Last night, I had the privilige and honor of giving a slide presentation at the Radius Gallery (Missoula, MT) about my 30+ year journey as an "artist". I was elated (and relieved) to see so many familiar faces of artists, friends, and even strangers. It was a beautiful evening, sunny and warm after a long cold winter. I was thankful that these kind souls somehow felt moved to come hear what I had to say about "The Dragon in my Studio, and the Importance of Risk".
As I explained at the beginning of my talk, I am still a little squeamish when people ask me what I "do" for a living. After I manage to sheepishly say "I'm an artist", I brace myself for the next question, "Oh, what kind of art do you do?" These two questions alone have always perplexed me in how hard they are to answer. So many artists around me whom I greatly respect have a solid and recognizable style. However, I have been all over the map (multiple times) and have not yet settled on anything that I feel is my "style". Why not?
Giving this talk was important to me for many reasons. Any life journey has its ups and downs, and any artist's journey has a story behind it that, once known, enriches how an audience sees and understands that artist's work. This happened to me throughout the course of art school, when I went from a total lack of appreciation or understanding for certain periods of art or artists who were household names, to an 180 degree shift in my thinking when I learned about the WHY behind what they did. Sometimes, it was all about WHEN they did what they did, or it was because of life's seemingly unsurmountable challenges or events. Suddenly, work I once disdained earned monumental respect when I better understood the "WHY". Many times, this new appreciation came because I realized the amount of courage and risk it took to do what they did given their circumstances. It is the WHY that fascinates me, and I'm guessing a lot of others benefit from knowing about not just "What" is on the surface of a painting, but what lies underneath it's core. Honesty, risk and courage look different than safe, tidy and controlled. I've worked both ways. I know the dragon in my studio could not be more pleased when I create art that is fully controlled, neat, perfect, tidy and beautiful. It is this work that would have even pleased my parents, who had a great appreciation for beauty and perfection, but did not appreciate anything that looked like they could do it themselves. I vividly remember gazing at a huge Helen Frankenthaler painting in a museum while visiting with my sister and Mother and remember my Mother's scoff at this monumental painting; "Anyone can do that", she said.
In my case, becoming an artist in this lifetime really only happened because of a huge crook in the road during my college years which suddenly put an abrupt end to the direction I was heading at full speed. When I encountered the road block, I went through reverse metamorphosis, i.e, from a butterfly to a lowly, grey/brown moth. Suddenly, the only thing I had done in the past that made me truly happy (art), was the only thing I could do at all. The decision was ultimately made not by me, but by something far greater and wiser than me. I have an amazing appreciation and gratitude for the way this came to happen in my life; it now seems like a well thought out plan. Do things really happen by chance? Or, do things happen for a reason? While preparing my talk, many things dawned on me that made me stop and appreciate that although we may not always have control in life, or be able to make sense at the time of why things happen, it does appear that time heals most wounds and with time, understanding comes.
The dragon in my studio has always been there. It/he/she (I will randomly call it a "he" for simplicity) has a palpable presence that seemingly puts a dead bolt on my studio door or somehow makes the white of my blank paper seem whiter than white. He causes me confusion when I look at my huge palette of colors and wide array of brushes as I try to "think" my way through just how to begin. Then, with a soft, soothing tone, the kind and empathetic dragon tries to console me, telling me, "It's ok, no worries, you don't really know what you're doing with all that stuff anyway and oh, isn't it time to take the dogs on a walk or do some laundry?"
Over time, I have come to recognize this compelling, fire breathing being as my ultra-dominant left brain. It creates barriers, doubts and has a sickeningly ghoulish smile and gleeful laugh when I'm struggling while painting. It's as if this dragon is just perched and waiting to say, "See, I told you so! Is that the best you can do? An artist? Ha!" And so on, and so on.
So how do you tame this omnipotent beast and put him in his place? For me, it has been a long process of finding who (and what) I am through the grueling artistic process which purifies through it's own kind of (healthy) fire. Deep down, we all know when we are pleasing our own personal dragon. There is a sense of satisfaction that lasts a little too long, contentment which breeds pride, and oh those sales don't hurt either (don't get me wrong - sales are GOOD! But, it matters what you are selling, the deep down drag out fought for victory creations, or the perfectly pretty, shiny "what's not to love", lifeless, soulless "gem" that any granny would love).
There are two kinds of ways I work that quiet the scaly one: if work is pretty and perfect, my dragon is quiet and content. I must admit, sometimes I am weak and throw the old boy a biscuit (or two, or three). However, if my process is fraught with endless battles of light, dark, big, small, thick, thin, warm, cool, leading to constantly changing scenes of disdainful creativity, my dragon is not only quiet, but mad. Not only that, he's likely to get hurt as I also work with a propane torch, razor blades and occasionally use my hammer. He sulks and goes off in some corner, just waiting for me to surrender and throw in the towel in disgust until I return to safety. Over the past several years, my dark, cathartic bodies of work were done with conviction and belief but, to this shrinking dragon's dismay, were not very "pretty" or marketable. (I suspect all dragons are also very practical and business-like; they know we artists starve and they have only our best interests in mind, and my personal dragon would love nothing more than for me to start painting pretty little cottages with soft glowing lights coming through the windows).
Every day in the studio is a battle. I would LOVE to hear about your dragon, and how your battles play out.
Oh what to do with those last bits of paint on your palette that are soon to dry and be tossed in the garbage? Try flipping it upside down on a new board (or one with a preexisting half-baked painting). Presto, now you've used the remaining fresh paint and can throw away your palette paper guilt-free. I've done this a few times now and am always amazed at how those little bits of color so randomly placed from the palette monoprint added to the end result. At least, I think so.
In the finished painting, the palette bits remain in some areas.
I took this photo right before the some final (small) adjustments. For me, this kind of painting process is like soul searching from beginning to end. I find this method of working encourages me to look deep within the subconscious for that right color, shape, texture, value, etc. It is a one way conversation until I can somehow engage the painting in conversation. I can't explain when or why this happens but I do know that it will happen at some point IF I keep at it. Momentum begins when it isn't just me "doing" the talking and I begin to hear a small voice suggest and assist as the painting moves along. Once this match is lit, the flame must be fanned to keep things moving along (no time for coffee breaks now!). I work as long as there is a two-way conversation, which is sometimes loud and active, and sometimes quiet. When the voices dim and some sense of order and peace are obtained, the painting and I are at peace, and I leave the painting alone. It is finished until, or if, one of us starts talking again :)