Saturday, January 14, 2017

She Moves

I am starting over. It’s been a couple of years. What happens during and after  hiatuses in an artist’s life? I had to stop for almost 3 years but others have been know to go for decades. Many things can and do halt the trajectory of creative process: sudden changes in health, financial circumstance, relationship status. Births, deaths. Relocation. The one hundred thousand things that comprise human existence. Some artists navigate changes in their lives with minimal interruption to their art practice and routine, especially if they are lucky enough to have resources that soften or lessen the stress and disruption such changes produce. Some of us are tougher, younger, more resilient, better loved, have a good support system and network. Some of us have privileges in one area but liabilities elsewhere. Others are genetically predisposed to optimism: whatever happens in their lives including misfortune is treated with acknowledgement, acceptance, and dealt with in the best manner humanly possible—and then they just get on with it.  A few of us managed to avoid situations where things could have been worse. A lot worse. Others discovered that when one crisis arrived, more followed until it felt like one thing after another. Such is life.
In my case,  it started out with a broken ankle. That in itself was hardly remarkable when considering the standard time allotment for bones to heal. In the grand scheme of things, 6 weeks is a month and a half out of commission. I’ve actually had previous derailments: dislocated shoulder, fractured foot—that came and went before I knew it, during my youth. I continued not only painting but going to work, travelled solo on buses, socialized with friends and family—in short, carried on pretty much as usual; just on one leg. However it’s very different to do this in your 20’s than in your 60’s. It takes longer to recover when you’re older and even then, things aren’t quite the same afterwards. The ankle mended but ached for two years. Two months after the injury, I returned to my part-time job and my shoulder froze within weeks. I suspect it was the result of using crutches (ladies in their 60’s should not walk around with sticks in their armpits). That issue took another year. Then my cat broke my heart by dying but gave me the sad gift of doing so 4 months before a quieter, smaller, albeit more expensive unit became available in my building, thereby freeing up funds to afford a move and new apartment, now that I no longer had pet expenses. I also switched from a daytime to evening/night schedule at my job.
With the move came the inevitable down-sizing which included a ruthless purge of my own artwork. I know artists who keep stuff they did in high school or art college. My work then didn’t warrant any nostalgia or fondness. I ditched almost all of it: one minute gesture drawings on cracked, yellowed and peeling newsprint, matted framed assignments on illustration board, rolled canvasses of unsalvageable experiments that went no further than expectorations in paint. It felt great! However, resistance came when it involved the efforts of other artists. Something winced and balked inside to even consider doing to their work what I was doing to mine, namely in terms of disposal or give-away, notably the small painting done by a now deceased artist whose donation landed in my safe-keeping when it was never retrieved after a fund-raising auction. I didn’t know her; barely met her at an annual dinner. Over the years, I tried to contact her; at one point managed to arrange for pick-up but nothing materialized. I also owned from other artists, fragile, torn, hand-made cards and works that aged poorly. But there was nothing wrong with this unclaimed painting other than the fact that I just didn’t want to take it with me. Generally, it was only this piece that caused such reservations; the rest of what I owned from other artists, I truly did want to keep. My major hesitation concerned how I’d feel if someone else, for example, had the same awkward, conflicted response about a painting of mine in their possession, they no longer cared as much about anymore. I had no qualms about dispatching my own work especially if I found it substandard. But the idea of somebody else discarding my work was hard to separate from their rejection of me personally. It’s like falling out of love, not being liked anymore, no longer special. Being put out with the trash.
Eventually, the painting was offered in a swap meet organized by my building. It was taken—by whom, I don’t know, but ultimately, I’m pleased someone else wanted it. I finally relented and recycled other artists’ flimsy, aged pieces in deteriorating condition. In my new place, I have at least one artwork on display from everybody in my collection. I found a method to resolve the dilemma of what to do with original artwork I no longer wish to keep. If I allow myself the option to pass on, or recycle another artist’s work in my possession for whatever reason, then it is only fair that others be granted the equal right to do the same with mine. It has to go both ways. Therefore, to anyone who currently owns one or more of my paintings: I give you permission to do as you please, especially if that work no longer serves you or your needs in any way. You are free to give it away, sell it, paint over it ( if you are another artist) or leave it at the curb.
As far as the doubts and insecurities about one’s abilities after a hiatus—just paint. Or do anything creative with your hands. The old muscles will re-awaken including the one in the heart that remembers the love of the doing like it was the first time, that first discovery of a passion not evident anywhere else or known before in your life. So much time spent in the absence of working creates fears of losing what one once had: skill, craftsmanship, motivation and endurance. A loss of connection with not just the art world but the world itself particularly for those who felt art was their connection to the world. And for many of us, there exists anxiety and concern over a loss of connection with a major part of ourselves, who we are, how we see and define ourselves. Start small. Those of us returning after a hiatus need to build up strength to tackle larger projects. However, power to anyone who recovers better going the opposite route: full-bodied immersion, assertive, focused intention, and fierce commitment.   

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Painting Sideways

Lucky me cracked an ankle this summer on Friday the 13th. Friends and colleagues were quick to point out the full moon. On top of everything, it was also my 60th birthday. “Happy Birthday to me,” I snarled, for weeks.  Engagements had to be cancelled: surprise luncheons, a dinner, and Father’s Day on Sunday where I had planned to buy my Dad a cheesecake. The first week disabled was tough. Overnight, every room in the apartment became long-distance, especially if I forgot something or needed to backtrack after I’d already arrived elsewhere. Dismay grew for how much travel occurred between fridge, stove and sink while trying to cook on one leg— this despite any organization and anticipation beforehand to save time and effort. And crutches…were scary. I fell 3 times in momentary losses of balance—once in a heap across my entrance when I missed the handle I meant to pull and pushed the door away instead. I looked like a dead insect: an assortment of limbs and crutches frozen in mid air. Apart from bruises and aches, sheer dumb luck prevented further harm or injury. Things did improve by the second week; I live alone except for my insouciant cat who doesn’t deign to bear witness to any sort of drama. As such, I had the luxury of being as wholly wretched as possible; curses, tears, all manner of ungracious thoughts and feelings issued from the depths. Eventually, I got bored with my own misery and began thinking up ways to help myself just for variety. The rolling cart that held paints, brushes and other supplies was converted into a temporary walker. It also doubled as a courier for meal trays. My brother brought me a $25.00 chair with casters from Ikea that I used as a poor man’s wheelchair. I spun from room to room, the casted leg jutting out like a battering ram.
What do artists do when the spirit is willing and time is available, but they are physically unable to engage with their creative process as usual? It depends on the kind of work they normally do. If restrictions limit standing, weight bearing, or movement, the main adjustment for some disciplines only requires a reduction in size or dimension of the art product. Accommodations in the studio may be necessary: rearrangements of space and furniture, alterations to equipment, or new purchases made to facilitate easier access and comfort. For other practitioners, it’s an opportunity to try a different, more manageable format, experiment with a variety of materials or techniques they would never have considered if not for their disabilities. The need for assistants or aides becomes more of a possibility. Sometimes though, the greatest challenge is the psychological and emotional despondency that arrives from an inability to do what you love, accompanied by anxieties that involve being physically vulnerable, older and single. People mean well when they counsel or try to cheer up the sick, injured, or otherwise indisposed. But exhortations to maintain optimism, have a sense of humour, or toughen up didn’t help until I encountered first-hand, those who truly were, worse off than I. We chatted in waiting rooms at the Fracture Clinic where there was little privacy. Only curtains separate each patient. Everybody knows what the doctor says to your neighbour. I heard the man next to me quietly weep when he was told he needed extensive surgery and physiotherapy for what sounded like serious damage. I rode with them on Wheel-Trans service to appointments and destinations and realized that not only was my situation temporary—others who coped with permanent disabilities, lived in areas of the city that would breed anxiety even for the fully able-bodied. Seniors on fixed incomes, often pushed empty bundle buggies as mobility aids.
By the 3rd week, I resumed a method of art-making my physiotherapist told me afterwards, may’ve stressed my back. It was awkward and uncomfortable to work facing the canvas because the foot needed to be elevated. The solution: painting sideways. If I parked myself parallel to the canvas, put the foot up on another chair, the paint trolley could go over on the right. A palette rested on my lap where paint was mixed. I then applied colours left-handed. It did involve a bit of torqueing from time to time but at least some work got done. I also began small explorations with ink on different papers and rediscovered having neither agenda nor ambition—just pleasure in the making.
Despite misfortune, the accident did occur in summer, sparing me additional safety hazards of ice and snow endemic to winter. Paid sick leave is available, even for part-time employees at my job. My brother and mother brought groceries once a week; there are two households of my own personal friends who also live in the co-op, who graciously helped out. Two wheelchair members were the ones who told me about temporary Wheel-Trans, saving me the cost of cabs. I live alone but was never isolated.

On days when art was too tiring to attempt, I went to the park across the street and slowly practiced using the crutches, then took turns sitting on the many benches, some of which led down to the lake. The park staff was lovely to me; they put trash bins closer to the sidewalk because it was easier to dump cat litter there from my 1st floor unit, than to negotiate a long hall and several doors to the recycling room in my building. They cheered and clapped the first time they saw me without any support appliances and I almost burst into tears. The park was a revelation. Despite living in the neighbourhood for 20 years, I’d rarely if ever, actually sat in it. Most of the time I sprint across the grass, trying to catch the 509 streetcars to work, or else traverse it with an impatience to reach home. Apart from shoring up on Vitamin D, time spent sitting still among trees, gardens and proximity to water, reinstated the joys of seeing. The slender twist of a birch tree, the myriad ways leaves refract light, azure blue above/cerulean blue below—the world around us constantly provides impressions of colour, shape and texture as sources of reference and incentives for delight in our profession. I’d forgotten just how generously available they are to an artist, focused as I am, more often than not, by the struggle and not the gifts freely given.

Thursday, May 22, 2014


With the conclusion of the recent Olympics, the same thing always astounds me. It has little to do with medals, records broken or actual sporting events. What’s remarkable is how everything depends on a small window of opportunity where an athlete has this one chance (or in some cases, one minute) to make years of sacrifice, training and preparation count— and then it’s over! Anything can happen at these Games: flukes, upsets, unexpected disqualifications. Injuries, illness and even death. A competitor takes the wrong bus in a foreign country and arrives an hour after his event has already ended. All that time, energy and expense negated by an ill-fated bus ride… My favourite bizarre moment occurred at one previous Olympics, in a short-track speed skating final won by Australia. Crazy things happen in this sport. Champions have crossed finish lines on their stomachs, skating backwards, or with assorted body parts other than their feet due to frequent spills associated with racers jostling for position. In this case, the Australian was in last place behind a group of five. The skater in front of him tried to move up but stumbled and lost his balance. Unfortunately, the trajectory of his fall slammed into the knees of the person he was trying to pass. The collision generated a domino effect that sent both skaters hurtling forward and toppled the entire field, except one. The Australian took one look at the scattered heap and raised his arms as he passed everyone towards the gold medal. In subsequent interviews, he could not stop grinning at the questions, especially ones that began: “What’s it like to be Olympic champion? How do you feel about your win?” I enjoyed that he found it hilarious. Instead of dismay, imagine “Why me?” asked in awe and with a huge smile.  

Similar dynamics follow artists leading up to an exhibition. Viewers see only completed works but so much precedes the art prior to display that the duration of a show seems absurd by comparison. It’s not just the countless hours of trial and error, sustained effort, and other factors directly related to the production of art. Life stories also surround and exist behind a creative endeavour that may or may not influence our response to it, and, if we are in positions to do so— decisions that could affect its maker. In theory, I’d rather have my paintings succeed or fail on their own merit. Yet it’s hard to deny the gratitude, the welcomed support I’ve felt when odd luck or unexpected fortune favoured my career during difficult times. Others have described comparable situations as well. An artist recalled a juried exhibition he helped to co-ordinate. One juror adamantly refused to back down on a submission she was determined to have in the show despite rejection by the other two jurors. “The woman was a bear” he said. She was such a ferocious champion of the entry, everyone else gradually conceded out of fatigue. The work itself was apparently unremarkable by any standard. At the opening, the artist thanked the organizers and expressed what it meant to be included in the show. She had been severely depressed for months due to a family tragedy and the notice of acceptance arrived when she had been contemplating suicide. Getting into the show inspired a desire to continue painting instead. I don’t know if invisible forces prevail in this world, ready to sustain us when we need them most, or if the universe truly is a random place that has no interest whatsoever in our lives. Without any knowledge of someone’s circumstances, of course I’d respond to artwork purely on a subjective basis. Even when tribulations are revealed during, for example, a call for entry or membership selection, is it fair to others to give special consideration to one applicant based on their story, instead of an honest response to their work? Is it fair to the person in question? After all, it could create false security and expectations that lead to greater disappointment and problems in the future. Does sympathy towards artists who have experienced hardships cloud our professional judgement? Is it misplaced, inappropriate or even relevant in respect to their efforts? Does it matter in the long run? I cannot but be moved by Matisse’s paper cut-outs, done when he was bed-ridden; would never have guessed such bright joy coming from an artist challenged by debilitating infirmities. While it makes sense that someone creepy like Francis Bacon would create disturbing, grotesque paintings (which by the way, are absolutely stunning viewed in person) because of his propensity and fascination with violence, it’s hard to ignore the Matisse works on paper in contrast to his failing health. As a result, I don’t know if I appreciate his final output more from an awareness of his condition or if I truly find it stellar art. The majority of us are not famous or labelled geniuses like Matisse and Bacon so our stories rarely have such exposure. It is a testament of endurance for any struggling artist to present their work to the world in spite of obstacles to their health, sanity or well-being. If accidents of nature have the potential to change lives for better or worse, then arguably, random acts of compassion, even misguided ones, give an artist reasons to move forward and further develop their craft— or actually save their life. 

Saturday, March 15, 2014


"There's a bit of magic in everything and then some loss to even things out."  -Lou Reed

"Time spent laughing is time spent with God."  -Chinese Proverb

"It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live." 
 -J.K. Rowling-  "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone" 

"I can't expect my own art to provide all the answers-- only to hope it keeps asking the right questions."  -Grace Hartigan

"It is usually safe to predict that the fulfilment of an excessively cherished desire is not likely to still our nagging anxiety. In every passionate pursuit, the pursuit counts more than the object pursued."  -Bruce Lee

"You should keep on painting no matter how difficult it is, because this is all part of experience, and the more experience you can have, the better it is-- unless it kills you, and then you know you have gone too far."  -Alice Neel

"I'm not an abstractionist, I'm not interested in the relationship of colour or form or anything else. I'm interested only in expressing basic human emotions: tragedy, ecstasy, doom and so on." -Mark Rothko

"Art evokes the mystery without which the world would not exist."  -Magritte

"I think it's an essential fact for any performer or artist to fail as poignantly as they can succeed." -Nick Cave

"I feel most real to myself in the studio."  -Robert Motherwell

Friday, February 14, 2014

Sex and the Studio

Yes, I have had sex in my studios. But so has every other artist who also lived in their commercial/industrial warehouse spaces. Due to inadequate dry wall partitions, privacy was an issue– and that’s an understatement. However, this article isn’t so much about trysts and assignations that have resulted from, or occurred around the work– sorry! Where these affairs (no pun intended) are concerned, I have the dull reputation of minding my own business. Ironically, the outstanding memory of any such intimacies happened when I lived briefly in a rather scary warehouse on Berkeley Street. The building was dilapidated; some  floors– like mine, darkened because the ceilings were too high for anyone to replace burnt-out light bulbs in the hallway. I was also one of the very few women who lived there alone, in the first studio near the elevator and landing stairs. It was a strange, melancholy feeling when other tenants left for the day and I stayed; a creeping silence taking over as units shut down and emptied. On several weekends, youth gangs arrived for mischief and places to trash. How they knew about our warehouse remains a mystery. I had one disturbing incident when someone kicked at my door while I was inside. I yelled, “Cut it out! ” and heard laughter, then a male voice sneering to his friend: “Ahhhh, let’s go; someone’s freakin’ out.” Afterwards, I found the footprint of a sneaker dirt-stomped on my door. A few days later, the artist next to me, who did not live in his studio, allowed a couple to stay in his space while he went out of town. Quite a number of artists used their lofts to accommodate guests or friends this way. Lovemaking was audible one night. Without thinking, I turned in bed and huddled against the wall. It wasn’t out of prurience; I was still spooked by my gang encounter. The sounds of sex were more about comfort than titillation. I felt less frightened and vulnerable hearing signs of human life close by.
No– what I really want to explore is how much creative and sexual energy are facets of each other, manifestations of the same power, the same force. A colleague once told me the story of her first life drawing sessions in art school. She came from Mindemoya, a small Ontario town, and had never drawn from the nude. To her shock and horror, a male model appeared during the first week of classes. He was also a dancer, able to strike expressive, dynamic poses and gestures. She was so uncomfortable with his nakedness that she began with the head and drew very, very slowly. By the time he moved onto the next pose– too late; she only got as far as the arms and didn’t have to address anything further south. Art overcame modesty though; eventually, she did manage to complete an entire, fully intact rendering of a male nude. No matter how many opportunities artists have to develop their talent and potential, a significant learning experience involves growing beyond a certain comfort level. To that extent, it’s often a sobering moment when a practitioner realizes that their work is limited because it has been primarily created from the neck up. Smart, intellectual, cleverly conceived art, when done well, contains merits that invite, coax a viewer to think and review their perceptions. Yet the process behind such efforts frequently engages all of an artist’s faculties: mind, body and soul. The finished results may favour the intellect or imagination, evoke a visceral, organic, spiritual or otherworldly response. But whether it achieves harmony or discord, the power and energy used to create art, to undertake a spiritual practice, and to engage in erotic, sexual activity comes from the same source. You could say it’s the same energy translated into different languages. Some artists even notice an increase in sexual energy when they are engrossed in their work. And why  not? If paint weren’t so toxic, I’d lick it like pudding or cream. That luscious, shining ooze squeezed out of a tube, those whipped meringue peaks– our materials alone are seductive. Who wouldn’t shiver from the cool, silky trail of a sable brush drawn across the skin, sigh over the fragrance of sap released from carved wood? Sensuous delight often spills into the work itself. This allows many artists who would not otherwise consider themselves at all erotic in their approach to be so in ways they themselves could not have imagined and sometimes continue to be innocent of, especially when shapes and images appear in their work that suggest intimate parts of the body and bodily functions. It can’t be helped; when we are immersed in the creative process, it has the power to tantalize, madden, yet satisfy as deeply as any good lover. During difficult times, it provides room for solace and a place where we can be honest and genuine. In this respect, it moves past the initial thrill of erotic pleasure and passion, towards the realm of love. In fact, sexual energy stimulated by efforts in the studio offers the occasion to evolve naturally into love– love of the work, the process, what it gives back and ultimately how it inspires many of us to give the best of ourselves.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Grace Notes

There’s a character in the TV comedy program “Saturday Night Live” known as “Debbie Downer.” She makes a point of bringing nothing but negative energy into any topic of conversation. A couple reveal their engagement and she mentions the divorce rate. If someone shares travel plans, she talks about crime, terrorism and infectious diseases in that country. Even when folks are enjoying waffles, she interrupts their pleasure by announcing out of the blue: “It’s official; I can’t have children.” Ultimately, everyone leaves the table or room to avoid her company.

This recalls an Artists Studio Tour I once participated in where many guests turned out to be other artists. This cute sculptor dropped in– a neighbour’s brother. Remarks, observations and questions about my paintings were friendly enough and we also talked about his work. Almost every artist-visitor eventually wants to know where you show, if you have a dealer or prospects. I was in mid-series so nothing was scheduled yet. I happened to make a casual joke about the challenge of finding venues... and it was the invitation he’d been waiting for, to open the floodgates. For twenty minutes, I sat pinned to my couch while he stood in front of me, disgorging vitriol, bile and fury over the art world as he knew it: the limited opportunities available, the confusing, mixed messages delivered by galleries about what they wanted and what sells, the frustration of trying to get a break. Any word I managed to mumble was only used to support further invective. He did stop yelling finally and left. But I wanted to hose down the walls, burn sweetgrass– anything to void the studio of his presence and energy. Since then, no one has quite embodied the word “spew” as much as he. “Chad liked you,” my neighbour winked. “He thinks you’re nice.”

In the never ending process of being an artist, it’s common to overlook or miss the blessings large and small we have received or continue to do so, because struggle seems to dominate our attention. What better way to herald in a new cycle than an inventory of this past year’s luck, abundance and gifts? Hardly a secret that a life in the arts is difficult; many of us were warned before we even started about low income, instability, and rampant rejection. It proved more than true for the majority of us. Yet even I can’t complain forever. So here’s a review of what is often taken for granted or ignored because of focus normally spent on what is lacking. Everything cited ultimately facilitates either my ability to make art or the work itself.

Thank God acupuncture treatments relieve arthritis in my fingers– I painted with less stiffness this year. Ditto for the neck, shoulders and back. In spite of low income, I live downtown in a beautiful area: close to waterfront, parks and gardens. These places calm and restore energy after a depleting week at my job. Even though I’ve never won significant grants from any arts council or endowment agency, my rent has been subsidized for the past 20 years through co-op housing– amounts equal to many of those other cash awards that include an allowable expense for subsistence. Without gallery, dealer, or representation– I still managed to unexpectedly, sell work and get poetry published at the same time. All this during an ice storm. Hallelujah, the cat no longer stalks or ambushes my feet whenever I paint. So grateful, that while sadness will always be part of the human condition, depression visits less often and I know the difference. Fortunate am I, to have people I can share good news and accomplishments with–who will be genuinely happy for me no matter how minor the achievement– which is all I really want from them. Glad to learn that I’m not a complete snob, can find inspiration anywhere, in sources as disparate as reality TV and Shakespeare. Hate to admit it, but career disappointments, failures and obstacles produced articles others related to the most. And while it annoys me that I had to endure these experiences in order to write about them, I must accept how much fun it is to tell the stories.

Happy Art-making New Year to everyone!

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Black Outline

While surfing the internet for information on an artist whose work I happened upon and liked, a glowing review of one show described her paintings as “unabashedly narrative.” Oh hello. The phrase made me pause; piqued curiosity. It sounded like a back-handed compliment– as if narrative qualities contained dubious merit, but because the work was so stunning, this minor infraction could be overlooked. Of course, this comment may’ve simply acknowledged the vigor and unrestrained engagement demonstrated by the artist in her work. But then why or when would anyone feel apologetic, embarrassed or otherwise “abashed” just because their approach is narrative? Is the expression used more often with certain types of work than others? Was this merely a case of one individual revealing her unconscious bias and values? Do unspoken rules, rule our attitude and how we respond towards different kinds of art?

Most artists learn about rules during some kind of formal training. Usually, they refer to fundamentals involving materials, techniques or art theory. It’s how we gain basic skills. Many of us for example, were taught that the average human figure measures seven heads down a sheet of paper. I recall how earnestly and methodically I counted spaces from top to bottom with thumb + forefinger, adjusting the original size when necessary. Position elements off-centre to avoid visual stasis or inertia. Don’t place complementary colours of equal intensity next to each other unless you want an eyesore. And of course, it’s a no-no to enclose images in thick, black outlines. This faux-pas was first committed by yours truly in art college when I realized just how fast I could finish life drawings this way. As God is my witness, I honestly believed I discovered a breakthrough. Fortunately, my drawing instructor explained without rebuke or derision, why this was not in my best interest developmentally as an artist: instead of learning to see and express the human figure, I’d proceed no further than this facile solution.

The best thing arguably, about rules is not only the foundation they provide for future reference, but also the ability to know when to break them. But what about hidden laws that we have somehow internalized, taken for granted as part of the art-making and art-viewing experience? When does rule-breaking or rule-keeping become an asset or liability for the artist? It’s often a challenge to distinguish between a rule worth keeping, a subjective partiality that’s more about personal preference, and a belief/habit that was somehow acquired but never examined. To illustrate, there’s still a tendency in the art world to regard work that primarily depicts flowers or sunsets as redundant, easy art. It’s also hard to ignore the principle of practicing so many hours a day at one’s craft. The mentality persists– that it’s somehow noble to be a poverty-stricken, albeit dedicated artist. It’s true; some creations demand more labour than others but that doesn’t necessarily make them better art. In fact, artists like Georgia O’keeffe, Paul Klee and others have painted flowers, sunsets and drawn thick black lines around their images– despite the prevailing response these subjects provoked. The difference was, they did so in fresh, new ways never before seen. Strict adherence to established hours does offer improvement if resources and energies are used wisely. But it can also impede growth and progress if nothing is ever accomplished except repeated mistakes and rote effort. And penniless but committed artist? As someone who has lived through it– there is absolutely nothing exalted about being poor; show me the food any day.

A video of artist Ai Wei Wei films him repeatedly dropping a vase made in the Han dynasty. I’m thrilled that a contemporary Asian artist has achieved international acclaim, garnered such a high profile. Part of his success– and troubles, is due to an emphasis on “breaking” with the past in order to move forward. I get it. His severance involves shattering an actual representation of China’s traditional aesthetics. I admire Wei Wei’s ideas, themes and concepts, the magnitude of his talent. But in this case, all I could think of was that he had destroyed someone else’s work. Would the statement behind the gesture have less “impact” if he’d used a fake vase? I certainly wouldn’t have flinched as much. Rule-breaking then, opens ups an age-old dilemma: how far is too far and does the end justify the means?

Most artists choose the kind of work they truly want to do, what connects with passion and purpose. Many will determine which “rules” to retain, those that no longer serve, and what prompts further investigation. Rule breakers find the art of rule keepers too safe– there’s nothing original or exciting; it’s been done before. Rule keepers note that what was once ground-breaking and revolutionary eventually goes mainstream. Also, novelty doesn’t always last; it risks becoming flavour of the month. When depth or warmth is lacking as well, it’s difficult to relate to intellectual obscurity. I don’t believe one is better than the other; what matters is what artists do with their talent. There’s enough room for rule breakers and rule keepers to co-exist on this planet and be valued for what each has to offer. Both have delivered exceptional art as well as hot messes. Both have the power to inspire and influence artists at any stage. Major movements in art history have been created predominantly by artists who introduced bold ideas and methods in contrast to the reigning or acceptable art at the time. I’m awestruck and rather intimidated by artists who take chances and produce phenomenal results– rule-breaking pioneers so to speak. But of the two, I’m more of a rule-keeping artist. Despite being captivated by superb, unconventional work that pushes boundaries and challenges the viewer, I still love formal art that contains images, good drawing, skillful use of design and colour. And I have a particular fondness for narratives.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Picture Perfect

Many years ago, in tai chi class, I ran into a model we use to draw and paint in art school. She was a slender, lithe girl who posed and moved with the grace of a dancer. I mentioned Sheridan College to her. “Those were the good old days,” she beamed. Subsequently, whenever I saw her again at the club, we exchanged friendly, casual greetings. In one lesson, we were taught how to refine a move. The instructor gave us individual suggestions on how to improve stance, posture and balance. The comments I received were very helpful and cleaned up my mistakes nicely. The former model struggled with her corrections. She paused to catch her breath and discuss with some of the other students, the challenges of revising bad habits. “Unlike Miss Perfect here,” she snapped, referring to me. “Everything she does is perfect!” Although startled and miffed, I said nothing; figured it was uttered in a burst of frustration. But that didn’t stop me from wanting her pants to split and make rude noises, especially during this section where we all had to stand with our feet wide apart, bend one knee, then stick out our bum to stretch the other leg.

Although the ex-model’s remarks concerned a different activity, I did notice the poetic irony of being dissed by someone who was once subject matter in works of art. Imagine a drawn or painted figure who climbs out of a picture to bitch-slap the artist, then steps back inside the frame to resume their pose. Perfectionism haunts some artists more than others, especially those who try to distinguish it from the worthy pursuit of excellence. Certainly, it is possible to demand the best of oneself and produce exceptional results. Many artists have standards for the accomplishment of their own work. Most also know when to relax these in the short-term, to facilitate research and exploration– or to leave them altogether when premature value judgements inhibit expression or advancement. Knowing when to pull back, when to come forward with criteria in service to progress or development is an art in itself. When good days bless the studio, it’s easier to mitigate goals for achievement because the artist is usually enjoying themselves too much in the moment to care. Indeed, the delight many of us experience while engaged in the creative process often generates a more satisfying outcome than conscious, laboured effort. But making art isn’t always about the light-filled studio or raptures of creative energy. For many, the majority of time involves building upon layers of multiple attempts, decisions and then revisions, false starts, restarts and courses of elimination. Like most areas of life– once you begin to care about something, angels and demons both take notice.

I’m constantly fascinated by how artists treat themselves and regard their own work in comparison to how they respond in kind to peers. Subjective preference is of course, a given, but I know artists who set high standards for themselves and expect nothing less from others. I’ve also met those who are equally self–disciplined– display far more generosity of spirit towards others and the art they make– than they have ever shown themselves. Then there are artists who nitpick, who ruthlessly address faults in other people’s work, yet overrate their own products and/or excuse whatever shortcomings they possess. I have encountered talented artists as well, who are dissatisfied with everything, themselves included, and struggle to create even a modest output. Has perfectionism impacted such cases? I’m not sure. Most artists I know work hard at their craft even those whose finished pieces appear effortless. Perfectionism is inevitably, a form of self-sabotage. If an artist genuinely senses their potential and refuses to rest on past laurels, that’s one way to continue further learning and growth. The attitude: “I can do better” lures them to fulfill this prophecy. But if we persistently undermine what we do, deem it never good enough even when those we esteem and respect in our field disagree, there’s a danger of sterilizing, of defeating what it is we truly have to give in our work. It’s natural and understandable to covet outstanding qualities we admire in the art of others. Superb work has the power to inspire and motivate us in this manner. The problem arises when we have yet to reach desired heights or believe them unattainable and fail to appreciate our less-than-perfect contributions. Occasionally, artists do assess correctly, the level of their talent in relation to the virtuosity exhibited by another artist. However, even brilliance isn’t always what is needed all of the time in this world. Honest but flawed work– for example, with clumsy perspective, disproportionate anatomy etc.– has been known to evoke just as deep a connection and resonance as a masterpiece, sometimes completed by the same artist. We never really know if what we do will ever make a difference. But if the little demon of perfectionism runs out of control with its maddening need for that very control– we limit opportunities to share our work with the world and to realize the difference it could make in ways we may never have imagined– not as grand as we had perhaps hoped, but no less rewarding.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Museless (Bad Art Days)

During the painting process, there are times when I know the work has “turned.” It can be as little as 2 sq. inches any place on the canvas where one area or element– a bantam jeep, fieldmouse or groundcover– has been executed to my satisfaction. The initial accomplishment encourages, sustains continued effort, regardless of whether or not decisions later on, change or completely replace that section. This modus operandi serves the kind of art I do. When such moments click into recognition– ladies and gents, we are on our way! Sometimes though, ages pass before they occur. Once in a while, the rest of the work just doesn’t follow or else parts of the canvas have “turned” but the whole painting lacks cohesion. We all have bad art days. Some last longer than others. Some of them stretch into months. As an artist, nothing kills me more than to have a block of time to myself in order to work, yet at the end of it, be no further along than when I started. I still throw tantrums whenever a painting refuses to “turn.” Had one on the floor once; my cat ran over to investigate. Within seconds, she was bored and jumped over my person like some roller derby queen, to get on with other business she obviously found more compelling than artist angst.

What’s astonishing about bad art days is how easily panic colours everything. The big fear is the equivalent of “will spring ever come?” A North American temperate climate zone pretty much cycles 4 seasons per year. Egregious winters however, with frequent snowstorms, bone-chill, and hazardous ice conditions, dulls the general mood, as well as the available sunlight. Small comfort that reprieve arrives in 3 months. The energy required to cope with the elements dominates attention now. When repeated attempts to produce art yields poor results, I forget past achievements, work sold, my exhibition history etc. In fact, joy and vitality normally experienced in the creative process, disppears. Art becomes difficult enterprise, a combative, even tedious affair. It also really, really pisses me off. I wonder whether I’ve peaked, question my capabilities and was this the right road 40 years ago when Liam Cahill wanted to get married but I chose art instead? During a recent episode, confidence plunged to such a low, I got frantic and typed “how to paint landscape backgrounds” into a computer search engine just in case it would help. The good thing about that was the wealth of information. Downside? Most of it I already tried but the painting still didn’t turn. After a tract of what seems like interminable bad art days, the mind begins to associate all kinds of things with that one frustration. Television adverts about clogged sinks, tough stains and lonely sandwiches pining for the right potato chip to join their meals– resonate with a familiar discomfort.

Some artists do express far more equilibrium and composure throughout their career than others. What’s remarkable (and enviable) is the ability to regard all art days as nothing more or less than what they signed up for– without giving undue importance to either success or failure. At first I suspected they were lying or in denial because of youth, personal circumstances or level of commitment. Then I thought they were closet monks. Yet it’s hard to ignore how much simpler it would be to move on, get over one day at a time, if this approach could be cultivated. Often, having other things going on in our lives provides enough hiatus away from the work to recharge our efforts when we return. Unfortunately, it also has the potential for adverse effect in that not only does the anxiety and dissatisfaction of leaving off on a bad art day spill into other areas, it divides attention from focus needed somewhere else.

I once took adult swim lessons at a community centre. The twenty-something girl who taught us– a mix of seniors, New Canadians and folks of colour, barked “RELAX!'’ as we flailed through one pool width. The word, repeated in such strident tones, induced far more agitation than calm. I still have fond memories of how we all resembled escaped cons, thrashing across a stream, chased by the voice of a hound. Hints to some artists that the best way to deal with a run of bad art days is to leave the work alone or start a fresh piece– backfires in similar fashion, even if it’s a good suggestion. Not all artists are obsessive, but I just want to get in there and fix everything; end these self-doubts already. If stagnation persists in the studio, there’s a second chance of finding creative juices some place else in our lives, that could use some love. It waits for us in neglected relationships, beckons towards spiritual development, demands beauty in the home, or wants to be expressed in a different outlet such as jazz, poetry or belly-dancing. Work that refuses to progress in spite of stellar attempts, hammers at an artist’s spirit. Sometimes the loneliness encountered from such discouragement raises a tenderness towards struggling things: the pigeon who sat her one egg during torrential rains but it still didn’t hatch, an elderly woman startled by a cyclist, irises emerging in January, confused by a mild winter. We know how tough art-making is, how it reveals our limitations. Artists who have known critical and commercial success are no less spared than those who labour in anonymity:

“The art stuff is hard. Painting is not at all pleasant. It’s very, very hard work and it’s frustrating and it really grinds you down. It is not easy because you show yourself so often how bad you are and how little you know.” -Tom Uttech-

Ironically, if we can refrain from taking it out on others or the innocent, that very vulnerability has the power to engender enough compassion for ourselves, to persevere anew. One consideration involves lowering our standards gently enough to invite us back into the process with play, instead of pressure.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

More Things Change

Despite the ubiquitous presence of computers at my library workplace, I still use an IBM typewriter occasionally in my department. It’s a brute of a machine: cumbersome, heavy, full of tempermental, sticky keys. But I enjoy wheeling it out like some museum relic on its metal tray table, for shelf labels that cannot be created by another means. The archaic sound of striking keys and ringing page returns is so rare, other staff come over to investigate and become nostalgic, like they just saw an old, persnickety friend. I think of other things that have or will be “phased out” in my lifetime. The rotary dial succeeded by touch tone. Diminished postal service due to email, fax and Skype. Inaccurate, wall mounted clocks discontinued because time is displayed on enough alternatives like computers, cell phones and wrist watches. And for those of us who work with books, the accelerated switch from hard copy to online, electronic versions. In fact, online everything from banking to social media.

Major changes have also occurred for artists, especially in the way work is now promoted and accessible. The shift from slide submissions to digital images. Postcard announcements reduced by e-vites. The rise of artists’ websites. And while we have always organized into groups and collectives for exhibition opportunities when traditional venues are limited or unavailable– I wonder about the future of the gallery as an institution because of what is currently happening to the book. Other than art supplies which are substantial to begin with– the computer, digital camera and website became the three “new” items I had to invest in the most. I acquired all of these together about 5 years ago. The patient Dell support technician who assisted me with laptop setup over the phone, suggested at the end of our exhausting session, that I read “Computers for Dummies”. (Fortunately, I knew that was an actual book title and not an ungracious comment). As for the camera, it took months to discover everything that was inside it and how to use what I needed. What’s your beside reading these days? friends asked. My reply: “The Nikon D-40 User’s Manual.” I still quiver every time work needs to be filmed or images burned onto a CD because, well, I’ve kinda destroyed or sent out blank discs, unsafely pulled out a USB stick, neglected to turn off the camera once and forget every time where I’m suppose to diddle with exposure compensation formerly known as bracketing. And just when things finally get sorted out, improvements and updates arrive to unsettle what seems only recently learned. The computer is established in most peoples’ lives, artists included. Its omnipresence increases daily whether the art we do is nature or figure based, abstract, textile or photographic etc. For some, it is an integral, vital part of their practice, responsible for functions like preparatory design or genuine work such as vector graphics. The potential to overwhelm, intimidate is always an issue for those with limited tech skills, especially when changes occur that do require attention if we want to continue professionally in our field. Of course this could all be resolved by hiring others to document the work and manage our websites. Classes are available; the internet itself contains resource guides on programs and equipment.

The digital camera and photo editing software eliminated the need to pay someone else for filming and film costs. The entire process of documenting work is now free. No need also, to amass a number of paintings before arranging photo sessions; work is filmed anytime, at leisure. Submission procedures are easier and cheaper as well, due to both email entries and the price of CD’s and postage compared to slide packages in the past. Unlike slides, one image can be reproduced or replaced promptly should damage or loss occur. Gallery websites enable artists to assess more clearly than before, whether a venue is appropriate for their work, if it welcomes unsolicited submissions, and if so– submission details. All this available information saves time and the anxiety of contact by phone or in person. Galleries themselves are better able to determine their interest in an artist also by accessing samples of their work online. Artists who have their own websites enjoy opportunities of exposure to their work– even while they sleep! And by doing little other than leaving their site up. This provides more self-sufficiency for artists without galleries or dealers, and for those who wish to rely less on them. Already, some question the future need of a middlemen, the dealer or agent– when technology now allows artists greater independence.

So far, the changes mentioned mostly concern art business– that process which facilitates the entry of work into the world. Although I have perused whole exhibitions online, I am relieved that art still needs to be seen in person in order to be fully appreciated; few buyers or afficionados would part with cash until they did so. Digital images can look spectacular, but the final verdict lies in that personal meeting when the eye truly beholds the real thing. In that respect, hopefully we will always need places to display actual work. Galleries as we know them, may undergo transitions, uniting to become commercial collectives perhaps– shared tenants of one space to lower costs. If we consider the book, there remains the intimacy of holding one in the hands, the smell of ink and paper, the rustle of pages– tactile, sensory pleasures the convenience of electronic or online options lack. Art-oriented software does exists. It imitates traditional techniques and media: oil, pastel, watercolor, ink, drawing, painting and others. What does that bode for artists? Will hand and eye coordination eventually become obsolete for creating art in the future? Or will it be equally valid and (more?) effective– just in context with different tools? I don’t know. Already, cursive handwriting in some schools is reportedly on the decline; students are too habituated by the keyboard. There are many ways to be an artist but it’s poignant to think of reactions to a book or handcrafted painting in the same way my co-workers responded to the typewriter.