Blind Contour Drawing #15 “The Creeks” 1957 Grace Hartigan

Hartigan was born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1922. Her interest in art didn’t begin until she was in her early 20’s. At 17 she fled New Jersey with her first husband Robert Jachens. The couple were headed to Alaska to homestead but turned around when they ran out of money and Hartigan discovered she was pregnant. Jachens was drafted in WWII and Hartigan lived with his parents, raising their son, Jeffrey. She worked as a mechanical draughtsman during the war. She escaped her dreary life by immersing into the world of art through books. She began taking art classes after being introduced to the work of Matisse, sparking a lifelong interest in modern art.

In 1945, she separated from her husband and moved to the Lower East Side of Manhattan to paint. Hartigan quickly became part of the inner circle of the Abstract Expressionists after meeting Rothko and Gottlieb.

At this time, she signed her work as George Hartigan, in honour of the 19th century women writers Georges Sand and George Eliot. She married twice in the 1940’s and both relationships ended because of the attention her work was receiving in the art world. She struggled financially and took odd jobs to support herself. In January 1948, after seeing a Jackson Pollock exhibition at the Betty Parsons Gallery, a new passion and perspective was ignited in her work.

Hartigan pursued this new energy and spent a week with Pollock and his wife, artist Lee Krasner, at their home in the Hamptons. Pollock encouraged Hartigan to look at the work of Willem de Kooning. In particular, she appreciated de Kooning’s study of the Old Masters and how he was breaking barriers between representation and abstract. Soon after, Hartigan began inserting recognizable images into her abstract paintings, which often consisted of thick, complex geometric shapes.

This new perspective earned her a solo debut at New York’s Tibor de Nagy Gallery in 1951. The following year she spent making studies based on Old Master paintings and she began to incorporate more recognizable imagery from her daily life into her work. These changes isolated her from her Abstract Expressionist friends, such as Joan Mitchell, and she lost the support from critic Clement Greenberg, which devastated Hartigan.

Hartigan painted intensely coloured gestural figures, inspired by coloring books, film, canonical painting, advertising, and life around her. The infamous painting “Marilyn,” which scatters facial features such as oversized lips and sparkling teeth across the canvas, was a breakthrough for her. Breaking up Monroe’s face was new and exciting for the time, while also challenging the standard for beauty.

Hartigan’s paintings were shown in ‘12 Americans’ at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1956, and in ‘The New American Painting,’ which traveled to eight European cities from 1958 to 1959. She was one of few women painters to receive that level of exposure at the time. Hartigan was hailed by Life magazine as one of the best young female American painters.

In 1960, she married her fourth husband, Winston Price, a collector of modern art and an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University. She moved with him to Baltimore and began teaching in the MFA program at Maryland Institute College of Art in 1965 and became director of the Hoffberger School of Painting. Her husband died in 1981 after an adverse reaction to a vaccine. She gave up drinking in 1983, after a failed attempt at suicide and lived until she was 86 years old.

She was a professor for 42 years and continued to paint until her death. She is well respected not only for her work but for her perseverance despite ofttimes heavy criticism.

Her distinct style has caused critics and historians to call Grace Hartigan both an Abstract Expressionist painter and a pioneer of Pop art. She was not happy however with either categorization because she believed that paintings must have content and emotion.  She has also been an admired pioneer of feminist art but disliked her paintings being judged according to gender.

Born: March 28, 1922 – Newark, New Jersey

Died: November 15, 2008 – Baltimore, Maryland


Blind Contour Drawing #14 – “Holding Boots” – Annie Pootoogook 2003/04

Annie Pootoogook, was raised in Cape Dorset, an Inuit settlement located on Dorset Island at the southern tip of Baffin Island in the Qikiqtaaluk Region of Nunavut. Many members of her family, including her mother and grandmother were artists.

She began her art career in her late 20’s and immediately challenged people’s perceptions of Inuit art. A natural storyteller, Pootoogook created drawings of daily life. She once said she could only draw what she had lived. This included scenes of cozy domesticity watching Dr. Phil on TV, and of cutting up raw seal on the kitchen floor. It also included domestic violence, ATM cash machines, and alcoholism, which startled those who looked to Inuit art for wholesome Northern traditions.

Pootoogook worked out of the Kinngait Studios, a co-operative that supports and buys work from artists working in Cape Dorset. At first, there was almost no interest in her work. After sending some of her early work to the co-op’s sales team in Toronto, a stern note was sent back. “‘This stuff’s never going to sell,’ they said. ‘Stop doing it.'”

However, Pootoogook gained the attention of The Feheley Art Gallery and had a small exhibition in 2003. This was her first solo exhibition and extremely important for her career. The curators at Feheley were very supportive of her and her work despite criticism.

She gained attention internationally, when she won the Sobey award in 2006 and was invited to Germany’s famous Documenta 12 art show in 2007. She showed in major shows in the following years in North America and Australia. However, away from home and living in Montreal, she succumbed to alcoholism. She returned to Cape Dorset briefly but unfortunately it didn’t last. By 2010 she was living on the streets with a panhandler, William Watt. They continued an on-and-off relationship for the remaining years of her life.

Her life with Watt was hard. They camped in parks or under bridges. She began to complain to friends and family about the way he treated her. “One morning she came up to me,” her friend Ookik Nakashook remembers, and said ‘I am tired of being kicked out. Last night he kicked me out without boots so I had to go look for boots,’ said Nakashook. “That was during the winter. And I told her, ‘Don’t put up with that.'”

She stayed with Watt even though he continued to abuse her and take any money she made from her drawings. Tragically in 2016, her body was pulled from the Rideau River on the morning of Sept. 19, a short walk from the shelter where she had been living.

Shockingly, a comment from an Ottawa officer read “And of course this has nothing to do with missing or murdered Aboriginal women … it’s not a murder case, it’s [sic] could be a suicide, she got drunk and fell in the river and drowned who knows … typically many Aboriginals have very short lifespans, talent or not.”

An internal investigation was filed and the officer was suspended. Many feel that it is a minor punishment for obvious racism against this vibrantly talented woman.

The investigation into her death has recently been reopened.

The story of Annie Pootoogook’s life was coloured by despair and tragedy, but also by extraordinary talent, positivity, strength and creativity. The troubles that weighed on her in her last years were unimaginable, yet for a long time she was able to manage them, and even to make art from them. She took her experiences, whether joyful or difficult, and made them into a body of work that changed Canadian art.

Born: May 11, 1969 – Cape Dorset (Kinngait)
Died: September 19, 2016 (aged 47), Ottawa


When it’s a big muddy mess . . .

This is a recap of a talk I was invited to give at a gathering, hosted by Leah Goard for her Define Design Align Academy.

In a room filled with intelligent and inspiring female entrepreneurs, I got up and started speaking about mud!

I was accompanied by Marleen Vermeulen, my lovely friend and co-host of our Open Your Art Retreats. We brought a painting each for show and tell, so that I could speak about our painting process. I wanted to explain how we move forward when our paintings literally feel like mud.

I shared 3 ideas that work for both of us:

1. Scrap it or paint over parts of it. This is hard to do and takes courage because it feels like a failure.

I’ve seen Marleen take one of her big palette knives and scrap off layers of thick oil paint because she was fighting a part of her painting too much. I’ve painted over parts of mine with a solid colour for the same reason. When there is too much resistance and too much struggle, the work is simply not aligned.

I’ve done this with other projects as well. I once had a registered business name and website built. Before I launched, I realized with Leah’s help that the whole thing was just a huge distraction. It was taking me farther away from what I really wanted and was scared of pursuing. I hit delete.

This is really hard to do because we see this as a failure. We are conditioned to believe that failure is really bad when it is actually part of the process. Failure is necessary in every pursuit. This is easy to remember when you think of a scientist or inventor for them every failure is a step closer to an epiphany! If you are developing a new product or service, try out prototypes with people that you know will give you honest feedback. Be willing to fail early in the game before you’ve invested too much (like a website)!

The fine line here is recognizing the difference between moving through a rough spot and being completely off course. It’s not easy to distinguish at times, usually it’s your gut feeling that can tell you to keep on going or to scrap it.

At the talk, a discussion ensued about being able to tune into our intuition. I have my yoga practice and my meditation to help me listen for inner guidance. In addition, painting actually forces me to tap into my intuition constantly. Tuning in is a skill that helps me navigate other decisions in my life. Regardless of your day job, a creative practice is an effective tool for listening to your intuition because it is what guides you to choose a colour, pick up a certain sized brush, make a new mark and ultimately tells you when your work is done.

A playful practice in life is invaluable because it normalizes failing. It is a reminder that it’s ok if things don’t work out and takes the weight off of the decision to start over.

2. Trust in the process.

Both Marleen and I agree that when we are staring at mud on the canvas, we usually surrender to the process to help us find clarity. We look for the area on the painting that’s bothering us the most and ask ourselves what step we could take to move into a new direction. Then we step back and look at the whole canvas again. Sometimes that one mark or new colour is just what the entire painting needed to bring it all together. Usually, we observe how that step resonated with the entire piece and we look for another section on the canvas and ask the same question,

“What can I do here to move this part forward?”

We repeat over and over until step by step the painting starts to come together. This is what trust in the process really means to me. Take one step, see how that feels, check in with the whole project then take the next small step.

3. Ask for help. This is very vulnerable but it is also so valuable to get a different set of eyes on your project.

Reach out to someone that you trust. Someone that you know who will be able to give you honest and respectful feedback.

I have a personal story to share about this:

A few years ago I was preparing a painting for a group show that Marleen was also involved with. I was honoured to be invited and was inspired by many of the artists in the show. I was also nervous about my piece and was “in the mud.” I reached out to Marleen for help. I didn’t know her very well but I knew that she was kind and I respected her work. She was amazing and within minutes she helped me resolve my painting. It turns out the painting just needed a bit more blue! I couldn’t see it, I was too stuck and overwhelmed. That afternoon over tea, she started to tell me about this magical place called Juseu in Spain. She had thought about hosting a group of painters there for a retreat and wanted to know if I was interested in exploring that idea with her. Of course I did!

While I was preparing for this talk, I asked her if she had the Spain retreat idea in her mind before coming over to visit me that afternoon. “No,” she said, “it just came up while we were relaxing over tea.”

I’m so glad I got out of my way and asked for her help that day. I’m so glad that I was able to be vulnerable and invite critique about my work. It is hard to do but I’m living proof of the rewards. We are just about to embark on our 3rd Open Your Art Retreat in Spain. By the way, the painting also found a new home and I’m still in touch with its lovely new owners, another ripple in my metaphor.


Lastly, I want to leave you with this one thought; you will always find yourself in ‘the mud’ at times. This experience is part of the creative curve. Relish it because it means that you are pushing new ideas forward. That you’ve stepped out of your comfort zone and are in a growth spurt. It is painful at times but necessary.

You are intelligent, curious and creative so go get yourself a good pair of boots and enjoy the journey!





Photo: Thank you Tanis Frame for the photo!


Blind contour drawing #13 – “Judith Slaying Holofernes” – Artemisia Gentileschi 1620-21

In the last few decades, Gentileschi has been titled one of the most important Italian Baroque painters. The excellence of her work, her treatment of controversial subjects and the number of her paintings that have survived are some of the many reasons for that honour.

However, her work is still under appreciated, in the words of Mary D. Garrard, she “has suffered a scholarly neglect that is almost unthinkable for an artist of her caliber.”

She was born in Rome, her father Orazio Gentileschi was a painter and her mother, Prudentia Montone died when Gentileschi was young.

Even though she was not allowed to apprentice as a painter, her father saw her promise and trained her as an artist, eventually introducing her to the working artists of Rome. Later in life because of this introduction, she became a follower of Caravaggio and worked with him in Italy.

By the time she was seventeen, she had painted one of the works for which she is best known, her stunning interpretation of “Susanna and the Elders.” She was not allowed to attend any other form of schooling and didn’t learn to read and write until she was adult.

Gentileschi’s father painted frescos with the artist, Agostino Tassi, he asked him to teach his daughter perspective. During these lessons, Tassi raped Gentileschi. When her father found out, Tassi was arrested. At the age of 18, she was thrown into the middle of a trial that received unwanted publicity and ruined her reputation. Tassi was convicted, but released by the judge, who also ordered her to be tortured to prove she was being honest.

A month later, she married a painter from Florence named Pietro Antonio di Vicenzo Stiattesi. They relocated to Florence and had a daughter. Their relationship wasn’t a happy one, but it gave her an opportunity to flourish as an artist.

Some of Gentileschi’s surviving paintings focus on a female protagonist. The character of Judith appears a number of times in her art. In 1611, Gentileschi completed the famously gruesome “Judith Slaying Holofernes,” which shows Judith in the act of saving the Jewish people by killing Assyrian general Holofernes. Judith is slicing Holofernes’s throat while her handmaiden helps to hold him down. Many interpret this as a cathartic expression of her rage and violation.

Some time between 1626 and 1630, Gentileschi moved to Naples where she lived and painted until 1638. While there, she painted “Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting,” so unique because of its blending of art, muse and artist.

She reunited with her father in late 1638 on a joint painting commission for King Charles I of England to paint a ceiling for the Queen’s house. Sadly her father died in the following year, but she continued to work in England until 1642 and then returned to Naples.

Thirty four of her paintings survive today, as well as the near complete transcript of the rape trial, published in full in a book detailing her life. Because of the trial and her many paintings of powerful women struggling against male dominance, she was not popular with her male colleagues.

The cause and time of Artemisia’s death is not known, but she most likely died in 1652.

Several demeaning epitaphs were published about her in 1653. Art historian Charles Moffat believes she may have committed suicide, which would explain why the cause of her death was not recorded

Today, she remains an inspiration, not only for her powerful artwork, but for her ability to overcome the acts of abuse against her, her lack of education, the disrespect from her peers and the many prejudices of her time. Like most women who excelled at that time she caused mass controversy and hate. She was recognized as having genius, but she was seen as a monster because she was a woman pursuing a creative talent in a genre thought to be only for men.

Note: I was fortunate to see this work at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. I could barely look at it. It is difficult to articulate the power of this masterpiece.

Born: Rome 1593
Died: 1652?