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….
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.