The World is Not Yet Done

rose 38, photograph

“And so you make your place in the world by making part of it – by contributing some new part to the set… Each new piece of your art enlarges our reality. The world is not yet done.”

David Bayles and Ted Orland, Art & Fear

Many years ago I studied philosophy, actually got my college degree in that discipline. At some point I came to feel that something essential was missing from this pursuit – it was too involved with analyzing the world and too little with being in it.

My odd life trajectory next found me writing software for a living and, for the first time, I felt that I was making part of the world. I had to sit in front of a (metaphorical) blank piece of paper and compose. This felt better, I was more involved.

Then I moved into management and, oops, found myself once again more involved in talking about doing rather than actually doing. I learned again how empty that could be, so I walked away.

Then I became a photographer. Now I get to add my individual parts to the set, and each day I am reminded that the world is not yet done. Makes you want to get up each day, knowing there’s work to be done.

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The Effort of Craft and Vision

transits 37, photograph

 

“Writing is easy: all you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until the drops of blood form on your forehead.”

– Gene Fowler

I had to laugh when I read this quote which is the intro to one of my favorite art books that I’m currently re-reading, Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland. It captures so wryly the contrast between the seeming simplicity of artmaking and the difficulty of it’s actual achievement.

But it made me think about the various people I know and their approach to making art. Is it a struggle for everyone? I can think of two distinct ways in which it can be.

First is that of craft – all of us must learn the techniques required by our chosen medium, and inherent in this process is challenge and frustration. Some continue the learning process their whole lives, others reach a stage where they are satisfied with what they know. The second is that of vision – trying to figure out the meaning of what we’re creating and how to express it effectively to others. This issue is of paramount importance to some, of little interest to others, with most of us somewhere in between. How often do you ask yourself about your vision?

People make art for many reasons. Some do it for their own enjoyment, as an escape, while others pursue a more complex purpose. Even those who choose the latter path will find themselves sometimes making art just for fun, or as diversion. These aims are all perfectly legitimate.

But making art is like most other things we do – the wider the scope of our aspirations, the more we extend our reach, the more we will be rewarded. Those drops of blood will eventually fall, filling the page with our words, words which will resonate more for all the effort behind them.

Artistic Grammar

transits 36, photograph

“Art is like beginning a sentence before you know its ending.”

– David Bayles & Ted Orland, Art and Fear

Whether it’s making the first few marks with the brush on the canvas, or snapping the picture and hoping that the camera captured something like what inspired you to take it, when we start our artistic utterance, rarely do we know how it will turn out. It’s not a happy environment for control freaks.

As art viewers, when we see the final piece we don’t know its genesis. As the authors point out, any given masterpiece might have been moments away from abandonment before some inspiration struck and the artist found the right way to complete the work. That’s how fragile the process of getting from the beginning of the sentence to the end can be.

And I would add to their point by saying that a good piece of art is like a sentence that ends in time. How many pieces of art have you made that remind you of a run-on sentence, one that you didn’t know how and when to appropriately end?

No art will get made if we don’t start speaking, and our best pieces will get made when we know when to shut up.

Learning and Remembering

calla’s curl, photograph

“At some deep level artmaking integrates the things we learn to be true with the things we have always known to be true. Finding that correlation between instinct and experience is the key to drawing out universal truths from particular experiences. It’s all a matter of learning and remembering.”

– Ted Orland, The View from the Studio Door

We all infuse the totality of our personal experience into each piece of art we make, but one of our aims is to create something that appeals to others. They might have had similar experiences but no one is exactly like us.

At least part of the dialogue between artist and viewer takes place through the medium of universal truths. We tap into those truths through instinct. The more successful of us know how to take something very personal and render it in a way that communicates easily to others.

When I start a new work, I’m usually focused on the specific object and my own experience of it. It’s what inspired me to take the photograph and what caused me to select it for reproduction. But as I consider how to make the image beautiful, how to use it to express something more than it’s origins, I find myself drawing from a deeper level of understanding than that felt at the moment of inception. At a most subtle level, there is remembering going on. If we had to rely solely on the learning our individual experience gives us when creating art, it would be hard to explain the universal appeal and power of communication that art achieves.

There is an interesting talk on TED.com by Denis Dutton in which he presents a Darwinian explanation of art’s universal allure. While we need not agree with his specific explanations, he supports the view expressed by Orland that there is a stratum underlying our specific cultural norms of art that we, as artists, draw on to create and that others, as viewers, rely on to appreciate.

It’s an interesting perspective to take on the process of creation that we all undertake, seeing it as drawing out universal truths from particular experiences. Maybe it can helps us feel a little less isolated as we pursue the sometimes lonely act of making art.

Stairway to Heaven

cityscape 1, photograph

“Vision is not enough – it must be combined with venture. It is not enough to stare up the steps, we must step up the stairs.”

– Vaclav Havel

How many times have you found yourself staring up those steps? I consider myself most fortunate when I find myself  in that position.

It is not easy to have vision, to know where you are trying to go with your work. More often it feels a bit like I’m trying this, then trying that. Sort of a random gathering of images. I feel more like a collector than a creator. I have to remind myself to focus on developing a vision from which the images flow. Hard sledding, for sure.

But sometimes we find ourselves at the bottom of the steps. It can be exciting but also daunting. We know that by taking the first step we are committing to either successfully realizing our vision, validating it to the world, or to failing to make it manifest or perhaps realizing the vision is flawed. But until we step up those stairs, we will never know. Our vision will remain embryonic, undeveloped. Adding venture to vision creates reality from potential.

So should you find yourself fortunate enough to be confronted by that stairwell, by all means do not squander  the opportunity. Step up those stairs!

Bored No More

Amidst the Vines, photograph

“Artists never seem to get bored with life.”

– John Kurtz

For the first 40 years or so of my life I was not a creative sort. I certainly was not practicing any form of art. When I look back on that time I now wonder how I filled the enormous void that is now occupied by my creative pursuits.

As an artist, there is always something new to do. It’s impossible to perfect our practice of art and the array of opportunity for improvement and exploration is limitless. How can we get bored with all that potential staring us in the face? What did I do in the past that was this exciting?

It is a tremendous gift to be an artist. We constantly play by the shore of the ocean of creativity. So many people I know feel they can’t make art, believe there is some gene they’re lacking. I know this is not true in the least. It only takes a willingness to take the first few steps, to let the ocean’s waves begin to lap at our ankles, to experience the vast realm of what could be.

I guarantee you, you’ll never be bored again…

 

Season of Change?

bunker, photograph

“When the path continues to be blocked it’s probably time to change lanes.”

– Birgit O’Connor

I think the key word in this quote is continues. It implies that being blocked is natural and that patience will often be the cure. But what if the block continues? Perhaps then it is time to alter course, try something different. As in all things, art mimics life. How many unsatisfactory situations do we find ourselves in where we’re not sure if we’re giving up to soon if we change direction? Where does the discrimination come from to know?

I had a hatha yoga teacher once who would put the class in some tortuous pose and keep us there until someone finally gave up – as soon as that happened, he’d let us all up. The lesson was that if you just kept on a little longer you’d reach your goal.

As artists we all go through periods of feeling blocked. Over the last year I’ve been fairly productive, producing a lot of images. But lately I’ve felt stymied, not sure what I want to work on, not feeling what I’m doing is going anywhere. Not even sure if I’m pursuing the right medium!

For now, though, I’m going to keep holding the pose and see what happens.

How do you handle creative blocks that persist?