At the end of the remarkable film, Life of Pi, we are given the choice of two stories. One story is believable and quite predictable, the other implausible and wonderful. It’s easy to choose the wonderful, implausible version. We need good stories. “And so it is with God,” says Pi.
When story gets into a work of art, the work is enriched. Too much story — well, that’s another matter. Here are three ways of looking at story in art — illustrating them, with notes, at the bottom of this letter.
Story within the art: We all know of classical paintings loaded with allegory and historical events. Early European painting is largely a depiction of the Christian story and its various characters. There is still a genre here. Take a look at the 20th century painting by Arnold Friberg, Alma Baptizing at The Waters of Mormon. Taken from the story in Mosia 18, Book of Mormon, Alma was a prophet who baptized 204 believers in one day at either a lake in Guatemala or at a spot on the eastern shore of Lake Erie. Not sure which.
Back-story: One can’t look at the paintings of Vincent Van Gogh without replaying the story we all know — “How you suffered for your sanity, how you tried to set them free. They did not listen, they did not know how,” etc. (Don McLean) Then there are the fights with Gauguin, the magnificent letters to his brother, Theo, the ear-off event, the asylum at St. Remy, the field of crows, the stack of paintings nobody wanted, the early death. “Perhaps they’ll listen now.” (ibid.) You bet they do.
Non-story: In the struggle to find new meaning in the twentieth century, painters began to make paintings that told no story. Mark Rothko insisted his paintings meant nothing. Others, like Jackson Pollock and Clyfford Still, felt the main stuff was process and action. For these artists, telling a story would have trivialized the art. Peggy Guggenheim swooned. No story, or a story so obscure it might never be fathomed, was the best story of all.
PS: “Stories — individual stories, family stories, national stories–are what stitch together the disparate elements of human existence into a coherent whole. We are story animals.” (Yann Martel, author of Life of Pi)
Esoterica: The next time you’re painting, ask yourself how much story plays a part in your work. Are you trying to speak, sing, inform, protest, depress, honour, lead, monumentalize, mystify, convert, entertain, tease, uplift, amuse, eulogize or cause people to think? Or is your story a tribute to your process and your way of working — mannerisms that softly or harshly speak your name to yourself and others? Knowing your work’s story (or non-story) helps define not only your work, but you. Knowing your story is like finding yourself in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. Seriously, we’re all in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. “If you’ve heard this story before,” said Groucho Marx, “don’t stop me, because I’d like to hear it again.”
Distinction between ‘zoe’ & ‘bios’
by Mary Aslin, Laguna Beach, CA, USA
In Twyla Tharp’s book, The Creative Habit, (which I learned about from you in the Twice-Weekly Letters) divides storytellers from non-storytellers by the words zoe and bios. She says that the choreographer George Balanchine was pure zoe: his ballets were about life force alone, with a less definable structure. Another choreographer, Jerome Robbins, was exactly the opposite: his dances were about the story, pure bios. She makes this distinction in her book to help artists understand how they are wired, some wired more to life-force ( zoe ) and others more to telling a story ( bios ), or, if you like both, understand you are going to have your creative impulses warring with each other.
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Transformational Presence Global Summit
by Vanessa Jane Smith, Spain
My work as an artist/coach was taken to new heights as I was challenged to make visible the invisible at this conference. The story of energy! Usually I blend words with images, but in this encounter of this incredible creative collective of coaches, I found my co-creating on totally new levels. In this picture I feel in such flow as I experienced an exercise with participants first and then attempted to capture the essence of a huge story, of the workings and power of the mandala… words got left behind as a universe appeared and I found myself painting everything and one thing all at once… with just a tiny sentence slipped in there… I couldn’t resist!
A lifetime of stories
by Eleanor Blair, Gainesville, FL, USA
After graduating from an art school in New York City in 1969, I had a real aversion to art with a story. Realism was dismissed as ‘facile’ and ‘illustrative’ and when I moved to Florida and started painting landscapes, I felt a little bit guilty telling even this one minimal and repetitive story: “I looked, and here is what I saw…” Now, thousands of paintings later, I read my own life story in my work, places I’ve been, objects that have had meaning for me. What I really enjoy, though, are the stories that other people discover in my paintings, that I didn’t even know were there.
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Paintings take on new lives
by Leslie Anderson, Sedgwick and Portland, ME, USA
Following a winter of life drawing, people suddenly started popping into my summer landscapes. The figures were always mysterious, and seemed to evoke a story — but what? The wonderful fine-arts journal Still Point Arts Quarterly published a portfolio of these paintings, and I started receiving via email short stories triggered by the paintings from a writer in Australia. “How cool is that?” I thought, and wondered, why not a book of short stories by Maine writers, since I am a Maine painter. So the equally wonderful Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance ran a short-story contest and more than 50 Maine scribblers responded. The winning stories will appear alongside the paintings in a book published by Shanti Arts Publishing (publisher of the Still Point Quarterly). The images are still up on Shanti’s web site. It gives me goose-bumps to think that these little paintings will have entirely new lives off the canvas, and will tell stories I never intended.
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Narrative art doesn’t sell?
by Mike Jorden, Osoyoos, BC, Canada
I find the idea of story in art irresistible — many of the painters whose work I have admired over the years,have been illustrators or storytellers. Arnold Friberg is one of them, and I am glad you had something good to say about his art, a bit soppy perhaps but beautifully executed. The first gallery I approached after taking up art seriously declined my work saying, “Narrative art never sells well.” I have concluded this may be true for that gallery but it will not change my direction.
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Lemonade out of lemons
by Joyce Washor, Riverdale, NY, USA
I’m not always sure whether to include “my story” in my artist statement, mostly because I don’t want to start off with a negative, so this is an interesting article to think about. So here’s my story: When I was going through a midlife crisis I left my textile career and decided to paint full time. Then I got hit with a rotator cuff injury and couldn’t lift my painting arm. Through a serendipitous event I discovered painting small. Now my arm is healed and I’m in love with small paintings. I even wrote a book, Big Art, Small Canvas, and use the paintings in two iBooks, Watercolor Harmony and Oil Painting Harmony.) Lemonade out of lemons!
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A time of no new stories
by Peter Brown, Oakland, CA, USA
All pictorial art contains metaphorical content. This is particularly easy to see in allegorical painting, but also in most any naturalistic rendering of identifiable objects, places, or people. A painting of a red barn in a sun draped pasture has symbolic metaphorical impact, as does a vase of roses, or a lone buffalo at sunset. We can call this metaphorical content a “story,” but should we not then critique the quality of that story as told? Is the story told in a surprising way or with a peculiar elegance? Is it a story that we have never seen before, or is it a rather tired theme depicted in a conventional way? Great metaphors, whether traditional or fresh, can lead to memorable art, a story well told.
The “Back-story” you mention is biographical data about an artist’s life and times, which at best can add poignant footnotes to one’s experience and understanding of a painting, but does really not add to or subtract from the art itself. If this were so, every artist, past or present, who lived a dramatic or tragic life would be a great artist. Biography makes for great press releases, great novels and terrific narratives, but does not really add one brushstroke to that painting hanging on the wall.
The Abstract Expressionists, the “Non-story” grouping you mention, still packed their work with metaphorical significance. Mark Rothko may have said his work meant nothing, but his work still says something. What the Abstract Expressionists removed from their art was narrative, the conventional form of storytelling.
Here is a biographical footnote that may shed some light on Abstract Expressionists. These artists had lived through the great horror of World War II, and into the Cold War. It was a time when a single plane with a single bomb could wipe out millions of lives, and a time when lots of these bombs could destroy the human species. It was a time when it seemed almost possible that there would be no more stories. They had no use for red barns or vases of flowers. Instead, they gave us images that depicted a world without a narrative, and that is still quite a story.
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The evolution of the story
by Robin Shillcock, Groningen, Netherlands
Life of Pi was a stunning movie, at times even moving. In contrast, Arnold Friberg’s paintings are brimming with a one-dimensional kind of heroism that reminds of the Nickelodeon movies from the first decades of the 20th century. Those movies have far more interest, because they were the foundation on which the billion-dollar movie industry was built, while Friberg’s paintings are simply extremely boring, unimaginative depictions of a lot of nonsense.
I have always been fascinated by the illusionistic possibilities of art. Therefore, work by Jack the Dripper and other abstract expressionists; in fact almost all abstract tendencies in art also had me shrugging and moving on to something more interesting.
I guess you can categorize artists in two distinct groups: on the one hand those that are mainly interested and inspired by their own metabolism and evacuation system, and on the other hand those artists who gaze in wonder at the world around them. In abstraction, as I see it, there’s no story, although some would claim that you look at the blobs and slashes and make up your own story. But then I find clouds more inspiring, or leak marks on an old ceiling in a Saint John’s backpacker’s hostel.
In the second category there’s often a story; it could be that of impressionism, of trying to grasp the way the world appears in paint, or the story of imagination, where the artist tries to show us a sliver of her or his life, present or past. I suppose I tend to swerve from one to the other, especially when trying to recreate snippets of my childhood and adolescence in India, Australia, Guatemala and Mexico, moments that still stir up the dust in my memory. I see my paintings as small stories that make up the still “untold story” of my life; in it I have shared grand moments with birds and animals, and with my work I attempt to share with others what inspired me.
I find a fascinating depth of feeling in the work of Andrew Wyeth, whose work often deals with the stories of his life, encounters that caught him off edge, sometimes painful recreations of changing, passing, sometimes simply a celebration of the beauty of life in its best moments.
The ideologies of art in much of the 20th century did their best to push out representational art, but like Lenin and Stalin, Hitler, Mao and the Red Khmer, their moment of power came and abated, making room for the beautiful and enduring tradition of art as it has inspired artists and people for at least a thousand years.
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You can run, but you can’t hide
by Warren Criswell, Benton, AR, USA
Yes, we are story animals. There’s a story in every image we paint, even though we don’t always know what the story is or even that there is one. About 12 years ago, after years of doing narrative paintings, I tried to swear off. I had seen an exhibition of Chardin’s still lifes in New York, and was reading Husserl’s writings on phenomenology and was sick of storytelling. I decided to paint nothing but existential paintings, translating the “things themselves” into paint! The still lifes I painted were just things that ambushed me around the house, usually in my bathroom or in the kitchen. There was no theme, just the abstract, chance arrangement of inanimate objects defined by light and shadow. I was inspired by the sheer physical presence of these objects, not by what they were or what they signified, and by the challenge of translating that presence into paint. But when I showed these things, people said they were my most intimate self-portraits! You can run but you can’t hide.
Also, most importantly, viewers bring their own stories to our images. Recently, my wife shot a photo of me with her phone while I was reading in bed — or thought I was but was actually asleep — in order to prove to me that I actually did go to sleep while reading, a thing I always denied. But something about the composition and lighting of the picture appealed to me, so I did a painting and a linocut based on it. I called it “Sleep Reading.” My gallery later relayed to me the story of one of the people who bought the print. This guy had once gone to bed with a copy of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. He was shocked to find that when he woke up the next morning he had read only a few pages, because he had dreamed the entire story! (Or, his own version of it). So he had to have this print, since it perfectly illustrated his own experience. This is why I don’t like to “explain” my paintings. I’m always afraid my own story will rob the viewer of his or hers and take away whatever power the work might have had for them. Kind of like Aron Copeland explaining that he had no idea that Appalachian Spring, the composition he wrote for Martha Graham, would have anything to do with Appalachia.
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Sales go up by leaving out the stories
by Ken Jackson, London, ON, Canada
As a lifetime painter who has made a living from art, in the beginning the story I attached to a work was foremost. After all, it was all about the emotional and artistic steps that lead to the final image in the studio. Galleries were just not working out, and 50 % I found were dishonest, and I started to look to the shows all over Ontario. So I started doing about 14 shows per year, some lasting up to 14 days. Sales were good.
Then I had a conversation with a good friend who had a problem about the stories that I had on the walls next to my work. Now I painted 4 paintings, personally attached to her. She attacked my need to present my story, over the potential client’s story viewing my work. My initial response was all about ego. After a few days of thinking about this idea, I went into my next show without the stories next to the work. My sales went up by 15%. I am not brain dead, so that set one of the many changes I have made dealing directly with the public.
I have found out that my personal stories attached to the image are important to a few, but not all. Their personal story is what is important to them, and if my story gets in the way of their own story or memory attached to the image, they disconnect with the painting.
If you want sales, then respect the client’s interpretation of your painting. Your story of this wonderful painting is secondary and will be accepted by the buyer, but only after they have convinced themselves of their own personal attachment to your work.
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You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Lesley White of Prince George, BC, Canada, who wrote, “A young singer/songwriter from Ontario, Canada, Naomi Bristow, saw and was inspired by one of my paintings to write her first song. She developed the lyrics (story) around the image. It closely resembled my own inspiration. Not unlike the Don McLean/Van Gogh connection, therein lies the magic of the eternal universal circle and the privilege of being a part of it.
And also Sigmund Brunn of Innsbruck, Austria, who wrote, “The best stories are the gossip about the artist and his work.”
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