While we were drawing in the studio where I taught—years ago—there were difficulties that came as much from my frustrated and inadequate attempts to teach as from the normal technical complexities of drawing well and the imperfect ability of any non-superhuman to master them instantly even if I had been a great teacher. But there were also moments of surprisingly peaceful, encouraging, engaging grace. A fair microcosm in this way, I suppose, of learning throughout life.
Do I move at the whim of the slightest breeze? Often enough, I suppose. But what really changes my direction in life? Chance? Passion? Accident? Will?
I’d say it’s been one or another of all of those at various times, and perhaps occasionally a combination of elements. What I would say most definitely and commonly is that I have rarely known very far in advance what direction my life would be taking, let alone exactly when. Living with uncertainty is at the heart of the human condition. We can’t know (nor would I wish to know) much of what lies ahead for us. Being an artist, and married to an artist, I have made some choices that guaranteed perhaps an even deeper and more frequent susceptibility to wondering what comes next. While both of us have taught at times, an occupation that has a degree of predictability and dependability absent in most other employment that involves our artistic skills and training, it never prevented the question from arising in other ways.
For me, as a longtime adjunct at the university, it meant that though I’d been there for nearly seventeen years (most of those, full-time) before I stopped teaching, I never had a contract in hand for more than a year at a time, nor was my class load or schedule in any way predestined; I taught what I was asked to teach, when I was asked to teach it. For my spouse, a tenured full professor and director of his division, he still had questions about how he might change and grow as a teacher, never mind whether to apply for or take any of the other positions on offer at other places from time to time.
We are, I think, pretty much the ordinary pair when it comes to that sort of thing. Even now, after many years of doing particular kinds of work at specific places and getting plenty of satisfaction from those various tasks, it doesn’t in any way stop us from asking, What next? Will we continue on the present path exactly as we are just now? Do we opt to make any kinds of transitions, either changing the way we do what we do or the venue for doing it, or does something entirely new entice and draw our interest? If it does, is it attainable? Is there some utterly unimagined thing lurking just around an unsuspected corner, waiting to draw us in?
At times, it can make me feel as though I can never quite catch my breath or my balance. I tire of asking myself all of these whys, hows and what-ifs, yet I can’t resist scratching at the questions the minute I thought I’d put them to rest for a while. Even when I’m most happy and fulfilled and contented, I always wonder what lies ahead.
And that, of course, is the very heart of that human condition. We know that change is inevitable. We know that some of it will be by our choice, and much of it will be thrust upon us or sneak up subtly and surprise us all the same. And we know that, in some ways, the only guarantee we have is that we will all die wondering. It’s what we do, and it’s who we are.
Not everybody grows up with a dad who likes grocery shopping, but I got lucky. My father was the son of a grocery man and had his first real job working for the same grocery business as Grandpa did, so it was not entirely unusual that Dad would be the one who took us kids grocery shopping when it was time to stock up again. Even summer vacations followed a little in Grandpa’s tradition; instead of the stereotypical roadside tourist attractions, he was wont to stop at any grocer’s the family passed on their travels, wanting to see what ‘the competition’ was doing and reveling in the interesting inspirations he might find along the way. My dad, too, had enough of the bug from watching his father in action that when we did go to the grocery store, it wasn’t one of those stomp-through-at-top-speed reluctant shopper experiences that so many have with their parents, notoriously fathers most of all.
We meandered up and down every aisle, having a happy, leisurely look through everything on display, and more often than not, we came home with something new or unusual or just plain frivolous. Much to the delight of Dad’s junior shopping contingent, of course!
Mom was a good grocery shopper and fed us well, and taught us the kitchen skills to use the stuff we were buying, but Dad got to play the primary role of finding the unusual fun in visiting the store. Between the two, then, they gave us kids not merely those practical survival and sustenance skills we needed but a sense of pleasure in exploring what food does beyond keeping us alive and healthy. Thanks to their teamwork, it became a focus for community, artistic invention, entertainment, and exploration, and this all made it easier to expand those ideas far beyond our home walls.
That my parents’ ideas about division of labor and gender roles was generally more practical and individualized than American, middle class, mid-twentieth-century standardized was a boon to us as we grew in many other parts of our lives. It was Mom who taught me by example to do the fix-it stuff for general home maintenance, having been brought up in a carpenter’s household herself, and both parents took part in helping us with homework, counseling us, playing with us, and much more. Dad was a neatnik by inclination as much as Mom was a careful homemaker, so there wasn’t much obvious differentiation when it came to keeping the house up and running on a simple organizational basis.
But that’s all peripheral to my thesis, which is that I was fortunate to have two parents, not just one, who took an interest in the choosing and assembling of what we ate. Dad never demonstrated a huge urge to Make things with recipes, so sandwiches and cereals and the occasional barbecue tending was his main realm of preparation, but he did those with aplomb and enthusiasm and played sous chef many a time. Mom was the chief in the kitchen. Having two skilled shoppers in the house, though, that was, and still is, inspiring, and I am the better and happier for it. If your household consists of more than your lone self, or you share meals and their preparation even occasionally with younger people, I hope you’ll consider creating such an atmosphere of joy and adventure in the process as well!
The drawing professor responsible for mentoring me in my undergraduate specialization in drawing and printmaking had no idea he was creating a monster. Safe to say there was nothing especially distinguished about either my skills or my scholarship in those days; he may be forgiven if he thought there was little hope of my passing his classes, let alone succeeding in being an actual artist at any point in the future. But for whatever reasons of commitment and kindness and selfless dedication to his pedagogical efforts, he took it upon himself to tutor and nurture me in my studies besides working wonderfully hard in the general studio sessions he taught.
Like any teacher, he had his characteristic methods and terminology, to the degree that any of us who took more than one semester of classes from him had our own favorite little catch-phrases and loving parodies of his work. One of the most frequent phrases (so we thought then, at least) to leave his lips was ‘texturally rich’—and you can bet your sweet pencil sharpener that any of us giving any imitation of him was bound to quote that one.
No surprise at all, then, that as soon as I started teaching, which thanks to his intervention and my subsequent hiring I did for the first time out of grad school in the very classroom where he’d taught me, it was as though I was instantly possessed by his spirit. I think I may have visibly started when I heard myself say that mystical phrase, standing there in the very spot where he’d once stood and repeated it to my classmates and me, never having remotely suspected that I would ever quite understand the term let alone use it so glibly and with such conviction a mere few years later. In my turn, I found it became a true favorite topic of study and tool for art-making and there were undoubtedly students of mine who thought it a funny catchphrase of mine and parodied my use of it.
That’s the way this stuff works, isn’t it. We become our teachers. First we find ourselves imitating our parents and siblings and playmates, learning from them both the persistent bad habits and, if we’re lucky and perhaps not too dumb, the worthy and useful skills and knowledge that will stay with us as we grow. Then we turn to teachers outside of the walls of home and neighborhood, as we get to school and move forward, and learn to imitate them too. This, not to put too fine a point upon it, is what helps us create for ourselves our texturally rich lives.
In art, it is the visual or tactile form of texture that I most often seek, finding in the wide variety of possible touchable or perceptible patterns and surfaces worlds of ways that I can shape and delineate and describe whatever subject I choose. As I work to make the art deeper and more complex, the textures I seek include less concrete, more metaphorical and philosophical ones that lend further meaning and impact to it. And that is where it begins to intersect with the learning and growing processes of life in general. A life well lived will be inherently texturally rich. I had no idea of the magnitude and import of this when my professor was saying that simple little phrase. But I’m very glad he said it often enough that I did internalize it, ponder it, carry it with me, and eventually, find a wonderful and purposeful truth in it.
Perhaps even fine teachers like him can’t make me into what I never was, a great teacher myself, but there was clearly a place in my heart and mind that resonated to the phrase ‘texturally rich’ happily and hungrily enough for it to take root and teach me good and useful things long after the echo in the classroom had faded away.
It’s so much easier to hide behind convention and other convenient facades than to let our true selves be seen and known. Don’t we almost always prefer that sense of safe anonymity or at least ‘appropriateness’—however tenuous or specious it may be—to taking the chance that in our own skins we might not measure up to the occasion or to the expectations of others?
It is, of course, a foolish conceit. One can rarely cozen anyone else, let alone oneself, by such a means. No matter how hard I may try to appear in the guise of what I think will qualify me for the In Group or make me richer-thinner-prettier or smarter than I really am, if it’s all show, the mask will like any faulty exterior prove too thin to cover my realities. It has always been so, and yet I am far from alone in continuing these futile attempts. I do believe that constant practice can transform us into a nearer semblance to the disguise, but that can work for ill as well as good.
Probably wiser is to recognize that the urge is age-old; that insecurity and an assumption that others will find me inadequate in my natural state are neither new problems nor absolutely decisive. The masks of the past remain, both in those symbolic and ceremonial concrete forms and in the records of our history books and art, to amuse, bemuse or warn us, if we will pay attention. And a close enough, thoughtful enough reading will remind any of us that no mask covers the truth forever—and yet, all the same, that we as a species continue (however astoundingly) to survive. Perhaps unmasking isn’t entirely as dangerous as any of us have feared.
I spent enough years acting the part of a brave, socially mature person, one who was more comfortable hosting a gathering, letting others see my art and writing, lecturing, teaching and doing so many other things that in truth absolutely terrified me to tearful agony behind the scenes that it turns out I am capable of doing all of those things after all. I still fuss and worry, yes, but nothing like the self-flaying horrors that I used to suffer just to get through what were apparently no-big-deal occurrences for most other people, and now I can experience them with fair equanimity. Funny how, when you’ve spent your whole remembered life in the grip of a belief that every second was one degree away from total disaster and death, any tiny bit less becomes magically huge.
And each of those instances becomes a step toward understanding that I have perhaps begun to grow into my mask of wishful improvement and become more like it underneath. Or better yet, that it never did matter as much as I feared, this different reality behind the convention. Best of all, I find that the more I let people see me as I really am, the more kindly they seem to look on me, and in turn, I begin to think the real me is perhaps pretty likable, respectable. Even lovable. Who knew.
A recent Wall Street Journal article about couples finding the re-jiggering of their relationships around retirement quite complex amused me a bit. The general theme of the article was that most modern retirees, those from in-home jobs and those from outside employment, come from a world where they have established fairly separate-but-equal lives and find it a challenge to spend so much more time directly with each other, doing things together. I’m so happy that my partner and I are not like most. In my book, there’s no need to be that different in retirement if you’re secure in your pre-retirement life. I’m pretty sure, in fact, that we won’t face nearly the same sorts of questions or find many of them nearly so daunting as this newspaper item intimates they could be. Despite a hectic daily life, we apparently live together like retirees already in some ways. After all, modern retirees are among the busiest, most active class of people I know.
There are a number of reasons I don’t worry about our transition. Working as we both have in art-related fields (and both of us in academia and elsewhere), where schedules and projects and income and venues and so much more have always been in flux, means that we’ve both dealt with fallow times, whether job-induced or voluntary, wherein we were responsible for directing ourselves and choosing what to pursue next and when. That means each of us has taken the lead occasionally in having the more fixed schedule, project, income or venue and left the other either more freedom or more angst about how to fill the void for the moment. We are both artists, yes, but of slightly different sorts (his the musical kind and mine the more visual/verbal); these don’t compete or conflict with each other, so no ego is at stake should either of us be hung up on that kind of thing, but rather our artistic views are complementary; both draw on similar resources of effort, inspiration, creativity and skill, so we can speak the same language even when the details differ widely. As it is, our core life-values are pretty similar, so we don’t have much reason to go far afield for purposeful or enjoyable conversation. We have a whole library of possibilities from which to choose.We have, in fact, worked side by side. Not only did our relationship start when we taught in next-door buildings at university, but I was already good friends with and had even collaborated with some of his colleagues on combined recital/art show projects, a sort of classical-based performance art, perhaps. As members of the same faculty, my future partner and I ended up at plenty of the same meetings and events over time, while both still having our own tracks of need and interest. Since our pairing, I have had the privilege of collaborating with him artistically as well, and his music provides a great deal of the soundtrack, live and recorded, of my life, working or otherwise, while he lives at home and work surrounded by my art and reads my writing. We are lucky in simply relishing time together, whether to Do Things or do nothing at all in companionable silence.
But we are neither conjoined twins in tastes and wants and needs nor dependent on each other for a primary sense of identity. He
inhales reads books as quickly and easily as though it were breathing, and I labor through them; his reading ranges from professional interests to serial mysteries and thrillers and more, and mine, when my dyslexia forbids the time and attention required for favorites like SJ Perelman with his dazzling wordplay, or Charles Dickens and Robertson Davies, is devoted more to blog articles and short-form works; I read and write fairly constantly, but it’s a slow-moving river indeed. My Foodie Tuesday posts here will tell you that our preferences in dining also differ widely, if not wildly. Sometimes it’s tricky finding a meal at home that will satisfy both of us equally, given the limitations of our common subset. As for movies, he’d happily be in a theatre watching the latest offerings on the big screen, but he opts to stay home with me where I’m not troubled by the overwhelming noise and the overpowering intensity of on-screen action that were intolerable to me in my anxiety-ridden days and remain somewhat unappealing even now. He still watches a lot of stuff that I have no interest in watching or even hearing, but then I’ve learned that an evening in front of our own big screen makes a great time for me to install a good pair of earplugs, rev up my trusty pencil to draw or my computer to work on blogging, photo editing, magazine proofreading and correspondence. I still get to spend time in his company and swap intermittent witticisms with my favorite companion, and we both get to do what’s more appealing to each of us.
I realized long ago that I have a different attitude about relationships in general than many others, and I know that my attitude differs greatly from my own when I was younger as well. Now that I have a number of years of marriage under my belt (no comments from the cheap seats about ‘love handles’!) I am even more baffled by the people who harp on about what constant hard work relationships and marriages are and how difficult it is to keep them operational. Seems to me that if they’re consistently hard work, they’re not really relationships other than perhaps in the form of a slave/master sort. If it’s really high maintenance, it’s a job, not a relationship. Any that are one-sided because of abuse or complete conformity or any other sort of enforced imbalance cease to be viable or valid in my eyes. Only when both parties have something to contribute that is genuinely respected and appreciated by the other does it seem purposeful and potentially joyful, and if neither of those aspects is in the equation for any length of time at all, it is based on something far different from a relationship in my book.
At the same time, if we thought in perfect synchrony and had no differences of opinion or thought or preferences, it seems to me there would be no point in the relationship either. It would be pretty much the equivalent of marrying oneself, and idea that is both ridiculous and more than a little creepy. Narcissism is inherently the inverse of relationship-ready.
Apropos of this: both my husband and I had spent a fair amount of our adult lives single (he, divorced and I, unmarried) when we first dated, and both of us were fairly certain that we would remain single for the rest of our lives–and most importantly, both of us were okay with that idea. We were whole, functioning, socially active, happy individuals with full lives and immersed in relationships with great companions of all sorts. We think it’s part of what made us ready to slide into a life partner, love relationship with very little adjustment at all. Our cosmic crash into each other was instead a landing beautifully cushioned and protected by the remarkable net of many of those other relationships of ours, almost as much as by our personal contentment, mutual attraction and shared interests. Seems to me entirely noteworthy that a strong and happy relationship was founded on and remains supported by a network of other relationships.
This, too, is significant in protecting us from the dangers of too much intermingling of lives in retirement. We already share a lot of time together that we really love. And we already share so many great friends and loved ones that it’s far from essential that all of the newly acquired ones be mutual. He knows and enjoys the company and support and good humor of plenty of friends and colleagues, many of whom I know only as names or email-senders or office acquaintances or voices on the phone, and I have my own contingent of blog friends, expedition companions, collaborators and mentors as well. If every part of life were spent together, what would we have to talk about at the end of the day?
There are so many aspects of our marriage that make it pretty easy for me to avoid worry about what-ifs when retirement comes, I almost feel guilty. But not! I appreciate that we like to do things together as often as we can, daily, hourly, and that we have a life that allows us to take advantage of it. When we worked in side-by-side buildings in years past, it meant we could meet for lunch or stop by each other’s offices or for any number of other excuses quite conveniently; now, when I’m homemaking and blogging, I have the flexibility of schedule to take the shuttle over to the campus where he now works and grab a quick supper somewhere nearby with him before a tightly scheduled evening recital or concert, or sit in on a rehearsal of one of his choirs, or tidy up his files before sitting down to write and draw while he studies a score for the next choral-orchestral extravaganza. If I’m able to get a job again, I’d like to make sure that it still allows space for our interaction, however different that will be, because we really do value time spent together, however it’s spent.
If that makes ours a little unlike the average relationship approaching retirement age, I’m just sorry for all of those out there making up the bulk of the average, let alone any who remain under the mark for any reason. I’d much rather be novel in this respect.
When I hear that phrase, of course I’m immediately reminded of its use to describe those persons, so much dimmer witted than a barnyard fowl, who drive or operate heavy machinery or otherwise behave inappropriately (and most likely, quite dangerously) because they are under the influence [UTI] of drink or drugs. Personally, I would go further, with my concept of UTI encompassing other, equally dangerous things like ignorant social, political, religious or philosophical views that give their disciples delusions of superiority, imperviousness, entitlement, and so forth.
But it behooves all of us to remember that the phrase isn’t inherently negative, for one can be under positive influences as well. Even better if one can manage to be a positive influence. It’s notable enough in a long and active life if one succeeds in generally doing no serious harm (intentional or otherwise, and to be in fact benevolent and able to enact good and fine things, why, that’s remarkable and admirable stuff indeed. I know people who can do so right here in the blogiverse, teaching and leading us all to do and be better versions of ourselves, and doing so not only by sharing their stories but by being living examples of what they teach. My years of classroom teaching proved to me that I was better suited to being a student than a leader, yet tutorial and mentoring settings gave me a much greater level of comfort in that they allowed me to operate as a fellow learner and thus engage more deeply and without as great a fear of steering anyone (myself included) astray.
The bloggers I most admire, immensely entertaining and humorous and dramatic and artistic in ever so many ways, are always, at heart, teaching, whether it’s overtly and with carefully designed pedagogy and prescriptions or it is so inherent in their natures that it comes fully interwoven in the fabric of their posts. These favorites include, but are not limited to, logophilic, ecological, travel-oriented, cuisinal, community-building, arts-centric, historical, and in many cases, wildly multitasking blogs. Some bloggers are small fry like me, known only to a cozy circle of great friends who come by to read and sometimes comment, and some of those I greatly admire are large-scale bloggers, people with lots of published work elsewhere or major accomplishments in their fields (whether related to their blogging topics or not!); a few have multiple blogs and the amount, whether on one blog or many, of posts published varies from one every few weeks to daily. There may, in fact–given electronic media of all kinds nowadays–be people putting up posts every few minutes, but I haven’t the time and energy to keep visiting such volcanic sources and tend to keep to my group of favorites with an occasional foray outward.
So who are my influences among bloggers? Friends who give us invitations to visit them at places like The Bard on the Hill, Spanish-English Word Connections, and Year-Struck, Just a Smidgen, The Valentine 4, David Reid Art, and The Complete Cookbook, like Bardess DM Denton, The Kitchens Garden; like the blogs Cooking-Spree, O’Canada, Nitzus, Peach Farm Studio, and Bishop’s Backyard Farm, like Blue Jelly Beans, One Good Thing by Jillee, Road Tripping Europe, My Little Corner of Rhode Island, Promenade Plantings, L Scott Poetry, Poetic Licensee, and Gingerfightback, and blogs like From the Bartolini Kitchens, Rumpydog and The Human Picture. There are many more I enjoy and admire, but each of these, whether longtime blogging friends or a site new to me, have proven to be influential and inspirational for me in many ways, both as bloggers themselves and often as encouraging and educational commenters here at my own place. We don’t always agree, which is part of what’s so powerful: the diversity of the world and its ideas and passions and hopes and loves, this potent brew is what makes the fellowship of bloggers such a joy.
That we can share it with so many, most of whom we know only in and through this forum, is a great gift indeed. Also shared among fellow bloggers: awards and recognitions. Some accept them and participate with great alacrity in sharing them, and others are happy to be complimented thus but have no interest in or simply no time for such things. All quite acceptable responses. This post, in fact, is in response to my having been ‘tapped’ by the gracious and yes, influential blogger Samina Iqbal, whose Forum for police support is a notable effort by one passionate blogger to garner greater recognition and appreciation for those who serve and protect the populace as members of the police force–indeed, a job few of us would dare or relish, yet most have great reason to be grateful that there are the admirable folk who do so on our behalf. She was named a Most Influential Blogger and has passed the torch here.
While I think she is over-generous in her estimation of what happens here at my blog, I am happy to carry out the task of sharing the aforementioned blogs and their authors with you, because they really do deserve the attention and I hope you’ll visit as many of their sites as you’re able; you, too, will find many things to influence you: ideas and passions, skills and arts, love and human drama and many a good belly laugh in the mix. Best of all, under the influence of these luminaries you will likely pose no additional danger to the general public if you should, say, get behind the wheel of a car. With the possible exception of the belly laughs, which could cause you to steer right into the ditch. But at least you’d be guffawing all the way to the emergency room, possibly accompanied by some helpful police officers. And don’t blame me!
Even when we’re young we pick up clues pretty swiftly regarding what sort of behavior and attitude is expected of us in our interactions with others. As a child, I learned ever so quickly that I am not the boss of anyone else and practically everyone else is the boss of me, and not much has ever changed in that department. Whether happily or unfortunately, depending entirely on your point of view, I also figured out as speedily as most kids do that as long as I behaved in the expected manner when anyone was watching I could get away with a fair amount of far more self-indulgent–if not subversive–ways. Sure does simplify my life!Show of Proper Respect
The Mistress in her jewelry and finery and furs
Thinks everyone should bow and kiss the ground—that’s also hers—
And genuflect before her grand tiara and her mace,
So that is what we tend to do—at least do to her face.All frivolous jocularity on the topic aside, however, getting trained by our elders and betters, in particular our mothers, is both more complicated and more happily meaningful for those of us who are blessed with great moms. Me, I’ve got two. The mother who gave birth to me and raised me from my days as an only mildly subversive little sprout into the silly but exceedingly happy big kid you see before you today is worthy of recognition as one of the great teachers not only for giving me a framework on which to hang my sense of right and wrong and general grasp of manners but also the education and freedom and knowledge of being unconditionally loved that enabled me to choose how to build on those foundations as I grew. My second Mom, brought to me courtesy of (her son) my beloved husband, gets credit for instilling the same curiosity and drive in her children and, in turn, for reinforcing in me through her example what it means to be a lively and lovely person who is good company, an active part of the household and community at every turn, and a tireless learner and adventurer who earns her place in those settings with remarkable grace. Whether I can live up to the standards set by either of my Moms remains to be seen, but they certainly give me the tools that should make it possible if anything can.
If it can’t, I guess I’ll have to fall back on my naturally ridiculous ways and just pretend to be better than I am for as long as I can keep up the front. Those of you who are looking for reliably good, sound company, go see Mom W and Mom S. And also my sisters and my sister-in-law, great mothers to their children, and all of those other mothers, who by birth, adoption, random acquisition and teaching, raise better people, who in turn make the world a better place altogether. All of whom I thank profusely not only on Mother’s Day but every day for being such great examples even for those of us who are a little too childish to be motherly examples ourselves. Go ahead, you can say it right in front of me. I’ve learned that much, at least!
A recent article reminded me that, no matter how I might classify myself as anything but an activist, I have always been one, of a sort. It’s true that I’ve always assiduously avoided conversation, let alone physical action, tied to politics, religion, social policy and pretty much any ‘hot topic’ you can name unless I sensed I was in the safest possible environment to do so–generally, amid a comfy flock of like-minded partisans. The article is chronicling the US uprising of a relatively new breed of American artists and their support systems dedicated to, as the title bluntly states, social activism; the author gives appropriate reference, of course, to the practice being a long-standing one in other parts of the world, but shares the view that it’s still rather fresh and new here on American turf.
I’ll grant that the forms and formats may well have changed, and that there might be a larger collective sense among those who would embrace this title of being dedicated to the purpose more specifically than others, but I will step right out on my own tiny soapbox now and assert that, insofar as art is seen as a form of communication–and this might well include virtually all art except that created and performed in private and without any wish or expectation than anyone other than its maker will know it exists–it is inherently activist. The decision to create something I intend to be art and allow it to be known to others says a whole lot of things about me, the subject of my work, and my general worldview, and if I am allowing others to experience these in the art, assumes that they will respond through and with their own worldviews to it, effectively in a social interaction, whether we converse directly about it somehow or those who have interacted with my art turn around and respond to it in the continuation of their lives.
Who knew I was such a rabble-rouser? But truthfully, even by making those ‘meaningless’ little doodles that don’t turn into full-blown drawings or paintings, I am making something of a statement, am I not? I scribble, therefore I am. By doodling, I am not only using my energy to do that rather than anything else, I am also creating a portal through which my thoughts can emerge; if they turn, via this scrawling, into a concrete idea it may lead to the completion of an artwork expressing it more openly. This, in turn, suggests that I have a thing or two to say and I’m willing for others to hear it, see it, feel it–to interpret it and respond to it, even. I never think of myself as daring, but I think it’s fair to say that letting my inmost thoughts and imaginings be seen and analyzed by others through their own filters is at least a little brazen, if not occasionally foolhardy.
One of my late mentors, Lawry Gold, wrestled with the supposed divide between art and function, and he was anything but shy about being an outspoken activist, albeit a very kindhearted and generous one. He was a boldly countercultural person in a great many ways, and yet he seemed to me to reach the peak of his own overt rebelliousness when he began working on a body of art that was deliberately and unabashedly functional (beautifully art-covered, distinctively designed tables, lamps, clocks and the like) for sale through his gallery agents. This was something I know he enjoyed at least a little as cheery cheekiness to tweak artist snobs who were apparently so benighted they couldn’t accept the marriage of form and function thus, or so rich they could afford to sit around waiting for other equally rich people to buy their non-functional work, no matter what the state of the economy. Besides that these were among his most gorgeous and sophisticated works, to me they spoke of the recognition that art, besides taking so many different forms, speaks to us in many different ways, and that breadth and depth has great value.
At the same time, my friend never stopped making ‘non-functional’ art, because he of all people also had a tremendous desire to communicate, whether it was by visual storytelling in his often humorous, whimsically imaginative artworks or by making a more specific point with his illustrative and symbolic works. And he never hesitated to engage in the discourse that followed anyone’s viewing of his work. He and I had a joint exhibition of our artwork once, and as I was curating and installing the show I objected to one of his pieces that he wanted included, thinking it was not in keeping with all of the others we had selected, and he patiently steered me toward a clearer understanding that it was indeed very well suited; even though I never liked that piece as much as the others, I found that it carried an important part of the ‘conversation’ made up by the whole of the exhibition, and in fact that one interaction changed the way I curated many an exhibition of others’ work in the years that followed.
Ultimately, I see in the creation of art–of any form–an act that if it isn’t in open defiance of the social norms, allows or even invites the examination of and discourse on them. So even though much art is not made, like Lawry’s, to function in an obviously practical way, it all serves a purpose; ‘merely’ being beautiful or compelling may be purpose enough in adding layers of pleasure or relief or catharsis, but many works go far beyond that in opening new vistas to our contemplation, influencing our beliefs and even challenging us to change our behavior. All art is potentially advertisement or propaganda, for good or ill. And if that isn’t social activism, I think my encyclopedia needs some new illustrations.
The nice blogger from Zara–A Writing Story stopped by recently and her post said she is working at starting to draw. I’m delighted to have another person join the ranks of happy visual artists via drawing–a collection of skills that come in quite handy (no pun intended, especially since there are artists who use their mouths or their feet to make artworks) for far more than strictly a pleasurable activity or visual entertainment. Drawing, a foundational skill in all sorts of visual art, is also a means of communication that differs from and can work in wonderful tandem with writing, singing, signing, and any number of other ways of personal interaction and transmission of information. In addition to the practical application of the end product of the process, the practice of drawing itself has great power as a mnemonic device, a tool for problem-solving, and the training of the brain in such useful skills as eye-hand coordination and (as I know from experience) the correlated motor control of working through tremors to achieve refined movements.
But beyond that, as I said to my blogger colleague, the act of drawing has elements of physical pleasure in the mere action of arm and hand and body that can be worth the pursuit, not to mention the mental and/or emotional pleasures possible. The act of drawing as a form of meditation, even without regard to any possible ‘product’, is quite desirable on its own.
As I said to my correspondent, she needn’t be intimidated in the least even if she’s a rank beginner: By even making the effort to learn, you’re worlds ahead of lots of others! A book I often referenced when teaching my beginner students in college was Betty Edwards’ classic Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain–it has exercises that aren’t too hard even for someone who’s never attempted to draw before, and because her focus is on how the brain works in visual activity, she offers insights into the process and possibilities that few others do. There are, of course, innumerable excellent how-to books for those who want to draw, many of them favorites of mine as well, but because of Dr. Edwards’ [then] ground-breaking work in recognizing the character of right-vs-left brain function and how it played out in drawing, I always found her work particularly helpful.
Because drawing can engage so many diverse cognitive processes like this, it can be complicated and overwhelming to know just where to start learning how to draw. As I remarked in my note to my fellow blogger, All of that aside, simply making marks on a surface is the beginning of drawing. Sometimes the least intimidating way to begin is to take a piece of paper, make some totally random marks on it, and then see where that takes you. Even if all it does is make you comfortable making the arm movements for a start, that’s helpful. If, as with most people, you look at it and think ‘that looks like . . . ‘ or ‘that doesn’t look quite right . . . ‘–well, then, you’re already making editorial decisions that can help you move toward drawing the way you want to draw.
The bottom line, if you will, for me is that I feel more alert, more attuned to potential solutions when everyday problems arise, and generally just plain happier when I draw. It’s not because every drawing turns into something fabulous–far from it–but because the process of drawing opens up my brain and spirits in useful and unexpected ways. Many times, my drawing produces nothing more than scratches that are shorthand for bigger and more complex and, I hope, better things to come. But the exercise itself is valuable to me, and a glance back through my sketches can often kick-start me into drawing a work that is more successful than the twenty previous ones.
Ultimately, whether I’m in gear for serious drawing or just fiddling with a pen or pencil to pass the time, it’s good practice and feels worthwhile. If nothing else happens, at least I have given my brain some thinking-room between the lines and I might figure out what to make for supper, how to cut through the piece of metal that is in the way of my completing a repair in the garage, or who knows–I might even remember where I set down that book I was reading days ago before it ‘disappeared’. It’s doubtful I’ll come up with any Nobel Prize-worthy inspirations while drawing, but then again, if I don’t draw, I’ll never find out!