I decided to do an exercise. I shot some abandoned model homes, just to do it. To see where it led. I had no expectations, and nothing pre-conceived. I just wanted to go and see what happened. The results are maybe a little shiny, happy, glossy – but that’s okay – it’s part of my nature to find the serious *and* the beauty in everything I shoot. And I think that even though the images are beautiful, there is something off about each one – and in a way that’s more jarring than just flat out going for desperation and abandonment. Those feelings are there, but they’re the twist, not the main event.

A few notes on the location – it was in Winchester, California, at an abandoned housing development. Only a half-dozen model homes were built, and each one is still labeled with it’s model number. There’s evidence of a stream with river rock banks that used to run through the front yard of the main office, with a little bridge to cross it. There’s a sign pointing to the bathrooms. There was landscaping at one time, but the trees were cut down – who knows why? The turf has died, but the sprinkler heads are still there. Every single window and door was carefully and very thoroughly covered with thick plywood – no one has been in those homes since the sales people moved out. There is no graffiti at all, except for the spray painted note you see on the garage door in the first image.

It’s a really lovely location, and while I don’t like modern homes like these (I’m an old house lover!), I can’t imagine a better location. There’s a rock foothill right in the middle of the track, and the roads were built around it, so the neighborhood would have been really pleasant to live in.

And finally, I have to say something about the future. What you have to know is that this is Southern California. There is great demand to live here. Give us time, and these houses will have owners, and families will move in, and the idyllic location will not be wasted. There’s really no such thing as an abandoned house in Southern California, there’s just houses that are between owners.

Maybe I’ll come back in a year or two and shoot the same houses, from the same angles, when the grass is green, and the windows and doors are uncovered, and when there’s life in the streets.

Model Homes // Photo: Cheryl Spelts

Model Homes // Photo: Cheryl SpeltsModel Homes // Photo: Cheryl Spelts

Model Homes // Photo: Cheryl Spelts

Model Homes // Photo: Cheryl SpeltsStreet Signs Are Up // Photo: Cheryl Spelts

Bright Blue Sky and Puffy White Clouds // Photo: Cheryl Spelts

Sidewalk to Nowhere // Photo: Cheryl Spelts

Chain Link Cross // Photo: Cheryl Spelts

Bright Shiny Future // Photo: Cheryl Spelts