"You use a glass mirror to see your face; you use works of art to see your soul."
George Bernard Shaw
It's January. As I write, the sun is shining beautifully through my window. It is the type of January day we don't see often in mid-Michigan. Meanwhile I am preparing for the opening of my upcoming show, Trapped In The Grey.
February seemed like the perfect time to dissect what it feels like to be "trapped in the grey." When you are confronted by feelings of heaviness, weight and darkness. Yet you also know love is all around you. We are all special and have the ability to treat each other that way. And we are responsible for each other.
Yet we have been living through tumultuous times.
I don't see issues in black in white, with clear cut answers, and even my head and heart sometimes seem in conflict. Often what helps me the most is to paint.
My Trapped In The Grey series had a definite starting point. I was walking in Central Park, reflecting on a conversation with my daughters and feeling frustrated with not being able to communicate my emotions clearly. My insides hurt. I felt trapped in recognizing nothing in life is simple. And suddenly a new series was born. I saw it clearly in my mind. Starting with black on one side and white on the other, I would write my emotions onto the canvas. Shards of plexi-glass would be added to the top to allow the viewer to see their reflection in the grey – indicative of the fact we all get trapped.
It, of course, was not that simple. But the muse had struck. I love how the artistic process takes on a life of its own. If you let it.
My good friend and fellow artist, K.W. Bell, is joining me in this show. Karen is a fabulous sculptor. Her sculptures are deep and thoughtful and meaningful.
We both push to communicate our emotions in our art. We both long for something deeper as well - to engage with life and all of its complexities. And we both enjoy the work itself, the process.
It is also such a lovely thing when you get to show with a friend and your work fits together so well.
For years my mom has asked: "Why don't you just paint flowers?" I do. At times. But, to me, art is also about painting the gritty, soulful stuff which helps me feel more alive and helps me learn about myself.
If you are in Lansing in February, please stop by the Michigan Institute for Contemporary Arts (MICA) gallery to see the show. And please let us know if you did. We'd love to hear your feedback.
If you are able to make it to the reception, you'll have a special treat. Karyn Perry from Karyn's Dance Place is working with a group of young dancers to do their own interpretive dancing of what it means to be "trapped in the grey." I can't wait.
I hope you are able to join us. If you live far away, you can see many of my Trapped in the Grey paintings on my website. And please check out Karen's work as well: K.W. Bell.
My love to all,
“Art is something that makes you breathe with a different kind of happiness.”
My closest friend called recently. She lives in California. I live in Michigan. Had I let her mom know about my recent holiday art sale? She wanted to see my new work and what I was putting together for the holidays. Oops.
I truly believe most artists are not naturally entrepreneurial. There's this sense that you are selling your soul. You hope your art will "speak for itself" and somehow sell itself. But, unfortunately, it doesn't really work that way.
Years ago I was challenged by an artist/mentor to think about why I paint. Mark suggested I draw a heart to represent my passion for painting, a star representing my desire for notoriety or fame, and a dollar sign for money. And then I had to decide what combination of these symbols represented my motivation. Three hearts? Three dollar signs? A heart, star and dollar sign? What I decided made a difference on how I proceeded with my art. I had the hardest time with the exercise and still do.
I am working hard on wrestling my muse into a form that works for me. I do believe I am savvy enough to figure out how to paint, help the world be a better place, and help pay my bills all at the same time. I have wonderful conversations with people who have purchased my art and told me they feel I have somehow magically been in touch with their emotions and put them down on canvas. The best compliment I can receive as an artist is that my art has touched someone.
When I look around my house, there are things people created everywhere. And they bring me joy. I am grateful for all of the creative souls whose talents grace my house whether it be visual, musical, literary, food related, etc.
I heard a very interesting question asked recently to artists who are sheepish about being creatives. "Do you want to live in a world without art? Do you want to win the fight against cancer and live without music, poetry, dance and great stories?" Oh my gosh no. My mom worked so hard this week to stay out of the hospital because she had tickets to see Aladdin at the theater. She was so happy listening to the music, watching the dancers, being out in the midst of art. And I was happy to share the evening with her.
I share these thoughts obviously in the midst of the holiday season. I encourage you to shop locally, know that many artists struggle with the same emotions I am exploring. Their art contains a piece of them, a piece of their soul and a gift to the world. Go to your local art fairs just to take it all in - breathe in the goodness. Help them know that what they do matters.
As I wrestle my muse, I am working on making my art more available to all. You can find my smaller works available for purchase on Daily Paintworks. Once purchased, I will put them in the mail or hand deliver them depending on where you live. If you are interested in a painting on my website, please email me directly. This time of year you can also find my work at Detroit Artist Market or Be.Gallery in Ohio. And my self-paced online classes, Good Morning Creativity!, are always available - wouldn't they make a wonderful gift for someone who wants to make art more a priority in the new year?
Thank you to everyone who has supported me. I appreciate you more than you can know.
May art, music, laughter, good books, good food, family, friends, love, good health and peace and prosperity all be part of your holiday season.
My love to all,
“I hope you will have a wonderful year, that you'll dream dangerously and outrageously, that you'll make something that didn't exist before you made it, that you will be loved and that you will be liked, and that you will have people to love and to like in return. And, most importantly (because I think there should be more kindness and more wisdom in the world right now), that you will, when you need to be, be wise, and that you will always be kind.”
- Neil Gaiman
"It is hope that enables us to live, only hope." -- Edward O. Wilson
Is there a magic elixir to remaining hopeful?
Years ago I worked for the Kellogg Foundation. On a daily basis I was inspired by and in awe of people working diligently to protect their drinking water. The majority were young professionals following their passions. I often pondered what happens when young activists burn out? How can I help my grantees stay motivated in their work?
My curiosity lead me back to school. I asked these questions all the way through my doctoral program in adult education. Through my dissertation research I interviewed amazing environmentalists. I was gifted with being let into their inner thoughts, inner emotions. I was introduced to Mary Oliver's poetry during one of those interviews. I heard about hard fought battles and compromises and friendships and losses. But mostly I heard about hope.
Hope was the unifying theme. Remaining hopeful appeared to be a magic elixir to sustaining passion.
I am not sure exactly what hope looks like. Yet I do believe we are all hungry for hope.
Oddly enough in high school I had this stanza of Emily Dickinson's poem taped to my dashboard. My 17 year old self was hungry for hope.
Why bring this up now?
I often question as an artist how am I helping to protect the environment?
How am I helping people remain hopeful?
Every artist is going to play a different role in society.
I am not sure what my role is but I do know my commitment. I would like to provide a message of hope.
There seems to be two ways I can do this. I can help celebrate the beauty and joy of the world around us or I can provide thoughtful critique to our political, economic and social systems. I seem to flip back and forth. Perhaps that is necessary.
I want my art to connect with people’s emotions. Recently I have gone back to painting nature. Every time I paint a crane or cardinal or pine tree I feel a bit calmer, at ease, gentle. And ready to protect the world I love. If my paintings can help others feel the same way, then perhaps I am doing my small part in providing hope.
With love to all.
"Self-care means giving yourself permission to pause." ~ Cecilia Tran
Three years ago I received an unexpected phone call. Would I be willing to be an artist-for-hire for a friends' weekend up north? It was for a retreat of a close group of women. They annually rent a house, bring in good food and do art. Would I be willing to join them and lead them in art activities?
I'd met them in a workshop. I didn't know them well and I am inherently shy. It is the oddest thing. I love people. I love teaching. Yet it always requires taking a deep breath to go in front of a group.
When a door opens, walk through it, right? A group of women who want to do art for 3 days in northern Michigan - what could possibly go wrong? Actually, a lot of bad scenarios existed in my overly active imagination.
Yet, a door opened on a new experience AND life is meant to be lived.
So I said yes. It was wonderful. Fully absolutely wonderful.
We created art from Thursday evening through Sunday afternoon. They kept up with me and reveled in it. Our pajamas became our art clothes. We were a mile from Lake Michigan in February. Think ice, snow, and below freezing temps. By Saturday late afternoon I had to go for a run. I ran to the beach for the sunset and suggested they pick me up - to at least SEE the outdoors.
I tell you all this to give you insight to something I then put on my bucket list: To create an annual retreat for women focused on art, laughter, friendship, rejuvenation, good food, nature and being present in the moment.
Then I met Betty Gauthier, a sound therapist (think singing bowls and reverberating gongs). I would call her a "sound artist." We were at a funeral of a mutual dear friend and instantly connected. Betty is soft spoken, kind, authentic. Somehow our conversation took a turn to our joint desire to host a women's weekend retreat. An idea was birthed.
An here we are, walking through an open door.
June 2020 - over my birthday weekend - we are hosting our first annual Women's Well-being Retreat at the Inn at the Rustic Gate in Big Rapids, MI - an absolutely delightful Inn that was originally a dairy farm. My bucket list dream to help create a weekend of art, laughter, nature and relaxation, is being launched. I am thrilled.
Everyone should do something in life that takes you out of your comfort zone, right?
Want to celebrate my birthday with me? Think recharge, rest, create. What could be better? We are purposefully keeping the group small, so don't hesitate. I want you to join us.
Love to all!
Inn At The Rustic Gate, Big Rapids, MI
The Space Between Thoughts
I went again to the wilderness area of the Boundary Waters this summer - a perfect place to disappear. Silent. Beautiful. Awe inspiring. Nature in its glory. And it requires work to be there. It's a well earned quietness.
I value activities which quiet my brain. I run. I paint. I hike. I paddle. Not thinking takes work. Yet I also value the fact that I am a thinker. The tension between not thinking and thinking plays itself out in many ways in my life. Art being one of them.
I often question whether painting is a release from thinking or a means to think?
One of the things I love about the Boundary Waters in northern Minnesota is the protection that has been given to the area. It's a unique treasure, a true jewel, with over 1 million acres of forests, wildlife, birds, and pristine glacial lakes and rivers.
There is nothing quite like spending days in a canoe just taking it all in. And sharing that quiet time and beauty with others.
Yet the pristine beauty and health of the area is being threatened. In 1909 the Boundary Waters Treaty was signed by Canada and the United States, requiring that neither country pollute the waters that flow across the border. Today the rules are being relaxed under the Trump administration to allow sulfide-ore copper mining in the region. The forests of the Boundary Waters Wilderness Area are deeply interconnected through streams, lakes, wetlands and groundwater. Sulfide-ore copper mining activities will disrupt and severely damage this relationship. It hurts to even think about.
So I come home and wonder: How am I helping the world to be a better place? What can my role, as an artist, be? How can I help the Boundary Waters with my paintbrush? And I think. And that thinking paralyzes me. I feel so small in the grand scheme of life. And I realize I need to find the space between my thoughts to keep painting. Let my heart talk.
Toni Morrison counseled:
This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.
So I pick up my paintbrush. And I keep painting.
With love to all,
How much do you share as an artist? Does the viewer want to know the artist's story behind a painting? Does that ruin or enhance the experience of looking at a painting, breathing it in? Can it still become your own? Should titles be broad and all encompassing or should they add mystery and intrigue?
"We Never Went Backpacking" could be titled "Hermit Thrush." Would you like it more? Does it influence how you see or feel about the painting?
My creative process usually starts with a title which is usually influenced by an emotion. Is that important to know?
My heart broke this past winter. My cousin died rather unexpectedly. Life isn't suppose to happen that way.
I loved Dean fully. When I think of him I hear his full bodied laugh. I hear him telling family stories loudly. I see him living on top of his mountain in Braintree, Vermont proud of his blueberries, hops, turkeys and family. As far as I am concerned all of Vermont loved Dean. It appeared every single community member in his small town, especially all his middle school students, came to hear the mourner's kaddish chanted for him. You loved Dean if you knew him.
Dean was my twin in his love for the outdoors. Every year we talked about backpacking together. Every year it didn't happen due to jobs, kids, broken bones, mismatched schedules. But there was always next year. We knew it would happen.
We never went backpacking.
Dean died in February. His funeral was on Valentine's Day. All of our hearts broke.
Art helps me process emotions. Art helps me express emotions. Art helps me feel. Art helps me heal. Art helps me love.
What do you want to know as the viewer? Do you want to know that the base layer of "We Never Went Backpacking" is a map of Vermont? Do you want to know that the vibrant colors were designed to communicate my deep feelings of love and loss? Do you want to know that I purposefully worked on cardboard because Dean taught me how to reuse materials? Do you want to know that I carved the Green Mountains into the cardboard to add the texture and depth that I was feeling? Do you want to know the additional textures are school letters and numbers representing Dean's love of teaching? Do you want to know the Hermit Thrush is Vermont's state bird?
How much of this information is important to share as an artist?
I recently listened to a podcast where the artist suggested that a title should never influence the viewer's perception of a painting. The viewer should be allowed her or his own interpretation. I understand this argument. Yet I also believe it is a choice both the artist and the viewer makes.
I asked my daughter what she thought my title combined with the painting was representing. She replied, "global warming."
With love to all,
Breathe it all in. Love it all out.
I thank Mary Oliver daily for those words. They remind me to take a deep breath, listen to the sounds around me, embrace the moment, and see the beauty.
I’ve contemplated a lot recently about who do I want to be as an artist? Why am I painting what I paint? Why am I teaching what I teach? Why are the arts important?
We are complicated beings and these are complicated questions.
I spent a good part of May as the Artist-in-Residence at the Glen Arbor Art Center in northern Michigan. I painted daily in a studio in a barn in a field in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. I had planned on exploring through art the marks humans have left on the lakeshore. Instead I became enraptured with birds. I am indebted to the Glen Arbor Arts Center for their advice to follow my heart and let the experience guide my painting. What a gift.
Prior to my residency, I had been working on a show for the Peppermint Creek Theatre about homophobia and antisemitism. As I sat outside my studio and quietly watched birds, I thought about the women I had interviewed: Queer Jewish women who were willing to tell me their stories. In my studio in a barn in a field, I found myself painting birds representing these women's stories. In their words I heard strength, courage, love, and a fierce determination to be who they are in a world that doesn’t always want to accept them. Suddenly a swallow represented the woman whose home is her true north, an owl symbolized the wisdom of the two rabbis I interviewed, a hummingbird embodied the fighting spirit of these women, a loon found stillness in just being. The series is titled "Here I Am."
Art is about communicating, imagining, thinking, finding symbols to represent difficult subjects. It’s about honesty. It’s about growth.
I recently taught a workshop focused on the conceptual component of painting. With a lovely group of artists, over three days we asked: Why do you paint what you paint? Can you bare your soul in your art and still have it be universal? Do you have to bare your soul? Do you have to tell your secrets? And most importantly, what are you trying to communicate? Paintings were conceptualized to deal with aging, death, politics, love for children, feeling lonely, feeling blessed – the gamut of human emotions we all confront. Texture. Color. Images. Words.
Art plays a crucial role in transforming, redefining, reimagining our world whether on a personal, regional, or global level.
We are complicated humans living in complicated times. I feel blessed to have art as an avenue to express concepts and emotions. AND I feel blessed to be able to share this with others.
An art journal page from my residency: life lessons.
I'm teaching a three day workshop at the upcoming International Society of Experimental Artists Symposium in Grand Rapids, MI.
Painting for Self Expression
Sept 19-21, 2019.
The City Pulse ran such a nice article about my Here I Am series.
How One Artist Dug Deeper
I've updated my website!
Please check it out: www.jessicakovan.com
Traveling this summer but still want to create? Try out one of my online art journaliing classes! Work at your own pace. I am always just an email away to ask questions!
I greet you from the other side of sorrow and despair with a love so vast and shattered it will reach you everywhere.
As artists, we are taught to channel our feelings onto the canvas. If you want to sell your paintings, it’s safer to not talk about your politics. Hide them in your paintings, and hide them well. I paint what’s in my heart with color, texture, and words—hopefully, then, the feelings will transfer from my heart to the canvas. But I have tried this, and I am still bubbling up inside.
I was going to write about painting today. Instead I am writing about emotions.
After last week’s murders at the Tree of Life synagogue, friends reached out to me offering condolences and prayers. I didn’t react like my other Jewish friends. Their offers of prayers and thoughts added flames to my anger. They should feel the same pain I feel. We are all people. Our society, our community, is seriously dangerously messed up. We are living in a broken world. Don’t pray for me. Pray for all of us. And do more than pray, dammit. Speak up. Speak out. Be angry. Be informed. Vote.
I wonder where my anger comes from. I will continue to reflect on that. In the meantime, my heart hurts. It hurts for all of us. I feel rage for all of us. And I feel immense compassion for the families and community that have lost love ones to gun violence, racism, anti-Semitism, and fear of “the other.”
I am working on turning my anger, fear, sorrow and despair back into love. “Be gentle with yourself. Be gentle with others.” That’s what I’ve told myself in quiet moments this week.
I feel vulnerable even saying I got angry. I don’t want to offend anyone. Instead I want to just put it in my art. I will write my emotions into my paintings and then add the appropriate colors: black, white, grey and perhaps a little blue.
But will that help the world?
With gentle love to all,
This time of year is always a time of reflection for me. Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur. The Days of Awe. I find myself asking: Where is my heart? How is my heart? What have I learned over the past year? What are my intentions?
As I sat in the synagogue wrapped in the beautiful sounds of the holidays I felt wrapped in warmth. My heart was being held gently. As I mused about the coming year, the word that came to me was kindness.
May the world be more kind.
May I always be kind.
May those I know and love be kind.
I have recently been yelled at twice by strangers. On a quiet Sunday morning on campus I was running in the bike lane. A middle aged man riding the opposite direction chose to tell me loudly and clearly that the lane was not for runners. He was right. His way of telling me was not.
While driving a couple days later another middle aged man yelled out his open window quite vehemently at me. My driving was not dangerous. Perhaps I disturbed him by intently reading his license plate (Juggler) - perhaps a little bit too closely. But my mind starts doing somersaults with creativity when I see words that intrigue me.
I interpret both of these experiences as symptoms of something very odd going on. We are living in times when it is OK to not be kind. I will not accept it. I do believe it is hard to be human. I don't believe it is hard to be kind.
So where is my heart as I go into this new year? What are my intentions?
AND always keep my running shoes laced tightly. That's so I keep standing and moving forward.
May your new year be filled with kindness, joy, and love.
“You need chaos in your soul to give birth to a dancing star.”
– Friedrich Nietzsche
To me, art feels magical. I love when layers build up on a canvas or a page, and patterns and colors and images appear that I didn't plan on. I love going with the flow. I love letting my imagination and creativity accept the unplanned and then figuring it out. I love continually relearning to accept the chaos in order to give birth to something new and learning about myself in the process. Art journaling truly provides a place to embrace chaos to see what bubbles up.
I hunger to use bits and pieces of my life within my art journal. I knew that about myself when I met Julie Fei-Fan Balzer. Julie and I were in an art workshop together and Julie was quietly using all of her extra paint in her art journal underneath the table. I was enthralled. She makes her own art journals, carries them with her everywhere, and then paints in them. She puts bits and pieces of her life in it all the time and creates new pages. She's wonderful and I was hooked.
Using Julie as my inspiration, my art journaling evolved. I suddenly figured out what to do with all of those discarded paintings - cut them up. And what to do with all of those scrap pieces of old cards and calendars and paper that a mixed media artist hoards away. Cut them all up. And put them together in funky ways with needle and thread and glue and tape to create your own art journal. And then paint inside. Create your own chaos. And then give birth to a dancing star. Let the magic happen.
I broke my foot at the beginning of the summer. There has been a lot more sitting time in my life and more time to share my new found love of physically making art journals with others (my daughter, my friends, my niece, my brother-in-law). What better gift is there than a day of art creating with people you love? And each person walked away with their own personal art journal to paint in, save quotes in, glue wine bottle labels in, or just stare at. Perfect.
Am I the only one truly enthusiastic about eluding the blank page? I don't think so.
Julie Cameron writes: “Creativity is always a leap of faith. You’re faced with a blank page, blank easel, or an empty stage.”
Actress Octavia Spencer notes, “The hardest thing about writing, for me, is facing the blank page.”
I've done away with the blank page. Now my leap of faith occurs when I open my art journal, meet myself there, place the paint down, and trust the process.
Want to make your own art journal? You can join me next week in East Lansing at Grove Gallery (August 26, 9-4) or elsewhere this fall. To find out more, check out my upcoming classes and workshops!
Inhaling life one