In Defense of Hope


Tropical Deconstruction, 6 x 6″ monoprint

“As artists our job is to keep the faith and help humankind to remember beauty and thus the promise of happiness. Our work defends hope, the most precious homeland for any soul.”

– Todd Plough

I love everything about this quote.

It says that what artists do matters. That notion may be hard to accept, may seem arrogant or self-indulgent. If we don’t believe that what we do matters, however, it is hard to keep the creative juices flowing. It is important to accept that our work matters, not just to us, but to others.

This job we have that matters is to help others “remember beauty”, a simple phrase that reveals that it is not easy to remember beauty all the time, especially in these days of uncertainty. But beauty is one of the harbingers of happiness. When we see something beautiful it inspires happiness in us. Creating beautiful things and sharing them with others keeps the “promise of happiness” alive for them.

Our work defends hope by offering others opportunities to observe beauty and to experience the happiness that arises. As we struggle to understand the meaning of or motivation for our artistic activities, the simple nobility of this offering to others ensures that what we do does matter.


The Illusionists

“It is dangerous to let the public behind the scenes. They are easily disillusioned and they are angry with you, for it was the illusion they loved.”

– W. Somerset Maugham

I couldn’t resist this quote when I saw it as it is a perfect continuation of the discussion in my last post that started with the topic of talking about our art. The public in general does not really have an idea of what it is like to be an artist – I don’t think this is totally due to some unique quality such a life has. I know I don’t really have any idea what it is like to be a surgeon, lawyer or butcher. In many cases, I also idealize those professions in ways that real practitioners of those trades would roll a cynical eye at. Any career, even the most glamorous, has it’s share of drudgery or downright unpleasant work to do.

It is almost impossible to understand any role unless you have been in it yourself. I remember in a prior career when I moved into management (who had always been the adversary and who it was easy to be critical of), I became aware of the realities of making imperfect decisions in the midst of imperfect information. I realized one should always be wary of assuming insight into what others do, why they behave as they do, etc.

I think there is a real reason, however, to support the “illusion” the public has about being an artist. It may inspire them to explore their own artistic side – less likely to happen if you are moaning about some of the tedium involved. It may allow them greater enjoyment of your art – if you complain about what it took to make something, it casts a pall on the piece itself. And it may just allow them to be happy for you, in their belief that you’ve achieved the “good” life. Why steal that away?

There are too few ways in this world to offer something to others – why not honor the illusion that others take pleasure in? Who knows, maybe it we’ll start believing it ourselves and wouldn’t that be a good thing?

Knowing, Thinking and Looking

“Thinking is more interesting than knowing, but less interesting than looking.”

– Goethe

An interesting hierarchy.

I agree with the first part – knowing means there are fewer possibilities, and possibility is what keeps our interest. Some people may believe knowing is supreme, but as an artist, I think it leads to stagnation.

The second part is less obvious to me. Which would you prefer to do, think or look? Both contain endless possibilities. Thinking involves our imagination, a realm that has vast potential. Looking is such a rich experience and often we see things we could not imagine.

As an artist, I believe both are crucial and need to be developed. When I want to explore my creativity I will often look at my work and think about how I could change it, what concept I want to explore, what techniques I want to use, what I am trying to express, what should I strive to make different, etc. This thought process usually feels more like a contemplation than thinking, but it is an active use of my mind. At times like these I also pay more attention to what I’m looking at, how I’m looking, where I’m looking, etc. Without focusing on looking in this way, I lack the raw material my new work will need.

I guess I’ll continue to try to be a thoughtful observer in search of a few more pieces of art…

I think, therefore…

“You can’t look at abstract art without thinking.”

– Patricia Cole-Ferullo

Yeah, much of the time you are thinking “What the heck?”…

But seriously, I think this is an interesting and perhaps controversial statement. When looking at something abstract, we start trying to find something familiar or recognizable. We start trying to figure it out, to find some way to relate to it. This is certainly one mode of “thinking”. Since we may not have any familiar forms to look at, we start to pay attention to other aspects of the piece – the colors, design, patterns, shapes, etc. We have to work a little harder to find something about the piece to like (or dislike).

The controversy of the statement is the implication that other types of art do not require thinking. I don’t really agree with that, though I do believe that our minds become engaged in different ways with different types of art. When we see representational art we do not have to work so hard to understand what we’re seeing or what the artist is saying (perhaps). It is given to us more obviously. These images may evoke memories and emotions, or we may become intrigued by the artist’s technique, or the objects may be depicted in new or unusual ways that cause us to consider them more carefully. We may be less likely to examine the piece from the perspective of color, form, etc. since the familiar image itself is so inviting and distracting.

Personally I enjoy the kind of mental engagement abstract art results in. It’s a little like a puzzle that I have to figure out. And I get to make of it what I want. It’s a challenge and it’s liberating, at the same time.

A Day at the Lake

I am an artist who, for forty years
Has stood at the lake edge
Throwing stones in the lake,
Sometimes, very faintly,
I hear a splash.

– Maxwell Bates

We produce so many pieces of art over so many years and, occasionally, we hear the splash. Most importantly, we hear the splash “very faintly”. After all, it’s a very large lake – countless artists have thrown their stones into it.

None of our work is going to make waves in the lake – at best a small splash. But that is as it should be. We are members of an uncommon family, one that has congregated at this special lake for centuries, adding their contributions to the water one at a time. We are members of the family of artists…

The lake is larger than any of us throwing our stones and accepts each throw with equal consent. Not too long after the stone has broken the water’s surface, the lake returns to it’s earlier calm and patiently awaits the next toss. It teaches us that there is no need to hurry, no need to become attached to our stones, no need to take aim when throwing. Listen to the lake…

I, for one, intend to continue to visit this lake. The sound of that faint splash is all I need to know that I am where I belong.

Artistic Courage

“Don’t wait for inspiration. It comes while one is working.”

– Henri Matisse

For the past two or three weeks I’ve been frustrated with my monoprint making. Lots of interesting starts that went nowhere. Either I couldn’t figure out how to finish them, or I tried and ruined them. I felt like I was regressing in my work since for a while I had been happy with a number of my pieces and then, poof! Nothing for quite a while.

But I kept working at it, almost be-mused by what had become of my muse. And then, suddenly, the other night I had a spurt of about 45 minutes where everything I was doing was working. i was able to finish off to my satisfaction a number of pieces – more in that short interval than in the preceding three weeks.

I’m sure this is a common experience for artists but why does it happen? Why do we suddenly stop producing to our own satisfaction when it feels like we’re doing essentially what we had before? I’m not sure we’ll ever know why, but the more often it happens, the easier it becomes to continue working through these fallow periods, because we can trust that they will end. Our repeated experience gives us the courage to continue in the face of our own failures. Of course, they are not failures, but only what is needed to create the current piece!

Identity Crisis

“Nobody can be exactly like me. Even I have trouble doing it.”

– Tallulah Bankhead

As an artist, I frequently have to make conscious decisions about the artistic style in which I’m working. Do I attempt to create a “look” that is recognizable as me, or should I continually try to explore new styles and subjects? There are experts that say that you will be more successful in juried shows, galleries and exhibits in general, if there is a consistency to the work that makes it recognizable as your own. A distinct style, as it were. On the other hand, as an artist I want to try new things, experiment in ways that will cause my work to evolve and improve. How do you reconcile these viewpoints?

I suppose that part of the answer lies in what your motivation is in making art, what your goals are and within what range of artistic endeavor you find creative satisfaction. It is probably true that having a body of work with strong consistency makes it more marketable (I’m assuming that the quality of the work is also high – consistency alone isn’t enough!). Too much variation confuses buyers, galleries, collectors, etc. However, doing similar work over and over may feel to constraining for you.

But I think an important factor in this balance is that each artist must decide how much variety is needed for them to feel creatively satisfied. For some of us, we have to use different mediums, styles, techniques, subjects, etc to avoid feeling bored, stultified or stifled. For others, it may be sufficient to explore subtler variations within a more constrained style to get that same satisfaction. I believe we all must feel we’re being creative – it’s just that the requirements for that feeling to exist can be very different for each of us.

I tend to be the type that needs a greater range of variety to feel creative. I guess I have trouble being exactly like me…