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.
What I haven’t done much, here, is talk about what I’m doing. I think—and feel, double emphasis there—that the thumbnail doodles at the top of many posts aren’t really an indicator of ongoing process tracking, so there should be some balance to the endless advice and prescriptive know-hows I seem to have in endless supply.
One of the things I’m working on—s l o w w w l y y—is a series of 11 small paintings I pledged to people over a year ago. Be fair, year-and-a-half.
It’s a bit strange to go back and forth from analog to digital. Some things are easier in physical media: texture, random surprises, depth, the subtle wonder of a unique object. Some things are harder: development time, corrections—oh for an ‘undo’ when I smear or put too much of something on a canvas—and precision.
Here’s hoping I won’t be too much longer finishing and can finally notch off this project and start the next.
If you do art of any kind, you generally want to get better at it. You grimace at the state of your abilities and look longingly at those of the artists you admire. Even during the punk era, where a concerted effort to tear down the lavishly indulgent studio practices included sneering at the technically proficient and of famous musicians of the 70s, bands still worked to become better players.
Does it just happen? Sometimes, sort of, if you do it every day. You’ll end up with a more refined version of what you do, no doubt. But there are a couple simple things to think about if you’re not in art school. Because I like lists.
Copy the work you love now and then. Copying is like an anatomy class. You learn something about why a piece works when you recreate it. You start to figure out what makes it tick, how it was put together, why it works as a whole. You’re not putting any of this out into the world as your own, of course, but it’s excellent practice.
Change styles. If you’re used to working with abstraction, spend some time working from life. If you’re observational, translate what you see into abstracted forms and colors. If you work solely from imagination, learn a bit of life drawing, music notation, or journalism.
Break molds and keep your hands moving—if only metaphorically. You’ll get better at what you want to do faster.
Looking away to the future isn’t always bad. If we were only ever concerned about the present, we’d never follow a dream of a possible future. Or better, an impossible one.
It’s a matter of balance. One viewpoint throughout your life isn’t enough for making art. It requires changing perspective, shifting ground, opening up to the unknown, the void of ideas.
Be present when it matters. But that can’t be all the time. I’d argue that the act of creating is a prime example of losing oneself and the present. We can’t Be Here Now when we’re deep in the moment of making. It’s only when we look as far as we can that it all falls into place, comes together, melts, thaws, and resolves to a dew.
The smallest unit of a body of work in art is the show—a group of paintings often bound by a theme or similar style and execution. For film, it’s, well, a film. For music, it’s long been an album.
We sometimes get caught in the idea of an artist changing direction, thinking it’s the new path for them. And that’s as may be, but it isn’t necessarily a permanent change for someone. Sometimes, it’s just a set of ideas they want to explore for a while.
People like to put you in a box. “This is the bold new direction for artist Z!” But the true box might be a walled-off garden of delights you’ve put together this one time. You’re always free to look back to your past, or completely change again for the next thing you do.
Nothing exemplifies this for me more than Queen’s 1982 album Hot Space. Although hated by many fans and critics, who didn’t think the band who exclaimed “We Will Rock You” had any business incorporating disco and r&b influences into its music.
But Freddie Mercury, particularly, forged ahead, and the band made just that album. It was less important how successful they were than that they tried something different. And it was less important still that they indulged their whims than that they recognized it was a discrete time and body of work they were under no obligation to repeat or take direction from for the next thing.
Freddie said, during a show at Milton Keynes,
“That doesn’t mean we’ve lost our rock & roll feel, okay? I mean it’s only a bloody record! People get so excited about these things. We just want to try out a few new sounds.”
Follow your heart and mind. It doesn’t matter a damn what comes next. Do the thing you feel now.
Road trip redux! This time it’s to scout neighborhoods for a move to the Pacific Northwest. Plenty of birdsong abounds.
One of the coolest things about being here in Portland is seeing how much they value their public art. It’s full of the same lively whimsy that abounds in the rest of the city, and right now—with spring regularly misting the streets with rain—trees and grass are greening up in contrast to the manufactured environment.
The newest addition to the rail lines brought public poetry to the transit system, which is a rare thing, indeed. It’s a series of one line poems solicited of the citizenry and selected by blind jury.
Right next to the poem above is a sculpture made of rails, bent into shapes reminiscent of a transit map. It’s completely exposed, yet bears no scratches, scuffs, or marks to mar the beautifully textured rust of its surface. Such a thing denotes respect for art, and I’m touched that thousands of people passing by care for their public work in this way.
Public art is ours. Not to do with as we individually wish, but to appreciate, support, and tend for future versions of us. In the best of circumstances, it inspires and uplifts and becomes part of who we are.
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.
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.