Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Life-Changing Events & Art

When you go through a major life-changing event, your art changes. I've been hearing that a lot, in recent months, and I agree with it; hearing it from other artists who have been through powerful, intense processes, death, grief, loss, life-threatening illnesses, and more. The consensus is that it changes you, it changes your art, it changes the content and topics of your art, it can even change the way you make art. This is not a new insight, of course; it's as old as the human condition. For each individual artist, though, it can be revelatory. You learn things about yourself, and your artistic processes, that you may not have known before.

A month ago I bought myself a large set of colored pencils.

I have gone through most of my life believing I could not draw. My sister was the visual artist, I was the musician: such were our designated childhood roles, the family-dictated narratives of our creativity. In fact, she's not bad at choral singing, and I'm a very good visual artist. There was some truth behind the "separation of duties," but it created a mindset of limitations against which I have rebelled my entire life. I rebelled, early on, by taking as a role model Gordon Parks, an award-winning photographer, writer, poet, essayist, and film-maker.

All too often the conventional wisdom is that one can only be good in one medium, that one must devote one's entire life to getting good at it, and ignore all other mediums and artforms.

The conventional wisdom is wrong.

I've known this in my bones my entire life, and I am living proof, following my early role model, Gordon Parks, that it's possible to be do great work in more than one artform, and be passably good in several others. Throughout my life, I have acquired other role models who fulfill this function for me. Among the list are other polymaths such as Benjamin Franklin, Leonardo da Vinci, and John Cage. I make no claims that any creative work I do is great, but if it is great, it's because I've stood on the shoulders of giants.

In the past few days, an artist friend of mine has been visiting, and we've taken time to sit at the table with our tools and toys. Colored pencils. Watercolors. Watercolor pencils (an interesting medium). We've colored in coloring books, which frees yo up to explore color and technique without having to deal with subject matter. We've talked in depth about goals and desires, and where to start from. For now, I am mostly interested in drawing, learning to use the pencils, learning to shade and highlight, to create smooth transitions, feathering, and basically learning to control the materials. I have already discovered that I have much more control if I draw circular strokes counter-clockwise, rather than clockwise. My friend told me about a technique where silhouettes can be created using a pencil following a straight-edge, so that the outline of the shape is there, but entirely filled in with strokes going in one direction. I have already learned that I have an affinity for this technique.

We have played with art materials, supplies, pens, pencils, papers, markers, crayons, and other art supplies that we have found in the process of cleaning out the basement of my parents' house, now that my father has died, and my mother is being cared for in an Alzheimer's home. Now I am dealing with my own newly-diagnosed chronic illness that makes me tired all the time, and which I am barely beginning to learn how to manage. I cancelled my winter holiday travel plans, because I was too tired to travel safely. Everything is exhausting right now. This debilitation won't last forever, I hope, but for now it sets hard limits on my life.

So, I have an active, creative mind, and suddenly a lot of free time on my hands.

What are you going to do?

Make art. Be creative. Stay focused on making, rather than on what has been lost. Start over again. Start out into new conceptual territory, with new tools, and see what you can learn to do. Make new maps (all the old maps are useless). Start over. It's a new life. I am a phoenix, reborn out of my own ashes; I am a dragon, born again from my own egg and death.

The blessing of cleaning out the basement, now, is that I have discovered a rich and wide range of art materials to try out, that my amateur mother bought over the past decade or so, put away, and never used, in her long forgetting. Most of them are still fresh and usable. I've set up a studio at my breakfast table, where the morning light floods in, and there are airy, bright views of the surrounding woods and sky. I've you're going to have to stay cooped up all day, this isn't a bad place to be, and having artistic activity to do isn't a bad activity.

By the time you've gone through the cheaper amateur materials, you'll have a better sense of your color palette, your preferred papers, your preferred tools, at which point you can upgrade to higher-quality materials in a focused, thought-out manner. For now, I'm just teaching myself to draw. I'm not even interested in painting; except maybe watercolors, which my artist friend is scared of because she can't control wet mediums as well as she can her preferred dry mediums. Yet tonight, she too pushed her envelope and spent most of the evening facing the tiger, and playing with watercolors.

What we're doing is not Fine Art—except accidentally. Last night, I was very focused, and got good really fast. Tonight, I felt very scattered—mentally tired out—and clueless as to how to proceed. Last night, I did a drawing, one of my first ever, and it came out looking like fine art. Beginner's luck, maybe. Tonight, nothing happened beyond a few raw sketches, ideas that could lead to a Real Art piece someday later, and a lot of, well doodling. I doodled a lot, tonight, learning my hands' skills. I already have a very good eye, from years of photography, graphic design, and layout; I already know color theory very well; what I lack is the tactile hand-skills of drawing. This is how we begin to learn new skills, though: by practicing, and falling down a lot. And then going on and doing more. I expect to be filling up notebooks and sketchbooks alike.

I am having a tremendous amount of fun. I have no idea what I'm doing, and I'm enjoying it immensely. I may never become a great artist, or even a particularly good one; but I don't care. I'm already a good artist, in other media. I've gotten over that mountain of artistic ambition, by burning it out years ago, in another place, doing another type of art. This is for me. This is for fun. This is learning to do something new with this new life I'm learning to live. I have just crawled out of the primordial sea on stubby fin-legs, and I'm learning to breathe air instead of water; i'll probably have to dive back into nearby tide-pools several times, before I get the hang of it.

My artist friend and I continue to play with artistic tools neither of us knows how to use well. We are both starting out together into unknown territory. We are charter members of the Haven't A Clue Society: we haven't a clue what we're doing, where we're going, or what will happen next.

A lot like life, in other words.

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