Entries from March 28th, 2015

Exposure

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Exposure

I sat in Volta this morning with my nephew, sipping coffee and trying to read. Almost all the art I’ve made over the past two years currently hangs at the cafe, and I was distracted as I overheard several strangers pointing, commenting, and appreciating the work. A father and his young daughter came over and introduced themselves when they realized I was the artist; the daughter put a gleeful hand over her mouth as she registered her dad’s explanation that I was the person who’d painted the pictures she’d just been admiring.

These are warm moments for an artist, yet I’ve spent most of my shows trying to avoid them. For many years when I exhibited, I wouldn’t leave any contact information with my work, even though it was all for sale and I needed the money. People would have to hunt me down and inquire privately. I told myself I didn’t want to be identified because I was somehow “humble,” but the truth was, I didn’t want to be identified and rejected. I was worried that a critical response would impair my painting process and potentially my ability to paint. Even today, no matter how hard I try to maintain a psychic distance from my work–to see it as separate from me and not a reflection of me–I still experience my art as a deep part of me; it’s how I spend almost all my spare time, and whether I like it or not, when I sit amongst my paintings in public, I feel like there are pieces of my soul hanging all over the walls. Yikes.

This feeling isn’t new or unique, though; being creative in any endeavor is inherently vulnerable territory. Makers of all kinds put ourselves out in ways that are risky and therefore courageous. Artists battle myriad internal struggles to birth works of art, and then face “the public” to share beyond controlled studio environments. Maybe this is why many of the highly creative people I’ve known seem to hover just above or beyond the social fray, giving off an air of what seems at first sniff to be snobbery or elitism. Of course these aren’t ideal qualities–“too cool for school” vibes are exclusionary and unkind. But perhaps at the heart of this external thickening of the personality is simply a well-intentioned form of preservation, a way some artists have learned to navigate the uncertain world and still inhabit and converse with exquisitely sensitive inner lives. Maybe I’ve unwittingly come across to others as “too cool for school” as well, when really, I just felt tiny, frightened of rejection, and overwhelmed with the desire to curl up and disappear.

But then there are little girls and their fathers, pointing and smiling, and taking the uncomfortable social step to say hi and make themselves known to me because I was willing to make myself known to them.  I keep learning from these sorts of encounters, receiving gifts from the connections that come from openly identifying myself as the person who made the art. Maybe I’ll never find this part of it easy, but as I continue to paint regardless of shows or sales or public interest, I’m starting to believe it’s also worth it to stop treating the inherent vulnerability of art-making as a valid reason to stay hidden, unidentified, and socially aloof.

Filters

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

I haven’t painted since I finished this piece ten days ago, which in my world is far too long. Last week, I was at a conference in Tampa. Fancy hotels, fake smells, and sculpted landscapes tire me, and I had to work hard to find inspiration in that scenery. Sometimes I can relax into the strangeness of concrete towers and leaf blowers, but usually I activate my filter to pay attention to signs of the natural world still unfolding, however trimmed and tucked it might be. On my walks around the Hillsborough River, I did manage to gather a few snapshots of flowers and early greens on the trees, and to touch the delicate, velvety bushes that thrive near the water. Perhaps the time out from my studio will prove productive in the end…

For me, staying inspired is a tricky business. I do best with the usuals–being rested, getting walks and exercise, eating well, and not worrying. The latter can be trying, because ask anyone close to me–I worry. But when I’m rested, present, and connected to my body, I can see nature with feeling, and it’s this feeling sight that I draw upon for my paintings.

Maybe it’s because I’m a therapist, but the felt, inner world is as important to me as the external world. No matter how hard we try to take rational, objective positions, it seems that we are bound to relate to life, to each other, and to ourselves through our personal experiences, through our filters. While realist painters aspire to strip away these filters and see “clearly,” I prefer to paint in ways that celebrate the filters as veils through which my relationship with my subjects, my materials, my limitations, and my feeling senses can be reflected.

In order to stay inspired, I often have to engage another filter, one that keeps discouraging messages at bay. The other day, for example, I scrolled down Facebook on my lunch break and saw a well-known artist quoted for a PBS special. The artist said something like, “If you want to make good work, you must be in your studio all day, every day. There’s no other way.”  I was in my office at the university when I read this, and overheard myself thinking, “Oh gosh, so I’m not a real artist, because I work full-time at a different job, and painting full-time simply isn’t possible for me.” The artist in me slumped. I had to filter out this message by remembering that it was just one artist’s comments that reflected her own experience–what’s worked for her–but presented as truth for all artists. I’ve found that many artists do this, however unintentionally. Maybe because there’s so much ambiguity about being an artist, and so much uncertainty about what makes for “good” art, that when an artist does have a chance to be in the limelight, he or she unknowingly presents personal revelations as universal laws. (If you notice me doing this, message me privately, or gently kick me in the shins next time you see me.)

Life and art can both be hard; why be anything but encouraging?

Recently, I encountered another discouraging message in a book I otherwise enjoyed,  Art and Fear. I connected with many of the authors’ points, but I had to activate my filter when they argued that most of the work artists make will be crap, and that artists have to make a lot of work that isn’t good to make their tiny amount of transcendent work. Okay, this may be a realistic view, but I can’t adopt it. If I go into my studio every weekend with the little spare time I have, thinking, “Probably this is going to be crap, but I will keep on painting so I can, if I’m lucky, make a few great paintings in my lifetime,” then I won’t keep painting. Add on the message, “Real artists work all day, every day, on their work,” and forget it–I’m done. Since we all have filters, I’d rather use a filter that works for me, one that keeps me inspired or at least keeps out the junk that could easily “inspire” me to quit.

My filter weeds out discouraging or elitist messages about art-making from viewers, critics, and artists themselves. When I had just started teaching myself to paint, I overheard a prominent local artist say, “I don’t believe in self-taught artists.” The comment flattened me, until I realized I could filter it out. Each time I hear something that threatens to get between me and my committment to art-making, I refine the filter a little more. Increasingly, my filter champions everyone’s right to make art, and loves work that is created with honest feeling, no matter how unstudied. That filter values the infusion of art into everyday life, and takes the position that art need not be considered “masterful” or bring in thousands of dollars to enrich the person who made it and the environment it later inhabits. My filter loves process as much as outcome, and while making my art can involve some struggle, frustration, and uncertainty, in my filter, creative risks can be trusted.

Filters can perform several functions. At the darker end, filters can obscure content with the intent to manipulate. On the lighter side, they can enhance the beauty by limiting some elements and boosting others, such as in post-production photography. Filters can also purify by removing harmful contaminants, as in purification of drinking water.

Sometimes filters both obscure and purify at the same time. In my case, my paintings both reflect my filters and wouldn’t exist without them.

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