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…”



My Daughter Hates Rothko


My daughter Annie likes some artists, but hates Rothko.  I am an oil painter, and she grew up around my work and picked up an understanding of the creative process.  Annie developed a mild interest in modern art and has given me thoughtful art related gifts, including a book about Firelei Baez, a cutting edge artist from Miami who combines text, decorative patterns and readable imagery into thought provoking paintings and installations.

We agree on most political issues and have many interesting discussions about books and literature.  We disagree about Mark Rothko’s paintings, however.  His wispy clouds of color do nothing for her, and she thinks that his work is a hoax.  If I want to set her off all I have to do is talk about a rapt moment I once had contemplating a Rothko at the National Gallery.  I can go on and on about the subtlety of the shifts in color and tone in the deep plum paint floating on a field of black, about the quiet, contemplative feeling I got from the painting that reminded me of the hush and awe of sitting in my grandfather’s church (a mini-cathedral with high columns and a painting on the domed ceiling of Mary ascending into heaven).  My daughter rolls her eyes and sputters out puffs of air in disgust as I wax poetic.

I can understand her frustration.  I visited an exhibition in Cincinnati in the early 80s that featured a conceptual piece of art that consisted of a framed piece of graph paper.  (This was back at a time when I still wondered whether I was cool and smart enough to understand why an arrangement of bricks in a rectangle on the floor of a museum was a significant contribution to western culture.)  I looked closely at the graph paper and saw three penciled dots at three intersections of graphed lines.  A book rested on a pedestal nearby, and it explained the significance of the dots.  I didn’t bother to read it as I discovered, at that moment, that I no longer cared whether I understood something that pretentious, precious and hermetic.

There is a lot of conceptual and minimal art that seems pointlessly self-indulgent and obscure.  Little of it speaks to the daily experience of what it means to be human in this time and place.  And there is a huge disconnect between the art going public and the intelligentsia who determine which new work is worthy of support.  It appears to many that there is a willful campaign of obfuscation going on, that only a select few with the right connections and a pile of cash are told the punch line to the inside joke.

I’ve recently come across youtube rants by conservative critics and artists calling for the demise of modern, conceptual art.  Their view is that all modern art going back to Picasso is a cruel hoax invented and perpetuated by no talent, Marxist degenerates.  They want a return to craftsmanship and realistic imagery.  A painting of a young woman should be beautiful;  a painting of an old woman should show the pathos of aging.  Public money should not be spent on an artist who sits in a cage nude while gibbering at passersby, or on a painting that’s simply an arrangement of cream colored squares on a field of bluish white.

I can understand the anger and frustration of conservative critics.  But they also want to throw some artists whose work I understand and appreciate into the art history dumpster.  I enjoy the abstract work of Paul Klee, Georges Braque, Kandinsky, Rouault, Rothko, Philip Guston, Arshille Gorky, Miyoko Ito, etc.  The musical arrangement of their shapes and colors, lines and organic imagery evokes the same complex emotional states I experience when listening to jazz.  Several of my colleagues in Orlando paint color field abstractions, and I understand, at least partially, the inner logic and poetry of their compositions.  I know for a fact that they are not frauds.  They sincerely believe in what they do and work diligently to hone their craft.

Miyoko Ito

Conservative critics, those who support work that appeases their preconceptions about high quality art, worry me for another reason.  A dictator with a similar set of opinions staged an exhibition in Munich in 1937.  Its title was “Degenerate Art”. The work collected for the show was taken from museums throughout Germany, and part of Hitler’s rant at the opening was a diatribe against spending public money on paintings and sculptures that he thought showed no merit and poor craftsmanship. His arguments against the work of Klee, Max Beckmann, George Grosz, the Cubists and Expressionists are fairly close to the tirades spouted by youtube ranters today.

Any act of creativity is an act of communication. Conservative critics often get angry when confronted by a message that doesn’t agree with their traditional values.  Liberal art world elites, on the other hand, maintain their priestly power by acting out rituals in a mystery cult.  They give value to hieroglyphs that few outside their circle can decipher.  They are like the Delphic oracles who delivered prophesies difficult to interpret, easy to misunderstand.  It’s hard to decide which side to favor as both seem equally unattractive to me.

I am more comfortable using the traditional skills of western art to tell my stories, to deliver my message.  I’ve lost the ability when painting to feel the emotional impact of a streak of blue juxtaposed to a smear of orange.  But I’m not an arch conservative either.  I get caught in between.  I nearly got pushed out of my position when my department at a local art school was taken over by an artist who truly believed that oils based on 18th century painting practices and subject matter were the only genuine form of art.  And I got dismissed from an adjunct post for teaching practices and concepts that were too traditional to be in accord with the postmodernist, conceptual prejudices of the department director.

In the end I believe that a good piece of art speaks to the changing human condition in a fairly intelligible manner.  I don’t care if that is achieved by traditional or experimental means.  I’m not addicted to either novelty or convention.  If one artist wants to speak about the brevity and fragility of life by painting a detailed portrait of a wrinkly old man holding a delicate egg, that’s fine with me.  If another makes a grotesque human figure out of pieces of bone hot glued and tied together with lengths of hair to show that our bodies are haphazardly mortal, that’s fine with me.

A few months ago I was confronted by a man at an opening reception who got angry at me when I told him my story about the graph paper with the three penciled dots.  He was a passionate advocate for all things conceptual and modern, and was even more appalled when I told him that Robert Ryman’s white on white paintings (an ongoing series that Ryman started in the early 60s) were a joke to me.  The man blustered and clenched his fists, and I thought that he was about to punch me in the face.  Then I added that I liked the austere paintings of Agnes Martin, a transitional artist from the abstract expressionists to the minimalists, and he started to calm down.  He still thought that I was a conservative fool, but a moderate one.

R. Ryman painting exhibition

I was more amused by his reaction than offended, and didn’t mind it all that much when he challenged my intelligence and taste.  I had suffered through similar forms of condescension in grad school.

But I did wonder why he was so personally invested in the debate.  His world didn’t come to an end when I disagreed with him.  And the conservative critics on youtube seem to enjoy their outrage a little too much.  What would they do to feed the anger machine if every artist suddenly painted the conservative version of politically correct art (fruit and flower still lives, reverential illustrations of Bible scenes, etc.)?  Would the rage addicted critics switch targets and start yelling at chefs who experimented with nouvelle cuisine?  Would they start screaming, “What’s the matter with meatloaf?!”

I think that it would be lovely if we stopped yelling at each other and just went out and supported art that speaks to us.  Time will tell if anything we currently value is of lasting importance.  And I’ve resolved, in a sudden fit of forbearance, to let my daughter hate Rothko and never speak his name to her again.

We See What We Expect to See


DSC_1215Portrait Bust

When I first learned to drive I was worried that I might hit a pedestrian. My neighborhood had narrow, car lined streets, and I anticipated a moment when a little kid might run out between two parked cars. A few years went by without an accident or incident, and I began to relax. One night I drove home from work at about two in the morning after a busy, hectic shift at Godfather’s Pizza. I was aware that the bar patrons were headed home after closing time and kept an eye out for drunks along the curb. I saw a hulking form in dim light in the distance that looked like a large man standing by the road. I slowed down when I approached him, and the half-lit shape turned out to be a mail box.

Years later I attended my nephew’s wedding near Cleveland. My daughter Annie and son Alan came along for the trip. My daughter has similar hair and skin color to her mother, but is 33 years younger. On two occasions Annie was mistakenly greeted as my wife by relatives who saw her standing near me. My uncle was about three feet away when he asked her about her teaching (my wife was a professor). My daughter, of course, was mortified to be misidentified as my spouse, but that wasn’t the end of it. At the wedding she wore a dress that bloused out at the waist that inspired a drunk woman at the reception to spread a pregnancy rumor. The tipsy matron’s family had had its share of forced marriages over the years, the inebriate was on the look out for distended bellies among the young women at the gathering, and she saw what she expected to see.

I’ve spent years teaching beginning drawing to students with little or no background in fine art. Most are graphic communications majors and prefer their computers to a stick of charcoal. I teach them the basics of perspective as best I can, and have said “Parallel lines appear to converge as they move away from you,” on countless occasions. I explain that the side edges of a table appear to converge so that the back edge looks smaller than the front edge, that an illusion of depth can be created by following this rule when drawing the table on a two dimensional piece of paper. But many students insist on drawing the side edges so that the back edge of the table is exactly the same width as the front edge. They know conceptually that the front and back measure the same and draw them accordingly. When I follow up and show them that they’ve lost the illusion of depth these students often look at me in disbelief. Some challenge me. One women told me that I must see things differently than she did.

And perhaps I do. Observing colors, tones and lines in still lives, landscapes, portraits and figures has taught me to doubt my assumptions. What I think I see and what is actually there are two separate things. Painting and drawing realistically can be an investigation into What Is. As an oil progresses in several layers I begin to notice colors I hadn’t seen at the beginning and details that appear to emerge from nowhere. I get the impression after working on a subject for an extended period of time that the visual world is nearly infinite, that more and more can be observed if I am willing to put in the time.

But I am mainly aware of the open possibilities of experience when I am painting. I still make assumptions in social situations about another person’s character and intentions based on my past experience. I interpret behavior and assign motives without waiting for an individual to fully reveal their qualities. I do this out of self-protection and a need to prepare myself for all eventualities. But this narrows my experience down to seeing what I expect to see.

And there have been times when my expectations have been fulfilled and my suspicions have been confirmed. But at others I’ve been surprised by unforeseen depths in a person I had assumed was shallow, by kindness hidden beneath a rough exterior, and by playfulness in a man who appeared to have no humor and imagination.

I believe that the world can open up and reveal immense vistas if we simply wait, watch, and observe without judgment. Then a girl with a bloused out dress isn’t pregnant, a mailbox is simply a mailbox, and the back edge of a table appears to be smaller than the front edge. And the student who appears to be fairly thick says something insightful and intelligent. And the light on a curve of my wife’s temple reveals her beauty to me once more. And the neighbor who appears to be a heartless and cold reveals his gentle nature when talking to his dog. There’s more out there to be heard, seen, felt than we can ever fully take in, more abundance than we can ever appreciate.

I have a cold this morning that has been lingering for several days. My joints ache a bit and my head feels like it has been stuffed with cotton. But the sun is bright today and the trees outside my window are swaying gently in a breeze. The red pick-up truck parked on Chilean Dr. adds an exclamation point to the surrounding green. A man in a white hoody walks past with quick, determined steps as two garbage men clad in fluorescent green safety vests collect the garbage at the end of the driveway. A car passes by in a blur and I briefly see a sixty year old man with a fringe of white hair speed past in a silver sedan.

The world looks strangely beautiful, even though I’ve seen this view before, and I feel a sense of happiness until my nose begins to run and a cough begins to collect at the back of my throat. I get trapped in the mental loop of wishing that I felt better. But then I listen to my exhalation of disgust, to the click of the keys on my laptop, to my wife is stirring in the living room and to the garbage truck rumbling in the distance. And in this particular moment it feels good to be alive.


She Spurned His Advances

She Spurned

Just finished this charcoal drawing (14×17″).  I began this as a surrealistic image by finding shapes and images in a cloud of charcoal that I smeared on the paper.  The odd fellow on the left began to emerge, and I suddenly got an idea to add a realistic figure as a counterpoint.  I based her on a 19th c. daguerreotype of a melodramatic actress taken in the studio of Southworth and Hawes.