The head of a local gallery once turned me down for a show, saying my work was too "popular" and not a good fit for his gallery. "Come back if you do something different," he said, "maybe something more from your soul."
A nationally recognized artist put it in more positive terms: "Your work is very accessible."
As I've been painting a new series and preparing for a solo show in July and August, titled "Savor the Day," I've been pondering the question, "what is art?" And I've been feeling some insecurity about my work. Is it really art if it works as a greeting card? Is it art if it's not that technically skilled? Is it art if someone buys it for their mother in Oklahoma?
Of course, the question of what is art has been argued for a long time. The Impressionists once appalled the Paris art world with their loose, naturalistic approach.
About thirty years ago, my Swiss grandmother, who was born in 1899, told me she'd gotten my mother an art calendar for Christmas: "One of those modern painters . . . Monet."
She and my Swiss aunts, discussing a Picasso exhibit that was then visiting Basel, agreed that his work was "verrückt, verrückt!" (crazy).
In his seventh grade art class, my son recently learned about the work of Andy Warhol. When I asked what he thought of it, he replied, "Soup. A lot of soup. That was the dominant impression." It took a long time for the art establishment to accept those Campbell's soup cans as art, and clearly some younger critics are not yet convinced
Every class in Japanese or Chinese brush painting starts with learning to paint bamboo. The particular brush strokes for the trunk, the leaves, and the twigs have been handed down for centuries.
It's said that once you master the art of painting bamboo, you know the strokes to paint just about anything. The catch is that it takes a lifetime of painting bamboo to get there, or at least a decade.
And bamboo is just one of the Four Gentlemen that every aspiring brush painter is supposed to learn properly before painting anything else, along with the orchid, chrysanthemum and plum blossom. (As my daughter observed, "Four Gentlemen? Those don't sound very manly to me.")
Though my art draws on the tradition of Japanese ink painting, I've come to realize that I'm not terribly interested in mastering these ancient tools and techniques. Instead, I have learned just enough to adapt them to my own purposes.
I enjoy grinding my sumi ink stick in an ink stone and painting with bamboo brushes, but in a simple style that doesn't take years to master. And while I started out painting on rice paper, lately I prefer using watercolor paper and other sturdy paper, so I can saturate my paintings with color.
As for subject matter, I have yet to find anything to say about bamboo. Instead, my new show features flying chickens, lovestruck cows, and smiling frogs.
Is it true art? Who is to say? And does it matter? But I do know that my work, now sold in 30 stores in four states, is given to friends and lovers, shared with support groups and classes, taped to bathroom mirrors, and stuck on refrigerators.
Helping people feel more connected to each other and to the world around them: that is my soul's work. My mother put it succinctly last week, as I was sharing my uncertainties: "Your art makes a lot of people happy."
I like to think that if she were still alive, even my art critic grandmother would agree.
Makino Studios News
Savor the Day: I have a solo show opening Saturday, July 5, 6-9 p.m. at Humboldt Herbals in Eureka, CA. There will be live music and free refreshments, and I'll have new cards and prints for sale as well as my brand-new 2015 16-month calendar. The show runs through August.
Healthy Customers:LifeSource Natural Foods in Salem, Oregon is now carrying my cards. It seems my customers are a healthy bunch, as this is the sixth natural food store to carry my cards. Thanks to everyone who supports my work, wherever you find it!
Traveling: I'm heading to New York and then to a cabin on the Klamath River in Northern California, so my Makino Studios Etsy shop will be closed July 5-26. I'm sorry for any inconvenience.
North Country Fair: Humboldt folks, come celebrate the fall equinox at the 41st annual North Country Fair on the Arcata Plaza September 20 and 21. I'll have a Makino Studios booth on G Street near 9th.
BabyUpdate: Thanks to everyone who responded to my last post, Adoption Journey! My nephew Kai, now five months old, is doing well at home in Tucson with my sister Yuri, and he continues to enchant all who meet him.