A year ago, when I first heard of a workshop called Seasons of Creativity, I thought: Please tell me that’s a working title. Followed by: That’s a brilliant idea.
- FOLLOW MY VOICE : Seasons of Creativity instructor Michael Ackerman and artists (left to right) Joan Faubert Suttle, Robin Johnson, and Flo Bartell reenact their first workshop, a sensorial awareness exercise.
Seasons of Creativity, co-created by Muara Johnston (former assistant director of the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art) and Michael Ackerman (artist/hell-raiser), is a yearlong course in which artists are challenged to develop a body of work, learn to how to package and professionalize it, and at the end of the year are guaranteed an exhibit through SLOMA’s Art About Town program, which coordinates art shows in businesses and other non-art-oriented venues in San Luis Obispo.
The artists involved attended four workshops led by Ackerman, each dedicated to a particular phase of this metamorphosis. The first, held in spring, was for planting the seeds, as it were: Artists established a plan for the year ahead. Summer, then, was a time for cultivation. Artists toiled in their metaphorical fields, returning at harvest time with a bursting cornucopia of art. From there—we’ll just keep going with this agricultural motif—they learned all about bringing their crops to market: planning an exhibition, writing press releases and artist’s statements, designing cards, creating websites, and harnessing the powers of Facebook.
Wintertime, finally, was for dormancy, for turning inward. Presenting their exhibitions to the world, the artists reflected on past year’s growth and made plans for the year to come.
Three brave artists—Flo Bartell, Robin Johnson, and Joan Faubert Suttle—enrolled. Having successfully completed the year, the three artists have now begun exhibiting the results, in what co-creators Ackerman and Johnston are hailing as a huge success.
Shell Beach oil painter Suttle had been focusing on landscapes when she began the yearlong workshop last year. However, it was her portraiture of Mexico’s indigenous Mayan people—with their powerful, well-rendered gazes—that stirred the imaginations of her fellow students and their instructor. So Suttle ditched the landscapes, and created instead the body of work which now fills the exhibit “Faces of Chiapas and Tepehua,” hanging at the Community Foundation in SLO.
Suttle and her husband own a home near Guadalajara, which afforded the artist plenty of opportunity to photograph and later paint the people she met in nearby villages. Some photographs she shot clandestinely, she says, having observed how many indigenous people, seeing a camera, would immediately shield their faces. Women clothed in bright dresses and shawls seem to enjoy an easy camaraderie as they make intricate stitches in a piece of clothing. A young man, face starting to show the toll of days spent working in the sun, eyes the viewer with a look of suspicion softened by curiosity. An elderly woman, her lined face wonderfully textured, stares out of a painting with a look of contentment.
“She had a presence,” Suttle said simply. “There was something about her.”
After Suttle painted the old woman, she said, she returned to Mexico to find out that her subject had since passed away. She also discovered that the woman, despite her ancient manner and the deep lines in her face, had been roughly her own age.
Of the three women involved, Templeton-based Robin Johnson has experienced the most visible transformation in her approach to making art.
“I was thinking I would be doing more mosaics and garden art,” she said when I visited her Templeton home, where the walls were instead adorned with mixed-media pieces devoted to sinister conspiracy theories on a range of subjects. Extraterrestrial life. The Illuminati. 9/11. Something about Earth being hollow and a secret tribe of people living inside. It’s all represented in a body of work wholly unexpected from an artist who uses a curlicue font and has been known to make a cat mosaic or two.
Titles like Things Don’t Line Up in the Underbelly and The Truth is in Plain Sight underscore the mistrust and, often, paranoia that runs through Johnson’s work. In the former, jigsaw puzzles depicting nostalgically idyllic scenes—hot-air ballooning, sailing, a neighborhood rendered in pastels—have had pieces strategically removed to spell the words Wake the hell up. Other pieces approach the motif of the unending truth-search more abstractly, such as 13 Layers of Disclosure: A Story of Hope, a painting Johnson created from a place of such uncommon ease she describes the work as having been “channeled.”
Yet the creation of the new series, Johnson admits, was not without its share of suffering and doubt—both on account of the dark subject matter and the unfamiliar medium.
Johnson’s use of rather juvenile objects—a scrabble game, a deck of cards, a painted globe, and, in one work unfinished on my visit, a sock puppet—to pose unsettling questions about the nature of the world we live in only serves to emphasize her broader point: that sinister truths may be masked in the pleasant and the benign.
“Peeling Back the Layers: Vaporizing the Mythic Fairytale,” the resulting exhibit, will hang at Coastal Peaks Roasters in San Luis Obispo.
Johnson said she enjoyed the structure and support of the quarterly workshops, but concedes that Ackerman’s teaching style had at first taken her off guard.
“Michael has a way of teaching that is a little unorthodox,” she recalled. “The first day he had us walk barefoot and blindfolded on the lawn outside SLOMA, and he guided us vocally.”
Interest piqued, I brought this exercise up in an e-mail to Ackerman, who had this to say: “It’s a trust and sensorial awareness exercise that is with Eyes Closed, no blind fold. Part of the process is experiencing how much we rely on our eyes and have both filtered out our other senses and don’t trust them ... and that we want to open our eyes rather than trust that the ground, everything we need, appears underfoot, literally and figuratively. Without the eyes, the mind/spirit is flooded with the present’s information … which with experience makes more of the world available and usable.”
Despite thinking this was maybe a little weird, Johnson recalled leaving the first weekend feeling energized and excited to create art in a way she hadn’t been for a long time.
Ackerman, now a prolific artist and art teacher, didn’t pick up painting until he was in his 40s. As such, he can easily relate to the difficult yet cathartic act of proclaiming oneself an artist: a hurdle each of his students in Seasons had to face.
These included Los Osos artist Flo Bartell, who, despite creating vivid and masterful visions in encaustic wax—despite giving regular demonstrations on working with the medium—wasn’t fully comfortable with the term when she embarked on the yearlong workshop.
Bartell’s emotionally charged abstract pieces are currently on view in the new show “Pyrogenesis: Abstracts in Wax” at Creekside Brewery in downtown San Luis Obispo. The series, dominated by red, black, and gold, seems to evoke life’s random moments of beauty as well as its jarring uncertainty. The searing crimson of Viscera, surrounded by charred black, evokes, like its title, intimacy, pain, or sacrifice. A striking diptych with the title Moving On acts as a kind of centerpiece the other works can use to orient themselves: a rush of glowing, living, defiant red through the dark unknown.
Follow the sound of Arts Editor Anna Weltner’s voice. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.