Kate Lewis

an artist in pursuit of beauty and optimism

The Quiet Eye

Kate Lewis

Sylvia Shaw Judson is the artist of the iconic sculpture on the cover of the novel Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt. The disquieting image of the sculpture and the word evil in the title never appealed to me. However, this summer, I took a second look at that image when I spent a week among Judson’s other sculptures at Ragdale, her family home in Lake Forest, IL. If you wish to read about that cathartic week, see my previous journal entry.

Bird Girl made in 1936 by Sylvia Shaw Judson. Sculpted at Ragdale, her family's summer home in Lake Forest, IL.

Bird Girl made in 1936 by Sylvia Shaw Judson. Sculpted at Ragdale, her family's summer home in Lake Forest, IL.

It’s been a month since my time in the studio named after Judson, “Sylvia’s Studio”. I didn’t fully realize it while there, but now I feel she made a quiet yet powerful impact on me. She is my kindred spirit. Her sculptures were everywhere on the grounds of Ragdale. They were tranquil, strong and peaceful. I loved how she conjured a sense of the divine in ordinary subjects. They had been there for years and years watching all that had come and gone. They didn’t make sounds yet you could feel each piece had a deep, deep story to tell. If only one would stop to listen; rest long enough to absorb their stories. The inspiration, the vision of this one person, Sylvia, who made animals, people, the lines she used, the expression, the addition of flowers to some struck me with authoritative stillness. They were almost breathing as they sat proudly in their spots. 

Summer, seen here at Ragdale, one of Sylvia Shaw Judson's most endearing statues. This statue reminded me of those on the front steps of my Grandmother's home.

Summer, seen here at Ragdale, one of Sylvia Shaw Judson's most endearing statues. This statue reminded me of those on the front steps of my Grandmother's home.

With all of her statues, she paid close attention to how the sculpture would be viewed from all angles.

With all of her statues, she paid close attention to how the sculpture would be viewed from all angles.

Like her sculptures, Sylvia’s book, The Quiet Eye, published in 1954 was everywhere at Ragdale. It was as if she was at every corner to provoke me. One day I picked up a copy of this little book while eating lunch and immediately became engaged. It took me back to my days as an art educator at The Art Institute of Chicago. To the days when I was taking student groups through the museum and asking “What do you see?” What a powerful and simple question, yet quite confronting. Many years away from asking those questions to groups of 5 year olds to teenagers, I sit here in my studio and ask myself: 

What do I see? 

At first, the nonsense comes up- it’s not good enough, if only i had taken more time/had more time… Once I get through that initial layer of gibberish, I look again and ask again:  

What do I see? 

Now, the next layer of answers come: I see color. Someone who loves color. No, I don’t see someone. I see a chair. I see a flower. I see reds, blues, pinks, on and on. I look and only see what I see. It’s a liberating and powerful exercise that I take with me as I move from the studio into the hubbub of life with young children. I ask: 

What do I see? 

I see a child. Children. Beautiful human beings. Individuals I get to be with and grow with. People who teach me. I get to watch as they are discovering their worlds at the same time I am discovering mine. 

What a gift Syliva Shaw Judson continues to give me as I navigate my life as a mother and partner. The Quiet Eye is one I intend on honing, exploring and teaching my children. I am in pursuit of removing interpretations and detaching judgement from not only my art but from my life and the people around me, especially the young ones. I’m on that journey now and it’s freeing. Not an easy one, but putting it out for you to read helps me to stay accountable and hopeful that I can continue to move myself back to this view when I get sidetracked. I am not here to judge. I am here to create. As a human being, it’s nearly impossible to let go of interpretations; however, my Quiet Eye will continue to bring me back to simply looking and seeing- truly seeing is my intention.

The Quiet Eye has a permanent home in my studio.

The Quiet Eye has a permanent home in my studio.

I found this spread to be especially meaningful as a print of this image hangs in my parent's home.

I found this spread to be especially meaningful as a print of this image hangs in my parent's home.

Ragdale: Reflections on My Artist Residency

Kate LewisComment
This sign warmed my heart-- "Quiet Please. Artists At Work".  Ragdale offers 150 residencies and fellowships annually, making it one of the largest artists’ communities in the US.

This sign warmed my heart-- "Quiet Please. Artists At Work".  Ragdale offers 150 residencies and fellowships annually, making it one of the largest artists’ communities in the US.

The birds were chanting, “You’ve got this!” I heard celebration in their sounds. Uplifting, peaceful and exhilarating music. I felt waves of peace, gratitude and contentment. Being at Ragdale felt like giving birth. I was close to what is real and true. I loved being in nature with the birds, insects and especially the flowers. Everything was speaking to me. They were my subjects and seemed to be awaiting my arrival.

Viewing everything through the gaze of an artist, I was in a trance during my seven-day stay. I went inward, and it was a welcomed home. I put every ounce of my being into my work and purpose for being there. Solitude is what I found and what a renewing gift it was and continues to be.

An apple tree outside my studio.

An apple tree outside my studio.

The dedication and discipline it took for me to focus while there was extreme. I kept telling myself that I’ll need to rest at some point; that the pace in which I was creating was not going to last, but it did. Everything I saw I wanted to paint. The first two days I stayed within my comfort zone by painting small interiors and florals on stretched canvas. I was partly going through the motions but also felt like that’s what I needed to do to get acclimated. The paint was flowing, and I was riding the wave.

Small interiors and florals on stretched canvas created my first days of the residency.

Small interiors and florals on stretched canvas created my first days of the residency.

Looking back, I am delighted with the work I made, how boldly and confidently I created it, and the leaps I took with my subject matter and material. I pushed past the small tight corners of the stretched canvases I have been working on for years, moved on to painting on large sheets of paper then finally painting on a large piece of fabric. I picked up a piece of unstretched linen from the art store before I left. I had always wanted to paint on raw linen, but was scared to try. Purchasing it on a whim, I secretly thought I would end up returning it. At first, that piece of linen rested on the studio couch. It waited for me to work through the stretched canvases and the large sheets of paper hanging on the wall. I would catch a glimpse of it from the corner of my eye patiently standing by. It was as if I had to become unleashed with my work before being able to add paint to the raw linen. On the last day, I did it and a sense of walking, no running down a new path washed over me.

Working on large works on paper.

Working on large works on paper.

Unstretched linen painting.

Unstretched linen painting.

As I was there, I began to question my process over the last several years. I’ve worked from magazine images in the past. I began to feel like I’ve used magazines to hide behind. Hide my own creativity and voice. I’ve relied on those images for so long (about 8 years); however, I do believe it’s time to let them go. Let go of the glossy, perfect images and discover my own world around me and the one inside me. The clippings, the need to hoard magazines, consume and collect has passed.  In a very short amount of time I have broken free from my past work. Sitting in my studio now, I am not sure where I will take the work next. Better said, where the work will take me. But, here I am. I will continue to show up here and see what emerges.

A morning spent painting in the garden. The sundial, designed by Shaw, has this verse inscribed around it: Hours Fly, Flowers Die, New Ways, New Days, Pass By, Love Stays

A morning spent painting in the garden. The sundial, designed by Shaw, has this verse inscribed around it: Hours Fly, Flowers Die, New Ways, New Days, Pass By, Love Stays

One of the greatest gifts I gave myself during the residency was liberation from social media.  It was a relief not to have that hanging over my head- what to post, when to post. It is distracting and even detrimental to discovering soul and depth in my work. If I want to continue to connect with myself and uncover what I am seeing and want to express, I need to create space for that to appear. Being on my phone and computer, looking at images and other people’s lives, aesthetics, voices, I do not hear my own. I know there is a time for social media and I am grateful for that outlet. While at Ragdale, I began to find a balance between inspiration and consumption.

The main house at Ragdale. Originally the summer home of Howard Van Doren Shaw who is considered a leader of the American Arts and Crafts Movement.

The main house at Ragdale. Originally the summer home of Howard Van Doren Shaw who is considered a leader of the American Arts and Crafts Movement.

Sketching one of the many, many geraniums at the main house.

Sketching one of the many, many geraniums at the main house.

The front porch.

The front porch.

Being in the Ragdale home and studio provided not only inspiration for my art but a renewed focus on what’s important for me as an artist and the family environment I wish to create. The Shaw family established Ragdale as a haven and I experienced it as that. It was safe for me to let everything go, to be there fully and paint, to allow myself the freedom, time, head space to dive in and to go deeper and deeper. I’m taking back more than I can absorb right now. I anticipate it will take me many, many days, months, even years to see the impact Ragdale- the space, the welcoming staff and especially the other residents have made on me as an artist, mother, wife, friend, and citizen. I was struck by the importance of being a part of a supportive, creative community. I felt enveloped; like the staff and other residents were there as guides to help me tap into my own voice. I left Ragdale with feelings of serenity and surrender; the ability to see and be; and a strong desire to nurture creativity, self-expression, literature, music and visual arts for my family as the Shaws did at Ragdale. Most importantly, I feel the need to find moments of solitude not only for myself but for each person in my family.

The midway moment of a black and white painting of the garden.

The midway moment of a black and white painting of the garden.

Sitting out on the front porch one afternoon while there, I saw a glimpse of myself autonomous from my children. A wash of tears came over my eyes, a bit of sadness and joy. In the same instant I noticed butterflies playing in the garden nearby and thought of them as my children. It was an image that gave me great comfort and a knowing that all was well. They were okay as was I.

View from the loft of all of the work I created during my time at Ragdale.

View from the loft of all of the work I created during my time at Ragdale.

I am proud of myself for standing for that week in my life- this chaotic, kid-centered, husband-centered time and think, damn, I did that. I was able to step away. Immerse, submerge and go for a deep dive and surface as a renewed, powerful artist with so much to share and give. Life as a mother of four and wife to a traveling business executive has come back abrupt and fast. My time at Ragdale was sacred. I reconnected with my artist. I felt her almost for the first time. I had a profound longing for years to see her and there I was able to. Happily, I find that I do have access to her even now as I write. She has always been with me. Now that we have surfaced together we can move forward and create hand in hand instead of me trying to find her. She’s with me, my creative partner. 

Here I am on the final evening with my work.

Here I am on the final evening with my work.

The beauty and fire of being an artist is that my work will never be done. There is always more to create. Another level to uncover. While there I questioned why I have such a burning desire to make. It is for nothing. For no one. Not even for me. Yet, it is for everyone and everything at the same time.