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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