I’m preparing to move everything I own and everything I am across the country. It’s only one state, but that first leg north is a big one. So, while changing homes may not be quite as stressful as pop psych has cracked it up to be, it does feel traumatic in some ways. I distract myself, which you probably already could tell.
Punch Brothers released a new album today, and I’m playing it right now. If you like Nickel Creek or bluegrass or Chris Thile, you’ll like this.
New Yorkers got a marvelous bonus this week when library card holders also gained free access to local museums, and they booked the hell out of them. Here’s hoping that success spreads to other cities.
News and social media can wear you down. There’s nothing for it but to step back a bit, or completely, if you can. Unless you’re a journalist, there’s not much point in staying up-to-the-minute on the relentless news cycle. You have things to do. This is good right here, a real slowdown for the mind: The Last Ambient Hero
The art world is weird. Big exhibitions like Art Basel can get even weirder, but I try to find the public works every year, the big stuff and the things tucked into corners, away from the main sales bustle. These are often funny, evocative, striking works, including performances, and I wish we did this everywhere, putting creative expression amidst commercial and residential mass production and sameness.
As you focus on process over end result, it’s good to remember to have an end in mind. You need a point on the map to head to, even if you change it midway through.
Lots of projects never gets done because there’s no specific point to shine the red dot of our attention on. Focus is good, and it helps get lots of things done. What’s less discussed is that you can always shift that focus.
Life is crazy sometimes. You never know what random chance will bring. It’s good to be able to seize opportunities when they present themselves. Sometimes that means starting over. But if the thing you’ve been working hard at isn’t coming together, move the dot, refocus, finish the thing now. Naturally, you can’t just do this for every whim. But sometimes you were wrong about what the work meant or what was important about it.
I try to think about how I’m constructing this blog, and the scheme I have for its posts, whenever possible. I wonder if it’s part of a search for something new beyond the massive undertaking going back to school was eight years ago, when I determined to finally finish the biggest thing I’d left undone.
After that push and effort, after all was said and done and I could at last tick off the box [metaphorically] labeled “Bachelors Degree,” I couldn’t figure out what to do. I was Wile E. Coyote in the middle of the air, having run straight off the edge of the cliff. But I wasn’t dropping.
It occurred to me today that an extremely valuable aspect of art school—again, as of school in general—is the forced exposure to things and ideas you’d never have found on your own in such a compact span of time. This might be a thing worth paying for, albeit not necessarily worth tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars and the commensurate stress of the debt burden.
It’s as easy to get stuck in an aesthetic bubble as a political one, staying focused on the narrow band of favorites you’ve treasured over several years of loving and experiencing art of whatever form. But at school, if you have teachers of any worth, you have a myriad of unknowns thrown at you, and you not only have to experience their work, but also to understand it, analyze it, and put it into some kind of context.
This is important to do as an artist for the rest of your days. You’ll gain insight and depth, even if you don’t like some or most of the stuff, if you take it in broadly.
I went to the memorial exhibition of one of my professors tonight. Most of my work was abstract through art school, but he was a figurative painter, and his classes were all working from life. He taught me more about observational painting than anyone else, and I can still hear his curmudgeonly admonitions to me, gently but firmly steering me to better, more confident work.
This is the other gift of art—not the one we give to the world, but the one teachers give to their students. It’s a special kind of gradual magic to watch your abilities grow right in front of you. The best teachers don’t let you tell them your limits, they keep pushing you against them, asking more. The best students trust teachers to show how to seek their own path ever farther along. Slowly but surely, we improve, even if we get worse in the beginning. New paths are like that, at first—it’s the easy road that hardly ever gets you to an end.
The painting above was one where I finally saw my work improving significantly, as my professor gradually limited our color palettes and we figured out how to do more with less. He taught me better than most that there is freedom in working within limits: freedom to show more with less, freedom to get started because my choices were limited.
I was proud of a few things I made in his classes. But I’m more proud of the ‘A’ he marked on the back of that little 8 x 10 oil still life. I miss you already, Domenic.
One thing about finding the passage back to the place I was before: it’s made me very tired.
Traveling is exhilarating, but it usually shreds your creative schedule. On the other hand, you’re feeding your mind, your heart, your soul with an overabundance of newness or—if you’re lucky—strangeness. The flood of sights sounds smells feelings ideas isn’t just intoxicating, it’s positively hangover-inducing. Once drunk on the new stuff, the return to home feels like the morning after.
It is worth it, though. Changing your point of view by completely changing your location has always been a fantastic source of new material, new blood, almost.
You awaken exhausted but renewed, disoriented but with a pack of vibrant memories. It all needs to be sorted through and labeled, but you can feel it: you’re changed, there’s more of you than there was before.
I was reading some things about a sort of contemporary prescriptive thinker, who’s become a guru, in a way, for people who want to see the world as needing more structure and rules of tradition. I won’t link there, no. It’s not for me to say it’s objectively wrong, or bad, either. But it’s not the way I think I want to live, nor the way I want to help shape the world—at least my corner of it. I like the descriptive approach to society, and even to life.
I was thinking myself that making art is better served in a similar way by being always open to new or individual methods of discovery and structure. We need to overturn, question, eschew traditional ways of creation. We need, desperately, to avoid perfection.
In order to make something good, something different and true and compelling, I need to give myself the space to mess up. And then I need to mess up.
I have to flub. I need to blow it. I’ve got to fail, to crash and burn, to slip up, to be wrong, to ruin, to miss the mark,
I need to fuck up.
That’s the way you find not only new ways of making stuff, but totally new types of it, things no one has seen before, strange work that builds on the art of the past but at the same time is new.
Our mistakes lead to change and new paths. Not our perfected customs.
About the Author
Marcus is a maker of things and thoughts. He currently resides in Portland, Oregon.