By the above, I mean profit creatively, not financially. One reason to keep old work around is that it not only gives you benchmarks for where you’ve been, it also informs your present work. Sometimes it’s inspiration, a kind of creation recycling that sparks new ideas from old. Some of the time, it steers you away from habitual mistakes. These things are worth experiencing and knowing.
Sketchbooks are the main thing artists keep. But as much as you have room for isn’t a bad thing to hang onto. Dominic Cretara, my main life painting professor, used to say we shouldn’t throw out anything for at least three years. By that time, you’ve progressed—if you’ve kept working, of course—and gained perspective and new skill.
Don’t look too soon at the bottom of the pile, but do look.
It’s understandable the school would have a hard time after two major fires. But students taking control of their education is a good thing, too. While whether to go to art school at all is a personal decision that needs weighing and specific goals to make the most of, students still guide a lot of their path themselves, and a say in the programs is vital, as are realistic promises from institutions.
When you make art isn’t as important as the fact that you do it. And, if you aren’t doing things, you slip past being an artist. We only exist in the moment, so what we do is—in a metaphorical but existential way—what we are.
Of course, I can’t just make art in the eternal now. I have to feed and wash myself. I have to feed the cat. I have to go to the job. But as cool as it is to have made stuff, it’s the momentum that keeps me going the longest. My title doesn’t mean much if I’m not doing what I call myself.
We’re all stuck with time. Like relatives, it’s just there, and you don’t have a tremendous amount of say in how much you get. You choose your work as you choose your friends, what you do, how much you make.
These abstract labels are good for stepping up, for declaring oneself in the game. You can’t wait for someone to anoint you into the club. But it’s the down and dirty of what you chose to do today, or are doing right now that feeds your craft, your sense of self, and your mental health.
We’ve got a friend visiting who owns a car. My lack of knowledge about how to navigate parking downtown, where we live, including meter boundaries and cost are practically nil. In less than a year since moving, and giving up my car, I’ve remained virtually locked into public transit and walking.
I felt helpless to answer questions and solve problems. “Just keep driving around” was almost wholly inadequate. It strikes me that humans—for all we talk about history repeating and not learning lessons—are still eminently adaptable. Circumstances around us may change, but most of us can melt into the new mold quickly.
When I think about new directions to take my work, new media to explore, and new situations that restrict what I might do, I don’t keep this in mind. I get frustrated trying to recreate circumstances and methods of the past. While that can sometimes work for a lifetime (Turner), it might not be possible for some (Stella), and I could be doing myself a disservice, wasting energy needlessly.
Maybe just melt into the new mold first and the rest takes care of itself.
For a huge portion of those online—and in my experience, many outside of it—the notion of getting together to do something is often usurped by claims of being too busy. And far be it from me to call out anyone using that as an excuse for not exposing one’s social anxiety to crowds. That’s valid, and I do that.
Having kids used to be a reason people gave for not being able to do things beyond basic work and home activities. But fewer people (at least in the West) are having kids, and even endless new tools of tech simplifying creativity seemingly aren’t enough. Many of us are feeling overwhelmed. A never-ending string of stuff we gotta do is hovering over us at all times, demanding we pay attention.
Have we agreed to do too much? Or are we just indulging the feeling? The world expects more from artists, from a robust social media presence to constantly evolving work. Or at least constant churning.
I’m trying to give myself permission to step aside, now and then. To let the stream scroll on when I’m searching for something new to say. It’s all right to be quiet and watch, the world will always be moving.
If it’s never too late to start, it’s never too late to restart.
There are times when I don’t feel like working, and times when I don’t feel like what I make is working. It’s important to remember that you aren’t necessarily the best judge of what’s “good” in your work while you’re making it. Often it takes time to be objective. We can’t often see clearly right away. We can be too attached or too dismissive.
Your scintillating prose, deft brushwork, catchy melody can look amazing or awful in the moment, and the opposite later. Or vice versa: things you thought were coming out so-so can be brilliant on re-examination.
What matters is doing things, creating art, on a regular, or better yet, daily basis. Once you have a pile of things is when you can be judgy. Don’t bother as you make it up.
Somebody linked Holly Herndon’s Godmother on Twitter months ago, and I was an instant convert, sorry that I hadn’t found her before. Herndon recently finished her music PhD, and her sound is a kind of amalgam of vaguely recognizable traditional cultural forms of uncertain origin. It sounds weirdly familiar, but I can’t place specific influences.
There’s an emphasis on rhythm and voice. Herndon and her collaborators pile vocal tracks atop one another in a dizzying stack, though production remains remarkably unmuddied.
There’s also something disturbing, unnerving about both songs and video. Herndon uses programmed manipulation to chop up lines, in some cases letting a trained AI feed impressions back into songs. It’s all heady and fresh, and I’m very on board.
I recently latched onto an old memory of the band Brand X. Phil Collins was the drummer and co-founder of this jazz-rock fusion outfit, and his prodigious skill is on full display. He grooves, hammers, drills, and shreds in ways that would surprise most people who were only familiar with later work in Genesis and his solo career.
This is a valuable gem of the arts. A person whose most popular work is fairly straightforward, hiding the mastery of their craft. Discovering this phenomenon the first time is revelatory. We are astonished, perhaps, but tickled and abloom with joy to see someone really put their abilities through their paces.
But going back later can be unexpectedly delightful. It’s still a wonder, but now we have some familiarity with the work and can anticipate and appreciate nuance. When we find out a minimalist has painted intricate landscapes, or a detailed portrait artist makes enormous abstract sculptures, it’s like a twist ending. But introducing someone else to the lesser known bits or looking up the old piece is rewarding in a different way. It’s like your favorite grandparent’s story, that you revel in even when told it for the tenth time. Rediscovered surprise.
For a while, now, it’s become clear that what used to be obvious documentation of events is approaching a cliff. The edge is believability, and we’re all clustered at the precipice, some have fallen off, some are looking at the chasm. “It’s Photoshopped” was the death knell of images as proof of things. Soon, it’ll be video as well.
For smug tech nerds like me who believed we could spot fakes at least relatively quickly, it’s about time to wipe the smirks off. As the above video demonstrates, we are very close to being able—and by “we” I mean random people with easily downloaded apps and some time on their hands—to present any number of people in just about any real world situation. Fakes are becoming indistinguishable from reals.
The philosophical implications are big. It’s going to be a struggle to vet sources and establish trust. For art, this is a massive gate to new worlds opening up, but I think the sociological implications need to be acknowledged. In fact, this is something art can expose and illuminate very well.
Broken record time: when I feel like I’m not getting enough done, I sometimes slow down even further. I break ideas into smaller chunks to deal with. This is a way of doing something daily but still contributing to a big project.
One ant can’t haul much or dig a deep tunnel alone. Ten thousand ants can do huge jobs in hours. Ten thousand marks or paint strokes is an entire piece. It looks the same when it’s finished.
About the Author
Marcus is a maker of things and thoughts. He currently resides in Portland, Oregon.