Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Art: Not Just for the Fun of It Anymore

The romanticized concept of the isolated artist, misunderstood by society and toiling away during fits of creative ecstasy and inspiration, has been equally damaging for both our broader society and artists. I have often had conversations with students concerning this misrepresentation of the life of the artist. Their preconceptions frequently provide a seemingly satisfactory scapegoat when a given project for a class is either stalled or unfinished at the time of critique. The excuse comes in the form of blaming the muse—i.e. they didn’t “feel like” creating at that particular time; there was no inspiration.

Art school provides a slap in the face to some, or at least a wake up call. The making of art is like the other things people go to college to study—it is work. Being an artist is like being an accountant, a doctor, or a lawyer. It is a job and you do it even when you don’t “feel like it.” Once the convenience of that excuse is gone an artist can finally get on to business. The hard work, day after day, starts to reveal that real art is serious and not just for the fun of it, not just for the enjoyment of the art maker.

This always leads to the next logical conversation with my students. At this point they question my authenticity as an artist. “Don’t you enjoy making art? Isn’t it fun for you to make it?” Evidently, that is why one wants to be an artist—it is fun. I have to explain that it is work. And while I can’t possibly conceive of another vocation that would ultimately bring me the same kind of satisfaction, the making of art does not always provide hours of pleasure, or fun. There are some boring and tedious tasks that must be performed. Sometimes the work leads you into modes of working that are not “fun” but are essential for a body of work to be completed. Such was the case when my work shifted style when I was in graduate school. And this is the example I always share.

I never lacked an intense work ethic as an undergraduate student. I was an overachiever and was constantly working on my own side projects in addition to the ones assigned for my classes. When I settled on painting as my area of emphasis it was, in part, because I really enjoyed the process. Painting was a natural fit for me. During that period I was painting in a more pre-expressionist or post-impressionist system. These terms really only pertain to paint application. The color was mixed on the palette and applied fairly thickly to the canvas without much blending after that. It was a use of “juicy” paint, as my painting professor always stated. I love to paint this way and if I am painting just to paint, with no preconceived objective except to paint the object, person, or scene before me, then this is how I paint.

In graduate school my paintings eventually were composed of multiple segments instead of single canvas images. The first few remained life sized, but then they all shrank to small canvas panels. (Some of these images can now be seen on my website) When this happened I ran into a problem. The smaller scale prohibited me from painting in that beloved style. Instead, I began painting with a more traditional glazing technique. The technique isn’t nearly as immediate and it provides me less instantaneous pleasure, but it was necessary for this type of work.

Those segmented works were difficult to hang on a wall and I soon realized that they were somewhat impractical to continue, even though I liked the effect. At the same time, I decided that the varying depths could be extended by going deeper into the wall space. I achieved that by framing the works and creating a backing or “wall” within that framed space. All this construction was so far afield of “painting” in the more traditional sense. I liked the end results but some of the points in between brought me less pleasure. They were the sacrifices made for the sake of the work.

My students can start to comprehend at this point. Like most things in life, you have to go through some unpleasant portions to get to the best parts. Otherwise there is no way to tell the difference between the two.

From the segmented works my progression soon turned to the altarpiece constructions. This has provided a better example of what I am trying to relay to students and others. It takes years to complete these works. I had to teach myself techniques in woodworking and antiquing and aging objects. The actual painting is a minimal part of the whole process. The box constructions go through several distinct stages and the processes are extremely tedious, though essential for the intended end result. But there is that end result. Though style may changes over time, I feel like I am in the place I am supposed to be with these constructions. Their completion brings great satisfaction, as does the way things are uncovered in the process of making them. They aren’t fun, but they are achieving the things that make the vocation of artist worthwhile.