Tagged discovery

Lessons Learned – in Memory of Domenic Cretara (1946–2017)

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.

Home Is Where the Home Is

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.

The Right Wrongs

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.

Art Is a Gift

Not only did I have the wonderful surprise of waking up to a gloriously gray, wet, and green Portland morning, but the pictures hanging in the AirBnB we’re staying in make me want to sit down and make things with whoever did them. Are there kids here? Can we have a painting sesh?

You aren’t just creating for its own sake if you show your work. Somewhere. Everywhere would be nice, but I’ll be realistic for now. What I mean is your vision of the world, the universe, your soul, brings something new into being.

We are human in part because we make art, and all art is about being human in some way. I need your art as much as I need to make my own.

Road Tripping III: Home It Is

The end of any journey comes with mixed feelings. Ask Joseph Campbell. It also comes with new knowledge. We’ve learned things about our companions we never knew, maybe good things, maybe not, but more. If we’re lucky, we know ourselves better.

Mentally, we’re abuzz with information and ideas and experience to process. Emotionally and physically, we’re drained. This internal tussle can leave us befuddled and even quiet. We reflect. We look at our familiar things with new eyes.

Apply these things to the artist’s journey, making a new piece. I’m kinda too tired to do it.

Mistake Faster

There’s a longtime meme circulating in the business world, to the effect that one should fail fast, because we grow and learn more from failure than from success. At least, from early failure, or in many cases, testing raw ideas and methods. In creative  circles, this has been labeled “fail faster.” It means we shouldn’t try to make things perfect up front, we should try out ideas and concepts to see what will best fit. The quicker we weed through our early failures, the more likely it is we’ll find the best elements of the thing we’re working on and succeed with the final version.

If the idea seems at first counterintuitive, there’s some other research suggesting why. Researchers published a paper last December that links social anxiety with a preoccupation of making mistakes. If further research holds this up, we have insight into the fear. Some of us don’t want to interact with each other because we’re afraid we’ll do or say the wrong thing.

But in art, there isn’t much that’s “the wrong thing.” You need to be better at trying new things, different things, crazy things than you were the day before. It’s openness to experimentation that knocks work into a new realm, a higher level. Make mistakes. Make them faster.

And if you fail, so what? That thing needed failing. It means you’ve got a clearer path to the work that will, well, work.

Hidden in Plain Sight

Here’s another thing the daily habit will get you: an opportunity to catch the fire when it flickers into being under your nose.

Waiting for inspiration is a recipe to never do any work. You might wait till doomsday, who knows? But keeping a steady creative pace means you’ve got a flow going. There are insights and truths within that flow. The funny thing is, you might let them loose in your work and not see them at first. They’re a spark and fluff of flame at the edge of your vision. Ignore it and you keep rooting out tinder and kindling in another direction on another day.

Finding a fire doesn’t necessarily mean you have a bonfire coming, but it can light the way to one if you’re ready for it.

Be Wrong

They sat at the small table in the corner by the window and sipped their drinks in tandem. She looked out the window and watched the passersby flood across their view, lost in their own frustrations and pressures. It was the first day after she’d finished reading the novel she’d started three years before. She thought it would feel like a triumph, but she just felt drained, as if she’d been at work all day. She shook her head and smiled.

He said, “What? Something funny?”

“Kind of,” she said. She sipped again, still looking ahead. “I just had an idea how I’d feel today, and it’s not what happened.”

He chuckled. “That’s me every day. Maybe better not to anticipate feelings.”

“I guess,” she said. “It’s just, some thoughts are automatic, you know? And for sure some feelings are. It’s just what happens. I think what’s important is not to put any judgment on what we think, just let it happen. Let it be.”

“Speaking words of wisdom?” he said.

She narrowed her eyes at him. “Nice, old man.”

“Old bands are always better.”

“That’s what the DJs want you to think. Nothing new under the sun, right? But—it’s better to make mistakes, to try things out. To believe you can find the new thing, or the different experience. Maybe that’s how we can move forward.”

“Like, your routine is you being stale? Moving back in on yourself instead of, you know, on?”

“Exactly. We get comfortable with the way things are, and that’s true of the way we think, too. We get stuck trying to be right all the time and defend our opinions like they’re scientific truth. We’re scared of getting something wrong. But really, we should be, I dunno, trying to be wrong, more. We get more chances to discover things that way.”

He considered this. “Interesting theory.”

“Could well be completely incorrect,” she said.

“Yep. Nice.”