Much of my graduate research focused on the intersection of music and the visual arts, ranging anywhere from Baka people’s conversion of their polyrhythmic drumming patterns on barkcloths to the influence of Japanese and Javanese visual arts/music on French composer Claude Debussy. Why my love of this interdisciplinary connection? Because, while my degrees are in Art History, I have also played the violin for more than 25 years, even minoring in violin performance at Baylor University.[i] It has been years since I have been able to continue in this research, but I still play gigs, teach lessons, and of course listen to all kinds of music including one of my favorite genres—jazz. While in college, in order to expand my abilities beyond classical music, I took a jazz improvisation class along with a few of the qualified jazz band members (whose saxophone/drum solos put my strings-playing ear to shame). That class, and subsequent personal study, gave me a deep love for the musical genre, and revealed the underlying techniques that coincide with improvisation.
This, very circuitously, brings me to the paintings of Kansas City-based artist Jaime Rovenstine, with whom I share a passion for visual arts, Harry Potter, eclectic music, as well as the work/writings of Vasily Kandinsky. In her artist statement, Jaime includes the following quote by him:
“Color is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand which plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul.”[ii]
In one statement, Kandinsky forever connects the artist and musician—kinsmen in the creative process. As one of Jaime’s colleagues, I get the unique opportunity to ask about her painting process on a relatively regular basis. One afternoon, after discussing a work in progress, something finally clicked about her methods and how they align with the way a jazz musician builds his/her improvised solo.
In jazz, as in painting, many layers are constructed in order to arrive at the end result. First, the “head arrangement” or pre-determined melodic theme gives the bullet points of the musical composition: key, time signature, chord changes, style, and tempo. In essence, it is the foundational structure of the piece played once at the beginning of the performance, and then again at the end, signaling the song’s finish. I find it a seamless comparison to how Jaime starts her paintings with a specific color pallete, inspired by the things around her—naturally-occurring organic forms, her urban environment, or something she sees in online media, like Instagram and style blogs. From these attentive visual observations, she develops her pre-determined pallete, which makes up the ground of painterly brushstrokes and washes of color. According to the artist “This first layer establishes the direction of the piece, with one layer informing the next. I continue to layer color, form, and detail until the work feels grounded and solid.” Like the header in a jazz tune, Jaime utilizes color as the direction with which to further elaborate.
In an improvised solo, the musician then builds upon the head’s pre-arranged structure as the band repeats it over and over until the soloist has reached his/her conclusion. This solo, while may be different every time, can also have similarities—always play an ascending scale at measure two, hold a major seventh over a 1,4,5 chord progression, etc. Or, it can be entirely spontaneous, often answering what has come just before it, riffing on itself. Similarly, Jaime paints with both intention as well as intuition. Her geometric structures reoccur in many different iterations. At times they appear solid—hard lined wedges floating in an atmosphere of pop-like color. In other instances, they are more open, their skeletal framework jutting out toward the viewer adding three-dimensionality and illusion of pictorial depth. Another style of geometric form evokes ribbons looping down from an unseen ceiling, framing, entering, and disappearing into an abstracted cosmic landscape. Jaime also embraces chaos and an element chance, as seen in her loose abstraction and paint drips, “I respond to the movement of the paint. I add washes of color to the canvas, and depending upon the form it takes, follow the lead of the paint, and build on it.” Often, these drips disrupt the illusion of three-dimensionality, resting directly atop the painting’s surface akin to raindrops running down a window pain.
Jaime utilizes repeated motifs, most prominently seen in her near-obsessive painted dots. When asked, why the swarms of pointillist marks? She states “I have no idea. I wish I knew! It’s something I started doing in college and never stopped. It’s only increased in obsessiveness and repetition. The repetition becomes very meditative.”
Correspondingly, found in jazz improvisation, are recurrent motifs—a certain rhythmic pattern, repeated notes, an extended trill, or harmonic progression. These can be tossed around, changed, and endlessly manipulated, even expanded upon from performance to performance, taking years to fully perfect. It can almost seem that the musician loses himself/herself in those moments, letting some deep felt instinct play out through preoccupied repetition.
I have always wondered how a jazz soloist knows when his/her solo has reached its end, how do they come out of that repetition prompted trance? Is it simply years of study, an instinctual gift, or a combination of the two? I also have wanted to ask this of Jaime. How do you know when the painting is finished? “I get this question a lot! Usually it’s just an instinctual ‘knowing’ for no other reason than it feels finished to me. Sometimes it’s more of me forcing myself to just call it good, because I could keep working and re-working a painting for months. Even now, I see paintings that I’ve ‘finished’ and would like to go back and make changes and additions. I share my work on Instagram and will post images of works in progress and people will often leave the comment ‘It looks finished to me!’” I could theorize that many soloists feel this same desire to always tweak, riff, and modulate.
In related conversation, Jaime pointed me to David Anram’s The Stamp of Impulse: Abstract Expressionist Prints, which explores the influence of jazz music (specifically that of bassist Charles Mingus and pianist Cecil Taylor) on the work of painter Joan Mitchell.
Quoting Mitchell, “All the musicians who paint from the gut as well as their intellect can change things. People will never understand what we are doing if they can’t feel. All art is abstract. All music is abstract. But it’s all real…we were all trying to bring that spirit, that spontaneous energy into our work.”[iii]
“Painting from the gut as well as intellect”… an ideal statement to capture Jaime Rovenstine’s process. She utilizes her innate sense of color to establish a starting point, develops the painting further with a study of spatial relationships, color theory, and form, and then again embraces chaos with her delve into instinctive mark-making. It is impossible to not see how her multifaceted process so effortlessly parallels that of a jazz soloist’s improvisation.
“The chaos evolves into order and the order deteriorates into chaos—they exist together. In the same way, birth parallels death, joy parallels sorrow, and beauty rises from ashes.” —Jaime Rovenstine
[i] In fact, I am rather a black sheep in my family, being the only one who did not major in music, some even going on to get graduate degrees in vocal or violin performance. (I must insert here, that my father did not major in music, but he is one of the finest surgeons around, so he gets a pass.)
[ii] Vasily Kandinsky, “The Effect of Color,” Concerning the Spiritual in Art, 1911.
[iii] David Amram, “Seeing the Music, Hearing the Pictures,” The Stamp of Impulse: Abstract Expressionist Prints (Worcester Art Museum: 2001), 19.