As I sit reading my new book, Still Writing, by Dani Shapiro, I’m thinking about my own level of craft in Father’s and my artmaking. I’m thinking about the creative journey we set out on 10-years ago. I’m thinking how Father and I go at some aspect of the art we make and how much I need to grow and learn in order to achieve the skills needed to make what we’re after.
One reason I have minimal respect for over educated creative people is because what they’re thrusting in my direction is their intimate knowledge of mere craft. They don’t compose. They’re not artists who compose. They may not even be artists at all. They’re interpreters and collaborators who are largely incapable of an original action of their own. They rely upon their knowledge of mere technique and method and have little or no inkling of personal expression.
Am I comparing myself to these artless technicians? Not at all. I am simply stating that method and technique, without a heart for deeply original creative expression, is no substitute – that’s all.
My wife and I were once gifted with tickets to a concert in which an arrogant little nitwit with thousands of hours of training stepped out to play Gershwin’s American in Paris. I love George Gershwin’s work and was very excited at this rare opportunity to hear this performance. I didn’t give a wit about this self absorbed kid who was going to play for us. I loved the music itself, and in the hands of an artist, the interpretation had all of the emotion of a hustling, bustling metropolis in sound. In the hands of an artist, Gershwin’s city had life and it can be palpable.
What I heard was absolutely nothing of what Gershwin had written on the page. The performance had nothing of what flowed from Gershwin’s artist heart. This kid beat all of the life out of this magnificent work of original music because he was only interested in showing off his technique. He was an insipid robot sitting there at the keyboard obediently hammering out each and every note with perfect technique and nothing more. I was actually somewhat depressed, certainly disappointed, at what I had been offered. In fact, I hoped that this person would either get over himself and play from his heart, or be drummed out of music altogether. I didn’t care which, but please don’t let this kid ever again butcher another great composer’s work of art.
Making art is far too precious a thing to be lorded over by mere craftsmen. It is a deep and abiding connection to the unseen, invisible universe where the artist draws something really special to bring back and share with the rest of humanity. Craft, while vitally important, is but a nest or foundation into which a new creative piece of expression is born.
This is one reason why I’m so proud of Father’s and my being self-taught. Yes, I certainly do need to develop a great deal more method and technique. I expect to be at this growth all of my life and beyond. What I don’t do however is hide behind a wall of method and technique as my credentials, nor do any of the many artists whom I admire so deeply.
I once thought that it would have been wondrous to be born in the Italian Renaissance, but no longer. One reason I’ve lost much of my awe and wonder regarding the Renaissance is simply because it was largely peopled by competitive show offs. These were people possessing celestial gifts, and certainly they created many celestial works, but much of it was created in a world of mere arrogant show and competition between the artists and their patrons. What was seen as “great art” was often a measure of how many perfectly rendered figures could be crammed onto a wall, or how large the work was. Like so much of today’s modern film acting, much of the work is about how popular the actor is through the films they make. Whatever art there is in the work is often buried beneath the veneer of the various self-centric personae of the so called stars. At times it seems that deep creative expression shows up by mere accident.
Whatever is left of my once deep admiration for the Italian Renaissance remains in the works themselves, not the composer artists who created them. I receive the expression which is so often evident and available to me for engagement, but I could care less about the name at the bottom right of the work.
I deeply admire composers in any media who are self-discovering adventurers on a journey into the invisible realms of creative expression. I am in even deeper admiration of self-taught artists such as Vincent Van Gogh and Jack Vettriano. If you need to know of whom I speak, I invite you to look them up. And these are just two of a host of creative composers who buckled down and conquered whatever it took to become excellent at what they did and do.
In short, what I admire in the arts – all of them – is gumption, self-directed gumption. I admire those artists who collect their craft along the way, who don’t brag about whatever schooling they endured, or how much practice they put in. Show me. Show me what it is that you’ve nurtured in yourself. Show me your work, because in the end that’s all that really matters.
NOTE: I apologize for the lack of open space between the paragraphs. WordPress is having problems just now. Thank you for your patience.
The new goals I’ve set for myself this year is to [try and] read a new book every two-weeks; so far so good. The latest I’ve finished is by musician, worship leader, and author Manuel Luz called Imagine That: Discovering Your Unique Role as a Christian Artist (2009/Moody). This is not a book review but more of a sharing of a couple of his most nourishing points.
I love how Luz reminds us that the life of an artist, and the daily act of art-making has a transformative effect on those artists for whom Christ is Lord. “In my own life, I have found that my music – and art in general – is a means by which I am drawn more closely in communion with God. God has formed me through the discipline of music. The discipline of worshiping while rehearsing… the discipline of songwriting and song journaling.
“And this should make sense if one understands that to grow as artists is, in part, to increase in our Christlikeness.” Luz / 127
To my mind this is another example of the purest essence of the convergence of faith and art; it not only affects those who engage the work but the artist as well. I love the Presence of God wherever I am. I love knowing that He’s not far off, up on heaven listening at a distance, but through His Spirit is literally with me 24/7. I love our discoveries in the process of making art, at whatever stage of the work. I love those discoveries which enrich my relationship with my Lord God.
I don’t usually talk about art work that I’ve not finished, let alone haven’t even begun. A powerful thing happened to me a while back as I was reading Matthew 9:20 / Mark 5:25, the story of Mary Magdalene being healed by merely touching the edge of Christ’s shawl.
There I was in the middle of my daily Bible readings and up came this story, with it’s beginning, its middle, and end; complete in every way. Heck, it even fits the 5-sentence story structure of a good Western world tale.
So, there I was reading and as I savored each word, something built up in my heart. Here was a woman who’d made mistakes (don’t we all) and who was seeking full healing. Mark’s verse 27 tells us that she’d heard Jesus was near. She resolved to merely touch His shawl or tunic – that’s all, just touch his clothing. That’s all, the merest gesture, and she knew that she’d be healed. To my mind she got more than she hoped for. She got salvation, redemption, a whole new life in that single experience. What a powerful story. Then I heard it, I call it the silver bell. “Dinggggggg”; there it was, that resonance of recognition that this was an important story. My heart quickened, as itProcess as Transformation always does when that “bell” rings. I know I’m in the Presence of His Spirit and being offered a gift if I’ll just listen and receive it.
As I began journaling about the encounter, something I often do in preparation of making a work, God was right there, revealing one level of meaning after another; a simple story, a single, brief encounter but layer upon layer of relational / spiritual significance. The practice of even preparing to make art was transforming me. I was growing and being nourished in the experience. I was savoring the Divine Presence of the living God whom I follow and serve. I was enjoying a deeply personal, intimate, private relationship with Him.
It’s this self same experience Manuel Luz was on about in his book. Art making, for the artist who is a follower of Christ, can (if we’re willing, open, and receptive) have a transformative effect on us – it ought to. Then the work itself goes on to affect the lives of those who engage it elsewhere, as long as they too are willing, open, and receptive. And I know I’m repeating myself, but I assure you that it’s deliberate repetition – process is an art-maker’s transformative journey. There is no destination, only journey, ever changing, ever growing.
Recently I was re-reading my notes from the Kindling’s Hearth I attended (Oct 2012). I came across something Dick Staub, our host brought up – Holistic Readiness. We were asked; What does it mean to be holistically ready creatively? How do we remain ready? What happens when we don’t remain ready?
I’m reminded of a story from a now famous TED Talk given by author Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love). She was talking about a poet friend who could feel the approach of a poem from far away over the landscape. Her friend, because she was hanging laundry that day, had to run to the house to get paper and pencil so she could write down the poem as it passed by. For me however, it’s that word holistic (emphasizing the whole and all of its parts and their interdependence) that implies something larger than having paper and pencil at hand.
As an artist whose art-making is literally driven by my relationship with God, holistic readiness begins with the health and depth of that relationship. For me, that relationship is far more than just going to church, doing daily devo’s, and attending a weekly Bible study. Holistic readiness, in terms of faith, has everything to do with remaining fully surrendered to God, with constant prayer, daily journaling, and literally seeking His presence. It’s a 24/7 kind of relationship, not a, “Let’s see when I can carve out 15-minutes for God.” kind of thing
In the studio I know He’s there partially because I invite Him in. He’s directly involved, often in a dialogue, as I’m in the process of making. He’s always reminding me that there’s no such thing as a mistake, and that I’m not bold enough in the creative risks I take. He’s my comforter, my counselor, and my Lord. Sometimes I’m so overwhelmed by the wonder of what we’re making that I just have to raise my hands, and looking up, pray the Doxology; Praise God from whom all blessings flow / Praise Him all creatures here below / Praise Him above the Heavenly host / Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost / Amen. My holistic readiness is founded upon my walk with God, without which I have nothing creatively to say.
Holistic also implies other life areas as well; diet, exercise, leisure, rest, and ArtJournaling. Like Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages from her groundbreaking book The Artist’s Way, art journaling has become something akin to scrapbooking or doodling. It’s an artform all by itself. For more on the value and power of doodling, look up Sunni Brown on TED. But my art journaling (Lessons From My Art Journal) has become a vital tool in remaining holistically ready.
In that journal I make messes and “waste” time and materials. I find out what various media* are able to do. I discover, play, and experiment. I take creative risks, and develop my skills with various media to use them well when making art. Mostly I find ideas that work and develop them toward becoming finished works.
I’ve learned that when I neglect my relationship with God, my health, or my exploration time, I’m not ready; I’m not creatively primed to work on making art.
Oh… and one last thing. I also need my coffee, and great music so we have an espresso machine and a boombox in the studio as inspiration.
Thanks for listening.
*Please help stamp out the misuse of the word mediums. I’m serious. This misuse has become an embarrassing epidemic in the art community. It’s bad enough how few people take us seriously anyway that we don’t need to empower their disdain by this simple mistake. Medium = single art medium (paint or ink or etc.) Media = many art media (paint and ink and etc.) BTW: Mediums are not art supplies, they’re people who predict the future or tell fortunes. Thanks!
I’ve been to Orcas Island. I’ve walked and talked, and broken bread with other thoughtful creatives. I’ve been loved back to my senses and out of my own self-inflicted doldrums. I’ve been quickened among other friends at KindlingsFest 2013. Last night, I listened to a podcast and took notes from Dick Staub’s talk on day one, The Good Life as the Godward Life. Let me share a particularly powerful gift I was given while there.
The “terrible” parable of the talents… it pierces me through the heart time and time again. I drift away in some form of self-inflicted confusion or misery like a skiff that has somehow come untied from the cleat on the pier. With the slightest breeze, the briefest lapping of the waves, I slowly and inexplicably drift away from my purposeful place at the dock where I await my next commission.
I say terrible not because it’s a bad story, or because it’s a tale of retribution. I say terrible in the sense that Madeleine L’Engle calls human freewill a terrible gift. Like fire that warms and feeds, human freewill can also destroy the very thing it was meant to nourish and support. One’s home can be either warmed and brightened, or burned to the ground by that self-same power.
Talent is like that. Oh, I know the parable is dealing with a measure of material wealth, but that’s just a metaphor for any gift God, in His infinite wisdom, has designed us to bear; and they’re terrible gifts too. These same gifts woven into the very fibre and nature of our being can either bring great abundance and prosperity, and glory to God, or they can reveal what we’re made of through our cowardice of their neglect.
God doesn’t “gift” us just so we can run away in fear and trepidation and bury that thing He’s graciously made us to be. He’s not a malicious God of tricks, but a God of love, and yes, even of tough love; the kind of love that kicks us in the butt when we really need it. His is the love that restores our self-respect, gets us out of the ditches of our own digging, re-equips us, and sends us on our way, refreshed, restored, and a little wiser.
Love is restorative; we the prodigal child and He the Divine Father, embrace with the sudden realization that we’re off course and the brutality of some aspect of life was needed to bring us back to our senses. All He waits for is our own realization that we’ve somehow gone astray and need His help. He awaits our return with open arms, a ring for our finger, and yet another cloak to cover our nakedness. And with these gifts of restoration, He embraces us, kisses us on the cheek and says, “All is well now. What have you learned? Let’s go celebrate the new depth of our relationship together.”
I’ve neglected to regularly post on my blog, to show up every single work day in my studio, and to get an artist’s website up showing what I’ve been doing.
KindlingFest-Day One: I was at lunch and got to talking with some friends about our creative lives in general, and that embarrassing question came up again, “Do you have a website?” My friend asked in genuine curiosity. She wanted to see my latest work, and in the context of our conversation, I wanted to show her and the other friends round the table what I’d been working on. I couldn’t though.
Then it hit me; How long have I been asked that question? How many years have I been asked about a website of my own? How much longer am I going to keep my talents buried in mere conversation? I mean how tough is FREE for Pete’s sake?
“I don’t have one yet, but I promise you here and now, that I will before the year is out.”, and I shook hands with everyone at the table. I was “safe”, it was late July and that gave me about 4-months to undertake the huge, complex, website project.
Well, it’s been just two weeks since KindlingsFest, and like so many other attendees, I’ve been processing the tremendous wisdom and counsel we received. I’ve also been getting my website together. And today I can tell you that I kept my promise to my friends; more importantly I’ve finally done what I ought to have done years ago. Now I can share the work that God and I do together in the home studio we have. Now I can deposit the talents my Lord has given me and return them unto Him with interest. Now I don’t have to stand around trying to describe with words what I ought to be sharing with pictures. Oh, and one more thing, I now keep a portfolio of my work on my Smartphone as well. I don’t ever want to be asked again, with enthusiasm and interest “if” I have a website, what my work is like, what kind of art I make. I want to show and share the gifts God has built into my very being on my way to becoming fully human and living the good life to His glory.
Here’s the link: http://lcurtiss.weebly.com/index.html
If you’ve been reading any of my blogs, you’ll soon come to know what a fan of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way I am. Several of her books are permanent additions to my Artist’s Bookshelf.
I mention her because of journals, and the process of journaling. One of the three basics (you’re going to have to read the book) of the practice she advocates is journaling, specifically what she calls Morning Pages. This is the first-thing, daily-habit, of handwriting 3-full pages in a journal of your choice to clear the creative baffles, prime the creative pump, and get the creative blood flowing. Words help us to externalize and objectify personal issues and to move on.
As I previously posted (My Artist’s Journal), words are often a priceless means for me to do all of the above, but I am developing a visual vocabulary in my collage / mixed-media art-making and I need to be using a visual journal, an Artist’s Journal. This journaling experience has been teaching me a few things I wanted to share with you.
First, I’ve come to understand just how much of a mechanical designer I currently am. That translates into a left-brain, function-oriented creative (and we need them too) I really am at present. What I’m striving to break out into is much more of a right-brain, heartfelt, emotional creative.
Why? Simply because faith in God and life on earth is all about relationships. It’s all about risking one’s heart in the investment of human relationships. Besides, it is the landscape of the human condition which most interests me in my art-making. I may be influenced and inspired by stained-glass, quilts, and mosaics, but those are physical, material, and stylistic influences. They’re simply a means to an end, and not the end itself.
It’s vital that I breakout into the emotional, relational, and human side of storytelling if I am going to succeed, and the journaling is showing the way.
The second lesson I’m grasping is that I’m far too timid in my creative choices. An Artist’s Journal is a safe, creative laboratory. Messes are de rigueur. I didn’t realize just how deeply in-grained this “fear of failure” really runs in me but apparently it’s going to take a lot of mess making to erode it away. I want the creative liberation afforded by the constant – don’t think about it – non-planned creativity of the Artist’s Journal.
So, it’s working. I’m being released, empowered, liberated, enlarged, and enabled to freely and fully express what’s on my heart and discarding much of what’s merely in my head. The tool; my ArtJournals.
As most of my friends will tell you, I am not a man of few words. Nope, I ruminate through ideas with thorough discussion. I’m getting better though. I work very hard at speaking less and listening more. I think it’s my global thinking and my philomathy that usually get me into trouble. When I get excited about something I could discuss it all day long. Discovery and learning are passions with me.
My art however, is visual, not verbal or written. I’m a visual storyteller. I got my start in theatre way, way back in the late (19)60’s (Middle School). I went on in college to add film and video work to that. Telling stories in linear, visual media is my background. Today, however I’m a static story-teller, similar to a photographer, and the Artist’s Journal has now become my new lab.
I no longer keep an Artist’s Journal simply to capture and store ideas. In the Artist’s Journal I hone my ability to visually portray what I’m ticked off about, what I’m passionate about, or what I’m excited about. Step by step, I’m leaving planning and preconception behind.
These days I’m simply trying to begin to make art with little or no notion of what I’m even going to say, and I’ve got to tell you, that takes a great deal of courage. My training in theatre and film both required a ton of preproduction planning. Most visual art doesn’t. It’s not like I’m Michaelangelo doing the David or the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Sure, if I had a public commission, I’d thoroughly plan it out, but I don’t do public commissions.
These days my Artist’s Journal is a lab or a playground where I can experiment, and “waste” materials to learn what I can do with them. Working in my Artist’s Journal allows me to develop and hone a deepening connection with life, story, and visual expression.
When it comes to self-expression, most of us don’t think a lot about what’s on our minds. We simply put it into words and speak our minds. That’s exactly what an Artist’s Journal is helping me to get better at; to portray with few words and very meaning-filled picture(s) what’s on my heart and mind.
For inspiration I’ve been visiting loads of other artist’s websites who work in Collage, Mixed-Media, Assemblage, Altered Books, Art Books, and Artist’s Journals (I love these media!). What I’ve found, especially among the Artist’s Journals, is the cathartic, therapeutic, release of laying out what’s on the artist’s mind in pictures and words. Much of it is really wonderful because it speaks clearly and powerfully, “I’m hurting,” or “I’m totally filled with joy,” or “That really ticks me off!”
My left-brain has been the root source of the disconnection. I’ve been better able to talk about what’s on my mind rather than to simply portray it visually. If I did beautiful compositions only, then I’d be producing a great deal of work without story; for me, nice but devoid of meaning.
My storytelling arts practice demands the presence of the human condition. I don’t care if it’s a gently smoking pipe in an ashtray, or a footprint in the sand. Someone passed this way. Someone with a life has been here. In fact I really love artifacts; the merest suggestion of human presence. I love the mystery of who they were, why they were “here”. That’s probably why I love Archaeology so much – but I digress.
This idea is similar to what I’d tell my casts when I directed theatre productions; out there, backstage, beyond the set is the rest of the story-world. It’s called back-story. It’s our responsibility to give our audience a sense of a full-scale world beyond the walls of the set. They need that full-scale context beyond the scenes of our play, right here on-stage. I want the same sense of back-story in my work; the art is merely a window into a larger world “beyond the looking glass”.
It’s what we, as viewers/readers bring to the theatre when we watch a good play, read a good novel, or see a good film; we see something of ourselves in these story-telling media. I want my art to suggest something larger, a back-story that the viewer brings with them to their own personal engagement of the work.
It doesn’t matter what they bring to the experience, because in reality, it’s their story. They hopefully see/experience something for and of themselves. And I’m finding that the best place to hone my skills to express story in my artworks, is through the safe, never a mistake, don’t think, don’t “fix it” sheets of my Artist’s Journal.
Mother’s Day is a kind of broad experience for me because in effect I have had three mothers bring me into the world and raise me. My “mother” is a person of collaboration; three people who have done their part and handed me off to the next to continue the process. This went on from my birthday right up to mere days before my 18th-birthday.
For eighteen years these three women, my birth-mother, her sister (a maternal aunt), and their mother (my maternal grandmother) all worked hand in hand to provide a home, protection, and life-guidance. All three of them have passed on now; my mother when I was 7-years old, my grandmother when I was 17, and my aunt when I was an adult and married to the love of my life, and a father to our three children. Only my aunt got to see her “grandchildren”.
It’s on mother’s day that I miss them most because I know that my mother and grandmother would have fallen in love with my bride, Emily. If there was ever any truth to the saying that a man marries his mother(s), it’s right on the money for me. I married a wonderful woman who characterizes much of what I valued in both my aunt and my grandmother. It’s uncanny, but Em will often make gestures, stand, or make facial expressions just like my aunt. Em’s sense of generosity, hospitality and elegance all remind me of my dear grandmother. They’d have gotten along like family.
The best way I can repay them all is to heed their counsel well, deeply honor my own covenant of marriage, and to raise our children the very best way we can. These three mothers have all invested their lives into mine, as do all good mothers into the well-being of their own children.
I hope that in some way this will be a special day of gratitude from you toward your mother(s). Mums everywhere, I hope you will be blessed by the families, yours or surrogate, in whom you’ve invested so much of your own lives.
Thank you and bless you all.