Fools for Beauty
Two Artists Living and Working Together
Intimacy and Collaboration
As a young woman, I imagined the kind of relationship that I wanted with a man. I imagined living with a fellow artist. I pictured us working together and living somewhere beautiful, with art all around us. These daydreams felt like intuition, not just a romantic fantasy borne from the mind of an admitted Jane Austen fan.
Some years later I fell in love with Jeff, our connection was surprising and deep. It wasn’t a union of convenience; in fact there were many obstacles and objections when we first got together. But it was a relationship of trust, and of mutual interest with a common ground. He has been my partner for the last 21 years. He is an artist, too, even though he says he has no “credentials” as an artist. Then I point out that he has the most authentic credential there is, a lifetime of creating art. He is modest about this, but folks, I can tell you from living with him and watching him work, he is an artist. I often call him a renaissance man; someone who does everything, and does it well. His focus is on and he has expertise in many areas of the arts.
Shortly after we got together I did a portrait of Jeff. It is an oil painting, showing Jeff driving up the coast. His sunglasses are on, and you can almost hear the music that would inevitably be playing as he drives. A few months later Jeff suggested that I do a self-portrait. He said, “All artists must do a self-portrait from time to time, and you should do one. It’s what painters have to do. It’s the rules.” I heeded his advice, and created a self-portrait in oils, using only black and white. It was a good exercise. I had to step outside of myself and really look. I had to bring something of my own quality to the image, so that the painting didn’t just look like me, it also felt like me. When I finished the painting Jeff loved it. He laughed and admitted that all that he had really wanted was to have a portrait of me done by my own hand.
We are fortunate because we share an aesthetic sense, what I like, what pleases my eye, usually also pleases Jeff’s eye. We are simpatico in that way. We naturally are involved in each other’s art, sharing the process, watching each other, collaborating, and just being the person that the other can bounce ideas off of. Jeff has been instrumental in my art career. We are a team, and in recent years he has dedicated himself to the work of “getting my art out there”. We joke that he is Nara Pilgrim Wood, as he has spent so much time working to create my website, the blog, articles, photo editing, animation, not to mention framing my work. We both love what we are doing, and we support each other which gives us the strength and energy to pull off all that we envision.
Now for a few fun stories about us working together:
Out with the Bad Stuff, in with the Good Stuff
When I was a kid I lived in unusual places, where you couldn’t just run out to the art store for supplies. I lived on a remote island in Fiji, and we made do with whatever we had. Sometimes when we apparently had nothing, we would find new materials to use for a project. I would use my drawing pencils until they were 1” long, when they were too short to hold, then they got thrown away. I often didn’t have a desk, I would draw or paint sitting on the floor. I was still in that mind frame well into my twenties. Jeff would laugh at the ancient and broken art supplies that I held onto. He would tell me “it’s all about the tools, Nara, you’ve got to have the right tools!” He went so far as throwing away my childhood box of colored pencils in the trash saying emphatically, “These are junk. You must have better pencils.” That day he bought me several sets of new artist grade colored pencils, of course fully researched beforehand to make sure that he was getting me the best that there is. This is a role he plays with me, and I enjoy it. When I look around my studio now it is filled with tools and materials that Jeff helped me get. It is a fully set up workspace, and each time I use the tools that he acquired for my work, I appreciate these gifts. Plus, he got me out of my poverty island-style attitude, and now I insist on using the right tools for the job, the best paints, and watercolor sheets that satisfy the thirst of the paper as the paint moves across it. These little things make a difference.
One day I was sketching a wooden Japanese lamp on silk, penciling in the lines carefully. Jeff came in and immediately said “I’ve got to say it, I hate to say it, but the perspective on the lantern is off. See how the angles don’t match up?” I had been struggling with the lantern for some time already when he came in. Hearing him say this, I knew it was true, and I went on tilt. “But I just spent all this time drawing it in! Don’t tell me this! Oh god! Uh oh, yes, I see it, it isn’t right. I guess it is back to the drawing board.” Jeff has a spot-on eye for perspective, line, and symmetry. He can see it instantly, and he certainly can’t abide flaws in his own work. As I erased the entire lantern off the silk Jeff told me that he knew that I could capture the lantern exactly. I just needed the right tools and some patience. He bought me an angle-measuring tool and gave it to me. We went over the details of how to use it. I drew the lantern again, keeping his recommendations in mind as I went. Then voila, it was there on the silk, and all of the angles were as they should be. The ordeal of the lantern was over, and with it I had learned some new skills, and Jeff was right there with me, he aided my process in a very practical way.
Jeff framed over 30 of my paintings on silk. These were handmade frames made of the finest woods, with silver ornamentation and hardware. He designed each frame to complement the painting, picking woods that matched or set off the colors in the painting. The silk paintings were hung so that they floated off the backboard, allowing them to retain their fluid see-through quality. There are many stories about the making of these frames, the trials, the errors, the “ah-ha” moments. He started off cutting the wood with a miniature jeweler’s saw because that was all he had. This was shortly corrected, but in the meantime it was impressive to see what he did with that tiny tool.
He made a particularly fine frame for my painting “Coral Sea, Coral Sky”. It is made with coco bolo and ebony, and there is a beautiful curve to the top board of the frame. Three silver covered bolts are below the painting. We mounted some cream colored linen paper on the board behind the painting. Then Jeff finished the framing and we hung it on our wall. For months the color of the paper behind the painting drove us nuts. It just wasn’t right. The painting has a lot of black in it. It is an ocean sunset scene with black silhouettes of trees in the foreground. The light paper was clashing with the painting, it made it too light, the contrast was just too extreme. We talked about it and decided that despite all of the work involved, we were going to take the frame apart and redo the backing.
We got to work. We brought the tools out, and turned the lights on high; rulers and cutting knives at the ready. Little did we know how many hours it was going to require. We had selected black Tibetan paper with a subtle cloud pattern to be placed behind the painting. The black would set the painting in a night-time mood, as if you were truly coming out of the jungle to see the bright sunset. The paper was not big enough to span the entire back board. This meant that we had to mount it in three sections with perfectly folded Japanese paper joints between the sheets. Jeff had done his research and knew how to accomplish this. He is a jeweler, so in his work everything must be exact down to a fraction of a millimeter. With his trusty micrometer in hand, he carefully measured the paper to be cut, and the folds to be made. As the hours went by I was sweating, not just from the summer heat, but from the intense focus needed for this project. All four of our hands were needed in the process, plus a good amount of math skills. To make things even harder, the backing paper had to be mounted perfectly to the edges of the raised sides of the frame. This is not how it usually done, but since the frame had already been finished once, this was our only option. By the time the new paper was on, the sun had gone down. But, the new paper behind the painting was just right, and it was positioned and folded neatly and crisply, every detail was in order. When we hung the painting back on the wall and stepped back, our eyes both lit up. It worked! The entire presentation was different, now the frame and the painting were one piece of art. This is an example of the hard work that goes into creating objects of beauty, it is not a la la land of creative expression. It requires technique, knowledge, diligence. These qualities Jeff has in spades, and he has truly helped me grow in my own skills and techniques, to do what it takes to make it good, make it professional, do it just right.
Presently we are collaborating on a line of pendants. This is a merging of our skills in the fullest sense. The ones we have made so far we call “Scroll Pendants”. I paint miniature watercolors with very fine brushes. Then Jeff makes the pendants out of ebony, or other beautiful woods, with a silver bale and silver ornamentation at the top and bottom. The pendants are rounded out with a red enamel kanji character for “Wood” or “Tree”. It is exciting to be doing this project together. We love making these wearable art pieces, and it is super satisfying to see them being worn. They have been getting a great response from our collectors, and so, we are making more now as I write. You can check them out on the Jewelry Page of my website.
I wanted to share these stories with you just so that you know about the man behind the scenes, who has worked with me in myriad ways, and over many years. We have so much fun together doing this generative and creative work! There is no competition; we just work together on even footing. He never lords it over me, and goes with my decisions about my art. Our time is well spent, much has been created, and there has been a lot of laughter, and joy along the way. We have so many more ideas and visions, we would need decades to pull off all that we imagine doing. For now, we continue doing the art. We will see what happens next. You will be the first to know.