Art Studios

Four Seasons on the Blue Ridge

"Four Seasons on the Blue Ridge" (Each panel 10" x 24")

"Four Seasons on the Blue Ridge" (Each panel 10" x 24")

What is it about the theme of the Four Seasons? It's always a winner. When you think about it, it's almost strange because I think most people hate change. We are indeed creatures of habit in nearly everything we do. There's a security in habit, in sameness, in routine. But all the rules are broken with the very popular theme of the Four Seasons (which is all about change!). Maybe we're not as addicted to sameness and routine as they say we are. 

What would it be like if all four of the above panels were winter? Or spring? Boring. It would never sell. But show the same scene as it undergoes the annual metamorphosis from death to life to death again (going out in a blaze of glory) and it immediately gets attention. 

And I suppose you can emphasize different ideas by how you organize the panels. Start with Winter and end with Autumn (as I've organized the panels above), you might emphasize resurrection and growth to maturity (and that maturity is a beautiful thing). Start with Spring and END with Winter, you might emphasize the whole natural life cycle: Birth (with Spring) and ending with death (in Winter). I did not organize the panels that way because by all accounts, I'm getting into the Autumn phase of life and I'd rather not emphasize my impending doom. 

So whether it's my artwork, or Vivaldi's famous "Four Seasons" or any number of takes on the theme, we keep coming back to it...the beauty of the passage of time, and it's new every time it's illustrated. This was a fun project and I think I may come back to it myself from time to time. 

So, if you're visiting Asheville's River Arts District soon, come on by and take a look in person. And you can rearrange the panels to send whatever message you'd like!  Cheers!

Thoughts on a Mighty Failure

StClaire Art process.jpg

“Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.” – Albert Einstein


For the last several months, I've been trying to figure out what to do with a material I love: Dichroic film. It's a vinyl film with an adhesive back and it's usually used on panels of clear plexiglas for interesting effects. I had a few pieces of clear plex and some of the film, so I applied the film to one side of the plex and experimented with applying paint to it, resin to it, ink to it...just to see what happened. 

"What were you thinking you'd do with it?" you ask. Well, I was asking that same question. I had no idea what I wanted to do with it, I just really wanted to play with it. Then I came up with an legit experiment...which would not be cheap (dichroic film is seriously expensive) but I got the okay from Joy so...I ordered a couple yards of the material. What I ended up doing was creating two paintings the panels of which were built angled toward each other (not parallel to the wall) and I created my painting on that angled surface. I built it up with texture, covered the texture with Italian aluminum leaf, oil paint and resin. Then...I covered the surface with the dichroic film. Then I was outside with the pieces and it started to rain. When I got back into my studio, there were big rain drops all over the surface of my cool paintings. I thought they were ruined except now...who'd have guessed? The rain drops amplified the coloration of the dichroic film, creating little circular puddles of rainbow light everywhere they rested on the surface. So that effect was too cool to pass up playing with so...I dried off the surface of the panels and dropped bits of resin all over the surface of each panel. When the resin cured, I had permanent "rain drops" on the surface of my paintings. The effect was cool. 

And then I posted photos on Facebook and waited for some opinions. Putting together the honest input of friends, I realized I was working with a material that was indeed cool and worth experimenting with, but that the way I was using it was entirely overkill. It's like someone getting all excited about inventing vanilla extract and then trying to convince you that it was amazing and you really need to take a big gulp of it. That would end in disaster, as did my art experiment. Vanilla extract (like dichroic film) is very, very potent. You only need a small bit to make a huge impact. 

So it's back to the drawing board. I'm going to do something with this stuff. And I've got some ideas! 

Winston Churchill once said, "“Success is the ability to go from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.” Thank you Winston. I am undaunted. 

What to do with 2000 visitors in an art studio...

Over the last several days, I've been preparing for our spring Studio Stroll. This is an even that happens this weekend in Asheville's River Arts District and also in the fall and is immensely popular (mostly with locals who spend this time checking in with all their favorite artists). 

"What's a Studio Stroll?"

It used to be the studio stroll meant that for two weekends every year, all the art studios were open to the public and could be visited by, well, by anybody. I don't know how long it went along like that but eventually, some enterprising artist decided to open their art studio to the general public more often than just twice a year, and guess what? People visited their studios. Eventually, artists began to adopt the "open studio" business model and banded together and started advertising that they were here and open to visitors. And so nowadays, people can visit over 200 artists within about a one square mile area and have a good chance of walking in on some artwork actually in the process of being worked on. And because Asheville became known for this business model, I can make a living here doing artwork and greeting visitors from literally all over the country (and other countries). 

So what is the studio stroll like for an artist? That kind of depends on the artist. I love it but it's really exhausting. Imagine being asked by about 2000 people throughout the two days, "hey, why are these paintings so shiny?" "How do you do this?" "Do you really make a living just doing this?" (I love that last question! Ha!) It's honestly great fun talking to so many people who are visiting our studios because they love artwork (so we have something in common right from the start). 

The first couple studio strolls I did I just sat there all day long and greeted people, but not doing anything but sitting there was unbearably boring, I have several canvases ready for the aluminum leaf application (people like watching that) and I will be working on my "Big Mama" 8' x 10' painting when I get tired of the aluminum application. 

You're invited!

So if you're in Asheville or close-ish, please know you're invited by all 200+ artists to pay us a visit. There are free trolleys both Saturday and Sunday. We're ready for you. 


Who Else Should We See in the District?

“What other artists should we make sure we see today?”

I’m asked that a lot as folks are leaving my painting studio in Asheville’s River Arts District. There are over 200 artists within about a square mile here, and I would recommend people see everyone but…if your time is limited and you just an a morning or afternoon, here are my suggestions for my favorite “must see” artists who work around me. 

The Official St.Claire Favorites...

  1. The Lift Studios is the creative home of Daniel McClendon ( Daniel’s paintings are process-focused and examine the connectivity of instinct, impulsive action, and identity. The work begins non-objectively in the form of a chaotic black and white abstract painting, and from there the animal— a central figure in all his works—emerges. These animals, created from a variety of colors, patterns, textures, forms, and symbols, take on the role of both a totem as well as the embodiment of instinct itself.
  2. Michael Hoffman ( In a world of sameness, Hoffman Studios offers you something truly unique. I invite you to visit our gallery and working studio to view the varied selection of handbuilt porcelain we offer for your enjoyment. Each piece of pottery is made using antique lace, some centuries old, to create objects that will be cherished for generations to come. Using the materials that nature has provided, we formulate glazes that dress each piece in a skin of dazzling colors. Colors that often mimic precious gems, stones and weathered metals.
  3. North Carolina Glass Center ( The North Carolina Glass Center is a non-profit, public access glass studio providing daily educational offerings & demonstrations. You can watch glass being blown and even take a class and learn to blow glass yourself! 
  4. Bee Sieburg ( Bee is one of my favorite people on the planet. She loves to paint countryside (local and European) and farm animals. Her style is loose and free with an awesome use of color and brush strokes. She’s upstairs in the Wedge Building.
  5. Matt Tommey ( Matt’s handcrafted baskets are a whimsical collaboration of traditional weaving techniques, vines, bark and recycled metal. Every basket begins with a walk in the woods. His artistic “voice” centers around the ability to speak the language of natural materials. By responding to nature and incorporating many different materials, he’s able to create one-of-a-kind sculptural creations. If you see someone rummaging around a kudzu field gather vines, that’s probably Matt. 

Honestly, this is is really minimal but at least it’s a start. There are so many other talented artists around here. To explore the district properly would take all day or a weekend. These artists are another one of the reasons why we love living in Western North Carolina and Asheville in particular. The mountains, trails, and woods, the restaurants in downtown Asheville and all the mirco-breweries, the music — what a fun place to live or visit.

Spring in Western North Carolina

Spring is one of the big reasons we enjoy living in Western North Carolina. Asheville is amazing this time of year. Visitors begin besieging the Biltmore Estate to see the tulips and daffodils and tourists are beginning to swarm downtown Asheville, creating a congenial commotion as they wander around our streets, shops, restaurants and art galleries. Ahhhh. I love this time of year. Growing up in southern California, spring and autumn were pretty much just "theoretical" seasons. But the character of Asheville and all of western North Carolina completely changes with the turning of the gentle seasons. Joy and I are working in earnest this time of year, finishing up winter projects while there's still time, building up our inventory of oil paintings so we are ready for a new summer season.

So plan a trip! And when you visit Asheville, stop into St.Claire Art studio in the River Arts District and see what we're up to. There are more than 200 artists here and we will happily part with a map to keep you from getting lost! 


Now Spring Has Clad The Grove In Green
by Robert Burns

Now spring has clad the grove in green,
And strew'd the lea wi' flowers;
The furrow'd, waving corn is seen
Rejoice in fostering showers:
While ilka thing in nature join
Their sorrows to forego,
O why thus all alone are mine
The weary steps of woe?

The trout in yonder wimpling burn
That glides, a silver dart,
And safe beneath the shady thorn
Defies the angler's art --
My life was ance that careless stream,
That wanton trout was I;
But love, wi' unrelenting beam,
Has scorch'd my fountains dry.

The little flow'ret's peaceful lot,
In yonder cliff that grows,
Which, save the linnet's flight, I wot,
Nae ruder visit knows,
Was mine; till love has o'er me past,
And blighted a' my bloom,
And now beneath the with'ring blast
My youth and joy consume.

The waken'd lav'rock warbling springs,
And climbs the early sky,
Winnowing blythe her dewy wings
In morning's rosy eye:
As little reckt I sorrow's power,
Until the flowery snare
O' witching love, in luckless hour,
Made me the thrall o' care.

O had my fate been Greenland snows,
Or Afric's burning zone,
Wi' man and nature leagu'd my foes,
So Peggy ne'er I'd known!
The wretch whase doom is, "hope nae mair,"
What tongue his woes can tell!
Within whase bosom, save despair,
Nae kinder spirits dwell.

"Can you really make a living here?"

People often ask if it really is possible to make a living as an artist here in Asheville. I answer an appreciative "YES". And there are reasons for that. Asheville is unique. We have within a square mail, over 200 artists with open doors to the public. It's awesome. And because our artists association has done some really great advertising, people from all over the country come through our doors. I don't know many artists here at all that do the art show circuit. We just really don't have to. People come to us. 

So how did all this happen?

Glad you asked. According to, here's a brief history of the River Arts District: 

The French Broad River, in whose basin the River Arts District resides, is the third oldest river in the world. In 1880, when the railroad first came thru Asheville, our population was around 500 people. By 1900, Asheville boasted 10,000 residents. This boom town reality continued until 1929, when The Great Depression settled in for a long winter's nap. Asheville's River Arts District "woke up" around 1985 and has been evolving for the past 27 years. A group of dedicated artists, landowners & businesses have laid claim to a neglected area of Asheville's riverfront and are calling it home. The first arts based business to locate in what is now the River Arts District was Highwater Clays. They moved from Biltmore Village in 1985, to the current home of Gennett Lumber.
In 1987, Porge & Lewis Buck were the first artists to actually buy a building in the Asheville RAD, which they named Warehouse Studios. 
The early 1990's saw a migration of artists out of downtown into what was the Chesterfield Mill. The first Studio Stroll took place in 1994 and included such notable artists as Kevin Hogan & Cathy Triplett. In 1995, the Chesterfield Mill was consumed by fire, as was most of the old Cotton Mill. One of the remnants of the Cotton Mill was renovated into more live/work studio spaces in 1996 & in 2003, purchased by Marty & Eileen Black & renamed Cotton Mill Studios.
Flood waters are thought to bring good nutrition to the earth they inundate. The combined floodwaters of Hurricanes Francis and Ivan in 2004 had the unintended consequence of destroying the Home Cooking Cafe, which inadvertently made room for 12 Bones Smokehouse (2005). The flood waters also prompted CURVE studios & garden to focus on retail/studios in the ground floor studios... creating the model of studio/showroom that has become a viable economic development tool for the Asheville RAD.
In 2004,Asheville’s Chamber of Commerce to begin using the name "River Arts District". This began a five year branding process that has culminated in 2010 with the "River District Artists" changing their name to the "River Arts District Artists" and the new wayfinding program which incorporates numerous directional signs showing visitors how to find their way down to the River Arts District.
2010 saw an amazing influx of new buildings to the River Arts District starting with Pink Dog Creative @ 342 Depot Street. Randy Shull & Hedy Fischer's "baby" has continued a renaissance on Depot Street that was started by Ray Quate with his 2005 renovation of 352 Depot. Mountain Housing Opportunities has contributed the great vision of Cindy Week's $10 million dollar Leeds certified affordable housing project, the Glen Rock Depot. David C. Stewart & David Frechter transformed the old Southern Depot Nightclub into David C. Stewart's painting studio on the first floor and home to Nourish & Flourish, a Network Care Provider as well as Nia Movement Studio & Fresh Juice & Tea House.
In 2011, Wendy Whitson established Northlight Studios @ 357 Depot Street, providing 4 new studios & Asheville Greenworks. John & Liana Bryant renovated The Hatchery Studios at the north end of the River Arts District with 5 new studios that include a pottery co-op & the fine art studios of Kirsten Stolle & Court McCracken & Art Nurture Asheville as well as White Duck Taco Shop, brain child of Ben Mixson & Laura Reuss. Daniel McClendon has renovated 349 Depot Street into The Lift Studios, home of Daniel McClendon Fine Art.
All these new buildings are making room for some wonderful independently owned "Asheville Grown" businesses. The Wedge Brewery, founded in 2008, thanks to the vision of Tim Schaller & the late John Payne has made the River Arts District fun every night of the week. 
2012 finds some new initiatives as well as new neighbors... Blacksmith, Zack Noble now works from his new studio @ 296 Depot ... & are on line with the focus on ART region wide every 2nd Saturday... think Studio Stroll every second Saturday, all year long...
One of the little known and unsung heroes of the River Arts District is a business man named Bill Goacher. Many years back he acquired a number of properties, in what is now the ARAD, simply as a business investment. The brilliance of his vision has always been bright but his approach, very low key. Mr. Goacher rented spaces to artists, at very affordable rental rates, and when a good steward of his buildings showed interest in their purchase, he selectively said yes. The Wedge Studios, founded by John Payne in early 2001, is one of those buildings where Bill Goacher said yes. In 2012, The Wedge was sold again, this time to a consortium of 8 local guys who like to drink beer there and is transforming once again with a new restaurant track side by the owners of The Admiral fame called The Bull & Beggar. 
Perhaps the biggest news in 2012 was the announcement that New Belgium Brewery selected the old WNC Stockyard & Bell's Mini Storage sites on Craven Street, for the location of their $175 million dollar East Coast Brewery. Demolition has begun in early 2013. NBB expects to be serving beer from it "Liquid Center" in early 2015. This new manufacturer will bring over 100 new jobs & tens of thousands of visitors to the west side door of the ARAD.
As life is never static here in the ARAD, 2013 finds a number of new buildings coming on line. Tannery Studios & Switchyard Studios are now open @ 339 Old Lyman Street behind Riverview Station. Galaxy Studios has opened on the north end of the ARAD @ 161 West Haywood Road & Heather Knight of Element Clay Studios has moved over to 362 Depot Street. White Duck Taco has opened Pizza Pura @ Pink Dog Creative to go along with new galleries for William Henry Price, Studio A and The Paintbox.

And then, near the end of 2015, something magical happened...The Paintbox moved from Suite 104 in the Pink Dog Creative building and I moved in and this has been my creative home since then.  Learn more about the River Arts District.

Of Ruination and Rescue

I'm going to be rather vulnerable here. There's a big part of me that would like to create the impression that as an artist, I always know what I'm doing, but that wouldn't really be true. Most of the time, I do feel very confident with what I paint but then there are times that make me realize I have so much yet to learn. This week, I almost ruined a 4' x 5' painting. 

The oil painting in question is a very large abstract, and as I've explained in past blogs, I am never in complete control of an abstract painting. They really do have a mind of their own. Well, it turns out this painting had self-destructive tendencies I had to deal with. I had thought I was about half done with paint application and I kind of liked where it was going and was having fun working on it. Then two days ago, I was applying paint, a little here, a lot over there, more paint here, scrape off some there, and eventually I stood back and realized I'd just completely ruined the piece. So I was going to let it all dry and then re-cover it all with aluminum leaf and start all over again. 

I felt like God just before the flood, regretting even making this monstrosity. I was ready for the 40 days and 40 nights of deluge and looking forward (though rather defeated feeling) to starting over. 

That's when Joy stepped to the back of my studio and took a look at it. "Oh, that's really bad," she whispered. (She's honest like that.) And I said I was going to have to start all over. Then she suggested just wiping off all the paint I had just applied that day and then taking a look at it the next day with fresh eyes. So I did, and something really weird happened. When I wiped off the fresh paint, a little paint film still stuck to the rest of the piece; a fog of blues, greens and whites. Hmmmm. Interesting. That slight film I was unable to remove completely softened the whole thing and brought everything together. 

The next morning I came in and was not repulsed (always a good sign) and was able to completely save the piece. Whew. 

There is a lesson here I think.

How I decide what to paint...

Today is Tuesday (my day off from painting).  By the way, if you're a visitor to Asheville and roaming around the River Arts District, looking for open art studios, never fear. My studio is open and being watched by Ruth Vann, a dear friend of Joy's and mine. So as I was saying, today is my day off and I thought I would spend some time on the computer hunting for photos that inspire me (I am constantly on the look-out for a photo or an idea that would lead to a compelling oil painting).

But...what makes a "compelling" oil painting? Glad you asked, but that's a tough question to answer!  When you go to Google images for instance and type in "compelling landscape photos", you get some very nice photography. But I can literally spend an hour looking at hundreds and hundreds of beautiful photos and not one of them would make a really great oil painting. Why is that?

One sticking point that causes most photos to be disregarded is that I'm looking for a subject matter (for the most part) that is either generic or is specific to Western North Carolina. That is because I have found it difficult to sell artwork that is obviously a scene from somewhere else in the country. About three years ago, I came up with what I thought was a really great idea:  to paint the iconic scenes from around the whole country. My thought was that people come into my art studio from all over the country so...why just stick to local North Carolina landscape scenes? Well, that year I had a blast painting Mt. Rainier, Yosemite Valley, the plains of Nebraska, the coast of Maine and the bayous of Louisiana. I loved it. This country is huge and so incredibly scenic. Great idea, huh?

Well no. I still have a few of those paintings left. I learned something that year though. Most of my paintings I sell in my studio are to people visiting Asheville, and they're looking for something to take home to remind them of their time in Western North Carolina (not a lighthouse on the coast of Maine). So now, that's the first thing I look for: something specific to North Carolina mountains and woods, or something generic (mountains, trees, lakes, rivers etc. that could be anywhere).

But then the second thing I look for in a photo I use for inspiring a painting is whether or not it "draws you in". That is what I am looking for and I'm not really sure what does that. Lighting? Colors? Contrast? All the above? Something else? Basically, I want each painting to speak to the viewer : "come home". That's it. It's that simple. Come home. We strive and work and stress-out and play and vacation so that we can re-create Eden. We really do. I don't care what religion you are, I think that's what we're all doing. We long for paradise and try hard to create. I can't create paradise, but I can let the viewer look at it. And I like that. I believe that hints at hope. This very easily turns into a philosophical and spiritual conversation, and I won't do that here but...that really does explain what I'm trying to do with my artwork and what I'm inspired by.

Appalachian Trail

The Appalachian Trail is the longest "hiking only" footpath in the world, and extends from Georgia to Maine. Some of our favorite places to hike in North Carolina cross-cross the AT here and there. This painting is from one of my favorite balds near the border of Tennessee.

Living as an artist in Western North Carolina, the Appalachian Trail is never far, and is always an inspiration for my oil paintings. I simply never run out of creative fodder! In thinking about this awesome trail, and the amazing adventures found upon it, the landscapes, the trees, the rivers and the mountains, it seemed like I needed a poem to really do it justice.  (See some of my favorite hikes in the area)

Endless Ranges

The month of February I will begin

a trek through woods as wide as the seas,

from the foothills of Georgia 

to rock altars in the mountains of Maine,

a pilgrimage of whole hearted discovery.


I shall walk on this Appalachian trail,

following the blazes of white,

beneath the wide open sky,

gazing north, always north 

across wide rivers, rocky ridges, and green meadows.


Twenty-two hundred miles it is,

twenty-two hundred miles to reach the end.

From this point on I now must find the will

to go onward every day until Autumn’s chill,

with the last days my youth has left to lend me.


And in these lonely months of walking,

when I’m lost amidst fog draped mountain peaks

timeless truths I hope to find as I am quiet and just listen --

to the whisper of branches, the gurgling of the stream,

the roaring wind -- listen for The Voice. He is here.


This trail I trek not because I’m bold or brave,

but from fear of that days when I've grown old,

I will with regret, I’ll only quietly sigh

because of the unlived life that has passed me.

This is an adventure is not one I can ignore.


While I do not know if I shall succeed,

I do ask the reader -- listen!

Live your one-time Life. Really live!

And should you find your path twine across my own,

Welcome home. 

Understanding Abstract Art



Are you one of the people who "get" abstract art or do you need a little help? Well, if you need help, don't feel bad. You are not alone. I have felt your pain. Landscape painting is easy enough to understand. A large rendition of a mountain landscape can be an awesome statement piece. But not all wall art is so easy to understand is it?

So if you need help with abstracts, I'd like to share a brilliant article from the Huffington Post written by Priscilla Frank entitled:

"Your Definitive Guide To Reading A Piece Of Abstract Art"

"Abstract art can be a doozy. We’d be lying if we said we’ve never approached a daunting canvas buzzing with indiscernible colors, shapes and stripes and, on the verge of a panic attack, grasped for the nearest museum guide. It’s hard to shake the nagging desire to solve the puzzle at hand, parse through the images and figure out what it all means. But, in our hearts, we know abstract art is no Sunday morning crossword puzzle, and should not be treated as such. On that note, we’re diving in.

"Abstract art is a beast all its own, and as such requires our utmost attention, patience and imagination. “Abstraction is staggeringly radical, circumvents language, and sidesteps naming or mere description,” Jerry Saltz writes in his wonderful manifesto on abstraction. “It disenchants, re-enchants, detoxifies, destabilizes, resists closure, slows perception, and increases our grasp of the world.” And so it may, but how do we actually engage with it?

"We’re taking it slow and attempting to navigate the perilous waters of abstract art one step at a time. Consider this a beginner’s guide to a lifelong relationship between, you, art, and your spirit guide Jerry Saltz. Here are nine things to consider next time you approach a seemingly impenetrable work of abstract art.

There’s no code to crack.

"As human beings, we take pleasure in solving problems. While this is useful in many aspects of life, the realm of abstract art is not one of them. Take a deep breath and let go of the desire to align every brushstroke to a symbolic meaning, every color to an aspect of the artist’s biography. While “getting” an artwork brings a momentary feeling of victory, bathing in its mystery brings enjoyment for far longer.

Don’t look at the clock.

"How long should you take to digest and fully experience a work of art? While the average time spent in front a museum artwork is around 30 seconds, truly taking in an artwork can take years. (Remember when Saltz said abstraction slowed perception?) Kitty Scott, director of visual arts at the Banff Centre, likened learning an artist’s visual language to learning a new written one. “Over the years, you may see 20 works, and then you start to understand their language and what their subject is,“ she explained.

Don’t talk about your five-year-old.

"You know, and have likely felt the urge to recite, the old “my five-year-old could do that.” And yes, sometimes it’s hard to reckon how a white canvas can sit in the MoMA and not in the “before” pile of an artist’s studio. One artist whose work is often looped into this category of the “childhish” is Cy Twombly, whose loopy scribbles often resemble youthful nonsense. But this passage by Roland Barthes may change your mind:

“It is not childish in form, for the child applies himself, presses down, rounds off, sticks out his tongue in his efforts, the child works hard to join the code of grown-ups. [Twombly] draw away from it, loosens, lags behind, his hand seems to levitate — as if the word had been written with his fingertips, not out of disgust or boredom but out of a kind of caprice open to the memory of a defunct culture which has left no more than the trace of a few words.”

"Now, could your child do that?

Don’t think of a picture, think of a thing.

"When we look at a picture, there are certain questions that immediately come to mind. The simplest being, What is it a picture of? When you shift gears a little, you’re free to open your mind up to the many questions that could make their way into your brain. What is this thing? What is it made of? What’s its speed? Its texture? Is it peaceful or cacophonous, heavy or light, open or closed? These questions, unlike the first, have no definitive answers, but may help you locate a starting point from which to navigate the artistic world before you.

"One easy place to start is color. As Wassily Kandinsky, one of the first abstract artists, wrote: “Color is a power which directly influences the soul. 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.” Perhaps start there. What colors do you see, hear and feel?

Ditch the questions completely.

"If asking questions feels too much like a cross examination, focus on affirmative statements instead. It may sound cliche to think about how the painting makes you feel, but the sentiment isn’t actually too far off. After all, abstract artist Agnes Martin did say “Abstract art is the concrete representation of our most subtle feelings.

"In his book “Pictures and Tears“ James Elkins perused a guest book at the permanent display at the Rothko Chapel. From reading the visitor comments, one would expect the viewers had just witnessed a supernatural event or a religious epiphany rather than sat before an artwork. Comments ranged from “This makes me fall down,” to “The silence pierces deeply, to the heart. Once more I am moved — to tears.” Sometimes asking questions only proves to be a distraction.

That being said, don’t stress about getting emotional.

"We know few things are more frustrating than watching a fellow museum-goer weep uncontrollably in front of an artwork you think is just okay. You don’t have to love or even like every piece. Don’t be afraid to move on and find one that speaks to you.

Read the wall text.

"Here’s the part where you get a clue, if you’re so inclined. While the title will not, and should not, explain the piece, it could illuminate an aspect of it or an angle from which to view it you hadn’t noticed before. Let the work’s verbal and visual components bounce off each other, and harmonize. You may not get closer to understanding, you may even wind up more confused. It’s all part of the process. Also, you could wind up with an untitled piece.

"Along with the work’s title, knowing the era and geographical origin of the artwork will also help acclimate you to the atmosphere from which the piece emerged. To again quote Kandinsky, art and literature reflect “the dark picture of the present time and show the importance of what at first was only a little point of light noticed by few and for the great majority non-existent. Perhaps they even grow dark in their turn, but on the other hand they turn away from the soulless life of the present towards those substances and ideas which give free scope to the non-material strivings of the soul.”

"What would a work like this say about the world from which it came? The essence may be so radical it couldn’t yet be put into words.

Remember, some artists don’t even know, or care, what their work means.

"This is the part where you take a deep breath and fully accept the fact that you’re working outside the realm of answers and explanations. Even the artists themselves sometimes don’t dwell over why they’re making what they’re making. In a talk at MoMA, famed abstractionist Ellsworth Kelly was asked about his iconic “Chatham Series,” which dates back to 1972. “It’s hard to remember. I’m quite impressed with them now!“ He said, gesturing to the works and sighing. “But it’s always a mystery looking back.” If Ellsworth himself is content to marvel at the mystery of his own works, there’s no reason you shouldn’t be also.

Think about the fact that all art is really abstract art. And let your mind be blown.

"There’s an old art lovers’ tale about an American soldier telling Picasso his artworks aren’t close enough to life. He pulls out a photo of his fiancee and says: “This is what a picture should look like.“ Picasso, in typical Picasso fashion, responds: “Your girlfriend is rather small, isn’t she?” Point being, all art is abstracted from reality, or else museums would take up a lot more space.

"Whether this assuages your anxiety or throws you into a downward spiral of panic is up to you. To again quote Jerry’s infinite wisdom: “Abstraction is as old as we are. It has existed for millennia outside the West. It is present on cave walls, in Egyptian and Cypriot Greek art, Chinese scholar rocks, all Islamic and Jewish art — both of which forbid representation. Abstraction is only new in the West.” Abstraction was around way before your pretentious art school friend showed you his dot experiments and expected you to be impressed.

"This is where our brief foray into the wonders of abstraction comes to a close. While this short list may not help you understand your next trip to your local modern art museum, it may alleviate some of the pressure to understand it in the first place.