Sunday, July 23, 2006

The Value of Art

In our American culture when schools are suffering economic hardship the arts are the first programs to be cut. Why? Obviously, society sees the arts as having little value. Is this really true or are our leaders and politicians mistaken? I believe they are wrong but go figure, I’m an artist, and what am I going to think?

In reality, I have seen many articles over the last couple of decades that speak to the importance of having the arts as part of the core curriculum. Studies have shown that when music and art are included, math and science scores go up. . Years ago, elementary school teachers found that if they softly played Mozart in the background, students learned arithmetic more quickly and retained what they learned. What was it about art and music that caused this to happen?

We know that the two halves of the brain have different functions. The left side is the logical side and this controls math, science, and language. The right side is the intuitive side. This is where art and music like to hang out. The left side is the dominant side and just can’t stand not being in control. When I teach drawing, I give students exercises that help them to turn off the left side of the brain. Actually it teaches them how to frustrate the left side and cause it to give up control to the right side. What is happening in the brain is more important than just the fluff stuff that most people see as being art. The person moves closer to being a whole brain thinker and effectively using more of the brain. The brain becomes more creative in solving problems. When Albert Einstein would be having difficulty with an equation, he would sit in a corner and play his violin. In the darkest days of WWII, Sir Winston Churchill would sit out in his garden and paint landscapes.

Our earliest ancestors, while still living in caves, made art well before they developed a written language. Even today children with learning disabilities, such as dyslexia, are taught rhythm, movement, and song to help them to learn and understand. Children are still taught the alphabet by learning a song, the infamous alphabet song. Rituals and story telling were used for millenniums to help cultures to learn and understand their histories. Yet today, our culture persists in devaluing the arts, unless of course you are a rich and famous artist, musician, actor, or whatever. As the old saying goes, “Money talks and bullshit walks.” So does art really talk?

Years ago I gave a series of talks to civic organizations on the value of art the need for the community to foster the growth of the arts. I approached it from an economic point of view. One of my favorite examples was the difference between East and West Berlin (if you are post Reagan-Gorbechev you may not remember this). East Berlin was very oppressive to the arts (art, music, literature, theater, etc.) and the city was very gray and lifeless. It struggled economically. On just the other side of the Berlin Wall, West Berlin encouraged and embraced the arts. The city was colorful and alive and the citizens of the city embraced creativity. The result was a city that was innovative and had a healthy and robust economy. What causes this difference?

What happens is something that is very dangerous and it causes world governments to shake and tremble with fear. The arts encourage people to see things in new and different ways. People and things are no longer taken for granted. New possibilities arise. In other words, people learn how to think not what to think. Knowing how to think (and solve problems) gives true power to every person. Thomas Jefferson once said that an educated population could govern itself.

An accidental footnote. My van has been sold as scrap, it was beyond repair. The young man who caused the accident ran the stop sign because he was playing with his iPod. After a few days of ranting and raving, I have gone through my grieving process and moved on. I survived a deadly crash and did not even have a scratch on me. Amazingly I did not have a single bruise nor even suffer a stiff or sore muscle. My life has been changed by not having a vehicle but change is a good thing.

The above painting is an oil pastel on sealed and primed Strathmore paper. The title is “Stream Through The Tall Grasses Version 03”. It measures 14.625” X 10.25” and was completed in 2005.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Accidental Circumstances

I remember once reading that Leonardo DaVinci commented that the most interesting paintings occurred where people spit. He was talking about the public fountains where people would stop for a drink of water and rinse out their mouths spitting it out on the fountain wall. The random shapes and stains intrigued Leonardo and he would see many things in them. I have also read about artists that would pore, splatter, and drip paint onto their canvas and let it dry. They would then stare at the surface until some shape made them think of an image and the direction of the painting would be determined. But what about working in a deliberate manner and then some accidental slip up occurs and the result is a remarkable effect.

Many times I have had this accidental slip up give me some great results. I would worry, though, if this were a legitimate element of my painting. After all I didn’t deliberately intend to create that effect, shape, form, or whatever. How much could I take credit for that? How long was I going to have to wait until another wonderful accident occurred that I could exploit and claim as my own? I thought that this was a dumb thing to think about. Years later, during a workshop I was doing, I had a student show me one of her mistakes and she wanted to know if it was okay to keep it in the painting. More importantly, she wanted to know how to do it again.

Do my accidents and mistakes happen because I am just going along on automatic pilot? Do I really pay attention to my accidental happenings? Do I really learn from them or even want to learn from them? I started paying more attention to them and learned more than I expected. Because of this attention, I have discovered wonderful colors and color combinations that I otherwise would never have known about. I discovered bits and pieces of things that could be elaborated on to get wonderful effects. Most importantly, I learned how to create them over and over again.

One of the things that I now tell others is that art does not happen by accident. It may have its roots or beginnings in accidental situations but then the artist needs to take that and work it until it has taken a shape and form of its own. I tell students that they must pay attention to their mistakes and be able to create them again. That if they make something accidentally and cannot recreate it then it is not art. Art happens on purpose, it is deliberate. The artist has learned how to use the tools and materials and from them create something new.

One of my views of being an artist is that I stand in the middle of chaos, watching and waiting. Occasionally I reach out and grab a piece of chaos. I look at it and study it. Maybe it is complete in itself, maybe it is not. I reach out and grab a second piece, a third, and maybe even more. Eventually I work to assemble these pieces into something new and whole. To bring order out of the chaos.

So why am I thinking about all this accidental chaos? Tuesday afternoon, on my way home, another driver, who was not paying attention, was speeding and ran a stop sign. Being an old fart I tend to drive more cautiously. I caught a glimpse of him out of the corner of my eye and my parental instincts kicked in. I had just a moment to slam on my brakes and to try to swerve my van. I was partially successful. Both vehicles were totaled. I was later told what I did saved his life. If I had hit him straight on at the speed I was going (50 mph) my large commercial van would’ve torn through the car’s cabin and crushed his head. I also would’ve been severely injured or killed. I still get nauseas when I think about it.

This accident now sets me on a different path. I no longer have a vehicle and we cannot afford to replace it right now. Plans that were made for the next month or two now need to be rethought and reconsidered. However, it has not changed my priorities. I got to come home to my priorities, my wife, children, grandson, cats and dogs, and all things living. I guess it must be time for a new adventure.

The above painting is titled “A Solitary Cypress”. It measures 23“ X 17.5“ and is oil on a hardwood panel and was completed in May 2006. The van to the right is titled a total wreck. It is my 1999 GMC Savannah 3500 diesel that was wrecked in the accident.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Just Perfect

Back when I was a student I had a drawing instructor who gave us a very unique assignment at the end of the semester. We were told to do our very best drawing. We were also told to do the very best presentation that we could (mat, frame, etc.). For the final class we were going to meet out at the beach, build a bonfire, have food and drink, and have a critique. Cheap wine has a way of making critiques less intimidating. After all was said and done, the instructor told us to toss our drawings into the bonfire.

Of course this horrified most of the students. He finally told us that the point he was trying to make was that no matter how good we thought we were, how perfect we thought the drawing was, as students we still had a long way to go. If we couldn’t let go of what we thought was some of our best work then we really wouldn’t be able to grow and move ahead. I was one of a handful of students who tossed our work into the fire and I have never forgotten that lesson.

So, is there any such a thing as a perfect work of art? Is there any such a thing as perfection? What is the definition of perfection? I’m sure that this varies from person to person. One of the best definitions that I’ve heard was by one of my favorite writers, Thomas Merton. Merton was both a writer and a Trappist monk. I was listening to some audiotapes that were made when he was teaching classes for the novice monks and the subject of perfection came up. In the Judeo-Christian bible, Merton pointed out, the author of the book of Genesis tells us that God calls to Abraham and says, “Come walk with me and be perfect.” Using the act of walking as a metaphor for perfection. What an interesting idea.

What is walking? It is purposely throwing myself off balance and when I start to fall forward I stop myself and balance again. I do this over and over and it moves me forward. This metaphor of walking tells me that perfection is about being off balance repeatedly and constantly moving forward. Perfection is not static; it is not a goal that can be achieved. Rather it is an act of doing, it is active not passive.

So much of this is true for being an artist. As an artist I want and need to keep pushing myself. I need to keep going forward. For anything to truly be alive, it needs to keep growing and changing. All living things need to keep evolving otherwise they just become some dusty museum piece. And with this evolving comes change and new ways of seeing the world around me, to have new ways of understanding. Of course, this means that I must develop new ways to respond. Life is not static or predictable, it is always moving and changing and more frequently than not this is a messy process. As I move forward old ways and definitions no longer apply. I need to reinterpret my world. Answers that were once safe and used to work are now irrelevant. There is no safety net. I may fail miserably or I may have fantastic success. Either way is fine because it is about the process and the process gives life. As I move forward in life I approach perfection. As I approach perfection I approach truth, and as I approach truth I approach God.

The above painting is titled "Orchard Trees In A Row" and was completed yesterday. It measures 15" X 18.75". This piece is done on sealed and primed paper. It was blocked in using oil paint and overlayed with oil pastels.