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October 2008

Don't Run For Cover

"Every time we choose safety, we reinforce fear."  -
Cheri Huber, Zen teacher

I remember the Duck and Cover drills from Elementary School.  The alarm would sound, we would drop our pencils and dive to the floor.  Never mind that the small desk surface would be inadequate protection in the event of an earthquake.  The pretense of safety was more important: how else to create a sense of control over something beyond our control?

I feel a little like ducking and covering now when I look at the changes occurring - not just with the housing meltdown, or the stock market, but in the pulling back and reassessing of the social attitudes that have prevailed over the past quarter century.  What will be different?  How will I function?   Is there still an audience for my art?

These are fear-based questions, of course.  Sneaky things that disguise themselves in the cloak of realistic concerns.  And while I, as an artist, should pay attention to the intellectual importance of these unknowns, I can't allow the emotional  uncertainty to get too strong of a foothold. 

So what do I do?

"To exist is to change, to change is to mature, to mature is to go on creating oneself endlessly" - Henri Bergson, French Philosopher

Many of the discussions we've had through this blog have had, at their core, unanswered questions about the meaning or purpose of art. 

What is art?  I remember the first time I read "Has Modernism Failed" by Suzi Gablick; I felt her indictment of Modern Art as a slave at the service of it's corporate masters was taking away my opportunity  to succeed.  I also remember asking one of my art professors about another book I owned, "What is Art? The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand."  I remember the look on that professor's face.  Again, I was courting heresy and consigned the dangerous book to the back of the shelf.  DSC03200

 I even painted "The Argument Between Aesthetics and Philosophy,"  to prove my Modernist mettle.  Sure, heavily influenced by Philip Guston, but as I recall, that was part of the assignment. 

My point is this: I can't form my own personal philosophy of what art is unless I read about what others say - even if it goes against what I believe to be true.  And what I have discovered  is that nothing is completely accurate or inaccurate.

 For example, I agree with Ayn Rand's concept that art is a fundamental spiritual need in humans and that one purpose of art for (wo)man is to fulfill "a more profound need: confirmation of his view of existence - a confirmation, not in the sense of resolving cognitive doubts, but in a sense of permitting him to contemplate his abstractions outside his own mind, in the form of existential concretes." (p. 50)

However, I also see her concept that for the artist, art creation is a way of translating metaphysical abstracts into concrete imagery to be the core value beneath Modernism and Post-Modernism. 

And both of these positions I found reinforced by the writings of Annie Dillard.  And debunked by Tolstoy. With a new twist from Kandinsky.

So it goes.  This is maturing, perhaps, trying to find an answer that resonates with my own "sense of life", as Rand would put it. 

So while I watch what is occurring in the external world, putting one foot ahead of the other in pursuit of my art career, I am also doing the important internal work.  Because I realize that, for me to have the necessary conviction to succeed, I must clearly establish my core beliefs -- beliefs that will sustain me and point me in the right direction over the coming years.

Here are some of the areas I am concentrating on:

  • I am pushing myself to higher levels of craft and technical skill.  I believe that future trends in consumer preferences will be for art that transcends mimicry and displays not only conceptual ideas but visual "beauty" no matter what the subject matter.  Looking back -- at what Milton Resnick stated about painting being about "what paint can do", and further, to the recognized Masters of the past, Vermeer, Titian, seeking knowledge about how emotion and "sense of life" were communicated.  Then looking forward,  because I believe art grows from the past, reacts to the present, and helps to illuminate the future.

  • I am looking for and clarifying my own philosophy about what art is and how it influences my work.  I am reading Rand, and re-reading Gablik, then Kandinsky, because I have the books.  But I will also be searching for other points of view.  I believe there's a "hierarchy of needs" for the artist, building one upon the other: securing the space and tools to do your work, discovering your voice, developing the skill set necessary to effectively communicate, and clarifying the philosophy that underlies the purpose of what you do.  

Why do I think this is important?

Because, while there are books available to help you work through the blockages and fears related to the creation of art, I've not found one that specifically addressed the idea of artists developing their own personal philosophy of what art is.   Not only the purpose of art making in their own practice, but understanding the various philosophies of the "Art World" and the "Non-Art World".   How many times have I felt blocked because I was torn between competing motives?  And I'm not talking about the first or second level down in my thinking: wanting to communicate an experience of something, or creating purely decorative pieces with no significant message. I realized that I had vague senses of what were my "core beliefs," and that I needed to pull them into the light of day to be examined, articulated, and placed where I can easily access them during periods of doubt.

And you? 

Perhaps you discovered this insight years ago.  We're all walking along similar paths and I hope those in front of me will contribute to the discussion.  Those behind can reach forward with insights, too.  We are all learning and supporting one another as artists have always done.  Coming together in their cafe societies, ateliers, and now here in cyberspace.

Who would have thought this possible? 

The American Studio Craft Movement

In the previous post I talked about the lecture given at Pacific Northwest College of Art that discussed the idea that "Craft commits suicide: art envy arrested on suspicion."  Having realized that I may have misrepresented the intent of the speaker by presenting information out of context, I want to clarify some aspects of the American Studio Craft Movement and what was, most likely, the message in the lecture.

The Craft movement refers to ceramicists who not only do the conceptual and design work, but produce the object as well.  Robert Arneson is recognized as one of the leading figures. The Metropolitan Museum of Art offers that interesting podcast about Arneson's sculpture, Mother Durer, which is worth the 8 minutes if you would like to discover more.


Advice to the Advice Junkie

I have been stumped.


Everywhere I look (or read) there are blogs handing out advice.  Go left.  No, go right.  Do what you love but don't expect to make money at it. There is no craft in art but there's art in craft and sometimes there's art without's enough to send me back for that third cup of coffee and a peanut butter cookie.

So I've decided that it's time for an intervention. 

I  can no longer allow (fill in the blank, here) to influence how I think about my "art career."

I mean, if I listened to wise people like this, I would be packing up my French easel and heading for home. He means well.  In fact, there's a little gem of goodness and optimism at the end of the post.  He's...young.  Or younger.  They have a different perspective about time.

Or...I could be obsessing about the opinions expressed by a knowledgeable insider like this gallerist. He continues that on-going argument about the relationship of craft and art.  True, I did not attend the lecture.  300 miles distant and no advance warning, but then, judging from the lecture title "Craft commits suicide; art envy arrested on suspicion" I probably wouldn't have been interested, either.  The suggestion of pointlessness from the "Has Modernism Failed" crowd doesn't offer me a useful perspective or help me articulate the small place "my art" might hold within the gigantic "purpose of art" realm. 

Whew!  So tell us how you really feel...

My point is this:  information is valuable as a tool; it is not valuable as a judgment.

It's kind of like my tomato plant.  This past Spring I got all domestic and bought a beefsteak tomato plant and put it in a large patio pot.  I watered it, made sure it got plenty of sunshine.  I  was full of optimism as the little yellow flowers began to appear. 

About mid summer, little green tomatoes.  I could just begin to see the fruition of everything I knew. 

And slowly ...very slowly...the tomatoes grew. 

Until, by the end of summer, it became obvious that...uh...we were going to run out of that darn hot weather before the tomatoes could grow fat and ripen. 

I did my best.  I even brought some of those hard green babies inside and put them in a bowl on my counter to see if they would ripen.  They began to turn red all right, at the same time they shriveled up and became more like tomato/prunes.  Would that be like Tasins?

So, if I listened to Seth, I might conclude that while I love tomatoes, I sucked at growing them and so should look for another line of work. 

Likewise, listening to Garth might have convinced me that there was no craft in my efforts and that was why the end result was not art...or did he mean the was really hard to figure out his point, or rather, it was hard for the writer of that blog post to articulate the point.

I just wanted to grow tomatoes.  I didn't mind that my efforts did not work out the way I expected.  It helped me discover that I'd have to find another way to my goal. 

For most artists, the act of creation serves multiple purposes.  The visible result -- the finished piece of art -- is then put out into the world to meet it's audience for good or bad.  The audience sees a concrete object.  It is successful or unsuccessful, judged by what that object is able to communicate to the audience.  Craft, or skill, which is developed over time, is the language used to communicate.  But the object -- to the artist -- is but one part of a long, on-going conversation.  People come into the room and perhaps join in, or leave without saying anything.  But the artist continues talking.  Because he must. 

The value in that cannot be measured by how many people leave the room or talk about how pointless their visit to the room seemed to them, or whether they thought there was sufficient art in the craft or craft in the art to hold their attention or even understood the language.  

Because the conversation really isn't about them.

It is about you.  Your inner world.  Your perceptions, experiences, and what you want to share with the rest of the world.  And share with those who stay in the room and join in. That is where the magic resides.

I recently had an email request to share a bit more of my work.  So...thanks, Deb.  Enjoy.


Breathing Spaces @ Sue Favinger Smith 2008 Oil on Paper 16 x 16

This is one of the newer pieces in the Elements Series.  In this series, process and knowing how the various mediums will react, is the foundation of the work.  The inspiration, always, comes from the places we inhabit, moving outward to the far reaches of the universe, then inward to the rich world of imagination. It is a conversation about the interconnectedness of things, of forces, or human consciousness.  How can we be separate from our environment?  How can our environment not contain within it traces of everything past and everything about to become? 

Good2 Sparks Lake @ Sue Smith 2008
oil on canvas, 16 x 20

Sparks Lake is part of the "When Space Could Breathe" series of landscapes, and is another part of the conversation started through the Elements.

According to the tourist brochure, "Sparks Lake is an excellent example of a lake slowly changing from a lake to marsh, to meadow or forest, depending on the final acts of erosion, fire, or use by people."  In selecting the composition for my painting, I was looking toward the deeper end of the lake, wondering how this area must have looked to the indigenous peoples who once fished and hunted these heavily forested slopes...

If I were to turn around from this vantage point and look over my shoulder, the composition would have featured a wide, shallow, spreading lake with exposed rocks, downed trees, gradually turning to the grassy marsh where the campgrounds reside. I can see kayaks, and people splashing with their dogs around the perimeter, twenty yards out from the shore and still only knee deep.  Cars parked haphazardly along the dirt and rock access road.

I think it's easier to feel the energy in this environment looking toward the deep end of the lake.  With my back to civilization.

For those who wonder,  I use Sue Favinger Smith when I promote the Elements, and Sue Smith when I promote the landscapes.

What's your Story?

What's your story?  No, not your personal one, although that's important to your art career.  I'm talking about the story behind your current body of work.

Oh...don't have one? 

Well, maybe you do but it's sort of vague and all over the place, and not particularly unique...actually, you haven't really thought about needing a story behind what you're doing, because the work speaks for you, or you just paint what inspires you, or you like to photograph old buildings in a particular light. And besides, you already have a story in your artist statement, and that should be enough.

There are two critical "stories" that play a role in your art career.  One is the story about you, why you are an artist,  some sense of what you're about.  This is called the Artist Statement.  And there are plenty of resources out there to help you craft a defining story. 

The other story defines your current body of work. It's the hook that intrigues the person reading your cover letter or your proposal.

It changes with each body of work.

It is your marketing approach, the heading on your postcards, the blog entry, the subject in your newsletter.

Here is an example of what Karina Skvirsky, assistant Professor of Art at Lafayette College is doing -- currently working on a photography project called "North East South" which "focuses on locations of lynchings."

That got your attention, didn't it?  What gallery director or museum curator isn't going to stop long enough to look at the work?  Or what potential client wouldn't give in to their curiosity and visit your studio to see it?'re not sure how to write an exciting story?  Learn from the writers who promo new movies, books or television shows. 

But... your work is so diverse you can't link it all together?  Pick one strong painting, write a story and paint several more that work with your theme. 

Have several "stories" going at the same time. 

See what plots develop.

Then throw in a good twist at the ending.

When Space Could Breathe is a landscape series that focuses on those places in the Oregon Outback that were once populated by lost civilizations, solitary trappers, robbers and rustlers...


This week, my job all but disappeared.   But in the same time period three positive events happened. 

First, I was surprised and honored to receive a request for an interview from Liz Massey for her wonderful blog, Creative Liberty.  Her focus is on helping creatives eliminate some of the fears and myths that might prevent them from finding true Creative Liberty.  You can read In The Studio With...Sue Smith here, then please scroll on down and read about Glennie. Then listen to the still haunts me it's so beautiful.  This is a blog you will probably go back to again and again.

Next, I was reading  the new A.C.T. Newsletter and discovered a new teleclass that Aletta is offering with A.C.T. Art Business Mentor, Margaret Danielak, called It's Not Your Mother's Art World: Sales Strategies for the Mature Artist.  I've signed up for it, I encourage you to check it out and see if it works as part of your equity stake in your own career.

Lastly, I am pleased to share that I am included as a Guest Artist in the "Bounty" show at High Desert Gallery in Sisters, Oregon.  IMG000313

This is an image of Myrna Dow, gallery director and owner, as she is hanging the show.  "Bounty" is a statewide event where Oregonians come together to share the Bounty in their lives.   I am impressed with  High Desert Gallery's marketing savvy: besides asking each  artist to provide new original artwork,we were asked for a written artist's statement relating our work to the larger theme of "Bounty". By involving the artistic output with written commentary, the viewers enjoy a richer experience, while the exhibition and opening reception were timed to work with the broader statewide event, capitalizing on the publicity that was already being generated.

Good galleries will hang your work, give you a reception or post your images in their websites.  Really great galleries recognize that the business relationships with their artists should not be passive but partnerships that generate synergy and benefit everyone.  High Desert Gallery has always held this philosophy and it shows.

Please visit their website here for more of the fantastic images and artist statements that were produced by artists like Cristina Acosta, Paul Alan Bennett, Kathy Deggendorfer, Kimry Jelen, Trisha Hassler and others.  My image and statement are on page 2 (they post nearly every day), so to find it, scroll to the bottom of the page, click on the >> >> arrows and it should take you to page 2. 

The important thing is this: When -- out of fear -- we hide by squeezing our eyes shut, we have no chance of seeing what exists in plain sight.  Focus on what is going right in this moment.  And take your passion out to dance.