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…
The quiet town of Jokkmokk (pop. 8000) in Swedish Lapland has been the subject of considerable study. It seems that most of the schoolgirls there are smart and most of the schoolboys are not. Experts have taken a look at the gene pool, relative brain capacities, corpus callosum deviations, family dynamics, even teaching methods in the schools. Things seem about the same as most other Swedish towns. But for several generations now the girls get the marks and the boys drop out.
“The easiest person to fool is oneself,” said my older brother, Dave, a musician, reminiscing recently about our dad’s idioms. With this cue, I realized that Dad must have had a unique set of material for each of us. Mine included “Keep busy while waiting for something to happen” and “Start with the foreground.” My twin James, a television director, chimed in with, “Don’t want to slump over the oars!”
On the beach at Le Pouldu, near Pont-Aven, Brittany, there’s a leaning formation of rocks that could be organized a bit by looking down on it and laying the horizon fairly high in the composition. It took a while to get the position right. A few minutes into the painting I realized it would benefit with a figure or some other motif in the lower right. The next day I organized my daughter, Sara, to stand in as a model. This painting was among the ones I brought home that summer. Off it went to a gallery and subsequently disappeared into the great Diaspora where all paintings go.
A question appeared in the comments on a recent letter about studio space. “I have always painted at my kitchen table; because of the holidays and guests coming I have had to clean. Sorry to say I have not picked up a brush since then. If my table is cleared then there are no paintings. It makes me feel sad; it is hard to find a balance between keeping the house clean and producing art. Any suggestions?”
I’m willing to bet that lots of artists have never heard of William Bouguereau. He was, however, one of the most celebrated artists of his time — admired, collected, lionized — President of the French Academy, Head of the Salon, President of the Legion of Honour. He won the Grand Prix de Rome in 1851 when he was twenty-six. When he died in 1905 his reputation started to slip. His work disappeared into the basements of obscurity. Most encyclopedias stopped mentioning him, and those that did used words like “competent” and “banal.”
One of my earliest memories is of seeing a small, domino-shaped tile amongst hundreds of items leaning on a long shelf above the workbench that stretched the length of my dad’s studio. On it was written, “Creative hands are rarely tidy.” It was the cherry on the sundae of permission — the sundae being a life in art and a messy space devoted to it.
By the time I’d left home at 18 and art school at 22, I’d already destroyed a few linoleum floors and filled a converted boatshed with fits and starts.
On Dec. 8, 1903, with government funding, countless advisors and great ballyhoo, Samuel Pierpont Langley’s flying machine plopped unpleasantly into the Potomac. Nine days later, Orville and Wilbur Wright got their Flyer off the ground. Why did these bicycle mechanics succeed when a famous scientist failed? Langley’s plans were mostly theoretical and his machine was produced from blueprint and built by others. But by studying the Wright brothers’ working notes, you see that their insight and their execution are woven together. By trial and error and over a period of time they solved problems like wing shape and wing warping. Each adjustment was a small spark of insight that led to others. Along the way they found it necessary to build a wind tunnel and other devices to test the lift and controllability of their ever-changing designs.
The subject came up again during an impromptu visit with an artist friend in Melbourne: “I’m having trouble finding my style,” she said. “I don’t want to force it — I want to be myself — but how do I make my work stand out as mine?”
With the understanding that style mustn’t be contrived but instead evolve organically as part of a developing voice, like a signature, yours might simply be honed by keeping a lookout for your own unique pictorial penchants. If you’re low on penchants, then consider what I call “idiosyncrasies of brush.”