writing & language

Memorable Quotes- Sting

Whenever creative people talk about their medium, whether it be writing, dance, painting, sculpture, ceramics, music, film, etc., they always speak for artists in other mediums. This is because creative concerns and methods are essentially universal to all artists, regardless of medium. I read an interview with Sting recently in which he talked about his creative process. Substitute the word "photography" for "music", and this thought is equally relevant:

"Music is like a sea without a horizon and without a reason for being. Making music is a wonderful adventure without borders - exactly like love. You never get to the bottom of the person you love. The closer you get, the more you understand about how little you know of them. That means that there is a lot of work yet to be done."

Exactly.

Memorable Quotes- Jerry Uelsmann & Duane Michals

There are a many thoughtful photographers out there who speak eloquently about their work and photography in general, but few are as inspiring as Jerry Uelsmann and Duane Michals. (I could list more, like Kip Fulbeck, for instance, but will limit myself for now.) Last month I attended the Society for Photographic Education's national conference, where 82-year old Uelsmann was a featured speaker. Here are a few of the more memorable things he said:

"I asked an historian, "What IS history?", and he answered, "History amounts to those things that you choose to remember."

"The camera is a license to explore."

"The viewer always completes the image."

"Art is one of those areas where there is more than one right answer."

"Once you think you know everything, the questioning stops."

And perhaps my favorite: "I don't want this presentation to be a snore-fest with yawn-sauce on the side."

Michals, who is now 85, was equally entertaining and challenging when I heard him speak at the Cincinnati Art Museum in 2000. Here are some of his most memorable lines:

"Do not try to be perfect, please. Perfect is boring. Your humanity lies in your vulnerability."

"Pay attention to your mind. You put crap in your mind, you get crap in your life. You put good things in your mind, you get good things in your life."

"I think about thinking."

"Don't come crying to me because nothing happened. Nothing happened because you didn't make it happen."

"You have 2 choices in life: doing and bullshit. Don't tell me what you are going to do. Show me what you have done."

"Guess when you were born? You were born now."

When golfer Arnold Palmer died in 2016, it was written of him, "People loved him because, in a world of sullen superstars, Palmer radiated joy and delight in the treasures of his life... He had a wonderful time being Arnold Palmer and squeezed every drop of juice from the experience." The same can be said about Uelsmann and Michals, both giants of 20th century photography.

The Challenge of Titling Artwork

Giving titles to artwork is a challenging but rewarding part of the creative process. Although I am sure that there are many artists out there who have no problem coming up with titles, there are many others for whom it is a difficult or thankless task. I've talked with artists who hate assigning titles, and often default to "Untitled No. XXX" for their work. This is, of course, an option, but one that can work against an artist in certain respects. First, it can make it challenging to figure out which piece a potential buyer or curator is talking about unless you are an artist who has a great inventory system that allows for quickly finding your artwork in your archives. The longer you make art, the harder it may be to identify and find an untitled piece without a detailed and up-to-date inventory database. (I'm speaking from personal experience here.) Second, it can turn off certain viewers and buyers who welcome titles, as they can add meaning or provide insight into the work.

It is this value-added aspect of titling artwork that makes me work hard at coming up with an effective title. Titling forces me to engage with my art in a different way than when I am making technical or aesthetic decisions about it. I title all the artwork that I exhibit, making sure to title each body of work, as well as each piece within a series.

Sometimes titling is really hard. This was the case for the overall title of the body of work that became "Tears of Stone: World War I Remembered". I agonized over what the title should be, making long lists of potential titles, all of which were lame or awful. It wasn't until I was passing by one of my bookcases and my eye fell on a Chieftains CD titled "Tears of Stone" that I had a eureka moment. Conversely, sometimes titling is drop-dead easy. This was the case with each image in the "Tears of Stone" series.  Rather than give the pictures metaphorical titles, I knew that many viewers would be very interested in the type of place and the location at which each shot was taken. The location would further indicate the scope of the war's impact the nations that fought in it. Here's an example:

00-BW171-11.12-Lttr.-72dpi-300x128.jpg

On the other hand, sometimes metaphorical titles can be very effective. Here's an example from "The Primitive Streak" series that functions both literally and metaphorically, and which depicts my nieces as they neared the end of their childhood:

96-P3-9.6-V7-Exhib.-4-300dpi-300x106.jpg

How do you come up with a great title for a piece of art? For me, it varies. Sometimes it comes from an external source like a discussion I have with a friend, a line in a book, newspaper, poem or song, or from listening to a podcast, as happened with the two series "The Wind Telephone" (This American Life) and "The Primitive Streak" (Radiolab). Sometimes a title is suggested by the artwork itself as I work on it. Using a thesaurus can be enormously helpful. I now keep an ongoing list of potential titles, knowing that I may never create a piece that matches up to one of those titles.

The main criteria I use for judging whether a title is effective or notis, "Does it add something to the experience of looking at the art without explaining too much?"

There really isn't one defining formula for creating successful titles for your artwork. Here are three different blogs that make excellent suggestions:

http://www.nicholaswilton.com/2014/08/06/how-to-title-your-art-so-it-sells/

https://renee-phillips.com/think-titles-art-matter/

How to Find the Perfect Title for Art

Acknowledging Influence in Your Art

Teju Cole is a photographer, author, teacher, art historian, and critic. He is one of today's  most complex, thoughtful and articulate critics of photography, and I always enjoy the articles he writes for the New York Times Magazine.  They are hugely thought-provoking. He recently published a book, Known and Strange Things, which was reviewed by Claudia Rankine in the Sunday New York Times Book Review in August. In the review, Rankine refers to a section in which Cole has a conversation with writer and critic Aleksandar Hemon. Rankin writes: "Hemon is ... interested in what happens when influences are constantly shaping and reshaping the imagination. For Cole, visual artists, especially painters, are least affected by that anxiety of influence and “know that everything is a combination of what’s observed, what’s imagined, what’s overheard and what’s been done before.” He argues that to acknowledge influence is to let go of notions of “literal records of reality” and cultural or racial ownership of content. All Cole wants is to be “dragged down into a space of narrative that I haven’t been in before.”"

I love that Cole embraces the notion of artists being influenced by external forces. I know so many artists who shy away from, if not openly fear, the idea that their work might be influenced by someone or something else. Young artists in particular, but older artists, too, often want their work to be born only from themselves. They actively refuse to read about others, to go to museums, to expose themselves to anything outside of the narrow parameters of their own lives as they have lived them to date.

It is deluded to think that we can go through this life not being influenced by something other than ourselves. We don't live in a vacuum, even when we try to. I don't think it matters what our influences are as artists. What matters far more is what we do with the influences we have. Do we take that information and create something unique out of it? Or do we use it to rehash what others have already said and done before? I think that the prospect of the latter is what makes people fearful. But if you use that which influences you to create something fresh and new, something that makes people like Cole sit up, pay attention, and say "I haven't seen that before.", then there is no reason to fear your influences.

Reliving Cultural Moments That Change Your Life

In 2015, the New York Times ran a series of articles written by a variety of people that addressed the following question: "What cultural work or encounter do you wish you could experience again for the first time?"

The authors wrote about concerts, books and films that had had a profound impact on them, each of which they wished they could experience again for the first time. For me, there have been two such cultural experiences, one of which I blogged about in 2014:

[embed]http://janealdenstevens.com/?p=1382[/embed]

The other experience took place during a visit to New York City in the mid-1970’s. I decided one day to visit the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in order to see in person some of the artworks that I had studied in art history classes in college. I had no particular agenda for this visit, no works that I specifically wanted to see. After having taken in the art on the first two floors, I started up the flight of stairs that would take me to the next level. Doing so meant going up a short flight of stairs, turning 90˚ to the right, ascending another short flight, then turning another 90˚ to take the final steps up to the third floor. As I ascended that last section, I became aware that a large painting was coming into view with each step I climbed. It was enormous, it was black and white, it was riveting.

It was Picasso's “Guernica”.guernica_all-1

Although I had seen this painting in reproduction many times before, I was stunned when encountering it in person. It is one thing to see a photograph of an artwork in a book, or as a projection or screen image, and quite another to experience it in real life. Nothing had prepared me for the violence, the authority, the command of this painting.

I stood there at the top of the stairs, unable to move, not knowing where to begin or even what to think. It was as if all thought had been stripped from my brain, leaving a blank slate behind. I can’t say exactly how long I stayed there examining and thinking about the painting, but I do know that it was a good long time. I left MOMA without having looked at anything else.

I was aware that "Guernica" was going to be sent back to Spain eventually (it was, in 1981), and that this was probably the only time that I would be able to see it in person. So I drank it in while I could, all the while wondering how a painting could evoke such a visceral response in me.

Looking back, I understand that my reaction arose from a combination of things: the way the painting came slowly into view as I ascended the stairs, the powerful content of it, the fact that it was in black, gray & white, the abstract method used to paint it, the relationship of the figures to each other, and my total lack of expectation about what I was going to see as I climbed those steps.

I think of that day often, as it was the first time that I realized how potent and personal art could be, and wish I could see "Guernica" for the first time again.

Thoughts on Beauty

I have been invited to participate in The Anna May Project, [embed]http://theannamayproject.com/[/embed]

an educational "visual storytelling project that helps women and girls learn to shape and tell their own stories." The Anna May Project was founded by Amy Whitaker, who brings years of executive leadership experience plus degrees in Fine Arts and Art Education to the table. She seeks to empower women and girls to find their own truths and inner strength through the use of photography and visual storytelling.

Some of my photographs will appear in the first edition of Riptide Magazine, being published by The Anna May Project in January 2017. In the meantime, Amy asked me to compose a short essay on "beauty", which will be the focus of that issue of the magazine. Doing so was an interesting exercise, as I never had written anything on that topic before, and I was limited to 200 words. After finishing, I realized that beauty is a topic about which I have very strong feelings, particularly because it runs counter to so much that is valued in today's art world. Here is what I wrote:

"Beauty is strength, resiliency, and conviction. Because I am drawn to these qualities, beauty often finds its way into my work.

Beauty emerges from a combination of elements—the setting, the light, the ambient sounds and smells, the way people move—in the way these elements interact and connect with each other. I thus can find beauty in any setting and in people of all ages, because it is not just about how things look.

Making a picture that speaks to my definition of beauty is never a specific goal; rather, it is a byproduct of how I see and experience the world and what I want to say about it through my photographs.

In today’s art world, beauty is something that is scorned by many. Back in 1981 when I staged my Masters of Fine Arts thesis exhibit, "Dancing on a Wall", a mentor wrote, “(Your photographs are) … an expression of a vital ingredient of creation—the artist’s delight and love for a much maligned, old-fashioned, but everlastingly satisfying component of much of art—beauty.”

He further advised me to never apologize for that, and indeed, to embrace it as part of my creative self—and I always have."

Learning to stand up for who I truly am as a person and artist was one of the most important lessons I ever learned from that beloved mentor, Charles A. Arnold, Jr., known by all as Charlie. Although he is gone now, his lessons resonate and guide me every day of my life.

Tracking Family Connections

The project I am currently working on examining, in part, the connections among my various family members. It's fascinating to me that we all know each other so well, and yet at the same time don't know each other at all. What connects us as a "family"? A. Hope Jahren, currently a professor of biogeochemistry at the University of Oslo, recently published an essay in The New York Times titled

https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/07/opinion/sunday/my-fathers-hackberry-tree.html?_r=0

"My Father's Hackberry Tree". In it, she describes a connection to her father that arose from her research work:

"...In 1993, my father collected hackberry fruits for me. My task that year was to observe the development of the seed over the course of the growing season, and I had earmarked several trees in South Dakota for that purpose. During a rare visit home to neighboring Minnesota, I saw with new eyes the fine specimen of C. occidentalis that graced the southwestern corner of my parents’ property.

I asked my father if he wouldn’t mind pulling off a few fruits every week throughout the summer, and he obliged. From May through September, he visited our hackberry tree twice each day, carefully recording the weather conditions, and also sampling, first flowers, then green fruits, then ripe, then withered, all placed into small plastic vials. Hundreds and hundreds of fruits — each week’s harvest wrapped in a sheet of paper describing its yield.

... (My) father spent the better part of his 70th summer observing a single tree, and in the end, gave me a hundredfold more than what I had asked for.

My father can no longer write. He is 92 now, and he cannot make his hands work. He cannot walk, or even stand, and he can barely see. He is not certain what year it is, but he is sure that I am his daughter, and that my brothers are his sons, and he treats us just as he always has...

When I visit him these days, we sit in the same house that I grew up in, but we don’t talk about science anymore. ... (We) talk about poetry instead...

As with many Midwestern families, great distances pervade our relationships — both literally and figuratively. We never really talk to each other; instead we box up our hurts and longings and store them for decades, out of sight but not forgotten.

... This year my father and I have spent (the summer) inside, reading...

In the fading light, we offer each other words that were carefully written by dead strangers, because we know them by heart. We also know that children eventually leave. Even when they do come home, there’s always the end of the day, of the week, of the summer, when they fly away to the other side of the world, off to a place where you cannot follow.

This month I am leaving Minnesota, and the United States, relocating yet again, to build a new lab and start over a fourth time. Compared with my previous moves, I am taking very little with me. The dead fruit of my early career has now been discarded. Instead, I carry in my luggage a delicate pile of paper. It is the small bundle of notes written in my father’s handwriting that I recovered from the box of hackberries he collected.

The notes are precious because they constitute proof — proof that my father thought of me every single day and must still do so. Proof that I am his, our shared last name written on every page. Proof that no one in the world knows that tree the way he and I do.

Our hackberry tree still stands, tall and healthy, near the western edge of Mower County. It should outlive both of us, growing stronger and greener even as we inevitably wither and fall. The tree will remain in my parents’ yard, and the notes describing what it was like 20 years ago will go with me, though its fruit will not.

I am taking with me only what I can’t live without, and the utility of these letters is clear. This collection of papers, filled exclusively with symbols and dates and botanical terms, is all of the things that my father and I have never said."

How beautiful that a collection of simple scientific data can make such a profound connection with a loved one. This task that was performed daily for a summer left behind evidence of that love, of the fact that the father thought every day of his daughter, and performed a service on her behalf. The notes that Jahren's father made say "I love and respect you." in a different way than the words themselves, and which is profoundly affecting.

Members of a family sometimes express attachment and affection for one another in such subtle ways that they can be essentially invisible or are not seen for what they are. It is this sideways approach to familial relationships that I am examining right now. What do we discover about our families and our selves when we look for evidence of love and connection in the less obvious places, in the places where links are there, but lie undetected? Trying to answer this question is requiring me to think quite differently than I have in the past about how to portray these issues visually.

Thoughts on the Creative Voices of Women

I am currently reading a recently-published biography titled The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe, by Elaine Showalter. Although Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910) is best known to Americans for having written the lyrics to the iconic song The Battle Hymn of the Republic, she saw herself for much of her life first and foremost as a poet. Indeed, she was a published poet, playwright, essayist, and women’s rights activist, but one whose creative voice was stifled at almost every turn until much later in her life. Because she lived at a time when women were not allowed control over their own financial affairs, when women who married were expected only to have children and keep the household, and when the consequences of stepping outside the lines that society had drawn for them were dire, Howe struggled mightily to write anything, much less get it published. Reading this book has once again made me infinitely glad that I was born when I was, and not back in earlier times, when the lives of women were so different than they are now. The freedoms that women have gained since Howe’s time are so many and varied that I have often wondered how many other creative women we would be familiar with now, had their voices not been stifled back then.

The changes in attitudes towards women in the arts just in my own lifetime have been radical, and I have been the beneficiary of many of them. I came of age during the women's rights movement of the 1970's and the fights that we fought back then have given us momentum towards continuing to change the future. While the canon of the histories of the creative arts is still dominated by white males, and some fields are still male-dominated (architecture and movies, anyone?) the work of females and other marginalized groups is increasingly being taught more in schools, and is certainly being exhibited/published/performed/built. The internet has created public platforms for artists that were unimaginable only a few years ago. It’s my view that the participation of females in the arts is profound and that their work is valued more today than ever.

Is there more to be done in this regard? Yes. Absolutely.

But we shouldn’t lose sight of how far we have come from earlier times, when it was impossible for so many women like Julia Ward Howe to express themselves creatively, much less be recognized and lauded for their efforts.

Artists I Like- On Kawara

Perhaps because I am currently working on a project that utilizes photographs that I have made on a daily, monthly, and yearly basis, I am intrigued by artists who have taken that approach in their own work, regardless of medium. On Kawara (1932-2014), a conceptual artist born in Japan, certainly fits that mode.  For 48 years, he would spend a part of each day making a painting that had at its center the date on which he was painting it (his "Today" series). Other creative methods he used were mapping the places he'd been, and  keeping daily lists of people he met. Between 1970 and 2000, he sent his friends more than 900 telegrams just to tell them that he was still alive.On Kawara In the pre-social networked age that we live in today, that kind of thing would perhaps have labeled him as eccentric. Today it makes him seem to have been far ahead of his time. It's possible that, if he were a young artist today, he would have been posting a daily Instagram of each meal, sending weekly selfies on Snapchat (without showing his face, as he was obsessively private), and tweeting his whereabouts on Twitter. Taken together, his work creates an archive of his life.

In an article on Artnet.com, critic Ben Davis wrote that Kawara not only anticipated our data-obsessed age, "he offers an alternative way of thinking about it, a possible model for how to stay human amid it all."

That brings up the issue of the culture of sharing (oversharing?) of personal information in today's world. For me, the most effective kind of personal sharing through one's artwork is that in which an artist reveals just enough for the viewer to engage with, but which only hints at the deeper currents beyond. I like artists whose work makes me feel like I know them, at the same time that I realize I don't know them at all.

On Kawara's work does that for me. He tells us so much about himself and his life, but ultimately preserves his privacy and seems completely unknowable.  For his art wasn't solely about him per se, it was about the passage of time. By focusing on how that passage is built from incremental steps day-to-day, month-to-month, year-to-year, Kawara make us aware of our own inexorable movement towards the future, as well as of the past we have left behind.947-am

The Process of Creating #3

I read a memorial piece on author James Salter in the New York Times Magazine recently. Written by Will Mackin, the final paragraph contains a wonderful description of what the creative process is like. Salter had been a fighter pilot prior to turning to writing as a profession, and Mackin was convinced that the experience informed how Salter wrote. Here is the final paragraph: "...you can sense Salter's search for the idea, or the feeling, or the mood behind the fictional moment. I see him sitting at his desk, as he once sat in the cockpit over Korea, staring out in front of him, a space that can be defined only by what's not there. He doesn't know exactly what he wants to say, or how to say it, but he feels its presence. As his search goes on, he may begin to doubt the existence of what he's after. But then it appears - in the case of an enemy fighter, "silent as a shark" - and immediately it tries to escape or to turn on him. He struggles to maintain sight of it, moving in close, so close he can't miss. And when he hits, something vital shatters."

I can relate so much to what Mackin was describing, as I think any creative person in any field can, for that is the creative process in a nutshell. Beautifully said! And... it makes me want to read James Salter's books!

The Process of Creating #2

The April 4, 2015, edition of The Economist contains a review about the new book What Comes Next and How to Like It, by Abigail Thomas. The review is unfortunately uncredited, but here are a few excerpts: "Abigail Thomas is not a painter, but she makes paintings anyway. Using oil-based house paint, which is toxic, she drips, flings and pours colour onto glass and then pushes it all around. Failed compositions are scraped away, yielding new and surprising arrangements...

This is not a book about painting. It is about pushing around sometimes toxic material in an effort- sometimes vain, often frustrating- to make something that looks right, or at least to find beauty in the results. This, of course, is what it means to write, and certainly to write a memoir...

As with her painting, Ms. Thomas's writing involves pushing around the colour and then scraping most of it away, leaving sentences that are as sculpted and considered as bonsai trees. The result is a thing of beauty, largely owing to the author's utter fearlessness in the face of the unexpected."

Although this review made me want to read the book, what I love most about it is the way it illuminates the creative process. It doesn't matter whether one is making artwork, crafting a business model, or creating a life- the process of creation is the same. It's often messy and disorganized, bewildering and frustrating. And once we get rid of anything that isn't truly important, we are hopefully left with something of substance, something wonderful, something worthy.

More Thoughts on Editing

I am currently in the midst of editing down a large number of photographs into a coherent series. It is an overwhelming task at times, as the sheer volume of images (about 1,300 to be specific) can't be dealt with all at once. This is something that will take time, as my goal is to end up with between 35-70 pictures total. I find that it really helps to edit in small doses, and taking a lot of breaks helps. Sometimes I need to step away from the work for a couple of days in order to recover from the visual overload. DSC_0225But editing, as I've written before, is so important to my creative process that I would never dream of hurrying it up. This was brought home to me when I read an article titled "The Creative Process" in the July/August, 2014 issue of The Atlantic magazine. In it, creative people in a range of fields were asked about "the inspiration and evolution of their work." The whole article was very interesting, but the section that featured short story author Lydia Davis was downright fascinating.

Davis, who won the Man Booker International Prize in 2013, described what her life was like in the fall of 1973 and how she approached her writing early in her career. There followed the first draft of one of the stories she wrote at that time, "In a House Besieged":

"In a house besieged lived a man and a woman, with two dogs and two cats. There were mice there too, but they were not acknowledged. From the kitchen where they cowered in the man and woman heard small explosions. "The wind," said the woman. "Hunters," said the man. "Smoke," said the woman. "The army," said the man. The woman wanted to go home, but she was already at home, there in the middle of the country in a house besieged, in a house that belonged to someone else."

And then appeared the final draft:

"In a house besieged lived a man and a woman. From where they cowered in the kitchen the man and woman heard small explosions. "The wind," said the woman. "Hunters," said the man. "The rain," said the woman. "The army," said the man. The woman wanted to go home, but she was already home, there in the middle of the country in a house besieged."

What grace the final version has! What clarity, what elegance. Proof positive that excellent editing can strengthen the fruits of one's creative labors. In the final draft, there are no extraneous words that could distract from the message of the whole. Davis has cut out unnecessary details so that the point of the piece is more easily comprehended. The final version causes the reader to ask questions about what the implications of the story are, instead of answering every question the reader might have had. When editing, what is excluded often determines the strength and meaning of what is included.

And that is exactly the task at hand for me in my editing work. Exactly how many photographs need to be included in order for a sequence of pictures to be maximally strong? Which pictures should be included/excluded? What order should they be in? Those are the questions foremost on my mind as I work through the task at hand.

Photographic Archaeology

A character in "A Forgotten Poet", a story by Vladimir Nabokov, writes, "If metal is immortal then somewhere

there lies the burnished button I lost

upon my seventh birthday in a garden.

Find me that button and my soul will know

that every soul is saved and stored and treasured."

The same could be said for photographs. We take them and put them away somewhere, in a drawer, in a shoebox, on our computers, or in the Cloud. All too often, we proceed to forget about them.

Every once in a while, we happen to come upon these treasures from the past. When we do, our gaze falls upon them and memory is reawakened. Emotions bubble up and time shifts somehow. Going through old photographs is like participating in an archeological dig. We sift through layers of the past, trying to make connections between the history being revealed and the present.IMG_1314 V2

It is inevitable that, in this process, questions will arise that cannot be answered. But by asking those questions, we learn something about our selves, and the past lives again. Photographs are not the only artifacts that have the ability to generate these sensations, but they do it in a way that is unique to the medium.

IMG_1313 V2This has a direct bearing on the creative work I am doing now, in which I am sifting through my photographic archives and discovering much in the process. I'm still editing all of this, trying to make sense out of the thousands of images I am looking at. Stay tuned to what emerges!

Thoughts on Legacy

I was asked the other day what I thought my creative legacy was. Never having been asked that question before, I was stumped for an answer. The next day, I found this excerpt from a novel which resonated for me as it relates to the question of one's legacy: "Everyone must leave something behind when he dies. It doesn't matter what you do, so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it, into something that's like you after you take your hands away."

~ from the novel Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury

Speaking With Pictures

One of the reasons that I take photographs is because they enable me to express thoughts that words just can't capture. I recently participated in the #fivedayblackandwhitechallenge on Facebook, whereby I posted a different black and white photograph for five days. Initially, I posted photos from my archives that belonged to completed bodies of work. But the last two came from some collaborative book projects I did with my nephew, and which only very few people have seen to date. Why this shift? A boy from my kids' school committed suicide recently, an event that is unspeakably sad. I gravitated towards these two pictures because they express for me something about that event that I couldn't say any other way. And it seemed important to say it.Freeman- 1992 Freeman- 1994

Artists I Like- Dario Robleto

The best things often happen when you aren't looking for anything to happen at all. On a whim, I turned on the radio to an NPR station the other day, and almost instantly forgot my surroundings because I became so focused on the interview I was hearing. Dario Robleto, a conceptual artist who makes primarily sculptural pieces but does not limit himself by media, was talking with Krista Tippet for On Being, a radio show and blog based on examining the fundamental question: "What does it mean to be human, and how do we want to live?" What Robleto had to say about memory, art, depression, history, relationships, etc. spoke to me deeply. He values words as much as art objects and it's clear that he thinks a lot about the origins and execution of his work. What else can I say?! Listen to the podcast and prepare to be moved.

The Sun Remembers Your Shadow, 2012

 

"The Paradox of Art as Work"

In a NY Times article published on May 11 titled "The Paradox of Art as Work", writer and critic A. O. Scott examines the relationship between art and money. One part of the article in particular stood out to me and is quoted here: "In the popular imagination, artists tend to exist either at the pinnacle of fame and luxury or in the depths of penury and obscurity- rarely in the middle, where most of the rest of us toil and dream. They are subject to admiration, envy, resentment and contempt, but it is odd how seldom their efforts are understood as work. Yes, it's taken for granted that creating is hard, but also that it's somehow fundamentally unserious. Schoolchildren may be encouraged (at least rhetorically) to pursue their passions and cultinvate their talents, but as they grow up, they are warned away from artistic careers. This attitude, always an annoyance, is becoming a danger to the health of creativity itself."

He goes on to make other excellent points that I won't go into here. But I myself have experienced time and again that attitude he describes about art being seen as "unserious", and it annoys me just as much today as it did decades ago when I first experienced it. If the work artists do is "unserious", then I'd like to be able to wave a magic wand and eliminate any and all things visual, aural, written, etc. that have been created by artists throughout the centuries and see what would be left. How many buildings would be missing? How many sounds? What would the world actually look and sound like without the works of artists?

Then let's talk about artists being "unserious"!!!

Making the Familiar Strange

In my last post, I quoted a sentence that was in reference to Seamus Heaney's poems: "He takes the familiar and makes it strange." This sentence describes perfectly what I am trying to do in my current work. Because this is no easy thing, I have been thinking a lot about what it is, exactly, that can make the familiar into something strange or unsettling. In researching this, I came upon this blog entry by Pat Thompson, Professor of Education at the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom. She writes about how de-familiarization is about "seeing things differently, and understanding them differently." The ability to convey to viewers/readers/listeners this different understanding of something familiar is key.

Musicians are challenged by this concept any time they do a cover version of a well-known song. Sometimes they produce a more-or-less faithful rendering of the original, but other times, the cover version causes the listener to hear something in the song that had been previously unknown. I can think of two examples that illustrate this perfectly.

The first is Whitney Houston's "How Will I Know". Her original was a perfect piece of pop confection that speaks to the angst of young women just starting on their journey of negotiating relationships. Her a cappella version, although not a cover version by someone else, reveals the concerns of a grown woman who has already lived a life and experienced failures in love.

The second example is Chris Cornell's cover of Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean". There is a gritty, desperate aspect to Cornell's version that was absent for me in the original. I had become complacent about the song until I heard Cornell's version, which caused me to relisten to Jackson's original and rethink what i thought I knew about it. I found far more angst and anger there than I had heard initially.

In both cases, the experience as listener was revelatory, exciting and..... strange. You are familiar with the subject, but because it is being presented to you in a way that is different from the norm, you feel like you don't know it at all. It is this sensation that I am aiming for in the photographs I am creating right now.

Describing Your Work to Others

Although I believe I am a fairly articulate person, I always seem to stumble when someone asks me what my work is "about", or what kind of artist I am. I inevitably end up using far too many words to answer those questions. In the January/February 2014 issue of Intelligent Life magazine  (which is published by the Economist) author Christina Patterson describes how Nobel-prizewinning poet Seamus Heaney used words to create maximum impact. There was a sentence in that article that is the perfect description of what I attempt to do with my work:

"He takes the familiar and makes it strange."

That sums it up perfectly, particularly in regard to the project that I am currently working on. Here's an example of my most recent work-in-progress that I feel effectively does that:DSC_2557 V3Now I just have to drill that sentence into my head: "I take the familiar and make it strange." and use it whenever I'm asked what kind of work I do. If only I could do that to the degree that Seamus Heaney could!

Work-in-Progress- 11/11/13

Today is Veteran's Day in the United States, a day that I have paid deep attention to ever since I worked on the Tears of Stone project. At the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918, the Armistice was signed that ended the "war to end all wars". Or so they thought.... and hoped. Here is one last excerpt from Stone Work, the book by John Jerome that I have been quoting here recently, and which relates to my approach to my current as-yet-unrealized project. I could have written these words myself:

“I haven’t learned to let go of the need to control, direct, keep the canoe (or anything else) pointed straight: the westernized, apollonian requirement that one master things, apply more power. I keep fiddling with the throttle.

            Of course I like effort, but that is not a sufficient excuse. I like effortlessness more, or claim to. What I like most is the search for that, for the effortless way, for those little physical moments when it goes just right: epiphanies, again. What I like best about stone work is working at it slowly and carefully, figuring out how to get the stones and get them into place with never the strain of a heavy lift. I like trying to make stone work effortless, which is satisfactorily impossible, and therefore endless, task. You can put a lot of effort into finding the effortless way.” (Jerome 135-136)