Exhibiting Again, After 17 Years In Exile

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Seventeen years ago, I stopped showing in galleries. This is the story of why that happened and why I am coming back. I will be showing my portrait drawings with David Slader’s paintings in February at Portland’s Gallery 114.

My last show was in 1999 at the Mark Woolley Gallery. I approached Mark and asked if I could do a one man group show, that is, a show that filled his whole gallery that featured three of the four directions of my work at the time, my junk paintings, which were three dimensional  constructions composed of found objects and paint; my abstract paintings; and the guitars and amps I had begun making. I wasn’t including my drawings because many gallery owners had explained to me that drawings were nearly impossible to sell in Portland. Mark graciously accepted (Mark is the greatest) even though I wasn’t part of his gallery stable. Mark suggested just showing the abstract paintings and guitars because he had recently shown a group of my junk paintings. We did the show. It had tons of work, a real gang of paintings along with many guitars and amps. Mark sold a number of the paintings, but the guitars and amps were clearly just a weird fit for galleries even though the guitars were unconventional and very visual.

I think, with my abstract paintings, I was probably moving into some of the same territory that led to Duchamp’s finally giving up painting. I had a very steep and exciting learning curve in my first basically twenty years of painting, but by the Woolley show my painting was degenerating into a sort of visual/formal/compositional chess game that I was losing interest in. With my guitars, however, I was right in the heart of constant discovery.

My guitars became the primary focus of my work, though I never stopped experimenting with drawing and painting. Because galleries were not a great fit for the guitars, I just stopped showing in galleries. I soon received a call from Cliff Cultreri, one of the great dealers in hand built, high end guitars. Cliff asked if he could represent my guitars. I was thrilled with the offer and accepted.

Not being associated with galleries gave me the freedom to move in ever more private directions with my drawing and what little painting I did. In fact, I really considered the guitars the core of my painting because each one involved color, texture, collage, and composition.

I began to use my drawings for two purposes. The first was social. Early in my drawing I had had to stay quiet while I worked, to maintain my concentration. As I became a more experienced drawer, I began to speak to my models more and more while I was working. In some ways the discussion kept my mind occupied so that my sensibility could function without interference. Once I could talk and draw at the same time, I started using sittings as a way of spending time with people I’d like to spend more time with. About five years ago, after the death of my parents, I asked my friend Gary if he would sit for me. Gary had had his share of losses in life and I hoped he could be a person with whom I could share my grief. Gary and I were friends at that point but didn’t yet know each other especially well. Gary and I have now worked together at least a couple of hours a week, most weeks, ever since then. By my calculations, I have drawn Gary at least 400 hours and feel I could easily study his face 400 more. He has a great, complex, and spatially difficult face that I can’t imagine ever exhausting as a subject. 400 hours in and I still feel I haven’t even come close to how I see him.

The second purpose has a long back story that I have discussed in other blog entries. Many years into my drawing I realized that the gap between what one could see and what one could capture physically through drawing grows over time rather than shrinks, that one’s ability to see into the nature of things grows faster than our physical equipment, the hand development and means of characterization through which we draw. As a neophyte I had just assumed that once I got pretty experienced at drawing I’d be able to draw what I saw. That presumption just turned out to be wrong, one of the many naive misconceptions that shatter with experience. Presented with the fact that I would never be able to capture all that I saw, I began to rethink my motivation as a drawer. What has meaning to me now is using drawing to experience the world in a deeper way. If I am wrestling with what I am observing through drawing, I notice and experience far more than I otherwise would. If the purpose of drawing becomes experiencing the subject, then the drawing itself becomes simply the residue of that process rather than the goal or purpose of the process. If the drawing as object is no longer primary, then one has the freedom to explore whatever means of making most enrich the experience. I find that what helps me most is “drawing blind”, i.e. drawing without looking at the paper. Blind drawing allows me to indulge in every way I can conceive of of breaking down or processing the subject, while also allowing each mark or realization or form of searching making to be acted upon in its full integrity without being compromised to fit marks previously placed on the page.

Now this is all slightly disingenuous because the more I worked on blind drawings the more interesting I found the residue, that is, the more interesting I found the drawings themselves. So now I work primarily blind, looking from time to time to allow movement back and forth between legibility and ambiguity, trying to find an ideal balance point, from my point of view, of ambiguous implication.

Having done hundreds, perhaps thousands of such drawings, I have begun to accumulate a handful that give some evidence of the visual quality I am interested in. A body of work has begun to form that I would like to share, simply because no one has seen it but me, with the exception of a few close friends and some of my students. Galleries are the vehicle for this kind of sharing so this year I started to contact galleries again and kept an eye out for opportunities. When David invited me share his show, the timing was right.

Actually, I don’t really like working with galleries. Art sales get too bound up with issues of prestige, and self-promotion takes more work than it has been worth to me. The act of drawing is all that I really care about. Even so, it will be fun to share what I’ve been up to all these years. See you at the show.

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A Few Reflections on our Europe Trip

We’ve just returned from three weeks in Europe. We went to Berlin first, where I had been invited to show my guitars as part of a world-wide invitational show called the Holy Grail Guitar Show. After that, we spent ten days in Paris and the evening of our next to last day the terrorist attack happened. I’ll get back to that.

Berlin is an amazing city. What struck me perhaps most is that Berlin is a laboratory for the future in Europe and the US. The city is the most diverse I have experienced. The buses, particularly in the neighborhood where we were staying, were filled with as many people of non-Western European heritage as they were with people of German heritage. There were great numbers of Muslims. There were Turks. There were Africans. It felt like Berlin was a place where integrated world culture was taken for granted. Maybe not taken for granted. I know there are plenty of Germans who are as anti-immigrant as right wingers in the United States, but that train has left the station in Berlin. Cultural inclusion is inescapable and irreversible there.

One of the loveliest moments I witnessed was when a thirty something German man on the bus broke in on a discussion among three other men. The German said, “I overheard that you are newly arrived from Syria. I just wanted to welcome you.”

Another very interesting part of the Berlin experience is that there is a huge presence of information about the Holocaust and the horrors of the Nazi era. In Berlin, at least, people are openly facing their society’s failures through a great number of monuments, museums, etc.. As others have suggested, Berlin’s approach could serve as a model for how we could engage American bases for shame, the legacy of slavery above all.

Back to the issue of immigration. One of the most interesting conversations I had with a German was with a friend named Moe. Moe, a native Berliner, born and raised, though his father was Sudanese, was very concerned about the influx of immigrants, principally because they were not  primarily secular. He pointed out that the shift in European society toward the secular, was a hard won shift that emerged through a long history of experience with religious conflict and religious extremism. He worried that immigrants from more religiously homogeneous cultures wouldn’t understand the critical importance of secularism in such a diverse democracy. I definitely understand Moe’s concern but I think that these days the assimilation of immigrants from very different cultural backgrounds is an inescapable part of urban life. The question, I think, is how can the immigrants be truly included in the full society so that they, too, experience the advantages of modern society. That sounds kind of naive, but I don’t see what other sensible option we have. Isolation and de facto segregation clearly aren’t working in Europe. Moe also explained to me that there were areas of rural Germany where he couldn’t travel because he wasn’t “white enough”, that there was such xenophobic mania in these parts of Germany that even a German who didn’t look German enough wouldn’t be safe. What a sick and dangerous species we are.

On an entirely different note, the guitar show was great. I met many makers whose work I admire and, to my great surprise, found that most of them had been following and admiring my work for years. Many makers told me that they felt the non-traditional ground I am breaking with my designs is freeing up possibilities for all makers. To find that the stuff you are making in private in your little studio really means something to lots of people around the world is a wonderful thing to experience. It gives me even more license to go ahead being who I am. I was afraid that many guitar makers would be offended by my work because it is so rough, so outside the typical refinement of guitar building. But  everyone seemed to get that each way of making contributes on its own terms and that the variety and range of approaches is a good thing.

For years I have admired the work of an Italian guitar maker from the 1960s named Wandre Pioli. Wandre was a true one-of-a-kind maker and artist whose designs were wildly creative and unconventional. I’ve always secretly felt a kinship with Wandre as a fellow full out weirdo. Well, just by coincidence, the guitar show had a special table featuring Wandre’s work because a definitive book on his work, the first actually, had just been published. The author, Marco Ballestri, was there and we had a number of conversations. My greatest compliment of the show was Marco’s telling me that I was the 21st century Wandre.

On to Paris. Paris was lovely. We were in an absolutely beautiful apartment in a stunning part of one of the oldest and smallest scale parts of the city. The best part of the trip was just taking walks in our neighborhood. Our apartment was so old that the owner had no idea how old it was. From my research it could have been built in as early as the 1400s. The 1600s is probably more likely. The construction was heavy timber framing. The joists and beams were all hand hewn, and held together with wooden dowels rather than metal. Access to the bedroom was via a tiny spiral staircase that I was surprised could even handle our weight. Access to the apartment was through two courtyards and up six short flights of ancient stairs. The construction of our apartment was very approximate. By that I mean that the joists in the ceiling were not consistent widths and not consistent distances from each other. Everything was similar but far from exact. Everything was “in the ball park.” It struck me as the physical equivalent of the sense of time when the building was built. As I understand it, bells would ring for major divisions of the day, but time had nothing to do with our modern notion of judging time by the exact minute (or hundredth of second on my smart phone). Now, in construction, each joist is exactly the same depth and exactly the same spacing as every other joist. In general, I feel we are slowly and progressively being consumed by meaningless precision in modern culture. Of course, that very precision is the basis of the construction of the Eiffel tower. It has advantages under some circumstances, but I think we have begun to compulsively see exactness or uniformity as innately valuable.

Our next to last night, Joan and I went out to dinner in our neighborhood. After dinner we went walking. We thought about walking one direction, which would have taken us right toward the Bataclan theater, about twenty minutes’ walk away, but we decided we were too tired and walked the other way to shorten the walk. The moment we got home the sirens started. There were hundreds of sirens that continued throughout the night. I was watching TV when the reports started coming in, gunfire in a Paris neighborhood, then in two locations, then that the guns were kalishnikovs, then ever rising numbers of dead and wounded, then explosions, then more locations and hostages. There was a huge amount of time (two hours) between the early reports of deaths and hostages at the Bataclan and the eventual storming of the theater by Paris police. We were very worried about the fate of those people the whole time and very little was known about their circumstances. We were frantically trying to figure out what was really going on by checking English news sources on the web. The president announced that the borders would be closed and we had no idea what that meant, whether it would have any impact on out return flight. It was horrible. We finally went to sleep. The next morning, I checked the news then went outside to get some bread. Authorities had said to stay inside the night before, but I felt trapped by the whole event and felt I had to reclaim my freedom to be in the world. Many Parisians felt the same and it was very reassuring to see so many people defiantly back out on the streets of their city the following morning. Even so, there was an obvious sense of sorrow everywhere.

The whole experience really shook all three of us terribly and is still very much a part of my mood a week later. I am haunted by all of it, in fact, terrorized, although I refuse to let it keep me from my life. The grief however is profound and just as with 911 will take time to come to terms with.

All in all, it was a magnificent though very challenging trip. We are so grateful to all the people who contributed and made this trip possible. I know that with time the positive parts of the trip will no longer be overshadowed by the momentous events of its ending, but for now my mind is on Paris and its loss.

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The Power Of Screens

Imagine feeling the first minor tremors before the San Andreas Fault finally makes the big shift, the premonition, experiencing the first whispers of imminent disaster. I had an experience today that felt a bit like that. On the surface it was pretty innocuous, but maybe not. I was sitting in a coffee shop and in came a healthy, intelligent looking young woman with her maybe ten month old son. Once she had ordered and settled with her son at a table, she shifted her attention to her cell phone. For fifteen minutes she focused on the phone, only occasionally and briefly engaging her son to move some food within his reach or maybe to wipe his mouth. The child actually seemed pretty content. Perhaps he was used to this behavior and expected little more.

I am quite familiar with screen addiction. I often experience feeling neglected as my wife obsessively entertains herself with Facebook or solitaire. My adult son often has to fight for my attention as I stare at the computer. I often wonder if my dog is jealous of the computer because we spend hours focusing on it while he is right there on the couch next to us hoping for attention. That is, I am not immune, nor are my loved ones. But a baby? How far will we all go with this stuff? I thought watching bicyclist texting was the limit. I was wrong.

As one of my students suggested, maybe the mother was just taking a break. But I have seen that fixed gaze at the screen. I know that gaze. The very fact that a person could become so transfixed even in the presence of their own infant shows the power of our screen worlds. What could be more fascinating than one’s own young child? The answer… a smart phone. And what is the child’s experience. I know the petty jealousy that wells up in me when a loved one is magnetically attached to a screen and I am experienced as an interruption. What if I grew up always feeling secondary to these mysterious screens, screens that were somehow more important to my mother than I was. What kind of human would I become?

I feel sort of fortunate to have witnessed the behavior of this young mother. It felt like a warning of sorts, a warning of how powerful the pull of these devices is and how destructive our succumbing to that pull can be. Next time I’m thinking, oh just let me check a few things on Ebay, then we can talk, maybe I’ll stop staring at the machine and actually place greater importance on interacting with a loved one. Next time I look at something related to guitars on the web, maybe I’ll play an actual guitar instead.

One thing we have learned from the study of mirror neurons is that humans can have the same experience, from a neurological perspective, watching an activity as they would have actually participating in that activity. As our technological tools become ever more sophisticated, the potential of leading a purely virtual life becomes more and more real. I know teenagers and young adults who lead primarily virtual lives and have a fairly reasonable daily sense of satisfaction with life. The problem is that both for us as individuals and for us as a society, virtual behavior contributes nothing and builds nothing. It is neutral, non-constructive entertainment. We all love having time to veg out, time when we’re done being productive for the day, but as screen access becomes ubiquitous and so powerfully attractive, more and more time during our days goes virtual. Seeing that young woman with her child and her oh so much more important smart phone just reminds me that we need to be careful about this stuff. It is not innocuous and it is not neutral. It is a powerful drug that is pulling many of us away from life. I don’t know how successful I will be at challenging this addiction or at least finding an appropriate limited role for it in my life, but the stakes are, I believe, larger than we are admitting. It very much like we as a society are quietly dropping into a mass heroine addiction. It actually feels great, so what could be the problem? As with a heroine addiction, how does one react against it while experiencing the pleasure of it? I don’t know. Perhaps we still have enough awareness to see what we are doing while we are doing it.

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Why I Like Being A Mutant

Pheo Artist's Model

This October, my guitars are going to be exhibited in a show in Berlin called the Holy Grail Guitar Show. 115 guitar makers from all over the world have been invited to exhibit in this show. The show purports to be the best guitar show in the world, exhibiting the highest quality contemporary work. Well, being in this show is scary for me because all the other participants make exquisitely crafted guitars, while I make really weird guitars with lots of scrapes and scars, guitars that challenge exquisite craft as the most important standard in guitar design. Showing among these makers evokes my deepest personal doubts.

Where does my approach toward guitar making come from? From those very same doubts, the same place my approach to drawing comes from. My choices in making are grounded in my challenging my own perfectionism. Why? Because my perfectionism makes me absolutely crazy. When I approach territory that kicks in my sense of perfectionism, I start to tighten up, I second guess my every choice, I become so hesitant that I can hardly act. When I do act from that state, my work sucks because my actions express, above all, fear and self-doubt. My choices have no power because they are halting, stuttering, neurotically careful, and indecisive. There is no confidence in my behavior. I express the human spirit in a state of nothing but apology. It is an ugly state to experience, personally, and the resulting work is even worse than that.

My pathological relationship with perfectionism has very deep and personal roots, but those roots are not my interest in this entry. My question is, if I could erase my problem with perfectionism, would I? Do I want to?

The interesting thing is, this question is not hypothetical. A few years ago, I was prescribed a drug called Vyvanse. Vyvanse is a time release stimulant, prescribed in my case for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. There is a big OCD dimension to my perfectionism. Well… on Vyvanse, I can go right into the middle of the territories where my perfectionism would typically strangle me and stay perfectly comfortable, doing what I can do without freezing or becoming self-conscious, without becoming perversely careful in an attempt to avoid mistakes. It’s really quite strange. On Vyvanse I can do obsessive craft guitar making and I do it pretty well, you know, as well as the next guy or gal. Plus, it is so nice to be out from under the anxiety associated with all that.

So why did I stop taking Vyvanse? I’d like to say that I was so wise that I chose to stop. Actually, I started developing side effects that forced me to stop. However, upon reflection, I’ve come to feel that stopping is, perhaps, a good choice independent of side effects.

The Berlin show helped throw all of this into relief. I was thinking, “Oooh, it’s going to be scary showing my weird guitars among all those perfect guitars. Vyvanse will let me make my guitars as perfectly as all the others in the show.” Then a voice in me asked why I would want to do such a thing? The more I thought about it, the more I realized that my difficult relationship with perfectionism has everything to do with the uniqueness of my voice as an artist and with the joy that my peculiar ways of making bring me. Without my debilitating perfectionism, I would never have needed to make guitars or drawings the way I do. Years ago, one of my mentors suggested that our greatest strengths and our greatest weaknesses emerge from the same personal thread. Change one and you change the other. If I were to subtract the issue of perfectionism from my work, the clarity of my present point of view would evaporate. I’d make guitars just like anyone else. Where’s the fun in that?

I know that, in fact, my nature would not actually disappear were I to make significant progress with some of my psychological challenges. I would probably still make unique guitars, just unique in a different way. However, I am challenging the idea that everything would be better if we had no problems. I think our responses to our problems (Maybe problems isn’t even the right word. Perhaps I am just talking about emerging from any context of experience) are the basis of identity and choice. I once wondered how one would do yoga without having a stiff body to respond to. It would be impossible. One would have no sense of orientation, no motivation. There would be no reason to do yoga. Same with life and identity. Would we really prefer to live in an ideal state where we aren’t all twisted up with traumas and difficulties? I wouldn’t. My challenges are the drivers of my learning and expression and I absolutely love learning and expression. Really, what do I want with Eden? Give me the damned apple and all the crap that comes along with it. In for a penny, in for a pound. Sure, I’d like to cut the crap by half, but that doesn’t seem to be an option in the contract. The options are, are you in, or are you out? Yes, it’s hard, but I’m definitely in. I know I don’t actually have a choice, psychoactive drugs notwithstanding, but even if I did I’d be in. Thinking about whether I would choose my difficulties and deciding yes, even that softens the whole situation just a bit.

That being said, it is an awful lot of work and becomes overwhelming fairly often. So I also value temporary vacations from the challenges and any tricks or tools that allow such vacations. As they say, moderation in all things. As go the hard parts, maybe I am simply rationalizing an inescapable situation, but I think there is a little more truth to it than that. I think as the years stack up I am beginning to begrudgingly appreciate the horror of it all. I guess it’s no coincidence that Beckett’s writing is reading more and more to me as joyous and honest comedy.

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Another Gary

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Recent Portrait

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The Artist’s Block

Recently, a friend asked me for advice because she had begun to dread going into the studio. I took the question very seriously because while a musician, I had a full on, catastrophic block that led ultimately to my putting my instrument away for fifteen years. Later, about ten or twelve years into my career as a visual artist, I had an equally rough block that I eventually got through. Blocks are natural. They happen to everyone. Unfortunately, people don’t talk about blocks much. I find it particularly distressing that experienced artists who have been through blocks don’t often share their experience with younger artists facing blocks for the first time.

Let me begin by describing my two blocks in greater detail. Soon after leaving music school, I moved close to New York. During that period I would listen to the best avant-garde jazz composers during the day and work on my own compositions at night. I became more and more aware of how naive my compositions were in comparison to those of my heroes. I ultimately became depressed about my work and began to freeze up. Hoping to get some good advice, I called Chick Corea, the great jazz pianist. He, of all people, could have given me genuine advice about blocks, learned through personal experience. Instead, he just tried to talk me into becoming a Scientologist. Apparently that would solve everything. I didn’t become a Scientologist, my block became catastrophic and I stopped being a musician.

Many years later, after I had been a visual artist for at least ten years, I took a five month trip to Europe. From my beginnings as an artist until that trip, I had been working on a consistently evolving direction in figurative drawing and painting. When I returned from that trip I tried just picking up where I had left off but found I couldn’t. Doing more of my familiar kind of work was like pulling teeth. I had lost all my motivation for that direction. I didn’t know what to do. I tried all sorts of things to no avail. Eventually I came to the conclusion that I was no longer an artist. I had no ideas, no motivation, no momentum, no enthusiasm. I decided it was over, that I had come to my end of my line as an artist. So I decided to quit, but I made a deal with myself that I wouldn’t quit for nine months.

I wrote “Nine Months” on the wall of my studio. For nine months I forced myself to work every day, to do something, anything to keep my hands moving. Many of the things I tried were idiotic. I tried landscape drawing (not so idiotic). I made illustrated journal entries. I created ridiculous board games with primitive cartoons. I even traced other drawings just to keep busy. Most of those days in the studio were truly excruciating. Finally, I arranged a marathon figure session with one of my favorite models. The session was to be six hours, though three was my typical limit. At about four hours in, something broke. I was too tired to do my usual thing any longer, so I just started swinging my arms around on great big paper, using a huge marker. I didn’t look at the picture while I was making it. I just moved physically the way I wanted to and let hundreds of marks pile up, contradicting each other, crossing each other, not lining up, not making sense, not building on one another. It felt good to work this new way. I had no idea what would get made, what what I was doing would look like. I made a bunch of these huge, ambiguous, perhaps senseless drawings, then looked at them all. They made a new kind of sense, very different from my old work, in fact inconceivable from the framework of my old work. While my old work moved consistently toward clarification, this new work avoided clarification and developed implied structure through intentional ambiguity. I was excited about this new direction. My motivation started returning and building. I got so I couldn’t wait to make more work each day. I have been riding this new direction for over twenty years now and my enthusiasm for it has only grown. I may have another block at some point but I have confidence that I will be able to move through it if and when it happens.

Here are my thoughts on blocks. I think each direction an artist takes has a shelf life. The direction begins. The artist learns more and more. The work develops a degree of sophistication, a consistent language that the artist knows how to manipulate. The expression gets better and better, clearer, more expert. These things are getting pretty damned good. Eventually the work becomes repetitive. It feels to me at that stage like the work becomes self-parody. It gets stale and it becomes hard for the artist to keep making this crap.

Now the real problems begin. The old work has lost its appeal but what shall the new work be? For the longest time, the artist tries to formulate the new direction as somehow an outgrowth of the old direction, but that won’t work. The new work has to come from an altogether new conception, something inconceivable from the framework of the old direction, something that is not implicit in the old work, something truly new, actually different. I think the hardest thing is letting go of the old framework and embracing something unformed, not known. The only guide one can have at this point is how it feels to work, not what it will look like because one doesn’t know that yet. Another challenge is that this new work will be inescapably primitive compared to the old work. The old work was at its point of greatest maturity, in full bloom. The new work is in its infancy and can’t yet stand up to the maturity of the old work. However, as this new direction matures it will eventually reach a greater richness than the former work allowed.

I see this cycle in the work of many artists who have inspired me. The most obvious example to my eyes is Cezanne. If you ever get a chance to study an oeuvre complete of Cezanne’s drawings, you will see over and over the cycle of a direction maturing until it is in full bloom, then becoming repetitive. At that point Cezanne lets go of the old direction and embraces a new one that is comparatively primitive. The new direction, though primitive at first, eventually surpasses the sophistication of the previous direction. This cycle happens time and time again over the course of Cezanne’s career.

To conclude, as I said at the beginning of this essay, blocks are natural. Each direction has its own lifespan. Often an interruption in one’s work will expose the exhaustion of a direction. After that, the process of finding the next direction can often be painful, partly because one is so fluent in the dead direction that it is difficult to think any other way. The birth of the new direction is often painful. The important thing is that the new direction can only emerge through work. Thomas Edison was quoted as saying that great ideas come from the muscles. What he was getting at, I believe, is that problems get solved not by thinking about them in the abstract, but rather through making work, wrestling with the problem through making. I don’t think for a moment that my personal experience resolving a block represents the only way or even the typical way. I’m sure there are plenty of variations of my experience and plenty of paths through blocks that were nothing like mine. The main thing, though, is to understand that blocks are OK, that blocks are common and solvable. The solution won’t necessarily be easy. Often, probably usually, the solution is excruciating, but don’t give up. I would have been a far better musician had I fought through that first block. I know I became a far better artist by doing battle with and vanquishing my second block.

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On Emotion And Drawing

The question arises, how does one express or capture emotion in a drawing? I can tell you with certainty that it doesn’t happen through copying the form or appearance of an emotional subject. One of the worst art shows I have ever seen was a show about the troubles Vietnam Nam vets faced upon returning home. The show rendered the emotions of the vets, that is, made detailed attempts at copying the vets’ expressions and emotions in various circumstances. The problem was that the rendering itself was neutral. There was no emotion in how the artist made. The artist was merely trying to create illustrations of the vets’ emotions. The result was horrible, actually pornographic in a sense because it represented horrible situations in an emotionally blank way. It actually seemed sort of sociopathic, as if the artist was demonstrating that she was completely unmoved by these absolutely awful experiences the vets were having.

So, no, emotion cannot be rendered. It has to be expressed. How does one do that? The only strategy that I have found is to be completely consumed by emotion while making. It is a mysterious phenomenon, but if the artist is deeply emotional while working, those emotions become a filter through which every action and perception must pass. The emotions of the artist color and bias everything the artist does and ultimately become part of the work. I’ve interviewed other artists who have have spoken of this same experience. Every once in a while I will see a piece in a friend’s studio that is especially moving, then find that the subject observed had intense meaning for the artist, meaning so great that it overwhelmed the artist’s typical concerns about things like composition, palette, finish, etc.. Typically these subjects are self portraits or grandchildren or loved ones or lost loved ones. That kind of subject. The power of these pieces dwarves the artist’s other work, the work where they are thinking about art concerns rather than emotion. Sadly, the artists often think of this emotional work as private, too personal, rather than seeing such work as a standard for all their work. Curiously, James D’Aquisto, the world’s greatest archtop guitar builder, when asked what advice he would give young builders, said that the builders should put every emotion from their day into each cut of the chisel. That is how one would create an instrument with transcendently beautiful tone.

There is another entire dimension to this topic. That is the value of art making as a vehicle for emotional expression and experience. I grew up with an alcoholic father. My way of adapting was to go emotionally mute so that I wouldn’t in any way contribute to the emotional chaos that surrounded me. When I began making art as a young adult, its greatest value to me was that it could be used as a vehicle for expressing all the suppressed emotions of my childhood, as well as the immediate emotions of my daily life. In that respect art saved my life. It led to life’s becoming an often joyous experience rather than mainly a source of constant bone crushing anxiety. In the first five years of my work anger dominated. Every piece was angry above all else. Once I had processed a solid chunk of my unspoken anger, room began to emerge for other emotions like joy and the experience of beauty.

One emotion that I never engaged through my work was sorrow. Sorrow was locked down too tightly. Now, thirty five years later, I am beginning to explore sorrow. An experience I had recently, will shed some light on the impact of emotional expression on the artist. I was working on a self portrait from a number of photos of me made in my thirties when I was just about to become a father. While I worked, I simply thought of sorrow and allowed myself to experience sorrow as I studied my own face. Sorrow was the filter through which all my observation moved. I began to see more and more sadness in my own face, in every feature. Each moment of my face began to bring back sad experiences. Then wham! From left field I started to cry uncontrollably. This was a violent, belly wrenching crying, which was very surprising for me because for years I hadn’t been able to cry at all and have only been able to cry a little recently. The thing is, I knew that the crying was about all the difficulties, disappointments, and sense of loss associated with my son’s being on the autism spectrum. Until that day, I had tried to use optimism as a form of denial that could insulate me from admitting how hard things have been.

After that drawing session, I felt like some significant weight had been lifted off my shoulders, but the best part of the experience was that when I went home I felt like I could connect with both my son and my wife in ways that are often inaccessible to me. My wife was immensely relieved that she was no longer alone in her sorrow and I felt a joyous appreciation of my son exactly as he is (he’s actually a really cool guy), having been more honest with myself about the full range of my emotions as a father.

The point of sharing this extremely personal experience is to illustrate the mysterious way in which emotional expression works. I wasn’t trying to make a picture of my sorrow. I was simply opening to my sorrow as I was working. As I tentatively opened the door to my sorrow, the sorrow built. Eventually my sorrow realized it was fully welcome and it burst thought the opening in a very big way, in a bigger way than I expected and in a bigger way than I thought I could handle. The drawing from that session certainly carries the sorrow I was experiencing, not as a description, but simply as residue of how the work was made. I would use the drawing to illustrate this entry but I’m still working on it.

Expression. That is what art is. Too often we get side tracked by formal issues and forget that form is merely the vehicle for expression. Form is the tool, not the content. The purpose of art is not to solve formal problems. The purpose is expression and form is the means. When art teachers and artists talk about weak parts of a composition, how something should be added here or taken away there to create greater formal coherence, it makes my blood boil. Coherence isn’t the point. Expression is the point and no teacher can assess what a student or another artist needs to do to engage expression. To express emotion, one must experience emotion. Emotion must become the primary filter through which all else must pass. Look at art of great sensitivity. The artists who create such work have a profound emotional reaction to their subjects and indulge that response as intensely as possible while experiencing their subjects through making. The emotion of their work is the residue of the emotion of their experience. There is no other way to create such residue than by completely giving over to one’s sensibility and emotional experience while working. It’s scary and risky, but all art is scary and risky. Expression is risky. There is no safe way to make art.

A friend of mine, quite an extraordinary artist, said to me recently that to make good art you have to commit to making an absolute fool of yourself and you have to give 200%. Now I’ve always maintained the making a fool of oneself part, but I loved the 200%. 200% is in total risk territory. We often speak of giving 110%. 110% is just pushing one’s boundaries, but 200% is going into the territory where the wheels are starting to come off. 200% is the territory where one has to just go on blind faith because one is so far beyond areas of deliberate control. 200% is sailor diving off the cliff into unknown water. Going fully emotional is 200% territory. It’s unpredictable and uncontrollable. There are no brakes, no protection, and no knowing what will happen. That’s where art happens.

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The Discomfort of Transition

Lately I have been reading about addiction and recovery from addiction. I’ve also been dealing with homeless people in my neighborhood who are, or are not, struggling to get clean. Believe it or not, I see parallels between their situation and issues in drawing. I’ll get to those in a moment, but I want to begin with the addicts. If a person has been addicted to drugs or alcohol for a long time and decides to quit, there will be a transition period, often a long one, during which the brain adapts to the absence of the addictive substance, a substance that the brain had adapted to as an expected presence during the course of the addiction. The “normal” state of the brain changes during addiction. Normal becomes “with the addictive substance present”. Now, all of a sudden, the addictive agent is missing. The brain doesn’t just pop back to the original pre-drug normal. The brain has to get used to the absence of the addictive substance and getting used to involves a process of metabolic and neurological changes that can take quite a while. The problem is, that to get clean and start feeling healthy, one has to first survive a terribly uncomfortable period of transition during which one not only doesn’t feel normal, but actually feels far worse than normal while the brain is readapting to functioning clean. It’s a heroic behavior to stick with getting clean. The same thing happens with psychoactive drugs. Suppose one takes SSRIs to combat anxiety, for instance. If life starts getting better and at some point the person decides to go off the SSRI, that person doesn’t just pop back to normal. Actually, one goes through an increased period of anxiety while the brain is adapting to the absence of the SSRI. Often people can’t get off SSRIs because the symptoms of going off the drug mimic why they went on the drug in the first place, so the patient thinks he or she still needs the drug. Now don’t get me wrong. This is not an argument against SSRI’s. I love the little bastards. SSRIs have been a great help to me. All I’m getting at is that to get to the new (or old) normal, one has to first survive a very uncomfortable and sometimes very long transition period.

One other example of this from my own life has to do with the psychological pain my father went through his whole life. He and I are very alike. I feel the same pain and am determined to not suffer from it in my older age to the degree he did. I am working with a therapist to understand and if possible lessen the pain. I have very brief moments of relief, enough to see that the potential is real for me to have an improved quality of old age compared to my father’s (not that it’s going to be a picnic). The things is, these momentary glimpses, if anything, make my much more common experience of equivalent pain to my father’s even more excruciating. I see where my efforts are going, but I also see that the journey of transition, at least in the short term, is even more painful than the base state of pain. I know that the effort is worth it, that the pain will not kill me, that it will decrease over time, but getting through this middle period is an enormous challenge.

Now to drawing. I am at the beginning of a new term, just beginning to introduce beginning students to observation. The students, for the most part, have a strong preconceived notion of how observation works in drawing. In general, they leap to the specific conclusions of outline at the very time (the beginning) when they know the least about their subjects and have the least experience drawing. Their outline drawings necessarily look weird, so they frantically try to correct them despite the fact that some of the tools necessary for that correction only surface after years of drawing. I propose a nearly opposite model that allows vagueness in the beginning, that in fact suggest that vagueness is the most accurate reflection of one’s state of seeing in the beginning. The students follow my directions and often achieve a result that from their point of view appears to be even further from their ideals than if they had just been left to their own devices without my meddling. With or without a teacher, I think the beginner has to weather a long and very painful transition period from the period of no experience to the period of some success. The temptation is to hope for tricks, secrets that will give quick results, anything to escape the discomfort of how patient one must be with one’s own incompetence while experience slowly accumulates. It is a state of suspension that I am advocating. Just don’t judge for now. Just keep working. Let time and experience accumulate without needing to be rushed. The paradox is that rushing actually slows one’s progress. What a challenge to accept as natural and appropriate the painfulness of the transition from inexperienced to somewhat experienced?

The biggest problem is that the state of transition that I am describing is not a challenge purely applicable to beginners. It is actually a permanent state for the artist. We think of our ideals as the “normal” state our work should be in. The problem is that our ideals continue to grow as we continue accumulating experience. I would even suggest that the distance between our work and our ideals grows larger over time as we mature as artists, not smaller. So this painful state of transition, of constantly falling short as we grow, will always be there. This state is the true “normal”. It just simply isn’t a comfortable place, no matter how well we understand its necessity. So just as I feel that an addict who diligently suffers the pain of transition toward sobriety is particularly heroic, I equally feel that the artist who perseveres despite the constantly transitional nature of art making is also particularly heroic. Read A Giacometti Portrait by James Lord. It presents beautifully Giacometti’s profound doubt and frustration. At the same time it reveals the heroic and objectively inappropriate optimism with which Giacometti just keeps having at it. Giacometti’s eyes are fully open. He grouses constantly about what a fool’s errand he has undertaken, then he just gets back to his work with all he has. This is our state as artists. It is heroic and we deserve to be proud for never giving up on our particular fool’s errand. We needn’t buoy ourselves with the thought that eventually it will be easier. It won’t. This is hard work. This is real work.

PS – Occasionally one of my students will say, “I’m just having a hell of a lot of fun. Is there something wrong with me or am I doing something wrong?” My answer is that while there may be plenty of things wrong with the questioner, from the standpoint of art process I don’t see anything wrong. I often love working. One reason may be that I am in a period of work flow, when I’ve been working a lot, have a lot of work momentum, and things are pretty consistently productive for the time being.  Another can be that it is very exciting to see things growing and changing. Movement toward the ideal, change, growth, and improvement are thrilling and are something we, as artists, frequently experience. The main thing for me though is that I just like working. I like making things and I like being able to engage and express my immediate experience each day. Expression is a really healthy thing and very often feels great. The fact that art making is hard work doesn’t mean that it’s grueling or depressing. I’m just suggesting that a great deal of uncertainty is built in. In fact, the more one accepts the uncertainty, often the more satisfying working becomes.

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Confidence

Often I see my students burdened by a lack of confidence. Their work falls far short of their own actual capability because they act with apologetic, self-deprecating hesitation. What is confidence? Acting in a forthright way, doing what you can, full out, without pulling your punches or acting in a way that self-consciously brings attention to your sense of doubt. Acting in a way that doesn’t let doubts create hesitation and tentativeness in your efforts. Acting in a way that fully embraces your present rather than holding back in the hope that some kind of vigilance, carefulness, tentativeness, will let you act as you would if you had more experience.

I have suggested in other posts that confidence is a choice rather than something earned. Well that is partly right. The problem is that confidence also comes from repetition and familiarity. We are all hesitant when we start something for the first time. That hesitation decreases if the new activity is engaged in ten times. It decreases radically if the activity is engaged in one hundred times. When confidence has to become a choice is when the hesitation is chronic, when it happens every time you engage in the activity, even when you have done it many times. It is this latter lack of confidence that hobbles some of my students.

When I was young, I had very little confidence and was terminally indecisive. As a young adult, I was given the gift of getting to know someone who was way less confident and way more indecisive than I was at the time. As I watched this person in action, I realized that in most cases, which decision was made was unimportant. All that mattered was that a (any) decision be made. My friend could get completely derailed trying to choose which of his breakfast cereals to eat. It didn’t matter. All that mattered was that he eat something. Watching him in action helped me realize that when an obvious choice didn’t present itself, an arbitrary choice would suffice in most circumstances. Acting with confidence didn’t depend upon genuine confidence in the particular chosen action. It was merely a matter of acting decisively, regardless, because in most cases acting boldly, even if arbitrarily, was what needed to happen. Acting was what was necessary, not acting correctly. In drawing, if one makes many bold choices, one learns lots about drawing and one’s drawing progresses. If one makes hesitant choices, which results generally in fewer and less definite choices, far less will be learned about drawing.

This brings up another issue, the necessity of risk… and the issue of control. Many students do not want to make fools of themselves by doing primitive drawings. They would like to, through carefulness, avoid exposing their naivité as drawers. Good luck! That naiveté is a fact. It disappears through experience and being tentative and irrelevantly careful only slows the accumulation of experience. The hope of a control freak is that risk and mistakes can be avoided. Bad idea. Without mistakes we are limited to acting only from what we already know. Without mistakes, there can be no learning, zero, nada, ziltch. The most we can explore is the implications of what we already know. We can’t move into new territory. True learning is unavoidably messy. If we choose to act with confidence, we allow error, we allow risk, we facilitate actual learning and we progress.

In the arts, there is also another issue, expression. Expression is by its very nature about risk because it is about manifesting the actual present, not the qualified present, not a version of the present that will make you look good. Expression is about being honest about what is there. To control what will be expressed is to lie about expression, to present a persona rather than to actually express one’s experience. To express the present, one has to leap into the fray, without trying to control what will be found there or what may be allowed. Honest expression cannot exist if there is a filter of deliberation. My singing teacher used to tell me to just open my mouth and let the notes fall out rather than trying to form and control the notes. Oh my God, did that suggestion freak me out. That meant abandoning control, permitting the possibility of error, behaving with confidence exactly when I felt the least confident. What he was trying to get at was the core of expressive singing. My hope was that I could take those risks once I knew how to sing. He was saying that those risks were what singing is. Singing is expression. There is no such thing as singing without risk. Risk is where singing starts. The same is true with drawing. Drawing is expression. One can’t become expressive once one has learned to draw, because expression is intrinsic to drawing. Without expression there is no drawing. So now you see the bind. It isn’t just that confidence is a choice. It is that behaving with confidence is necessary. I had always thought that one earned confidence. I have found, instead, that confidence is the necessary precondition for learning, expression, etc.. If confidence is necessary in the beginning, that means we have to take it or adopt it, rather than earn it, at the very time when we have the most reasons to doubt our abilities. What a giant paradox, that confidence is necessary when undeserved and, hence, must be treated as a choice, as a type of action rather than as something earned.

How can one act with confidence when unconfident. Flip things. Act faster than you can think. Act more boldly than seems appropriate. Get out of control. Get ahead of your drive to protect yourself. Guarantee failure so that the illusion of avoiding failure is crushed. Sailor dive into the heart of things. Pretend you are confident when you are not and act accordingly with no idea of what will happen and with an understanding that failure is the path, not something to be avoided. Drop the idea of executing a preconceived notion and embrace being surprised by what you make. Trust your muscles.

One of my students once said that the most important thing she learned from my classes was to always make as if she knew what she was doing, even, in fact especially, when she didn’t know what she was doing. She made great work because the work was bold enough to always reflect where she really was. It wasn’t that she was actually confident. It was that she behaved confidently. Confidence is the carrier of the content of your work. Without it, everything is clouded in a cloak of tentativeness. Tentativeness in art making is like mumbling in speech. A mumbler may be saying something wonderful but can’t be understood. The person who speaks clearly may be confused but whatever is true in what they are saying can be heard. So don the mantle of confidence. It is yours to take at any point. It must be taken and cannot be earned. No matter how experienced one becomes, there is always a basis for doubt., so no point ever comes when one can say, “Now I have earned confidence.” That point will never come and yet confidence is necessary now. So just take it. All those people that you see behaving confidently, they aren’t confident. They have just as many doubts as you do (unless they are simpletons). They just understand the necessity of confident behavior. Now it is your turn.

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