I’m feeling bipolar lately. My mood has been up and down, sometimes all at once. SAYING I need to rethink how to get my artwork out into the world sounds very brave and confident. In reality, I just want to hunker down and run away.Today, in between making horse sculptures for some stores, I followed a link to an interesting blog called “Redefining Craft” which you can see here: http://www.redefiningcraft.com/
I really don’t speak academese, so I skipped through some of his entries until I hit the one for February 8 entitled, “Art vs. Craft: Who’s Winning?” In this entry, Dennis Stevens posts two images, one of a Nike shoe on a stick, and one of a mask by glass artist William Morris.
Or rather, according to Mr. Stevens, “non-artist” William Morris. It turns out the Nike shoe is the image that provokes and enlightens, while Morris’s work is merely a hijack of another culture’s imagery for his own gain.
Wonder what Mr. Stevens would say about my Lascaux imagery?
Oh, well, at least it’s possible that Lascaux IS my cultural heritage. It’s possible some of my ancestors were French.
But I have to admit, I felt a certain dismay that as a craftsperson, I’m in danger of being left on the side of the high-culture highway for lack of having anything potent or portent or important to say.
It’s a movie about a young art student at college. He finds his beautiful work is totally ignored by his teachers, his peers and the art world while pretentious, self-aggrandizing crap is revered as “true art”. The kid eventually passes himself off as a serial killer so he can attain his ultimate goal of being a famous artist. (Because as soon as he’s arrested, his paintings sell like hotcakes.)
There’s one thought, and one thought only that moves my heart gently back to its rightful place.
I didn’t deliberately choose any of this (except for one thing.)
I didn’t deliberately manufacturer the message of my art.
Call me lazy, call me shallow, call me a clueless craftsperson or a non-artist. All I know is, ten years ago I felt like I was dying inside. And when I hit the lowest point in my life, I make one of the most important decisions of my life.
I decided to make the stuff that made me feel human again.
I tried a lot of different things and a lot of different techniques until I found the ones that felt…that resonated…the most with what was in my heart.
It just FELT right.
Of course I have great hopes for my artwork. And of course I want people to buy it. And of course I hope to be recognized for making beautiful things.
But I didn’t choose what I do to attain that. It chose me.
All the discussions about art vs. craft, about what makes great art, and who is a “real artist” make my head hurt. They always have.
In the end, I’m left at the end of the day with one question.
Did I make something I’m proud of?
And did I put enough of myself into it that it calls to other people?
And did I do at least one thing to get it out into the world for others to experience?
Okay, more than one question at the end of the day.
But these are the questions I CAN answer.
I’ll leave the more academic questions for wiser people than me to answer.
Today I found a little mixed media art pin in my “treasure trove”, aka “Luann’s Big Pile O’Stuff”.
I can’t remember when or where I bought it, though I’m pretty sure it wasn’t an art/craft show. A gift shop or gallery, maybe?? It’s signed “Joan Considine” on the back, and “winter ’95/’96”.
At this time, I was on the cusp of stepping up to my art career. I was a) making doll quilts and fabric toys for my kids; b) knitting sweaters for my kids; c) making beaded jewelry; d) buying odd/broken bits of vintage jewelry from thrift shops and antique stores, and reworking them in new, refurbished pieces; 3) buying odd fabrics at thrift shops and antique stores and embroidering them into Victorian-style “crazy quilted” Christmas stockings; and f) beginning to work with polymer clay. I was beginning to rethink these “individual” craft categories, using polymer to make buttons for quilts, adding beads to the mix, and expanding my ideas about jewelry. A sea change was coming!
I have never liked some of the more popular color combinations. Pink and purple, for example, or magenta and teal together. They just seemed too…exuberant?…for my taste. I still shudder when I browse through the Sundance catalog at the jewelry pieces that combine lapis, coral, rose quartz, amethyst, and labradorite. It just feels like a riot of color to me.
When I started making art quilts with my little faux ivory horses, I actually stuck with the actual cave art palette, too. Rust, red and yellow ochre, black, brown, white. I wanted to be true to the real history of these cavees echoed in my work. And when I began to make jewelry with the same theme, I limited myself to this same palette, too.
But one day, as I was browsing my old college art history books, I remembered lapis was a pretty popular color with artists throughout history. I thought, “I bet if those artists had had access to blue, they would have used it!” That was my first step outside of the “rules” I’d followed. I realized my work, to be truly mine, had to have authenticity and a mystery of its own.
And yet, I still resisted using purple, even though its cultural heritage as a hue was almost as deep as those other “authentic” colors.
And then this little pin showed up.
What’s so special about it?
Hmmmm….the subtle beauty of the artist’s use of color.
This is a rectangle of good-quality matboard or cardboard (the deep muted gradient purple), a layer of heavy paper painted slate blue, and three smaller rectangles stacked, of olive green. The beads reflect these colors perfectly, with subtle jumps: Deep indigo, steel blue, olive, deep plum, taupe. And the beads are beautifully stacked, with subtle but balanced combinations in color and shape. Even the jump rings that attach the dangles to the pin are deep blue. And the two largest round beads are hung separately, a dangle on the dangles.
So. Color. Gradient. Complementary hues muted to work with each other in a way that doesn’t jar. Beaded structure. Movement. Subtle sheens in paint and bead coatings to play with light.
My studio supplies–fabric, beads (glass and gemstone), paints–now reflect almost every color of the rainbow, though similar to this pin. No neons, except to mix with other colors to get a little “pop”.) I’ve gotten past “matchy-matchy” and strive for “look how this color makes that one sing!” I still prefer a warm palette.
I still don’t like “color riots”, and I still prefer colors that play well together.
But now I do use blue.
The last few days have reminded me of that fateful day in 2001, the day I questioned why I even bothered with my art, making something as meaningless as “little plastic horses.”
And like that day, not only am I restored to myself by making my art, and hearing from others that my words and work have helped them, I can’t help thinking about this jewelry artist. I can’t find them online, and so have no way of knowing them or their work.
But their little paper pin has brought beauty and joy into my life for over 25 years. It helped me step outside my (color) box comfort zone. It broadened my horizons, and still I marvel at it today.
Know that what we do, whatever creative work that’s in us, is important. Not just to us, but to someone else out there in this wide, sometimes scary, often jaw-droppingly beautiful and kind world. Someone who will be inspired by what we do. Encouraged by what we do, or say. Someone who will find solace and/or joy in our music, our dance, our designs, our gardens, our words, our vision.
Whatever is in us that heals us, will heal someone else.
Do your work, and know that it is a gift to the entire world.
Do your work, and get it out into the world.
Do your work, because it is yours, and this is why this gift was given to you.
LEARNING TO SEE: An Art-Making Class with Kristina Wentzell
This story originally appeared on artist Kristina Wentzel as a guest post on her blog in June, 2014, the year we moved to California. Kristina and I organized our first city-wide open studio tour in Keene, NH. Working with her (and her skill sets!) was terrific, and I knew I was going to miss her. She had created a series of wine-and-vineyard-painting classes, and offered me a free session as a going-away gift. I learned more than I had expected. It was a good thing!
Last night I sat down to an easel for the first time in 45 years.
And I created a painting that I LIKED for the first time in my life!
How did I get here?? It’s a miracle!
I was part of Kristina Wentzell’s painting party at the “Art, Wine & Fun Night at Walpole Mountain View Winery” in Walpole, NH.
Kristina started these painting workshops awhile back. Known for her own vibrantly colored, cheerful landscapes and still lifes, she works with groups to introduce them to the pleasures of painting.
Kristina showed us how to recreate one of her original paintings-in this class, a view of a vineyard. (The best part of this class? You could look out the window in the sunroom/tasting room where we worked, and see similar mountains and vineyards!)
Our workspace at the Walpole Mountain View Vineyard. As lovely as Kristina’s painting!
She broke it down into a step-by-step process, guiding us all the way. When we were ready to get to work, we sat ourselves in the sunporch/tasting room, with gorgeous views of the vineyards on three sides. Easels were already set up and ready to go with a primed canvas, along with brushes (two), paint palettes (a paper plate with the eight colors we’d need) and a waterproof tablecloth (which was useful almost immediately!)
Here’s where it all starts: Orange!
Kristina showed a finished sample of her painting-the one we would recreate– along with versions of each step. As she explained each technique, she demonstrated on each appropriate sample painting.
We started with a light charcoal sketch, which allowed us to play with our compositions until we got one we liked. Then we mixed our first wash of color and painted over our sketched lines. We continued to mix the colors Kristina introduced, adding layer after layer of hues, moving into different areas of the canvas.
I do like my mountains!
As we worked, Kristina came by with encouragement and suggestions. When I got stuck, she was right there, guiding me gently along. When I ran out of green (about three times!), her assistant Kat, a Keene State College art student, was right there with the paint tube.
âKristina worked with everyone, to make sure no one felt left behind!â
The hardest part? I was surprised by what I thought would be the easiest step: Mixing colors. Kristina showed us how to work the pigments together, creating a little “mound” of color. It’s actually harder than I thought to mix pigments into such a small, neat “pile”. I tend to mush it all over, which not only takes up a lot of “real estate” on my plate, as Kristina put it, but also makes the paint dry faster. I believe I’m the only person who had to ask for an extra plate. The result was, I had to constantly stop to mix more color, which meant a subtly-different color mix each time. Hmmmmmâ¦ I’m gonna have to practice that! (See my n.b. at the end of this article for why that was kind of a bad thing….)
Still need to master the “little mound” method of mixing paint. I used up all my “real estate” on the plate, as Kristina put it
âI was graciously given a second plate.
The second hardest part? Like any work of creativity, what we make doesn’t look like much until we’re completely finished. It’s important to keep that in mind at all times. It takes patience and confidence to accept each step as “what it is”, moving on to the next step, and the next. Until finally, we’re ready to tweak here and thereâ¦.and voila! A miracle! (Defined by my good friend Melinda LaBarge as a “change in perpective”.) Instead of cartoonish drawings and blobs of color, a lovely landscape emerges. And there is our finished painting. I carefully signed “LU” to the bottom corner, not trusting my skill at painting my whole name.
The beauty of this process is that I never felt I’d “screwed up”-at least, not irreparably so. Sometimes I made course corrections. Other times I shrugged and said, “No, it doesn’t look exactly like Kristina’s.”
Because it shouldn’t look exactly like Kristina’s! As each person bravely held up her piece, (and the admiring “ooohs” and “ahhhhs” started) it was so obvious to all of usâ¦.
We had all painted “the same thing” in a style that was uniquely ours.
All of our color choices were similar-but also very different. Some of us had limned gently rolling hills. Others had mountains that seemed to dance. Some of us had painted a soft sky, while others had skies that rolled and glowed.
We had all created a version of Kristina’s painting. And we had all created something very different and unique.
I like my trees….
My grapevines looked a little like lettuce, so I went rogue and added some squiggly details to them. They still look like lettuce. But like artistic lettuce.
I’ve learned the power of good framing. Tomorrow I’ll mosey on down to Creative Encounters in downtown Keene. I know Karen Lyle and her staff will help me choose the perfect frame for this piece, at a price that’s affordable for me. It will join the other works in my collection of new and vintage landscapes, painted by talented professionals and eager neophytes. (Of which I’m firmly the latter.)
I had a wonderful evening out with delightful people. I sipped local wines, munched on incredibly delicious cheese and met up with old friends. I now own an original painting by Luann Udell for the price of a few good bottles of wine.
And I came home with an incredible sense of accomplishment and joy. I have lost my own fear of painting. I’m not giving up my day job to become a painter. But I now see the attraction of the process. And I’m delighted with my modest results.
Thank you, Kristina!
(n.b. Later I wondered why my painting looked slightly garish, very vivid colors. That was another learning moment. The room we worked in had dim lighting, suitable for wine-tasting, perhaps, but not for painting. As the sun set, the room became darker and darker. So I unconsciously over-compensated for what I “saw”, and that’s what happened.
A small lesson in realizing what we “see” is not always “true”, nor the whole story. We have to consider the light. The circumstances. And our assumptions.
Later, I gave the painting to a sweet next-door neighbor on the Old West Side when we moved to our new rental home on the east side of Santa Rosa. She loved it!
This post is by Luann Udell, regular contributing author for FineArtViews. She’s blogged since 2002 about the business side–and the spiritual inside–of art. She says, “I share my experiences so you won’t have to make ALL the same mistakes I did….” For ten years, Luann also wrote a column (“Craft Matters”) for The Crafts Report magazine (a monthly business resource for the crafts professional) where she explored the funnier side of her life in craft. She’s a double-juried member of the prestigious League of New Hampshire Craftsmen (fiber & art jewelry). Her work has appeared in books, magazines, and newspapers across the country and she is a published writer.
WHY MILLENNIALS DON’T BUY OUR ART: They Don’t Appreciate the Value of a Real Artist!
Maybe being a “real artist” isn’t a special, private club with high membership fees.
(5 minute read)
Continuing the series about why millennials don’t buy our art, and continuing last week’s column about why (or whether) millennials don’t appreciate or collect real art and real artists.
Some folks commented that young people today just don’t appreciate the hard work, commitment, and time it takes to get good at making our art. The words “real art” and “real artists” came up a lot.
I grew up with the belief that I could not be a “real artist” until I learned how to draw, how to paint, and until I obtained a degree or two in art.
When I couldn’t get into art school, my lifelong dreams were shattered. I was accepted into a couple of bona fide art schools, but I chose to go where my best friend, my secret crush, and my actual boyfriend went. And I couldn’t get in. I was allowed to take a few actual art classes.
But some teachers could be disparaging and quite critical of students. I was never one of the “favored few”. As a young person just out of high school, I did not have the backbone, the conviction, nor the talent to take that as a challenge.
Instead, I took it as a life sentence of “not a real artist”.
So, for those who did get into art school, and/or those who have independently taken workshops and classes along the way, I envy and also respect your determination, dedication, and persistence in educating yourself the expected way.
Except for the occasional dip into that pond, I had to find my own path.
So, here we go:
4) Why is a “professionally trained” artist automatically worth more respect?
There are plenty of self-taught artists who have mastered their medium through practice and diligence. Not all artists can afford a college diploma, nor expensive art classes. I’ve always been baffled by CVs and resumes that list the well-known artists the person has studied under. Either I don’t know them, or I don’t see that artist (the one writing the CV) is that much better than someone who studied under someone less well-known. To me, it means the artist had the time and money to take workshops. Some artists restrict their teaching to artists who are already “good enough”. Many don’t. I admire everyone who has found a way to get better.
And not everyone who puts that time, money, and effort into getting better, actually does get better. Hard to accept, but true. Even if they do get better, that doesn’t necessarily mean the connection of the art to an audience is actually stronger. I have bought artwork that is “primitive” in nature (although “primitive” doesn’t automatically mean “not as good”, see #4) because it spoke to me. For me, it’s not just about skill. It has to resonate with me on a level I may not even be able to verbalize. (In fact, this is a quality a well-respected psychiatrist shared with me about why they collect my own work.)
Also, some media are easier to practice than others. They may be easier to master. But as in my case, that “less respected because it’s easier” may also simply fit the nature of the artist themselves. I loved doodling, but hated drawing from life. I hate, hate, hated painting.
I loved shaping things with my hands. I loved the ability to go back and correct errors, to see where the shape-less lump of clay could go, if only I did this instead of that. And I loved not having to buy a kiln, try to find a safe place where it could fire, to unpack the kiln after firing and realizing the glaze did something vastly different than I intended. (My father-in-law took up ceramics late in life. Mastering the glaze was his major challenge. And when that glaze took a surprising turn-for-the-truly-interesting, he was frustrated by his inability to recreate it decades later.
That would have driven me nuts. Polymer clay met my personality, my nature, and my intentions much better than earth clay.
That’s why I constantly rail (as one commenter has said) that ranking media is a simplistic way to approach the question “Which medium is best?” The better question is, “Which medium is best for you?”
“I learned that an artist is not necessarily someone who has studied art, but one who has something to say, and has the courage to say it. I learned that an artist is someone who makes art in order to save her life”
“If you bring forth what is within you what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” –Jesus, from the Gnostic Teachings.
Your mileage may differ, of course.
To continue our discussion, check in next week with the third part of this originally very long article about real art and real artists.
Remember you are entitled to your own opinion, and this advice is worth every penny you paid for it!
In fact, it’s not even “real” advice. Just an opportunity to challenge our assumptions that hopefully will lead to a happier place in our life with our art.
In the meantime, if you enjoyed this article, please feel free to share it. And if someone sent you this article and you liked it, you can sign up for more articles at Fine Art Views or more from me at my blog at LuannUdell.wordpress.com.
There are many ways to be a force for good in the world!
I’ve met many creative people over the years. In fact, I might meet more than most other artists, because, a) I accept many ways of being “creative” in the world, and b) because I ask.
Ask what? Well, when new folks visit my studio for the first time, especially when they are still in the exploring/browsing stage (i.e., not actively looking to buy something), I often ask them, “What creative work do YOU do?”
It breaks my heart when they protest they are not creative at all. Nope, not a creative bone in their body. Other people are artists, but not them.
When I tell them my definition of “creative” is pretty broad, that’s when the conversations really get interesting.
I explain that I can be a snoot about what is “real art”, too, but I prefer not to. “Shamans were healers, teachers, and artists,” I say. “So if you get joy from any activity that puts something in the world that wasn’t there before, and it makes other people’s lives better, too, well, then that is creative work, too!”
You should try this sometimes. The results are amazing!
People go from being apologetic and humble, to expanding (figuratively and literally.) They say, “Oh! Well then….” And stories come tumbling out.
There’s art, “fine art”, fine craft, functional craft, paper arts, etc. There are people who love the music arts (singing, composing, playing an instrument, dancing), dramatic arts (acting, writing plays, set designers, cinema), even comedy, mime, etc.
But there are also people who love to cook or bake. They take great pleasure in preparing a lovely meal and sharing it with family and friends. (By the way, baking is a lot harder to get right than cooking, especially when you are creating a new recipe. There’s science involved, just as tricky as creating glazes for ceramics.)
What about people who garden, or design landscapes, or arrange flowers, or work with dried flowers? (Yep, some of these are categories in the highly-respected fine crafts organization I still belong to in NH.) These are people who create something special for memorable occasions (weddings, funerals, Mother’s Day, etc.), or who make our neighborhoods, even our homes, look charming and lovely. It’s a lot harder than it looks (ask me how I know) to consider what blooms when, and how it coordinates or contrasts with other plants, whether it needs sun or shade, a dry climate or lots of rain, high maintenance or low. A beautiful plant can brighten someone’s hospital stay, or celebrate a birthday, or provide food for our family or the neighborhood.
What about healing? Some people just have a knack for getting to the heart of our aches and pains. They listen carefully, ask the right questions, and look for the best solution for us. They help us get better, they calm our fears and anger, they help us live our lives without pain, with clarity, without self-condemnation, and with better resources.
Then there’s nurturing. Some people are simply amazing with babies and youngsters, and whose care for the infirm or elderly makes a world of difference to those clients. We may not “see” them til we need them, and realize how grateful we should/could be.
Teaching can be an art. We’ve all had a teacher or two that made us wonder why they even bothered show up, who made our lives hell. And then there are those teachers whose grace and presence still echo throughout our lives, the teacher who believed in us when no one else did, who floored us with their kindness and attention, or pushed us harder to do better.
There are people who fix things and rebuild things, so that something we need to live our lives work better, last longer, and is more efficient. This becomes even more valuable in a world struggling with climate change and plastic debris, an instance where “less than” is actually a good thing.
What about the scientist who finds something unusual in that experiment, and ultimately finds a new medicine or treatment for millions of people who would otherwise live lives full of pain, disability, or mental anguish? If they save even a few people, how meaningful is their work? For those people, and their family and community, a lot. I started a list of other scientific life-saving and planet-healing stuff, but you get the idea.
Here’s why identifying these activities as “creative” is important:
I find when the person doesn’t do this work that means so much to them, it affects them deeply.
Sometimes it’s obvious. They seem wistful as they browse my studio. They tell a story about why they set that creative work aside. They “don’t have time”, or “it didn’t pay very well”, or “it isn’t ‘real art’”, or someone said they weren’t good at it. It seems like a luxury, something to be set aside when there are more important things to take care of. They miss it, but how can they justify the time and the energy when their lives are so full?
When that happens,I encourage them to do it anyway, however they can fit it into their life. After all, as some readers remind me, not every creative work we do can also earn us a living.
But as we talk, it’s very clear to me that they miss it. It brought them joy, it gave them energy, and now life just seems a little harder, a little crazier, a little more demanding.
They need to put it back in their life so they can live more fully, with a little joy and restoration to their higest, best self.
When I “decided” I wasn’t a “real” artist, there were other things that distracted me. But as I look back, they were creative work, too! Teaching, quilting, knitting, jewelry-making, all brought me a little comfort and joy through the years. It got me through, though, of course, “everything else” always came first: Childcare, housework, etc.
How did that work out for me? Well…it kept me in the look, until I chose to take it to a higher level. The quilting evolved into fiber collage. The buttons I started making (out of polymer clay) for my sweaters became horses, and fish, and bears. The jewelry-making got richer, better, and more uniquely my own. And teaching/sharing skills creates community.
I wish someone had told me there are a thousand ways to be an artist in our modern world, especially with all the new material, new techniques, and new resources available to us.
I wish other people weren’t so quick to stick me in a box, either judging my worthiness on whether my work was art, or craft, or simply too different to be considered anything. (Let me tell you about my very first attempt to introduce a gallery to my wall hangings, when I was told my “design aesthetic was immature….”) (Let’s just leave it at how relieved I was years later, when reliable sources confirmed that person had “issues”….)
I wish all the boxes weren’t so “square” or so narrow. I remember the relief I felt when I applied for a major fine craft show. I called the show organizers when I couldn’t figure out what medium to check on the application. The person I spoke to said firmly, “I hate that, too! We should appreciate the artists who are SO creative, there’s no single category to put them into!” (I quit pursuing many of those shows because I would be juried in for one medium, but not the others, often excluding the one that generated the most sales: Jewelry.)
I asked the art students what their creative work was. At first I got the usual: “Painting!” “Graphite!” (Ha! What a great way to frame pencil drawing!)
But when I opened that door to a broader definition, one said, “I love baking!” They said it proudly, too! I rejoiced at that and told them so. They may also pursuit the more commonly-recognized forms of art-making. But they were reassured that whatever the work of their heart is, it deserves their attention and time.
There is something for everyone, and it doesn’t have to be what everyone else agrees is “real art”.
If it makes us a better person, if it makes the world a better place, if it gives even one person in the world joy, hope, and validity, well then, I believe that’s a good thing.
And I’m delighted these young people already know they are “doing it right.” I can’t wait to see what they do with their passion, and their skills.
This article is by Luann Udell, regular contributing author for FineArtViews. Luann also writes a column (“Craft Matters”) for The Crafts Report magazine (a monthly business resource for the crafts professional) where she explores the funnier side of her life in craft. She’s a double-juried member of the prestigious League of New Hampshire Craftsmen (fiber & art jewelry). Her work has appeared in books, magazines, and newspapers across the country and she is a published writer. She’s blogged since 2002 about the business side–and the spiritual inside–of art. She says, “I share my experiences so you won’t have to make ALL the same mistakes I did….”
I may not like your art, but I celebrate the fact that it means so much to you, that you have a voice, a vision, and that you chose to share it with the world.
This post is by Luann Udell, regular contributing author for Fine Art Views. She’s blogged since 2002 about the business side–and the spiritual inside–of art. She says, “I share my experiences so you won’t have to make ALL the same mistakes I did….” For ten years, Luann also wrote a column (“Craft Matters”) for The Crafts Report magazine (a monthly business resource for the crafts professional) where she explored the funnier side of her life in craft. She’s a double-juried member of the prestigious League of New Hampshire Craftsmen (fiber & art jewelry). Her work has appeared in books, magazines and newspapers across the country and she is a published writer.
I have three cats. One I’ve had for over a decade, the other two are very new. (And coincidentally, both are black and roughly the same age.)
Old Kitty is affable, gets along with the dogs, moves like a raccoon, and does not adjust well to other cats. If I laugh out loud at something she does, she does it again. She hates to be held, but loves to be petted. She prefers floor toys to “air” toys.
Middle Kitty is also affable, and also gets along with the dogs. She gets along well with other cats. She will tolerate being held, but hates to be petted. She loves air toys, and is extremely athletic. She, too, is very funny to watch, but doesn’t seem to repeat when she hears me laughing.
New Kitty is anxious. She’s afraid of the dogs, she’s afraid of the other cats, she’s afraid of sudden moves and loud noises. But she is fearless about moving from her ‘safe’ place in our basement up into the living areas of our home. She’s determined to become a part of our household. She loves being held, and loves to be petted. We took her in off the streets, and she is only just now learning to play. She’s not very funny to watch.
Which one is the best cat?
Why on earth would I rate my cats? After all, animal lovers know that our pets are as unique as people are. They have their good points and their annoying habits. They vary in the degree of affection they demand and give. And the value they add to our lives is impossible to quantify. Yes, we can live without pets in our lives, but if you love animals, you know life is richer for their presence.
(If you don’t care for animals, substitute ‘children’. Or ‘friends’. I was going to say ‘or spouses’ but I’m not going there.)
Why, then, do we so easily discuss artists in terms of who’s good, better, best?
I do it. You do it. We all do it. We’re competitive by nature, and our human culture stresses that competition.
Who’s the best student in the class? Who draws the best horses? Who won that race? Which baseball team won the World Series last year? Who makes the most money, and who’s the smartest person in the room? (Notice I am deliberately not including politics.) (Oops!)
And yet, it’s also human nature to embrace individuality, and inclusiveness. We strive to help those who have less than we do. We try to create a level playing field for people who live with disabilities so they can thrive. We applaud those who fight for the underdog, the underserved, the overlooked, those who are ignored ridiculed, or even attacked for being different in any way.
And yet we are so quick to judge the work of other artists, and even our own.
We argue about the difference between what is art and what is craft. Some people believe any work of 2D art is worth more than the finest example of handcraft. We talk endlessly about what a ‘real artist’ is. We even create levels of respect for the medium we work with: Oil is ‘better’ than acrylic, acrylic is ‘more respected’ than watercolor, anything is better than colored pencil or sketching, and this is often reflected in the price people are willing to pay for these categories. Consider a clay sculpture that is then used to create a mold for a bronze sculpture. Which will call for the higher value—the original clay piece? Or the cast item that can be made into multiples?
Who’s the most skilled? That’s a can of worms. Next!
Who’s the most famous? Who sells the most? Shaky ground. You may be a ‘successful’ artist (and we’ve had many discussions on exactly what that really means, you may be in all the fine galleries and in all the art books and magazines. But put ten people in a room, ask them who is the best artist out there right now, and I can almost guarantee there will be at least one person who disagrees).
Years ago, I participated in a workshop called “The Picasso Principle”. The instructor examined Picasso’s undisputed fame, yet listed many artists who are historically considered ‘better’ than Picasso at drawing, composition, color, painting, etc. But no one was better than him at marketing. And so today you can ask any person on the street to name an artist in history, and most will say “Picasso!”—even if they cannot name a single work by him.
Yes, there are standards and measures of technique. There are competitions, there are honors awarded, there are noted ‘masters’ throughout art history. (Though again, I will also point out that entire genders, race, and countries were systematically left out of the so-called definitive textbooks of art history.)
And yet all of this is based on opinion, personal, professional, and historical.
I bring this up because of several conversations I had recently with other artists. In one, someone mentioned a gallery run by two artists. “Now, Joe Blow is a good artist!” they said. And pointedly did not mention the other.
In another group conversation, a fellow artist walking by, and I jokingly said to the others, “Now there’s a real artist!” A person took it personally, and reacted badly. Lesson learned. (My jokes are bad.)
The last was a discussion about artists who have been in a guild a long, long, long time. “Their work is stale, and some haven’t even created new work in years!” one person exclaimed. “They shouldn’t be included anymore!” I disagreed. It costs us nothing to include them, they contribute to the demographics and our finances, they have their following, and their body of work. Who knows why they aren’t making new work? Health issues? Financial problems? I would hate to have anyone judge me based on my occasional fallow periods. “If they were good enough to get in, they should be allowed to stay until they decide to leave. If and when they try to re-jury back in, then we can judge.” And the others agreed.
It all boils down to this:
I may not like you, and/or I may not like your art. I may not like your medium, or your process. You may not meet the standards of whatever group you’re trying to join; they may be wrong, or they may be right. You may be ‘successful’, or you may feel like you’re not doing it right.
But if you are doing your best to make your art
If you have something to say with your art, even if it’s only ‘look what I made!”
If you have a vision of the world, and you share that
If your work connects emotionally, spiritually, metaphysically with others, even one person (notice I did not say ‘physically’ unless your medium is glue.)
If you strive, as you can, to make it better, to improve your skills, your marketing, your relationships with your audience
If all you do is make the world a better place for even one person
Then you, and your art, have a place in the world.
I liked the article. The findings did not change my mind, especially since the study focused solely on drawing. I drew a lot as a child, so many people called me an artist. But I never really progressed past drawing horses, mice and rabbits. I took a few figure drawing classes in college. I enjoyed them–I like drawing bodies!–but didn’t pursue drawing after that. I still don’t really care for it.
I have no idea if I have that “innate” talent for drawing or not. I don’t know if I have the “artist’s brain” the study described, or not. And I don’t care. I rarely draw out my designs before making them. I work them until they feel “right”.
But I can see the headlines now: “Luann Udell Finally Unmasked! NOT A REAL ARTIST after all!!!”
Drawing is an admirable skill. But what about a beautiful singing voice? What about a honed sense of rhythm, timing and hand coordination that’s so critical to drumming? What about making a beautiful pot? Or weaving/quilting/wood working and other fine crafts?
Why do we value one form of art-making above all others, and make that the definition of an artist?
And why do we value one kind of intelligence–I.Q.–above all others?
So here’s my meandering thought trail….
1) When I was in middle school, there was a bright, well-liked young man. He didn’t get good grades, so I assumed he wasn’t a good student. After getting a particularly bad grade for a project he’d poured his heart into, he ran out of the classroom. I hate to admit this, but we laughed.
And the teacher–Mrs. Nancy Nash, one of my favorite teachers–scolded us. She said, “You think he’s not smart. But he is! He’s just not good at reading. Haven’t you ever realized how well he does in class discussions?! You should be ashamed!” She went out after him, and eventually they both returned to class.
And we sat, chastened. And thinking.
This was in the early ’60’s. No one knew about dyslexia, or learning disabilities. If you didn’t get good grades, you weren’t smart. Period.
But now there was a new thought in my head….. Different kinds of smart.
2) Fast forward to freshmen year in college. No, I wasn’t in art school. I couldn’t get in! But another woman across the hall from me was. Curious what a “real” artist looked like, I asked her about her major.
She was taking the prerequisite drawing classes, the ones every art student had to take. She hated them. She sucked big-time at drawing. (I know–I saw her work!) So why was she in art school?
“I don’t want to draw! I want to make stuff! Things that do things!” she exclaimed. Like what?, I asked. She pulled out some of the items she’d made in her high school art classes. We sat on the floor while she showed me all her little mechanical contraptions.
And one of them was a traveling salt cellar.
I don’t know why it stuck with me lo these many years. It was a silver salt holder, with a tiny handmade silver spoon, mounted on a sort of cart-like contraption with little wheels. You pushed it across the table.
It was adorable. Badly made, but adorable. The wheels were uneven and not mounted properly on their axles, so the salt shaker sort of lurched across the floor.
“I need to know how to make good wheels that really work. I need to know mechanics or something. I don’t know! But I can’t do anything else til I take all my prerequisites!” Which at the time was about two to four semesters of…..drawing.
I know there is discipline to drawing. I know it is a deep way of really “seeing”. I know for many people, drawing is a way of working out design elements, structural elements, etc.
But this woman had taught herself casting and soldering and metal working. Figure drawing didn’t figure into her game plan. (Sorry for the pun.) Her “smarts” were in a different area, one that, at the time, was not acknowledged or respected in regular “art school”.
3) Now let’s really fast forward to the mid-90’s. I’m a Tae Kwon Do student with a wonderful teacher who later became a good friend. He was patient, accepting, emotionally-evolved and funny. As I got to know him better, I learned about his school days.
Allyn never graduated from high school (though he did complete his GED). He had severe dyslexia. Like my fellow student in the ’60’s, his not-understood and not-diagnosed condition meant he didn’t do well in school. He did so poorly, in fact, that when he was in middle school, he was given a “permanent hall pass.” What does that mean, I asked him one day. It meant that he was considered stupid. He was so “uneducable” that he was allowed to roam the halls during regular classes, as long as he stayed out of trouble. Everyone pretty much assumed (and some still assume) he’s just not very bright.
Allyn also happens to be one of the most perceptive, insightful, emotionally-evolved, and intelligent people I know. He listens deeply, and observes carefully.
Whenever I encounter a puzzling social situation (and I encounter many, because that’s who I am), I call Allyn. And within a few minutes, he can tell me exactly what’s going on. In one sentence. I kid you not, he understands the motivation, the behavior and the dynamics and can summarize it quickly and easily.
I mentioned this to a friend who was taking graduate coursework in stuff like organizational dynamics. What she told me knocked my socks off.
Turns out that many people with so-called “learning disabilities”, especially dyslexia, cannot easily process information through reading. But their brain, like anyone else’s brain, is still trying really, really hard to learn, to make sense of their physical, social and emotional environment.
So these non-readers pay very close attention to everything that’s going on. They learn to see, to observe, and assess. They become highly skilled in areas that don’t involve reading and writing.
Unfortunately, since so much of our educational system is based on reading and writing, they rarely make it to college. They aren’t considered “smart” by most of the markers we consider for intelligence.
A different kind of smart……
I think it’s getting better. We “normal people” are learning.
We’re learning that there are indeed many kinds of “smart”. There are many kinds of “talented”. There are all kinds of “artistic”. There are a jillion kinds of “beautiful”. There are a cajillion ways of being kind, and accepting, and tolerant. (Cajillion is a whole lot more than a jillion.)
I like to think that if we spent less time drawing lines around who is and who isn’t an artist, who is and who isn’t talented, who is and who isn’t creative, who is and who isn’t smart/pretty/famous/whatever…..maybe we could simply be astonished by the incredible diversity around us, the remarkable creative range and emotional depth and loving heights the human spirit is capable of.
Maybe we could just let people enjoy the making of whatever makes their heart sing, and give them permission to do so.
And in the end, it’s not so much what’s in our brain, as what we do with it.