photo: Judy Ferrara
Photo Credit: Tracy Raphaelson




January 2006

"Many artists believe that teachers can still have an important impact on their careers but one that is probably less influential than in previous times. The artist today is supposed to break free from roots and teachers to find his or her distinctive voice."

  "Ann Landi, "Artists and Their (Role) Models," ARTnews, December 2005


Influences, Inspiration and Role Models

Dear Reader,

Whenever I hear "Who are your influences?", the 1991 Irish film, The Commitments comes to mind. There is a hilarious sequence caused by the appearance of a newspaper ad for musicians to join an R&B band. We hear knock after knock at the door, which opens as each hopeful states his or her answer. A "Barry Manilow," "Wings," or "Led Zeppelin" gets the door slammed in their faces. The point is that influences tell everything about who we are as artists, visual or performing. We may be on a journey to "break free…to find [our] distinctive voice[s]," but not without acknowledging their effect.

Ann Landi's ARTnews article made me think about people, places and films that have had an influence on my art, including teachers from whom I have taken classes. The artist's name I heard most frequently when people saw my early work was Marc Chagall. He was my teacher, though I never met him. His use of intense color, scattered design, and ethereal figures emerging out of nowhere drifted into my early painting. I owe Chagall a large debt that I seem to honor whenever I squeeze a tube of paint. I am in love with color because of him and one other artist. On my studio bookshelf today is the very first art book I bought: Georges Rouault from the Pocket Library of Great Art series in the 1950's. He was still alive then. It cost fifty cents. I bought it because I was stunned by his work in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York (see Judy's Journal, November 2004). I used black to outline every shape in my paintings back then. Come to think of it, I still do that once in a while.

Nan Hass Feldman was just the kind of living, breathing teacher I needed in 1998, when I returned to painting after nearly forty years of not practicing art. She gave open-ended assignments ("Paint your dreams…"), showed us books filled with artists who did just that, then gave us space to bring our dreams to canvas. Participation in the critiques that followed taught me to articulate what I knew about art, and to develop that knowledge. The educational adage, Start with what you know and build on it, formed the basis of those invigorating studio classes. I count Nan Hass Feldman as a strong influence on me and my work.

Museum collections and gallery exhibitions form another category of influences mentioned in the ARTnews article. Decades of these visits fill my mind with images. How many times have I seen materials manipulated into art so originally that it took my breath away? A small sculpture drew me closer at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut became the subject of this poem:


To "Untitled Tower," a sculpture by Charles LeDray

A stack, nineteen inches tall, carved from a cow's thighbone*
(What else could a sculptor use that looks like this? Ivory is illegal.)

How pleased I was
when I could define you,
not to wonder what to make of:

an indifferent table balanced on
a humble stool riding on
a zig-zag chair,
perched on a wheelbarrow,
balanced on a doghouse,
under a step ladder,
and made explicit by its crescent moon,
an outhouse door tipped on its back!

Did you hear me cheer for you, whisper that if you ever fell apart,
I would build you a colorless doll house?

Frankly, stopping to see you seemed a comfort, then
curiosity pulled me toward your label.

Medium: human bone.

Did you take pleasure in my gasp, revel in my shock?
Did you want to convince spectators, such as me,
to consider immortality?
Did you?

Films have had an impact on my work, as well as in the way I see the world as a source of inspiration. Watching Rivers and Tides: Working with Time, a film about Andy Goldsworthy's artmaking, I held my breath as he constructed his ephemeral art. The film is so engaging that I believed that my breath would make the artwork collapse. I cannot look at a pile of twigs, an icicle, a river, or a pool of water without thinking of Andy Goldsworthy's art.

So, who (or what) are your influences? You can email me at The subject of February's journal will be a look at the difficulties inherent in being an artist and writer.