Somewhere between an artist’s first spark of inspiration and the culmination of a career lies the midlife of the aesthete, a time of refinement and exploration when the artist develops a voice, masters a medium, refines a message, and in some cases discovers the style that will ultimately define her.
Georgia O’Keeffe was in her late 30s when she painted the first of the large close-ups of flowers that overshadowed her earlier work. Pablo Picasso was in the middle of his career when, with George Braque, he developed cubism.
At age 56, Columbia artist Dennis Murphy discovered, among other things, insects.
“I have been working with bugs, and I realize how beautiful they are,” says Murphy, who illustrates publications for the MU School of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources. “That is an epiphany itself.”
Murphy began drawing as a child who was influenced by the writing of science fiction master Jules Verne, whose vivid stories were accentuated by N.C. Wyeth’s detailed illustrations. Early in his career, Murphy explored various mediums and types of expression. He produced a comic book, illustrated a book of poetry and participated in public art projects.
Murphy’s most recent work — surrealistic paintings of insects, the anatomy of which, as he puts it, “reflects other things than what they are” — evolved from his day job, where he sketches everything from cows to food products.
Like most artists, Murphy constantly strives to uncover layers of meaning in his paintings that were not so evident earlier in his career. This progression in an artist’s career is a series of developments and ideas gradually coming to light.
“Art is about transition because life itself is a transition like age and maturation,” Murphy says. “Everything moves from one thing to another, and artists do that in a visual plane.
Murphy’s Insect Series is still a work in progress. His latest paintings, a recently completed series of works based on three houses located on Hitt Street, are currently on display at the Foundry Art Centre in St. Charles. The show, called “The Profession of Art,” focuses on the work of artists in midcareer.
Midcareer artists largely overlooked
Foundry executive director Joyce Rosen says that most galleries organize shows for emerging artists. “The Profession of Art” is an attempt to bring attention to a demographic of artist that is largely overlooked, even though midcareer artists have more technical expertise, greater social understanding and a more inward-looking artistic sensibility, Rosen says.
“I think artists in their midcareers are more established and more confident in their work,” Rosen says. “They are not afraid. I think they take some chances to introduce new work. I refer to this as the ‘a-ha’ stage. The artist gets it, and it is always a nice thing to see.”
Jane Anne Gideon, who has been a painter her whole life, gets it. As a child, Gideon was sensitive to her surroundings, which lead to a focus on nature in her earlier work. Her watercolors range from the abstract to the hyper-realistic, such as her series on the structural intricacies of leaves.
Early in her career Gideon, 53, asked herself three questions: Is what I’m saying significant? Does it make sense to the viewer? Is it relevant? Most important to her was pleasing the viewer.
Gideon, who was raised in a military family and married a military man, has traveled extensivelyin Europe and the United States. She has also confronted many personal and professional challenges, including struggles with diabetes and arthritis, that made it difficult for her to paint and forced her to take a hiatus in the late 1990s.
However, these hurdles have evolved Gideon’s artistic development to the point where the most important person she has to please is herself.
“I know if it clicks, and I know it clicks now,” she says. “I have enough life past me. You get to the point, especially if you have had physical problems, you are just glad to be doing it. That is a celebration.”
In the course of his artistic evolution, Murphy, who is pursuing a master of fine arts, has also come to see truth as more important than beauty. While acknowledging that, as critic David Hickey argues, the emphasis on truth in art may be an outdated idea, “truth is more prevalent than beauty in my work,” he says. “So many things are pretty, but not many things are true.”
"The maturity of an artist takes a long time"
One of Murphy’s mentors is Lampo Leong, who has taught advanced painting at MU for three years. Like Murphy, Leong believes that artistic development is gradual. He recalls that, when he was in his 20s, he took his work to several galleries whose directors were impressed by his talent but thought his pictures lacked the emotional depth of a more mature artist.
“I think the maturity of an artist takes a long time, it is a life-long project,” he says . “People continue to work, to change their concepts and ideas about art, throughout their lifetimes. Many of the great masters changed their style and focus, until they were 90 years old.
“When you are young, the work may be bold but not sophisticated, that develops more with depth. I combined different cultures by chance in my work, but I wasn’t fully aware of it.”
Leong’s artistic goals are more concrete than the search for the abstract notions of truth and honesty that Murphy and Gideon seek. He looks instead for ultimate cultural synthesis.
A native of China, Leong came to the United States to pursue a master of fine arts in California. As a student in China during the Cultural Revolution, Leong learned about Greek and European art. His teachers brought with them from Russia and Europe literature and knowledge of the modern art movement, which fostered in Leong an interest in globalization before the term ever became part of the vernacular.
Now, at 43, Leong is synthesizing western art with traditional Chinese calligraphy in a series he has entitled “Contemplation Forces.”
“Artists cannot invent anything,” he says . “Basically, they put together life experience in their work, so if the artist lives a unique life, their work reflects that. It is clear to me what is more unique in me. My unique life experience and my education make my work different from other artists. I synthesize that into my work.”
While Gideon’s work reflects her bravery and Murphy’s embodies his intellectualism, Leslie Payne’s paintings explore issues of spirituality and humanity, in particular how humans have separated themselves from nature. A graduate of Stephens College, Payne was a science and biology major. When her mother became ill, Payne incorporated her knowledge of the human body in her paintings.
“My mother passed away last January, and I was one of her caregivers and that influenced my art tremendously,” Payne says. “Everything that happens to you everyday affects your work. It’s the growth process of life.”
Those paintings were more abstract in nature and distinct from her other work in the styles of realism and surrealism
“I think it is my responsibility to take risks,” she says. “As an artist the main goal is pursuing teaching or expressing this particular idea. You always have to challenge yourself. If you don’t, you are not growing as a person or an artist. You have to pursue ideas that challenge what you believe and that might be scary.”
While Payne, 48, believes her work reflects elements of her own life and of society, she also strives to bring some benefit to her audience through a new perspective or observation.
“I have been doing landscapes more. I read an article of the healing power of viewing a photo or painting of a landscape,” she said. “As an artist you feel guilty when you don’t give back, it is such a gift to make art.”
In art, as in life, age alone does not define maturity, sophistication or depth. Those qualities, especially as they are expressed artistically, develop through constant reflection and personal growth.
“Art is an allegory for life,” Payne says. “In any painting you do, there will be an artistic accident. From that you learn how to do something else, you just take that accident and build on it in another painting and another painting. If you allow the accident to happen then the painting sings – it’s alive.”