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Q: Why art? (Question from “Arts Illustrated”)

Barbara’s studio
Barbara’s studio

A: I love this question!  I remember being impressed by Ursula von Rydingsvard’s exhibition at the National Museum of Women in the Arts a few years ago.  What stayed with me most was her wall text, “Why Do I Make Art by Ursula von Rydingsvard.”  There she listed a few dozen benefits that art-making has brought to her life.

I want to share some of my own personal reasons for art-making here, in no particular order.  My list keeps changing, but these are true at least for today. 

1.   Because I love the entire years-long creative process – from foreign travel whereby I discover new source material, to deciding what I will make, to the months spent in the studio realizing my ideas, to packing up my newest pastel painting and bringing it to my Virginia framer’s shop, to seeing the framed piece hanging on a collector’s wall, to staying in touch with collectors over the years and learning how their relationship to the work changes.

2.   Because I love walking into my studio in the morning and seeing all of that color!  No matter what mood I am in, my spirit is immediately uplifted.  

3.   Because my studio is my favorite place to be… in the entire world.  I’d say that it is my most precious creation.  It’s taken more than twenty-two years to get it this way.  I hope I never have to move!

4.   Because I get to listen to my favorite music all day.

5.   Because when I am working in the studio, if I want, I can tune out the world and all of its urgent problems.  The same goes for whatever personal problems I am experiencing.

6.   Because I am devoted to my medium.  How I use pastel continually evolves.  It’s exciting to keep learning about its properties and to see what new techniques will develop.

7.   Because I have been given certain gifts and abilities and that entails a sacred obligation to USE them.  I could not live with myself were I to do otherwise.

8.   Because art-making gives meaning and purpose to my life.  I never wake up in the morning wondering, how should I spend the day?  I have important work to do and a place to do it.  I know this is how I am supposed to be spending my time on earth.

9.   Because I have an enviable commute.  To get to my studio it’s a thirty-minute walk, often on the High Line early in the morning before throngs of tourists have arrived.

10.  Because life as an artist is never easy.  It’s a continual challenge to keep forging ahead, but the effort is also never boring.  

11.  Because each day in the studio is different from all the rest. 

12.  Because I love the physicality of it.  I stand all day.  I’m always moving and staying fit.

13.  Because I have always been a thinker more than a talker.  I enjoy and crave solitude.  I am often reminded of the expression, “She who travels the farthest, travels alone.”  In my work I travel anywhere.

14.  Because spending so much solitary time helps me understand what I think and feel and to reflect on the twists and turns of my unexpected and fascinating life.

15.  Because I learn about the world.  I read and do research that gets incorporated into the work.

16.  Because I get to make all the rules.  I set the challenges and the goals, then decide what is succeeding and what isn’t.  It is working life at its most free.

17.  Because I enjoy figuring things out for myself instead of being told what to do or how to think.

18.  Because despite enormous obstacles, I am still able to do it.  Art-making has been the focus of my life for thirty-three years – I was a late bloomer – and I intend to continue as long as possible.

19.  Because I have been through tremendous tragedy and deserve to spend the rest of my life doing exactly what I love.  The art world has not caught up yet, but so be it.  This is my passion and my life’s work and nothing will change that.

20.  Because thanks to the internet and via social media, my work can be seen in places I have never been to and probably will never go.

21.  Because I would like to be remembered.  The idea of leaving art behind for future generations to appreciate and enjoy is appealing.

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 433

Chatting with Jenny Holzer.  It looks like she did not want her picture taken, but she was actually waiving. VIGIL: Jenny Holzer and @creativetime

Chatting with Jenny Holzer.  It looks like she did not want her picture taken, but she was actually waiving.

*an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

…Two positions exist, the artistic and the commercial.  Between these two an abiding tension persists.  The eighteenth-century American painter Gilbert Stuart complained, “What a business is that of portrait painter.  He is brought a potato and is expected to paint a peach.”  The artist learns that the public wants peaches, not potatoes.  You can paint potatoes if you like, write potatoes, dance potatoes, and compose potatoes, you can with great and valiant effort communicate with some other potato-eaters and peach-eaters.  In so doing you contribute to the world’s reservoir of truth and beauty.  But if you won’t give the public peaches, you won’t be paid much.

Repeatedly artists take the heroic potato position.  They want their work to be good, honest, powerful – and only then successful.  They want their work to be alive, not contrived and formulaic.  As the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch put it:  “No longer shall I paint interiors, and people reading, and women knitting.  I shall paint living people, who breathe and feel and suffer and love.”

The artist is interested in the present and has little desire to repeat old, albeit successful formulas.  As the painter Jenny Holzer put it, “I could do a pretty good third generation-stripe painting, but so what? 

The unexpected result of the artist’s determination to do his [sic] own best art is that he is put in an adversarial relationship with the public.  In that adversarial position he comes to feel rather irrational for what rational person would do work that’s not wanted? 

…Serious work not only doesn’t sell well, it’s also judged by different standards.  If the artist writes an imperfect but commercial novel it is likely to be published and sold.  If his screenplay is imperfect but commercial enough it may be produced.  If it is imperfect and also uncommercial it will not be produced.  If his painting is imperfect but friendly and familiar it may sell well.  If it is imperfect and also new and difficult, it may not sell for decades, if ever.

Ironically enough, the artist attempting serious work must also attain the very highest level of distinction possible.  He must produce Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov but not also The Insulted and Injured or A Raw Youth, two of Dostoevsky’s nearly unknown novels.  He is given precious little space in this regard.      

I daresay, this last is why I devote my life to creating the most unique, technically advanced pastel paintings anyone will see!

Eric Maisel, A Life in the Arts:  Practical Guidance and Inspiration for Creative and Performing Artists

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 421

Mexico City

Mexico City

*an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

The economic meltdown that followed the crash of the U.S. stock market in 1929 shattered the country’s faith in itself.  With one third of the country unemployed and droughts devastating the Midwest, many Americans doubted their ability to endure and triumph.  More than ever, as the American novelist John Dos Passos asserted, the country needed to know “what kind of firm ground other men, belonging to generations before us, have found to stand on.”  Guided by the Mexican muralists, whose art they had ample opportunities to study in reproduction and exhibition, American artists responded by seeking elements from the country’s past, which they mythologized into epics of strength and endurance in an effort to help the nation revitalize itself.

Thomas Hart Benton led the charge.  Long a vociferous critic of European abstraction as elitist and out of touch with ordinary people, Benton hailed the Mexican muralists for the resolute public engagement of their art and for portraying the pageant of Mexican national life, exhorting his fellow American artists to follow their example in forging a similar public art for the U.S., even as he firmly rejected the communist ideology that often inflected the Mexican artists’ work.  African American artists were likewise inspired by the Mexican muralists’ celebration of the people’s fight for emancipation.  In creating redemptive narratives of social justice and liberation, artists such as Charles White and Jacob Lawrence transformed that struggle for freedom and equality into a new collective identity, one that foregrounded the contribution of African Americans to national life.        

Vida Americana:  Mexican Muralists Remake American Art, 1925 – 1945, edited by Barbara Haskell

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 378

With “Poseur,” Soft Pastel on Sandpaper, 70” x 50,” 2019

With “Poseur,” Soft Pastel on Sandpaper, 70” x 50,” 2019

* an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

[John] Graham told Lee [Krasner] and Jackson [Pollock] they were at the most wonderful part of their artistic journey because they were unknown and therefore free, and that there was only one thing they had to dread:  fame.

 How many men of great talent on their way to remarkable achievement in the present day are ruthlessly destroyed by critics, dealers, and public while mediocre, insensitive hacks, who by intrigue and industrious commercial effort have gained recognition and success, will go down in history with their inane creations.  Success, fame, and greatness coincide very seldom.  The great are not recognized during their life-time… Poe, Van Gogh,Rembrandt, Cezanne, Gauguin, Modigliani, Pushkin, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, and others could not make even a miserable living out of their art.

 As Graham described it, true art could never be of the world because it was always steps, decades, light-years ahead of it.  Artists, therefore, had no need to be part of the world, either.  Their only duty was to persevere.  Humanity, he said, depended on it.

Mary Gabriel in Ninth Street Women

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 349

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

*an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

If Dostoyevsky, Flaubert, and so many others were able  to create great artistic works, it was because they were able to pull off something few adults can find it in themselves to do:  they were able to suspend all final judgments about life and the universe in order to play… 

The spirit of work is concerned with self-preservation.  It evaluates concepts and ideas in terms of their practical value.  Building roads, raising walls, running elections, debating policies, educating the young – all of these are purposive actions ultimately aimed at upholding social structures, changing those structures, or promoting one’s place within society.  The spirit of work is the home of the ego, the part of us that has evolved to survive and thrive.  One of the conditions of the artistic creation seems to be the ability to move frame this frame of mind into the spirit of play.  As many artist have said in varying ways, the trick is to forget everything and create for the sake of creating.  No worthwhile play, of course, is without effort.  As the painstaking care Flaubert put into every line of his books makes clear, the spirit of play is sometimes the most exciting.  Nevertheless, art remains in essence a game, an activity undertaken for its own sake, no matter how difficult.  Like all games, it requires the establishment of a perimeter within which things that one might take very seriously in ordinary life are given only relative value.  The perimeter suspends all the conventional rules, allowing the artist to turn the world on its head and let the imagination roam freely. 

No sooner have we entered the spirit of play than we see things differently.    

J.F. Martel in Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice:  A Treatise, Critique, and Call to Action 

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 326

"Acolytes," soft pastel on sandpaper, 38" x 58"

“Acolytes,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 38″ x 58″

*an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

Art is… a longest road through life, and when I think how slight and beginnerish what I have done till now is, I am not surprised that this production (which resembles a strip or half-tilled field a foot wide) does not sustain me.  For plans bear no fruit, and seed prematurely sown does not sprout.  But patience and work are real and can at any moment be transformed into bread. ‘Il faut toujours travailler,’ Rodin said whenever I attempted to complain to him about the schism in daily life; he knew no other solution, and this of course had been his… To stick to my work and have every confidence in it, this I am learning from his  great and greatly given example, as I learn patience from him:  it is true, my experience tells me over and over that I haven’t much strength to reckon with, for which reason I shall, so long as it is in any way possible, not do two things, not separate livelihood and work, rather try to find both in the one concentrated effort:  only thus can my life become something good and necessary and heal together out of the tattered state for which heredity and immaturity have been responsible, into one bearing trunk.

Therefore I shall determine my next place of abode, all else aside, from the point of view of my work and that only.  I want this the more, since I feel myself in the midst of developments and transitions (changes that affect observation and creation equally), which may slowly lead to that toujours travailler with which all outer and inner difficulties, dangers and confusions would really be in a certain sense overcome.. for whoever can always work, can live too, must be able to.         

Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, Translation by M.D. Herter Norton

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 256

"Offering," soft pastel on sandpaper, 20" x 26"

“Offering,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 20″ x 26″

* an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

I saw what skill was needed, and persistence – how one must bend one’s spine, like a hoop, over the page – the long labor.  I saw the difference between doing nothing, or doing a little, and the redemptive act of true effort.  Reading, then writing, then desiring to write well, shaped in me the most joyful of circumstances – a passion for work.    

Mary Oliver in Upstream: Selected Essays

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 184

"Couple," soft pastel on sandpaper, 20" x 26"

“Couple,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 20″ x 26″

* an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

Do the poet and scientist not work analogously?  Both are willing to waste effort.  To be hard on himself is one of the main strengths of each.  Each is attentive to clues, each must narrow the choice, must strive for perfection.  As George Grosz says, “In art there is no place for gossip and but a small place for the satirist.”  The objective is fertile procedure.  Is it not?  Jacob Bronkowski says in the Saturday Evening Post that science is not a mere collection of discoveries, but that science is the process of discovering.  In any case it’s not established once and for all; it’s evolving.

Marianne Moore in Writers at Work:  The Paris Review Interviews Second Series  

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 168

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

* an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

How strange the human mind is!  When I first began, I think I should have been willing to work at it from the tops of a church steeple, whereas now, even to think of finishing requires a real effort.  And all this, simply because I have been away from it for so long.  It is the same with my picture and with everything else I do.  There is always a thick crust to be broken before I can give my whole heart to anything; a stubborn piece of ground, as it were, that resists the attacks of plough and hoe.  But with a little perseverance the hardness suddenly gives and it becomes so rich in fruit and flowers that I am quite unable to gather them all.

The Journal of Eugene Delacroix edited by Hubert Wellington

Comments are welcome!     

Pearls from artists* # 140

 

"Big Wow," soft pastel on sandpaper, 38" x 58"

“Big Wow,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 38″ x 58″

* an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

Frankly, I think you’re better off doing something on the assumption that you will not be rewarded for it, that it will not receive the recognition it deserves, that it will not be worth the time and effort invested in it.  

The obvious advantage to this angle is, of course, if anything good comes of it, then it’s an added bonus.

The second, more subtle and profound advantage is that by scuppering all hope of worldly and social betterment from one creative act, you are finally left with only one question to answer:

Do you make this damn thing exist or not?

And once you can answer that truthfully for yourself, the rest is easy.

Hugh MacLeod in Ignore Everybody and 39 Other Keys to Creativity

Comments are welcome!   

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