Ebb, 1997. By Olivia Kuser. Etching ink on panel, 30" x 48".

The Sheer Pleasure of Looking

by Olivia Kuser

Almost three years ago I stopped painting.

I had gotten work ready for a show in just six months, half the time I usually spend preparing for a show. Although I was exhausted, I felt it was the best work I had ever done. The work itself directed the flow, the most recently completed painting telling me what the next painting should be about. For the first time in my career, I was not ashamed of my work as the show was hung. I even enjoyed the opening.

Only three paintings were sold during the month that they were displayed. Both my dealer and I were stunned. I was bitterly disappointed.

There's often a pause in my work after a show, a kind of natural postpartum experience of rest and recovery. But this time I didn't go back into the studio, and when this pause had stretched into two years of not painting, I finally panicked. All the usual methods of coaxing myself to work had failed. The real problem was that I simply had no desire to paint. I have never felt so lost. I no longer recognized myself.

Groping for something to get me painting again, I applied for two artist's residencies. The first residency was at the Djerassi Foundation in Woodside, California-a long shot, I knew, since a residency at Djerassi is much coveted. The other was at the Ucross Foundation in Wyoming, where I thought I had a better chance. As I waited for the acceptance or rejection letters to arrive, I began a week-long class in painting traditional Russian icons. In the middle of the icon class I found out that I had gotten into the residency in Wyoming.

I was apprehensive about the residency. I was afraid I still wouldn't be able to work. I was afraid I would be bored and lonely because of that.

When my partner, Alfred, dropped me off at the Ucross Foundation (population 25, elevation 4,085 feet, 17 miles from the nearest town), the first thing the director did was show me what would be my studio. My eyes filled with tears when I saw it. It was a low stone building, beautifully made, on a little bluff above Piney Creek. The studio was half again as big as my studio at home, with windows and French doors opening out towards the creek. (You can't see out of my studio windows at home since the room was originally a bathroom with windows set up above head height.) The Ucross studio had the most fabulous easel with a crank to raise and lower the painting. (My easel at home is smaller and flimsier, and the paintings are held up by tension; I have wrecked several when big, heavy paintings dropped on the stand while my brush was still touching the surface.)

Clearly, artists had been consulted when the studios were built because everything I needed was there. Track lighting, plus halogen lamps on stands. A sink. Three hollow-core doors with lightweight sawhorses so that the artist could set up tables and move them around easily as she wanted. A rolling taboret for paint and solvents. I have never had such a good studio. In fact, I'd never even seen such a good studio. As the first day unfolded and I saw where I would sleep and eat and where I could take walks, I began to trust this place.

Everything I needed was there. Solitude. Silence. Wild animals. Three good meals a day. Companionship at dinner. Beauty. Stars. Things I didn't know I needed were given to me, such as not ever being interrupted. It was the rule of the place that no one was to knock on your studio door unless you were in immediate physical danger. Lunch was brought in an insulated bag and quietly left outside the door at a certain time so as not to disturb you. With such a sense of being protected and nourished I was able to confront the big fear of not painting.

What was restored to me was the sheer pleasure of looking-of seeing without greed but with hunger, without thinking, "Can I make a painting out of this?"

I am often surprised by the art that does and does not speak to me. I am always looking for the work that will pull me further down my own path, and sometimes it comes from odd places, from work I might have at first thought was very intellectural or only fashionable.

-Olivia Kuser, from the forum

While walking one afternoon, I startled a great horned owl out of its roost, an owl I'd been glimpsing almost daily, hearing its call at twilight. It didn't fly very far away. I trained my field glasses on it and watched. Great horned owls are massive birds, and this one came close to filling the circular field of my binoculars. The owl was sitting on the branch of a cottonwood with its back towards me, its head twisted around so that it could look at me. After a few minutes it turned around on the branch to get a better look at me. It yawned, charmingly pink inside the beak. It blinked. It scratched its face with its huge feathered foot. (I saw the sole of its foot.) It groomed its foot with its beak. The "horns" ruffled in the breeze.

Rain, 1995. By Olivia Kuser. Etching on panel, 30" x 48".

After 30 minutes, my shoulders exhausted from holding the glasses up to my face, I spoke aloud to the owl, asking it to please fly away, as I couldn't stop looking but my shoulders were awfully tired. It dropped from the branch like a stone, spread its wings, and flew soundlessly to a low stump. Even closer.

Great horned owls have feathered eyelids. I know because I saw them as the owl slowly closed its yellow eyes and dozed in front of me. It looked at me and I looked at it for another 50 minutes. The spell was broken only when another resident came careening down the creek-side on a Foundation bicycle. Finally, I could put down the glasses.

For a month time seemed to dilate. I took two walks a day on the ranch's 22,000 acres. I read nine books. I wrote about 30 letters and wrote in my journal daily. And I made 21 small paintings. Which I didn't have to show to anyone. The Ucross Foundation, unlike some residencies, doesn't require the artists to donate a work, give a lecture or a workshop, or prove in any way that they have been productive. The Foundation acts in faith that by supporting the artist they will support the art-making. That faith and generosity staggered me, soothed me, supported me, restored me.

Two months ago I called my dealer, thanked her for all the work she had done for me over the last 10 years, and told her that I didn't want to exhibit my work for the near future. It was a terrifying thing to do, but I feel that my work is changing, and it needs privacy. I want to create some of the same conditions that Ucross gave to me when I couldn't give them to myself-including the freedom to fail and to make paintings that don't work.

What was restored to me was the sheer pleasure of looking-of seeing without greed but with hunger, without thinking, "Can I make a painting out of this?"

Olivia Kuser is an artist living in San Francisco. At the present time, her work can be seen only at www.oliviakuser.com.

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