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.
I love problem solving in my art-making. I love tweaking, and trimming, and refining my process. I love watching the work improve with each new little innovation I learn and apply to the work.
This process of improvement is not a quest for perfection, but of excellence. I’m going to try to stay away from any discussion of the perils and pitfalls of so-called perfection. I’ll just say that the pursuit of perfection is nothing more than a futile dead end.
A very long time ago, I chose to pursue excellence with all of its twists, turns, and variations. And what that means in my handmade work that there are variations (not “imperfections”) in the work. These variations stand as a testimony to the maker’s hand in the making. I love the fact that, try as I might, the joins and seams of my collage quilt-block pieces are somewhat uneven. I enjoy that elements don’t match-up precisely, try as I might to make them do so. When I’ve finished, I see the variety of “marks” in the work because I made it all by hand. I love that. Marks of the maker is the inspiration behind the name of my ESTY store – Fingerprints. It’s also a faith thing with me; that God’s hand is everywhere in His creation.
Lately I’ve been building my 4-Panel Collage Quilt-blocks – I call them Quads for short. I got to thinking about what it takes to make just one of them and realized that there’s a boatload of hand-work involved.
I begin by painting the papers; 18 x 30-inch sheets, onto which I paint visual textures using donated (upcycled) latex house paints. I must have some 80 or 90 cans in various sizes, and with various colors. I love latex because it covers like acrylic, but it mixes and washes like watercolors. It’s incredibly versatile, and I’m keeping it all out of a landfill somewhere.
Once the paper-stocks are dry, trimmed and pressed for a week, I cut each collage piece according to the quilt-block pattern I’m following. Allowing for some edge overlap, I develop an assembly process for each design so that I achieve a well made block.
These blocks are glued-up onto either Masonite panels for single block artworks, or onto upcycled file folder card. The “singles” as I call them, are given a finish, framed, and sold. The rest of the work goes into the larger quad-pieces through a series of combining, cutting, and working with all of those “patches”, just the same as a quilt-maker does when doing a quilt top.
There’s a lot of thinking time when I’m working on these pieces. There’s a lot of mental energy spent thinking and re-thinking through the step I’ve just completed, the step I’m into, and the step I’m working toward.
In those mental moments I’m always having to tell my judgmental left-brain to just shut-up and go sulk in the corner. This is right-brain time and I don’t need the criticism and fear. It’s amazing to me that it takes this kind of mental discipline to quiet the judge/critic, even as my hand is approaching the work with another glue-backed piece.
“You’ve got to get it ‘right’!”, I hear, and I just block him/it. I think, “I am getting it right – not ‘perfect’ but excellent, and right.” I remind that little left-brain punk that it’s not an artist. Right-brain is the artist. It’s kind of like having a bold bullying kid going up against a gentler, quieter kid and having to defend the gentler one. I don’t isolate my right-brain, because the conflict teaches me to make choices about which one to “listen to”.
It’s what Betty Edwards teaches in her masterwork. Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. Her entire thesis rests on teaching readers/students how to silence the left-brain, activate the right-brain, and know when that has happened.
What’s your inner judgmental conflict like? How do you deal with what’s so often been called the “inner-critic”? What resources do you use to raise your self-confidence, and maintain it amid the risk-taking of creativity?