We don’t make art in a vacuum. And we don’t do it alone, either. Oh sure, we often create the specific work by ourselves, but the process involves others at some point.
And the process involves pecking out little bits of stuff important to us from a field of other things that aren’t. We find these things not in solitude, but through others sharing with us, and telling us where to look, and making things we want to look at.
These bits are the seeds and the fuel that let us grow and forge new things in the world.
One of the things about being an artist that separates you is the quality of noticing things others overlook. Seeing unusual things or ordinary things in unusual ways is a key principle in most creativity. So how do you start?
First attempts: slow and steady. Any regular route you take-to work, regular errands, family houses—tends to blur into sameness over time. We get used to the sights and sounds and stop looking, seeing what’s there.
So start with your regular route somewhere. Start expanding what you notice. Small things. Out-of-the-way things. Write them down, somewhere.
It’s really tempting to think we can get all the inspiration we need from books and internet. But just walking around outside provides a living window to the world impossible to experience any other way. So much more that’s unexpected is out there.
It’s partly why the experience of cinema is more than just a big screen. It’s some other place, and you don’t quite know what’s going to be around you. It’s also the difference between seeing images of sculpture or paintings and being in front of the real thing (say, Anselm Kiefer or Robert Motherwell or Louise Bourgeois). Those things fill our view. Even more so the world itself, just looking at changes on your block—or better, an entirely new block—jams a million impressions into your senses. It’s invaluable to artists.
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.
Joan Jonas has an installation at Ocean Space, a new exhibition venue made to facilitate artists and scientists studying the oceans. It’s fascinating and eclectic. Jonas incorporates performance, sculpture, video, drawing, and painting into the work, which may not be fully finished till the end of its run in September.
She’s paralleling the natural ecology of the sea with a kind of ecology of artistic practice. Everything works together as a whole piece, no one element is meant to stand on its own. They feed and support each other.
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.
A quick but perennial trope of art making: look at as much as you can, read as much as you can listen to as much music as you can. The eclectic approach doesn’t just feed your soul and demeanor, it supports your work with multiple sources, like a well-planned essay.
With deadlines always approaching of various degree, the best defense against both writer’s block and well-worn creative paths is a continually growing list of other creators we admire. And whom we want to steal bits from.
Few things are as satisfying as diving deeply into a realm of artistic experience you resonate with. Gaming, painting, books, film—there are depths beyond depths if you choose to explore beyond the surface experience of any art.
But, of course, it doesn’t change the raw experience any casual patron of the medium might have. It’s still the primary goal of any work of art to invoke some kind of reaction in the people who experience it. The filmgoer who watches The Green Book, say, shouldn’t be viewed as a lesser participant in the work than a scholar of cinema who understands layers of subtext and craft that went into the film’s creation. Most people don’t, after all. Every person deserves their personal experience without a requirement to study mechanics of creation or art beforehand, unless the thing is specifically designed for that purpose.
I think I mean to say that we can hope the deeper meaning behind our work is appreciated and understood by our audience. But a deep and personal connection, regardless of how studied the patron’s background, is the first and important thing in giving your work to the world.
About the Author
Marcus is a maker of things and thoughts. He currently resides in Portland, Oregon.