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.
You know the paper mazes on every child activity placemat and cereal box? And also the ones in big books of them made of tiny lines barely big enough to fit a pencil point?
The little ones are easy, you can usually see the way to the end by sight, without ever putting pen to paper. They practically solve themselves. The big ones seem like they’ll take a week, testing out pathways, backtracking, trying a new opening.
The metaphor speaks for itself. The only thing is that you don’t necessarily know which kind you’re working through when you start. You just have to trust that there really is an end, somewhere, and start working it.
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.
Now and then, if you make art, you probably get to a point where you’re over the type of thing you’ve been making. Maybe you think you’ve said everything you could. Sometimes you’re bored—if it’s that, you probably should stick with that thing a bit longer.
Being bored, artistically, is the genesis of a thousand new possibilities. Boredom in general is a rare commodity these days, with endless distraction and tools available.
But hang on. Wait a while. Keep making. Then you may find you still have things to say with your current practice. If not, dream. Think. Wonder. Something will strike you, and offer the next compass point.
I realize that could come off like a platitude. I mean it, though! We contain myriad potential. There’s more in there. We can’t always get out of our own way quickly, but it’s in there to find.
Exploring and visiting new places is wonderful fuel for creative fires. Today, we spent some time in a completely new neighborhood, seeing what shops were around and what various apartment buildings looked like.
Coming back home, I was tired, but felt like I’d done some questing, and had new supplies and jewels of ideas to make stuff with.
Don’t discount a simple trip to a new neighborhood.
A popular trope about writing mysteries is that the author starts with the ending in mind and writing the plot back to the beginning. It’s probably not used universally, at least not any more, but there’s a bit of a corollary to other art practices.
If you have an end in mind, or a grand vision of some kind, it’s easier to start moving toward it. The hard part is when your execution doesn’t match the image in your head.
I find if I start with that kind of overall vision, I can’t stay too wedded to the original concept. It’s easy to become disappointed and discouraged by my abilities, or to realize the original ending wasn’t really that great to begin with.
The thing I’m making may be better off going on another direction, entirely. It’s mostly about creating the map as you simultaneously make the territory.
The number of times someone asks “what do you do?” when I say I’m an artist varies over time, but it’s a frequent question. And I don’t often know what to say.
If you only do one thing, or only have done one kind of art, this might be easier. But most of us work with multiple media or disciplines. And few artists want to be put in a box, anyway. Yes, today you’re writing a book. But you used to make cartoons, or play keyboards, or make videos. What you’re doing now isn’t always the impression you want someone to go away with.
But there isn’t often an easy—or consistent—answer to the question. It might be because we are all in a state of becoming. We’re still figuring out what we do. You’re a painter. But what kind of painter? There are sub-sub-genres and myriad methods.
And this isn’t for the people who ask you The Question. But it almost doesn’t matter what you tell someone else. Your work is what matters, and as long as you’re making some, it’s part of the process of discovering and revealing itself back to you.
photo: work by Sanya Kantarovsky, Modern Art gallery booth, original photo by Mark Blower
It’s nice to see L.A. start to be ever more seriously considered a center for fine art, despite my reservations about art fairs in general. As the population giant of the West, it’s inevitable that thousands of artists make their homes and studios there, with plenty of innovative and alternative ways of seeing and making.
The first thing you are asked to do in any drawing class for homework is to start a sketchbook. Sometimes there are specific things you’re asked to draw, but often the bulk of the pages are up to you as to what you fill them with.
Most working artists keep a sketchbook, too. It’s a repository for thoughts, lists, and…throwaway scraps of imagination and observation: ephemera. And they usually stay that way. The stuff we put in the sketchbook is just practice and things that occur to us in the moment, visually.
But having captured those fleeting shreds, every so often we’ll find a gem of an idea that’s actually a vein of possibility we can mine and turn into something big and meaningful. Keep an eye out, you never know where the scraps will reveal themselves to be more.
What we want is to be different in some essential ways as we move our work along. We’re aiming to be better than we were yesterday, to change and to grow.
Actually, it’s best not to be specific about day-to-day progress or lack of it. There may be long periods where you feel like you’re getting nowhere, or even getting worse. But in the grand scheme, better than before.
But if you only ever do what you know how to do, you risk ruts and stagnation. It’s great to thoroughly explore mediums and idioms, but it’s in trying new things and new ways that we gather a storehouse of future possibility and potential.
Try new tools, new methods—your other hand if you’re not ambidextrous. Keep trying when you’re better, too. No dinosaurs. Art should be just as challenging and open as when you first started on your 100,000th piece.
About the Author
Marcus is a maker of things and thoughts. He currently resides in Portland, Oregon.