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.
You’ve seen them at variety shows, and circuses; plate spinners. To great fanfare and energetic music they place long thin rods into a base on the floor and proceed to balance a plate atop each by spinning it. They begin with maybe four and by the end of the act they’ve got eight, ten, maybe twelve or more plates up there spinning away. The suspense of this show is that the performer must run from one plate to another whipping the rod round to give its plate the spin needed to stay up there. The grand finale is that, for a mere moment, they can actually stop long enough to take a bow before rushing along the line of rods collecting their plates without dropping a single one.
I don’t know about you, but as a working artist and a global thinker I can sometimes get too many plates spinning. These gifts of being both global and a philomath are driving forces to my art practice, but unless I channel them somehow I break far more plates than I spin. I get far too many “ideas” about what I might make. I get to thinking about how to show ‘n’ sell my art long before I’ve even created any. It’s frustrating.
In the last several of weeks though, I’ve finally got some of this discomboobulation figured out (which is why it’s been so long between posts here). I’ve found that if I mix just the right amount of disciplined art-making time, with just the right amount of flexibility I can actually get the work made without losing other tasks between the cracks.
In the past I’ve tried everything from rigid schedules, to no schedule and everything in between. I’ve set digital reminders (like egg timers) to tell me that it’s time to go here, do that, and make this. In that milieu though, the uninterrupted serendipity of creativity simply hit the floor. Then I gave up entirely and just did what seemed to be the right thing to work on at the moment.
For example; Have you ever gone onto the internet specifically looking for one thing, but getting drawn down various other fascinating bunny-trails, and after two or three hours of fascinating wandering, discover you’ve gained nothing? Being a philomath it happens to me all the time. So how do I organize myself in ways that enhance how I’m wired AND get the best art made at the same time?
It took a lot of experimentation but, I am now trying out what I call a Work Guide, and so far it’s been wonderful because I’m getting good work done and lots of it.
I found that the artist in me needs regularly set aside hours of uninterrupted, focused, making. I need to be free of concern for other tasks; learning, marketing, portfolio, CV, etc. I need to know that none of these other important items will be overlooked or forgotten. I also had to ask myself what the most important thing about my art practice really is. It’s about making the very best art I can at this moment, and yet I’m not a creativity factory. I’m not doing this just to “produce”, hence the gentle, uninterrupted art making time. The solution God gave me is wonderful in its simplicity.
I now commit to making art for at least 5-hours every morning beginning at 8am, and I will work on only one of the three types of art I am currently making. On Monday & Tuesday, I bind books. On Wednesday & Thursday, I make Collage Quilt Works. On Friday & Saturday, I make Collage/Mixed-Media Paintings. After lunch each day, I review my other commitments. If there’s nothing needing my attention, I just keep going with the morning’s work.
The exciting thing for me is the juxtaposition of both sacred / don’t interrupt me / must do the work art-making time, and the fluid / open-ended / serendipitous flexible time of other tasks and commitments. When I get to my afternoons I can rest assured that the Main Thing was tended too – Making Art for that day. In the afternoon I’m free to go on an Artist’s Date (Julia Cameron), or other refreshing, creativity nourishing outing. I’ve done the work and I can “play” if I want to without any guilt (art-journaling / photography / sketching / drawing / reading).
It all reminds me of Twyla Tharp‘s wonderful book, Creative Habits: How to Develop and Keep One. She uses habits, what she calls “rituals”, to get her started, focused, and prepared to make meaning for the day. Come what may, good days, lousy ones, she goes through her rituals and gets the work done. It happens because she protects her creative self and her process through meaningful, preparatory habits / rituals.
I’m sorry Julia Cameron, but I must delay my Morning Pages for five hours until after I’ve made my art for the day. Anything that needs attention, like a wonderfully nagging great idea, is parked quickly and briefly onto a note pad and I get right back to the making. The Making of Art is the Main Thing, everything else in my practice is in support of that fact.
So far it’s working really well! Oh, there’s my 8-o’clock alarm. Sorry, I gotta get to work!
How do you deal with your own productivity in balance with all else that you do and are? What works for you? Do you know how you’re wired for learning and creating and are you caring for it?