Anne Lamott’s latest book, Almost Everything, is a great delight, as most of her books are. She has a chapter on writing, which she says she uses as a shorthand for discussing other modes of creation. I took her at her word. What follows are her quotations, with the word writing changed to [painting], my brackets. Thank you, Anne Lamott. Have fun, and read the whole book. The chapter “Don’t Let Them Get You To Hate Them” is worth the price of admission, these days especially. My blog title refers to her classic book on writing, Bird by Bird, highly recommended.
“If you do not finish what you are [painting], you will probably not sell your [painting], although you may, for much less than what you were hoping, or deserve.”
“No one cares if you continue to [paint], so you better care, because otherwise you are doomed.”
“If you do stick with [painting], you will get better and better, and you can start to learn the important lessons: who you really are, and how all of us can live in the face of death, and how important it is to pay much better attention to life, moment by moment, which is why you are here.”
Another open studio? Another First Friday? Really? My current new project is a series of illustrated notebook pages on Dante’s Inferno and the Underworld. Not really a high demand there, unless perhaps you are a dead person of the 13th century. For years I have struggled with the ideas of supply and demand in art. I saw demand as a corrupting influence, producing Thomas Kincaid cottages, pet rocks, and social media addiction.
“What limits creativity is not the lack of good new memes (i.e., ideas, products, works of art), but the lack of interest in them. The constraint is not in the supply but in the demand.”
I know and work with so many amazing artists, most of them unfairly obscure, in my SOFA Santa Rosa neighborhood. We are everywhere, and we are creating. The supply is high. You could argue that perhaps we have saturated Sonoma County with our good work.
Csikszentmihalyi says that perhaps the limitations of creativity come from scarcity of attention for the products. “Unfortunately, most attempts to enhance creativity are focused on the supply side, which may not only not work but is likely to make life more miserable for a great number of neglected geniuses.”
He goes on to say, “But usually the necessity of ‘selling’ one’s ideas is seen as something that comes after the creative process ends and is separate from it. In the systems model, the acceptance of a new meme by the field is seen as an essential part of the creative process [my italics].
This gives me hope. I always knew there was something wrong with the neglected genius / Van Gogh model, birthing beauty into a silent or hostile void. I hope that I can joyfully enter the creative stream anywhere, either creating new art or by readying the field for it. Thanks, Mihaly.
More frequent posts
I’ll be posting several times a week now, probably. Fair warning! These messages are part of my own creative process. Later I’ll offer a monthly newsletter format.
If you’re going through an Underworld passage right now– as our whole country is– stay safe. I’ve seen and heard a lot more random racism and everyday hostility around me than usual. The decay at the top and the inaccessibility to universal health care is wearing us out.
Saltworkstudio Events and Classes 2019
SOFA Santa Rosa First Fridays 2019, 5-8 PM. Informal open studios neighborhood-wide. Find me in Backstreet Gallery, down Art Alley behind 312 South A Street, Santa Rosa, CA. Map here.
In 2014, I decided I wanted to walk the Camino de Santiago and keep a travel journal. Only problem was, I disliked sketching. I knew what a travel journal SHOULD look like…
Never in a million years could I keep an sketchbook like the ones above– the ones full of architectural detail and castles with swans floating on them, with notes in a perfect calligraphy.
I’m an abstract painter. I like big, sketching is small. I like color, and sketching is black and white. I like huge ideas, and sketching is detailed. I don’t even like reality that much, so why would I want to draw it?
I am not an expert sketcher, so please take my advice with more than a few grains of salt. But I was lucky. I ended up keeping an illustrated travel journal that has brought me and others pleasure over the years. As I walked the Camino, this scratchy, amateur sketchbook got me free food, wine and rooms, acted as a thank-you note, and bailed me out of trouble a few times. It got worn and dirty occasionally, as I did. It also let me keep “secrets of the Camino” that eventually became painting and printmaking series, though I didn’t know it at the time. And I normally didn’t draw from photos, drawing what was in front of me instead. I wasn’t a purist about it, but I wanted to draw my moment, adding memories of the day and figments of my imagination.
Tip #1: Practice before you go
Yes, you non-drawer, you do have to practice a little. Why would you suddenly start doing something on a trip when you don’t ever do in everyday life? Everyone can draw and paint. You did as a kid. So get a kid drawing book that shows you how to make firemen and hot wheels and dinosaurs, or get Art Before Breakfast by Danny Gregory, or a book on anime or doodling. Take a course from a local sketching expert like Susan Cornelis if you can, or find your branch of Urban Sketchers. Find the size kind of sketchbook you feel comfortable with– but with blank pages. Do not use a fancy sketchbook that makes you feel like you have already screwed it up just by looking at it. It should feel friendly! Make stick figures or cartoons. Spill ink and paint on it. Don’t get too serious. Draw your Starbucks. Don’t show anyone. Take an online course from Sketchbook Skool. Do this for a few weeks to a few months before you go.
Full disclosure: here are notebook pages done as practice before I left for Spain.
Tip #2: Use your words and your little scraps of things. Use what you got.
Use your words and the paper travel media which you collect, cut into pieces. Stick on train tickets. Get places to rubber stamp your notebook, then draw later. The key to an illustrated travel journal is words plus images done NOW, not later. You can’t plan what the pages will look like in advance, but you can enter the moment and use everything in front of you. Don’t be a purist and don’t try to have each page make sense. That is your perfectionism speaking, and it will stop your daily travel journaling like an anvil dropping on the head of Wile E. Coyote . I did this page with a plate of paella in front of me, looking at a Roman arch hung with hats. Even if you did only collage and crayons and words, no drawing at all, it might be more amazing than you could imagine when you started.
Tip #3: Do it daily and do it anywhere.
I did this one waiting at a fountain for it to be time to see a movie at night. Please do not wait to do your travel journal page for the day. It doesn’t have to be a masterpiece. This page had a healing quality for me, as I was stuck in this town as my foot mended from a minor– but threatening to become major– blister infection. I did work on the train and in cafes. I am not a dedicated urban sketcher, braving snow and balancing on stools. These pages do not capture a “thing,”; they address time, space and emotion. They are not as good if you wait for the “right” scene or right place to draw or even a better idea. Do it now, with your crummy view and the mediocre idea in front of you. “If you’re not with the one you love, love the one you’re with.”
I kept an authentic, daily travel journal as a pilgrim in Spain, carrying a tiny bundle of sketching materials. You can see some of my pilgrim sketches here, or read my Camino de Santiago story.
Upcoming Events and Classes
Sunday, November 4, 201810:00 AM, Lecture/Slideshow for SketchKon Art Convention,Westin Hotel Pasadena, Pasadena, CA . “Inner Reportage:” How a Lousy Sketcher and Lazy Hiker Drew an Illustrated Travel Journal on the Camino de Santiago Pilgrim Way.”
Saturday, November 17, 2018, 5-9:30 PM- SOFA Winterblast. SOFA Arts District on South A Street, Santa Rosa, CA. This locally-famous free art and street festival includes a parade with decorated couches. Follow updates on Facebook. This year, Saltworkstudio will feature work by Tim Haworth as well as my paintings.
First Friday, December 7, 2018, 5-8 PM, Ring the Bells, an informal holiday event. Backstreet Gallery, SOFA Arts District, South A Street, Santa Rosa. Bring your own chimes and bells to ring as you walk through winter studios to enjoy hot cider and live music. The artist Karina Nishi Marcus will have work on display as my guest.
[About Lascaux cave paintings, Paleolithic inspiration, and my abstract painting process.]
Once in a while we are lucky enough to create a painting that somehow is a little bigger than we are. This painting, A History of Home, was that for me. I want to take the time here to let the painting tell her story, her history of coming into existence.
It’s sometimes difficult for an artist to really explain what went into a particular painting. In these days of marketing, the emphasis is on the “elevator speech,” a short, catchy, 5-second summary. What a nightmare– trapped in an elevator and having to give a speech! I won’t be doing any “elevator speeches” any more, in my studio or anywhere else. Life is too short to waste it on the superficial. This will be a wandering journey, like the entries to painted caves.
The second painting of a triptych, I envisioned painting a series of abstract “maps,” entries to a colored world of cave and imagination. In this one, we have begun to enter the painted caves, specifically Lascaux cave. We stand at the threshold. It is a map of dreamtime, perhaps similar to Australian ritual paintings that mark imagined geographies mixed with “real” landmarks.
It fascinates me that parts of the painted caverns are actually called “galleries.” They may have been our first cathedrals: most were not inhabited. I am often inspired by the maps of the passages of the caves, and their abstract forms that are very unlike maps of the daytime world. Some of the marks in the painting feel like one of these “gallery maps” to me.
I really love the line drawings the earliest modern archaeologists did as reproductions of the paintings. Because photography was more primitive at the turn of the century, most archaeologists were adept at sketching artifacts and paintings. Almost all archaeologists who were allowed to enter the caves were male, of course. The most famous was “The Pope of Prehistory,” Henri Breuil. He did the most amazing drawings of cave paintings and petroglyphs from around the world.
I’ve spent a lot of time, literally many years, seeking out books with Henri Breuil’s drawings in dusty shops in so I could own some of his reproductions, with little success. I think what was “drawing” me was the beauty of the originals, but also a fascination of entering the world of the caves through transcribing the marks and animals by hand.
On the other hand, so to speak, I didn’t want to do reproductions of cave animals, no matter how compelling and beautiful. The caves themselves show centuries, perhaps millennia, of overwriting– animal on top of animal, elaborations and erasures, adaptions, handprints, and abstract graphic marks that were most likely a symbolic language. Generations of hands, eyes, pigments, footprints, erosion, stalactites, mud and flickering lights. Generations of whatever went on in these deep galleries. I wanted that. I wanted to enter that process, the one that started 35,000 years ago and is still going on today.
Back to caves, cave paintings, and my painting. After a trip in the late 1990’s to the Grotta del Genovese on the island of Levanzo, in the Egadi islands off the coast of Sicily— where I was led (by a genuine small hunchbacked cave keeper!) to the caverns with paleolithic paintings– I began to wonder why we have so few modern records of women scholars and archaeologists visiting European caves. (I would love to revisit this island: just look at the setting of the entry to the cave!)
I found that one woman archaeologist had documented Lascaux cave, Annette Laming-Emperaire. A part of the French Resistance, she entered Lascaux in the 1950’s and documented paintings and marks as a part of her doctoral thesis. Her method of cataloging and interpreting cave art is still in use today. But what fascinated me the most were her line drawings of cave paintings: sets of different style bison horns, diagrams of colored areas, and superimposed animals.
I wanted to use her marks, so I enlarged them with a copy machine, created transparent acrylic transfers, and embedded them in the painting. The black line drawings and diagrams are sunk in a dense field of paint. Because they are transparent, the paint underneath is visible.
The painting has multiple layers. Just last year I found that my paintings transform with 3-D glasses; the translucent bright layers, and the use of fluorescent paint, help facilitate. With the glasses, the layers separate, and the lines float in an intermediate space on the picture plane.
This painting emerged out of paleolithic art, a trip to Sicily, Annette Laming-Emperaire, and the modern technologies of plastic, digital copies, and fluorescent pigments. The feeling of the painting is hearth-fire warm yet mysterious, filled with the spirits of people, animals, and landscape, and invoking a great woman scholar. A History of Home is a story of entering art and making it our home over vast expanses of time— creating the new on top of the old every generation. This process is hard to explain when someone asks “How long did it take you to paint this?” (I figure about 25,000 years, give or take.)
I am pleased that it is going to the home of Rachel, Brendan and Tabitha Welsh in Alexandria, Virginia. Their home was built in the 1790’s, so A History of Home will reside in a home with history.
I’m reading a book about getting high without drugs or alcohol. Ironic, because I live in the heartland of hedonistic, exquisite, gourmet highs, sipped, smoked, or tasted: Sonoma County. In the midst of an opiate epidemic– understandable within our current mutated, obscene American political climate– I think we have lost our ways of enjoying the old ways of getting high, all on our own, in our own brains and bodies.
“Creativity is something new, something fresh, something that arises out of the absence of preconceived ideas. Intuition— ideas that spring from the untapped, unpredictable parts of the self– results in creativity.”
I found this striking. In trying to teach students to paint intuitively this summer, I found that the concept is very hard to explain. It doesn’t mean that there is no selected form, no restrictions. It also doesn’t mean that you can’t alter it, edit it, find it wanting, or judge it. If it exists in the physical universe, there is always something that restrains and limits the painting: the canvas and brushes, perhaps a chosen color palette or emotional feeling.
I think you have to paint first to have something emerge. You have to make a random act on the canvas of some kind, because intuition wants a little springboard. One mark… one spatter… one line…
It’s this act of intuition that gets you high. It is exhilarating to watch forms appear from nowhere.
“To observe the unexpected, the unknown, and then use what one finds there in a new, unique way: that is creativity.”
One thing to note is that you have to use it, not just observe it. It isn’t a movie, and it’s not an opium dream. If Coleridge hadn’t written down the lines of Kubla Khan before the “man from Porlock” had knocked at his door, we would not have an amazingly strange and evocative poem, but just another lost drug hallucination. We tend to focus on the lost world, the longer poem or epic that vanished when Coleridge was interrupted. Why not celebrate what he did manage to capture?
I was talking to a novelist who recently visited my studio about characters in his novels who seem to live their own lives, independent of his best writerly plans for them. He said that a master writer once told him something to the effect of “give the construction of your novel to your characters. They’ll do it for you.” I try to give the construction of the painting to the intuitive impulses that manifest: shapes, lines, colors, sometimes spirits or ideas.
This intuitive painting process makes me high. It’s a problem. I can’t drive when I’m painting; ask my husband. It also makes me useless for a while for everyday life and chores. It takes a lot of energy as well, and there can be a big low after the high of creation.
But I’m now an addict. I couldn’t live without the creative high.
“Creativity is the ability to bring something into existence from nothing. That is, from chaos comes a meaningful, organized whole.”
Creation is our agency to make change, and it gives us back unimaginable pleasure in return, if the risk is taken.
I was going to write a completely different blog today. But so many of my friends in the artistic community failed to get juried into our 2018 juried open studio tour, Sonoma County Art Trails, that I wanted to bring up the topic of failure and the dangers of branding.
All four that I know are fine artists, with established reputations, patrons, and studios. Also, coincidentally, all are abstract artists or work outside traditional genre lines, and all are women.
In America, we have a fetish for success. Our success-lust — there should be a word in German for this and there is, “Erfolgswunsch,”– leads us down many dark and sterile ways. Our movies worship the thought that if one works hard enough, makes enough sacrifices, you too can SUCCEED! There are genres of treacly, inspirational songs devoted to this notion. We Americans are suckers for this one. It has invaded our churches as prosperity theology, the notion that even God wants us to succeed at everything. God wants us to market ourselves.
In this spin, the accusation is that if you have failed, you have simply not tried enough. You need to try again. And again. Apply to Art Trails again. Get in those ten thousand hours, loser. (Though those four women painters I mentioned already have put in their time to their art.) We need to re-examine our blind adherence to the try, try again philosophy. Tenacity is good. But what does it serve?
The American dream of success promotes guilt, and it promotes throwing a lot of time and money out to enter the palace of fame and fortune. It promotes buying advice and spending more money to find out how you can get into the Academy, the gallery, the open studios tour– spend year after year applying and paying the fees to apply. Take marketing classes. Give money to get online courses and gurus. Brand yourself, baby.
Part of the current propaganda of Succeeding is “branding.” My own connotations with the world are of pain, burning, slavery, hot iron and screaming calves, and ownership of cattle and humans. Branding involves creating a consistent image and not deviating from it. This means failure to conform to your own brand— say, an abstract painter deviates and paints vineyard landscapes– means that you have failed your brand. It is a failure within a failure, a double failure, failure squared. Loser!
The problem is that in avoiding losing, in identifying with our own brand, we lose the chance for personal growth. Milton Glaser, in the video below, voices what artists have always known. It is a seven-minute video and worth your time. It’s also worthwhile using the link to his website, above, and taking a look at the series of his own quotes in the header. It’s no coincidence that in discussing failure, he brings up branding as an issue.
Success, or personal growth? Milton Glaser managed both, an enviable trick. But difficult. I think everyone really needs to discover their own way through, and that takes reflection, and failure, not wholesale adoption of the images of celebrity and success our society promotes. The internet provides ways of crafting an individualized success that did not exist when I was a kid back in the the 1960’s. We only had print materials and TV.
I had a childhood memory of the show Branded, the 1965-66 show starring Chuck Connors. The theme song seems, well, branded into my brain. It is a very scary theme song and image, showing a man stripped of all his honors, his good name, his sword, and his regimental family, cast out due to apparent desertion of his comrades. In fact, he is literally “drummed out” of the Cavalry, to the sound of military drums in the background.
The very last line of the song in the video below expresses my feelings about branding. Remember listening to those TV theme songs and trying to understand every word? In the last seconds of the final credits of Branded, we hear:
Branded! That’s not a way to die… what do you do when you’re branded, when you live with a lie?
Enjoy the video below. I chose a black and white version, the way I originally saw it. Suzanne
Thanks to Austin Kleon for his incisive thoughts and for providing the Milton Glaser video.
And check out my summer painting classes at LocalsCreate, a new art venue in Geyserville. Metaphoracards is really fun and coming right up on May 29. I need two more people… if you are the first two to sign up online and email me about it, I’ll give you a free copy of Salt Licks and Bad Birds, my book. Just remind me about the book as I’m only offering it here in my blog. I’m teaching a 3 week series Wednesdays in June and July on abstract painting and a wild little class called Dream Figure Intuitive Painting on June 16. Email me at email@example.com with any questions.
Some famous researchers into Paleolithic art, David Lewis-Williams and Jean Clottes, believe the ancients may have seen the cave wall or rock shelter surface as a “permeable membrane.” They say that the shamans encountered the spirits coming through that threshhold and, I suppose, immortalized their visions on the rock, so that the image continued to act as a wormhole for spirit. It’s worth hearing it from them:
“The painted images of another world made sense because of their location on the ‘veil’, the interface between materiality and spirituality. The walls of the shelters thus became gateways that afforded access to reals that ordinary people could not visit – but they could glimpse what it was like in that realm as painted images filtered through…”
I like to create a permeable membrane. What comes through are arrangements of lines, ideas. The more random it is, the more I can see. Many more transformations are possible. It’s like ordering chaos, but allowing the background to meld with the foreground, the unconscious with the conscious. There has to be sufficient complexity for the spark to ignite, an invitation for the spirit of creation to arise.
That would make the artist a kind of shaman, though I don’t like that often-misused word. And here’s a painting on that surface, full of random marks. You might not know what will come through and leave its tracks, scratches, and breath on the surface.
I love cows. I saw far more cows than people before I started going to kindergarten. I find peace and soul in the feeling of that huge rectangular wall of living flesh breathing in a green or yellow field.
In this painting, the bright colors of pink/orange spatter are not applied last, but first. I sanded down after overpainting them with opaque paint to reveal them underneath, like arteries. In every domestic cow there’s a ancient auroch underneath.
I like like digging up the old layers, revealing the hidden veins: it’s my own version of the X-ray style of aboriginal art. I find cows make a good imaginary canvases. All that warm action lies just under a vast surface area.
I saw “Leaning into the Wind” with Andy Goldsworthy yesterday. In my mind it was superimposed upon my current obsession with Paleolithic art and signs. Goldsworthy seemed to me to be a shamanic figure, making lines and markets upon the earth with clay and rocks, like our unimaginably distant ancestors. Who were us.
He climbed into trees a lot; this could have a relationship to the practice of “climbing the world tree,” one of the ways the ancients visualized entering the spirit world. His body was part of the art. It’s also interesting to me that the few colors he did use, from leaves, petals, or perhaps natural earth pigments, were deep yellow and red. The use of ochre, often heated to produce an even more striking red color, is the first evidence of differentiated color preference in early humans. Goldsworthy spent a lot of time breaking stones, which reminded me of our first tools, the chipped stone hand axes. He made grave-like stone sleeping hollows and tomb-like tunnels.
Red ochre was used to make signs, dots and forms in the deepest, smallest passages, some of them hardly more than animal burrows. I am reading “The First Signs” by Genevieve von Petzinger. She has spent years crawling through dripping, muddy, claustrophobic passages recording abstract graphic forms. Mud was everywhere in Leaning Into the Wind, along with streaming walls, slick pavements and goopy clay mixed with human hair.
The movie’s soundtrack is as compelling and hypnotic as the film. Goldsworthy talks transparently about his own evolution as an artist. For some people, preferring the Goldsworthy of sixteen years ago in Rivers and Tides, it might prove more of a “Dylan goes electric” letdown. I found it trance-like and moving. Have you ever had one of those dreams where you work hard in your dream all night and wake up tired? The film produces an effect like that. Recommended. Currently at the Summerfield, at 3:45 only.
I have always used the term “object lesson” without quite knowing what it was. I felt, though, that I was having one, so I looked it up. “A striking practical example of some principle or ideal.” Uh-oh. Striking means that, for me, it has to hit you over the head– or open up in your face, like flowers.
I planted bulbs this year. In our time zone, they should go into the ground in October or November. Instead, they moldered and half sprouted in our garage. My husband, the gardener, gave me gentle reminders, about a dozen of them as the months wound by, to plant the bulbs. Finally, with difficulty, in mid-January during a warm spell in our California winter, I threw them in, knowing that the genetic clock had ticked on by for most of them, and that they mostly wouldn’t sprout. I blamed myself for my neglect and selfishness in not planting them; I was convinced I had failed. I visualized them sadly rotting underground. Procrastination would claim another victory in my haphazard battle to gain ground, to make beauty.
Just planting them was so invigorating I decided to scatter and sow ancient seed packets I had lying around, California poppies and cherry tomatoes, in the same bed as the old bulbs. I planted some decade-old nasturtium seeds too. One bulb package contained Parrot Tulips. I didn’t even know what they were, but planted them in a pot near my door.
You might have guessed the story before I did. Most of the bulbs sprouted. The daffodils were that amazing dancing yellow, and the parrot tulips were wonders . The seeds are all coming up right in the ground, not even transplanted as seedlings.
I deal with painting projects sometimes much like the bulbs. I procrastinate, shelve them in dark places, and deny that they need attention. But even late, “bad” attempts at planting can bear unbearably beautiful blooms. I don’t deserve them. But they sometimes happen anyway.
Object lesson: Do it anyway, late, half-assed, or whatever. A basic lesson in creativity.
The last two pictures show the parrot tulips in decline, beautiful even in decay. They reminded me of the lush still lives of the Dutch masters, where a bit of rot was cultivated for its opulence, and for its object lesson. Carpe diem. Do the work.