Yesterday, I was being curious again about one of my little habits — a habit that some artists might relate to. I like to start a painting off in a mess and then try to harness and control the thing. It’s appealing to me to make something unruly into something ordered. Please don’t mention this to anyone — right now I’m compulsive about it.
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The way I look at it, a work of art requires the presence of two spirits. The first is the spirit of the subject matter — the object or thing that the work is based on — Nature’s spirit. The second is the spirit or interpretation the artist brings to the object — the unique style or manner that only the individual artist can give. Subject matter alone — the slavish copying of nature — does not make art. But art also falls short, in my opinion, when it doesn’t lean to some degree on the stimuli of place or subject.
While staying as the house guest of an artist friend and her daughter, I dwelled briefly in the onslaught of raising a human. “It’s like throwing a party all day, every day, for the rest of your life,” a mother-friend once told me when describing parenting. On top of her all-day celebrations, this particular six-year-old seemed to team with the insatiable creative mania of, well, a six-year-old, bolting between rainbow looms, songwriting, playwriting, sign painting and imaginary worlds. I watched her help herself to physical space — in the house, in the garden — and re-purpose the bed sheets, stuffies, food, furniture and my laptop.
You may have noticed the odd times when something is irking you, putting you into a bad mood, and you sit down at your easel and do good work. While it’s not as pleasant as when you’re in a good mood and everything is coming up peonies, it works to your benefit in another way. In my experience, a bad mood helps the attention span and the critical faculties — not necessarily to be more creative, but with a wider vision and a sharper focus.
A wonderful email appeared in my inbox recently, suspiciously arriving six times and from six different people. Here’s one of them:
My name is George Barbara from California. I actually observed my wife has been viewing your website on my laptop and i guess she likes your piece of work. I’m also impressed and amazed to have seen your various works too, You are doing a great job. I would like to purchase one of your paintings “watermark, 60 x 60 inches, oil on canvas, 2014”, as a surprise to my wife on our anniversary.
There are all kinds of envy — including the kind that Freud thought he detected. The kind I’m talking about is called professional jealousy. Some artists have it bad. Salieri had it for Mozart. Who wouldn’t? It’s supposed to be one of the main sins. I’ve had lots of confessional letters from artists. They’re jealous of the success and talent of others. It happens everywhere — at art schools, with the artist next door, even sharing the same studio. One woman wrote to say that the envy she felt for her friend’s paper tole drove her to stop working in the medium.
A few blocks north of the Washington Square Arch in New York’s Greenwich Village stands the last surviving brownstone on lower Fifth Avenue, at Number 47. Built in 1853 as the residence of the first president of the Pennsylvania Coal Company, the house changed hands a few times after his death and then fell into disrepair. Eventually, it became a boarding house. In 1917, the members of a flourishing art club, having outgrown their nearby 12th Street rental, bought the house for $75,000 with a plan to pay off the mortgage with painting sales. They did it in just five years.
Some time ago, I wrote to you about Canadian artist Claire Sower, who’d recently signed with Agora Gallery in New York. For those unfamiliar, Agora is known for soliciting artists online — if you have a website, you may have received one of their emails. For a substantial fee, artists are given an 18-month contract for representation, a promotion package and, if accepted, the opportunity to exhibit at Agora’s polished, two-level gallery in New York. Though initially wary of a business model that profits from artist registration rather than sales, after some encouragement from a supportive gallerist friend, Claire decided to go for it.
Although some artists may put me down for this, I’m pretty sure that the production of art has to do with a sense of well-being. I’ve found that art is at its best when the art more or less takes over your life. It’s great if you happen to be a fan. Other specifics contribute as well, like the ability to access both sides of your brain. I call this “bicameral wobbling.” Sometimes “BW” is automatic, at other times you have to put a cattle-prod in your ear.
“There is no agony,” said Maya Angelou, “like bearing an untold story inside of you.” Coaxing the physical shape of this story into art can be painful. As a solo act, it’s all on you. Arriving at this minor miracle, day after day, invites a special kind of struggle, though we understand, as artists, that ours is a privileged suffering. Bestowed upon us by ocean-deep urges and childhood sparks, the process could at times be described as what Wassily Kandinsky called “a painful duty.” Perhaps we’re also simply propelled by the fantasy of an independent life, and it makes sense…