All original images and text are copyright 2008-2018 Liz Sweibel

Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Day After, Plus

The new Web site is launched; early feedback is positive.  I had a huge wave of anxiety after sending it live last night, but seem to have recovered without permanent damage.   I joined Facebook today.  I despise it.  Utterly.  It's ugly, it's cluttered, it's juvenile, there's irrelevant stuff I can't seem to make go away, and it's hard to work with.  Do I sound like a dinosaur?  Some excellent advice I received about developing my presence as an artist on the Web is to go where the people are.  The people are on Facebook and so I'm there now too, even if the earth shudders when I walk.  I'm sure I don't have my settings right yet, but I can't fool with it for another moment today.

I was not accepted into NYFA's Artist Boot Camp, but it was the nicest rejection letter ever.  So nice I responded to it.  I wrote that while I'm disappointed, I'm making my own boot camp.  With one camper.  One tenacious, passionate, determined, fed-up-with-the-status-quo camper, who is returning to studio practice now that the Web site is done.  And looking for opportunities to exhibit.

Tomorrow is Marina Abramovic's last day at MoMA.  I wonder how she feels, what this has been like for her.  What will it be like to stand up, knowing it is done?  What will she do on Tuesday?  Wednesday?  I visited last week, and the line to sit with her was halfway around the Atrium.  People were meditating, holding yoga positions, drawing her, sneaking photos.  Some looked like they were performing (yuck).  It was crowded.  Abramovic looked exactly the same as she did in March, except her dress is white instead of blue and the table is gone due to some inappropriate behavior.

Friday, May 28, 2010

A Big Anniversary

The entire month of May was very difficult for me for years, as my father spent the month in the hospital, then died on May 29.  Tomorrow will mark 30 years since that terrible month.  It's still sort of unbelievable to me, because I can summon and feel his presence and voice.  I miss him, as I was too young to be without him or to have achieved any kind of adult relationship with him, and he was too young to die.  He was 51; I am 53.  I have questions, lots of them, and the wish we had had time to overcome the emotional barricade we had up to hide our very real love and like for each other.

I've been working on my new Web site for weeks, and knew I wanted a meaningful launch date.  It was only in the last week that I realized the site is close to ready, and of course it's no accident that this anniversary was right in front of me.  So my new Web site will launch tomorrow.

My father was complicated.  He was charismatic, quick and smart, funny as hell, a late-blooming sailor, and scrappy.  He was also angry, frustrated, sensitive, and a bit rudderless.  He didn't finish college and had no career as such, but applied his inborn entrepreneurial spirit to what seemed right at the time, from the bar in Harlem to a mysterious company that made him rich, to semi-retirement in his early 40s, to some investments that drained his resources, to buying a small wire company that had nowhere to go but up, which he ran fairly happily (or so it seemed, though I'm sure he would've liked it to be more lucrative) until he died.  I've been told he felt he lost his touch after he emerged from semi-retirement, and my feeling is that he gave up in some fundamental way.

I note this because I'm a lot like him and I've run a somewhat parallel course.  While I did finish college (twice, actually, plus two master's degrees), I also earned a lot of money way before my 40s, and have been struggling financially ever since allowing my artist-self to live.  (I don't, however, have a family with four kids.  Thank GOD.)  I'm at a point where it feels like I either declare myself the artist I am and put that first or give up and be a hobbyist.  The latter is so repugnant that it's helping me overcome my fear of the former.  The new Web site is my symbolic and practical claim to my identity.  It's a gift to my father, but also a refusal.

I'd be remiss in not mentioning my mother here, since she was a gifted painter and as much an influence as my father, but her story will be for another day.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

On Commerce

Why does it feel like I have to keep money and art separate?  I've been reworking my Web site for weeks, and one of my intentions is to set it up for commerce.  Even the intention feels a little shameful, like it dirties me as an artist and cheapens the work itself, as if the content and formal strength of the work spill out when I put a price on it.  I know this isn't new or just me; it's the myth that starvation and art are a productive line-up, that the baseness of money and the loftiness of art should not meet.  (Not surprisingly, I'm not a fan of Koons or Hirst.)

I've spent a lot - I mean a lot - of hours trying to tuck a little shop into a discreet corner of my site.  I've invested days trying to keep "serious" visitors from noticing that some work is for sale.  Finally, I'm seeing that all this time has been me buying into exactly the division I object to.  I've been working so hard not to offend others' sensibilities or feel like I'm selling out that I've been setting up to starve myself.  It's a one-woman drama.

How could I think it better to keep good work in a drawer than to make it available to people who might love to live with it?  Art is the start of a dialogue; without a viewer it may as well not exist.  While there's a rich history of reclusive or invisible artists - the Philadelphia Wire Man, outsiders, Joseph Cornell - wanting to move the work into the world is not intrinsically anything.  I've kept my sights narrow.  And when I grow arrogant enough to think I've learned to suspend judgment, I run smack into one, and it's always me judging me and it's always rooted in fear.

Maybe now this new site will move forward so I can get back into the studio.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Roller Skating

I wrote a week ago that my father was good with a camera, then posted photos whose value to me were as clues to where he might have worked and what his world was like before I was born yet he was married and adult (or maybe not so adult; there was something about him that never quite grew up in "normal" terms, as there is with me).

He took the photos below when I was two or three, and even though my stake is personal, I love them - for the mood and light, the movement, and the unself-consciousness, interiority, tenacity, and adventurousness I see in myself as a little girl.

I'm trying to reground myself in these qualities now. I have to, if I'm to stay true to my gifts, my needs, and my ambition. I feel like my life has come to a deciding place about what the rest is going to be. This isn't morbid thinking or high drama, but the reality that, at 53, if I don't leap I will look back and know I betrayed myself. That's not my nature, but the tug to playing it safe is real. I am single, with not much of a net, so I have only myself to rely on. We're all in that situation, single or not, but in practical terms, the bills have to be paid. The emotional risks are at least as daunting: exposing my interior life, both in my work and in going public with my ambition; not knowing what forms my work might want to take in the world; and being afraid to find out because it may be a lot to want and require me to extend myself in utterly foreign ways. Wanting, not knowing, being imperfect, and asking for help were unsafe in my family, particularly with my father, and so these fears are as essential in me as my tenacity and willingness to take risks.

It's 5.30 am and the sun is coming up over Brooklyn - stripes of brilliant coral, golden orange-yellow, and pinkish-gray; a soft, cottony edge where the sunrise meets the leaving smoky blue night sky. The birds are very chatty; their voices seem to come from everywhere and nowhere. The temperature is exactly right. This weekend is two perfect days of spring, weather not to be taken for granted in New York.

Friday, May 14, 2010


I've been working hard to push through into my work and get more involved in art in the city.  For last night, I'd signed up for a panel on social issues in artistic practice, and rushed there after work.  I couldn't find it.  The address didn't exist, or was one of those hiding art addresses that you have to know to know. I wish it didn't bother me but it did.  I walked back and forth a little, self-conscious.  [Postscript:  When I got to work this morning, I saw my Post-It with the address on my desk, and I hadn't remembered it correctly.  But it doesn't matter.  It's the same thing.  A part of me doesn't want to go to these events and so I find a way to not go in the end.]

I seem to remain on the periphery despite my conscious pushes to engage.  I'm more comfortable here.  Once again, Anne Truitt's Daybook offered comfort this morning, when she summed up a rich passage wth, "My natural focus is interior."  Her book is a gift to me, particularly with the turbulence in me now.

So I gave up on finding the panel and climbed up to the High Line (first time!), stretched out on a lounging bench, and graded exams.  It was beautiful and felt good, but also, still, separate.  There was no winning with this one.

Earlier this week I went to see Kate Gilmore's Walk the Walk in Bryant Park.  It was 8.30 am and raining, and the women were reluctant to start.  That's understandable, but when they did they looked miserable.  I'm not sure whether Gilmore was good with that (wanting nonperformers as she did), but I wasn't.  I wanted them to be less self-involved in that way, or maybe it was fine and I was just irritated they were late starting and I had little time.  The brilliant golden-yellow of the structure didn't sit right with me.  Blood from a Stone, at the Brooklyn Museum, and Standing Here, at the Whitney Biennial, were more successful for me.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

So Of Course

It was inevitable, I suppose, that I would come across my father's photos May 4, not long after my last post, while relocating some family boxes to a less visible spot in my apartment.  (My family did not create tidy photo albums but rather left piles, shoeboxes, and slide trays of unsorted, mostly unidentified photos, which can be an adventure or an irritant depending on mood.)  The one above is one my father took near Nassau Street in 1958.  The man in front of Nedick's is my Uncle John, one of the uncles who co-owned the bar with my father.

The one below is the interior of a bar and not very good, but I expect it was the one they owned in Harlem.  Why else?

This one shows the RKO Alhambra theater, which was at 2110 Seventh Avenue (now Adam Clayton Powell Blvd.) at 126th Street.  It opened in 1905 and closed in the 1960s.  The sepia tone is unique among the photos I found that day.

This one shows Watkins Quality Products, which has been in business since 1868.  My dad's note says "144 St and 8th Ave S.E. 1958."  An Internet search didn't turn up Jack Sobel the pawnbroker.

I also opened a box of my mother's drawings that I've had since her death in 1986.  It seemed like time.  I only looked briefly as I'd had enough time travel (and cleaning) for one day and it's emotional, but they're piled on my studio table so the only way through is through.

Saturday, May 1, 2010


In October 2007, I lost my live-work space in Queens when the city closed the building.  I knew we were living illegally but thought the studio aspect was legal.  Not so.  Our landlord had us in dangerous circumstances.  So I came home from teaching one evening and had no home.  While some people are nomadic and others don't mind where the furniture is placed, I'm not one of them.  Home is as essential as air.  I was in shock, and the recovery - artistic, emotional, and practical - has been lengthy.

Among the 200 artists who were displaced that night, I was lucky to have a cousin, Judy, with a lovely third floor in her Montclair home.  She hosted me and my two cats for four and a half months.  My third-floor bedroom was one of those magical attic-like rooms:  flowered wallpaper, slanted ceilings, throw rugs, cozy, up in the trees.  I had always slept long and deeply in that room, as did everyone who guested there.  And the bathroom had a clawfoot tub that forced me to sit and soak.  One of my favorite photos of the late, great Riley was of her sitting in the tub and watching the water drip from the faucet.

Judy is a voracious reader.  The first book I pulled out of my bedroom bookcase was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.  Since my sights were set on moving to Brooklyn, it was a nice find.  Rereading it in that nostalgic little room reminded me of my mother and father, who were born in Brooklyn in 1931 and 1928, respectively.  My father, who owned a Harlem bar with my uncles in the 1950s, was very good with a camera, and Smith's novel reminded me of his beautiful black-and-white streetscapes.  As it turned out, I did land in Brooklyn, and only learned afterward that I live between each of my parents' high schools.  Both James Madison (mom) and Erasmus Hall (dad) are a mile or so away.  We are birds.

Another book I pulled from Judy's bookshelf was Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping.  The cover is beautiful and the title certainly was relevant, but the first few sentences didn't catch me at the time so I put it away.  When I pulled it out again, it was exquisite.  Every sentence.  And the relief the novel brought me, perhaps especially as an artist, was like exhaling.  Robinson's narrator, Ruthie, so delicately and lyrically observes and accepts people and events:   her mother, place, home, family history, abandonment, loss, love, the quirks of personality.  Ruthie's outsider status and absence of judgment make her an elegant observer-philosopher.

As I read, I used napkins to bookmark passages that were too rich to let go of, also knowing I'd read the book again under different circumstances.  My second reading, finished last week, prompted this post, because the novel was as moving, comforting, and illuminating the second time.

The Statement and the Wall

As content as I am to have written a statement that doesn't sound inflated or stupid, I've since realized it doesn't apply to all my work.  While that might sound like a big so what?, the realization disturbed me, as if it marks a problem with consistency or focus.  What it actually marks is a difference between my three- and two-dimensional work.  That difference, I now see, is between work that responds to the external world and work that is of my inner world.  The collages relate to my private narrative and sensibility while the sculpture is my social and political voice.  When my work lets go of the wall, it enters the world literally and metaphorically.  When it uses the wall as a support or an element, it stays home.  That form and content can so nicely align themselves without any conscious effort from me is part of the joy and miracle of being an artist.  My work knows more than I do, and it will tell me in its time if I bring myself to the process of making it with honesty and rigor, get out of the way, and have faith.

At the same time, I trust there's substantial overlap.  Writing a statement for the 2D work should bring it out, but just to take a stab at it now, I'd say that the sculpture is a public appeal that references the emotional content of the collages.  I'll leave it at that, but return to it soon.

The new Web site may be closer to completion than I thought.  I also reviewed my contribution to the upcoming issue of Ekleksographia this morning, so it's in the final stages of revision before release.  That's more incentive to get the Web site done.  Happily, I don't need it.  I'm finding myself energized and determined.  This sentence from Anne Truitt's exquisite, inspiring Daybook: Journey of an Artist ran through me like a current yesterday:  "It occurred to me that I could use the energy I had been putting into endurance to change my life."