Sunday, August 27, 2006

Called to be an artist

Is being an artist something that one chooses to do or is a person more specifically called to be an artist? For many artists that I know, as well as for myself, it was a call, a vocation, and an avocation. For many of us there really was no choice. Nothing else was going to make us feel complete or whole. It’s not to say I didn’t consider other careers. I did but I kept coming back to art.

When my oldest daughter was first going off to college, she declared that she was going to be an art major. People that we know thought that it was wonderful that she was creative and was going to follow in my footsteps. I was filled with a sense of dread. To be an artist means to embrace a wonderful madness but it is still madness. When I embarked upon this path I knew what I was getting into but I was not convinced that my daughter knew what was ahead. I told her that she needed to take a long hard look at my life because that was the best that it was going to be for her. Artistic creativity is a wonderful thing but it can be a terrible burden.

On the surface most people see being an artist as a life that is fun and filled with play and creative exploration. They do not realize the endless hours of disciple that go into being an artist. Art does not happen by accident, it happens on purpose. The artist controls the medium, not the other way around. It is only by continual practice that the artist is able to make the medium yield the best that it has to offer. It is only through endless hours of practice of color theory, form and composition, and any and all mechanical skills. Without this solid foundation the artist will never be free to express the creative ideas and thoughts. When I teach drawing and painting, I tell students that I can teach them how to draw or paint, that I can teach them the mechanics. I also tell them that I cannot teach them how to be an artist. That is something that they must learn on their own and that it must come from an inner desire. What else will keep the artist going?

I think of the musician who spends countless hours practicing the scales. Rehearsing a specific part until playing it becomes second nature. The dancer spending hour upon hour putting the body through stressful physical exercise learning the steps. So the dance can look effortless and graceful. The painter alone in the studio carefully putting paint on the canvas. Placing each color and stroke just so in order to make it look easy and effortless. Each of these artists working hard to gain a little notoriety just so that they can afford to do what they love, what they are called to be. Most of these artists will spend their lives in obscurity. They will work mundane jobs just so they can afford to practice their art. After a number of years, many will just abandon their art. Working a job and taking care of a family will consume all of their energy and time. Others may go into art related businesses. They will find that all of their creative energies were used up on the job.

I knew this when I started on the path to being an artist. I knew that I most likely would not earn my living from it. I knew that I would work all day so that I could paint at night. The image, the illusion of the life of an artist is romantic and colorful, the reality is quite another thing. I knew going in that it was a madness. I still don’t know why I did it. I have no logical reason. Who in their right mind would chose such an existence? Yet, I won’t give it up. I will keep plodding along as I have for decades now doing what I love, what I feel drawn to do. To stop making art, to stop being creative makes even less sense and is an even greater madness than continuing. Maybe that craziness is the real gift that artists bring to the world. Maybe not everything needs to be practical or profitable. Maybe it is a little bit of craziness that keeps us all sane.

These 2 paintings are oil on prepared paper. They are both untitled and were both completed in 2006. The landscape measures 21.75” X 15” and the nude measures 20” X 15“. If you would care to title them let me know.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Creative or Coercive

Some years back the news was filled with stories of all the flooding that was going on along the Mississippi River. Many people lost their lives and others suffered great property damage. The floodwaters came in and, for many people, washed away the work of a lifetime. This all happened because the Mississippi River was forced to be something other than what it is, a flood plain. The river has a natural ebb and flow that is, in a sense, its life. When the engineers came in and sought to change and control the river, to coerce it into following a path other than its own, it changed everything. Why was this done? Was it possibly because the engineers wanted the river to always remain the same, to never change? The life of the river, or anything else for that matter, is to constantly change and grow. Without change and growth, there is no real life.

So, what does this have to do about art? Well, everything. To make art is to be creative and creativity involves change and growth. Creativity is about constantly seeking out new and different ways to make art, or anything for that matter. It is about looking at what I have done and to see what works and what doesn’t work. It is about looking at what I have painted and listening for it to tell me where it needs to go next. Whenever I try to force the painting, to coerce it into being something that it is not then it begins to fall apart and I end up failing miserably (is there a good way to fail?). When I am attentive to the painting, to the creative process, then there is a flow that almost seems to happen in spite of me. The painting begins to take on a life of its own and I get to enjoy being part of this, of being part of the process.

I am mentioning all of this because over coffee, a theologian friend and myself were discussing the relationship between God and making art. Many years ago, another theologian friend once commented that we are all meant to be creative. We were created in God’s image. Since God is creative, so are we. It made sense to me then and it still does today. For me, God is creative. God is ever changing, and moving, and growing.

When I paint, it doesn’t really matter to me the exact point on the surface that I start with or the color I may begin using because everything is going to change and grow from that beginning point. I need to pay attention to the painting and make everything work in relationship to everything else. I need to take the time and see what is working and what is not working. If any shape, color, or form is not working then I have to learn from it and go back and change it. I need to learn from my mistakes, to accept them, learn from them, change the way I am approaching it, and move on from there.

I see God in the same light. God is not static or immovable and all knowing. For me, the God of the universe is ever expanding, constantly learning and growing, and always experimenting to discover what works and what does not work. Like painting, God is in a trial and error process always moving and changing in order to keep growing and moving forward. To be open to new ideas and always be willing to try them and to learn from them.

Both of the above paintings are part of my creative search to find what does or does not work. They are both untitled and are oil on paper. They both measure 14” X 21.75” and were created in 2006.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Nothing sees more carefully than a downcast eye

Nothing sees more carefully than a downcast eye. These words come from the novel, LES MISERABLES by Victor Hugo. In the novel, the hero, who is a good person, becomes an outcast running from the law. Because of the circumstances that life has presented him with, he sees the world around him in a different way. He notices things that others are unaware of simply because these things are so mundane and seem so unimportant. It is these mundane and seemingly unimportant things that have the most to teach. Great lessons seem to come from simple everyday tasks and objects when I am willing to see them. There are two blogs that I read where these individuals are willing to see them; Rebel Belle (a.k.a. Nancy Baker) in her postings on the Tire Shop and Lori Witzel, with her good eye in her postings on Chatoyance. Now, on with my story.

When I was a young man I was in a hurry to get to where I wanted to be that I was rushing through my life. The journey did not seem so important. Achieving the goal that is what was important. And just what was this all-important goal? Why it was to become a recognized artist, an important and influential artist. Thirty plus years ago this seemed like a pretty lofty goal, now it just seems like vanity. Life had other things in store for me and I was going to learn from it all whether I wanted to or not.

Getting married and starting a family has been one of the best educational experiences of my life. It not only altered the way that I saw things but also the way that I did things. I had been used to living in raw industrial loft spaces making large abstract paintings, most of my income going to pay for my art habit. With family there were new demands on time and finances. Rather than buying paint or going out socializing, money was going to diapers, formula, and anything else the baby needed. Time that I would’ve spent painting was now spent taking care of the baby while my wife was at work. When my wife came home we would take the baby and the dog out for walks to the park then home to prepare dinner and take care of whatever needed to be done. At that time I was working as a carpenter so when everything was done I was tired and all I wanted to do was to take a hot shower, drink a cold beer, and go to sleep. There was very little time for making art.

My creative needs were somewhat satisfied by being a carpenter. I got to work with my hands, make things, and do some creative thinking along the way. Still, this was not enough. Going through art history books at the library only frustrated me since it reminded me of what I could not do. When I lived in NYC, I used to whine about the things that I could not do because of lack of money and space. My girlfriend at that time finally got fed up and yelled at me to do what I could instead of complaining about what I could not do. I am thankful to her for that.

Because of that memory, I started to pay more attention to my surroundings on the walks that my wife and I took with our daughter and our dog. I stopped seeing streets, buildings, and objects and started to see colors, textures, and patterns. I began to take my camera with me on our outings. My wife would have a bemused expression when I would focus in on the peeling paint of playground equipment or the patterns of the bark on the trees that we passed along they way. She never understood what I was doing until she saw the processed images. When she saw the finished photo in the mat then she could see that it was like my paintings. My paintings still incorporate these mundane and everyday images.

These two photos are from those walks back in the summer of 1982. They are macro images of the ever-changing patterns that appear in the bark of the eucalyptus trees that grow in the San Francisco Bay Area. Also, Mea Culpa for taking so long to make a new post.The heat wave that has been working its way west from CA has us Mid-westerners in its grip this last week and exhausted me.