Art That Makes Your Heart Sing

There is a diverse group of paintings, sculptures and mixed media pieces that evoke in me a strong feeling of love. The response is not the same for each piece, but it is always love in some form, or a mixture of love, awe and desire. I've created some categories that describe the variety of my amorous responses. 

Not long ago, a study at the University of London, conducted by Professor Semir Zeki, scanned the brains of volunteers while they viewed 28 works of art. Zeki explained, “We wanted to see what happens in the brain when you look at beautiful paintings.” The experiment concluded when you look at art “whether it is a landscape, a still life, an abstract or a portrait—there is strong activity in that part of the brain related to pleasure.”  When viewing art they considered most profound, their blood flow increased in a certain part of the brain by as much as 10%, which is the equivalent to gazing at a loved one.

A Sense of Place

Sense of place refers to the emotive bonds and attachments we develop or experience in particular locations. It is the experiential and expressive ways that places are known, imagined and yearned for.

This is any imagery that you recognize or relate to as the place you call home. When I first saw the painting below I could smell the air, feel this day. I know how the snow falls on the mountains, in some places white, while other bands are left brown. The farther ones, another hue altogether. Perhaps I've driven on this very road. I know that special light that reflects blue off of white. Besides the deep recognition, there was also a sense of harmony. My response was unexpected, but it was so visceral, so true, that this painting now hangs in my kitchen. It brings me joy everyday. 


 Nancy Campbell, Blue Mountain, oil on canvas

What if your sense of home was the in-between? Your person-place connection does not have to be traditional, or easily recognizable imagery. It just has to trigger your emotional connection to home through angles, light, reflections, saturated color, surfaces, and shapes. A less predictable image is "Ferry", a photograph by Chris Schiavo, from the series "The Passenger". 

The picture is almost divided in half. A a sharp angle cuts in on the right and a softer rounded shape in the center serves as a frame and a window, orienting our position on the boat. Saturated industrial orange pops forward. The geometry of rigid shapes and mechanics create a hard-edged composition, beautifully abstracted down to its essential elements. Here, the reflected light infuses the mundane into a magical experience. Maybe home is the shared experience of watching the New York City skyline open up with new possibilities everyday. Maybe home is being part of a whole.


Chris Schiavo, Ferry

I need to paint NOW

Soutine has always been a favorite. As one critic stated "He painted to the brink of formlessness, as anything in art to this day: tornadoes of pigment, which are beloved by every painter I’ve ever talked with about them."

I've always thought the best response we can have as painters to a painting is the immediate need to get to our studios and put paint to canvas. The reflexive instinct to express ourselves through our materials with fervor. 

I saw the painting "Two Pheasants on a Table" (1926) some years ago at the Kasmin Gallery in New York City.  Here the birds float freely in the center of the painting, seemingly without gravity or three-dimensional space. At first heartbeat, it was the paint application, secondly, the strange composition and only in the third breathe, these fleshy, just dead birds. Attraction and revulsion perhaps, but more overwhelmingly, the feeling that I was observing an other-worldly beauty. This image stayed with me.

And so, years later, when I was making the painting below, I was not, at first, thinking of Soutine. But as the painting progressed, I had a clear sensory memory of "Two Pheasants". Primarily the awkward composition. The detailed forms, in an enclosed space, that was floating on a ground, that was hardly tethered to an edge. I did not search out the image until I had finished my painting. I kept it only as a memory in my minds eye. I didn't want to see it or copy it. I wanted only to glean the space, paint, and other worldly forms, that was enough. 

Left: Chaim Soutine, Two Pheasants on a Table, oil on canvas, 1926

Right: Jenny Nelson, Memory Soutine, 54"x60", oil on linen, 2022



The excitement in seeing how someone's else's mind works, or more honestly, "jealous in love".

My inner dialogue most times I see these shaped paper works by Vincent Hawkins, goes something like this: Oh my god, I love this so much. I want to make something like this. Why don't I make things like this? This is just so "explicitive" good. The materials, directionality, neutral colors, the texture and fragility. Damn, it's near perfect.

I have so many questions. Why make this seemingly temporary object? Is it an elaborate thought process, a way of thinking things through? An extension of the 2-dimensional work? It has the same sensibility, but the shapes jumped the canvas. It's brilliant. I am curious how these materials are generated. What is the studio space like? Is it piled high with all these scraps, and then somehow, playfully, the scraps are reconfigured into this sophisticated bit of irregular beauty? Where does it go from here? Do you take it apart then and it just disappears, back into the pile? It seems full of the joy of making, a puzzle, easily taken apart and put back together. Perhaps the materials were there, and one day a triangle got taped to the wall and it all took off!

I climb up it like a sail on a boat. This one-of-a kind object exudes ease and experimentation without hesitation. Perhaps it's asking and answering an urgent visual question. An inquiry outside of painting, but related to the painting. I wonder what my language would be if I attempted this kind of object? My brain goes on in a scramble, darting back and forth between love and jealously. It's hilarious. In the end I'm just enlivened by the whole thing. It jolts my heart open like good art should! 


 Vincent Hawkins, wall construction

Stunning Simplicity

Andrew Wyeth, The Helga paintings. These quick gauche sketches have always mesmerized me. When I show them in class to my students, they are an example of a limited palette, drawing in painting, contrast, simplicity and abstraction. I always show them right side up and then, upside down. To create this kind of powerful simplicity the artist has to have drawn/painted his subject hundreds and hundreds of times. The sketches demonstrate a deep knowledge of materials and also restraint. A searching with no end. The insight to stop when the image is just enough. These I feel in the center of my chest. 


Andrew Wyeth 


We all have a unique color sense, a palette that seems to speak directly to us. Color can draw emotion, feelings, and memories instantaneously. It is a powerful tool that can cause positive or negative responses, all dependent on whether the colors chosen work harmoniously together or taunt each other across a canvas. 

Color alone can create an entire language within our compositions. 

When we are painting, one color abutting another could set off a fountain of potential relationships. The excitement is palpable, or the possibilities overwhelming. I will often have an emotional response to color when I am washing my brushes, or cleaning off my palette, in unexpected a-ha. moments. It's mysterious, and a changeling. We know the same color can appear differently depending on its neighbor or positioning. For this reason, developing an eye for color relationships and value relationships can occupy us for a lifetime.  

When I think about art that makes your heart sing, I can think of nothing more immediate than color. I find myself attracted to washed out, muddy neutrals. It's a palette I don't often achieve in my own work. I envy the expert use of magnificent mud in master works. Those paintings where I can see that colors have mixed spontaneously and produced unexpectedly beautiful, nuanced neutrals. Rich browns and dirty pinks make me yearn to expand my sensibilities. 


 Diebenkorn, Berkeley 46, oil on canvas 58 7/8 x 61 7/8", 1955


Janice Nowinski Turkish Pot, oil on linen, 24x18 


And then there is just the pure joy of color next to color next to color. 


 Matisse, Branch of Flowers, 1906 

A Time Period


Chalk drawing, Jacopo Carucci, called Pontormo (1494-1556) 

Rendering, City of Florence 1500's


As a college student in France, on my way home from a semester abroad, I had absolutely no room or funds to buy trinkets. Nothing extraneous was going to fit in my travel backpack. Until, I found the big gorgeous book of drawings by Pontormo. It weighed me down and I was overjoyed to feel it secured, heavy on my back for weeks before my flight home. It was my Paris prize. 

I have loved these red, overlapped, crosshatched, lively figures of Pontormo's from the moment I was introduced to them. The long strange fingers and hands, the darting deep set eyes. The figures sometimes drawn with ambiguous perspective, constantly moving or floating. At the time, I did not know that his work was a profound stylistic shift from other artists during that period. And yet, in my heart, I was making a connection. The drawings felt relatable and modern, but also contained the primitive alphabet we all begin with. On yellowed paper, almost disintegrating, and ancient red chalk coupled with something that was still very much alive. 

I'm a believer in drawing. I love the concept of working a thing out, working through thoughts and ideas without having to resolve anything. I love the open-ended questions that build to an idea. The immediacy of exploring and inventing a language of dots, dashes and smudges; marks too numerous to name. I certainly had an emotional response to the jagged lines, versus curved lines, short to long, dark to light that Pontormo was showing me. 


Two Studies of Male Figures, by Pontormo

Chalk on paper, 25x15, 1524


 Jenny Nelson, A drawing from my Renaissance figure drawing class at Bard College 


Life Force Energy

A work that is resoundingly alive! A reminder that the open-minded energy that begins a work should remain as we move through the process of problem solving, even if it has to be reintroduced at different times. In Tara's drawings, I'm in love with the spontaneity and immediacy, abutted by moments of conscious decision-making. They are raw and don't try to be pretty. The variety of mark-making with a few singular tools is breathtaking. We stop and go, follow bumpy trails, hang off soft edges, and then find her fingerprints. The artists' hand, the hand that sees, creates a wild thing, full of vitality.

 Tara Geer, The Winged Super Soaker, 22"x30", charcoal on paper


In 2019 I had the pleasure of visiting Paris for a second time. At the Musee d'Orsay, I had a "falling in love" experience with a painting by Manet titled, Woman With Fans (1873). The museum space itself made me euphoric, but the vast number of paintings and sculpture was completely overwhelming. And then I saw the Manet. Suddenly it seemed as if I had come all this way just to see this painting. My weariness lifted and instead, I was clear and alert. I fell into the painting and was transported. 

Manet, Woman with Fans 

Tiny specs of gold detailed the pattern on her clothing and became flecks of light. A variety of soft whites and greys were pulled in different directions. It was all alive for me. I could feel the brush transmuting and translating these details. It was so fresh it seemed as if it had just been painted yesterday. I could feel Manet looking at his subject. And this looking was beyond what was there—it was not what was there directly, but a collection of kinetic lights, darks, marks, and jabs of color, which then loosely came to together to create form. This moment was an exquisite abstract painting in and of itself.

Detail of the painting above


Through a process known as embodied cognition, we can place ourselves into a work of art. When this occurs, mirror neurons in our brain turn things like action, movement, and energy into actual emotions we can feel. Embodied cognition begins when you look at a piece of art. As you analyze the piece, and place yourself within the work, you can actually start to feel the qualities of the work awaken within you. You might even fall in love. 

What are the paintings that make your heart sing? 


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