How the Landscape Changes as the Artist Matures

I’m a gigantic fan of Robert De Niro’s work (the actor, not the painter). I still remember my astonishment upon first watching Taxi Driver. I’d never seen acting as powerful as De Niro’s in that movie. I continued to savor his performances in many of the movies that followed. At a certain point, I began to see all his characters just as him, Robert De Niro, rather than as the novel inventions of a great artist. I know some critics would argue that at a certain point De Niro stopped trying. I think there is another dynamic at work.

When I first saw De Niro’s acting, I had no experience with him. His characters seemed inventions from whole cloth. As I watched more and more of his films, I became familiar enough with the overlaps, character to character, that I began to see Robert De Niro the person. Now, I see each new character as primarily De Niro, with an overlay of efforts toward the specific character. It reminds me of how I see Jimmy Stewart’s roles. They all seem so natural, in part, because he is just being Jimmy Stewart. It isn’t that I don’t enjoy his films. I love them, but I can’t see them as acting, as creating a character, because I know Jimmy Stewart so well.

The more I think about this issue, the more I believe it is inevitable. I have often read quotes from actors about their taking acting less seriously as they grow older. I suspect that part of that change in attitude comes from their realizing that no matter what they do, the character will be primarily them, that the authenticity of the character, in fact, can only exist if the characterization comes from their own experience. I don’t believe for a moment that the late work is lessor. It is just an inescapable fact that a late Pacino character can only be seen as a coloration of Pacino.

The same thing happens in visual art. Matisse’s early breakthroughs read as astonishingly new. His late work reads as Matisse continuing to be himself. The late work is no less interesting, but it can only be read as an outgrowth of Matisse’s sensibility, with which we have become very familiar.

One interesting counterexample is Philip Guston. His late work was such a contrast to the work he was known for, that he had seven years during his late career when he sold almost nothing, after having been, for years, a world renowned artist represented by the Marlboro Gallery, probably the most powerful gallery in the world at the time. However, what was really happening in Guston’s case was that he had edited large parts of himself out of his early work. His late work was actually more honest and more inclusive of his entire nature than his earlier work.

Brando eventually became bored with acting. He found it stupid and shallow. I wonder if some of the conflict had to do with facing the reality that each successive character was more Brando and that the early illusion that one was creating characters from scratch had disintegrated.

I think the relationship of this realization to one’s work is slightly different in visual art. I have written before that visual artists often spend their early career trying to shore up their weaknesses. They eventually realize that their areas of weakness remain areas of weakness, while their areas of strength become the places where astonishing growth can occur. Self-acceptance becomes the foundation of their work’s strength. Visual artists’ goal is not the creation of different characters, but rather the mining of one character. The visual artist is creating progressively richer and more complete presentations of the self.

As I age, I become more and more fascinated by what visual artists create toward the ends of their lives There was a wonderful artist here in Portland who’s late work represented a reversal of what he asked of his earlier efforts. His drawing, for the longest time, was about pushing to see more. He was forever scrubbing out parts of his drawing to remake them in ways that were ever closer to the literal reality. In his final years, the struggle toward growth was dropped and he gave in fully to the present, to the ways he both saw and miss-saw his subjects. His late work was poignantly honest evidence of his seeing and making without correction.

One of my favorite painters in Portland, a painter of great facility, just keeps mining in greater and greater depth and with ever growing self-acceptance the full range of her emotional, visual, and material experience without ever being threatened in the least by the ever changing language of her work.

Another Portland artist who’s work I admire has relentlessly grown his strengths. I think what I most admire about his late work is how he has to a great extent abandoned his narrative and political overlays and is now willing to just see and just paint what most moves him.

Personally, I am becoming more and more comfortable with the ways that I most love to work. That may not sound like much of a challenge, but it is for me. Many of my favorite ways of working seem kind of idiotic to me. I’ve always made how I wanted to make, but there has also always been a self-consciousness, a concern that I have to prove something, I don’t know what, maybe that I’m not an imposter, that I’m a real artist. With age I’m becoming less concerned with that. Whatever it is that I am, I certainly am that.

So much energy can be wasted worrying about issues over which one ultimately has little influence. If one is working, the work develops a momentum of its own that has almost nothing to do with intentions and self-consciousness. The changes that happen over time are the result of changes within the maker, brought about by experience. What will happen to one’s work can’t be anticipated or planned because we can’t know what we will learn from our work until we make it. Even then, what is changing often only registers long after the fact. As time passes it slowly becomes obvious that the work of one’s heroes is simply human work, embodying all the flaws of any human life. It is only from the the point of view of one’s early career that heroes and lives can be idealized. As young artists we often beat ourselves up comparing our work to a false model that evaporates as we approach it. Eventually, the act of working is all that matters. I think many of my early anxieties came from fear that things wouldn’t work out. It turns out things do work out, but not in a way that we can control or anticipate. The whole enterprise is a leap of faith that unfolds in a way that can only be witnessed.

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Warming Up

I was making yesterday and I realized something about the nature of warming up. If I don’t warm up, I immediately start making decisions. The point of warming up, for me, is to get to a place where I am not interfering with my making. Only then can I allow decisions. However, I don’t like the word decisions. I prefer actions and reactions. It is a semantic choice, but action and reaction allow me to react in every way, viscerally, intuitively, deliberately. When I am warmed up, I have reached a place of trust where all impulses are allowed, whether they are good choices or bad, whether they are well understood or vague impulses. If I am warmed up, I am willing, first, to use my entire brain, not just the conscious, deliberate, and intellectual impulses, but also the sensory, physical, and emotional impulses, even the vague, illusive impulses that bubble up from the unconscious. The feeling is that, through warming up, I reach a place that allows me both to hear, and to act on impulses from my whole self. One could say the goal is to allow impulses from the heart, belly, the muscles, as well as impulses from the intellect. The important issue, from my point of view, is to reach a point where I have lost concern for making good choices and, instead, have reached a point that allows me to act on all impulses, good or bad, simply to, one, be in my own skin, and two, to have the freedom to allow all actions so that I can see what they are about.

Years ago, I had a very good painting student who often got stuck. The piece of advice that I gave him that helped the most was the suggestion that painting can’t be done in one’s head. The possibilities can only be studied, manipulated, solved, on the canvas. Painting ideas and impulses can only be studied in the physical world, i.e., on the canvas, through paint. That means the painting requires the freedom to engage vague and half baked impulses, crappy impulses, in fact all impulses that one has any curiosity about. I often show my students parts of the film The Mystery of Picasso. Students are shocked at the number of changes and meanderings Picasso goes through in each painting. I show the film specifically as evidence that even a painter as experienced as Picasso can’t solve the painting in his head. He solves it by painting. He acts on every impulse, allowing the painting to both improve and get worse, because only through that physical world of action and paint can he see the value or evolution of his impulses.

If I don’t warm up, I fall immediately into constrained decision making, confined to impulses that I can consciously and intellectually characterize. I also tend to bias my choices toward those choices that I think will be good choices. The freedom to go into work free fall, where all impulses, large and small, vague and explicit, good and bad, can be studied has to be fought for. It is not automatic. Warming up is where the fight begins. The warmup is the tool that helps me reach that place of inclusive working where both good and bad choices are allowed. I never decide when warming up is over. If I am lucky, it simply turns into inclusive, engaged making at some point. If it doesn’t, I just keep warming up. If a specific studio session ends up being nothing but warm up, so be it. I can’t learn and grow if my explorations are limited only to what I suspect will be good choices.

Another way I have spoken of this issue is through considering the difference between painting as a noun or as a verb, paintings as objects versus painting as an activity, as a discipline. If I think of paintings purely as objects, I’ll limit my choices to choices that lead toward the resolution of those objects. If, instead, I see paintings as vehicles through which I can study the activity of painting, then my criteria of choice really shift. If the painting is a tool, then I have the freedom to try anything that I might learn from, anything I am curious about. I would far rather learn a great deal from a painting that ultimately implodes than learn far less trying to avoid screwing a painting up.

My point is simply that most of us, when we start making from a cold start, try to make well. Making well is far too narrow a framework if one really wants to grow. To grow, one needs the freedom to learn from every kind of choice. Warming up allows me to reestablish my freedom to try anything and to learn from everything.

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The Education of a Young Artist

I wrote this biographical self-portrait for my friend, David Biespiel, having so enjoyed his book, The Education of a Young Poet

As a child, I was exposed to aesthetics via three vehicles, my father’s love of music, my father’s love of cars, and my father’s love of clothing. My dad was an exceptional pediatrician. He’d been part of the small team of scientists that developed chemotherapy. Their goal had been to find a cure for childhood leukemia. He later became an overqualified, small town doctor who saved many lives, participated in his community in many ways, and broke the stranglehold of alcoholism on his life when I was in fifth grade. I start with my father because he was of two worlds. There was his world of service, but there was another world within which he would occasionally relax, the world where he truly felt in his own skin. He was an extremely nervous person, but his nervousness would evaporate whenever he got to indulge in one of his three aesthetic interests. He was a superb tenor saxophone player. He filled the house with the recorded music of great jazz artists. He loved going to antique car shows and sports car shows. Probably his favorite activity was going to trunk shows from the top East Coast tailors, J. Press, Brooks Brothers, and Arthur M. Rosenberg. He told me that if he hadn’t become a doctor he would like to have been a tailor.

As I said, he was a very agitated man, nervous, chased by time and responsibility. He was also very uncomfortable expressing emotion. But the moment he became absorbed in one of his aesthetic interests, he became at ease in the world and at ease with himself. He often spoke to me about the responsibility of service to community, but I saw again and again that he was at his happiest when absorbed in music or design. I was told that one path was important, while my experience was that the other path gave my father his only moments of peace and inspiration. Those two competing lessons were a constant in my childhood. Years later, when I became an artist, my father was, at first, quite disappointed. He felt that I was choosing a path of self-indulgence, not realizing that his own life had shown me my first example of the profound value of art.

I was born the fourth child of four. Only three were intended, one every two years, then four years later an unexpected surprise. A central experience of my childhood was that everyone else in my family was good at everything, except me. I didn’t have any aptitude for dressing well. At least it seemed that way because my father was such an inventive and all knowing clothes horse. I wasn’t good at music. My whole family sang a repertoire of songs in four part harmony that I didn’t quite get. But perhaps my area of greatest deficit was visual art. I had poor eye hand coordination and did badly in penmanship classes. My hand writing was nearly illegible. Also, I noticed that my teachers showed no enthusiasm whatsoever for whatever I would make when we had art projects in school. I remember concluding definitively in seventh grade that the visual arts could be checked off of my list of potential future career options, since I was so clearly without visual talent.

While I was in the process of learning that I couldn’t do visual art, the Beatles performed for the first time on the Ed Sullivan Show. I was eleven. Half of my friends and I decided immediately to learn an instrument and start a band. I began playing guitar badly in a band called The Warts, with my two best friends, Chris and Howie Bitner. It turned out that the three of us actually had some musical aptitude, not that that was a requirement. Over the next few years we played more and more and became obsessed with music. Without even thinking of it as such, I was turning into an artist, not a visual artist, but an artist all the same.

In the meantime, my older sister, Jane, was becoming interested in visual art. She became an art major in college. Because her college was in our home town, I got to witness her growing interest in art. During  her senior year of college, she did a semester apprenticeship in New York City with an up and coming figurative painter. The following year, she enrolled at SVA, the School of Visual Arts, also in New York City.

That year, my friend Thad and I decided to take a bus from our tiny town in central Ohio to New York City. We could stay at my sister’s and just take in the big city. One of the things we chose to do was visit New York’s great art museums. It was a perfect introduction because neither of us had any background in visual art. We hadn’t taken art history classes. We came from a town so tiny that it had only one miniature museum that focused on the pioneer life of the town’s early days. My point is simply that we went into these museums cold, with no sense of what we should or shouldn’t like. We just wandered around wide eyed and noticed whatever spoke to us. I noticed a couple of things right away. I noticed that I really liked visual art. I also noticed that I particularly liked the abstract paintings by Kandinsky. I didn’t know what they were about or what people thought of them. I just knew that I liked them.

From then on, my enthusiasm for visual art just kept growing. I fell in love with visual art, not as a maker, because I knew that wasn’t a possibility for me, but rather as a person who appreciates the work of visual artists. I went to museums whenever I could. I followed my sister’s interests in contemporary art. I became more and more aware of what kind of work I liked and disliked and thought about why, not in an art historical sense, simply in terms of my own experience of the work. I had a lot of confidence in my opinions because my response to the work was so strong. My friends and I started having discussions and arguments about what work we liked. Visual art was becoming a core enthusiasm in my life.

One of the things that still baffles me to this day is that I developed a strong interest in Jasper Johns and Willem DeKooning right off the bat, at least right after Kandinsky. How a kid from a town in Ohio with two thousand people immediately starts connecting with those three experimental abstract painters is beyond me. It must be like the experience of a gay kid from a small town in Wyoming, setting foot for the first time in New York or San Francisco, and just knowing that he’s found a place where there are other people like him.

Now mind you, at least twelve years of being in love with visual art passed before I took my first stab at making visual art. The path to those first moments of making was circuitous.

I was a smart kid. I did well in school and assumed for many years that I would end up getting a Ph.D. in something. On the way to that future, I was admitted, as a tenth grader, to Phillips Academy Andover. Andover was where I first began to realize that I liked music more than academics. I did well in my classes, but I did the work out of a sense of obligation and responsibility. I did genuinely love some things about academics, but I was also doing the work partly to fulfill the expectations of others. Music, on the other hand, was purely for me. It was my escape. I loved it. I was beginning to realize that I was an artist.

While at Andover, I learned about Berklee College of Music in Boston, the jazz school, the place you went if you really wanted to get serious about contemporary music, improvisational music. After dropping out of Andover, I set my sights on Berklee and within a couple of years became a Berklee student.

Up until Berklee, my growth as a musician had been driven purely by my interests and growing experience from being in bands. At Berklee, everything accelerated. Theory was being crammed down my throat. I was required to practice three hours a day, often practicing music I didn’t care about and didn’t understand. I was being tested on my performance level. Basically, Berklee ruined music for me. It took a very personal enthusiasm and turned it into something defined by others that was being thrown at me faster than I could absorb it.

After two years at Berklee, I took a leave of absence. In the middle of that year I experienced my first catastrophic artist’s block. Berklee had taught me these stratospheric standards of music that I couldn’t meet. Everything I created sounded sophomoric to me. I became more and more depressed about music and ultimately stopped playing altogether. As the block was setting in, I visited my musical hero at that time, Chick Corea. His only advice was to become a Scientologist. That wasn’t going to happen. Not knowing what to do, I thought back to some of what I missed in academics. I decided to enroll in a liberal arts college, and became, of all things, a math major. I really loved a lot of my coursework in math, but it never felt like the kind of fit music had been. As I was finishing my degree, I had no idea what to do next. Junior year, I had seen a poster for a graduate program in architecture that allowed applicants with a BA in any field. Architecture seemed a way that I could creep back toward the arts, so it seemed worth a try.

This is where things get interesting. The program I ended up in was very visual and avant garde. The teachers were great drawers and ridiculed me for my poor drawing skills. I was afraid to draw. I approached drawing in a very hesitant, yet perfectionistic way. I was making no progress on my own as a drawer, so in my third and final year of grad school in architecture, I signed up for an introduction to drawing class in the fine arts department. It wasn’t that I was interested in becoming a visual artist. It was just that I had to find a way to come to terms with drawing if I were to become an architect.

This is where my life takes a hard left turn. My drawing teacher, a New York painter named Jerry Buchanan, turned out to be the best teacher I had ever studied under in any discipline. He created a safe environment where I could explore drawing with no possibility of failure. His approach to drawing assumed that anyone who had any interest could find a way to express their unique ways of seeing through drawing. He didn’t see talent as even a relevant concern. Within this nurturing environment I began to explore not just drawing, but seeing, and found that I loved it. I had finally found a place where I felt as at home as I had in music. The most interesting thing about Jerry’s teaching was that it was really about self instruction. One of his most telling directions from the first day of class was that he would rather see a pile of motivated failures by our tables than a few conservative successes. We ran our own shows, so there was no danger of being overwhelmed through force feeding as I had been at Berklee.

Jerry was a miraculous teacher. He really motivated us in a way that created momentum and high aspirations without constraining how we were to work, all the while emphasizing constant risk with no possible way to fail. Also, he took great care to point out strengths in our work so that we began to build momentum from our successes rather than sweating what we weren’t good at yet. The fact is, Jerry was the first actual artist that I had ever taken a visual arts class from. In that class, I didn’t exactly learn that I was a good drawer. What I learned was that I could grow as a drawer. That alone, wouldn’t have changed the direction of my life. What changed the direction of my life was realizing how much I loved the process of growing as a drawer, of growing as a seer.

After returning to Portland to work as an architect, I found I what most excited me was the time I got to work on painting and drawing after I got home from my job. I lasted nine months in architecture before I bailed to do drawing and painting full-time. Luckily, a new architecture school was opening in Portland at that exact moment. The school hired me to teach architectural history part-time, and that gave me just enough income to cover my basic needs, while allowing me the time to really begin to paint and draw in ernest.

As a musician, I had made forward progress by copying, to the extent I could, music that I loved. That is the way musicians in the genres I cared about have always learned. So naturally I did the same thing with drawing and painting. The thing is, that’s not how most people learn visual art these days, especially artists who have gone to art school. I have never understood why this way of progressing as a visual artist has fallen out of favor. For most of visual art’s history, artists have understood that one of the fastest ways to learn and to solve problems is through attempting to copy the work of one’s heroes.

I had been following the New York visual art scene closely during the three years I was in architecture school. My school was only about an hour from New York by train, so I could visit New York galleries and museums easily. I found the New York painting scene shallow, too strongly obsessed with novelty and fashion. Because I didn’t find what was happening in New York compelling, I had no reason to move there after school, though most of my colleagues did just that. I moved back to the city I loved and to which I had always intended to return, Portland.

As I was practicing my own drawing and painting, I would frequently run into issues that I cared about but had no mastery of. I also came to know artists that really appealed to me without my really understanding why. The first was Michelangelo. There was a sense in which he was in love with his subjects. He used making to savor all that he was experiencing. To better understand his seeing and process, I began doing studies of his drawings and paintings.

There are two very different approaches one can take to studying another artist’s work. One is to study how the work was made in the most literal sense. That kind of study is about copying the artist’s stokes, their technique. The other type of study is about understanding how the artist sees. How the artist sees can be expressed through any number of different techniques. My interest in Michelangelo was in how he saw, not how he made. That allowed me to study his work through my own ways of making, my own voice. I actually had an early show that was mostly studies from renaissance artists. An older artist remarked to me how interesting he found that I would do versions of these renaissance masterworks using an expressionist attitude toward making. He was also baffled that I would show studies of other artists’ work. I was just showing what I was doing at that time. Pretty much all artists doing figurative art had to teach themselves during that period because there was so little emphasis on observation based work in the art schools then. I was simply exhibiting the path of my learning. Jerry Buchanan saw slides of my work at that time and asked me, “What makes this art?” I had never even asked myself the question. Whatever propelled me forward on my journey as an artist was art to me. Anyway, my pieces weren’t copies. They were studies and interpretations and always told at least as much about me as they did about the work I was studying.

During that time, I did studies from Michelangelo, Raphael, Del Sarto, Ingres, and Picasso (his gargantuan, heroic figures). What all that work had in common was a strong volumetric quality and a quality of distortion or subjective emphasis of chosen characteristics of the subject observed. I studied Michelangelo more than the others. I’ve done studies of at least 75% of the figures on the Sistine ceiling, as well as studies of many of Michelangelo’s drawings and sculptures. Those studies not only changed how I see and what I can represent, they also taught me the ways in which compelling drawings and paintings differ from literal copies of the subject observed. Without having done those studies, I don’t think I would have had any idea how much exaggeration, selection, and fudging was necessary to create such powerful work. I also wouldn’t fully have understood how much literal information any great artist leaves out. During my younger period as a nonmaker art enthusiast, I learned that I much preferred work with a strong point of view over more neutral, though obviously skillful work. My early studies began to reveal what it actually means for a maker to have a point of view. The words point of view are apt, the idea being that the viewer/maker brings a framework of values and interest through which the ostensible viewed subject must be filtered. Jerry Buchanan suggested simply that the work of art always reveals as much about the maker as the subject.

I want to talk a little about Jasper Johns, because in a way he is a bridge between my first set of masters and my second. I found his work really rich, very interesting to study, but I couldn’t figure out why, not that that was ever much of a concern on my part. A few years after my Michelangelo period, I began studying Cezanne and Turner. My first set of heroes had been over my head, but these new heroes were functioning in a territory that I could barely grasp. They were working at a level of risk and self trust that was lightyears beyond the more materialistic qualities of the Michelangelo crew. Maybe the level of risk wasn’t any greater for their time, but so much art had been made since the renaissance and so many boundaries had been broken. The most astonishing thing about Cezanne was that he frankly admitted, through his marks, how much trouble he was having figuring out where things were, that is, where exactly the objects he was observing were relative to each other. Any artist who has tried to draw what he or she sees has experienced what Cezanne was experiencing. It is an inescapable dimension of trying to restate what one has observed. Up until Cezanne, artists had said, yes, it is confusing to know exactly where this bottle I am viewing is, but I know the bottle is a solid object, so I’ll commit to my best guess at its location and leave it at that. Cezanne’s shift was to be frank about the confusion of the viewer, to leave evidence in the artwork itself of the contradictory and incomplete bits of contact we make with the subject through our kind of screwy perceptual processes. His art became about how we perceive rather than simply being a narrative about what we perceive.

I had had an intuition that Jasper Johns’ early work had something to do with Cezanne, but I couldn’t imagine what the link could be. As I began to understand Cezanne better, I came to the conclusion that Johns loved the way Cezannes were made and wanted to get at that without having the work emerge from observing some external object. How could one absorb the strengths of Cezanne’s work as an abstract painter? Johns’ big problem in the beginning was that he was uncomfortable with drawing, uncomfortable enough that his marks, if his work was to be based on observation, would be strangled by self-consciousness. Johns’ greatest invention in his early work was that he created a way to subtract drawing from the painting process. By choosing flags, maps, alphabets, targets, etc. he found subjects that could be created through drafting tools or via stencils. Either way, the doubt of the hand could be subtracted by leaving the drawing to tools. With that problem solved, he could begin to study the material quality of Cezannes directly, the repetition of an abstract mark, with minor variations of hue, and contradictory locations of strokes. The strokes themselves could be bold and doubt free because they didn’t have any other job to do than to exist. They didn’t have to describe anything. What a brilliant invention to be able to find a way to study and learn from one of the greatest observers while subtracting drawing as an issue.

Turner was another set of issues altogether. Like Cezanne’s, his work represented issues that I would only be concerned with once I a was a ways along the path of drawing and painting. From Turner, I learned restraint, the value of dirty colors, white, and ten-to-one relationships, treating the few moments of brilliant color as a punchline to be set up by other colors and held back until the last possible moment. Turner taught me how loud the tiniest shifts in hue can be. Along with Cezanne, actually all my heroes if I am being honest, he established an elusive standard that I am far from meeting.

My last hero, I found accidentally while traveling. I happened to be housesitting in Zurich and visited the city’s museum of fine art. I came across a room of absolutely extraordinary drawings and paintings and asked myself, “Who can this artist be that I have never heard of?” I looked at the little cards by the pieces and they all said Alberto Giacometti. I thought, “I know Giacometti. He makes those stupid stretched out figure sculptures that I don’t like. He isn’t a painter.” How wrong I was. Now he is the artist I feel the greatest kinship with and what I value about his drawings and paintings has changed how I view his sculptures. First of all, Giacometti was powerfully influenced by Cezanne. I often think that Giacometti spent his late career simply trying to make a Cezanne. Because he was Giacometti, his efforts always turned into Giacomettis, but the generating impulse was Cezanne. I can easily imagine spending the rest of my days trying to make Cezannes and Giacomettis that, regardless of how hard I try, always end up being Sylvesters in the end, partly because of the added dash of Michelangelo. Giacometti and Cezanne taught me the value of heroically trying to do the impossible, knowing full well that only failure can result. Giacometti and Cezanne also taught me the power of embracing the fact that finishing is an absurdity. Having abandoned finishing as a goal, I could now slow down and take the time my searches actually needed without rushing to a conclusion because of a need to finish.

I have plenty of other heroes. I learn something from most great artists. I have learned a lot from Matisse, Frank Auerbach, Kathe Kollwitz, Chaim Soutine, Oscar Kokoshka, Jack Levine, Mary Cassat, and many others. I particularly pay attention to artists like Alice Neel, Oscar Kokashka, and Chaim Soutine, artists who don’t have the typical drawing facility we presume that all artists have to have. Alice Neel was treated dismissively by her teachers but insisted on being a painter despite the lack of encouragement. The strength of her work demonstrates that the choice to make observation based art depends not on facility, but rather upon the willingness to do the work to manifest the uniqueness we each carry as seers.

There is one last major element in my maturation as an artist that was crucial. Perhaps twelve to fifteen years into my work as a visual artist, I had a full blown catastrophic artist’s block. Had I not had a serious block years earlier as a musician, I might have reacted to my block as a visual artist differently. The course of my work prior to the block had the sense of a single bloom. Each stage led to the next and each new stage was an elaboration of the concerns that had been growing consistently in my work since I started. Just prior to the block, one could guess with a fair degree of certainty, what my next stage might be. Before that stage happened, I had about a seven month interruption of my work because my wife, Joan, and I went to Europe to perform a piece we had created together of her solo choreography and my painted sets and music.

When we got back to the States, I tried to dive straight into the next logical stage of my work. No go. I had no interest in pursuing that direction any more. I think that for a while my work was being propelled forward purely by momentum, so I didn’t realize that my genuine curiosity about that direction was fading. Back in the studio, I knew I couldn’t do what was logically next, but I had no idea what to do instead. The more I tried things, the more it felt like I was out of ideas, out of impulses, that perhaps my time as an artist was over. I knew that blocks happen to everyone and that making it through a block could be hard work. I came to the conclusion that I was done as an artist, but committed to showing up at the studio for nine more months before quitting for good. I would just show up each day for a job I no longer liked and I’d do whatever I could think of to kill time. I made journal entries that where half drawing, half words. I did goofy drawings. I created ridiculous drawn autobiographical board games. Some days I even traced images out of books.Everything made me hate making art more.

Toward the end of the nine months I decided to experiment with fatigue. I asked one of my best friend/models to do a six hour session with me. Typically, I only work with a model for two to three hours before wearing out. The interesting thing about fatigue in drawing is that one reaches a point where one can no longer force himself or herself to do anything. You reach the point where you can only do what involves no internal resistance. At about four and a half hours, I moved to really large paper, shifted to drawing with big paint markers, and essentially stopped looking at the paper. A whole new kind of drawing began to emerge that was much more about movement, surface, and physicality, and less about a fixed choice of where the drawn subject’s physical limits were. As I think back to my memory of that first drawing, I may actually have been using two large paint markers, one in each hand. The new direction actually had a lot to do with qualities I loved in Cezanne’s work and that I later found in Giacometti’s work, but I wasn’t thinking about that when the breakthrough happened. It had more to do with giving in to the sensations in my body as my eyes moved over the subject. The two drivers were following surface and allowing contradictory understandings to pile up on top of each other without being resolved. Rarely looking at the paper helped me allow the contradictions and avoid being pulled into reinforcing a single version of the subject. In retrospect, I realize that what had held me back during the block was my inability to let go of my previous sense of what a drawing was. As long as the old ideas were present to any degree, they corrupted the emergence of a different approach. Well, the doors I opened at the end of that block are still open at least twenty years later, knock on wood. I don’t assume there will be no more blocks, but having made it through such a terrible one, I no longer am petrified by the possibility. The new ways of working that began late in the block are far more inclusive than my previous model of drawing had been and that change, to some degree, may account for how long this second phase of my work has been unfolding.

As I close this recounting, a few errant threads remind me of their importance. First, Egon Schiele. He was my first hero. His work gave me license to be angry. Anger was the first and deepest driver of my work from my having been the quiet child in a frightening and chaotic alcoholic household. Having expressed almost nothing but anger in my first five years of work, I finally had expressed enough suppressed anger that I could begin to explore other emotions as well.

The second thread. In the midst of my Michelangelo phase, I gave myself a Rome prize, six weeks to study alone in Italy. Walking the streets of Rome one day, I heard the singing of an eccentric street artist. The moment I reached him he stopped. I followed him until he disappeared into a bus. By chance, our paths crossed later in the day and I watched him sing three songs. Songs? Actually, they were sequences of tremulous rising and falling pitches that made no sense in terms of musical theory. What they possessed was a naked quality. He sang in the way I would imagine an insane person would sing to himself if alone in a forest. And all the while he was strumming a tiny guitar that had only two strings, untuned. The thing that struck me about this man’s singing was that it was profoundly defenseless. It had not a single layer of self-consciousness or self protection. Hearing that work, the work undoubtedly of a person who actually was in the grip of mental illness of some sort, I realized that that defenselessness was what I wanted of my own work. That defenselessness is what I strive for.

There is one last thread. I haven’t spoken at all of my abstract painting. Toward the end of my years of creating paintings from observation, I began to realize that my favorite part of the painting process was at the end, when the drawing problems had been solved and I could begin to play purely with the color, texture, and composition. When my son, Eoin, was born, I had less time to paint. What little time I did have, I approached with greed. I only had time for the most rewarding parts of painting, so I shifted to full on abstraction. Abstraction is actually challenging territory because the artist has to come up with everything. There is no referent as a starting point. That was fine. I could begin from whatever emotions were driving me at the moment, whatever making impulses. Eventually the painting takes on a form and a wrestling match can begin with the painting’s structure, composition, scale, color relationships, etc.. Toward the end of my first period of abstraction, my paintings degenerated into a kind of formal chess that became far to deliberate and had to do with me only in an aesthetic sense. At that point I stopped painting for years to concentrate on guitar making (another story). I still drew all through that period, but the guitars had become my form of painting both visually and aurally.

Now that I have begun to paint again, I find that I have to reach a point where I don’t understand at all what is going on, where the paint reactions are more absent minded. I have to find a suspended place where I feel that I am somehow reacting from the corner of my eye, my I, obliquely, outside thought. It is a difficult locus of action to find, but if I allow myself to be more thoughtful, the work gets trapped again in formal manipulation. The surprise and inclusiveness of the expression gets lost. When I first began making, the making itself was such a challenge that I essentially couldn’t make and think at the same time. At this stage of experience, the thought has to be intentionally suspended and that is as big a challenge as making had been for me in the beginning.

At age sixty-four, I still feel like a young artist. If I’m exceedingly lucky, I may get to keep working for another twenty-five years, at which time I suspect I will still feel like a young artist. I’ll keep you posted.

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On Intolerance And Authoritarianism: The Future Of The Democratic Party

Years ago, a Luxembourgese architect and urban design theorist named Leon Krier came on the scene. He was a firebrand. He felt that mainstream architects didn’t understand the nature of cities and were destroying cities all over the world through their naiveté. He actually told architects at his lectures that they would burn in hell for what they were doing to cities.

I saw Krier lecture again, perhaps fifteen years after his worst firebrand period. He had matured considerably. Instead of self-righteously telling other architects that he held the keys to the only truth, he shifted from his binary world view and asked only that he be allowed to build as he chose. If there was value in his point of view, his work would demonstrate that value, thereby convincing some architects of the worth of his ideas. Essentially, Krier moved from an authoritarian attitude toward truth, to an attitude that respected other architects’ freedom to make their own choices.

I was very similar to Krier when I was a young man. I was passionate about my version of the truth and assumed that the older architects, who didn’t approach architecture the way I did, were hacks. Over the years, I got to know a number of those older architects and found out how wrong I had been. Those architects were just as committed to great architecture as I was and the issues they emphasized were often issues I didn’t understand well.

I see a similar dynamic to my younger hot headedness among some younger voices within the Democratic Party. There is a faction within the party that is pushing for greater ideological purity and demanding that the party move farther left. This movement condemns and vilifies Democrats who are either more moderate than the ideological ideal or more willing to move incrementally toward the ideal than they are. The movement is also beginning to emphasize ideological litmus tests, single payer health care, for instance, to establish who should be considered an acceptable Democratic candidate.

I’m writing this essay because, in the opinion of this 63 year old progressive, forcing the Democratic Party farther left and exclusively left is a short sighted mistake that has the potential to be as destructive to the Democratic Party as the Tea Party movement has been to the Republican Party. The problem with the Tea Party movement is that the movement has made it harder for moderate Republicans to survive the primary process. That primary barrier has made it nearly impossible for moderate Republicans to remain a part of the Republican Party. As the two parties become progressively more pure, the ability to craft centrist legislation that both parties have some stake in evaporates. As legislation from the center evaporates, two possibilities surface. The first is governmental gridlock, which we have certainly seen a lot of. The second is partisan legislation that the other party has no stake in. The problem with partisan legislation is that it cannot last and cannot mature. What we have seen in recent years is a pendular dynamic in legislation. The party in power passes legislation that the opposing party tries to dismantle as soon as it achieves power, substituting its own partisan legislation that will in turn be dismantled. I’ve watched nearly sixty years of the progressive disintegration of American society that results from such ideological ping ponging.

Legislation within a functioning democracy is the antithesis of what I have just described. Democracy begins with the idea that solutions are to be arrived at through negotiated compromise involving all factions within the society. The legislation has to be centrist because of its dependence upon consensus. Also, because the majority of the society’s members have a stake in the legislative process, the legislation has the potential for longevity and refinement over time.

The authoritarian tendency of the voices pushing for greater ideological purity on both the left and the right strikes me as fundamentally anti democratic. The goal is domination of the society by a single ideology rather than commitment to a process that is inclusive, consensus driven, and grounded in compromise. I actually am very far to the left compared to the US population as a whole. However, I value democracy above ideology and will tolerate compromise to live in a civil manner within this nation that is so wildly diverse. My whole adult life I have witnessed movement on both the right and left in the US toward a more authoritarian model, a winner take all model that, in the final analysis, excludes both the center of American society and those at the opposite ideological pole from whoever is winning at the moment. The degree of animosity that is building between the two sides is, if anything, creating an ever growing potential for violence in America.

I have written before that we may have come to the point in American society where a reconciliation model may be the only thing that works, a model that says, we of the two opposite sides despise each other but choose to coexist despite our differences. Even that model presumes striving to coexist in a state of mutual tolerance. I don’t believe, at present, that the two political sides in the US even aspire to that degree of community.

While in high school, I met a young man named Lincoln Chaffee. Linc’s a smart, thoughtful guy. As an adult, he became a Republican senator from Rhode Island, and later, the state’s governor. He represented a long tradition of moderate and independent Republican thinking in Rhode Island. His father, also a Republican senator, was one of the first and most outspoken critics of the Viet Nam War. As the Republican Party became progressively more ideologically extreme and ideologically coherent, Linc no longer saw a place for himself in that party. He became an independent, then eventually a Democrat. If the Democrats who are so inclined, succeed in moving the Democratic further and more uniformly left, there will soon be no room for independent, moderate politicians like Lincoln Chaffee in either party. Politicians like Chaffee, who think for themselves, will be primaried out of Democratic races just as moderates have been primaried out of many Republican races by the far right. The Republican Party is impoverished by the disappearance of independent, thoughtful voices like Linc Chaffee’s. If Democrats give into analogous measures of ideological purity, there will be nowhere for people like Chaffee in American political discourse. Despite the fact that I am far to the left of Linc Chaffee, I want people like Linc Chaffee, like Michael Bloomberg, like John Kasich, to have a voice in American politics. These three politicians represent a thoughtful, responsible center, the place that American democratic (small d) process has the obligation to define.  As we exclude candidates like Chaffee, we strengthen the polarization that has created the gridlock and the disintegration of civility that are destroying American democracy. I am far more interested in reviving our democracy than in enforcing ideological purity within the Democratic Party. If we cannot discuss issues without marginalizing each other through catchall characterizations such as “Corporate Dem” or “Republican In Name Only”, all legislative efforts in our democracy will represent the short term ascendance of one exclusive ideology at the expense of its opposite, only to be reversed at the first opportunity by the other side. If we are to pass meaningful legislation that is to have the longevity that allows follow through and maturation, the legislation must emerge from a negotiated center that has too much shared value to be simply dumped with the next pendular swing of the dominant ideology.

In light of the present state of American politics and society, one older, deeply experienced politician’s slogan, “Stronger Together”, though not particularly catchy, actually strikes me as a brave and even radical alternative to the political winds that seem to be growing stronger and stronger despite how destructive they are to American society. I used to see older Democrats who were willing to compromise as sellouts. Now that I, myself, am older, I see the choices, especially of so-called “establishment Democrats”, as brave, responsible, and reflective of a great deal of experience at getting things done. I do see the value of young peoples’ impatience as a provocative conscience of sorts, and as an occasional prod to the codgers’ ability to get lost in process. However, I would suggest to young people that are pushing for ideological purity, that some of the experienced folks who are challenging that idea are challenging it based not on spinelessness, but actually on hard earned experience, experience earned by witnessing the consequences of their own ideological excess earlier in their lives.

When I was the Director of Academic Affairs at Oregon School of Design, I was the classic angry young man. I was a man on a mission to save architecture from the corruption of incompetent older architects. A famous, older architect, who shared my values, pulled me aside one day and said, “Don’t try to do too much, too fast”. I thought he was nuts. Who had the time to waste? However, having watched the entire arc of Oregon School of Design’s history and eventual demise, I came to understand the wisdom of that advice. He was actually saying more than I heard. He was saying, “listen to others, treat other points of view with respect, have some skepticism about your own convictions, take your time.” Of course I couldn’t follow that advice at the time. I was too sure of myself. But had I been able to follow that advice, fewer bridges would have been burned, broader community resources and voices would have been integrated into the program, program growth would have been less rushed, and, as a result, the program might have survived and transcended my immediate, youthful, ideological fetishes. One of the most important things I have learned over the years is that older people and more moderate voices are not necessarily stupid. They may simply be experienced and experience has value.

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Recent Drawing


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Recent Painting


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Separating The Wheat From The Chaff

One of the greatest challenges for early makers is letting go of successes that happen early in a piece. I vividly remember when that was difficult for me. I felt strongly that I didn’t know what I was doing. When anything ever did work, I felt it was a miracle or an accident that would never happen again. I learned very quickly that once I had changed something, it was impossible to remake the earlier version. The trap I fell into was trying to hold on to my successes while continuing to change the parts of the piece that didn’t work. The typical outcome was that I would get a piece to about a 60% success level, at which point I would freeze up because I couldn’t keep working the piece without wrecking the parts I liked.

The biggest problem was that I didn’t understand the nature of expression yet. I saw expression as something fragile, something that would disappear if I didn’t keep an eye out for it and protect it when it happened. Now, I feel exactly the opposite, that one’s core sensibility isn’t fragile at all. In fact, the more I shake up my work by repeatedly demolishing and rebuilding it, the more clearly and profoundly what is truly mine manifests itself. I’ve brought up in previous entries how much I value the metaphor of a wet dog shaking itself dry. The dog shakes so violently that all that can possibly remain is dog. A similar metaphor is the process of separating wheat from chaff, subjecting harvested wheat to such violence that all that is fragile is broken away, leaving only the seed, the part of the plant that carries the highest concentration of nutrients.

How this looks when I am painting is that, early in the process, there are often some passages in the painting that I really like. I could try to hold on to those passages while working the rest of the painting to get the less successful parts to work as well as the more successful parts. The problem is, that never works. One can’t both explore with a high level of risk and selectively protect at the same time. The two are actually mutually exclusive attitudes. Whenever a painter tries to do both simultaneously, the painting develops both a stiffness, especially in the strokes that are getting too close to the favorite parts, and a discontinuity because some parts are brave, risky, and spontaneous, while other parts reveal an attitude of holding back for fear of what might be ruined.

So back to my typical sequence. I develop a painting that is starting to work. Then as I continue to work the painting in risky ways on subsequent days, the original specific potential that I saw in the painting invariably gets trashed. The ruination of early potential happens partly because each day I work a painting, I need to have complete freedom to follow the expressive impulses that I have on that specific day. I can’t pretend to be in the same frame of mind I was in the day before. My expressive impulses simply exist and they are always changing. I suppose I could start a new painting at each sitting, but I am far more interested in a kind of maturation that only happens in paintings that have been returned to again and again. So, some good things happen, I ruin them, some new things happen, I ruin those, too. I keep rolling the dice again and again until the painting gets to a place where it has the richer voice that comes from repeated wrestling with the same surface. I think every painter eventually caves and stops this iterative process, but the longer one can keep the doors open on a painting, the greater the potential for depth. But not only depth. What I’m really most interested in, is finding something that is fundamentally expressive of my sensibility, rather than attaching to handsome early accidents. Like the wet dog, I want to shake the process so hard that my sensibility is the only thing left.

A bit more on the metaphor of throwing dice. If the goal is throwing double sixes, one can’t throw a two and a six, keep the six and continue throwing the second die until it lands on six, then claiming to have thrown double sixes. All you can do is throw the dice again and again until both sixes happen on the same throw. It doesn’t happen often. For it to happen regularly, one has to throw the dice an awful lot.

There is no sense in which this attitude toward painting is particularly rare or uniquely my own. I have found it in every painting I have ever loved. I think all the art that has truly inspired me over the years has been created in the way I have been describing. Quotes of Picasso’s refer explicitly to this process. Passages in James Lord’s book, A Giacometti Portrait, describe the same attitude in Giacometti’s work. Jim Dine and Frank Auerbach have both spoken in interviews of how central destruction and remaking is to their work. This idea appears again and again in both the writing and the work of many artists. It is, however, a difficult concept early in one’s work.

For less experienced makers, just remember that painting is not a linear process, paintings don’t get good, then get better and better, in a state of constant ascent. The work of my favorite painters is more like a sine wave, constantly up and down, as the artist’s impulses shift at each sitting and collide with the previous day’s work. It is as important to the quality of the work to allow destruction as it is to make constructive choices. I continue to strive to get better and better at ruining my work, simply because destruction, perhaps counterintuitively, is a crucial part of the work’s maturation process. I certainly understand the impulse to try to protect early successes but too often it degenerates simply into selling oneself cheap, accepting far less than one’s full capability.

I suggested early in this essay that my early process led to pieces that achieved perhaps a 60% success level, i.e. 60% of the painting was exciting to me. The more destructive process I am advocating is less efficient. I lose way more strong moments. My paintings take way longer. However, through this process that allows, even cultivates, destruction, I sometimes get paintings up into the 80s and 90s. Not a bad trade. I’d rather get one painting to 90% than have hundreds at 60.

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Recently, I have been playing a lot of archtop guitar, especially exploring single line melodies. Because I have been making physical modifications to the guitars I’ve been playing, I have been listening particularly carefully while playing. Also, the specific instruments I have been using are exceptional. The beauty of their tone has made it even more pleasurable to listen intensely to what I’m playing. What I have noticed is that through this careful listening, I make an especially strong identification between the mechanical action of my hands and the notes, melodies, and timbres that my hands are creating. That may seem an obvious thing for a musician to do, but musicians, especially inexperienced musicians, don’t necessarily listen the way I have been lately. I certainly didn’t listen that way early in my musical career. Musicians can just be thinking of patterns. They can be playing licks somewhat absently. They can be thinking about the idea of what they are playing, the name of the note or chord, or just that this note is the next one in the scale, or the right one for this place in the song. Worst of all, they can be passing judgement on their playing instead of taking in their playing.

As I’ve been experiencing this deeper form of listening, I’ve realized that had I always listened this intently while playing, that is, from the time I first began playing guitar, my ear and my hands would have grown much more quickly. The essential thing about this kind of listening is that it maximizes the integration of one’s hands and ear. That integration is what matters above all in music.

Again, isn’t this obvious? Not really. For years I played by rote, as do many musicians, especially early on. It is possible as a learning musician to play through the head rather than through the ear. More than once I have heard an inexperienced bass player play through an entire song a half step off from the other people in the band, because the bass player was thinking in terms of fingering pattern and not actually listening to the notes he was playing. If you aren’t a musician, playing a half step off from the rest of the band is about as out of key as one can get, and yet these amateur bass players didn’t notice.

Bear with me. I’ll get to drawing, but first another example from another art. This last weekend, I went to a dance performance. All the performers were good and quite experienced, but one dancer really stood out to me. While the other dancers seemed to just be going though the movements, albeit skillfully, he seemed to be experiencing each moment of the movement in full detail, as if he were discovering the beauty of it for the first time. I mentioned this to my wife, who was a professional dancer for twenty five years. She said that some dancers embody the movement while others just do the steps. Just doing the steps is moving by head, following directions. The dancer I was watching was not in his head at all. He was completely in his body. There was no conceptual distance between himself and the movement. He was the movement.

So what does this have to do with drawing and painting? Just as with music, early drawers and painters often stand far outside their work while they are doing it. Two examples. New drawers are often criticizing what they are making while they are making it. They are thinking of what they wish they could make rather than paying attention to what they are actually making. Early painters, as another example, often use color purely symbolically. They are not witnessing or responding to the colors they are actually making. For instance, a painter will notice that the model’s skin is flesh colored. The painter then mixes a whole bunch of paint from what they think are components of flesh tone and applies that mix wherever they see skin. Often the paint mix is miles from flesh tone but the painter just keeps using more and more of it wherever there is skin, just like the bass player who is off a half step. The new painter doesn’t study the color she did mix. She just sees it as a poor choice that reflects her inexperience.

The real question for a painter (drawer) is not what the painter hopes to do. Where there is the greatest potential for learning is in experiencing what the painter is actually doing. Imagine if the beginning painter were really watching the paint as it was being mixed. Regardless of whether the mix was what the artist intended, there would be so much to notice and experience in what is actually happening with the paint. If a painter is lost in paying attention to the paint, then every mix is a learning experience. Over time, mixing and seeing get integrated just as hearing and playing do for a musician who intensely listens.

New drawers often tell me that they don’t know what kind of marks to use to get such and such an effect. In the mean time, they are holding back, working tentatively in real time. Because they are focusing on what they wish would happen, they entirely miss the opportunity to make what they can make fully right now, and having held back, they can’t experience the successes of the present stage of their work. In recent years, I have been trying to explain to students that the ways drawings turn out early on are not mistakes at all, but rather are accurate reflections of how beginners see as makers. If the student can experience, study, and commit to the nuances of how they are making right now, they place themselves exactly where the most motivated and exploratory changes occur.

A few years ago, I had an intermediate student who felt her drawn faces were turning out as “cheesy” (her word). She wanted them to turn out differently. She wanted to know how to fix them. I eventually suggested that there was nothing to fix, that what she saw as “cheesy” was actually a stage in her seeing and making that she should indulge. I suspect one of the things that was happening was that she was beginning to emphasize certain characteristics that struck her as essential. Often, the early stages of emphasis are clumsy looking but very important. To emphasize something, one has to really understand it. Having mastered that understanding, one can later begin to finesse things so that the emphasis is more subtle and less obvious, if that’s what the artist desires. This year, I saw a show of new work by this same artist and it was truly stunning. The “cheesiness” had resolved itself. It wasn’t gone. It had simply evolved into a more subtle and complex balance of nuanced insights.

The essence of what I am talking about is that there is the greatest potential for learning exactly where the artist is in real time, because that is the place that the artist best understands at the moment. That’s the place that truly expresses the artist’s present experience base as a maker. That’s the place where the artist can make incremental adjustments and motivated experiments that can be witnessed intensely. The artist’s long term ideals are called long term for a reason. Those ideals will necessarily be inaccessible for many years. The most direct path to that future is created by committing fully to what can be made today. Any sense in which a choice works can be appreciated and allowed to register. Choices that seem to make things worse can just as powerfully be witnessed as a sources of experience, in the same way that paint mixes that didn’t come out as expected can be. Judging the mix accomplishes nothing. Experiencing the mix…now that’s another matter. Every mix contributes to one’s base of experience, if witnessed. 

When I was in my forties, I took lots of yoga classes. The teacher recommended that we not try to do the asanas as she was doing them. She encouraged us to explore simpler, less advanced versions where we could feel change happening in our own bodies and actively explore our own experience. At the time, I couldn’t get there. I just insisted on trying to do what the teacher was doing. Many years later, I returned to yoga with the ambition simply to slow the natural freezing up that comes with aging. With my ambition scaled way down, I did find the place where I could experience change in my body. It was a very primitive place compared to what the teacher was doing, but it was a very real and exciting place once I allowed myself to value it.

So, for beginning students, actually for anyone who is still learning, I’m suggesting that they not see where they are as a place of failure that should be fixed, but rather as the very place that matters most, the place, if intensely experienced, that is the locus of greatest growth. That choice of paying intense attention to, actually savoring, where you are at the moment needn’t be the purview of the experienced. It is just as accessible to the beginner, and is, in fact, where the most happens. The way I am listening to my playing these days is a way that I could have listened from day one. I had some close musician friends who did just that. I assumed they had better ears than I did. In fact, they were just paying more attention to their ears. My mistakes in the beginning were twofold. First, I thought I should be thinking about things rather than experiencing them, and second, I thought that what I could do was not good enough to be worthy of attention. By treating what I was doing early on as something of little value, I missed much of the extraordinary value it actually had.

I’d like to close with two examples. When I watch my wife, Joan, paint, she seems to really pay attention to every moment. She watches what happens when she mixes two or three colors together. She notices what she gets. She finds places to put the mix on the painting and watches the behavior of the brush and how the paint flows onto the canvas. She experiences the different ways that color reads as it lands next to different colors. She doesn’t try to intellectually categorize what is happening. She is far too busy with her senses for that. The result of this attention is, number one, that she absolutely loves painting and, number two, that she has a huge experience base regarding mixing, color relationships, brush behavior, etc. because she has been paying attention to what has been happening all along. The second example is from my own experience as a drawer. I have no idea why I have always drawn this way. Maybe it’s because my first drawing teacher said that he would rather see a pile of motivated failures by our tables than a few conservative successes. Maybe it’s because I didn’t expect much of my drawing in the beginning. Whatever the reason, from day one, once I decided to learn to draw as an adult, I have always drawn full out. Somehow I got hooked on finding where I am, rather than worrying about success or failure. As with my wife’s experience with paint, every drawing is a learning experience, whether it turns out well or crashes in flames. I know in my bones that my greatest successes result from discoveries forged in the previous failures, so while I am working, I don’t think about success or failure. I’m simply too busy making to waste time judging things. It’s not that my early drawings were great. But they were frank. They were what they were, or rather they reveal where I was at the time they were made. And just as with Joan and painting, I have always loved drawing. I love the struggles. I love the discoveries. I love how unpredictable it is. For me, drawing is like food. I can’t live without it and it gives me the opportunity to indulge in whatever I most enjoy at the moment. Also, as with food, I enjoy what I enjoy. It doesn’t matter whether others like what I like, and I can’t be talked into liking what I don’t like. Drawing is a sensory, exploratory experience that is all consuming.

I suspect that many beginning drawers feel that the attitude I assumed early in my drawing must be earned, that otherwise it would be arrogant. I disagree. The attitude I am encouraging is to simply treat what you are doing and your potential with the respect. If you assume that what you do doesn’t merit respect, then you get trapped in a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you treat your own work as being unworthy of your intense attention, you will limit the ability to witness your own experience and, in turn, limit the growth that will allow you to express your potential.

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The Value And Necessity Of Poor Choices

I have returned to painting recently after years of concentrating mainly on my guitar making and drawing. As I walked through the studio today, I noticed a painting I had been working on yesterday that, today, looks dreadful to me. Yesterday, I had been in the early stages of the painting and didn’t have any idea of what I wanted to do. My motivations seemed fragile, random, or nonexistent. I’ve never let that stop me in the past, so I just started throwing all kinds of random actions at the painting. When I saw the painting today, I found that there were many things I wanted to do to it, many qualities and characteristics that I wanted to struggle with, react to, embellish, and/or change. The motivation that I found today would not have been accessible had I not made the crappy and often random choices that I made yesterday. That dynamic relationship between less than stellar choices and motivation is what I want to discuss.

One statement that I often make to students about my own process is that it takes me a while to notice what I notice. I have to make, to learn more about making. In the early stages, my understanding and motivation aren’t clear. If I have to wait for clarity, the process doesn’t begin. I certainly have found over the years that drawing and painting are physical disciplines. By that, I mean that I can’t solve problems in my work by thinking about them. The only process that really contributes to my understanding problems in drawing and painting is to engage them physically, to engage them through making. The kind of painting and drawing I love just can’t be done in one’s head.

So, there is an inherent dilemma for those makers among us who struggle with perfectionism. What we would prefer to be a one step process of figuring out what we want to do, then doing it, is inescapably, and in fact, a multi-stage process that begins with not knowing. The absolutely beautiful core of this process is that its soil is failure. If I learn what I want to do by trying things, then the process simply has to begin with crappy choices. Mark Bornowski, an excellent drawer, once told my students a story of his having been in artillery in the military as a young man. He described how, before the advent of smart bombs, people manning canons or mortars could only aim the artillery precisely by first firing essentially a throw away shot. They would take their best, but unavoidably not all that great, first shot, notice where that lands, then make adjustments so that the second shot lands further left or right, deeper or shallower. Mark shared that story because of its analogies to drawing and painting. One’s early choices can’t be very well informed, so it makes little sense to expect much of those choices. What’s exciting about those early choices is that their very “wrongness” gives us huge amounts of information. In terms of observing an external subject like a model, the early clumsy version can be compared to the subject observed and one begins, right away, to notice more than one could without the not so hot early version as a referent. With an abstract painting, like the one I was working on, its physical characteristics elicit all kinds of reactions and provide the soil of physical interaction from which deeper motivation emerges over time.

My point is simply that the clumsy early stages are the essential foundation of later discoveries. The clumsy early stages are not to be avoided or condemned, but rather, should be exuberantly embraced because they contribute so much. In fact, without them, nothing can happen and, the fact is, they are unavoidable. I saw a film last year in which the musician, Nick Cave, suggests that good ideas start out as bad ideas, that good ideas are essentially bad ideas that have been tested, challenged, enhanced to the point that they mature into much more satisfying possibilities. The point is that without the bad ideas, the good ideas can’t emerge.

This issue is one of the reasons that the early stages of a painting or drawing are so fun for me. I know that their specific content doesn’t really matter. I just need some making to react to. It doesn’t need to be good making and, in fact, can’t be good making at the start of the process. There is no way to catastrophically fail in the early stages. Failing is, in fact, one’s job. It informs and makes possible all the subsequent stages of making. What is so fun in the beginning is indulging my skill at failing. I’m great at it! What is needed at the beginning is not something over my head or beyond my reach. What I need to make in the beginning is something I am always capable of, mediocrity, garbage, “whatever” kind of stuff. Not only that. That very stuff is an important and necessary foundation of the work’s later stages.

To a wider frame. As a recovering perfectionist, I am often embarrassed by making mistakes in front of other people. I’d like to internalize that human interaction follows the same processes I know so well in art, that clarity emerges through just starting, engaging, in whatever messy way one can begin. I hope to, over time, begin seeing behavior I deem embarrassing in others as simply a brave beginning rather than something to be avoided, to see others’ failures as encouragement for me to take similar risks, that mastery comes from what one learns by being willing to be not so good at things.

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The Bridge, Expression And Structure

Think of a bridge across a river. To build such a bridge, one has to begin building toward the center of the river from the land on each side. For the longest time, until the two sides meet, the bridge is a complete failure as a bridge. Before the two sides of the bridge meet, if you drive from either side toward the other side, you ultimately end up in the drink. However, if you keep working on each side, the bridge ultimately becomes a continuous whole rather than two incomplete beginnings.

I think of the relationship between structure and expression in drawings as a similar condition. Early in one’s work, the relationship between the two is unclear, the idea of making a drawing that equally articulates both seems impossible. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere in this blog, in my first year of serious fine art drawing, I saw an original Cezanne drawing of a young boy’s head at the house of a Philadelphia art collector. The drawing beautifully captured and described truths about the structure of the subject. As I began to look at the individual marks that composed this drawing, I was stunned by how freely made and expressive the marks were. They had life and energy purely as marks and were in no way limited in their expressive energy by the structure they conveyed. I knew from that moment that that was the kind of drawing I wanted to be able to make, but how on earth to get there?

What has helped me has been to view the two characteristics, structure and expression as two  conditions of study, equally important, that, over time, meet and coexist, neither compromising the intensity of the other. I approach each as the starting point of a bridge. In some drawings, I concentrate on understanding and characterizing aspects of the structure of what I am observing. The drawings that are more oriented toward structure tend to be tighter drawings and my effort focuses on creating legibility. The expressive drawings, on the other hand, are understood to be, not a description, but rather, a reaction. The marks are more about my reactions to the subject than about the subject itself. They are about how I feel, the feelings and movements the subject evokes within me, how I like to make at the moment, the kind of strokes I would use if I had total freedom and didn’t need to control or limit the marks to make a legible description. I still make these marks as a reaction to an observed subject. That is what allows the expressive side of the bridge to build toward the side of structure. That is, I could make really expressive marks without looking at anything, but what interests me is finding or allowing those very same kinds of marks exactly while interacting with both internal and external subject matter.

If I allow myself to approach a subject from both sides, some drawings emphasizing structure and some drawings emphasizing expression, over time each side begins to corrupt the other. More structure surfaces in my expressive drawings. More expression surfaces in the drawings that are biased toward structure. It doesn’t work to try to force a compromise between the two. I need to give expression full primacy in some drawings and structure full primacy in others. Over time, and with lots of experience doing both, the two sides begin moving toward each other. If I’m exceptionally lucky, the sides meet, creating a continuous bridge between the two categories of impulses.

The fact is, the relationship between these two impulses is messy. They can compromise each other and rarely find equal balance. Just like human relationships, the relationship between these two kinds of impulses can be really complicated and often founders. When the relationship works though, when both coexist full on, influenced by but not compromised by the other, then drawing gets really exciting. My drawing teacher, Jerry Buchanan, saw drawing as a superimposition of many simultaneous realities, above all, the reality of the subject and the reality of the maker. I feel, as he did, that without both, a drawing loses the very essence of what makes drawings extraordinary.

Even after thirty-eight years of drawing, the balance I am describing is hard for me to find. Each drawing tends to move more toward one side or the other. I am always trying to reach the middle of the bridge, but more often than not end up closer to one bank than the other. Because my ways of working allow lots of reworking and changes in direction, an individual drawing might move back and forth, being overbalanced toward one side then the other, again and again, as I search for balance between the two impulse. It isn’t easy for me to create the balance I seek. The best I can do is try to give both bodies of impulse full reign, hoping that they end up coexisting rather than destroying each other. One of the great things about drawing is that one can shoot for an ideal time and time again, failing most of the time, and yet still achieve rare moments that at least point toward the possibility of the ideal.

My only closing thought is that if you also value the balance of both impulses in your work, you must let both mature simultaneously. I’ve known many artists who assume that one must master structure first, then expression. If one approaches making that way, an ever growing asymmetry between the impulses grows. The artist gets better and better at structure, while expression remains naive. Once one finally engages expression, it is so far behind structure in its maturity, that structure will suppress expression every time. Expression simply hasn’t the strength to demand equal influence. So I suggest emphasizing both equally from day one, not in every drawing, but rather drawing to drawing. Swing way out toward one, then way out toward the other and keep it up while they find the way to each other. Just as with a literal bridge, the work on each side remains incomplete for quite a while, but eventually the sides meet and create something integrated, flowing, and complete, far stronger than either side on its own.

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