Why Do We Like the Stuff We Like?

I’ve loved rain and fall my whole life. Since I was little, I’ve been ecstatic to see rain come along, and sorry to see it go. It helps, maybe, that I grew up in the Arizona desert and rain was rare, but even so, it was just always a der sense of affection for it. Many of my friends and relatives felt otherwise, but my grandmother and I shared this fascination and affinity for gray skies.

The things we like are ultimately a mystery. We can point to similar things and see connections, but there isn’t an ultimate explanation for why you love or hate Rothko, or Joan Didion, or Madonna. Sure, you can come up with superficial things, like finding something pretentious or puerile or weird, but others will disagree.

The best we can do is give things a chance—or five—and see if we can open up to what they offer.

On the Street Where You Live

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

(1981)

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.

I try to remember whenever I can.

A Few Things I Love About Art

The photo above is number 799 in my camera roll. It’s an accident. I wasn’t trying to frame an image and pressed the shutter button by mistake. Is it art? It kind of is! It’s a pleasant minimalist composition. Art can be accidental, which is number 1.

Another 4:

  • It engages your sense while you make it and while you experience it, connecting artist and patron.
  • It makes us consider alternative interpretations of the world.
  • Few are famous enough to make a living at it, but everyone can do it.
  • There’s just. So. Much. Left. If ever I find myself thinking everything’s been tried, there are no new directions to explore, I’ll chance upon something unexpectedly weird, or watch kids draw. There’s always possibility.

Get Out and Do the Stuff Your Town Does

I’m known amongst my very tiny circle of friends for spending the maximum amount of time possible at home, supposedly working, but often procrastinating and recovering from being social. But there is undeniable benefit to getting out there with fellow humans. We are social animals, and it benefits us to gather.

With that in mind, I determined to make it to the Oregon Zoo’s annual “Squishing of the Squash,” a fall tradition wherein the Asian elephants are given a couple of the biggest pumpkins grown regionally, and they amble over to enthusiastically stomp them into pieces and eat chunks to the considerable vicarious joy of the crowd watching them do it.

We went, as evidenced by the shot above, and were not disappointed. It seems a simple thing in the abstract, just a short trip to the zoo to watch some large creatures smash some gourds. But it was a new thing, a short journey into the cold fall air, new smells, animals, people, food, and colors. All of our mutual delight fed into the event, and the morning was joined in happy unison. It was beautiful.

Your town has its traditions, from the podunk to the metropolis. Pick one and go, it’ll feed your work and your spirit.

Looking Down Has Its Moments

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.

Where Everything Comes From

10 of the streetcars in Portland were made in the Czech Republic

The short answer—the general, universal answer—is that things come from all over. I saw the above plate on the inside of a streetcar tram in my city. It was strange to see, but I was more disappointed I hadn’t noticed it right away. It took several trips, even sitting close to the front wall, before I read the plate. Stuff arrives near you from everywhere and anywhere. That isn’t the point, though.

The point is that we don’t often care or even notice where things come from, but beginning to pay attention, whenever possible, is another way of opening up to noticing the things we often overlook. And noticing more is key to growing as an artist. We need to see clearly, and find details in ordinary things. That’s a puzzle piece that completes a big section in the overall creative jigsaw.

The Amazing Delight of the Re-Unexpected

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.

The Edge of Weirdness

There will likely always be fads. We are social creatures, evolved to follow group aesthetics and patterns. It can be fun to get swept up in the wave of a thing lots of other people like.

As artists, we often walk a thin line between what is popular—or at least well-liked—and the strange, the avant garde, the dangerous. We want to take chances, to push boundaries, but we want to bring people along with us, to show them things we see and discover through our process. If we go too far into darkness or strangeness, we risk being irrelevant or obscure. If we go along with what’s popular, we can be boring.

I think the risk is more rewarding on the strange side. There will always be plenty of creators trying to ride the big wave. The hard part is finding one that suits your style and way of being, surfing just ahead of the break and between the rocks.

Happy Accidents Are Made, Not Born

This isn’t to diss Bob Ross, because he’s a delight. But like everything in art, there is nuance and alternative meaning. When Bob talked about happy accidents, he was teaching his viewers not to break the flow of their work with thoughts about how they messed up. It’s a way of reframing the unforeseen.

Mistakes will happen. But whether your work is meticulously planned or completely spontaneous, it can be helpful to keep rhythm with them. It’s another Zen or Taoist concept applied to creation: it doesn’t matter if errors crop up, because they become part of the humanity of your work. It’s only more real for small flaws.

And sometimes they can take us in different directions we hadn’t thought of, or would never find in a perfect thing.

A Mystery Is Only As Good As the Characters and Clues You’re Given

Solving mysteries is something many of us (to quote Jean-Luc Picard) find irresistible. It’s very satisfying to figure out riddles and puzzles. And they exist in art, of course, whether intentionally put there or not.

I just finished Agatha Christie’s first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. It was good, especially for a first novel, I thought, and Hercule Poirot a compelling and endearing character. But most of the rest of the main characters were somewhat tiresome English aristocratic types, and even though I grew up watching these same types on BBC dramas my mom loved, pushing my nostalgia buttons, it was tough to care about them and their problems now. The tenor of our times is corruption, political and economic stratification, and toxicity in media, social and otherwise, and relying on parental favor for living the country club life is, well, quaint.

Additionally, the clues and facts of the case weren’t all in front of me. Poirot solves the case using facts Christie never allows him to reveal to the narrator, Hastings, and therefore to us. This is obviously my problematic penchant for the type of mysteries I like.

Art—the static, non-story-driven kind—is not so coy. Paintings and drawings are all there in front of the viewer. Nothing is hidden from view, it’s up to viewers to solve any puzzle that exists within. Sometimes, it is what it appears to be. But sometimes secrets are there to be found. And the possibility is irresistible.