I’ve always been excited about creating things. In Kindergarten, I discovered rubbings when I tried to write on a piece of paper on top of one of my little sister's Tinkerbell blocks. I was so excited about it that on my show-and-tell day, I demonstrated for my classmates and gave each one of them a rubbing I'd made, though they looked bored and disgusted. A few years later I carved a dog figurine from a piece of soap my grandmother had made many years earlier, and embroidered a bulldog face on a scrap piece of fabric with ordinary sewing thread. Other than that I drew at school like everybody else, though when I was in first or second grade and a classmate asked me if I would draw a frog for him, I didn't. You have to draw your own drawing or you're missing the point!
When I was in the fifth grade my class went on a day trip to the Toledo, Ohio, Museum of Art, where I first discovered the work of real artists and saw a woman copying an Impressionist painting of sailboats on the sea, all pale pinks and yellows and blues. My favorite postcard acquired on the trip was of Da Vinci’s Lady With an Ermine. I still think it’s a stunning picture, and I still have that post card.
The first artwork I sold were two sculptures, which were purchased by teachers at school. One was a modernistic metal figure of a woman in bellbottom pants, the other a plaster bust of Mahatma Gandhi, complete with wire spectacles.
AN ART JOB, OF SORTS...
After college I worked as a jewelry designer for a little while, then for many years as a bench jeweler and modelmaker for Tiffany, which probably developed my love of clear color because of the gemstones I worked with. Up until then I didn't have much feeling for color and preferred to draw most of the time, though I still struggled with color efforts.
...If i can see it, I usually want it in there...
Bench work also made a bit of a perfectionist out of me when it comes to art and craft. Jewelry is comparatively diminutive, and any flaw in it, especially when it is polished to a mirror surface, is magnified in comparison to the overall size. If a piece of jewelry had one little crack or pit in it from a poor casting, we worked and worked on it until it was perfect, or we just had to dump it in the scrap for meltdown if the situation was hopeless.
IT'S NOT ALL IN THE "DEEETALES"!
It kind of bugs me when people use the word “detail” when praising art. Detail can't carry a picture all by itself. You could take a hundred thousand Scrabble pieces and throw them all over the floor, but that doesn’t make that mess a good book.
"Detail" needs to be in the right place in the right way, just like those Scrabble pieces. I usually do strive towards the almost physical tactility that comes through homing in and taking pains with everything, including minutia. If I can see it, I usually want it in there! Maybe that's because I have been very nearsighted since childhood, and I love texture. I want to run my eyes over something as if I was running my hands over it. Seeing is something of a tactile experience for me.
"...NOW, HEAVEN KNOWS, ANYTHING GOES!"
I’ve never belonged to the “anything goes” crowd. That approach can get you mired in ego, and you risk becoming self-satisfied. If you stop striving for improvement because of it, your work could even decline in quality.
I saw that happen to a college classmate who left the big-city competition of New York to move to a place where he was “the big fish in a small pond”. His formerly excellent work became downright amateurish, while I continued to learn and improve by staying in New York and pressing ahead. How can you stay excited about your work if you aren’t constantly striving? Why even continue to be an artist if it’s just become a production job or an ego-feed?
DIY AND VARIETY, VARIETY!
Growing up on a small farm, I saw my parents take matters into their own hands and make or do whatever they could for themselves, instead of trying to buy what they couldn't afford. I had an uncle who built his own home with no prior construction experience. He just borrowed library books, started with a log barn, then tackled the garage, and finally finished his house by the time he retired! And this was on top of farming AND a day job! Doing just one thing in life? No thanks!
I work in various mediums and with various subject matter instead of pigeonholing myself with too much specialization. I paint things that I find visually exciting (or at least meaningful and motivating) and in order to share my visual experience of life with other people. And I want to share the GOOD stuff, not the tragedy.
I’d much rather say with my work, “Isn’t this what we live for?” than smack somebody in the face, so to speak, with another art-viewing “challenge”. Art shouldn’t be challenging for the viewer. If people have to work very hard to experience a picture, then the artist hasn’t done her job of communicating visually.
WHERE'S THE VAUDEVILLE "HOOK"WHEN YOU NEED IT?
If you don't need an explanation for -- or don't work up a headache trying to understand -- a terrific film, say Hitchcock's "Rear Window" for example, why should you have to strain your brain to figure out a piece of art? Art should stand on its own merits.
You'd boo a playwright or choreographer off the stage if he got up in front of the curtain and told you what his intentions were! Ditto if a chef told you what you should think about his food! You can judge for yourself, because "The proof is in the pudding."
Some people turn their snoots up at realism and disdain “pretty sunsets”, something I heard once from a college gallery director. Probably he wanted to be what we used to call "hip" or "with it". That's about trying to belong to something "elite". As a friend of mine says of this kind of pomposity, "Wonder [at]what I am!"
I bet when these people go on vacation, they don’t sleep in the street in an active war zone or sleep at the local city dump! Life is punishing enough without art also assaulting you. I want relief, delight, or at least something I can relate to directly without being gratuitously bludgeoned emotionally or intellectually. So, no thank you, "challenging art" is not for me. The only challenge I want from art is the challenge of doing the best I possibly can when making a work of art. THAT’s my kind of challenge!
SUPERSIZE ME? NO THANKS!
There seems to be a bias towards large artworks, especially in some competitions. Even in plein air competitions, some people get into trying to make bigger sketch paintings than anybody else in just a couple of hours, whereas I would rather complete a miniature. (I'm reminded of the time a Tiffany co-worker responded to an impatient supervisor with "You can have it fast, or you can have it good.") Too many times, “a good start” is as much as some painters are capable of and satisfied with. And many of those “good starts” could have been done by any number of artists, as they often haven’t developed any recognizable individual “style”, for want of a better word. Some people hide their lack of skill and/or patience by declaring themselves an “American Impressionist” even though their work may be decidedly amateurish “Impressionism”.
That’s not to say that highly realistic work is necessarily better than Impressionism. What’s better depends on what you intend to communicate and whether or not you’ve succeeded in communicating it in a particular piece! You have to know when to press on and when to “shut up”, essentially!
Large paintings have immediate impact due to their size alone. It’s often difficult to get back far enough to properly see them as a whole, and when you can’t, it's kind of like having a person stand on your toes and scream in your face. It's hard not to be affected. But is it a good experience, or is it another assault on your senses? A lot of so-so or bad art seems to get by mainly on size impact because its hard to ignore.
Small, intimate artworks are something you come to on your own terms. I like the way they often whisper, instead of shouting. You can get as close or as far away as you wish or need to. Even a huge expanse of landscape can be presented in a tiny, intimate way. William Trost Richards's pencil sketches that are only about 1 by 2 inches are gorgeous. The main thing for me is, does it make me feel the wind or the chill or the heat in the air? Do I seem to hear the sounds and smells of the place? Can I feel myself there? Bigger is not necessarily better, in art as in food and much else in life. You can go and try to eat everything in the produce department of your supermarket in one sitting if you want to prove that to yourself!
IS NOVELTY ENOUGH?
I've never seen any value in things like huge replicas of screwdrivers or lipsticks, or soft sculptures of things that are hard in real life. You see it once and maybe you think, okay, that's different, surprising, or humorous because it’s out of context. That's to a large degree what makes a joke funny. But when you see it again, it’s “been there, done that” like the "Why did the chicken cross the road?" joke. Maybe that’s why some people think contemporary art “has to be new”. Once it’s no longer a surprise, it’s irrelevant and becomes just like the billboard you drive past every day.
...The idea that “new” is necessarily better belongs to the advertising industry...
The idea that “new” is necessarily better belongs to the advertising industry. It’s an attention grabber designed to sell something, often to people in search of stimulation or who seek to best or impress others through the ownership of something that’s in vogue or rare. For example, when somebody paid $10,000 to own a stack of Jackie Onassis's National Geographicmagazines, when they go for maybe a buck apiece at a flea market!
Novelty isn’t quality. A superficial thrill is just a superficial thrill. It can get old and boring in a hurry. Look up the term "diminishing marginal utility".
Art that reflects someone's distress can move you to tears with the way it can express emotional pain. And you can be moved to tears just by the beauty in an artwork, too. Simply being “new” or sensationalistic can be empty, attention-getting gimmickry. To draw a parallel, there’s food that’s nourishing and worthy of savor, and then there’s gobble-down-and-go junk food, as well as many other kinds of food in between these two ends of the dining spectrum.
Art doesn't have to always be realistic or even figurative, but too much "new" art is little more than an intellectual head-game, and that leaves me cold. Where's the value in that? If you want to live with ugly or "challenging" stuff, dump a load of rotting garbage on a pedestal in your living room and invite people over for cocktails to admire it. They may not openly say it to your face, but few would think you anything but seriously deranged. At the very least, if they aren't extremely gullible or given to pretentious airs themselves, they are going to perceive the Emperor's-new-clothes con. (Read The Painted Word by Thomas Wolfe if you want to understand how modern art evolved from what amounted to a joke.) Enjoy it as a fun joke or as a kind of "light beer" artwork, but don't be taken in by it.
CALL IT LIKE YOU SEE IT!
You don’t want to leave a meal saying, "Well, that was different/interesting/new." A meal that only rates "different" or "interesting" or "new" is a meal that was not really enjoyed. Wouldn't you expect your dinner host or hostess to be disappointed if all you could say about the meal was "That was interesting"? "That was interesting" applied to food translates as "Yuck!" As a response to art it's just another way to say, "I don't get it" or "My kid could do better than that."
To quote two famous people who knew a thing or two about authenticity and charlatans: "You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can't fool all of the people all of the time." - Abe Lincoln, and more recently and more succinctly, "People know the Real McCoy." - Leonard Bernstein.
Maybe junk art can fill a blank space on a wall for a while, but like junk food, it probably isn’t good for you in the long run and has a short half-life, so to speak. Taking a really good look at a blank wall could well be better for you than exposing yourself to art that either just screams in your face for attention or requires a PhD to understand. At least a blank wall can be an opportunity for some meditative peace and reflection.