Heroics without the Whiz-Bang

Photo: Wild & SweetDuring my long unplanned sabbatical just now, I had the privilege of going on a true Spring Break expedition with my spouse and one of my sisters. It was as close to a perfect holiday as any I’ve enjoyed, but there were enough imperfections lurking on the periphery of my consciousness to keep me grounded. Food for thought is everywhere, if I’m willing and able to partake of it. The road trip south from our north-Texas home to Texas hill country provided plenty of highway time to remind me with its proliferation of roadside signs and billboards that everybody has an opinion they would be happy to make me—or dare me not to—share. This, in turn, renewed my awareness of the current Presidential candidates’ campaigning, and in further turns, of how the American penchant for debate and individual thinking has moved further and further toward the hinterlands of sheeple-think, demagoguery, and hate speech. I wanted to think of nothing more serious than wildflower peeping, lounging about, and enjoying the quiet of being a slight distance from the cacophony of daily life at home, but the signs sprouting like weeds threatened at times to choke even the hardiest of wildflowers.

Maybe I was just tired at the beginning of the trip, unwilling to do the work of steering my own thoughts elsewhere.

About the time when I’d determined to put that depressing junk aside, I was reminded by some truly spectacular scenery we happened to find that troubles are everywhere. The three of us are masters at getting fruitfully lost, going off with little plan or direction, only to pass through and end up in really magical spots time and again. A side road that caught my partner’s eye landed us unexpectedly on the banks of the Blanco river in Wimberley, where last year’s flood had smashed through and chewed the valley to kindling, taking homes and lives with it. I was admiring the once-again clear and sweet waters and only diffidently wondering at the odd toothpick-scape on their flanks when it finally dawned on me just where we were.

Photomontage: The Blanco in Wimberley

Nothing stands in the way of bluster and violence. Except patience, renewal, and hope. These have tenacity and power, too, only exercising them in more beautiful ways.

This is our life on earth, this constant juxtaposition of impression and reality, of the beautiful and the ugly and the beautiful yet again. I thought again of the bullying, anger-fueled tone of the signage and the politics it represented from all sides, and remembered that the present is not really so much worse or better than the past, one point of view not so patently more or less perfect than another, as it is our willingness to look more clearly and carefully and patiently at what is around us and even, if we are truly courageous, to learn from it all and admit to our imperfections both before and after.

Anu Garg, master of that delightful etymological publication empire Wordsmith, has an email-subscription publication called A.Word.A.Day, where I get to learn, along with the multitude of other subscribers and visitors, the origins and meanings of marvelous words and how shape, and are shaped by, our existence. Every AWAD post ends with a Thought for Today, and these are as scintillating and demanding and fulfilling as the rich tillage of the language in each individual word explicated in the posts.

Today, as is often the case, I found the closing quote cause for both self-examination and rumination on the current polarized state of my country. So few on either side of the vast divide defining nearly any aspect of life here can evidently allow that anyone else could possibly have an iota of access to intelligence, let alone truth. And perish the thought that we ourselves could conceivably be wrong! Some days it seems to me that there are no tenable middle points of anything at all anymore, only I’m Good and You’re Evil. It frightens and saddens me more than I can say. But Thomas Szasz seems to have spotted one of the pivotal causes:

Every act of conscious learning requires the willingness to suffer an injury to one’s self-esteem. That is why young children, before they are aware of their own self-importance, learn so easily; and why older persons, especially if vain or important, cannot learn at all.

Thomas Szasz, author, professor of psychiatry (15 Apr 1920-2012)

This is why my heroes tend to be among the perpetually curious, the skeptical, and those who are fearless about questioning anyone’s tastes, hopes, beliefs, and even hard-won knowledge—most especially their own. Those who never hesitate to admit when they are or even might be wrong, to negotiate the murky waters of faith, fear, and certitude to see what is further in the depths regardless of the potential for personal revolution, and who will always challenge any who make fixed claims to examine those under the light of reason, debate, logic, and yes, compassion. Because some things that nearly every living person would agree to be absolutely true are neither fair nor desirable, but ought to be brought into the cold light of day precisely for this purpose: to drive the challenger, and anyone around who dares to agree, toward positive change.Digital illo from a photo: Choose to Grow

For the highest purpose of all knowledge is not merely self-congratulation, though it may admittedly keep one warm inside; it’s growth that can be shared by any others who will listen and learn as well.

When such central concerns of the communal life as politics, social policy, religion, law, science, health care, ethics, and education have become mere arenas for every hateful phobia or ism to express itself through opinionated pettiness, self-indulgent hissy fits, screeds and screaming matches, name calling and mud-slinging and other misbehavior that would shame anyone under two years of age, I begin to despair of our future. All I can think to do is start the revolution at home, and by doing my own homework. I must try to emulate my heroes better: fearlessly ask questions, practice due diligence to support my claims, and listen calmly to all points of view with the same healthy blend of openness and skepticism. And I’ll leave the mantle of noisy self-righteousness and impossible claims and promises stashed deep in the archives of disproved history where it belongs.

Photomontage: Bluebonnets for the Win

Turns out, the wildflowers grow and proliferate, whether the area has been punctuated with political pickets, paved over with freeways, flooded, neglected, or subjected to any number of indignities natural or otherwise.

Let’s Talk about Art!

My new friend Alyssa asked if she could get some thoughts from me on my approach to art and my life as an artist. I’ve posted about much of this before here (search practically any name, term, or phrase in this post and see for yourself!), and heaven knows she wasn’t necessarily expecting to be inundated with my input, but I tried to answer each question she had as best I could manage at the moment. Thought, after all of that, I might as well share it with the rest of you. If you’re interested. What follows is Alyssa’s series of questions and my answers. This week’s answers, anyway….

Photo: Me, 2016

Just me, hangin’ out at home with some of my early grad school art. Art that was much doctored after the fact to make it more satisfying to me, by the way. Things change. I change. My art changes. Hopefully, all for the better.

What is your story?
My story as an artist is pretty much the same as my life story in general. I never set out to do or be anything particular; it just happens to me. I think that’s possibly the way most of us experience it. But for artists, it’s maybe even more common, since the world usually tells us that being an artist isn’t exactly practical, so it’s not a real vocation.

I intended to do something more apparently practical with my life wherein I could ostensibly get a job and make a living, so even though I did finally declare my undergraduate major as Art—when I was at least a junior or maybe even a senior, mind you—I was thinking all along that I should go with an English major and plan to teach. Not that I actually took a single undergraduate Ed class! My godfather, who happened to work as head of the radio program at the uni where I did my undergrad studies, sat me down during one of my social calls to his office and chided me about not committing to an art major. His take on it was something along the lines of ‘this is not about what you think you should do, but about who you are.’ My parents had been reassuring me all along that this was what a college education was for, but c’mon, who listens to their parents?! When Judd said the same thing, suddenly it became obvious. Poor Mom and Dad.

As it turned out, it was teaching that was impractical for me. Not Art, not even English. After my master’s degree, I’d moved back to live on my old home turf near alma mater and ended up getting asked by my main undergrad mentor-teacher to take on teaching a class there when they had too many students and not enough teachers on staff. I ended up staying and getting more and more classes, without having applied there at all, until in just a couple of years I was full time, and I didn’t leave that job for nearly 17 years.

In the meantime, I also got asked to teach English (writing) courses and critical-thinking classes, and a whole mess o’ stuff I’d never imagined teaching. And yes, it was practical in the sense that I spent, if you count the teaching I did during my graduate studies, about 2 decades of earning my wages as a teacher. But I never felt ‘born to teach’ like I sense some people are. It was really hard for me, and I was very self-critical. I found, as a former art teacher I knew had warned me, that very often after using all of my time and creative energies to see that my students got everything I could give them, I had none of it left for myself, so I didn’t make art or write very often at all unless I had a specific commission or deadline myself, and even those got fewer because of the time constraints of a 9-5+ teaching job. Teaching, it turned out, was not my calling.

Was it worth it? Yes, in many, many ways. It kept food on my table and a roof over my head and other very useful stuff. I certainly learned far more from my students (and colleagues, of course), all the time, than they could possibly have learned from me. I worked in the building next door to the one where my [now] husband and a ton of our mutual friends worked in the music department, precious connexions I suppose would’ve been unlikely had I not been teaching there. But I was overjoyed when we reached the point in our lives that we could afford what my husband suggested: I stopped teaching and became a full-time work-at-home artist. No promise of any income; no demands for it, if it didn’t occur as part of what moved me artistically. I am one incredibly lucky person! Now I make art again simply because I need to make art.

What first attracted you to art?
I never stopped loving doing the stuff that comes pretty naturally to all kids: playing imaginatively, daydreaming, and making visual or textual notes on those ideas and inspirations with whatever media came to hand. Crayons, pencils, found objects, paints, dough, dirt, whatever. So I just kept doing it. The more I made, the more people cheered me on and motivated me to keep making more. I’ve had plenty of times when I slowed down or lost a sense of direction, but I always end up coming back to making visual documents of my inner life. Still a kid at heart.

What keeps you interested in art?
Life. There’s just so much crazy, wonderful, unexpected adventure and junk and weirdness packed into any given day that merely journaling what all of it inspires in my tiny corner of the universe is endless fodder for art. And I’m always seeing others’ art, sometimes very intentional and skilled, sometimes quite accidental or done in ways that don’t speak to me at all personally, that still makes me want to respond with more of my own. I am notorious for not being able to sit through the shortest play, concert, church service, restaurant meal, sporting event, or whatever without mentally redesigning everything around me from the room I’m in to the technical systems, costumes or uniforms, menus, etc, etc, etc, not to mention the art on the walls. Fun, but admittedly a little distracting at times. There’s a reason some of us are infamous for daydreaming when others think we should be better focused on the business at hand. Which is true, to a certain extent, but of course how would anything new ever get invented if we fuzzy-headed folk didn’t dream it up? I consider my art-making first and foremost a problem-solving process, and that puzzle aspect of it never fails to intrigue me.

How do you know when a piece is finished?
Occasionally, “finished” just means I’m now bored with working on a particular piece and want to stop. But most of the time, either I’ve got or have invented for myself, via blogging or other means, a specific deadline, so I try to find meaningful closure that satisfies me for the purposes of that work. It doesn’t mean that I’m thrilled with the end product every time or all of the time, just that it’ll do for now. I dislike my shortcomings, but I’m not entirely afraid of failure either, believing that’s where growth happens. What gives me the sense of closure varies widely from piece to piece: each needs to have what strikes me as a strong composition, the right degree of finish in the technique, a storyline that’s strong enough to make it interesting to me, and/or other such characteristics, but these can be quite vague or differ in their proportions.

Sometimes, looking at an artwork some time long after I’ve pressed “Publish” or had to use it for its commissioned purpose, I see a way to improve it—technically or in terms of my pleasure in its appearance, it doesn’t matter. If I can, I’ll preserve the original state in addition to the new iteration (yay for digital media). If not, I’ll decide whether I’m willing to risk losing the piece as it stands for one more try. Usually, yes. More often than not, if it’s not on any actual deadline, I just set it aside when I feel that it does what I wanted it to do and seems complete or enough so, and then I come back and look it over once in a while. I’ve got some stuff that I’ve changed even years after I first made it, and some that I alter within days or even hours. And plenty that just stays as-is because I’m still contented with it as it stands or I’ve lost interest in messing with it—for now. Commissions, sales, and gifts are a boon in the sense that once the work is out of my hands, it’s too late to fiddle with it and I get closure that way. If I’m extra lucky, I might get either a couple of bucks or a new fan as well.

Do you believe that art requires talent?
“Talent” is a wonderfully vague and elusive term. I do think that some few rare birds do have native talent or an inborn sense of how-to-do-things in any field, and that gives them an advantageous start to gaining expertise in that practice. But that—practice—is what I think ultimately makes or breaks the stars. It’s the inborn gift that may give them the urge, the fire, the commitment to practice constantly and over long periods and with ever-increasing skill, and the practice is what makes them better able to produce anything superb or wonderful. No matter what they’re doing, a natural inclination to do a particular thing and the seemingly genetic ability to do so with facility is only the starting point, and engagement in it over the long term is the real payoff. Notice that I don’t say that the payoff is an artwork or body of art…I’ve long since found that the artworks are just the documents, the artifacts, if you will, of the real wealth of being an artist, which is the process.

What is your definition of art?
I’m not convinced that it’s useful to define the word itself. Can’t imagine discovering a one-size-fits-all definition. If I’m really serious about the ‘journey being more important than the destination,’ then the definition has to arise, to some extent, from the purpose of the moment. Does the piece fulfill the definitions implied by the commission, customer- or artist-determined? Does it meet my art teacher’s requirements for the assignment? Does it give me the satisfaction of producing it that I demand? Each time, the answer may be different. I’m not hugely impressed with most definitions of the term, thinking that they are inherently too narrow, too rigid, or too vague; too polemical, or most often of all, too self-serving (“I call my work Art, so it’s Art”), so I tend not to think about it much unless for the purposes of starting a conversation that could go on eternally. Which I did do, occasionally, in the aforementioned critical-thinking courses, because it was just such a delightfully, perversely open question.

Should art be composed of meaning and technical skill in order to be considered “good”?
Again, I’d be situationally inclined in answering that. Does it meet the requirements of the moment? That’s probably a better barometer of value than trying to find a universal definition. I never hesitate to have my opinions about what I like, what I think is well-vs-poorly executed, or how I think one work compares to another, but I generally try not to share those opinions other than in polite ways and clearly as opinions, and that, only when asked directly. People take art criticism incredibly personally because how we define it internally is unique to us and our prejudices and experiences. In classes, critiques are necessary if we’re to have any common language in order to learn from each other’s experience and opinions. Having a conductor husband, I know that musicians in general, and singers in particular, have a tremendous amount of themselves invested in what they produce for pleasure, a living, or both. In the singer’s case, his or her body is literally the instrument of the performance. Visual artists’ imaginations are as much their tools and instruments as the paper and pencil, steel and welding torch, or paint and canvas are, so there’s a similar sense of being personally exposed in and to the critique that makes us very touchy about what others do and don’t like. Meanings can be equally hard to suss out, since what seems ridiculously obvious to one person may not be even detectable to another just as easily in visual works as in verbal or textual exchanges.

What inspires you?
Everything and nothing. I can happily and—dare I claim it—productively do what looks like nothing whatsoever for hours or days on end, letting ideas brew in my head and collecting the experiences and thoughts of the passing time to spice the stew; this process, yes, this research and preparation, informs the physical production of any work that follows. Good prep even speeds up production. Mise en place is valuable. But I can’t comfortably or usefully live entirely in my head. Gotta eat, drink, sleep, take bathroom breaks, read, learn, and get along with having a life, or I won’t think or do anything particularly new or inspiring. Favorite topics and storylines recur consistently, as you can see in this blog, but I hope that each time I take up the pen, whether proverbially or literally, it’s with a slightly new take somehow. Sometimes, it’s those very ordinary things I do (eat, drink, sleep, etc) that provide the extra nudge.

What do you believe have been your greatest achievements; whether it be art related, intellectual, academic, etc.?
Loving and being loved beat everything else. Period.

In terms of worldly accomplishment, I think I can safely say that all of the events, projects, and achievements that I’ve felt moved me forward most dramatically in my life—artistically, academically, in my work, in my personal relationships—were all challenges for which I was egregiously under-qualified, inexperienced, and unprepared. Generally speaking, a bit of fear, much as I tend to avoid it when I can, is highly motivational. I usually do far better than I expected, thankfully, but I’m still wonderfully risk-averse by habit. Good thing life shoves me into the path of growth from time to time.

When are you most satisfied with your art?
Generally, I’m happiest when I’m in the middle of making art. I’m delighted when I’ve finished something that I’m happy with as an end-product as well, and perhaps most of all when another person or two shows an interest in the work, because despite my having made the art just to please myself, it apparently gave someone else some interest and/or pleasure. Bonus. Double bonus, if and when, having made an interesting journey through making an artwork, I get this nice interaction as a gift, and in turn I am given the urge or inspiration to do the next artwork. Lovely.

How do you balance following your passions with responsibilities?
These days I make my practical living as Executive Support Staff for my husband and not a sou directly from my art. My household maintenance and chores and errands help keep him ready and functional for his demanding day job—his job and two-thirds, this year, as he’s covering for a retired colleague on top of his own normal job—and that’s what pays our bills. But it’s my art, as well as his, that gives me the greater richness in life. I do both of my “jobs” simultaneously, interweaving them in the fabric of the everyday: put a load of laundry in the washing machine and a batch of stuff in the slow cooker for dinner, then sit down to draw and write. Take intermittent breaks for doing whatever daily household management tasks are needed, for editing texts for the international choral journal I’ve served for a number of years, for going to a rehearsal as ‘extra ears’ for my spouse or another conductor, going out grocery shopping or having the car tuned up, and so forth. Back to art and writing.

The one thing I’m worst at keeping in balance in my life, because my work and pleasures are so intermixed, is taking a true break without feeling compelled to dash back almost immediately to producing one or the other. In the 4+ years I was blogging daily, it took such a huge majority of my waking time just to do the combined visual image production, post writing, and correspondence required by the blog that I’d often work from when I got up in the morning until bedtime (and past) without more breaks than absolutely necessary for survival, and eventually I was finding I didn’t unplug often enough to do justice to having a genuine face-to-face conversation with anyone but my spouse or a real vacation from the routine. Not entirely great for creativity or personal warmth. So I learned, first, to take time during certain periods to pre-produce posts and let them be truly plug-and-play during some weekends or holidays, and finally (this winter) to simply STOP. For. A. While. Great, refreshing stuff, that. Reminds me that there’s more to my life than any single element can give, and that I have to feed it as much as it feeds me.

What are some of your favorite styles of art?
There are fewer types, styles, and eras of art that I don’t like than those I do. But I find myself coming back fondly and often to some more than others, among them, Art Nouveau, sixties Photorealism or seventies Superrealism, Impressionism and post-Impressionism. Pre-Raphaelite stuff, even some of the really twee sentimental idealism therein. Viennese Secessionist art and design. Contemporary surrealism and magic realism. I’m a big fan of a few of the super-slick or popular artists that have periodically gotten critical disrespect for being “too” glib, facile, or pretty in their work (too popular, too commercial)—yeah, John Singer Sargent, I’m talking about you! Anders Zorn, Wayne Thiebaud, Alphonse Mucha, Norman Rockwell; yea verily, even some comic-book superhero (Frank Miller), tattoo, and pinup artists (Vargas & Vallejo). Ralph McQuarrie. Yummy stuff. But I also like grungier, more unsettling works and styles when I’m in the mood: Diane Arbus, Anselm Kiefer, Francisco Goya.

I’m not wild about LeRoy Neiman, Bob Ross, Margaret Keane, or Thomas Kinkade’s work. It’s not that there’s no value there—some genuinely top-notch technical skills underlie at least some of that work, and each of them has had real market value, something that I think is unfairly sniffed at by critics even while I am chagrined that most of the loot in any field goes to the lucky top increment. I take issue, rather, with what is a fairly universal problem: if the artist embraces what makes her/him a hot commodity to the degree of repeating the marketable sameness endlessly, the risk is for not only the art but the artist to become self-parodying.

My impression is that Mr. Kinkade was (no accident that my computer insists on ‘correcting’ his last name to Kinked, perhaps) virtually a parody of an actual human being, and despite Mr. Ross’s being a highly successful teacher and a very clever technician, he was definitely a Character, if not a caricature, in his filmic persona. But they were mortals, and made work that was intended to be art, and the fact that I couldn’t relate to either’s work even remotely doesn’t mean that it had no possible value. I found Jody Bergsma’s incredibly popular early figurine sculptures incredibly ugly and even a tad creepy, but I love that she used the financial success those brought to allow her the freedom later in her career to morph into a different sort of fantasy artist. Is her stuff now still ultra-appealing to those who love sweet and engaging, traditionally pretty if not cute imagery? Yes, it is. But I find it far more visibly sophisticated in terms of its execution and technique, and even generally attractive to me, than any of those earlier figurines of hers that made me want to fall into a diabetic coma. Personal tastes, eh.

And again, there’s so much, much more that I do find appealing than otherwise. Ancient Egyptian sculpture’s stylized elegance; the wonderful Art Deco echoes of it. For my less glamorized or cozy moods and tastes, tramp art and outsider art, R. Crumb and Goth craziness. The exquisite balancing acts of classic Japanese woodcuts, of Edith Head and Alexander MacQueen’s fabulous clothing and costume designs. Dan Piraro of Bizarro’s contemporary, humorous take on marvelously drawn social commentary and absurdity, a cheerier and more smart-alecky reflection of what Daumier and Burris Jenkins Jr. and other great journalistic and social-commentator artists have done long since. Ah, for the playful joys of Steampunk. Higher Ed: Edmond Dulac, Edward Gorey, Edgar Degas, and Eadweard Muybridge. Thomas Eakins. Leonardo da Vinci. Magnificent Moorish or Gothic architecture, Tang dynasty ceramics, Edo screens and embroideries, Yoruba masks, and Tlingit and Haida carvings.

The high and the low, the wild and the tame, the sacred and the secular, and especially, the stuff that speaks to me. Amazing stuff, art.

Is there a project that you consider highly significant to the advancement of your career?
I’ll let you know when I get a career! Only half joking. If I have a career, it’s hardly what one would consider mainstream, and decidedly NOT anything anyone would call that of a professional artist. I’m a kept woman and an expensive hobbyist, but a dedicated and pretty well trained and practiced maker of art, for all that.

I suppose in both senses of what I do, however, one work that was significant for me was the commission to design a sculpture in honor of the Queen and King of Norway. The queen was being given an honorary doctorate by the university where I taught [a school founded by Norwegian immigrants, it maintained strong ties to the Old Country, and the queen earned her degree recognition for dedicated work worldwide in furthering childhood education], and the university leaders decided it’d be a nifty thing to dedicate a new sculpture on campus in honor of the occasion and the relationship.

I was fortunate to win the commission. Didn’t hurt me that I was serving on the planning committee for the royal visit, so the other members of the committee already knew me and my work somewhat, but I dared to be a little pushy in suggesting that I be allowed to submit designs, as well as to imagine that I could do my first design-only project (I didn’t cut and assemble the corten steel piece itself, the concrete foundation, or the aluminum plaque and base decorations) for foreign royalty. Nutty, kind of, and definitely outside my normal comfort zone. Well worth it, in the end.

As it happens, I did get another sculpture commission from the university some years later for another project, mainly on the strength of that first one.

Once I knew which of the designs I’d submitted for the Royal Visit was favored, I wrote a poem to help fill in the blanks for myself of what I was trying to ‘say’ with the sculpture. Just for myself, really, but once the committee had approved the finished design and knew I’d done this text to inform it, they asked that I include it on the base plaque, and I did. The dedication of the completed sculpture, a graphic stand of oaks, marked a whole bunch of interesting turning points for me both personally and artistically. It was certainly the most expensive commission I ever did overall (though of course most of the money went to the various crafts-persons who manufactured and installed the thing). It was the most public and exposed of my works to that date: I was to stand with the royals and the rest of the dedicatory party during the ceremonies, and before the queen planted her own oak seedling near the sculpture, to go to the podium and read the text of my poem aloud to the gathered university dignitaries and guests. And I was invited to the luncheon honoring the queen and king.

That last was significant in a personal way that the other parts weren’t as much, the aforementioned having been more a challenge to my artistic courage. At the luncheon, I was seated at the table with the king, the queen was at the head table with the university president’s party, and my parents sat a couple of tables away from me. Dad was, at the time, both the Lutheran bishop of the synod that owns and oversees the university and still chairman of its Board of Regents. Mom and Dad had both done undergraduate studies there, as did my great-aunt, some aunts and uncles and cousins and also my three sisters and I. So it was a lovely, warm affirmation of our longtime family connections with the university to attend this party. My longtime friend [I mentioned her to you earlier!] had even flown up from Colorado and was seated with my parents. On the other side of them sat the head of the uni’s choral program, who had conducted the choir during the doctoral hooding ceremony. He’d previously met my parents, since Dad was such a longtime Board member, among other reasons. He met my dear friend at the table.

A couple of months later, he told me that occasion (including, I gather, my sculpture design that he liked and the recitation of my poem) was one of the reasons he’d really started to notice me and decided to ask me out on our first date. Now, twenty married years ago.

Talk about a lot of payoff from one project.

How do you deal with frustration that stems from stubborn artwork?
Change is the best medicine, for me. Changing anything, from simply altering my sitting or standing position, the sharpness of my pencil, or the light in the room to the actual piece I’m making at the moment can help. Nothing is an absolute cure, but as the saying goes, ‘doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result is the definition of Insanity.’ What to do? Take a break. Walk out of the room and then walk right back in and look at the artwork and see if something new jumps out at you, for good or ill. Hang it upside down (or stand on your head and look at it), or look at it in a mirror. It’s amazing how one little degree of new detachment can sometimes give you a usefully different perspective on something that you were just plain too close to see. If the thing still refuses to cooperate, it might be time to do something absolutely separate, if not opposite, for a bit. Come back refreshed.

When I started my master’s degree, I’d been doing pretty exclusively graphite/black and white still life sorts of drawings for a good while, and was still kind of obsessed with them. Still am, for all that. But I had a horribly unproductive, frustrating first quarter of school and ended it with three so-so drawings to show for the whole of my drawing portfolio. Pitiful. Thankfully, when my supervising teacher suggested I change something or other to shake loose from the constraints that were making me such a stiff, I got this wonderful pang of urgency about it and decided to change everything I could think of, rather than just one little something, just to scare myself. From black and white, switch to full color. Small/moderate works? Nothing under the size of the largest one I’d just done, and everything as big as I could manage.

I went all the way up to and including about 9×30 feet. Murals! Wahoo! Slow and fussy approaches turned into How fast can I do this? If I’m gonna screw up or make mistakes, might as well do ‘em quickly and get right on to the next thing. Can I make multiple works at the same time, production-line style?? Can I draw with both hands simultaneously? Yep, turns out I could do all sorts of things I’d not dared or bothered to try before. Subject matter? The one thing I’d persistently avoided, figurative works, especially heads and faces…that turned into the whole topic for my thesis exhibition. It all would’ve been a horrendously expensive experiment, but in addition to spending most of my materials budget on bargain end-rolls from the local paper mill and rolls of photographers’ backdrop paper (the only paper big enough for my largest murals, and not exactly cheap), I got serious about scrounging and begging supplies everywhere I could, and you’d be amazed at what you can dig up for making art if you’re dedicated.

The second-quarter critique that year cheered me up immensely. I went straight from that disastrous, embarrassingly bleak first critique, with an oeuvre that had barely covered my teacher’s desk top, to the second session, where I filled the entire small gallery, floor to ceiling, with stuff she could barely recognize as mine—in a good way, mind you. I couldn’t’ve been happier. Was all of that work great? Hardly. But more of it was pretty good, even very good, than the percentages I’d been hitting in a mighty long time. All thanks to change. An extreme approach to it, perhaps, but sometimes that’s what’s required to wake up a little wussy like me.

That about sums up my questions, said Alyssa.

Me, I say: what a lot of good food for thought. Kept me from sleeping very much last night, in fact, because my mind was buzzing with answers to her inquiries, and further questions of all sorts that were sparked by them. I lay awake so long mulling it all over that I thought I might never get to sleep at all if I didn’t distract myself. What to do?

Make up new artworks and devise new art project ideas in my head, of course.

Digital illo from a photo: Art-Colored Glasses, v. 2016.1

Art-Colored Glasses, v. 2016.1

The Road Not Taken Might be Full of Potholes

A dear friend reminded me this week, with a wistful note from the University of Whatsis, just what it’s like to have a massive struggle with your direction and purpose when you’re still young enough not to have done so umpteen times and more, and recognized the inevitability of the Next One. Now that I’m older, if not necessarily any wiser but definitely more experienced, I can say with a certain amount of commitment that my credo may be morphing into “if at first you don’t succeed, fail, fail again.” Therein, much to my surprise, I have learned to find a better recipe for progress than in the mere trying. I wouldn’t know what my artistic successes looked like if I hadn’t first figured out how it looked when my art, or my life as an artist, sucked.Graphite drawing: Before

I don’t know if what she’s experiencing is anything at all like my first semester of grad school, but I was not at all confident I’d made the right choice, let alone that I had the necessary chops, when I was having my first major critiques, evaluations, mini-showings, and so forth. YIKES. It all freaked me out pretty seriously. But then I had the peculiarly wonderful personal-lightbulb moment of thinking (I seem to recall this actually happening in the midst of a big end-of-quarter or -semester evaluation in private conference with my main teacher/mentor, but I could be conflating events) that, if things weren’t working at all this way, then I would just force myself to start from scratch and do as much differently as I could possibly do.

No more black and white for now, I decided, despite being addicted to plain graphite drawings; all full-color. No more small scale; everything as gigantic as I could afford the materials and workspace to do. No more fussy detail and slowpoke timidity; be fast, loud, bold, loose, and reckless. Away with the still-life! Time to go all figurative, which I’d avoided like the plague. Down with pacing myself! Stay up for ages and do two, three, ten works at a time, even to the point of pinning up a long wall full of sheets and running from one to another and back again. I worked as fast as I could, using every material and medium I could scrounge up anywhere, gessoing over every image that I found unsatisfying immediately and reusing the paper/board/fabric from which it had been erased. I drew left-handed and I drew two-handed. I used dirt and food to draw with, and my works filled up both my trash cans and my portfolio. My teacher thought I’d gone nuts. My work was unrecognizable. I was unrecognizable, even to myself.Oil pastel drawing: It Figures

But I lost so much of my fear of failure in that burst of activity. If I made forty works for every one I’d agonized over before, then now I had thirty-nine extra chances to get it right, or at least, better. And simply by working more and faster and with so much less self-criticism in the moments of the making, I did get better.

I didn’t get perfect, and I didn’t go sailing through the rest of grad school, let alone life, nor will I, without continuing to have plenty of self-doubt episodes and artistic flatliners and emotional meltdowns along the way. But believe me, those have all lessened in number and intensity, and I have, after each of them, greater faith that the present moment of frustration and gloom and disappointment is not the end of the road, but just a big ol’ pothole in it. Some of those potholes may give me real artistic/creative flat tires or even a broken axle. But so far, I keep potting along and finding that what the potholes are often doing is just slowing me down enough to notice a side road or alternate route I’d not otherwise have noticed. I’m still a work in progress, always will be, but if I’m open to change and challenge in this, there’s good ahead.

Digital illo from a photo: Self-Portraiture as Work in Progress

PS—Thanks to my darling husband, who took the photo that I use for my Gravatar these days, and for the basis of this little sketch.

Don’t Make Me *Think*—Make Me *Happy*

Shallow as a one-sided gnat’s freckle, that’s me.

If asked what movie I’d prefer to watch, book to read, music to hear, I’m almost never the person in the crowd who says “challenge me!” I’m the one who wants to be effortlessly  and palatably entertained, and that rarely includes any sort of idea or activity that involves my working, learning, evolving, or—banish the thought! (literally)—thinking.

I have always known that I’m not fond of experiencing anything that makes me feel the slightest bit out of my comfort zone, and while I don’t think it admirable or something I find brag-worthy, I don’t think it’s shameful, either. Even the people that I know who crave the New and different and are energized by being amid the exotic, the confrontational, or the controversial mostly seem to find that very pleasurable rather than frightening, and so, choose it because being uneasy or even frightened is in its way pleasant to them. True adrenaline junkies are not alone in this: the great explorers among us, whether those of intellectual or physical, artistic or scientific realms, thrive on the jagged edge of the known and the safe.

So, as I was wandering around the interwebs this morning and looking through a certain high-end vintage auction house’s catalogue of art, I was struck by how many works I could admire for their originality, their technical facility, their wit, and/or their power, but how many I could also truthfully say I was attracted to, myself? Not so many. Some there were that I thought incredibly impressive and deeply respect-worthy for numerous reasons, but few among them would I ever consider hanging in my own house or office or want to look at long term.  I do like mysteries and scary stories, and there are plenty of artworks and concepts and images that amuse and delight me for the very reason that I find them ugly or appalling, even to the point of painful laughter, but unless these things meet my own criteria for what I’d like to enjoy at length, it’s all for naught.

And of course, as a visual artist myself, and one who’s never made any particular headway with building a paying audience for anything I do, I am always intrigued to snoop around at such sites’ pricing of artworks. I marvel at what is listed as unsold, seeing artworks of phenomenal skill and complexity offered for what I think pretty reasonable prices (though I certainly couldn’t afford them, not least because of my aforementioned lack of success as an art entrepreneur); at what has sold that I couldn’t imagine living happily with; at what astronomical prices are being asked for things that in my opinion don’t even come close in material costs, labor time, or skill level to what I’ve sold of my own work in the past for comparative pennies. This kind of perusal is highly educational, occasionally frustrating, sometimes encouraging, and most often, just a great source of inspiring ideas and images that make me want to head back to my own drawing board again. Worth all of it, if only for that last.

On reflection, I do remember that I have made many images and told many stories myself that I didn’t want to hang on my own walls, and even a few times have destroyed ones that I knew someone else liked because I didn’t think it represented my ideals anyhow. That’s the strangeness and the delight of the arts, isn’t it. One person’s trash is another’s pleasure. Crazy. Wonderful.Digital illo from a painting: O Happy Day

The Shape of Things to Come is Squiggly & Crumpled

Photo: The Shape of Things to ComeMy inability to foretell the future seems to become more pronounced as I get older. Is this because I’m more aware of the potential diversions and distractions, thanks to my ever-increasing wisdom? Because I’m more attuned to Other Worlds as I sneak ever closer to the time when I’ll dwell in them, and lose focus on this realm? Is it because I’ve already forgotten what I was talking about at the beginning of this paragraph and have no room for pursuing any larger thoughts than sentence-chasing?

More likely, it’s just that the forces in this universe are much wilier than I am and outfox me at every turn, and as I age it only becomes more apparent to me, and to everyone around me. I’m okay with that. In fact, I learn, with every revolution of the solar system, more of how much adventure and delight can lie in the unexpected places that life takes, leads, or pushes me. All the prescience in the world wouldn’t necessarily have better prepared me for what lay ahead, and being clairvoyant couldn’t possibly have convinced me that the many fabulous extravaganzas of mysterious tangential journeying sprung on me were the right path or worth the risks. Yet it’s all gotten me Here. A twisting, bumbling, contorted tour, yes, but one with a lot of happy happenings along the way.

What tomorrow will bring is anybody’s guess. Anybody’s but mine, that is.

You Say Metanoia, I Say Paranoia (Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off!*)

(*…and here I go abusing another great song lyric for my own humorous-slash-nefarious purposes…sorry, Gershwin boys!)

Eschatology, doomsday, survivalism, hoarding, isolationism, and prepper lists. I’d say that Americans are world champions at fear-mongering and xenophobia, but if I take the slightest look at the news I can see countries and territories everywhere that are also writhing in terror and pain over not only who owns what but who can have access to it, ‘earned’ or not. The very concept of countries and territories, of course, derives from the native human us-vs-them identification/classification that lends itself so easily to the fright, anger, and defensiveness (or offensiveness) that never fades when it comes to insiders, outsiders, patriots, infidels, and our whole complicated scheme of morality and ethics, never mind of property and propriety. The online world is a reflection of the IRL one.

While my own experience of online life—and I thank you all profusely for this—is entirely positive, full of thoughtful, generous, and creative community regardless of our differing backgrounds and opinions and experiences, some of those kinds of differences are expressed at times with more than a little assumption that our natural finitude as humans is coming to a corporate conclusion in the near future. Not just those near futures that are already past, those implosion-and-armageddon predictions derived from interpretations of the Mayan calendar or spiritual texts or the signs in NASDAQ trends that have sailed away into the mists of history, leaving relatively small ripples in their wake, there are always financial, political, religious, social, or natural predictors and people who interpret them to mean that the End is [VERY] Near and only those who are well stocked with the prescribed stuff and attitudes will survive and prevail. I certainly can’t prove otherwise.

You can find online guidebooks and lists all over the place telling you precisely how you should think, act, and stock up your bunker in order to be among the safe, comfortable few who rise above the disaster, whatever each author assures you it is. What is strikingly absent in 99% of what I’ve seen and read in these benevolent directives that purport to teach you how to outsmart and outlast everyone else is humanity. When it does appear, usually in reference to buying or bartering, it’s often assumed that anyone else who survives the disaster is no more peaceable or non-threatening than the author of the present document, who often lists guns and ammunition among the first items to stock in quantity and only much later, if at all, includes things like rice and beans, a kit of medical emergency basics, or sewing supplies. I find it somewhere between mystifying and hilarious that many lists I see are full of things like power generators from people who purport to favor complete and off-grid self-sufficiency, and pitiful that highly processed fuels designed for machine use come to mind as people are compiling these lists far before they get around to mention of fishing gear, garden tools, cookware, or books, the latter of which are often specified only as the guidebooks that were written to prepare for previous world-ends that never happened.Digital illo from a photo: Metanoia or Paranoia?

All I can say in response to this sort of thing is, how sad. Wouldn’t my first and best hope be to find comrades and build communities of support? To rediscover the simplest and least dangerous tools, techniques, and materials for living that will secure us, feed us, clothe and shelter and comfort us? And especially, to find endless ways to make music together, ways to grow, strengthen, and enhance the ties that make us able to respect and care for one another, to find joy and hope and love, in whatever new version of reality we find ourselves occupying. Yes, that above all. It will seem idealistic and futile to those who are busy preparing themselves for all-out/all-in war and a last-one-standing universe, but that’s a world in which I do not choose to exist anyway, and if I am to continue, I will only thrive in a world where idealists still do live and love and the known best survival tools are information and communication, the best skills diplomacy, empathy, and compassion.

Grey Hairs & Live Wires

Hanging out in the tech store is an adventure of a new kind nowadays. There was a time when the generation gap between early adopters and those who have now grown up wholly in the personal-computing age was a crevasse of seemingly un-breachable magnitude. Now, the first generation of techno-babies has come far enough into their majority and the era of common computing has drawn enough of their elders into its mainstream that the paths are beginning to converge again.

It’s most evident in the staffing of technology stores, I think: customers of all ages are finally being served by experts of all ages. It’s an oddly comforting phenomenon to a middle-ground, middle-aged slow learner like me. I’m not as cowed by the expertise of youth, who, like those well-versed in so many other complicated fields, grew up knowing of their art and science’s nuances in ways that earlier generations couldn’t know. Neither am I so dubious of the expertise of people my age and older, who have now had enough years of immersion themselves to become equally, if not so innately, well-versed. It’s no longer that the people who were on the cutting edge of that first computer-building wave are utterly obsolete, but that they are—like my 88-year-old father in law, who worked in computing when it was still a universe of room-sized behemoth machines and basic binary punch cards—so curious as to have now trained into able manipulators of the current tech as well. It is a rich environment in which to learn and practice as I muddle through.

I just wish it meant that I could reboot my own brain, upgrade my mental hardware, and assimilate the new data without having to rebuild my mainframe entirely.Digital illo: Binary Baby