Entries Tagged as 'critics'

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.

On Lessons, Part 1

Thursday, July 24, 2014

On Lessons

I was wary of lessons. I was wary because I’d been a dutiful, studious girl since I was five years old, and I had a lot more lessons ahead of me. I was twenty-five when I caught the painting bug (or it caught me), waste-deep in student loan debt rising all the time, and six years out from Phinally Done. I couldn’t escape the desire to paint and ultimately succumbed to the call, but the last thing I wanted was to take another lesson before I could do what I wanted to do.

This posed a bit of a problem, though, because I didn’t know how to paint, and everyone around me suggested, kindly enough, I suppose, that I take some lessons to get started. They had a point, after all: I’d spent my high school art classes shirking the still lifes and nudes for the potter’s wheel, and during undergrad, I’d studied political science. Between high school and grad school, I only made some personal, abstract, and frankly disturbing pen-and-ink drawings. I was neither talented nor skilled at realistic rendering; nor did I derive any enjoyment from it. To me, realistic art felt like copying.

The way I saw it, why try to paint realistically when I could just take a picture? I know, I know–the capacity to depict something realistically is supposedly one of the artist’s finest tools.  And if I’d had a whole life to lead alongside the one I was living, I’d have happily studied formal painting while dressed in a fine corset, big hat, and high-laced boots alongside beret-clad, bad-breathed flirty Frenchmen on the shores of the Seine. Only I didn’t have that other life, I just had the one that I was in, broke and busy and full to the brim with lessons and homework and rudiments and administrative hoops and boring lecture upon boring lecture.  I didn’t want to study painting. I wanted to paint.

I knew from prior exposure that even beloved trailblazing artists were deemed more respectable because they’d birthed realistic art babies before they abandoned them.  This notion, however, sounded rather like hazing to me. Why spend years trying to acquire skills that my favorite artists had gleefully abandoned? Besides, I didn’t particularly like realistic art. The finest realistic stuff I’d seen in the museums wasn’t art I’d actually want to live with, work under, or even gaze at while recovering from a serious illness. I could certainly appreciate the Renaissance masters, marvel at how uncannily life-like their depictions were, to say nothing of how much time that must have taken, but those paintings, drawings, and sculptures didn’t move me. There was almost a chilly quality to that kind of precision, an absence of the soul, save for subtle distinctions in brush strokes, pigment quality, lighting, blah, blah, blah…

It was all so…safe.

I much preferred the wild, off-kilter work in which the artists had broken free of their formal training (if they had any to begin with). Those artists seemed to have gone off shrieking naked through the fields to get to new places where they found themselves reborn and brought us back the same tired world through their glowing never-to-be-alive-again eyes. That art wasn’t safe. That art made me want to rise, wiggle and shake. That art moved, and I moved with it.

I wanted to do that, too. I wanted to move and be moved by my own paintings.

Which brings me back to the matter of lessons. I was clear I didn’t want them, and equally clear that I wanted, possibly needed, to paint. What to do?

The first thing I did was buy some paints and canvases from the local art store with a little of that wonderful student loan money I keep mentioning. The second thing was to sit down on my floor, spread it all out, and put some paint on a brush and then on the canvas. The third thing was to keep going when I made work I didn’t want to live with, and the fourth thing was to accept that if I wasn’t going to take lessons, I would have to make my peace with learning on the job.

Making my peace with learning on the job meant that I had to define what success meant to me, since I wasn’t going to be defining my work against the work of others or assessing its merits according to other people’s standards. And if I wasn’t comparing my work to other people’s standards, how could I know if my paintings were any good? Indeed, without this external frame of reference, how could I even know if I liked my own paintings or not?

How I sorted this out could fill another dissertation, but I promise I won’t do that to either of us. I will write a little more on this later, but for now, suffice it to say that I did, gradually, stake my claim to a self-directed creative life. The liberation involved me stepping, one by one, through a substantial array of stinky piles, piles I didn’t even know existed until I was in them, piles I didn’t smell until I was learning to paint, learning to trust myself, and learning to clean my shoes.

The Gatekeepers

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Gatekeepers

When people ask me for advice on how to start a creative practice, I have two reactions. First, I want to cheer and say, “You don’t need my advice, just go for it! You’ll figure it out, and it will be wonderful!” Second, I want to ask if they have a few minutes, pull them aside, and tell them about the Gatekeepers. In my experience, making art more or less takes care of itself once I get past the Gatekeepers.

I call them Gatekeepers; you might know them as the inner and/or outer critics, judges, snobs, monitors, and censors that get very uncomfortable when you decide to try something a little risky or different, a little–dare I say–artistic. Brene Brown calls them shame gremlins in her powerful book on vulnerability (which I recommend highly to everyone). Writer Anne Lamott refers to her inner doubts as “Station K-Fuc$&d,” as in the radio channel that pipes up with its not-so-helpful commentary when she settles in to write. Steven Pressfield simply calls it Resistance. Whatever we call these voices, every honest book on the creative process pays homage. And thank goodness people have mapped the territory, because otherwise, I would have stopped painting shortly after I started.

Mind you, even during the first few years, I did have some fun. In fact, I experienced moments of play, awe, surprise and delight. My life benefited in ways I hadn’t anticipated; I got more open, real, and free. But those first few years were also the hardest, not because I was learning to use the materials or refine my technique (more on that topic here), but because at least half of the time I painted I was basically breaking myself out of a top-security prison in which my artist was a captive, and my Gatekeepers were the guards. My challenge was to figure out how to get past the guards–a bunch of insecure thugs and abusive maniacs who thought only they could grant access to the land of creativity.

It was as if painting awakened all the criticisms and fears I’d gathered over my entire life and inspired them to organize.

Organize they did, around the gates with their complex rules I didn’t even know about until I started breaking them. The rules were many, and toxic, but in the end boiled down to this: “Silly girl, art is for artists. You know, the real artists. Your job is to consume what those people make, not try to create for yourself. It’s sweet that you’re trying and all, I mean really, you poor thing. But there’s been a big mistake. So put down that brush and step away from the paints. Guards 17 and 32, will you please escort Miss Nash to the gate?”

These Gatekeepers, of course, were voices in my head that had accumulated via exposure to other artists, well-meaning friends and family, and an absurdly consumerist culture. These voices told me variously that I was: crazy, stupid, not allowed, a bad artist, wasting my time, should be feeding the starving orphans, who did I think I was, I didn’t have the credentials, climate change would drown me and my amateur paintings, that I didn’t go to art school, that no one would ever like my work (or me), that  I didn’t know what I was doing, that I was never very talented anyway, that I was never disciplined enough, that I should have done more of those awful drawing exercises in high school when I had the chance…

You get the idea?

To slip these voices, I kept an open document on my computer beside my easel the first few years of painting. Sometimes the voices quieted down and let me work in peace; other times, they made such a racket I could barely breathe. When they got going nice and loud, I would put down my brush, lean over my laptop, and type my defense into the document. Sometimes I didn’t even put down my brush; I stuck it between my teeth like a long-stemmed rose.

Basically, I called them on their crap. I told the Gatekeepers that I did too have a right to paint. I reminded them that people have been creating from the dawn of time, scratching symbols in caves, singing around fires, dancing dances, painting faces, telling stories, making pots, fashioning hair clips and knives and goblets and garments. I told them that creativity was my birthright.

When they responded, “Well, isn’t that cute, she’s a self-taught naive folk painter, then, “ I told them I refused to consider their limiting, patronizing labels. I told them, “Look here, people have been making art long before there were art programs in universities, long before there were masters teaching classes, TV personality painters, the internet, instruction books, even art museums and patrons. People have been making art from the start, and I’m a person, too.

Only this dialogue went on for a hundred pages.

Eventually, my hard drive crashed, taking the document with it.

Eventually, though, I didn’t need the document–I got far enough past the Gatekeepers that I could only hear their distant echoes. They were still there, of course, staging a misguided but well-staffed resistance, but they couldn’t get me anymore. I could see it only looking back: They’d never made a creative thing in their lives, and their only weapon was fear.

Of course, I still experience challenges in the creative process, but today these have a  different quality than the challenges that haunted and hailed me at the start. And truly, challenges are inevitable in any life well-lived, and in any creative endeavor worth taking.

Which is to say, I believe that the art, poetry, music, dance, quilt, sculpture, lava cake–whatever you feel called to make–is already in there. That’s the reason you’re longing to make it. The challenge is discovering how to slip your guards long enough to get to the good stuff, to get to freedom.

It’s worth it.

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