Blank Canvas

Hartung Lithograph "L10"If I had followed the suggested reading schedule for Art & Fear, this month I would be deep into chapter 8. If I had followed my own tentative writing schedule, this post would be about the academic world concerns covered in chapter 7. But I haven’t made it to either of those chapters yet because my own work and experience collided with the book’s observations, and I’ve been thinking about – hung up on, actually – one particular topic for the past several months: Finding Your Work.

One of the core principles of Finding Your Work, the title of chapter 5, is that it must relate to your own time and place. In the authors’ words:

The art you can experience may have originated a thousand miles away or a thousand years ago, but the art you can make is irrevocably bound to the times and places of your life… As viewers we can readily experience the power of ground on which we cannot stand – yet that very experience can be so compelling that we may feel almost honor-bound to make art that recaptures that power. Or more dangerously, feel tempted to use the same techniques, the same subjects, the same symbols as appear in the work that aroused our passion – to borrow, in effect, a charge from another time and place.

One of the authors (David Bayles, I think) tells of the moment he first saw an Edward Weston print: “In that instant an unbidden distinction formed in my gut – there were now two kinds of photographs in the world: the one before me on the wall, and all the rest.” But he also writes that it took a decade for him to realize that he could not and should not try to make Weston’s photographs; they were from Weston’s time and place, not his.

This discussion reminded me of something I had read earlier, and miraculously (especially considering the state of my house and studio!) I was able to find the article in my hard-copy of the Fall 2009 issue of the SAQA Journal. [Full disclosure: As a SAQA member I could have read the article on-line here, if I weren’t quite so old-fashioned. Unfortunately, the digital versions are only available to members.) In “Acquiring your own voice”, June O. Underwood wrote:

Other hard questions to consider: Is what you’re doing worth it? Are you creating something that is different, goes beyond, sits well beside, and/or perks up that which you are working from? If you’re making a Georgia O’Keeffe iris, will it be a pale version (regardless of how vivid the colors) of the O’Keeffe, and of the iris plant in your garden, or will it change the way we see and love O’Keeffe and irises in general?”

I am fascinated by O’Keeffe’s work, although I doubt that I would ever try to imitate one of her flowers. But, as it happened, it wasn’t the reference to O’Keeffe’s work that caused the collision. No, the collision came when I realized that the work hanging on my design wall at that moment was about to be caught in that very trap. Here’s what happened:

To increase my woefully small knowledge of modern art, I had been reading Abstract Art by Anna Moszynska. On page 119 was a black and white reproduction of Hans Hartung’s 1957 painting called “Painting”. The book told a little about Hartung’s life and work, but it didn’t really matter. I was hooked by the painting itself: the graceful lines hinting at sea grasses, calligraphy, and Japanese scrolls; the negative space around and between the lines leaving them free to the imagination. I felt that I could look at that painting every day and never tire of it.

I couldn’t find a photo of “Painting” but the image above of “L10”, a 1957 lithograph owned by The Tate, will give you the idea.

Well, I wanted to make that painting, or some approximation of it. So I prepared a fabric “ground”, a blank canvas to receive fabric “brush strokes”. The background hung on my design wall while I worked out the details of size and color and construction techniques….

And then I read chapter 5 of Art & Fear and realized what I was doing. Or rather what I was NOT doing. I was not “creating something that is different, [or] goes beyond” the original painting. No, I was trying “to borrow [power] from another time and place.”

Ouch.

That background is still waiting.

Art & Fear… and Mostly Fear

Last August I read the call for entry for an art quilt competition.

Last September I decided on the general theme for my entry in that competition and obtained the photos that would serve as the basis of the image.

Apres Matisse

  • On January 1, online entries opened.
  • In March I begin work on the piece.
  • On April 30, I completed the piece and submitted the entry online.
  • On May 1, online entries closed.

Now, submitting entries at the last minute is nothing new for me. Earlier this year I managed to complete an online entry at 11:14 PM; the entries closed at midnight. And each time this happens – each time I’m sewing down a binding or taking a photo or writing an artist statement and realize I cannot make a mistake because there is NO TIME to correct it – each time I ask myself: “Why?”

I know it’s usually about procrastination. There is time to work on a piece but instead I choose to do something else: make dinner, check out FaceBook, work on some knitting because I’m “just too tired” to concentrate – I’ve even been known to clean house so I don’t have to sit down to work.

The difference this time was that when I asked myself “Why?”, I felt compelled to answer: “Because I’m afraid. I’m afraid the piece won’t be good enough, that it won’t live up to my vision for it, that it won’t be accepted into the exhibit, that people who see it won’t like it, that I won’t like it.”

This sudden burst of honesty was triggered by reading and thinking about Chapter 2 of Art & Fear by David Bayes & Ted Orland. Lynn Krawzyck continued the read-along on her blog, Fibra Artysta, with a posting on April 1, and I’ve been thinking since then what I might add to the discussion.

For me, a core point of the chapter is this: “What separates artists from ex-artists is that those who challenge their fears, continue; those who don’t, quit.” The authors point out that fears can disguise themselves as “laziness, resistance to deadlines, irritation with materials or surroundings, distraction over the achievements of others – indeed as anything that keeps you from giving your work your best shot.”

Ouch.

Now I have another deadline approaching. Fortunately the work for this competition is already completed, and the photos are already uploaded and indexed in my computer. But I do have to burn a CD and fill out an entry form and get it in the mail.

But it’s almost time to make dinner, and there’s a brand new project on my sewing table……..

Mozart or Bust!

Art & Fear

Back in the Dark Ages, when I was a small child taking piano lessons, my teacher told me about Mozart. Perhaps she thought that the story of the prodigy who wrote lovely little melodies and gave public piano recitals when he was five (or six or seven or some other impossibly early age) would inspire me.

It didn’t work.

What could I, a six year old dutifully but slowly struggling through each ditsy beginner lesson, possibly have in common with a precocious little twit in knee pants? Or with a composer so gifted that melodies (complete with harmonization and orchestration) flowed simply and constantly from his brain to his pen. An artist whose only “block” was that he couldn’t write fast enough. You’ve seen Amadeus? Those may not be the facts, but they certainly are the legend.

It got worse.

Somewhere along the way I internalized the Mozart legend as the standard for how art is created. So – if you are a composer, you sit at the piano, and beautiful, perfectly formed, memorable melodies flow from your hands. If you are writer, you sit at your desk and spontaneously write beautiful, perfectly formed, meaningful stories. If you are an artist, you stand before your canvas or your block of stone and know – just KNOW – what to do next to create a beautiful, perfectly formed, great work of art.

Of course.

And if it doesn’t happen that way – if you labor over the notes or the words, if you puzzle over a plot line for hours (weeks! months!), if you need to take a drawing class to learn about perspective and shading – then, obviously, you are not an artist and not creative and should go do something else.

Wrong.

It took me a very long time to overcome these assumptions, but I might have gotten there sooner if I had had the benefit of David Bayles’s & Ted Orland’s book Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking. The Introduction to that book begins like this:

This book is about making art. Ordinary art. Ordinary art means something like: all art not made by Mozart. After all, art is rarely made by Mozart-like people – essentially (statistically speaking) there aren’t any people like that. But while geniuses may get made once-a-century or so, good art gets made all the time.

Yes!

Thank you!

Michigan fiber artist Lynn Krawzyck is the one who introduced me (and others) to this book. In her excellent blog Fibra Artysta, she is hosting a discussion of the book, posting her thoughts month by month on each chapter and inviting responses as comments on her blog or as posts on the reader’s own site. The discussion began with Chapter 1 on March 1, and yes, I am as usual rather late in responding – although I really did read the chapter on time. Really.

Chapter 1, The Nature of the Problem, sets out the questions the authors intend to explore: How does art get done? Why, often, does it not get done? And what is the nature of the difficulties that stop so many who start? But I responded most strongly to that statement in the introduction, the assurance that I don’t have to be Mozart to create good art.

Bayles and Orland go on to say “artmaking involves skills that can be learned”. That’s another truth so obvious that I can hardly believe it eluded me for so long. After all, look at the performing arts: No one expects a pianist to play that Mozart sonata – much less a Chopin polonaise – at their first lesson. Ballet teachers do not hand out toe shoes to their beginning students. And even the amazing performance of a group of six year old Suzuki violinists is the result of hours of careful instruction and practice.

Why did I – or anyone, for that matter – ever assume that “real artists” could create good work by relying only on their talent and did not need to learn their craft?