Symbols

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Dear Artist,

I guess there’s about a billion paintings of sky, mountains, trees and water. Beneath these basic and universal elements lie symbols that may empower our work.

For example, the sky may represent infinity, eternity, immortality, transcendence or inspiration. As the traditional residence of gods, the sky may suggest omnipotence. The sky may also be symbolic of order in the universe.

Mountains are thought to contain divine inspiration, and are the focus of pilgrimages of transcendence and spiritual elevation. Mountains surpass ordinary humanity and extend toward the heavens. They symbolize constancy and permanence and at their peak signify the state of absolute consciousness. Mountains can also signify danger. Climbing a mountain may depict inner elevation.

Trees may invoke struggle, rebirth, and other traits such as barrenness, complexity, productivity, fecundity, and the presence of the sheltering mother.

Water — by way of river, lake and ocean may be suggestive of ambition, tranquility and life-force. Ocean, in itself, suggests the beginning of life on Earth, and symbolizes formlessness, the unfathomable, and chaos. The ocean can also be seen as a symbol of stability as it has existed largely unchanged for centuries. The ocean is considered to be boundless, a place where one can easily be lost, and can therefore be seen to represent the boundless span of life and the way one can become lost on life’s journey.

Spirited with these understandings — the next question is in what way need these elements be artistically rendered in order to best bring out their symbolic character? To this there are a billion answers — ranging through hyper-realism, stylization, obfuscation, to the merest flick of suggestion.

Tung-ch'i-ch'ang

painting by Tung Ch’i-Ch’ang

Best regards,

Robert

PS: “To transmit the spirit, there must be form. When the form, the mind and the hand are in total accord, each forgetting the other’s separate existence, then the spirit will reside in your work.” (Tung Ch’i-Ch’ang)

Esoterica: Simplicity and naivete can be deceptive. Crudeness can be deceptive. Even straightforwardness can be deceptive. Be aware of what may be hidden among trees, water, mountains and sky. It may be transcendent spirit. “Great art is at once surface and symbol.” (Oscar Wilde)

The following are selected responses to this and other letters. Thanks for writing.

 


Just a copier?
by Russell W. McCrackin, Corvallis, Oregon
 

I never thought about the parts of a landscape that way. To me, the whole scene is a gift from the Great Artist. That is why I try to paint what I see. I can’t copy all the fine details, but try to include what is most important to me. Some of my artist friends seem to change the shapes and colors of everything. They feel that it isn’t ART unless they improve what they see. I can’t improve on what the Great Artist gives me. Yes, I try to copy what I see. Does that mean that I am not an “artist,” just a copier?

 


And boring too
by David Burns
 

The symbolic value of art is more important than any other factor. You mentioned that crudeness can be deceptive. What can be interpreted from this is that the work itself can be very crude — and a lot of current art is crude — but the result is often a form of true art that attacks human emotions at a high level. Without this additional spin art is destined to be only a crashing bore to both artist and viewer.

(RG note) You can find reference on the symbolic meanings behind a lot of ordinary things at: http://www.umich.edu/~umfandsf/ Two relatively recent dictionaries are also worth looking at: Biederman, Hans. Dictionary of Symbolism: Cultural Icons and the Meanings Behind Them. New York: Meridian, 1994. And also Julien, Nadia: The Mammoth Dictionary of Symbols: Understanding the Hidden Language of Symbols. New York: Carol and Graf Publishers, Inc., 1996. A trusted treatise on symbolism is Alfred North Whitehead’s Symbolism: Its Meaning and Effect New York: Fordham University Press, 1927.

 


Hogwash
by Kit McDonald, Sidney, BC, Canada
 

What a lot of hogwash! Why are you making it harder than it is?!! Try to paint the magnificence, the grandeur, the amazing nature, the glory, the serenity, the peace of nature. The totally awesome nature of a landscape in the true sense of the word, should be enough to fill a lifetime of canvasses without inventing some symbolic “hoodoo”! This letter was sounding like a bunch of “artspeak” — but then maybe you were joking around?

 


Two trains of thought
by Brenden Brady, UK
 

There are two trains of thought here. One is that spirit and symbolic values come naturally, and the other is that spirit can be brought into a subject by intellectualization and planning. It’s a bit of both but when all else fails I’ll opt for the latter.

 


Not going deep enough?
by Larry Moore
 

Your letter touches on an issue that I have struggled with as a painter for years. I love to paint out doors, right there in the middle of it with all of the elements wrapped around me. When I paint I wrestle with the rudiments of painting; value, hue, balance, composition, eye-flow, atmosphere. I have never assigned meaning to any of the elements other than their relationship with one another. But when I see the work of others around me who are creating in order to express some deep pathos — or when I read an artist’s statement in, say, New American Painters, I often wonder… am I just not going deep enough?

 


Horrified
by Jane Champagne
 

Robert, I am horrified by the number of responses to your ADD letter by people who have diagnosed themselves as ADDers without consulting a qualified medical practitioner. Playing doctor is a dangerous thing. Perhaps you should print a warning advising the self-diagnosed to consult a physician.

(RG note) I have never been to a doctor and said, “Doctor, I am incredibly lazy. What can you give me for it.” Unless I am very much mistaken, ADD is not life threatening. And unless I am very much mistaken there are actions we can take that will lessen its negative effects — in the event that we might be troubled by some of the symptoms. A lot of it is common sense. Bonnie Mincu tells me that in some situations a doctor’s opinion is called for. And in case there was a misunderstanding not all artists can be expected to be blessed with the condition.

 


In praise of daydreaming
by Bryan Dunleavy
 

As a boy I would regularly (irregularly?) daydream. This seemed to me then, as now, a far more useful activity than listening to my Latin teacher translating gerunds. Years ago, people used to talk about the “artistic temperament” which was the pre-scientific way of explaining the artist’s effective but different approach to life. I have always been highly resistant to what I call the “clinicisation” of human activity. Why should artists, who have chosen to use perception to explore the world, be characterized as having a disorder? I suspect that you are much more organized than you give yourself credit for. You do after all create excellent paintings and amazingly you manage to discipline yourself to put out this newsletter twice a week. I would be much more inclined to see you as a person who uses chaos to create order rather than someone who is “disordered”. Like most artists you are probably highly intuitive. Most people think in a linear fashion and order their lives accordingly. When you are able to make leaps of thinking to see an end result, it is not surprising that one would become bored with the process. There is no point in building a better mousetrap if better housing construction keeps mice out of the house. All the “bad habits” you listed I thought were quite positive attributes. The alternative is to live a highly regulated life, always stick to the task no matter how meaningless it becomes, never put your head above the parapet, reduce your life to unadventurous routine, anaesthetize your soul, paint your garden fence.

 


Heightened sensitivity
by Eleanor Blair, Gainesville Florida, USA
 

I read Bonnie Mincu’s article on Artists and Attention Deficit Disorder, and found a lot of great insight into my own (sometimes) idiosyncratic behaviors. For instance, I discovered years ago that the only way I could stay awake during meetings and lectures was to bring a crochet project with me. Steady concentration and a clear memory of the meeting seem to require busy hands. I have been known to fill an entire sketch book with doodles during a weekend seminar that had nothing to do with drawing. However, I have difficulty with the phrase “…a genetic, neurological disorder…” If so many people seem to be wired this way, maybe there is a necessary social/evolutionary function present. I read The Highly Sensitive Person recently, which proposes that for a species to survive, (bird, fish, human, etc.), a certain percentage of the group will have a heightened sensitivity to stimulus. That heightened sensitivity in a small percentage of humans is often perceived, not as a useful inborn talent necessary to the survival of the whole community, but as an irritating ‘over-sensitivity’ that needs to be taught, punished or drugged out of us. I am not denying the seriousness of extreme ADD, and I am very grateful for the advances that have been made in biochemistry and in various behavior modification studies. I would just be sorry to see artists who discover that they have some of the ‘symptoms’ of ADD suddenly perceiving themselves as brain-damaged victims.

 


Getting the understanding right
by Bonnie Mincu, New York, NY, USA
 

I’m glad there are so many out there who are interested, and a little worried that they aren’t getting the right message — that they should NOT be self-diagnosing, labeling themselves as having a problem, or any of the myriad of other misinterpretations that might be happening. I guess that’s the problem with sending out info on a subject without the ability to respond myself to them if they’re not getting the understanding right.

 


Envy of another’s success
Please do not use my name
 

A good friend and I rented studio space approximately a year ago. We both had started working again after a 10 year lull. We have exhibited together this past year and have an open house scheduled soon. The problem I seem to be having is jealously. Ugly yes but I can’t seem to shake it. I have sold a couple of pieces but she has been very successful from various sources. Part of me is happy and then the ugly part is thinking, “Why not me-my stuff is good even better than hers!” Then critical — critical because she works from photographs, critical because she works in a direction to please the public — what she thinks might sell (and does!) Critical because personality wise she is overbearing and exuberant about her work. During the first 2 Open Studios I felt overshadowed by her presence, her work etc. To get a better picture of us- we have been friends and worked together (our day jobs) for 20 years. We have always had a common interest in art frequently taken classes together and started exhibiting together years ago. So these feelings are upsetting and are beginning to interfere with my wanting to spend time in the Studio. I can’t afford my own space and am grateful to have the space we do. My goal as an artist is to have a place to work, to explore, learn and grow — if an opportunity presents itself to exhibit or sell that’s icing on the cake. Well too, to establish myself professionally, retire from my “day job” in 5 years and devote more time to ART. At least that’s how I felt until her success became so successful! Now I find myself comparing my stuff to hers — losing self confidence and self esteem. Any feedback you could share would be most appreciated.

(RG note) It’s easy to be intimidated by small worlds when we are willing to remain in them. Take a step back and look at the bigger picture. Also, look at art history and the rivalries between others: Gauguin and van Gogh, Lennon and McCartney, etc, etc. See how it can be a force for good.

 


Star envy
Don’t use my name
 

There’s a guy in our foundation course who manages to get the attention of the instructor practically all the time. He’s a “star.” His work is featured, used as an example (mostly a good example) and often talked about at length. He is loud, offensive and full of himself. He is a good artist and I have to say he really works at it and has no social life. Interpersonally he is inept. It makes a lot of us want to give up. Is this the way it is? Is there any point?

(RG note) Unfortunately the “star system” is prevalent in the world at all levels. It’s a force to contend with in rock music, film, even chartered accountancy. Sometimes these “stars” burn out, sometimes they don’t. There was a guy like that when I was in art school. I don’t know what happened to him. There was another fellow who said little and toiled silently in the background. He became the very successful head of an important design studio.

 


Aquatic impressions
by Joan Sandberg-Kinyon, Waalre, The Netherlands
 

I am so glad you were referred to me. Sitting here in a Dutch world, it is nice to be inspired, often in a humorous way, and in my native language (American). Last year two of my students were in California and returned with an “Aquatic Impression” by Ron Warner for me. I had not heard of fish-printing art before — he referred to it as a modification of the Japanese art of Gyotaku. So now I know lots more about that art form. I like your quotes; I have always used them in my own teaching — hanging them on walls, doors, etc. This is just a word to say thanks, and I hope you keep finding the inspiration to continue.

 

You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 93 countries world-wide, including Afghanistan, have visited these pages since January 1, 2001.

That includes Sib Sener of Istanbul, Turkey, who loves to paint old Ottoman houses in oil.

And “Phaedra,” who says she can’t afford a policeman at the corner of her mouth, so uses duct tape. And Nan Carver of Westminster, South Carolina who “just got back from teaching a workshop in Arlington, VA, less than a mile from the Pentagon.”

And Peter Moffat who claims to have AAADD (Age Activated Attention Deficit Disorder) He loses keys, checkbook, coffee cup, etc.

And Jennifer Garant who claims to have “a couple of symptoms of conditions they haven’t even named yet.”

 

Quotable quotes on symbols

I use symbols to imply abstract ideas. My main objective is to construct a synthesis of the natural, the abstract, and the imaginary, and so bring into existence a language of personal symbolism. (Kent Addison)

When the symbols are ‘public’ they usually act in an oblique manner, revealing themselves as archetypal symbols, which though familiar, have their central meanings obscured as is usual in esoteric imagery. (Kenneth Coutts-Smith)

“The language of images [of inner-oriented artists]does not follow a code structure that is evident and widely accepted, but is more likely to be a complex of symbols that have a profound meaning for the artists themselves.” (Kenneth Coutts-Smith)

I trust the symbol that is arrived at in the making of the painting. Meaningful symbols aren’t invented as such, they are made or discovered as symbol later. (Richard Diebenkorn)

Everything can be linked together in some fashion, in either a physical, psychological, or symbolic manner. (Buckminster Fuller)

These symbols of his own creation… give him a greater pleasure than the object seen. He reforms them, he rearranges them, he focuses them to his own inner seeings and longings. (John Marin)

If modern art has produced symbols that are unfamiliar, that was only to be expected. (Herbert Read)

“A work of art must carry in itself its complete significance and impose it upon the beholder even before he can identify the subject-matter…” (Henri Matisse)

“The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.” (Aristotle)

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