The first rule of storytelling is that something must die in order for something else to be born. In your art story, this means that if you want your work to grow, you’ll need to kill something. The good news is that you probably have something to sacrifice lying around your studio — a studio barnacle you once deemed too good to slash but that’s not quite ready for the dance floor. As the sole, designated arbiter of quality control, you are beginning the rest of your life.
Here’s an idea: Line up, hang, pin and lean your archive in a row for a private crit, suspending prejudices around the work’s age, period, context, level of completion, provenance or hours invested. Gather everything you consider a painting. Now, find a comfortable place to sit and take in the selection as a whole. Even if your nines and tens have left the building, this is a sobering snapshot of where you are and how far you’ve come.
Next, like a tough-loving friend, pull the weakest work. For this exercise, do not enlist a helper and do your pulling in one, focused session. Use what you know about where you’re going to detach yourself from beloved areas or winning strokes. “You have to dress for the job you want, not the job you have, and you have to start doing the work you want to be doing,” wrote art coaching writer Austin Kleon. Commit to the whole painting and be willing to take the pains necessary to make it better. If it helps, I’ll give you this private mantra to repeat with each execution: “I am the maker.”
Now that you’ve tasted swift justice, what else can be retired? “Thank it for its service,” wrote Marie Kondo in the The Life-Changing Magic Of Tidying Up. Like your sock drawer, what’s left is the cream of your collection — and the creative space to level up.
PS: “Everybody loves a good story, but good storytelling doesn’t come easy to everybody. It’s a skill that takes a lifetime to master. So study the great stories and then go find some of your own. Your stories will get better the more you tell them.” (Austin Kleon)
Esoterica: I’m writing to you from an airplane flying from California to Texas. Before boarding, I bought a new pen and slid it into my bag as I’d seen my dad do many times when en route to his own shows. “I think of it as a quiet message to myself,” he once told me at the airport in Calgary. “A pen is a talisman of connection — a kind of good luck omen.” After twenty-eight years, the privilege to show my work continues to trigger a sense of peak creative expression and also a temporary, emotional dislodging from the comforting plodding of my studio. As a part of the circle, its challenges, satisfactions and connectivity are a gift and invitation to grow that can only be experienced by leaving “home.”
“Read deeply. Stay open. Continue to wonder.” (Austin Kleon)
“When you get rid of old material, you push yourself further and come up with something better.” (Austin Kleon)