Thursday, August 6, 2009

The underlying thread

(Family in front of the Ansel Adams exhibit.)

"Dear Cheryl,
Thank you for thinking about the Museum of Photographic Arts by sending us your website. Looking at CDs, websites, and portfolios is the lifeblood of a museum. Congratulations on an interesting body of work. You are a committed photographer, and obviously invested in your projects.

Our curatorial and collecting plans for future exhibitions, and the perspective from which we curate, is different from what your work can offer us right now. I don't mean that to sound dismissive; there is a place for such imagery. Looking at photographers who have made it into our exhibitions or collection, such as James Fee, Andrea Modica, or those in "Picturing Eden" (all of these previous MoPA exhibitions) will give you a clearer idea of what I mean. It is almost impossible to put into words except to say that these photographers deliver something deeply personal, heavily thought through, years in the making, and content-driven, whereby what they render and how they do it is unlike anything we -- myself and our director – have seen before in quite that way. Their images appeal to our particular sensibility.

That is not to say that some other museum, gallery, or commercial venue would not find your work a perfect fit. We encourage you to continue to find the right venue, which is often a simple matter of timing and persistence in understanding a museum or gallery’s mandate. Take a look at our website from time to time, and those of other museums and galleries, and you'll get a sense of what would make the best fit for you.

Follow your passion: that is the most important thing.

Carol McCusker PhD
Curator of Photography Museum of Photographic Arts, San Diego"
(reprinted with kind permission)

This letter, which I received a few days ago, has to be the most encouraging and thoughtful letter of rejection I've ever received. It's the only one I can recall (and I've had plenty) where my grin actually grew wider the more I read on. Instead of making me feel like a talentless and unworthy wretch who wasted six years of her life getting a useless degree, McCusker's letter actually made me feel enthusiastic about raking a critical eye over my own work and at the work of the artists she'd suggested.

First, Andrea Modica. She "has been photographing a group of children in her rural town in upstate New York. It is here, through a young girl named Barbara and her extended family, that Modica creates her work. Transforming reality into fantasy, Modica creates narratives that seem to have no beginning or end, yet present endless scenarios.

In a fictitious town called Treadwell, Barbara and her friends pose for the photographer, who creates images with an 8 x 10" view camera. Like Faulkner's Jefferson County or Cheever's Shady Hill, Modica's Treadwell is a place where anything is possible. Through intense collaboration and trust, events unfold before our eyes, questioning our sense of reality." (from

Then there is the late James Fee ( whose work is more varied, from celebrity portraits to fine art photography to photojournalism. Like McCusker's letter says, I couldn't really put my finger on what it was about his photographs, that thing, that thing which ties them together, makes them stand out, makes them so good. But his work definitely looks nothing like Modica's work. And there is, in all his varied portfolios, that thing McCusker describes as "something deeply personal, heavily thought through, years in the making, and content-driven" throughout. Then, Tuesday, my brother and I went to the MOMA to see the Avedon exhibit. And again, through all the various photographs of people, celebrities staring into space, politicians posing, models flipping their hair about, carnies, drifters and other folks looking at you big as life out of the flat surface, I could see an underlying aesthetic driving each piece, a particular way of seeing the world and of trying to convey that world to the viewer. His work is striking, exuberant, a world idealized, as in this marvelous photograph...but also utterly real, especially his later work, with every detail we're used to seeing airbrushed away right there for us to stare at.

And at nearly every photograph, I would think, oh my God, oh my God, oh my God, he's good. His images are simple, a person against a white sheet in most cases, and maybe so mesmerizing for this very reason. In real life I'd never stare at a person this freely, taking note of all the unflattering details that make a face so interesting, but with his work you're invited to do just that.

Looking at so many photographs, and paintings (by Georgia O'Keefe) I also, all the while, kept thinking of my own work. Do I have an underlying aesthetic? I...think so. God, I hope so. But what? I mean, I feel the urge to paint something so I go ahead and paint it. Or I see something compelling before me and I go ahead and snap a photo. As much as I like to over think things, as much as I love the sound of words, I usually avoid analyzing the why's and how come's behind each of my pieces because this is where I go to to avoid thinking. It's my meditation. Oh, I may in a day dreamy sort to way think things like, This painting by C. R. Cruz is a brilliant and touching allegory of the human experience, etc. etc. some fawning future art critic will write. Thoughts that keep me motivated. Yes, I have daydreams of grandeur. Oh, like you don't!

deeply personal, heavily thought through...

I've written many an artists statement before. But they're always total crap. Gobblydygook about inspiration, influence, a love of color and shape, et cetera. Most artist statements I've read, except the Modica one above, make no sense. And when taken into consideration alongside the work I usually think, so what? Usually because the work itself doesn't interest me. But, the Modica statement, that actually does makes sense. It illuminates the work and makes me think, oh! I see!

And, thinking of McCusker's advice, I can also see the value of having a clear artistic aesthetic driving my work. Because otherwise, as she sensed in my photography portfolio, I'm just making a haphazard collection of nice pictures.

Some things to think about...

To get me started...the words self reflective, moody...narrative...a telling expression, a dramatic moment. Character studies. The colors red, gold and cerulean blue. Children, for all the cliche'd reasons which are still really good reasons. Wrinkly faces and misshapen bodies because I can imagine the heroic lives they might or might not have lead. Cupcakes. Churches, metro stations, food, store windows and museums. Hmmm, there is an underlying thread there somewhere...

(Inside the lobby of the MOMA.)

OK, I know this post might have only appealed to the artists out there. So, for all you non- artists...
(From the fourth floor of the MOMA. Click for a larger version.) There's a Waldo (from the inexplicable Where's Waldo? books) somewhere out there staring back at you. Can you see him?


  1. Congratulations, Cheryl,
    for daring to take the step and submit your work to this outstanding museum! The response is truly heartwarming and encouraging and so right, too! I wonder how the world would look like if there were more Carol McCuskers out there?
    With best wishes,

    underlying vision

  2. I have no idea what a Waldo is :)
    Bless Carol McCusker heart! A negative response sucks but she encouraged your creativity.
    Dream & take changes and it will happen.

  3. Sorry that you received a rejection, but it is a wonderfully positive letter! The above photographers are fantastic (I only knew Avedon). Thanks for introducing them to me.
    Stay true to your passion and the things that speak to you.
    Good luck as always! I've got my fingers crossed.

  4. That was a great rejection letter. Well, not great - no rejection was great, but it explained a lot of what they put in their museum while appreciating your work.

    I couldn't find Waldo.

  5. What a wonderful letter of encouragement, Cheryl. There's so much positive you can take from this and I know exactly how you feel. I reckon that a seed of a thought will grow as a result of this letter (as it already seems to be doing) and could define your creative direction in such a magical way. x

  6. I have never received a rejection letter like that! I'm jealous of your rejection letter--what's that say about me? LOL.

    Seriously, I think it speaks volumes about your work that your submission inspired such a positive response from such an illustrious institution! Yay! What you go on to write in this post is what impressed me the most. You are a fantastic artist, but your way with words is equally revealing and profound.

  7. Hey - that was a great letter though. I love your blog - thank you so much for sharing

  8. Hey Merisi, thank you! But, oh, I have nothing to lose, I feel, by sending my stuff out there. Even so, such an encouraging letter was most welcome at this time. Sometimes I wonder if I'm crazy to have stuck with this art biz for so long. It can be brutal. So this was like a gentle nudge from the art world saying, stick with it1 You'll get there!

    Hey Dutch Donut Gurl, I have no idea who he is either. Except he's this character who always wears a red ski cap and red and white striped sweater who likes to stand in crowds (or on rooftops).

    Dream and make changes...changes bubbling up, I think, but how it'll play out not sure yet.

    Thank you Dedene, you are so sweet! You're a true friend. I really appreciate that.

    And yeah! Aren't those photographers fantastic?

    Hi Little Ms Blogger, yeah, pretty awesome and helpful. I wish every rejection letter were this helpful. I hate it when they say they'll keep my info on file, all the while I have the uneasy feeling they've already chucked my portfolio into the waste bin.

    HI Guillaume, hey! Welcome and thank you! I love your blog, thank you for introducing me to your work!

    Hi Carol Anne, I know! Wasn't it great? Instead of wallowing in why wasn't I good enough? I've been happily at work and thinking about useful things. I can feel it, that thing I'm trying to define, on the tip of my tongue. It's been there all along but I've been too close to it and too scattered in my attention to see it fully. xx

    HI Elizabeth, thank you, that's a good way to look at it. And thank you, thank you for saying that! I was afraid it was too personal, too long and too boring. But I needed to say it all the same. I'm glad you could relate to it so well. It tells me to just do what I have to do and trust my work will find the right audience.

    Hi Elise, welcome and thank you! I just took a peak at your gorgeous blog and look forward to getting to know your work much better.

  9. No kidding - what a fabulous letter! Great post as always and you will find your thread... lovely.

  10. Keep on having your dreams of grandeur, Cheryl de los Reyes Cruz! That was quite a good letter, I just "know" your time will come. I really enjoyed coming with you, what a fascinating entry. Such exciting stuff, and there I was on top of a mountain with no connection at all. Finally came down the mountain this morning and...ecco! can talk on the mobile, connect the computer, but I miss the silence up there...

  11. I have recently found some joy in playing around with a theme. I would love to see a series of your paintings that say all included that same hue of blue, or any kind of theme. It's like a paper chain for the eyes, seeing those similarities. Go Cheryl! You're super.

    ps - about the stupid hat I was wearing in the photo. Not for sale I'm afraid. I had borrowed it from a nearby Royal Air Force piper. :)

  12. What a fantastic post. First such a caring, thoughtful letter. Totally encouraging. Second I love your positive attitude and musings about what the common thread is. Like in writing, the idea of the writer's voice -- it's something that can be hard to pinpoint, but you know when you hear if (or even stronger -- when you don't).

  13. You know what, Cheryl!? I read and thoroughly enjoyed this post last week, and could have sworn I posted a comment here... but now remember I got distracted and never hit the "post comment" button...
    I was struck and impressed by your candor in posting the PMPA "roijrceetn" letter and kind post about them and their tastes. It takes a giant heart to do such a thing.
    I love the MOMA Avendon exhibit photo of the skaters, and embrace the adjectives striking, exuberant, and marvelous... they fit it beautifully, but I shy away from "idealized", as reality is pure perception, art is its representation, and Richard Avedon is certainly a master of essence capture. As far as capturing your own essence, Cheryl, I believe it's hard because it's ephemeral, ever-changing, and has to be as long as you're alive. I feel as though I've come close (as close as I'll ever get) to defining my own aesthetic, but still feel it is beyond reach and know that capturing it definitively means it is imprisoned, becomes stagnant and fixated. O'Keefe can more easily be defined because we are not her, she is long gone, and we're only exposed to a fraction of her works, systematically culled over time.
    And about the artist's statement... I'm so glad you expressed your WTF on most of them. I also would like to craft one... and for the first time in my life I feel I can... as an attitude, a way of looking at life. This is one reason I love to read blogs such as yours. We all really DO see the world differently... and seeing other's disparate interpretations helps me realize that my own is much more defined than I'd previously realized.
    Ah Ha!
    PS -- One of your strong points in my eyes (in addition to your superb writing and deeply affecting and skilled artwork) is your magnificently rich and masterfully communicated candor. I am ever rediscovering your uncanny ability to spur deep introspection and discovery within myself. You continually help me define my own morphing "aesthetic". Thank you.

  14. Congratulations on your inspiring the curator to write such a helpful letter. You must have impressed her! It must be a good feeling. And thanks for sharing it with us. Great post.

    You will break in ... it takes time, but it's a coming. :)

  15. I've fallen so far behind on responding to comments that I've lost any hope of answering all of them one by one. So I'll just say I am always so grateful for any feedback and support. This artmaking thing is a difficult, crazy making, and sometimes lonely way to go and your company helps more than you know. Thanks Shanster, Celeste Maia, Sophia, Lianne, David and Sharon!

    Sophia, a series is bubbling it's way up in my consciousness. Can't quite put it to words right now but it's getting there. The photo series in my next post gives a clue.

    Celeste Maia, I'm so glad you were able to read my post. But the idea of you enjoying the silence on top of a mountain is rather wonderful. or maybe I'm longing for a change of scenery myself...

    David, I'm so glad my words and artistic efforts can help you in any way. That's what we're all here for. But, let me explain, by 'idealized' I meant Avedon's early Vogue fashion work which is a step away from found reality. His photographic compositions are designed to create a certain rarified and airbrushed look and feel, and is thus idealized. So, really can't see eye to eye with you on that point. Course if we agreed with others on everything we wouldn't learn anything from each other. And like you said, we have our own interpretations and one point of view is as valid as another's.


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