I was reading a piece about a book I read ages ago, Dahlgren by Samuel R. Delany. It, like many works of literature, is a difficult book to read and to understand. Mostly, I interpreted it, because there was plenty I didn’t understand. The timeline is weird and almost mazelike. I wasn’t sure where the beginning really was. And that’s all by Delaney’s design for a post-apocalyptic world that’s lost its sense of history and progress and perspective.
I always think of Rothko when I consider tough or obscure art. Seeing that painting up there may make you think “ooh, that’s nice,” or “what a simple piece of junk,” but we aren’t really experiencing it the way it was meant to be seen.
Literature that’s difficult, like Joyce or Wallace or Woolf, challenges readers. The struggle to get through it, or to figure out what’s going on, or to understand what it means gives us a prize of accomplishing those things. The view from the mountain.
But we usually have to chuck a preconception or two out the window. Like Rothko’s paintings. They’re meant to be seen in person. They’re beautiful—to many—in photos. But they’re huge in reality. The one above is nearly 9 feet square. But you meet it head on in museums lucky enough to have one. If they understand it, too, it’ll be hung so near enough to the floor that you can get it to fill your entire field of vision. And then you feel your soul filling up, as well.
I’m not sure what it is about the weight of the day bearing down on the lowest part of us says about how we make art. But it is a near universal phenomenon that conveys how exhausted we feel after many hours of any task.
We feel gravity most through our lower appendages. But we don’t often look down at or beside them, as a general rule. And checking out the places we walk can be extraordinarily revealing about the world nearby. The seasonal patterns of leaves and dust and water shift over the course of a year, with the refuse and discarded bits of consumption. There are lost pieces of apparel, and plants forcing their way up through the smallest of cracks in what we thought were impenetrable surfaces.
Maybe keep a closer eye on those feet as they carry the weight of all your efforts. There’s fodder for more work down there.
There are two pieces of media I think about when I ponder city life. there’s Rush’s “The Camera Eye,” where Neil Peart writes about how there’s
… a quality of light unique to every city’s streets
and this is strangely true, and clearer the more I’ve traveled. Each city has a familiar rhythm and skeleton, but the light and the way it falls on everything is its own.
The other is Sesame Street. No place I’ve ever lived has generated as many parallel thoughts and connections to it as Portland, but there have always been some connections in every city I’ve called home.
The connections circle back to art and creation. We find inspiration in the work of others now more than ever, because of social media and the Internet itself. But there’s endless possibility right there on my street, in the ordinary stuff I encounter every day. The people, animals, vehicles, trees, buildings, sky, shadows. It’s easy to get overly familiar. But around the corner is some Snuffleupagus or Oscar the Grouch, a big, chunky letter A, that I haven’t really looked at before to see what makes it worthy of attention.
It’s not the easiest thing, these days. Most of our attention—most of us, most of the time—is pulled a dozen different ways every second. We have our phones, we have high speed internet connections, TV, podcasts, and friends who are deeply connected to those things, even if we aren’t.
But I’ve been trying to take time, whenever I think of it, to do two things: 5 deep breaths, and just noticing the view.
For the latter, “noticing” means stopping whatever is occupying my time and looking & listening in a single direction for a few minutes. I watch what moves, what the colors are like, how it sounds, and if I’m really present, what is not there.
Taking these moments is a way to pull out of the neverending algorithmic tendrils that yank on our attention every moment. Break those bonds when you can.
We, the digital set, the technorati, the first world era, are castigated for looking down at our phones constantly.
But there’s a world to notice down there. On the ground, the street, the road. It’s all strange and overlooked colors, bits of stone, stains, scraps, fluff, fragments, trash, cracks, critters, patterns, paint, plants, paper, pools, plastics.
If your habit is to look down at your feet as you walk, spend some time looking up. But if you’ve been on your phone or staring straight ahead on your commutes, check out the view below.
One of the benefits of art school is your fellow students. They can easily become your peer group, or better yet, your collective. There’s a moment of opportunity when you meet a few other creators who have a connected aesthetic. If you’re lucky, you can parlay that into a shared movement. It’s a chance to get attention for what you do, based on a packageable meme of some kind. It’s the equivalent of a “school,” i.e., the Bauhaus or—if you’re feeling really generous—the Impressionists.
But even if you’re not trying to form a movement or project what you do as something important, it’s good to have a lot of eyes on your work at any given time. Your fellow artists and your friends are cheerleaders and supporters as well as critics and sounding boards. You’ll have a better idea of what connect with other people the more you share your work. And connection is what you’re after. Making work for yourself alone is fine, but resonance with others is what makes art deeply important for us all.
What do we do with all these things we’re noticing? If we start paying attention to both sides of things, we’re seeing details we overlook. We’re noticing how they fit into a larger context: the big picture. What’s after getting these new thoughts and images?
The things we take for granted, things we think are routine and familiar are full of life and fractalised components of being. But you don’t have to consciously apply the stuff you perceive to any creative thing you’re working on.
This act of trying to see deeply applies itself.
I would argue—and I do argue—that there’s a magic connection to your work, if you’re doing both things together. “Magic” not in a mystical sense, but in an ineffable I-don’t-know-how-this-works-but-it-happens sense. Making and creating is enhanced and enriched by your changing the way you move through familiar environments. And the fact that you’re working on art of some kind enlivens your mundane perceptions.
You don’t have to try. We can overthink the work very easily. I think a better way to improve and hone the thing you do is to carry the feelings and careful way of seeing (or listening) outside the place you make that thing.
Consider not boxing in your work. See if you can open the sense of flow throughout the rest of your day.
It’s a simple equation, but not necessarily an easy one. You do your best work in any given situation—except when you exceed your expectations, or utterly fail to meet them.
What matters is that you dig dee enough to lose yourself in the creating. Flow will take care of both uncertainty and evaluating the past work. If you try to make something “great,” or similar superlatives, it’s a distraction. What you’re aiming for is to melt away judgment and doubt. That happens when you have a habit of falling into a piece and finding its soul, for lack of a more real term.
This takes time and practice. But it’s a common and easily understood phenomenon for creators of all types. You know when you’ve reached the point when you’re on the other side of it.
Assumptions about what I like can quickly become dogma, and it’s especially strong where music is concerned. Like any other preference in art, it’s good to push against your biases and preconceptions, even when you’re the one who made them.
Parquet Courts is a recent example. I like them, but wasn’t as blown away by their last album as a lot of people in my musical sphere of influence. And yet, somehow, this one song played while I was out today, and I didn’t remember they’d done it. It was terrific, different than most of the other songs, and made me want to listen more closely to the whole album.
There. Opinion diverted, openness to explore renewed. I hope I can keep that mindset going in the future.
The wit and wisdom of Ferris Buehler? Probably could have been a bestseller if they’d had the stones to publish it during the 80s when Ferris was hot. But still. It is true, I believe, that you need to keep looking around you at your world and your life. It does move pretty fast. We can easily get caught in our routines and drudges and overlook the weird, the exciting, the beautiful things that just seem to appear right next to us.
I put up a photo on Instagram a few days ago, showing a gorgeous yellow field of ginkgo leaves next to the freeway near my apartment. Now, just days later, it’s not so amazing—just another patch of bare dirt and some piles and patches. Keep watch: beautiful and strange stuff just shows up, briefly, and you need to be ready for it.