March 29, 2017 – Why make art?
I spent the day last Tuesday sitting on the jury for this year’s Sausalito Art Festival. It’s a big honor – to be asked to review all the 2-dimensional artwork of those artists who applied to be in this year’s show. When I was first asked to do this several years ago I was very intimidated; a relative newbie to both making and showing art, I thought “what do I know about judging art?” It turns out it doesn’t take much special training or experience – responses to the art are pretty clear. The process involves clicking through four examples of the applicant’s work, plus one of their booth and reading a brief statement. It’s odd how this is – and I can’t explain exactly how it happens – but an impression arises readily. It’s amazing to me how much is conveyed about the artist by just five images and a few words.
There are those whose work doesn’t seem to have gelled quite yet – looking as if the different pieces of art could have been made by different people. And there are those who have landed upon a subject – say dancers, books or doughnuts that has become their “thing,” causing their art to lean towards shtick. When there is something consistent about the work – the method, the perspective, the color palette, the kind of subjects or the abstract patterns they use, along with something ineffable – however hard it is to articulate it, a kind of light shines through. I’ve discovered it’s not difficult to see the sweet spot between un-developed and over-polished and between scattershot and repetitive.
At the end of the day I was left wondering about these artists – what their stories are, why they do what they do and what keeps them making art. “Why?” is a very potent question – one that is important to consider – and endeavor to answer – for anything we undertake, really. In looking at some of the applications, the clearest answer as to “why” that came to me was: “to make money.” This is a legitimate reason – artists need to make a living! And this is a very expensive festival to participate in. But unless “to make money” is accompanied by other why’s, it can lead us to make “product” – as in something to sell, rather than creating to express our soul. I watch “make-money” at play in me as well. It reins in my impulse to play and experiment very much. Making and selling art has become what I do and people have come to expect a certain kind of art from me. Yet, I feel a strong desire to keep evolving as an artist. It’s a tricky balance.
My real whys are much bigger. First off, I make art because I’m alive, because there are paintings in me and because I receive messages from things around me telling me to paint them. I make art to uphold beauty, life and light in the world. I also make art because I am a teacher and I cannot be in solidarity with those I accompany on their painting journeys unless I’m experiencing the often noisy inner-process of art-making alongside them. There is an I-must-make-art force in me that is energized by all of this.
A while ago Sue Rink sent me a Brain Pickings article by Maria Popova about Henry Miller’s book, “To Paint is to Love Again.” He is preaching to the choir in the title of the book alone, but when I finally got around to reading her article recently, I found it full of affirming snippets from his book. I appreciate his connecting painting with loving, with seeing and how he writes of being in relationship with our art:
“To paint is to love again, live again, see again. To get up at the crack of dawn in order to take a peek at the water colors one did the day before, or even a few hours before, is like stealing a look at the beloved while she sleeps. The thrill is even greater if one has first to draw back the curtains. How they glow in the cold light of early dawn!”
I paint a lot in the evenings after dinner. I stop when my body starts to wind down; I get chilly and lose my ability to focus – time to climb into bed. In the morning when I look at what I did the night before with fresh eyes, it’s almost always a delight – my labors transformed overnight. Henry Miller further speaks to our relationship to what we are painting – our subjects:
“The practice of any art demands more than mere savoir faire. One must not only be in love with what one does, one must also know how to make love. In love self is obliterated. Only the beloved counts. Whether the beloved be a bowl of fruit, a pastoral scene, or the interior of a bawdy house makes no difference. One must be in it and of it wholly. Before a subject can be transmuted aesthetically it must be devoured and absorbed. If it is a painting it must perspire with ecstasy.”
I contend that art reflects the consciousness of its maker. Iain McGilchrist says that it’s not only a reflection of our consciousness but it is our consciousness in another state – our art is the physical state of our consciousness. Everything that has ever been started as an idea. So, with love in the room – when we are making love with our materials, with our subjects, in response to the privilege of being able to make art – the resulting paintings shine with love’s light – they “perspire with ecstasy” in Henry Miller’s words. Yes, painting is challenging, but love and challenge often – maybe always – go hand in hand. The thing is if we are “phoning it in” it shows it in our art. There are a few paintings I’ve done over the years for less than “in-love-with” reasons. It’s no wonder they are still here, unclaimed.
It’s a mystery where our impulses to create come from. What impels us to do anything? Why do we fall in love with a person, why do we desire (to do, to make, to have) anything? But I also think it’s something to pay attention to. Our “why’s” live somewhere in there. This applies to not just making art, or even creating, but to all the ways we are compelled in life. I know for me, first becoming aware, and then getting very clear about why I do what I do has changed how I experience myself. It en-courages me to progressively allow more and more of my soul into my artwork.
I offer a workshop on color that I named “Get Intimate with Color.” A part of me thinks is a silly name for an art class, but when I reflect on what had me come up with that name, I realize I meant it literally. I believe in being intimate with our materials and subjects. Intimate’s Latin root means “in-most.” It requires the in-most parts of us. Our soul is reflected in what we create when it emanates from there. To me this is the whole enchilada. Intimacy is relationship; relationship is connection; connection is the sacred made manifest. It’s the God in me seeing the God in you – and vice-versa. When we make art we connect – we become intimate with those who see it. For me, there’s no better “why.”
With my love,