Comparing Ourselves to Everybody in the Whole Damn World

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Map of the Mojave Rain Forest
11″x14″ acrylic on canvas

I was working away at the easel a week ago when I took a break and ran across an art news story that not only gave me pause, but stopped me dead in my pitiful tracks.

It was the announcement that the Metropolitan Museum of Art has just made 375,000 art images available and free for the public.  You can do whatever you want with these images.  That’s a lot of art.  But the story went on to note that the National Gallery in Washington, DC also has about 45,000 such images available, the New York Public Library has made 180,000 images available, the British Library has over 1,000,000 images (count those zeros) and the Rijksmuseum has 150,000 images.

Now, even if some of the public images are duplicates from one museum or library to another, the numbers are still (as he who shall go nameless might say) – “Huge!”

So I stopped and asked myself what I was doing with that canvas and those paints. It’s somewhat akin to the feeling a writer has when she walks into a library or a bookstore with all those books on the shelves.

We need some perspective.  First of all, a lot of those images are of art created a long, long time ago.  And given samples I checked out, some of them were probably donated by family members of would-be small-time artists and hardly qualify for the Louvre.  Others, of course, are good, even great depending on the artist in which case we’re back to the question:  What am I doing with that canvas and those paints?

Well, I’m certainly not trying to compete with a couple of million works of art (questionable or great).  So am I trying to compete with all the living artists in America today?  Ha.  All the living artists in California? Again, ha.  All the living artists in my neighborhood…hmmm.  Like Jack Benny, “I’m thinking. I’m thinking.”

A little healthy competition can be a good thing.  Runners and other athletes know it.  You win or you lose.  The stats are there for all the world to see and nobody likes a sore loser. For creative people, the “stats” are subjective and healthy competition can slide into jealousy or discouragement/depression.

If it’s jealousy, we can end up as nuts as Salieri when Mozart outdid him.  (If you need a refresher on this watch Amadeus again.) If it’s discouragement/depression, we can hit blocks that cause us to walk out of the studio, shut the door and never look back.

I don’t know about you, but for me it’s not going to be either of these.  We have a third option and that option is to value the art we do without interference from any critics or juries or even the public.  Selling the art is a different subject, so let’s not get confused here.

Most of us know we’re not Michelangelo or Rothko or O’Keeffe. But we also know enough to see when we’re working well and when we’re not.  We continue to learn and congratulate ourselves on pieces we know are pretty darned good and to find lessons in the ones that go south on us and even make us shake our heads with a “What was I thinking?” laugh.

In their wonderful book Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking, David Bayles & Ted Orland include this little dialogue:
Q: Will anyone ever match the genius of Mozart?
     A:  No.
Thank you–now can we get on with our work?”

Let us be grateful that all those art images are now available, but let us not be jealous or intimidated by what’s gone before.  We don’t have time.  We have work to do.

 

 

 

The Naming Game

When I was an art history student required to memorize names of artists, dates, places and works of art, my favorite title for an artwork was Marcel Duchamp’s “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even.”  The work itself is an abstract composition of glass, paint, dust and the workings of Duchamp’s mind, but the title – to me – is sheer poetry and adds to the intrigue of the piece.

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“The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even”
Marcel Duchamp

“The Bride…” came to mind this week when I read an article about problems abstract artists have titling their works.  Working as one of those artists myself I’ve been stumped by this, too.

Landscape painters and portraitists have a more solid place to begin:  “Sunset over Ocean Beach,” “Meadow with Wild Flowers,” “Henry Wiggins, 1968,” and so on.  But even realist painters sometimes want to branch out and come up with something a little different.

Many abstract artists, especially abstract expressionists, simply number the paintings.  “Blue No. 5,”  Black and White No. 32.”  I understand this impulse because I want to let viewers of my own abstract work decide for themselves what the painting is about.  I prefer to let the painting connect to their experience and emotions without me butting into the conversation like a Miss Fidditch of the art world.

There are a lot of schools of thought about this naming business, but I did find help online as we artists work to come up with names – a name generator that will do the hard work for us!  I gave it a try the other day and came up with a few possibilities for a new painting:  “Complicated Movement,” “Unconscious Eye of Lust,” “Intimate Intensity,” “Surface of Fear 1955,” “Intensity vs Investigation,” “The Celluloid Air.”  Hmmm.

Writers have a similar problem when it comes to titles for their novels and I wonder how many copies of a book titled Among the Ashes and Heaps would have sold.  Probably not nearly as many as The Great Gatsby. 

Other suggestions for titling abstract works include using lines from books or poems, either something you already love or just a random stab with your finger in a book.  As a poet, this idea appeals to me and as a jazz aficionado, so does the idea of song lyrics.  I gave the random stabbing idea a try for this new one and grabbed a book of poetry off the shelf.  Not mine, somebody else’s.  This is what my finger landed on, “…this reliable frame that lets color be…”  I like it.  I’m going with it.

Maybe next time I’ll give the generator another try, but until it comes up with something as inventive as “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even,” I’ll go with poetry. Or possibly just “Red No. 43.”

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“…this reliable frame that lets color be…”
title from “News of the Occluded Cyclone”
by Alice Fulton

acrylic painting on canvas, 11x 14

 

Resonance

 

January is now over and February is upon us.  I vowed to take the month of January off to recoup after the holidays and unsettling  news stories.  By the end of December, my painting mojo was on some other planet and I needed time to find it again.  So, no social activities, concerts or major events in quiet January.

I broke the quiet last evening when I went to a small jazz performance by a world class guitarist and a flute player.  It was the perfect way to rev up the mojo again and get me back to both painting and writing.

As for the groundhog who apparently poked his nose out this morning in Pennsylvania, I don’t know.  I’ve got myself on a media diet this month and as far as I’m concerned, “No news is good news” for the month of February.  I’m hoping that the worst will be over by the end of the month.  “Yeah,” I hear you say, “right.”

Either way, I’m happily playing with the paints and gesso, the palette knives and canvas even as I fiddle with words for a new poem.  My first major art instructor told me long ago to put my easel in the best light and my writing desk next to it.  “They’ll feed each other.”

Judging from what’s happened so far in February, I have to think he was right.  My painting table and my writing table (with computer) are, in fact, right next to each other.  I’m able to move from one to the other as the paint dries or the words come slowly and feel the resonance between the two.

It may not be magic, but it’s something.   And I’m keeping it.

First February painting, 11×14 acrylic, “Map of the Inner Harbor”img_1899

 

Hippos in Tutus and Other Odd Thoughts about Art

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As I work at my continuing/continual self-education in the art world, I read a lot of articles and blogs about art.  They’re often quite helpful and informative, but I realized recently that few of the articles I read actually have to do with the work of art – technique, problem-solving, materials, tools, etc.

Rather, nearly all the articles from any art source these days are about marketing.

So much talk about price points and the relative salable merits of oil over acrylic over watercolor.  Talk about which sizes sell best and advice on salability of paintings that are (a) larger or (b) smaller.  Realistic paintings vs abstract.  Competitions vs art fairs.  The marketing discussions never seem to end.

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Let me say that I know most of us want to sell our work . Let me say further that I am not a cock-eyed optimist who believes some major buyer will one day – sooner than later, I hope – see my paintings and the clouds will part, angels will sing, I’ll get a one-woman show in a well-known gallery, and I’ll sell every painting I’ve done.

(This scene is related to the one in which the plain young secretary takes off her glasses, unpins her hair and  the young executive says – breathlessly, “Why, Miss Havisham, you’re beautiful!”)

Yeah, it happens in the movies, but hippos dance in tutus in movies, too.

In many arts – theatre, dance, and music for instance – it’s understood that you keep “taking class” as long as you keep working.  You keep learning all the time – practicing, rehearsing, polishing, perfecting.  Sure you audition and try to get paying work, but not without continuing to make your work better.

That’s where I am, this recently fledged artist who is no longer a beginner, working on the craft every day, rehearsing and practicing and then evaluating as best I can what I’ve done and what more I need to learn.  Plenty.

As I do this, the through-line for me (to use a theatre term) is color.  It’s the consistency I want and can depend on and which makes my heart sing.  If your heart doesn’t sing, why are you doing what you do?

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I can draw and I thought recently that I’d try something a little more realistic, but my mind, body, and art spirit just balked.  So unless something changes, I’m in the colored world of abstract expressionism for the long haul.  I don’t think I’ve found my voice yet in visual art, but I do know where to look for it.  I’m guessing it will turn up somewhere among the azurite blue, cadmium red and Naples yellow.

The recent 8″ x 10″ pieces here are my latest step on the journey…

 

 

Words On Color From The Masters And A Six-year-old

Color is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand which plays, touching one key or another,
to cause vibrations in the soul.”

— Wassily Kandinsky

“Colour and I are one. I am a painter.”
–Paul Klee

“The craving for colour is a natural necessity just as for water and fire. Colour is a raw material indispensable to life. At every era of his existence and his history, the human being has associated colour with his joys, his actions and his pleasures.”
— Fernand Leger

You put down one color and it calls for an answer. You have to look at it like a melody.”
–Romare Bearden

“Color! What a deep and mysterious language, the language of dreams.”
–Paul Gauguin

and finally, from writer and artist Jules Feiffer,

“Artists can color the sky red because they know it’s blue. Those of us who aren’t artists must color things the way they really are or people might think we’re stupid.”
–Jules Feiffer

I include the Feiffer because it reminds me of a little story I heard from a grade school teacher who noticed a little boy coloring a picture with a pink and purple sky. The teacher stopped and explained to the boy that the sky was not pink or purple, it was blue.  The boy insisted on his colorful sky and the teacher insisted he was mistaken.  “Then,” she said, “when I was driving home that night just as the sun was setting, there before me was the most beautiful pink and purple sky!  I was the one who was mistaken.”

Let us take our lessons for art and life where we find them and never be too quick to judge or dismiss anything that makes someone else’s heart sing.

Make your sky any color you want!  At some moment on some day or night, it will be exactly right, and no one will think you’re stupid.

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A new work.  Is that a green sky?

Everything Counts

“Mere color, unspoiled by meaning, and unallied with definite form, can speak to the soul in a thousand different ways. ” — Oscar Wilde

I don’t make any claims to speaking to the souls of others in even one way, let alone a thousand different ways.  But I will admit that choosing abstract expressionism with color “unspoiled by meaning and unallied with definite form” speaks to my own soul. Shouts. Whispers. Sings. Teases. Promises.

Looking back – and it’s a long and winding road – I can see that my love of color and of art began back in those kindergarten and first grade classes before computers and kid-size electronics.  We used a rough natural color drawing paper that made a wonderful canvas-like ground for our Crayola crayons.  Most of us had standard boxes of 24. Opening the box and looking at the two rows of pristine points of color was a wonderful moment.

Lucky kids had boxes with forty-eight colors, but some of us had already figured out that we could make all the colors we wanted with twenty-four. And we’d also figured out that it was fun to do that.

I didn’t come from an artistic family that encouraged me to paint or draw.  I was encouraged to write but my grandmother saw through this and bought me my first real painting set when I was ten.  My mom gave me a paint-by-number set when I was twelve, but beyond those two isolated events, I was on my own, and writing filled my days until I got to college where I took my first art history course and was blown away by the way modern artists used color.

Eventually, I did get to art school and other workshops. I learned to draw and learned about the tools of an artist. I’m still learning.  Artists, musicians, dancers, actors never stop “taking class.”

Over time and with more than one detour I’ve found the way to my own abstract expressionist paintings, and I’ve not forgotten a single thing I learned about or loved on the way from there to here – all the way back to kindergarten.

Two new pieces:

I Took a Trip on a Train
I Took a Trip on a Train
While Listening to Thelonius
While Listening to Thelonius Monk

Robin Hood’s Barn

My dear father-in-law had a saying about occasions when it seemed that a person was taking too much time to get somewhere or had deliberately made the trip longer than necessary or just seemed to be lost on the way or was telling some convoluted and long-winded story.

“That fellow went all the way around Robin Hood’s barn to get there.”

The phrase came to me again today as I thought about my progress as an artist.  Or anybody’s progress as an artist – or a writer, dancer, actor, musician, anything that requires some creativity and imagination to find the place where one feels – I don’t know – a spiritual connection with one’s work.

That sounds pretty high-and-mighty, I know, and I’m not given to using such words easily, but let’s face it – if the spirit ain’t in it, it ain’t nuthin’.  (I didn’t steal that from anybody.  I just made it up.)

You can use your own definition of “spirit.” There are plenty to choose from or you, too, can make up one you like.  But I think anybody who’s serious about the work will get what I’m trying to say.

When it comes to creativity, spirit can be elusive.  I knew I was headed this direction when I realized after several moves that the two things I always packed first were my books and my art supplies.  Art supplies I hadn’t used in years but could not bear to leave behind.  Then I made a move and left most of my books behind, but not the art supplies.  That was the clincher for me.  I hadn’t found the spirit yet, but I knew there was joy in just being with those brushes and paints and pieces for collage.  And when it came to living in my little studio apartment where space was beyond limited, I chose art instead of books/writing.  Truth to tell, I chose art over just about everything but my bed!

Spirit watches and waits for our commitment.

I’ve been painting a lot of things over the past year and a half that I found satisfying and that other people liked, too.  I’ve sold some pieces, but I knew I was not there yet; I was out of the fledgling nest, but still flying like Bob Dylan’s rolling stone, “no direction known.”

A couple of weeks ago I ran onto a Dutch abstract painter on the web, a painter and a jazz saxophonist as well.  I watched and listened and especially paid attention to Jan van Oort’s lesson about painting tools for abstract art.  Something resonated.  Then I set my brushes aside and went to the art supply store and the hardware store where I picked up all kinds of things.  For me, the tools were the key.

Not only do I love hardware stores, but I also now love the freedom to do what spirit has been calling me to do all along:  Be brave, be bold, have fun, take risks, speak your own piece.  Listen to the music.  Color is an animal that not only wags its own tail, but also sings its own song.

I may have been around Robin Hood’s barn, but I made it home.

Here are the first results.  All 20 x 24.

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