Education

Art History 101: Imposter Syndrome

(posted 05/26/2022)

I thought I’d share some of my history just to let you know where I’ve been. I think it also helps me close the chapters for good and continue forward into my next art phase. In my last blog I told the story of how I spent a lot of time in the art room in high school and why. The art teacher had suggested I could get a scholarship to Cleveland Institute of Art but I looked at him like he was crazy thinking my grades were too good to “waste” on art school. So, I was not intending on being an art major when I applied to Allegheny College in Pennsylvania. I wanted to be an art therapist. Looking back I clearly see I didn’t pick the right college, but at the time I had no clue how to pick the best school for my intended major. It was a good “liberal arts” college so I was assured no matter what I majored in I’d be guaranteed a career in whatever I wanted to do after I earned a Bachelor’s. I’m not sure if I was misled or had no common sense at the time, but that’s how I perceived my options. The campus was pretty, the tour guide seemed friendly, and they gave me hefty grants based on my grades. I was wait listed at Oberlin and Dickinson, so I accepted my fate and matriculated at Allegheny in the fall of 1988.

College was difficult for me to say the least. They expected me to show up early in the morning, do lots of reading, participate in class and spend hours studying. I will let you in on a secret, I didn’t do much of that in high school at all. I would study the night before tests since the teachers usually told us what would be on them. I did like to read a lot, but was more interested in Anne Rice and Stephen King novels than Immanuel Kant or Thomas Merton books. Then there was my new social life. I went from talking to literally two people in high school to having a nice group of friends in college based on our mutual love of loud keg parties and drinking any form of schnapps we could get our hands on.

At Allegheny I felt some support of my new friends, but did not have any connection with my advisor or my professors. I avoided them as much as possible, certainly because of the shame I felt in not attending classes and not doing well on tests. I had never struggled in school so I didn’t realize I should have reached out to them for help. I didn’t even know a tutor was an option. It did not improve either when I spoke with my advisor in the middle of my Freshman year and she said “Maybe Allegheny isn’t the place for you.” I’m still angry about that after all these years, but writing this does help get it off my chest. She was probably right, but she never offered me help or ways to improve my situation. I think that’s when I first developed my tendencies of imposter syndrome.

I spent the next three years feeling like I wasn’t good enough to be there. I went through some very tough emotional and financial struggles my junior year and considered dropping out after I failed an 8 am class I rarely attended – Geology. Quite honestly college was boring me too. It just seemed like work, and I was having too much fun with my new friends for that. With encouragement from my good friend and roommate, I decided to bite the bullet and take an extra course my senior year to finish my degree. By that time I had a few art courses under my belt including a multimedia class where I hand built this clay piece modeled after a glass bottle with candle wax dripping off the sides. It was about 18 inches tall.

I thought my choice of majors was between English and Studio Art based on the classes I had done well in and felt encouragement from the professors when I did show up and do the work. I learned to mix the clay and glazes and how to fire pieces in an enormous gas kiln. I can’t say I felt like an expert after those classes, but I knew I loved it and enjoyed the process more than anything else. Here is a piece I did in beginning ceramics course when we had to depict the fortune after opening a fortune cookie in class.

I never felt connected with the other art majors. They seemed weird to me ha ha. Now I realize I would have fit in perfectly with my own weirdness if I had just accepted my differences rather than try to hide them. I did not spend a lot of time at art events, but I do vividly recall when the art gallery receptionist bought a raku fired cup and saucer I had made. I was in shock since I had always given my pieces away for free to family and friends.

Here are a couple of the pieces that were part of my senior year project. Some lost soul broke off the points of the yellow triangles in the top piece, so I had to just go with it when I discovered the damage in the studio the next day. The platters are about 20 inches wide and I still have some of them.

That senior project was another experience that added to my imposter syndrome. We were supposed to find an artist that inspired our work and I had settled on Wassily Kandinsky. I read a little about his work and was inspired by the bold shapes, colors, and lines. His use of the abstract to transcend the physical world resonated with me. I was not able to convey this to the art history professor though – he quickly shot me down and said my work was no comparison to Kandinsky. True, but I don’t know where these professors come off being so mean to young people.

Fast forward to early 2000s when I enrolled in pottery courses at Lakeland Community College. Once again I was in my element spending hours in the studio each week. Throwing pottery was very fun and was something I was ok at, but never mastered it. I lacked a lot of the strength needed in my hands and it is very hard on your skin. Hand building came much easier to me. Here are some of the pieces I made at Lakeland. The teacher was very good, and I loved the classes. He showed us the technical nuances but let us run free with our own ideas and projects.

I have not done ceramics or pottery for roughly twenty years now. I don’t really miss it since I found encaustic to be very satisfying, inspiring, and full of possibilities. If you’ve read this far, thank you so much for your interest. I don’t spend too much of my time looking back, but I needed to chronicle and appreciate the learning experiences that brought me to where I am right now.

Wings

(posted 05/22/2021)

I keep a list of ideas on my phone and it seems I never have problems coming up with ideas, but I do have problems deciding on the size of my work. I have this nagging urge to go much larger, but at this point I’m still not sure which pieces I want to take to a more attention-getting scale. I have a real affinity for abstract pieces, and will most likely end up doing some larger ones soon. But, the reason I bring this up is that two butterfly pieces were actually inspired by the size and shape of the canvas. I looked at the two old pieces of wood my aunt gave me and thought: “Two butterflies would look great on there.”

In December of 2019, I did a series of four small butterfly collages to enter into the insect art show at the local nature center. I sold two of the pieces and they were really fun to do, so I went ahead and used the same process for the two panels, “Wings No. 5” and “Wings No. 6.” I have a vintage copy of the children’s book “Five Children and It,” by E. Nesbit. I bought it at a used book store when my daughter was very young. She’s thirteen now and I can’t get her to read “Harry Potter,” let alone a vintage book, so I put it to better use and ripped it apart for this and other projects. I think what makes it even more cringeworthy , as a lover of books, is that I never read the book myself. I mean I may have unknowingly destroyed a masterpiece, but hey, I’m sure there are other copies out there.

I learned in a recent Painting with Fire course from Essence of Mulranny that encaustic can be done over a chalk paint surface. There was much discussion and a little debate over the type of chalk paint, but I went ahead and used the old can of Rust-Oleum Chalked I’ve had around for a few years. It worked just fine as the base, and I actually liked starting with a dark background instead of the usual white. I made some templates for the butterfly wings and flower petals from drawings on tracing paper. This allowed me to see through to the book page to make sure the lines of the pages lined up at decent angles on the wings.

When I created my first set of the wings series collages, I didn’t pay much attention to symmetry. The two pieces that sold were lined up symmetrically so I think that did help their overall aesthetic. I hand tore each piece from the book pages, taking care to not include inappropriate words and phrases, and excited to find some interesting ones.

After I glued down the pieces with Yes paste, I applied black ink lines and designs on the wings.

Next, I covered the piece with two layers of clear encaustic medium and fused them with heat. Once smooth and cool, I applied several coats of PanPastels to achieve the soft colors. The pastels need to be blended and fused after each layer. It’s really quite magical how the pastels from the bottom layer come to the surface when heat is applied.

Wings No. 6, Encaustic Mixed-Media by Rachel Rivas-Plata

For the following piece, I took photos of two of the collages and made negative films from them. This allowed me to create cyanotype images on wood, after prepping the raw wood with a couple layers of absorbent ground. The leaf in the middle is the cyanotype of an actual leaf, and the butterflies were done using the printed negatives. The image of the words on the pages came out quite faint, so if I do this again, I will want to experiment with that to see if I can create more contrast.

Wings No. 5, Encaustic Mixed Media by Rachel Rivas-Plata

So, as you can tell by now, I’m very resourceful in my studio. I often use and repurpose old items to give them new life. Reusing my favorite images in creative ways is something I plan to do more of in the future. To see what pieces are available for sale, see my Home page for the link to my shop.

Color

(posted 04/30/2021)

Today is the first day of a year long encaustic workshop I signed up for at Essence of Mulranny Studios in Ireland. The classes are online so I get the benefit of the classes without having to travel. Although, I’m sure it would be an amazing place to visit someday! The instructor this week is Kathryn Bevier and the first lesson focused on “a la prima” techniques.

I must admit I am not a wiz with color. My earliest art pieces were mostly done with pencil or charcoal and paper, not paints. I was more of a paint-by-number-kit kind of kid. I was so intimidated by painting in college that I dropped the class after the first one. The teacher was a bit too amused by my first go at it and I, being a 20 year old newbie, crumbled at the slightest hint of negative criticism when it came to my art skills. I was obviously not ready to come out of my comfort zone. Fast forward to 30 years later, and I am all about making mistakes in my studio. It really is the only way to learn!

So, for this lesson, I chose to use 3 colors (black and white don’t count). Enkaustikos was so very kind to send me these samples. As you can see, I ended up having to add a touch of red – that was in order to get brown. The object is to keep the color palette cohesive and work from the darkest values to light, adding grays in between. I think I need to try this like 1,000 more times! It is amazing how much you can learn just by mixing colors together and placing them next to each other. The eyes really do fill in the gaps and the colors work together magically at times.

Here are pics of my work from today. I am somewhat satisfied with the results, but realize I do need to control my color choices and plan more on future pieces. This pond study will be one of many before I get it right, I’m sure.

I loved this lesson. I had been meaning to paint a landscape that was reminiscent of the pond we had on our property when I was a kid. My father had the pond started but never saw it filled up because he died in a car accident soon after it was dug. It ended up being a very special place for my family as well as our extended family and friends. I doubt my father knew putting that pond in was going to such an enhancement to so many lives. I’m so glad he left it for all of us to enjoy.

Gratitude

(posted 02/07/2021)

They say “It takes a village to raise a child” and, I believe, it also takes a village to make an artist. To begin my art blog, I think it only right to pay homage to the folks who (most likely not knowingly) have helped me get to where I am now. I have watched many a tutorial, done much googling, paid for some classes, and read several books and articles to be able to create my art work.

I’ll be sharing many more in the future, but this is my most recent list of muses, teachers, and inspiring artists. Check them out!

Alicia Tormey

Shari Ripogle

Nancy Crawford

Elise Wagner