ArtsJan 31, 2017

Meeting Hilma af Klint in her homeland

Studio Art Teacher Ellie Spangler writes about her mentor and muse, Hilma af Klint

When I returned from maternity leave in 2016, I checked in with my students to find out what they wanted to learn during the second semester. Many students wanted to learn basic skills like watercolor or oil painting. A few of the girls surprised me: they wanted to learn how to paint abstractly. They pointed to my paintings on the wall as examples.

I planned the coming months, but abstract art did not make it into the schedule. When I tried to think of how to teach what I paint every day, I got stuck. I wasn’t even sure where the shapes and colors in my work were coming from or how I was to dissect what I do into teachable
 parts. All I knew was that ever since
I started painting abstractly,
 I was in love with painting.
What was inside of me, and
 what I was creating, felt 
aligned. It was an amazing
 feeling. Isn’t that also, ultimately,
 what I want for my students?

Let’s travel back to 2013. 
I love bringing home and
browsing through old ArtForum magazines. One day,
I came across a tiny article
about an artist, Hilma af
 Klint. When I saw her work, 
it looked just like my work. I
 put the article on the fridge
and vowed to research her. My husband reminded me every once in a while, and, eventually, I did some research. Thank goodness, because Hilma’s life is the perfect case study for the foundations of abstract art. From then on, I was hooked and began to learn her amazing story.
 My proposal for the Paternotte grantThe Paternotte Family Faculty Travel and Study Endowment Fund, established by Nancy Brewster Paternotte ’65, supports faculty professional development in the form of summer travel. came from her story. I wanted to go to Hilma’s homeland to learn what inspired her to work abstractly and to learn what inspires current abstract artists in Sweden.

Where Hilma went there was 
no road map. No one was creating abstract work at that time. It 
is undeniable that she was a brave woman, driven by her conviction; but how do artists form the conviction they need to create?

Studio Art Teacher

When Hilma af Klint was growing up, her artistic talents were clear from her days at the School for Girls in Sweden (I already like her!), and her family arranged for her to attend the Royal Academy of Fine Arts. Hilma excelled in the traditional techniques of the times and was awarded a prized studio space. After completing school, she was able to make her living by painting in a naturalistic style. While creating this work, Hilma began to work—secretly—on a new series. Based on her automatic drawings, a love of science, and her inner spiritual life, she started to develop her own visual language in which shapes and colors had meanings. This divergence resulted in 26,000 sketchbook pages and over 1,000 paintings.

Where Hilma went there was
 no road map. No one was creating abstract work at that time. Each day, she would buy eggs, paste together her paper into massive surfaces that measured up to twelve-by-fifteen feet, mix her tempera paint, and work. It
is undeniable that she was a brave woman, driven by her conviction; her belief that what she was doing was important.

This story led me to the question that framed my conversations with every person I met while on my trip: How do artists form the conviction they need to create? I knew that I was supposed to be unpacking abstract art, but, instead, the question of the origins of abstract art naturally led to this question—which made people’s eyes light up. This is the question that the Hilma af Klint family asks all the time. And, I thought, if I can try to answer this question, then maybe I can teach abstract art.

I spent my time in Sweden in Stockholm and on the island of Helgö in Lake Mälaren. Known
for its Viking ruins, Helgö is a tiny island where Swedes would typically visit their summer cottages. My research goals were to understand how Hilma af Klint was inspired by her homeland; to learn more about what inspires me when I paint abstractly; and to discover how to teach my students
to create their own abstract art. My research took many forms—gallery and studio visits, museums, artist groups, thinking, painting, planning for my classes, and reading.

Swedes are very friendly and love talking about art. 
I was able to make quick connections with curators, gallerists, artists, and the Hilma af Klint Foundation. We used Hilma as a springboard for conversations about art. The more I learned about Hilma, the more I became interested in her daily habits. As the daughter of a nautical mapmaker, she made her work in a very disciplined way. To me, this is a big piece of her puzzle.

I organized her artistic life into six components. Inspired by this very concrete plan, I organized my life in Stockholm in this same way: I kept
a sketchbook, met with groups of artists, set up a studio in my rented apartment, visited galleries and museums, and worked. It sounds simple, but it worked! This structure of planning my time gave me purpose, drove me forward, and helped me find conviction in what I was doing.

Hilma af Klint at the Guggenheim
Learn more about the revelatory exhibit

My research in Sweden led me 
in new directions, with bigger ideas about teaching and the process of art making. I returned to the states, feeling like I had dedicated three weeks to my growth as a teacher, and I was excited to see how it would play out for the students’ experience in my classroom. I decided to frame my teaching that year using the same six components 
of Hilma’s work. Again, it is simple, but effective.

I quickly came up
 with dozens of innovations, from individualized sketchbook assignments and mini-studios for upper level students, to incorporating more time for critiquing our work, looking at other artists’ work, and discussing
 the process of art-making. As a result, I am excited to see what these shifts can do to foster the students’ work and conviction.

Additionally, I wanted to take another look at abstract art. This is where the Stockholm art scene really helped me. I saw so much art that I started to organize it into categories. Each artist I talked to arrived at abstract art from different approaches and for different reasons. I learned that with students, I can offer a variety of approaches to abstraction, then help them notice when they arrive at something interesting. The moments between the “interesting” places can be scary—and even less clear with abstract art—but strategies for dealing with this time can be taught, too. Since my research
during the E.E. Ford Faculty Seminars, I have been helping students expect—and even look forward to— these moments of not knowing. Together, we have developed a language of talking about the
artistic process and are able to support each other in a safe and inspiring way.

I can guide students in techniques for making abstract art, but how can
I teach them how to put themselves into their art? Hilma explains, “At this moment, I have the knowledge that I am an atom in the universe that has access to infinite possibilities of development. These possibilities of knowledge I want to gradually reveal.” The answer is that this takes time. There is no road map to knowing your artistic self or, furthermore, your own self, but, I do know that art is one of the greatest tools for learning more about yourself, and the Elizabeth Gatchell Klein Arts Center is the perfect place to embark on this journey.

Why do we make art? Why do I teach art? Why should we all find outlets for
My trip to 
Sweden gave
 me many 
answers to
these questions. When 
we find a
way to take
what is in
our mind
and put it on
paper, play it
on a violin,
or dance it
on a stage, 
this can be
described as 
one of the
 best feelings in the world.

One of my goals as a teacher is to help students have the time and space in this hectic world to start—or continue—letting their creativity out of them. As many of you already know, once creativity starts to be a part of life, it gets easier to keep creating. How this happens is unique to each person. For me it was allowing myself to paint abstractly. For Hilma it was developing a new way of painting.

As for a few pieces of concrete advice:

  • Find your hero or heroes and study them.
  • Keep a journal or sketchbook to understand your growth and to celebrate it.
  • And, always keep inspiration on your fridge.