Corpus Melliferous: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Just Draw Pictures

After spending four years in various and sundry drawing courses at NSCAD I had developed somewhat of a complex about my drawing. “Your drawing could use some work.” and “Your drawing isn’t strong.” were repeated themes in all of my drawing courses. I don’t mean to call for sympathy in admitting this; I acknowledged that my instructors were quite correct; my drawings had always lacked a certain level of technical accuracy. The drawings themselves weren’t bad but my “drawing”: my technical ability to reproduce things as I saw them was definitely lacking.  So as much I understood this difference and as much as I was able to improve my skills, my drawing ability remained something to be desired. I lost confidence and I stopped enjoying making drawings and, for the most part, I stopped making drawings altogether.


In an advanced painting course, some time close to graduation, I learned that there are ways around this shortcoming; I had options! After all, Mary Fucking Pratt (I believe that is her real middle name.) uses an overhead projector to block in her incredible paintings and Chuck God-Damned Close does incredible work using grids! But still, dear reader, I was ashamed! *melodramatic weeping* What was I to do?!

For years I avoided drawing, making only the most rudimentary sketches to plan the compositions of my paintings. I would use grids to block in images from photos for my paintings and hoped there would be no follow-up questions. I felt that I was “getting away with it” but companion to this feeling is the surety that eventually, my proverbial “jig” would be “up”.  And, deep down, I somehow felt cheated; like the robot who couldn’t love, I was the somewhat anticlimactic artist version: I was the painter who couldn’t actually draw all that well.

So, fast-forward a few years to the Fall of 2010. I decided to rent a studio space outside of my apartment and dedicate its use to, among several other things, facing down my drawing demon and befriending it. I wanted to feel comfortable drawing; I wanted to love drawing for itself. I wanted to be like Richard Gere at the end of An officer and a Gentleman and carry the blushing, Debra Winger of drawing out of that damned factory and  “away from all of this.” I had a plan too. I was going to embrace the aspects of creating images by hand that I really enjoyed and push them to their furthest logical conclusion. I love making large work, I love dense texture and I love brain-numbing repetition and, dear reader, as you already know, I dearly love bees.

Of note: my studio space was VERY small, roughly the size of a standard prison cell (I’m not even kidding). It had no windows. As I began to spend more and more time in this claustrophobic space, I descended into a kind of useful madness. I was alone in a very tiny room with no distractions and nothing but my work, how glorious! Things made sense that hadn’t made sense before and I was able to comfortably move slightly away from straight representation and make some visual connections that were slightly more surreal. This break allowed me the comfort to dig in and have fun with brain numbing repetition of form and desperately tedious texture work.

I began experimenting with making large, surreal, bee works on paper. I became deeply fascinated with the only obvious thing that humans and bees had in common physiologically: we both have hair! The drawings were made as large as I could manage given the size of the space. Since the longest wall was eight feet long, my drawings measured five feet high (the height of a roll of paper) by eight feet long. I worked on them standing, crouching and sitting cross-legged on the floor. I worked on them eight hours at a time; I developed carpal tunnel; I loved the hell out of it! Each drawing ended up taking about a hundred and fifty hours to complete and, miraculously, I liked how they looked so much that I stopped painting and really dug in to drawing.

These drawings are still an ongoing series called Corpus Melliferous. So far I’ve shown them at Artists’ Quarter Gallery and Studios (remind me to post some time about putting on an exhibition by oneself), The Hub, and The Confederation Centre of the Arts. I’m hoping to find a venue to show more work from this series soon so you can see them in real life but until then here are the most recent pieces. Photo documented by the incredible Christina Arsenault.

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RuthMarsh02web
Kreb
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A year and a half ago I received an offer I simply could not refuse: would I like to be a collaborating artist on a stop motion animation project? The question came from my Centre for Art Tapes Scholarship Program mentor Tim Tracey who had won the Helen Hill award for animation for his proposed project Kreb. Kreb sounded like it was right up my alley: creatures and sets would be made exclusively from found and reclaimed materials and the subject matter would have a strong thematic and visual link to my bee taxidermy series, namely: the perversion of the natural world through technology, pollution and rampant industrialization.

 

What followed was a whirlwind of building, planning and crazy times. Sets were constructed out of discarded electronics, wires, hose, cogs and wheels and basically any gorgeous rusty old thing that suited the Kreb universe. This miniature world was unique, quirky, filthy and beautiful. Creatures were brainstormed and built using computer parts, wire, animal bones and any lovely detritus that we could find.  Chris Macnutt (Who is quite possibly the most patient human I have ever met.) put many hours into creating brilliant and stunning machines that turned and whirred in the background of every scene and added so much beauty and richness to all of the sets. Jason Johnson built the characters Kreb andThe Baby. The hours I spent animating these tiny characters gave me a real sense of wonder at the painstaking detail that was put into them.  Tim Tracey, who conceived of and written the story  and who’s “baby” this project is, spent many hundreds of hours assembling the Kreb universe, building sets and creatures, animating, lighting and light painting and rallying us, his troops to battle! I worked on concept designs, built creatures, helped dress and light sets and worked on all of the small things in a literal sense: my specialty (in this project and in life) is in strange cyborg miniatures. I would be completely remiss if I didn’t mention Joshua Van Tassel who wrote a gorgeous, wonderfully original and heavily industrial sounding soundtrack for Kreb; this soundtrack united all of the visual elements and set the emotional tone beautifully! There are many many other contributors to the planning and building stage including Ed Beals and Susan Tooke. Not the least of these contributors was Ami Goto who provided the warmth of her company and her incredible cooking and was always there to give helpful feedback as we worked. It was definitely a village-raised child of a quirky, endearing and simultaneously terrifying, miniature universe. And this is just mentioning the wonderful humans that I worked directly with!

 

(Anecdotally, I would be utterly remiss if I didn’t send a shout out to the Wu Tang Clan, specifically The 36 Chambers album. Without this album I fear I would have descended into total madness and I’m absolutely certain that the cumulative hours of dancing I did to Wu between takes prevented me from developing deep vein thrombosis and subsequently dying. Thanks Wu, I owe you my life!)

 

Finally, everything was assembled and we were ready to shoot!  For a staunch luddite like me, this part presented a serious learning curve. Each shot had to be painstakingly lit and each movement had to be carefully measured. The resultant images were stored in sequence on a series of laptops and hard drives and were then assembled into an animation through a specialized computer program.

 

Shooting became a sort of meditation: measure, move, take a picture, measure, move, take a picture. Turns out there’s a part of my lizard brain that loves this kind of desperate tedium. And so, day after day we would put sets together and light them and night after night we would carefully film our story, one move and one picture at a time.  If I hadn’t been excited about what we were making already, I became doubly so as our footage started to slowly assemble. I don’t think you really understand “slow” until your stop-animate at twenty-four frames/second. But the company was good and the work was very very satisfying. Martin Helmich came in as our director of photography at this point and the storytelling was pushed to exciting new limits because of his muti-dimentional re-imagining of the Kreb universe through the lens of the camera. Brett Hannam, a saintly man of many talents sat in on some of the insanity of our shoots and spent countless hours capturing footage, solving technical problems and eventually taking on the task of being the project’s producer.

 

The resultant film is a project that I am definitely very proud to have been able to play a role in creating. I’d love to show it to you but it’s still making the rounds at festivals. As soon as I can, I’ll post a link!

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Here are the festivals where Kreb has played so far:
World premier: Atlantic Film Festival. September 2013, Halifax
Kreb received a special award for animation.
Outlier Film Festival, November 2013, Halifax
First Glance Film Festival, April 2014, LA
Worldfest Independent Film Festival, April 2014, Texas

Kreb was awarded a Platinum Remi Award for animation

Bee Taxidermy Instructional Video
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So, what do you do when you have virtually no technical skill in shooting and editing video or recording audio but you really, really  want to make an instructional video about bee taxidermy? You seek help! What better opportunity to learn these skills but through the Centre for Art Tapes’ Scholarship Program? So I wrote up a proposal and was accepted into the program.

I would recommend this program to anyone. If you have project you dearly want to make but lack the technical camera and computer skills to do it, please please apply for the CFAT Scholarship program! The instructors, CFAT staff and mentors are so patient and welcoming and they took me from the point of not even knowing which button to push to “make the camera go” to being able to now independently produce my own video work.

This program consists of a series of workshops about everything from camera operation to the basics of animation to lighting to sound and video editing. The program climaxes in a public screening of the work that the scholarship participants produce. Scholarship recipients are also given great access to equipment and services available through the centre. Another component consists of being set up with a mentor who, through a series of scheduled studio visits and meetings acts as an instructor and helps to guide you through the process.My assigned mentor was Tim Tracey: self-made filmmaker and DIY ninja extraordinaire! Tim was a wacky and wonderful mentor and it turned out that we worked so well together that we ended up working on another project after the scholarship program concluded. However, I must digress at this point because the project in question will be covered in some detail in a future post.

So here I was with a plan and the ignorant hubris to think my project was a very simple, straightforward endeavor that could easily be completed in a weekend. I expected that after this effortless two days I would put my feet up and sip large, fruity cocktails from coconuts while nodding sympathetically at the other, more ambitious scholars who were toiling away on their Citizens’ Kane.

I was very soon to learn that this was simply not the case. Apparently shooting in macro can be a bit of a challenge *cough*. Every part of the shoot was incredibly painstaking because, turns out, it’s kind of difficult to shoot video of activities you can’t actually see very well with the naked eye.  Imagine winding a tiny wire onto a tiny needle and then very carefully trying to locate a specific part of a bee’s tiny head to glue it to; all this occurring while one is trying to record the minute sounds this activity might make and trying one’s very best to capture this minute activity on camera. Not to mention lighting: suffice to say that I had never before concentrated more energy on trying not to melt myself or other people. Tears were shed, lessons were learned and fingers were super-glued to other fingers on a semi regular basis. But the video was made, oh yes! No longer would the world’s hobbyists be deprived of the option of preserving and repairing heirloom quality dead bees for their family to treasure for generations to come.

My plan at the time was to exhibit this video alongside several hundred taxidermy bees. I have yet to do this but it is still a very real ambition about which, I will keep you posted!

And so, my darlings, here is my bee taxidermy instructional opus. Like, share and enjoy

http://https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n7KorCWDP5I
What constitutes a practice?
Photo Cred, Kylee Nunn
Photo Cred, Kylee Nunn

I’ve been thinking about this idea a lot in recent months, which has led me to speak to other people on the subject. What are the basic requirements for a person to take on the lofty (or, depending on how you look at it “dubious”) title of “artist”? What is enough? Am I enough? What is an art practice?

The people whom I’d been speaking with all had certain things in common. They were experiencing changes in the practical structure of their lives that were forcing them to contemplate this question. Changes included: loss of a studio space, a lessening of studio time, a creative dry patch where one feels lost and grasping. The one thing that we could all agree on was that, for all of us as creative people, the absence of creative output was the very definition of despair. When the conditions of creating change and seem to become beyond one’s control; it is a very lonely feeling, it can be very damaging to one’s creative confidence and can lead to the questioning of the validity of one’s practice.

In my case, I went through some very drastic and significant life changes which made me grow very rapidly in almost every aspect of my life. As it so happens, these events happened between this post and my last one over the course of more than two years. I don’t need to go into too many specifics but suffice to say, my life opened up and I grew, a lot; and my practice grew along with me. I tried some new directions and learned a lot, the specifics of which I’ll speak of in more detail in upcoming posts over the next few weeks. The aspect that I’d like to concentrate on now however is a more meta examination of change and growth in the context of an art practice.

So what happened? It started in small ways, which I couldn’t really perceive or make sense of at first. I started working in new media and changed my view of myself from “painter” to “multidisciplinary artist”. I changed my view from an inward one: I make paintings in isolation which represent a core idea and then I present these paintings and ideas in a public exhibition, to one that demanded more give and take: I receive information, ideas and materials from the public and then I use art as a lens to reflect these images and ideas back. I changed my sensibilities toward materials and became much more fluid in my approach. It stopped being about shaping paint to represent ideas and became more about letting the ideas shape the material. This meant that if I had to learn a new skill or even invent a whole new way of creating, I would.

I had always taken a very conscious approach toward materials as a painter. The shape and size of the painting surface were never invisible in my eyes and were always given careful consideration. The paint itself was always carefully considered; I made my own gesso, egg tempera and encaustic paints. So it seemed very natural to expand and grow into new materials and ways of working. The part that changed was that the material had to serve the idea and that the most important aspect of the whole exercise was connecting with other people. So I stopped painting and started drawing on a large scale, making taxidermy bees, helped make a stop motion film and collaborated on a large-scale, public installation.

It was scary and also very exciting! As I changed on a personal level from a very shy human to a more confident and connected one, my work grew too and in doing so I was forced to re-examine my own personal definition of what art actually does and what it is. I know this is a question that has dogged humanity from its very beginning and I don’t pretend to be able to have in a moment of epiphany, stumbled upon the answer to one of life’s great questions. However, as a practitioner of art, I think it’s important to have a working definition. This definition has to be based on a couple of practical considerations: What do I want my art to do and who is its intended audience? For me, suddenly the scope of creating opened up. It stopped being about the physical making of the work and started being about communicating with other people. I felt like I had been given an opportunity to really connect with others in a unique and meaningful way. As a shy and somewhat lonely person this idea was almost overwhelming. Art was love. Art was connection. Art was creating a situation or context within which to have a conversation with other people with give and take and it was ongoing. This became the definition of “practice” for me. As such it could be expanded into all aspects of life, not just in a small studio with a paintbrush!

So what does this mean in the day to day? Well, since art making has become less of an activity and more of a way of experiencing the world, I count the hours I spend in my actual studio less carefully; as though being able to say I’ve been in the studio eight hours a day, seven days a week somehow validates or even indicates the quality of my work. I worry less about identifying as an artist and try to just accept it as a part of my identity; a core value that other things can rest comfortably upon. I try to maintain a deep respect for art-making and therefore, for myself. Some days are easier than others.

This should not imply however, even for a second, that I don’t struggle. I’m a visual artist working a day job in a city that is much too expensive to live in as a low waged worker. I’ve realized how precious time is when so much of my time and energy is caught up just in surviving. It can be brutally hard to motivate yourself to make art at the end of a day when you’ve been on your feet for eight or more hours already, just to pay the bills. I make time in small ways when the practical circumstances of my life demand a lot of my energy and I glory in extended patches of time that can just be dedicated to art. All the while, I try to work constantly toward structuring my life in such a way that eventually I’ll have all the time I need, only for art.

So, dear reader, I hope this explains the lapse in blog making to some extent! More will be filled-in in future posts as I go into more detail about the nuts and bolts of the work I’ve been making recently. I’m seeing the blog itself more as an extension of my practice and hope to use it as a jumping off point in connecting with you in a more meaningful way than before. And so, we’ll talk soon!

Assembly Lines Installation









This past Sunday I returned to Halifax from Charlottetown where I had been installing the bee part of Assembly Lines. This exhibition brought four artist’s together to show work that, in it’s making, had taking highly personally charged subject matter and put it through a repetitive, assembly line type process that somehow depersonalized it.

I was amazed at how friendly and welcoming the Confederation Centre gallery staff and volunteers were. An extra special thanks has to go out to Betty-Jo McCarville and Erin Arsenault who each welcomed me into their homes for two of the four days I was on the Island.
I can’t wait to go back to PEI and visit again!