What or How?

Again, I feel as though I’ve used everything up.  Another bird and teacup??  An animal on a tenuous perch??  I’ve squeezed these ideas dry.  So, I look to others and how they find subjects or at least a starting point.  Peter Doig for example, he often starts with a photograph either taken by himself or found.  It’s only a starting point but it seems to get him into the painting.  Many  artists do this - Cecily Brown is another, her finished painting bear virtually no resemblance to the starting figurative imagery and yet it seems she needs to have that foundation to get going and ground the thing.  Why then am I so determined to come up with ideas and create from thin air?  Is that really realistic?  Is it necessary or helpful?  I’m starting to think not.  


Have I been asking the wrong question all these years?  Maybe the question isn’t ‘what shouldI paint’ but rather, how shall I go about painting whatever I choose to paint.  My journals are littered with decades of asking this question - what is the subject, where is the subject. etc.  Usually, the question was answered as I looked out the door or took a walk in my neighborhood.  No mythic scenes, no epic depictions, usually in the end, just things I know sitting around outside.  I’d find a topic and exhaust it.


So, instead of what  to paint it feels that I should and can paint everything.  A face, a tower, a fish, a boat, the stars, a tall tree, etc., etc., etc.  What ties these all together is far broader than a unified and predictable subject  but rather, my point of view.  This point of view is grounded in Love.  Empathy.  That sweet, slightly painful tenderness and vulnerability I feel as I walk in this world.  If I can be as quiet and truthful about this as I’m working, inevitably the painting will be infused with those attributes and THAT is what I’m painting.  The subject is irrelevant.


I know that if I can clarify my thinking - answering what my essential point of view is regarding my life, how I experience it and what I believe to be true, then the foundation upon which to build would begin to be clear.  I’ve done this before, probably less consciously and those foundations served me.  But, like a home, or a seed pod, a shirt or snake skin, I seem to  have outgrown the previous conditions and need to renew this process again.

The Digital Devil

From ‘The Remains of the Day” but Kazuo Ishiguro where the main character, Mr. Stevens is looking back over his life in general and in particular, his often awkward and strained relationship with the housekeeper, Miss Kenton.


“But what is the sense in forever speculating what might have happened had such a moment turned out differently? One could presumably drive oneself to distraction in this way.  In any case, while it is all very well to talk of ‘turning points’, one can surely only recognize such moments in retrospect.  Naturally, when one looks back to such instances today, they may indeed take the appearance of being crucial, precious moments in one’s life; bit of course, at the time, this was not the impression one had.  Rather, it was as though one had available a never-ending number of days, months, years in which to sort out the vagaries of one’s relationship with Miss Kenton; an infinite number of further opportunities in which to remedy the effect of this or that misunderstanding.  There was surely nothing to indicate at the time that such evidently small incidents would render whole dreams forever irredeemable."


Thinking back over the past 10+ years and decisions made, actions taken and consequences realized.  Some years ago I made a decision to allow reproductions to be made of selected paintings.  A number of factors came to bear on this decision; numerous people were contacting me describing how they could never afford an original painting but loved my work and asked if prints were available.  This request interested me in the sense that the reproductions could allow some aspect of my work to be in the hands of those who could never afford it otherwise.  I deeply understood this - I could never afford to by one of my paintings either.  Also, I liked the idea of a ‘passive’ income - something that would pay my studio rent and not intrude too much into my day to day studio practice.  I created parameters that would make me feel better about this - limited editions, signed and numbered and all printing done by a printer of my choice so I could oversee the quality.  


While the decision to venture into this world wasn’t taken lightly, I forged ahead, certain it was the right thing to do despite some galleries and fellow artists cautioning against it.  I went forward and soon after started to realize increasing interest in the prints as well as sales.  It was working.  Then, surprisingly, other requests started coming in.  Interest came from licensing companies wanting to license certain images for use on greeting cards, coffee mugs, jigsaw puzzles.  I was surprised because I had always thought of my work as ‘fine art’ not coffee mug designs but nevertheless, the requests kept coming.  It was seductive to have more of a trickle of money coming in without doing really anything other uploading a high resolution file and signing a contract.  I tried a couple venues thinking that no one in the ‘art’ world will ever see these and my reputation as a fine artists will remain intact.


Anonymity, and the idea one could shield certain aspects of one’s life from the public has been nearly destroyed by the internet.  I have a robust online presence and as such, every decision mentioned above is now available to be seen, acted upon and sometimes judged.  Perhaps I was naive or willingly blind to these consequences but now, I have a strong online presence as an creator of paintings as well as an artist whose work can be found on jigsaw puzzles, greeting cards and prints.  And, while I would like to minimize or eliminate the reproduction products of my online presence, there is very little I can do about this digital footprint.  


It’s been suggested to me that no serious gallery will take an artist who makes prints (no less puzzles and coffee mugs) seriously.  I suspect this may be true.  However, there are many new galleries and collectors that embrace this new mercantile sensibility in a fine art world.  In particular, the so-called Pop Surrealist movement is a world filled with numerous ways to acquire some aspect of an artist’s imagery from prints to t-shirts, cell phone cases, etc.  But, that isn’t my world.  While I have following in that realm of the art world I see my work best presented to a wider, less specific audience.


As I look back to a series of decisions made - some for good reasons like creating greater accessibility to my work and a few foolish decisions like licensing my artwork for mass produced, consumer goods all in the hope a a few thousand dollars a year in ‘passive’ income was unwise.  I fear my reputation has been seriously damaged and I now must try to rectify the damage done.  I fear those seemingly small ‘turning points’ may, as Mr. Steven said above, ‘would render whole dreams forever irredeemable’.  Time will tell.



The Beach

The shore, the beach - lands end, waters end. A place of endings and beginnings.  The point where change is constant - the sand and rocks constantly rearranged, tides rise and fall.  Marks made, erased.  A place of redemption - decisions made, regrets perhaps, eventually washed clean by the incessant tides.

Interestingly, I now live very far from any ocean and yet I feel it's transformative and primal power as I reflect on where I stand now.  While the constant flux of water meeting land is not part of my world now, I sometimes feel I live at the meeting point of two similarly large and different entities - the vast Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains.  I live where these two opposites meet - not unlike where the water of the sea meets the land.  

28 Years Ago (and little has changed)

I was looking for some writing I'd done in the late 1980's and came across this short but astute observation I made in July, 1989:

"What a difficult day. The paintings elude me.  They hide and tease me but when I think I've found one it withers away, trite and easy.  There are a thousand easy paintings."

This remains true today. While some of my concerns have changed the core sentiment remains the same.  I once again find myself searching and find the paintings elude me.  It is lovely serendipity to come across this old musing - it reminds me that the walk is never finished, there are simply stops along the way.  I'm walking again, in low light and fog but still walking.

The New Year

Today the beginning of a major renovation of two paintings.  I thought they were finished but now I see they are not.  Much was destroyed in the service of something more true and more clear.  I’m beginning to understand that one must deeply love the thing one is creating.  One must nurture it and let it become the most important thing in the world.  At the same time, one must be willing to risk its complete destruction.  It’s a tenuous balance between what appear to be opposite desires but look deeper, and what appears to be destruction is actually another form of love.  It’s the willingness to completely let it go and allow it to become something more true, more clear.  That’s love.