Brick by Brick

bricks

Working in the basement on a rainy day seems like good cause for ruminating, while I keep myself on task.

Author Daniel Pink says he believes in the simple action of showing up- working brick by brick. .. how taking small steps every day becomes a cumulative effect.  This is an experience I can attest to, since my paintings often evolve over the course of weeks and months.  (Even the tiny ones- geesh!)   But since I am not replicating reality or a photo of reality, there’s often no real reference points except what I find interesting or compelling.  And often I can’t see that until I am well into a conversation with a piece.
Waiting for inspiration is lame-  we’ve oversold it and been undersold the PRACTICE. But part of the practice is being able to respond to a thought, idea or impulse that may only present itself for a split second.  Is this inspiration? or just the clarity that comes with wrestling with a problem for long enough that your mind is working behind the scenes.   Sometimes when you’re going for a walk, sometimes when you’re talking with a friend, sometimes when you go downstairs to glance at the painting on the wall for 10 seconds at night on the way to shove some laundry in the machine.

The hand and eye working in response to how you specifically think and feel about something  (idea/subject) takes more time and effort… or practice. The result can be abstract/non-objective or representational or ?  But vapid sloppy work can also be the result.

images

 As Dave Hickey so aptly put it- “A frenzied, vague, emotional response just means your hand is moving in a pleasantly abandoned fashion.”  (ie: Art as “therapy”)

And this results in the kind or work that I remember being discussed in grad school as the sort that you could just “peel off the canvas”. . . emotionally thin or sloppily conceived or not dense enough to have been thought about very much.  It relies on gimmickry or facility or satisfaction without labor.  Things of which I am still wary (the Protestant work ethic is, after all, part of my genetic makeup) …. so… brick  by  brick  by  brick

 

Brick by Brick… Am I easily distracted or do I just have lots of good ideas simultaneously?

bricksI’ve been working in my home studio for about 2 years now- and enjoy several things about it.
•No rent.
•More space.
•Obviously closer to home-  I can go work anytime- for hours or 15 critical minutes.
•I can do the studio tour more easily.
•Everything is stored in one location.
•I have separate work areas set up for painting, drawing, printmaking, and desk work.
ah….. it’s the last one that might be a mixed blessing.

Desk area Ever the multi-tasker. Listening to a lecture by Daniel Ariely while reworking some monotypes with various media.
Desk area
Ever the multi-tasker. Listening to a lecture by Daniel Ariely about Irrational behavior while reworking some monotypes with various media.
Drawing Wall Lots of pending ideas, and a couple pastels up on the wall.  Finally using that black paper that's been in  my flat file for years.
Drawing Wall
Lots of pending ideas, and a couple pastels up on the wall. Finally using that black paper that’s been in my flat file for years.
Painting Wall Warpping up the large grey one, and several 8x10's coming along.
Painting Wall
Wrapping up the large grey one, and several 8×10’s coming along.

Because when I have several ways to work, of course I have several things going on at once. And they all interest me. And they are all mere steps away from each other.
uh oh
but over the years of working this way, I have become used to this  – everything eventually gets done… even if they all stagger towards the finish line at different speeds.  Being able to trust this is important. The author Daniel Pink says he believes in the simple action of showing up- working brick by brick-  how showing up every day becomes a cumulative effect.
SO… perhaps waiting for inspiration is lame-  we’ve oversold it (part of the mystique of the ‘artiste’?) and been undersold the PRACTICE
Or as Dave Hickey so aptly put it- “A frenzied, vague, emotional response just means your hand is moving in a pleasantly abandoned fashion.”  This is art as therapy.

The hand and eye working in response to how you think and feel about something  (idea/subject) takes more time and effort.

Being able to live with ambiguity and incompleteness- knowing that all the little incremental steps do add up to work that is resolved and also has a deeper history. That’s a tougher task.

brick by brick  –  that’s just the way I roll.  If you keep adding enough bricks- pretty soon you've built something substantial!

Care for a bath of artistic self-esteem?

perhaps a la this guy?  thought not. (apologies to Senator Al Franken aka Stuart Smalley)  If you’re old enough,  you might remember back in the 80’s when we were all being told to look in our respective bathroom mirrors, and feed ourselves self-affirmative statements. believe-behave-become.. ta dum ta dum ta dum.

the graveyard of self-esteem baths
the graveyard of self-esteem baths

The theory was that if you repeated it enough then it became true.  This was also the age when kids were given medals just for showing up and having a pulse.  Everyone was doing a “good job!”  just by trying.  Can we please not go there again?

I was recently listening in to an interview with Daniel Pink, author of  A Whole New Mind  and To Sell is Human among other titles. One thing he discussed was the difference between affirmative vs. interrogative self talk; how a bath of self esteem feels good, but is not as effective as interrogative self-talk in moving you along toward your goals.
“You’re going to be great!”  vs.  “Can you do this?”  The second will allow you to form a response to affirm the ways you perhaps CAN do it. You will be thinking about what you’re going to do or say, and why. Pink uses himself as an example: waiting in an office to meet with his publisher to pitch a book idea.  The interrogative self-talk helps him anticipate what questions or challenges he might encounter and what his response will be.

These questions elicit an active response.  If we challenge ourselves this way, we’ll be ready for questions from others, and I believe, more able to question ourselves.  And there is nothing negative about that.

(There also seems to be a change in thinking about the way that brainstorming should function in this regard as well.  The new theory – people challenging each other can create even better solutions than just affirming whatever anyone says.)

Dave Hickey wrote in his column “Simple Hearts” in 1999,
“This is my beef with the bulk of contemporary criticism: It presumes that a work of art is validated at its source- that if an ‘Artist’ made it and an accredited institution sponsored its exhibition, the work is, ipso facto, worthy of commentary. ” Hickey says this is to presume what must be argued – that the public’s responses to art don’t have to comply with authorial or institutional intentions.  So…in other words…Question Authority .
He’s for more talk- conversation about art- not spoken writing, but contentious argument and challenges.  “The cruel, brilliant, happy, brave, and stupid atmosphere in which art lives and dies is very noisy; its vitality is a matter of urgent concern, and I am all too serious about doing what I can to ensure it’s survival”

But let’s aim for more than mere survival. It’s beginning to seem that anyone can call themselves an artist- no extended years of practice or challenge necessary.  No thick skin built up over time.  But as Hickey points out,  … “Eyes and reflexes need training to understand how to see the world in a visual way  (not a literal way). So we can risk making lines that for a split second depend on the intelligence of our hands and arms to carry out the command of our eyes and our mental judgement.” ( remember Malcolm Gladwell telling us about the 10,000 hours of practice necessary to gain mastery.)

So, knowing from first-hand experience how filled with doubt most artists are, why would I advocate for even more doubt-inducing internal voices?  Don’t we want to be in a state where all noise, both internal and external falls away, and we are absorbed and totally engaged by what we do?  Sure.  But if we are only propelled by what feels good we might be missing some deeper mark.

There is also the time when we open the door in the morning, or go sit in a chair, and just look. And question, and say “what if?” or “why”…   Because working hard on something, wading through the awkward and frustrating passages, might just start to eliminate the derivative, the formulaic and the merely decorative.   I think Daniel Pink’s idea of Interrogative Self-Talk has something to offer individual artists.   A truly valuable response to what an artist does might involve more than just being a cheerleader or someone to supply the “good job” all of us are inherently seeking on some level.  Nice to be on the receiving end and when you feel it’s rightly deserved, but does it do anything to further the work?

English: thinking

Does it demean us as artists for people to just gush over everything we do, without also asking us to question or challenge our efforts as well?   If they don’t do it, then we must. Someone must. Perhaps this kind of questioning and self-talk will ultimately build more resilience, which is a more valuable trait than mere self-esteem. It’s a trait built on responding to challenge. And challenge will help us to elevate the work we do beyond feel-good stuff.

Feeding my Mind….

my fake Ikea plant that looks just like my recent paintings
my fake Ikea desk plant that looks just like my recent paintings

I’ve taken over my daughter’s room, more or less as an office. In the process, I have been weeding out files, making things more streamlined- this is a continuing theme in my life in as well.

Some of the files I am enjoying re-reading.  Announcement for recent exhibit on top
Some of the files I am enjoying re-reading. Announcement for recent exhibit on top

One of the pleasures of looking through old files is coming upon great pieces of writing that inspired me or provoked me.
At the same time, I have discovered Evernote, an application that lets me grab snippets of text and images from all over the internet, and so, combined with adding in some of the great stuff from my files, I am amassing quite a collection of intriguing ideas.

some of my Evernote notebooks in the works /  with the TED talks on another screen
some of my Evernote notebooks in the works / with the TED talks on another screen

I hope to put them to good use in this blog.

I taught in several colleges for over 10 years. Most of that time was fulfilling as well as exhausting, and I was always reading about art and artists. Partly to feel more connected to the world of ideas, since there wasn’t much in the way of discussions with my colleagues.  I was always having students read and write, learn to think about their work and why they were doing what they were doing; whether it meant anything to them, or what they hoped to convey.
Those days are long gone, and I miss the personal connection that comes with nurturing a young artist over time. (don’t miss the toxic colleagues) But the files remain.

So, I’ll be referencing folks as diverse as Dave Hickey, Frederick Sommers, Jed Pearl, Jorie Graham, and Norma Rosen…. with many others files to come.   Some of these articles were touchstones of a sort, as I was thrashing my way through graduate school, some I found through journals and other artists.  Mr. Hickey has always been a personal favorite. I have old stacks of Art in America, Art News and others that I haven’t given away yet.  So I will get to those eventually.

This seems important now  – to remember why I do what I do.  Making good art with integrity will always define me, more than making a business.