Saturday, March 30, 2013

Objectivity or Not

Raining at Night - 72" x 72" 2013

I have been very busy the past few months preparing new work for my first show in NYC in May. I tried to finish a bulk of the work before letting the gallery see it, as I don’t like too much influence. I also don’t entirely know what I am doing or where I am heading in the first few weeks. I say that literally. I honestly cannot imagine what this new body of work will look like. I do sometimes have a vague sense of it—I know that I want it to be better, more sophisticated, more powerful than work I have done before. Usually this means doing less. In other words the better work seems to happen when I am trying less hard. There usually is less thinking in it. If the painting is strong it will appear that it took less work and was easier to make but often it is quite the opposite. There will be numerous repainting and lots of do overs but the final result has to look fresh and inspired. It can’t be tired and have the slightest feeling of tedium.

 I have noticed that sometimes I can get a body of work quite close to being done but then I find that I momentarily lose my sense of objectivity and cannot tell what is done and what is not. I simply have been too close to it.

This is a good time for the gallery to visit. Not that they are the gatekeepers of what is good or finished. But the reaction of someone who is walking in fresh is useful. Generally the paintings I am positive about, they are too. "Wow! that one is great." Then they look at the one next to it and nod and say, "Yes, this is looking good too." Which translates to—Not quite as good as the one I just exclaimed over but it will do. Then I can always tell if they are definitely feeling like this one is falling flat because they will usually say, " Is this one done?" Which gives me an out because I can say, " not really, not quite” even though I did considered it finished till that very moment. What I love is that anyone, including gallery owners, don’t exactly know why something is good or not (this understanding falls in the artist’s court) but they do have a fully functioning set of sensibilities and when something is powerful it moves them and they say “Wow, I love this" and when they aren’t they say “ Is this done yet?”

So I then have a long look at what I might consider done and they consider not quite done and sometimes I am right and sometimes not. The important thing in all of this is understanding that often we can’t be objective entirely about our work. Usually the more we struggle, the longer we spend on something the more easily we can lose sight of what exactly the work feels and looks like, even to us.  The gift of objectivity - and it truly is a gift - sometimes can be summoned from the maker of the work. However sometimes true objectivity can come in the form of someone else who wanders into the studio stops in front of your latest painting and says "Wow" or regrettably, "Is this one finished?"

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Wrong. Again.

Yesterday I spent part of my day painting large shapes in a painting I thought I was improving.  I chose a color that I thought was appropriate and worked.  I went to lunch and when I came back and looked at the painting I couldn't believe that the color I had chosen was so hideous.   It was the color of dog poop.

How is it possible that with so much experience I can still make complete and utter mistakes?  It amazes me.

I spent the good part of half an hour sitting in a chair looking at the painting wondering why and how I could go so hopelessly wrong...and then I understood.  I had painted the biggest shapes, the most noticeable shapes in the painting, a dark color.  The background is a light color so the dark shapes show up very strongly.

All the subtlety in the light background area of the painting could not be noticed because the contrast of the large dark shapes were so different that they were unrelated and overpowered all the delicate subtleties that were in the background.

I am trying to make the relationships feel sensitive and sophisticated in my work.  These very dark shapes on this light background were unrefined and very clumsy.

I don't want to visually sledgehammer somebody over the head with what I've made.

So the answer was that the largest shapes don't have to be the most contrasty shapes because they all are already very large.  The contrast could be much, much less.  We will still see them and by making them less noticeable even though they are lighter in value we will still see them they won't be such a visual sledgehammer.  Once I appointed the shapes the right value (the lighter yellow green color) then suddenly the background subtleties became more apparent and the painting begins to work.  Now it is not done but this was an interesting development.

I don't know how many times I will have to relearn and relearn what I seem to already know but I guess that is just the way this process goes.  In a way, this is why it is so worthwhile.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Language Within Art

One of my mentor clients asked an interesting question the other day. It had to do with how an artist develops a personal visual vocabulary. We all recognize or know artist’s work that already has this occurring. In fact this is one of the reasons why we recognize it as mature and authentic. The language being used is highly personal. It has to first develop within the artist and then, over time, the world sees it and because of it’s authenticity, places a high value on it. But how does this happen?

How does an individual’s language make the translation from strictly verbal, auditory common sounds, to a more personal visual one?

The answer, I believe, has to do with time. Over many years, a lifetime perhaps, there is a process that the artist goes through that converts her language into symbols or certain kinds of marks. For example if the artist is uplifted by an idea regarding nature then, if it is important enough, the artist sometimes abbreviates it into a particular mark. Maybe the feeling becomes an abstracted leaf shape. This abbreviation or mutation from the literal thing, to a feeling and then into a visual mark seems to happen as a result of having the same idea or feeling repeatedly. If we want to show or create a feeling of a thing from our life, then we can use almost any symbol, and if when we see it we can feel the same feeling that the original thing caused us to feel in the first place. For example, I use the infinity sign and in my work it means unlimited possibility. When I draw that shape in my work and leave it there, I am reminding myself of a truth that I know exists and because of this and it’s reassuring nature, I want to experience it often. In other words, it drifts through my day and when it does, especially when I am painting, I notate it for myself  by drawing or carving this particular infinity sign. Of course in the beginning, nobody else understands. But over time, even if people don’t literally understand, I think they can recognize when a conversation is occurring.

It is almost as if over time we are creating a secret world with it’s own language. In time, people wandering into this personal visual language become engaged too. They even might assign new meanings or certainly modify yours to better fit their own. And then, amazingly, using this new language, a dialogue begins.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Talented or Not?

This morning was the first day of a new workshop at Esalen. One of the most challenging issues for everyone is this nagging uncertainty about whether we have talent or not. This is especially true for those considering extending themselves into a creative endeavor for the first time.

Haven’t we all wondered whether we are truly talented? 

It is the most defeating of feelings when you start down that road that leads to self-doubt. I hate that place and rarely go there anymore.

What I reassure people (and yes, myself too) again and again is that talent, in fact has little to do with anything.  Especially art. I said this last night on the very first evening in the workshop; it takes a while for this to sink in. After all, this idea that some of us are “gifted” and others not, has been drummed into our heads for years.  Parents, schoolteachers, friends and even other artists get involved in perpetuating this myth.

I have been involved in teaching art and helping people re find their creativity for 25 years and from my experience I have discovered that amazing artwork, incredible ingenuity and creativity comes out when ANYONE takes the time to learn and express themselves from a place of authenticity. Simply said, powerful artwork is made by people who have learned to communicate their individuality in a way that is in alignment with what they love and are passionate about. If there IS one ingredient needed for the making of “genius” artwork I would say without a doubt it would be passion. When you combine individuality (and we are all individuals!) with passion and a measure of vulnerability and risk then amazing surprising artwork arrives. 

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Quietly flying

The upside and the downside of making art or being creative is that over time it seems to make you more sensitive to your environment. Sometimes I like this and sometimes I don't.

Every year “Fleet Day” comes to San Francisco and the Air Force spends a long weekend flying six Blue Angel jets super low all around San Francisco- even under the golden gate bridge. For me, these aircraft are unbelievably loud and somewhat frightening. 
I was talking to my friend and painter Adam Wolpert years ago on the roof of the Academy of Art in San Francisco the day when the jets were ripping across the sky. We were having lunch and it was  windy. Just as one of these near deafening jets went by a seagull spied a piece of my sandwich and did a double take and then a quick mid air cutback to scoop up the bread from the ground, all without breaking flight.  Adam remarked that he was far more amazed, far more stupefied with the grace, the nuance of the flight of this seagull than the 27 million dollar jets ripping the sky apart above our heads.  It seemed to exemplify the artistic preference for something more subtle, less showy and more poetic. It was an interesting preference, probably not one shared by most people, but I could relate.
  Having this preference for less jarring stimuli is not something that I have always liked –it lessens the kind of movies I can go to, it makes me choose more expensive food stores because of the better lighting, and it ends up making me spend absurd amounts of money on products mostly because I like the packaging. I have spent far more time in botanical gardens than at Nascar races.
Do you sometimes feel this way too? It can be burdensome at times, but happily, others seem to feel the same way too.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Sometimes walk away.

I have noticed an interesting thing about how I learn and how I improve my art.
I used to think that the MORE time I spent painting-actually physically working
hard was in direct proportion to how much MORE I learned and improved my work.

Working hard is something I have forced myself to get good at but now I think that maybe this was not such a good thing to get good at after all.  Listening to the poet philosopher David Whyte speaking in San Francisco a couple of years ago I jotted something down in my sketchbook that he said regarding learning. He was talking more metaphorically, probably larger in terms of learning from our life – how to live, rather than art making, but it resonated with me.  It was a quick sentence and at the time I didn’t really understand, so I wrote it down so later I would. He said, “…Visitation, absence, visitation, absence, visitation, absence, (this repeated over and over again) is how we learn.”  In other words the time BETWEEN the periods of effort, the pauses in-between are fundamentally as important as the periods of work. He believes that this “on, off and on again “ process produces more consistent, more substantial results. This is true for me too. Does this resonate with how you learn?

I teach a 7-dayworkshop every year at Esalen. This is an amazing opportunity for people to spend an unbroken week just focusing on their art. The improvement is extraordinary. However I also teach a 6 week, 3 hours per week Artful Life ongoing course in my studio. What I am seeing, amazingly is that these students, even though they are only working 3 hours a week are also improving at an amazing rate. What I think is happening is that even though they are not physically painting they are nonetheless still THINKING about principles they have learned. Examples of color, value, composition all begin to creep into their everyday life and as a result their visual sensitivity increases. I see a marked improvement when they come to class the 2nd and 3rd time, even though they have NOT been painting. Miraculously they just have improved.
So maybe, and I am mostly needing to tell myself this, we don’t need to work harder, but instead just put the brushes in the can of turpentine and go away for the afternoon. Suddenly, in the name of improving my work, bird watching, maybe collecting driftwood or even playing bocce ball all suddenly seem relevant.  
Visitation, Absence, visitation, absence. I think I am going to like this new way of working. 

The photograph was taken following my daughter Lyla, 19 on the final ascent of "Clouds Rest" a nine thousand ft.  peak in Yosemite National Park. 

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

It Takes A Village

Why is it easier to attempt challenging things when you are part of a group?
This morning I arrived for a Crossfit class walked in on the end of the previous 5:15 am class. I stood there half awake wondering two things. Firstly, what the hell was I doing here so early in the morning, and then secondly what an amazing display of will and determination I was witnessing. It was apparent that the group, the combined energies of everyone in the room, was making it possible for these folks to pull this off. There is something about having the momentum of a group that makes things possible for individuals to achieve more than they would on their own. I couldn’t imagine, for example, any of these people doing this workout alone in their living room at 5:15 in the morning.

I often lament that art making doesn't sometimes have this possibility. Artists just are squirreled away in studios miles and miles apart with no idea what anyone else is doing. The closest thing I have ever experienced of this kind of group momentum in relationship to art making is during weeklong workshops. Having a community around you while also working on your individual art is the best of both worlds.

Lately I have come to the conclusion that my art definitely has improved because of my community. Having shows, dealing with galleries, embracing and giving your energy to other artists and supporters who are interested and engaged provides me with an amazing buoyancy and momentum I just don’t think I could muster all alone. I believe that in order to do what I love I am convinced I need as many people involved as possible. Having a community that your part of and participate in is essential. When the community flourishes from everyone’s energy and input and begins to rise, then you along with everyone else do too.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Mistaken Paths

How much do we influence each? When does influence become copying?

These are all questions that all artists have to answer for themselves. If we are honest, we can all say, that at certain times we have copied others work. Nobody wants to admit this-it is so much better to be totally original.  But can we all be exceptionally unique?

I know that when people have remarked that my artwork reminds them of someone else’s that it doesn’t feel very good. For one thing, the art they are invariably comparing mine  to is usually better and more sophisticated. You can never ever be more original than the original. It does sting a little. The total opposite of creating something authentic, something personal is, rather sadly, creating something totally derivative.

I understand the need to do this. I know because I have done it. You get so tired of not knowing where the hell your going, not being clear that you are on any kind of a road that is eventually going to lead someplace worthwhile, that you just need a pause, a rest perhaps, to float along buoyed by the efforts of someone else for awhile. It always seems easier to see somebody else’s path rather than our own. The reason, (and I would say the argument) for not co -opting someone else’s journey, is BECAUSE we don’t actually know where we are going. It is not supposed to be clear as we haven’t gotten far enough along to even realize it as our own and that is why it is so engaging and worthwhile.

If you are paying attention to your work, you will eventually create a path that is wholly you own. Your work is a reflection of you and you are totally unique and one of a kind. You are, by the very definition of what it means to be a human being, already original. We all are.
Your not supposed to know where you are going. We think we want to know. We think we just need a few sales to make us feel hopeful. We think we need to be making likeable work at any cost, but in the end, the cul de sac that one finds themselves in when they start copying someone else is just simply that—a dead end. In the beginning it feels easier but it actually is detrimental to the development of the artist because growth has stopped and invariably the far more serious state of boredom begins to creep in. It just simply is not interesting to do someone else’s art.

The Poet, philosopher, David Whyte perfectly articulates this line of thinking….  “If we can see the path ahead laid out for us, there is a good chance it is not our path; it is probably someone else's we have substituted for our own." 
We need to remind each other that none of us should stay very long in these stagnant somewhat embarrassing places for very long. Somebody needs to give us a swift kick in the pants and send us back out there, back out into the realm of passion, individuality and true authenticity.

Monday, January 21, 2013

I want to be a fireman when I grow up.

My next show is opening May 11th in NYC and I don’t know what I am going to make.
I kept thinking that I had so much time. The year hasn’t even really started, my show is not until May which feels like the middle of the year – so close to June which IS the middle of the year. However I have learned that if you want to seriously promote and recover from making the work you need to be done a month early. That gives me till April 15th  I like to have 3 months at a minimum. And now, today, I have less than that because the 15th was 6 days ago. I always think that the next show I do, I will start way early,  and just take my time…paint a little every day, spend more time outside of the studio, see friends and go for way more runs with my dog, Maizy.
I think I am kidding myself about how I work. I possibly am fooling myself into thinking that at some point here with all this art business I will figure it out and seamlessly place it in my life in such a way that it is just an enjoyable pastime that gently results in exhibitions every 6 months or so. It is almost as if I have bought into the idea or the fantasy that non artists have of what it is like to be an artist and how great it would be to do just dabble away all day doing what you love and get paid for it.

Well it is great. But in a way it is great after AFTER the fact. After you have had the show, after you have sold lots of the work- that part is really great, not just because obviously one needs income but it also confirms that the hunches you had early on, the insecurities, the questions you placed and eventually answered were resolved correctly. We need to know again and again that we still have IT and that it is not just a fluke that we are artists - that this ridiculously vague notion of being an artist, whatever that means, somehow fits what you do.  I always thought it would be so great to be a fireman. That profession has such clear, defined boundaries.  Not only does society, friends and family understand clearly what you do but you do too. If the house is on fire, if the cat is crying at the top of the tree you know exactly what to do. A frigging alarm even goes off that TELLS you when to do what you do.
First you get to slide down that pole. (I just love that-what career builds into it a joy ride, a mini thrill into your day?)  Your fantastic day begins by jumping up from your bed, slipping down a slippery pole in order to save a few nano seconds of time. You are so needed, your time so precious, your job is so crucial that to run down the stairs one floor to get to your red truck would just not do. Your time is valuable. Lives, in fact, are at stake. You get a totally cool costume, sirens, giant water hoses, ladders, get to play with fire all day long and the distinct possibility that you could save somebody’s life. The job of the fireman is so not like an artist’s that it leaves me at a standstill. I have had thoughts about just getting a fire poll to leap from my bed and slide down to the studio but honestly there is no rush. If I get there a second or two earlier it makes no difference. I still don’t know what I am going to do when I get there. I could even dress a certain way but there just is no point. Nobody is waiting at a burning building to be rescued. There will be no possibility to be a hero today. I do have a dog. It is not spotted like a fireman’s but at least I have that part in place.
Being an artist is all about not having a clue and spending inordinate amounts of time being directionless.  By its very definition there is no definition. It is a non -profession. The main missing ingredient is that there is no certainty. It is a mushy; find your way in the dark, figure it out as you go along kind of profession. Today, standing at the bottom of the hill starting to push a bicycle with two flat tires, it seems enormously unimaginable as to what I am supposed to do now. How am I going to get there? What am I going to make that somehow relates, somehow carries the thread of what I am interested in?

I will get to the studio today. It will probably take awhile as undoubtably there will be far more easier things to do before STARTING on that blank white panel that has been hanging in my studio for the past 8 days. I will get there, hopefully today, but I am not certain. I do know that I will begin here at some point. And that, according to my notes from previous years scribbled in the margins of endless half filled sketchbooks is how you start. How one thing will lead to another which in turn will lead you to the next. I am not sure it will work this way again like it has in the past but it is all I know how to do. I know of no other way to get there. I cannot wait to be able to look back 3-4 months from now and say I made the right decisions, that the hunches were right. That clearly, if I can make all this stuff, that this whole gallery 4 months from now is filled with intention, clarity and obvious certainty that I am still solidly and unmistakably an artist. I will not have saved anyone with my work along the way, nor will I be a hero for sure but I know I will be tremendously grateful.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Starting Again

Why is it so hard, after a break, to start working again? I always feel resistance. Several times during the Xmas break I came into the studio and, after working so hard here for months, I was surprised to feel how foreign it all felt. There was my table with all the used up paints and the floor was still covered with my paint mess. The evidence of my art making was everywhere, but I still felt like a visitor to my own studio. I have noticed that the absence of making art dangerously leads to more of the same..."The less you do the less you do." Creating is a muscle that will happily atrophy if we allow it. The solution, at least for me is to just begin  and try to show up and pay attention to what is in front of me and become wonderfully lost in it all. It takes a bit of effort at first although, like an awkward first kiss that is doubly filled with vulnerability and  anticipation, it also holds a degree of excitement for what might be possible for the future.
It does seem true in art making that "the less you do, the less you do." Fortunately, however, the inverse  is also true-"the more you do the more you do!"  This makes it possible to find your groove over and over again. It is how we build our own momentum and produce and create art like there is no tomorrow. It allows us to fill our studio, our imaginations and dreams with our art. Again.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Best Made Plans

Sometimes what I set out to make does not end up being what I make. I might have a clear idea of what I want, but somewhere along the way I change my mind or something comes along that is far more interesting that my original idea. This seems to be happening more and more to me. I also see that the paintings that deviate the most from my plan are often the best. So would if I began without any preconceptions? Why not just paint anything? How about a bunch of dots? I know that everything is going to change anyway and if I am not really driving the bus, so to speak, then maybe I should just do whatever strikes me at the moment. Maybe a painting is just a series of over lapping moments of experience. A small piece of our life that will be held, forever, in the form of a painting.