When I was a boy my dad owned a sign shop. There were four employees: Nort, Mort, Phil and Bert. Each had their specialty — show cards, banners, silkscreen, illustration. It seems my dad was always walking around and asking, “Do you have something to get on with?” Dad lived in fear that one or the other would run out of something to do.
Not so long ago, I moved to New York to paint the paintings I had always longed to paint, with the dream of showing them in a place where they needed no explanation. I found a small loft behind Canal Street, between the fish market and the counterfeit handbags, and began filling my new-old studio with the largest paintings I could muster. There was no purpose or goal to it other than to see if it could be done.
My daughter, Sara, and I are again up to Lake O’Hara and Yoho National Park in British Columbia. Today, in the champagne air of a place known as “The Hanging Gardens of Babylon,” both of us are struggling with extra-large canvases. We’ve come this high with a little help from our friends, and we’re talking about “strong and wrong.” It’s a term currently used by some of Sara’s New York musician friends. Apparently it’s better to blow a strong note off key than to produce a wimpy one that doesn’t get noticed.
“Your doubt can become a good quality if you train it,” wrote Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke to 19-year-old Franz Kappus, an officer cadet at the Military Academy of Vienna who, disenchanted with military life, began sending his poems to Rilke for critique. For seven years, Rilke replied with letters about love, loneliness, truth seeking, suffering and feeling and engaging with art and the world. When tackling doubt, he suggested that Kappus could transform it into a productive creative tool. “It must become knowing, it must become criticism.” Here are a few ideas:
When I was a kid my folks took me on a road trip. As we approached the town of Hope, B.C., we saw, crawling up the shoulder of a steep hill, an ancient Model T Ford. A skinny, mustachioed man wearing a fedora was sitting up tall behind the wheel. Below him, a sign on the side of the old car read “Toronto or Bust.” Toronto was 5500 miles away. As we flew by in our ’47 Chev Fleetline I distinctly remember my dad turning to me, winking, and saying, “No hope.” My mom laughed. Dad turned out to be wrong.
Women artists may be knowingly or unknowingly practicing a creative system called, “cycle-synching.” Neuroscientists have concluded that the two main female reproductive hormones, estrogen and progesterone, do not only rule the body’s fertility but also have a powerful effect on our neurochemistry. Add to this that new fertility-tracking apps like Clue are enabling women to predict the onset of productivity tools like high energy, sex drive, boldness, tiredness, sensitivity and body pain.
A remarkable study, Endogenous Steroids and Financial Risk-Taking on a London Trading Floor, has implications for folks in other professions, including ours. According to the study, stock traders build testosterone on days when they are successful. Apparently, the additional hormones can cause higher levels of confidence and risk-taking, while too much of it can include feelings of omnipotence and even carelessness. Conversely, a trader who has experienced successive losses will have higher levels of the downer cortisol, leading to risk aversion and sloppy choices.
With the unmistakable breeze of authority, Dad said, “Never underestimate the power of a little pressure.” At the time, I took it as many aspiring artists would — that production pressure was a gift from the outside world, a reprieve from the echo chamber of your solitary room. But what he meant was that you need to put pressure on yourself. By doing so, you override the helplessness of creative dependency on external minders and convert yourself magically from a reactive artist into a proactive one. Here’s what I mean:
Just when I thought we might have maxed out on syndromes and disorders — attention deficit disorder, highly sensitive persons, etc., yet another has shown up in the studio inbox. Among the forest of responses to my letter on trees, “Nature Deficit Disorder” was mentioned by several artists. As webmaster Andrew Niculescu has gone mountain climbing, Michelle Moore, a high school student who is helping in the studio over the summer, spent last Friday trying to sort your letters out. From every viewpoint, artists identify with trees, endow them with spirit, wish to honour them, and bemoan their loss. To many, they remind us of our estrangement from natural places.
Every picture you’ve ever looked at has been designed with your travelling eyes in mind. Here’s an exercise for the next time you’re in a gallery: Scan paintings one-by-one in a half squint. Without over-thinking, give each painting’s eye control a score from 1 to 3, with 1 being average, 2, good, and 3, excellent. Are you travelling around within the picture’s edges, enjoying a balance of visual excitement, places of rest, satisfying weighting, depth of field and an intuitive tension and resolution? Are you feeling a sense of paucity and getting adequate information about the subject? Is there an ineffable sensory pleasure?