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Every empty canvas holds a million possibilities. As an artist I feel grateful to be reminded of this every time I show up to work. I have been reminded of the roles artists play in our society and have come to fully appreciate that what we do is much more than just make things. Really believing that has helped me to more fully embrace what I do. If you are an artist I don’t have to tell you that you are wired to be a little more sensitive that the the average person. While this brings many challenges to our lives and probably to the live of the people who love us, it also gives us the ability to express thoughtful and sensitive work. The very act of painting, writing, or making music requires a heightened sensitivity to the tools that we use to make our art. During times like the ones we are living now artists are observing, interpreting, inspiring, influencing and connecting people. Artist are helping to move people through history and recording history simultaneously. Here are some of the roles artists play in our society.
Inspirer Artists live in a world of possibility. Creativity is about bringing something into the world that was only imagined a moment before.
Interpreter Artists can absorb experiences and communicate them in ways that other people understand and relate to. Sometimes the messenger can make all the difference. Somebody might awaken to an idea or thought because it was expressed by that artist in a way they can relate too.
Observer Artists notice details. Creating and making requires attention to detail. Individuals have there own sensitivity to the details they notice. They present them in their own unique way.
Influencer Artists have a point of view. What an artist is expressing is their own point of view. They put ideas out in to the world in attractive and unique ways which is what we all love! We all love the shiny bright new and different thing!
Connector Artists connect people with people, disparate ideas, and people with ideas. Have you ever looked at a piece of abstract art and said “that looks like…” or listened to a piece of music and felt “this takes me back to” or read a passage and thought “I’ve had that experience”? Have you watched a film with someone and had a shared experience? Artists bring all sorts of people together for concerts, art exhibits, films, and book signings. The thing all the people have in common is the artistic experience.
Let’s start by addressing the elephant in the room. As much as I dislike bringing it up, I can hardly begin an update without addressing 2020. It’s been taxing to say the least. Collectively as a nation we have been burdened and inconvenienced by a pandemic. We have all been touched in some way by the effects of trying to survive a pandemic. Many of us have lost loved ones. Many of us have lost our livelihood. Many of us have lost the ability to take care of ourselves and our families in the most basic ways. Many of us have just plain lost our patience. Many have been on the front lines in survival mode on a daily basis. Many of us have also survived, learned how much we are capable of, connected in new ways with others, and contemplated new possibilities for ourselves. In addition, as a country the United States has been tasked with addressing painful and complex social and political issues. They are all OUR issues. The worst of times brings us new insight and understanding. I hope it brings us together. I hope it points out that we all share the same basic humanness. During times when we feel there is so little we have control over, I remind you that we never lose the ability to listen to each other, have a kind word, or a kind gesture for a stranger. It’s these little acts of human kindness that support, heal, and create a world we want to live in and leave behind for our children. It’s in these genuine little gestures that we create something new. I find empowerment in remembering that continuous little actions add up over time. Finally in the words of MLK Jr.
The time is always right to do what is right.
The middle of the painting is a term any painter immediately identifies with. Also known as the dreaded middle of the painting, or the “this sucks” or even “I suck” stage of the painting. The spot where spontaneity and freedom transition to questions and critical decision making. The place where creating is work and not play. The path that seemed clear before is now murky and unknown.
Where do you go when you don’t know where you’re going?
If my creative path were a single painting I think that right now I would be right in that uncomfortable, unclear middle where I am not sure where I am going. In the story of “The Hero’s Journey” that Joseph Campbell is so well known for, it is the place on the path where you have tried all the stuff you can possibly try without making yourself truly vulnerable to the discomfort and pain that is required to grow.
No pain, no gain.
What does that mean in my personal journey? I’m not clear yet but I know what makes me feel vulnerable which is a pretty good indicator of what is required to grow. Getting comfortable with rejection and criticism from people or institutions that I hold in esteem is definitely one of those tender places I like to sidestep. I have found myself thinking “Just paint for yourself quietly in your studio, you do not need to make this a thing you put out in the world for others.” “Don’t care what other people think'”. The truth though, is I long to have people connect with my work, with me, and to be validated. I spend my time doing a specific thing that hangs on the opinions of others. I need someone to say “You are not wasting your time, what you do has worth.” But even more difficult is coming to believe those words.
Just sharing with you that I’m afraid leaves me feeling vulnerable but also feels like the next little brave step that is required. Clicking “publish” feels very brave.
I’d love to hear about your “Hero’s Journey”. It is a universal story. I could write loads on this topic. Where are you on the journey? Are you excitedly venturing out with a new idea? Are you muddling through the middle? Are you being brave and pushing your limits of what feels comfortable? Are you brave enough to let me know what feels scary to you?
Let me know in the comments.
This is a common question painters are asked, particularly of abstract work. The more important question is what are you thinking as you look at that? What are you feeling? For myself, I say, it often has nothing to do with what I was thinking about and everything to do with what lies beneath the thinking part. The feeling, spiritual process that goes on unconsciously is what I believe comes through to the canvas. I think of an abstract painting like meditation. More experience, less thinking.
Certainly their is a delicate dance between pure expression and critical thinking that goes into a painting. There is evaluating composition, how colors play together, the energy of the lines and forms, etc. and solving problems. Initially, I give those things minimal attention. As a beginner, you may pays attention to the latter focusing on technical aspects which can produces a painting without expression and feeling. Purely decorative. In my experience, strategy plays a role only when it is necessary leaving as much space as possible for spontaneous expression.
Currently, I swing like a pendulum from full expression to careful critique. I paint with abandon and then pull back and evaluate what needs to be quieted, balanced, or eliminated. A gesture, a step back, and again as I refine the work.
There’s also a considerable chance I am thinking about who needs to be fed, taken outside, or driven somewhere. People have romantic notions about artists, most of us show up and do the work just like any other worker. Skill, time, patience, dedication. Repeat.
A common question people ask of artists is “Where do you get your inspiration”? Moments of inspiration come at various unpredicted moments. I most commonly find insight, answers, and inspiration in the moment of half sleep and half wake in the morning before I even open my eyes.
The above pictures illustrate a moment of inspiration I had. I was sitting at the dining table with my husband listening to him talk about work when I just couldn’t stop being drawn to this tulip which was hanging onto it’s petals in the last moments of it’s life while the sun illuminated it from within it seemed. Such a moment of fragility was in front of me. I could have sneezed and it would have dropped it’s petals.
While I mmm-hmmed to my husband still listening if only a little bit, I gently stole away to grab my phone and take a picture. It was a fleeting moment of delicacy captured just in time. Moments later petals began to drop, the last bits of strength in it’s fibers breaking away. That was a moment. The next day I painted “Handle with Care”.
Another eloquent life analogy gifted by a flower and observed at just the right moment in time. That’s creative inspiration.
So this is the view from my studio today! Help us welcome 5 new baby goslings to our little paradise on the lake. You can’t detect the mix of delight and dread in my voice right now but it’s here, just as these fuzzy little cuties are here.
Just a week ago a neighbor and his daughter came around in their canoe hunting for Canadian goose nests in the reeds around the lake. We have been here just 6 months and are still enchanted by every little thing that we see going on out our window, including the geese which have some not so delightful habits of eating your lawn and digesting on it at an incredible rate. Yes, goose poop in volumes that are hard to fathom. The reason our neighbors were looking for nests was to put corn in them which I am guessing attracts mammals to eat the corn and the unhatched eggs because once the eggs have hatched in a given location, those sweet little fuzzies will become permanent lawn eating, lawn pooping residents for the rest of their no longer cute lives.
We had been witnessing some territorial goose behavior on our little section of the lake last weekend which made me think back to the visit from our neighbor, but no. Those geese did a pretty good job of keeping things under wrap until those babies hatched because sure enough, this is what I saw out my window when I went to work in my studio this morning. It seems a bit late to do anything about it now. My husband and I are big saps when it comes to any sort of wild life so I guess we will just be getting a goose pooper scooper.
Is this is a question you have ever engaged? At times I have been absolutely convinced it’s made. Then I see or hear something that resonates with my soul in such a way that surely I have found meaning that exists for others and I feel it is found and only occasionally experienced. The search for meaning is surely the quest of musicians, writers, philosophers, and painters. Artists are lost without their art. Creative expression is the avenue to making meaning in a life that often seems nonsensical and superfluous. We are here, then we are not. And what was it all for? Art is an expression of inner knowing. Artists work to make the intangible tangible. It is a painful realization and paradoxically comforting at times to know that everything just continues on without us. An artist uses their creative means to express this devastating truth. “See truth” is the artists call. It exists with or without you. “See me” might also be the artists call as we are so acutely aware of our smallness.
The writer and psychologist Eric Maisel says artists must make their meaning because they seek understanding of a great and ever elusive meaning. This idea, and his book the Van Gogh Blues, was maybe the most empowering thing I have ever read. In addition, he gives suggestions for managing so many of the other anxieties that come with the pursuit of making art.
Meaning is the painful pursuit of the artist. While I may only find small bits of inner knowing in this life, it has been a powerful tool to make my meaning when I feel it’s painful absence.
When we are born there is only knowing what you need and acting on it. Unfortunately and fortunately we learn to be discerning about our needs and wants. Other people’s thoughts and actions take hold. Other’s opinions become a way of gauging our own thoughts and actions. It helps us to be part of a larger community. Feelings have a way of making things messy and as artists we are particularly practiced at feelings and messy. How do we sort our own true inner voice from all of the influence and noise? Continually. It is not the type of thing one masters but can definitely improve on with practice. Mindfulness is the first obvious step. One needs to be aware of the constant narrative running through the mind. I remember the first time I recognized a continual negative narrative replaying itself in my mind. My personal narrative was pretty brutal and if I had not woken up to the experience of seeing it as separate from me I would be a very unhappy person today. Luckily I made this discovery as a teenager and it has given me the power to choose my own narrative many times over.
But how do we know when our own voice is the one to trust? Certainly we don’t know everything! Once I learned to quiet the narrative and recognize my own voice I became better able to hear suggestions and input from others in an objective way that also allowed me to either find merit in it for myself or reject it for myself. I have not stopped listening to others, but I have learned a new kind of discernment which is to decide whether what I am hearing aligns with my own voice.
1. Recognize the narrative that automatically runs through your mind. Is it yours and helpful or simply habitual.
2. Practice mindfulness so that you can quiet or change the narrative when necessary.
3. Listen to others in an objective and studious way before deciding if it aligns with your true self. Respectfully reject or appreciatively accept the input.
If you have difficulty trusting yourself for all the noise I hope these tips will help you practice. As an artist, one puts themselves out there for people to critique and often we are critiqued even when we have not asked to be. I believe others usually have the best of intentions but if I took criticism to heart, it would quickly paralyze my creativity. I practice checking in on how I think and feel about a situation as the voice who gets the final say.
Compromise is a whole other topic!
In in my last post “I don’t have a creative bone in my body”, I talked about how creating abstract art is about being brave and letting your instincts come forth. It requires recognizing when the inner critic is lurking and to shoo him away before he starts interfering with your mojo. And some days he is really, really, really persistent. Here are some of the things I catch my inner critic saying.
You’re not a real artist. Art is a selfish indulgence. Why has it taken you so long to come this far? You can’t draw. Now you’ve ruined it. People will see right through you and know you’re a fraud. Your expressions are trite.Seriously, ouch. This is the part that requires bravery. I like to head him off by inviting him in.
I like to think of creative instincts as important impulses to recognize as they come forth. And yes, you have them (see previous post). Now you might be saying I have no idea what you are talking about or I know exactly what you are talking about. When you recognize the creative impulse it’s important not to think too much. For me, it means taking action in my studio and starting the work. I decide in advance that I will not temper the creative impulses that show up and that I will not take heed of my inner critic. It means making random, impulse driven marks with all kinds of materials. It means trusting what you have learned before this moment to come forth at the right time. YES! This is one place where acting on your impulses without thinking it through is embraced! Your work will reward you for acting on your impulses. But not every time, sorry. An art journal or inexpensive paper is a great place to begin this practice. I use materials that I won’t worry about wasting. The creative instinct is curiosity and experimentation.
In retrospect I can look back at all of the ways I have played it safe artistically. Have you learned to be brave and trust your instincts? Are you playing it safe? Are you somewhere in between?