[No, shame on you, not that P Word. Practice.]
Apparently I was napping when the expected dose of wisdom was being handed out . . .
Is it somehow backward to say that if I learn by doing, the only way to learn to love doing something is to do it? Maybe it just proves that I’m kind of backward myself, for having taken such a large long chunk of life to figure out that that’s how it works. I’m not only a late bloomer in a multitude of things, I’m late in getting around to figuring out that I’m a late bloomer. Dang it. Tautologies and conundrums galore! (Wow, sounds like an imprecation to be screeched by a mediaeval-looking cartoon villain.) All I’m trying to say is that it took a lot of practice for me to learn to love practicing.
No doubt this self-evident truth dawns slowly because most of us are (I certainly are) born with a predisposition to (a) despise and evade anything that seems compulsory, and (deux) only experience can teach it to us. Talk about an irritating logical loop.
It is generally only out of desperation that I will finally buckle down and do something I’ve been artfully putting off, denying the existence of, and otherwise refusing to accomplish. I’m so busy worrying about making blunders that I refuse to even try. I’m so fond of being glued to my gilded divan and being fed chocolate-covered miracles by my adoring fans (okay, sitting on my backside, half a-snooze at the kitchen table, and licking the ice cream spoon until the finish is coming off of it) that I hate to break up the scene by becoming <shudder> an active and productive citizen. I’m resistant to change, stubborn and ornery, and always–like most of my creative compatriots in the arts, I gather–pretty well convinced that every artwork I produce is my last ever, that I will have lost the power to imagine, let alone do, any further works, and that even the stuff I’ve so far produced is only marginally non-heinous.
I let the tools stare at me balefully for a goodly while.
Then, happily, I snap out of it. What a load of hot steaming hooey, I say to myself. [Roughly translated for your delicate sensibilities.] Most of the time I am actually able to do all of the foregoing in a shorter span than it takes to regale you with it. But there was that time in grad school . . .
Now, I’d even, driven more by economic reasons than good sense (but what the hey, it made a good substitute in the instance), taken three years off before grad school when my undergraduate studies concluded with my emergence clutching that wonderfully engraved Testimony to my glorified uselessness to a needy world: a Bachelor’s Degree in Fine Arts. As a matter of both principle and fact, I can honestly state that Art is indeed truly and meaningfully useful in the deepest of ways. Not, however in the way of, say, lining up salivating employers eager to avail themselves of my fabulousness in exchange for the quantities of money required for paying off undergraduate loans and frivolousness of that sort. Nor, while I’m being truthful, in the way of my improving the world greatly by waving around my magnificent diploma, no matter how sweeping and balletic the gesture (and whether physically or metaphorically).
Given my intellectual–oops, I meant academic hiatus, how very Freudian of me–you might think I’d come bombing into my graduate studies not only itching to get to work but stocked up with a mile high mushroom-cloud-in-the-making of spectacular new arty ideas and plots. Partly true, that. Unfortunately, I was still the same insecure, change-impervious, action-free action figure as ever, so what did I really do on arrival? Same old same ol’. I got straight to work making verrrrrry slow progress at producing a dainty little handful of drawings pretty much like all the drawings I’d done in the previous, oh, four years. Not exactly making me want to bound gazelle-like over to my first quarterly critique session and wow my prof with this pusillanimous production. I knew that the only sensible response to the presentation would be, in the words of the great art critic Clement Greenberg, “Yikes! Are you kidding me?”
Okay, I made that last part up, but I’ll betcha dollars to donuts that he was dying to say it from time to time.
My continued ability to collect graduate assistant cash to pave my way to another commencement party being dependent upon my actually doing some Graduate Studies, I sucked it up and went in for the fateful critique. Well, it’d probably be fairer to call that session therapy, or maybe just a brisk boot in the posterior, than a critique session, given that the art in question was not only rather questionably art (being sort of ripoffs of my own earlier work) but nigh unto negligible in numbers. Didn’t take too long to peel through with the insightful commentary, if you know what I mean.
But there was, wedged somewhere into that compact transaction, the seed of an idea. My mentor-advisor-prof mildly indicated that this evidence of my not having thought of or attempted anything other than what I’d done many a time before was just a little . . . unimpressive. Verging on enervating. Wrapped up in a stale tortilla. She was a gentle as could be, but didn’t sugarcoat it much. Great lady.
Without resorting to actual tantrum throwing, I got in a funk, a sulk, and finally, a fit of disappointed melancholy tinged with sulfurous ticked-off-ness. Reexamining my self, my work and my motives a bit, as you might hope. I know that old adage about the definition of insanity/stupidity/unrealisticositudinousness being Doing the Same Thing Again and Expecting a Different Result. Oddly, it had not entered my skull before that this might apply to the making of art, indeed to making art in an academic setting with the expectation of being evaluated as an artist worthy of an advanced degree. Silly me. At least it did come up at this late juncture. Better than never!
Knotty problem, simple solution: since doing things the usual way obviously wasn’t working, try doing things in an UNusual way. Me, I had to reduce it to a syrupy-thick extreme to test its full effectiveness (or mine), so I set myself the task of trying to do as much as possible that was the clear opposite of what I’d been doing. No point in being wishy-washy about it anymore. I’d been working strictly in black and white for a long time. So I worked all in color. My works had been small or moderate in scale, so I headed for larger formats. Slow work meant few finished pieces, so look-out-world, I was going to work fast (no avoidance, wasting time, or overthinking while in progress) and make More Stuff. Subject had been mostly still life with a twist, and definitely inanimate object-oriented. Time to try all figurative. Heck, I’d always avoided faces even when I did figurative work, so I decided to do variations on head shots pretty much exclusively. And so forth.
The upshot, as you can imagine, was a true shakeup of my predictable world. I had to come into my classrooms after hours and take over the space because there simply wasn’t enough room in the allotted grad student studio hovels, let alone my rented digs, for pinning up pieces of paper that were fast heading toward 4×20-foot, then 9×20-foot murals. The instant I determined to Go Big it was almost impossible not to get in a fever of production, drawing at all hours, with and on anything I could get my hands near. I raided the end-rolls at the local paper production plant and made trips to the big city to buy photographers’ backdrop rolls and strap them to the top of my old station wagon for the 2 hour drive home, rain or shine. I used up all of the pastels, pencils, pens, crayons, used cosmetics and condiments I could find to make marks and stains with, and then started drawing in a drybrush ink-wash style with house paint. My studio allotment did come in handy, because there was no possible place to cram all of the drawings I was making into my normal storage hideaways. I used any and every tool I could find at my disposal and grinned like a madwoman (as a madwoman?) over the wild newness of it all. Of me.
When everything is called into action, everything becomes both worn and beautiful . . .
I’ve gone on long enough that you can easily guess the conclusion. At the end of the second quarter, my critique in the same 20×36-foot gallery that had been the site of that dispiriting time spent trying to read some interest into the small handful of pitiful drawings the quarter before–well, accounting number two found my teacher and me perched in the same room but with the four walls all plastered floor to ceiling, end to end, with new, colorful, living art. All great? Hardly. But all invigorating to me? Oh, yeah. My mentor really did look a little faint when she came in and I’m sure was looking for the correct room, since this was obviously the work of a different person. And it was.
It didn’t make me into an instant superstar, able to leap tall easels with a single bound and more powerful than a museum-full of Old Masters. It made me, instead, into someone able to remember why I’d felt compelled to make art in the first place, and aware for the first time that there were a multitude of methods, techniques, tools and concepts I’d barely known let alone tapped. It also made me into a very slight persona non grata in my immediate circle of family and friends when they all got called into service to install these monsterpieces with me for my thesis exhibition (“Ever thought about being a miniaturist?” “You want me to get on what ladder and hold up the side of a piece how tall?”), but that’s a story for another day. The story here is that the act of practicing on a grand scale truly woke me for the first time to that incredible frisson of adrenaline + joy that real practicing can give. That puts all of the bad days of unsuccessful practice right into the shade.