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.

Ready to Jump

laguna dreams, photograph

“But an artist’s waiting […] is not to be confused with laziness or passivity. It requires a high degree of attention, as when a diver is poised on the end of the springboard, not jumping but holding his or her muscles in sensitive balance for the right second.”

– Rollo May, The Courage to Create

I liked May’s analogy of the diver poised on the board to describe the heightened sense of awareness that artists feel when they are in the creative process. To the outside observer it may appear that little is happening, but inside the artist be in the most intense and delicious state of attention possible.

I know that when I am out photographing, it looks like I’m just idly walking about, looking here or there. In reality, my focus is very directed, and I am processing the scenes around me as rapidly as possible, considering what might work, how to frame it, how to make it a creative capture, what I might do with the image later, etc.

Just like the diver, I, too, am poised, waiting for just that “right second”.

May also discusses the role of relaxation in the creative process. We have all heard the stories of people struggling to solve complex problems, only to have the solution come to them when they least expect it, perhaps while taking a walk or in the shower. He says that we are at our most creative when we are going back and forth between relaxed downtime and energetic work. It is the periods of intensity juxtaposed with periods of seeming inactivity that produce the best results. As in all things, I guess it is balance that works best.

What circumstances have led you to be at your most creative and productive?

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Don’t Pass Up the Chance


liquid gold, photograph

“There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium, and will be lost.”

– Martha Graham

I don’t think I’ve heard or read a better reason than this to pursue one’s art in the face of obstacle, doubt or lack of motivation. What Graham says is surely true.

Because we are all unique, each piece of art we create could not have come from anywhere or anyone else and any choice we make to not create it means it is lost forever.

I believe, in fact, that at any given moment, our choice to not express ourselves means that, even for us, that piece is lost forever. Tomorrow or the next day our attitude, our spirit, our intent will be different and what we create will also be different. Any opportunity to express ourselves by creating art is precious because it exists in a singular confluence of time, place and identity.

Just think what you might have made. Don’t hesitate – create!