Essays by a Veteran Artist about the World of Art
I’ve never considered myself a master at my trade. I think I’ve produced a few masterful pieces, but I’ve never been real consistent in the production of high quality work. But I now have the advantage of looking back on 40+ years of hiking and biking in some beautiful places and stopping to make some art and playing with cameras and computers and interacting with fellow artists and art lovers and so I may have a little wisdom to share with all of you. So here are a few ramblings by an old artist.
Our society/culture likes to recognize and glorify the child prodigy and anyone who seems to have abilities “beyond their years” or young people that have an “old soul.” I enjoy seeing young people excel and certainly want to encourage their gifts, but what about the old souls who have an old soul?
Some people just didn’t get the opportunities when they were younger, and some people just didn’t find their niche when they were young, and others just have a very slow, methodical process that doesn’t bloom until later years.
I’ve had the privilege of participating in several artist-in-residencies over the years. During the application process I often come across statements like these in the application requirements: This residency is for “emerging artists” or we encourage “student applications.” Emerging and student are code for we expect young people to apply. Again, I’m all for giving a leg up to young people, but just once I would love to see the criteria for a residency state that we encourage mature artists to apply.
I think we need to give more recognition to individuals that didn’t reach their stride until later in life. There may be a lot of not-so-good artwork in the past but as we all know, people (not all but most) learn from their experiments and trials. And there is something to be said for perseverance — sticking with skill building and developing your style over a lifetime that is very admirable and should be rewarded.
So all you curators out there, and all you gallery owners, and all you committees that create the requirements for a residency — think about having an emerging mature artist exhibit as well as a youth exhibit, think about creating a mature artists corner in your gallery, and think about encouraging mature artists to apply for your residency.
“I don’t have a creative bone in my body” — I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that line or something similar. I don’t believe that statement is true of anyone. Yes, I think there are personality/character traits that lend themselves more to creative pursuits, but I believe anyone can conjure up artistic expressions if they just allow themselves the space to do so, and if they learn to turn off those voices from their past that have told them that their creations are not worthy.
I don’t know if you’ve ever encountered the Enneagram personality test. I think it can be a valuable tool to help you understand yourself, and it helps you understand how you interact with others, BUT I believe there is also a danger in labeling someone with this tool. The Enneagram, as good as it is, cannot tell the whole story of who a person is.
I happen to be a believer in a divine power that created the universe. The Bible states — God breathed into humankind the breath of life and God created humankind in His/Her own image. I believe God is purposefully stating that He/She is giving every human a part of that creative energy that created the Universe. Think of it. The being that thought up the process of how an egg becomes a larva; becomes a pupa; becomes a chrysalis; becomes a glorious butterfly has breathed into humans some of that energy. I think this is amazing. ALL of us have that creative energy inside of us. And even if you don’t believe in a divine power, I think you can feel the power of the universe inside you.
Don’t let your personal history or a personality test tell you whether you can be creative or not, I think you can form/develop the habits of a creative person and find a means of expressing your inner energy.
In essays to come I will talk about being curious, being an explorer, being a good observer, being patient, taking risks, building fertile soil, and when to listen to or ignore the critics. When you are conscious of these artistic traits and nurture them you can make great art.
If you are a believer in the Divine, the evidence of this ability to do things that seem outside of your giftedness is revealed time and time again through stories in the Bible (read the story of Gideon, Judges 6 and 7). God says I know you don’t think you can do this, but if you listen to Me, My power will make it happen.
If you don’t believe in a higher power I think you will find that there is always a hidden inner strength that you didn’t realize was there — something you can tap into that will surprise you.
Be courageous. Shed your label and do art!
There are times when I’m on a hike that I just feel like staying in motion — just making it to my goal, but most times I stop along the way; sit down for a few minutes; take in smells, noises, light, etc. If I’m in my native Michigan I can name most birds I see or hear; give a name to most plants and trees, tell what flowers are in bloom by the fragrance in the air; and speak out loud the name of the butterfly that just landed on my elbow. I’m not try to be a show-off. I know these parts of the natural world because I want to know their story. I like to know where birds migrate to and from, what time of the year the flowers bloom, do the plants have a symbiotic relationship with other species.
What is all the information good for? Does it make you a better artist? I think it can — knowing when, where, or how something might fly through or bloom in your neck-of-the-woods can be helpful.
But I think, more importantly, wanting to know these things says something about you. It means that you want a “relationship” with the subjects of your art. It means that you are trying to say more with your art than look at my pretty picture, It means that you are trying to capture the essence of your subjects, their stories, the hidden meanings and use them to paint a bigger picture. Could these subjects be used as a symbol of a life lesson or a metaphor for a life lesson because of how they behave or present themselves? If I present a subject in a place or time where it normally would not be, can that make a special statement? If I capture the subject at a certain time in it’s lifespan or certain time of the day will I create a sense of fear, hope, sadness, love, challenges, or empathy? If I juxtapose this flower in the foreground with this skyscape in the background will it create tension?
Being curious helps you to put together the puzzle of good art. The information helps you make the connections between all the elements of emotion, thought, and mystery, that make good art. Being curious helps you to find that one element that will make he artwork complete. Be curious!
A Good Observer
Cell phone off! Find a log in the woods; find a grassy ledge on a dune; find a clear bit of sandy beach just out-of-reach of the surf; find a that spot that’s at a meadow’s dead center; then pick up a stick or leaf; sift sand through your hands; run your fingers along a blade of grass; and smell the leaf, the sand, the grass, and listen — really listen. I know it’s hard to find a place with an absence of traffic noise or airplane noise or the voices of other people talking to each other while they hike — but you can let that become just white noise that fades to the background. Give yourself at least ten minutes to look slowly in all directions (including up and down) and blur and refocus your vision. I find that at about the five to six minute mark I start to see things that are new or interesting.
It is real easy, especially if you are a camera person like me, to hike at a good clip out to that spot you had in mind for some images and simply start pushing the shutter button. I’ve learned from experience that I build my best images when I slow myself down and begin by simply observing. There are even times when I go out to collect images and I end up never pushing the shutter button once. But what I am collecting is possibilities for future images. I may see a grouping of trees that I really like but after looking at it for a while I imagine those trees on a windy day or with morning light rather than evening light, or in late autumn when they’ve lost most of their leaves. I make a mental note to revisit that spot at other times or in other conditions. Or maybe I see a possibility in a subject that I really can’t capture at that spot so I begin looking for that subject at other locations. Maybe I begin to see how a certain subject in combination with another subjects has real possibilities.
I see myself as a collector and builder. It’s like cooking. I take a teaspoon from this observation, and combine it with a cup of visual thoughts I had from a month ago, and maybe a pinch of the right sunlight, add a dusting of snow or dewdrops in the morning, and frost it with the clouds I have in my image archive from a year ago. If I stir it in just the right way and let it rest for a bit (in the oven) and come back to it I’ll have a good piece of art. But the basic ingredients often come from good observation time — deliberately not jumping right into the act of creating a final piece.
Observation is something I’ve learned. It took many years to see that slowing myself down and releasing stress an anxiety are very helpful part of the creative process. Yes, I know that even in the natural world things can happen very fast and sometimes you have to get right to the business of making images, but when you can, stop and observe.
Truth and Consequences
My approach to doing art is one of following a “calling” — which means that I see my talent as God-given. I believe God has given me some talent and more importantly, the heart to make art. So when I go about my avocation of making art, I let my head and heart guide me — that’s my truth. The consequences are that this truth that I follow doesn’t always result in a profitable enterprise or images that tons of folks are interested in.
Aside: I’m not saying that you can’t have a profitable business doing art that comes from your heart — it just might make it a little more difficult — at least at first. Once you find the right folks that love what you do and they get to know you, the work of selling becomes easier.
In my case — example: I’ve been told that winter images, particularly winter landscapes, do not sell. I’m sure that’s generally true. But I love winter. I love what the extremes of cold, wind, and snow can do to a landscape, and I guess I love the challenge of shooting in harsh conditions, and it helps that there are not many people around — don’t have to use Photoshop to erase them. Example two: if there is a rush of artists heading toward a particular event, at a particular place, or at a particular time, to capture with paints, camera or sketches, a particular subject, you will often see me walking the other direction. I relish capturing the overlooked and underrepresented. It’s just what I do — can’t necessarily explain it.
And my truth often causes me to experiment with new techniques, new styles, or new subjects (I get bored easily). The consequence is time. Learning new skills, developing new processes, or figuring out how best to capture a new subject takes time. People may wonder why you haven’t posted or shown any new work in a while or why you don’t seem real productive. Truth is there is a lot of work going on — it’s just not ready for prime time.
I believe my best work comes from my truth, and I know when I’m in that mode because the act of creating art is fun and joyful for me. My advice is look for your truth and stick with it.
Note: I’m going to talk about my faith — my belief in God. I know that this topic sends up a lot of red flags for people because they don’t want to be “preached at” or feel like someone is turning this discussion on creativity into a missionary quest. My reason for including this is simple: It would be dishonest of me not to include it. A belief system is vital to nurturing creativity. Your system may not be mine, but I believe you can draw comparisons from my experience (the only experience I can share with any authenticity) to build your life as a strong creative.
Micah 6:8 — from the Hebrew Bible: He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? NRSV
What does that have to do with creativity? Everything. My life, my attitude, my purpose, my creativity are built on this foundational “requirement” — this directive from the prophet Micah. In a world that is often confusing and frustrating, I have the advantage of clarity. Creativity thrives where there is clarity — fewer distractions or confusion. Clarity is as beautiful as the light that touches the Manitou Islands just before sunrise. The word “require” has, for many, a legalistic/harsh vibe to it. So let me briefly explain how I see it. I view my life as centered on one idea — gratitude. I am eternally grateful for the gift of life that my God has made possible for me through the sacrifice of His son. So it is gratitude that compels (a better translation than “requires”) me to walk humbly. So I seek justice for others, I am kind to others, I do not seek first for the good of myself, but my priority is the good of all others. Gratitude compels me to serve others by creating the best art I can and sharing the love and joy of art whenever and wherever I can.
I’ve entered my work in many juried exhibits over the years. Most exhibits have a single judge, and most of these judges provide a statement that accompanies their selection list for the exhibit. If they are real honest about their work as a judge they admit that the selection process is a very subjective one. Biases and whimsy abound. All judges have baggage — a history of things that have inspired or uninspired them and then they are moody — what looks good one day may strike the wrong vibe the next. I’m not faulting them for that, I just like to hear the judges admit to it. I have had a piece win awards in one show and that same piece not even get accepted in the next show. Go figure.
What makes good creative work is the ability to be vulnerable — letting your emotions and thoughts rise to the surface so that you can draw on their energy. But it is hard to make that vulnerability work along side the harsh realities of reviews and selections by judges and patrons. On one hand you need some critiques and reviews of your work to grow as an artist, and on the other hand you have to discern which critiques/reviews are valuable and which ones are you can just let vaporize so they don’t damage your ability to be vulnerable. The only way I have learned to exist in both worlds is to simply be honest with myself and say, yes, not being selected for a show or overlooked by a patron does sting, but the salve is to develop your own sense of what’s good and not so good. Be involved in arts groups. Attend performances. Visit galleries. Read books on creativity. Take design classes. Then, when your work is critiqued or reviewed you can discern the value of the review based on what you’ve learned. When a judge or peer looks at your work and has a comment about the composition, your informed self will let certain statements ring true and you can use them to grow and certain statements will fall flat and you can ignore them. It’s finding a balance of building a good self worth/confidence but not be too full of yourself that you aren’t willing to listen to a judge or peer. This may sound pretty simple on paper but it takes a lot of practice.
I was struck recently when reading about several noted art makers — most of them practicing the photographic arts — how important “control” was in their whole process. By control I mean they totally embraced the science of digital imaging and were keenly aware of the best techniques that technically gave them great images. From purchasing the right camera equipment to running multiple tests on a high end printer, they reached for perfection — achieving extraordinary gallery prints. I certainly embrace their desire to be the best at what they do, but I wonder if something isn’t lost in the striving for perfection.
As a craftsman I want my work to show that I love and care about my craft — not because I want others to see how great I am at my craft, but because I want the craft to be so good that it disappears and the focus becomes the concept and gives voice to the subject. Maybe that idea is best described inversely — that if I’m not doing my craft well, the mis-cues and mistakes become distractions — taking away from what I want to express.
But then along comes reality — humans aren’t perfect, and what they create isn’t perfect, so maybe it’s okay to reveal some brokenness — maybe it is more honest and natural to create imperfect art — admit that you don’t have complete control.
When I was an art student there were times when I and my fellow students would talk about “happy accidents” — those times when you realized your skills were severely lacking — when the vase crumpled on the pottery wheel and you over-mixed your paints to create mud rather than spots of intense primary colors. Maybe the crumpled vase is more interesting than a perfectly symmetrical one? Maybe mud brown is more moody and intense than primary colors? Can brokenness be beautiful? Can revealing that you are always learning (in process) despite decades of training be part of your message as an artist? Maybe the happy accidents aren’t distractions but help tell the story.
I have to admit that there are times I want to be the Jackson Pollock of camera arts. It would feel good to just let go and have a more visceral experience with the process.
Not sure I want to throw my expensive equipment at a canvas that’s laying on a floor, but maybe the Pollock effect could be achieved in other ways. Back in the day of film I played around with multiple exposures, camera motion, and various printing processes — with lots of images hung on the wall that were not entirely successful. In the digital age, computer processing makes “cleaning up” images easy. Maybe too easy? Maybe we need to show some imperfection — show our humanity.
I’m ready to explore imperfection — how about you?