It’s About Being Creative

I sometimes encountered a bass player named David in a floating garage band that met in two places. Each location had its own roster of musicians, but I limped along at both venues strumming rhythm guitar. I was mediocre at best.  One day David chided me about my playing and said, “You know, sometimes it’s about being creative!”

He referred to my uninspired chords when we played extended jams that spiraled out for ten minutes plus. All songs stayed in E, and I ran out of ways to vary my approach after the first three minutes. I wanted to tell Dave that I might be a bit more creative if I had played guitar as long as he had, but I expected no understanding from him. He’d forgotten that he’d sucked when he first picked up a guitar, no longer remembered that his creativity was the product of instincts and muscle memory built up over years of practice.

I eventually gave up playing music in a group when it became clear that I didn’t have the drive or talent to improve significantly, and when I realized that I felt no special thrill even when I managed contribute a few choice licks. It all seemed a bit mechanical and boring compared to writing a poem or painting a picture.

Years earlier I met similar criticism at the University of Delaware. One instructor pressured me to vary the surface texture of my paintings (he made thick, painterly abstractions). Another criticized the stiffness and timidity of my brushwork. He demonstrated what he meant by taking my brush and making quick, fluid strokes that enlivened dead passages on my painting. Both professors expressed frustration with me when I did not follow their advice. They assumed that I was a tightly wound, repressed individual who would forever cling to a narrow range of effects.

I understood what they wanted, but couldn’t deliver it. I had to paint another seven or eight years before my brushwork became more spontaneous, before I learned how to paint thick, expressive passages with complex textures.

In both music and painting I understood that “it’s about being creative,” but I had a deeper desire to improve when it came to making fine art. And I gave myself time to experiment and fail. My painting technique eventually grew freer, the results got better, and my creativity blossomed.

I recently grew irritated with a student who rigidly stuck to her customary mode when painting an abstraction. She continually reverted to copying from a subject verbatim, held her brush in a death grip, and made scratchy little marks.  She refused to create rhythmic distortions in shapes, to flatten forms, to experiment with color. Instead she turned her picture into a muddy Impressionist mess.

I felt an urge to tell her to loosen up, to experiment, to make new choices. I almost said, “You know, it’s about being…”

 

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All This Useless Beauty

Wikipedia reports that the above phrase was the title of an Elvis Costello album recorded in the 90s.  Elvis gave it that moniker in the expectation that the music would be largely ignored, and he was proven correct.  The album tanked. I doubt that I’ve heard any of the tracks, but the phrase stuck in my mind.

My work as an artist has largely been met with indifference when it comes to sales, and I can look at rack after rack filled with still lives, landscapes, portraits, narrative paintings that I made to discover or feel something new.  They are the remnants of my explorations, markers on a map, and as such are useless even if occasionally beautiful.

The involuntary sequestering of my work used to bother me, but does so less and less.  I’m glad that I made all those prints, paintings and drawings, and it’s too late to take them back.  I didn’t waste my time even if they end up in a dumpster after I’m dead.  I believe that the thoughts and feelings they revealed still echo through the ether, still send out ripples of influence if only through the marks they made on me.  Making them changed me, and changed the way I interacted with the world around me.

I sometimes see God as a flamboyant creator.  All these galaxies of stars!  All these creatures clamoring for life, all these souls yearning for truth and beauty.  Such complexity and such simplicity wrapped together in a bundle of bundles as one universe births another.  Is there any point to all this?  Is it just an exuberant outpouring, an endless process of becoming?

There’s probably no point in worrying about what Creation means.  Perhaps it’s enough to watch in wonder and add a little bit to all this useless beauty.

My Wife Doesn’t Support the Arts

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It all started with her African violets.  Judy asked me to watch over them while she went away for a few days to a plant physiology conference.  I put them in my bedroom, admired the round forms of their leaves, and decided to do a series of charcoal drawings.  The series went well as I recorded the gradual descent of the stems, the drooping and dropping of the leaves.  When she returned I showed her the drawings before I returned her plants, and I waited for her to praise how closely I watched over them, how I put all my powers of observation into making a faithful record.  Instead she cried, “You didn’t water them!  They’re half dead!”  Her outburst shocked me.  How could she not understand that true art is about the cycle of life and death, the drama of mortality?  Her plants may have given up their lives, but they had made a worthy sacrifice for Art.

I decided to ignore her odd sense of priorities and married her, but the early days of cohabitation were fraught with tension.  Judy objected one day when she found me in the kitchen mixing painting solutions (varnish, stand oil, paint thinner) at the dining table.  She exclaimed, “We eat there!”  “Of course we do,” I replied.  “Are you saying that a table has only one function?”  She couldn’t find an adequate response to my query, but I agreed to mix my painting media on the back steps.  I thought, “This is how it starts.”

A few months later she asked me where the hammer was.  She’d rummaged through the tool chest and the drawers in the kitchen and couldn’t find it.  I said, “I’m using it in a still life.  Don’t touch it.  I’ll be done with it in a month or two.”  She shook her head in disbelief and failed to comment on my innovative use of nontraditional subject matter in a genre filled to overflowing with fruit ‘n flower paintings.  I began to wonder if I’d married badly.

DSC_0260 (2)Cat and Hammer, Oil/Canvas, 1985

Three years later she forced me to shut down my studio in a spare bedroom in our duplex apartment in State College.  I had to relocate to a cold and drafty basement and work wearing a coat during the winter months.  At the time of my banishment Judy was seven months pregnant and refused to listen to my objections.  She said, “We have to get the baby’s room ready now.”  I began to suspect that she placed more importance on family than on Culture. So bourgeois.

And then one day about six months later, she came down to the basement with a load of laundry on one arm and our daughter on the other.  I thoughtfully interrupted an intense painting session to warn her to not step on a tube of oil paint that I had left, for a no longer recalled strategic purpose, on the floor drain in front of the washer.  I gathered from the pained look she gave me that she thought that I should quit working and move the tube.  I gallantly ignored her unreasonable expectations and began to rework a difficult passage that I’d been struggling with for days.  (The demands my paintings made on me often left me exhausted and mentally battered, but I had become used to making sacrifices.)  I barely noticed when she slammed the lid to the washer and retreated with baby back up the basement stairs–stomp, stomp, stomp.  “Some people,” I thought, “have it so easy.”

This morning I set up my French folding easel in my bathroom and began a palette knife self-portrait.  I spent an hour or two.  Judy wondered what kept me out of sight for so long, and I asked her if she’d like to see how I had managed to turn yet another room into a studio.  She stared at my work arrangement and the newly begun painting, but instead of expressing wonder at my ingenuity she said, “I guess this means that you’ll be using my bathroom a lot.”

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My wife.  The muse.

R-nnn-Argh

DSC_0184 (2)R-nnnn-Argh, oil/canvas,  30×40″

I completed this painting last week after putting in some intensive work this summer.  I completed the first stage in 2012 (monochrome underpainting), but had no time or will to consistently work on it the last four years.

I used a fairly painstaking method in the second and third stages:   glazing and scumbling colors over the monochrome underpainting (like tinting a black and white photo).  At times I put off painting because it seemed too daunting to finish, and I regretted trying something new (an old master technique applied to photo-collage subject matter) on such a large scale.  I realize a few years back that it would have been a lot smarter for me to do this as portrait on a smaller canvas in partial homage to Jim Nutt’s latest series.

I abandoned R-nnnn-Argh for a year after finishing the background figures and landscapes.  I felt exhausted just looking at it.  The central man’s face seemed like an endless terrain when I first began to work on it, and I remember the tedium of painting waves and the folds in the fisherman’s shirt.

I recently began to work on it again, and to actually enjoy the process.  The only thing that slowed down the final stages was the heat in my studio.  In the summer, my air conditioner fails to keep the temperature under ninety degrees after 1 p.m., and I have to quit when I start to feel the symptoms of heat exhaustion.

If you’re trying to decipher the imagery, try reading Edgar Allen Poe’s, “The Man Who Was Used Up”.

Last night I pulled out another long term project:  “Higgins Didn’t Make It”, a faux science fiction painting.  I hope it won’t take me as long to finish this one, but I believe that I started it in 2013.  Time to get it done.

Higgins Didn't Make ItHiggins Didn’t Make It

Naked People

DSC_0132 (2)Hillary (charcoal, 20 minute pose)

I took a Drawing I class at the University of Dayton, and we drew boxes the first class.  The second we drew a model wearing a bathing suit.  By midterm the models wore nothing, but by then I had become habituated to seeing nude men and women on the modeling stage.  The problems of figuring out basic proportions and drawing hands and feet outweighed any shock I felt from seeing body after body.

I took a life drawing class the next semester.  The process was familiar, but the instructor demanded more.  And my classmates drew on a much higher level.  I felt intimidated, so I learned to steal from the best.  Gary drew like an angel–I couldn’t figure out how he captured a human figure and it’s surrounding space with a few lines.  But I noticed that he always included a rug or the section of the stage on which the model stood.  He showed a bit of depth that way.  I stole that.  Dave made bravura marks for emphasis after he had the main forms down.  I stole that.  Violet accented junctions where two planes came together, pop-pop-pop all around the drawing.  The accents created points of tension that countered the long lines flowing along the length of an arm or a leg.  Beautiful.  I stole that.

The models had varying attitudes toward their work.  One emaciated woman cringed before dropping her robe.  She slumped onto a cushion at the shadowed back of the stage, stared at the floor the whole time she posed, and answered the professor in monosyllables.  I felt guilty drawing her.  A short man with a muscular body held his head high and relaxed into his poses.  He lost his detached composure once when he caught me glaring at his groin.  I was trying for a third time to correctly draw the juncture where the thigh inserts into the hip, but he mistook my frustration for an odd reaction to the sight of his privates.  I shifted my gaze and drew his knees after I saw him frown back at me.  A redhead struck long, languorous poses.  Her lips curled in a lazy smile as she directed inappropriate jokes at the male students.  She’d say, “Well, boys, what are you looking at?” and “See anything you like, boys?”  During breaks she’d don a robe and walk around the class to inspect our drawings.  She didn’t bother to use a tie, and her garment gaped open as she stood next to us.  She had a crush on Gary and lingered at his drawings.  One day she exclaimed, “You make me look so beautiful!”  After she returned to the stage Gary slowly, deliberately erased her face off the drawing.

I eventually became an art instructor and taught life drawing with nude models.  I learned from painful experience to give my students a lecture about art room etiquette before a first lesson.  I say, ” One:  the model has not come to class to socialize with you.  I am not running a dating service, and you will not ask for a phone number.  Two:  you will not touch the model.  Three:  you will not make personal remarks or jokes about the model.  Four:  you will not photograph the model.  Five:  treat the model with respect.  If you cannot follow these rules I’ll kick you out of class, and you’ll have to find a way to make up for the missing drawings on your own.  That will cost you time and money.”  Then I give them examples of bad behavior.  “A student stood three feet away from a model and told me that the model was too ugly to draw…A woman in a figure painting class made a bad sketch of the model.  When the model returned to the stand after a break the student tried to twist the model’s arms and legs to match the mangled contortions of her drawing…A student, an older woman wearing a baggy sweater and bifocals, confronted a model on the first day of class.  She shouted, ‘Jezebel!  Jezebel!’ when the model opened her robe.”

I believe that the close study of a face and body (scars and all) is a way of honoring an individual’s history and humanity.  But some of my beginning drawing students refuse to draw from a nude person, even if the model is of their gender.   Religious faith trumps acceptance of the human form.  I give my moral protestors an alternative.  I send them out of the classroom to draw nudes from old master prints and paintings.  They never complain about that form of nudity–it’s second hand nature doesn’t compromise their principles.  I no longer bother to tell them that Raphael, Rubens and Da Vinci drew directly from models, that Western Art is based on the unembarrassed study of naked people.  If I did they’d only think that I was making excuses for my sins.

DSC_0133 (2)Joyce (oil on canvas)

Entering Into the Retirement Zone

I recently turned 58, and one of my birthday presents was the realization that I only have 7 or 8 more years to officially belong to the workforce.  I can continue on after that if I still feel some drive to teach and exhibit my work, so the end doesn’t have to be in sight just yet.  But the promise of an upcoming choice made me feel positively lighthearted.

And I had another realization:  my professional ambitions have largely gone unfulfilled.  I am not a tenured college professor, I’ve made nearly no impact in the world of fine art, and I’ve never earned more than chump change selling my art.  If I had known how things would turn out when I was twenty-five I might have chosen to become an accountant or a biological research technician, but I’m happily surprised to say that I’m not bitter about my choices.  I’m largely satisfied by the experiences I’ve accumulated as I made my artwork.  The sweetness of applying paint to canvas is addictive, and I’ve had 30 plus years to scratch that itch.  Teaching has been a trial at times, but helping students still satisfies me.

And it’s good to know that most accounts have been settled, that I’ve gone about as far as I’m going to go.  It’s an odd relief to accept that a final sink into oblivion is probably my natural arc.  I’ve never been a fan of suspense, of waiting for the moment when my professional fortunes would finally start breaking good.  The overwhelming evidence suggests that they never will.

I still remember how I used to torture myself when I was twenty-five about every move I made as an artist, how I questioned and doubted my abilities and potential whenever I finished a painting that didn’t turn out as well as I had hoped.  Now I know that it’s just a matter of averages.  Like a baseball hitter I’m bound to succeed and fail according to a percentage.  I’m happy when I do well but no longer hope that a streak of good work will continue indefinitely.  In my personal life I also have realized that I will inevitably screw up from time to time, and be thoughtful and kind other times.  I have fewer illusions about my ability to maintain a state of benevolence, and also know that I have a penchant for snarky cynicism.  I still feel guilty when I say or do something hurtful, but am aware that there’s another side to the ledger.

It helps of course that I’m married to a woman who accepts who I am.  The one blessing that I desperately needed when I was 25 was to find someone who saw me in my entirety and still loved me. It took another couple decades for me to figure out that she hadn’t made a self-destructive mistake by volunteering to live with me.  Now I finally can relax in the knowledge that we’ve had a mostly happy marriage and have been good for each other.

The next decade or two may consist of a long downward slide, but at least I’ve gotten some altitude (thanks to Judy) from which to descend.  To quote Edith Piaf, “No, I don’t regret anything.”

judy-and-dennis

Why Artists Get Snippy

Sandhill crane

Artists have a reputation for being a bit touchy.  Their egos appear to be easily bruised to those in professions in which work has no personal value beyond earning cash and prestige.  Artists work for those goals too, but their production is tied to their personal creativity, to their internal values.  When someone tells a painter that he or she doesn’t like a painting the artist often feels a twinge of rejection that an administrator in a food packing plant doesn’t feel when consumers say that they don’t like a particular brand of canned asparagus.

The skills that artists use and the work they make are consistently undervalued by the public, gallery dealers, and officials in arts organizations.  We’re fresh meat until our work gains enough clout so that we can call some of the shots.  But even then there are instances of exploitation.  The situation truly reverses only when the artist’s work is so in demand that a gallery, museum and the buying public have more to lose than the artist.  Then a painter (Picasso got away with this quite often) can take his or her revenge by fobbing off mediocre work on fools willing to pay for anything bearing the artist’s signature regardless of its quality.

I’ve told a few of the following stories to newby artists who are beginning to consider using their talent to earn a living.  Most think that I’m being incredibly negative until they’ve had a few experiences of their own. 

I once received a phone call from a stranger who heard that I painted murals.  He wanted to hire me to paint scenes of an ancient Roman bath on the walls of his bathroom.  I was appalled at the idea of trying to work images of Roman columns and marble statuary into a composition that would complement this guy’s toilet and bathtub, but I politely told him that I wasn’t the right man for the job.  He was angry that I turned down the project and sneered, “You artists are all alike.  My mother was an artist, and she was way too sensitive.  She always got huffy when I said anything about her art.  You’re just like her.”  Our conversation ended badly.

On a another venture I drove down to Kissimmee, Florida to a janitorial service company.  They wanted a mural on the inside wall of their office to brighten things up.  I got lost and arrived a bit late, and my reception by the manager wasn’t all that friendly.  He pointed to a five feet wide by eight feet tall gap on a dimly lit wall between gray metal shelves holding cleaning supplies.  My mural would have to fit in that space.  I asked him, a secretary and an accountant what kind of imagery they wanted.  One wanted a teddy bear flying a biplane pulling a banner with company’s name.  One wanted a giraffe (she liked giraffes) dressed in a company uniform pushing a broom.  The final request was a pink dolphin leaping out of a pond in a clearing of an Amazonian jungle. (I swear that I’m not making this up.)  They would have added a few more things, but I told them that that imagery was more than enough to make a compelling composition.  I went home and actually began to do some sketches for the mural, but they didn’t contact me again as they had promised.  I decided to forgo forcing my services on them out of a sense of self-preservation.

I went on a fool’s errand several more times in hope of landing mural painting jobs.  One was to a juvenile detention center in West Orlando.  I was told that I would be paid $300 to paint the front facade of their building, which ran about 50 yards long and was twenty feet high. At best, once I took out the cost of the paint, I’d make five dollars per hour for the job.  The committee that met me to discuss imagery had not convened before, offered no previously agreed upon theme for the mural, but unanimously disliked the drawings I brought.  We brainstormed.  One woman wanted me to paint happy, skippy families walking hand in hand on a path in a park.  She didn’t like it when I questioned the propriety of putting a greeting card message on the front of a jail.  Another thought that beige stripes might be nice.  The other two committee members stared blankly at me.  We reached no agreement.  I killed that deal by telling them to call me when they figured out what they really  wanted.  They never did.

The last attempt to win a mural contract was negotiated with a young mother living in an uppity upscale neighborhood in Winter Park.  She wanted a floral garden for a wall in her dining room.  I showed her several of my landscape paintings, and we discussed a composition.  She paid me $40 to do a small scale mock-up canvas for the project, and she was thrilled when I brought it over a few days later.  She held onto the painting to show it to her husband, friends and decorator.  The next time I met her the deal fell through.  The colors in the painting were too bright.  “I can add white to make them more pastel,” I countered.

“You added an arch along the garden path.  We didn’t talk about that,” she said.  Her tone of voice accused me of trying to pull a fast one on her.

“The arch makes the composition better,” I said and added, “But I can take it out.”

“My decorator says that the focal point of the room is the French door.  She thinks that a mural would be a distraction.”

I didn’t tell her what I was thinking, that what she really needed for that wall was wallpaper.  Instead I waited for the final shoe to drop–she was building up to something.  She looked at me shrewdly and said, “Well I did pay you $40, and I’d like to keep the little painting.”

“We agreed that that money was to pay for my services in coming up with a design for the mural, not for the painting itself,” I answered.  I usually sold my landscapes for $200.  She insisted that she deserved something for her money, and I gave in.  She was more determined to rip me off than I was to wrestle the canvas out of her hands.

I’ve also been treated poorly while minding my own business painting landscapes.  Ex-frat boy business men out on the streets to get lunch mock me with “Yo, Picasso!” when they see me working at my easel in downtown Orlando.  Random passersby like to stand in front of me to block my view.  They caper and dance up and down and ask, “Want to paint me?  Want to paint me?  How much will you pay me to pose?”  This has happened so many times that I’ve learned to ignore these prancing idiots and work on the sky until they go away.  If they are persistent I tell them, “No, sir.  I really, really don’t want to paint you.”  Some folks will stand a few inches behind me and look over my shoulder as I work.  If they linger they inevitably begin to tell me, their captive audience, all about their personal history, love life, troubles at work, etc.  One guy, an unemployed nurse who had difficulty getting along with supervisors, bent my ear for twenty minutes.  Then he graced my unfinished painting with a disparaging glance and gave me a grade:  B+.  A woman murmured a few condescending pleasantries before advising me to add figures to my painting of Central Park in downtown Winter Park.  When I didn’t immediately start painting the oldsters sitting on the park benches she added, “Your painting is dead if you don’t add figures.”  She had a smug, cruel smile on her face as she spoke–she apparently knew a lot more about painting than I did, and she was used to having her wishes immediately obeyed–and was surprised when I waved her away with twinkly fingers and said, “Bye bye.”

Outdoor art festivals are other public sites of humiliation for artists.  I gave them up long ago, but a friend of mine, a fellow landscape painter, endured several years of intermittent abuse as she waited on potential customers in her canvas tent.  I witnessed one such moment.  Brenda loved sandhill cranes and had done several paintings of these unusual birds.  I listened in as a customer, a middle aged woman with a red face, exploded in outrage in front of the crane paintings.   She cried, “Sandhill cranes!  I hate those birds!  They land on my car and leave claw marks.  They shit all over my lawn, and they tear up golf courses and they’re a nuisance down at the docks where we keep our boat.  If it were up to me I’d shoot every last one of them!”  She stormed out of the tent convinced that Brenda had schemed to paint those birds in order to personally insult her.

Brenda’s tent and the tents of several other good painters were mostly empty that night.  But down the row from Brenda’s booth were a man and a woman doing brisk business.  They had figured out that a fair number of budding alcoholics in Orlando were sentimental about booze and dogs, and had brilliantly decided to combine the two subjects into improbable but popular images. When a patron walked up they asked, “What’s your favorite dog?”  Then, “What’s your favorite drink?”  Then they would use a laptop and an inkjet printer to run off an image of a miniature dog curled up inside a drinking glass (a chihuahua in a martini glass or a beagle in a wine goblet) and would charge $25 for the print.

I once comforted a student who was upset that one of his paintings wasn’t selected for a show.  I told him that he would get along fine in the art world as long as he accepted the following adage:  In art there is no god, and in art there is no justice.