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.”
What about our private, individual Stone Ages? What about your art that was a start, years ago, before it ripened? What’s in your art cave? Is it brilliant? Submerged? Rough? Hard to find? From ancient eras? In this post, I’ll share some personal old, extinct art. Some is destroyed, some still exists hidden, and all are my little secrets.
As I considered paleolithic creativity, I began thinking about my own ancient art. Art is transient. Periodically, I clean out and discard my old art. Ancient art in nature is drowned, avalanched, petrified, faded, scratched and licked by animals, mineral-dripped, overpainted, destroyed. Some fragments remain.
I still don’t know why I made this painting, which I named just today after years of existing title-free. It does look like a shaman within a shaman, or big foot, or a gorilla, with magic biceps. And a little hippo is sort of irresistible. Maybe there’s a little bit of Big Bad Wolf, with granny inside. It’s scary enough that it never got hung on a wall. It has a personality…. someone you may not want to meet in a stone age alley by moonlight.
And a few more details of old paintings. I was really into that heavy texture, my own modeling paste, made from thick gesso and lightweight spackle from the hardware store, half and half.
Antique fragments, excavated up from our own lost ages, still have power. What do you do with your own ancient art?
Neanderthal art has now been shown to exist and has been dated back to over 60,000 years, before Homo Sapiens was in Europe. It has graphic abstract forms and seems to have recognizable animals (see the short film below). As more and more work is done on the “abstract” sign forms in deep caves , we are finding that the abstract is not more “primitive” than the realistic animals. They occur together.
It could be more like comparing a novel with a movie made from the novel: the more abstract marks have known meaning and carry specific information, perhaps a story script, or “credits” with location, authors, and events, while the beautiful animals are the movie itself. Books and movies do not exclude each other, but enhance each other.
We always seem to want to separate the “written” and the “visual.” We have even assigned them different sides of the brain, which has now been shown to be a erroneous. It reminds me of how much we wanted to believe the Neanderthals were knuckle-dragging apes rather than sharing a known human experience.
I’m going to try to paint my own paintings using some of these beautiful Neanderthal abstract marks. I’ll keep you posted on the paintings.
Upcoming events: on First Friday May 4, 2018, I’m hosting a gallery show of modern art in ancient modes created by five artists.
How do you get that authentic, intuitive creativity going? When I’m stuck, I make a Metaphoracard.
It’s not news that small collages can unleash a big creative flow. The Surrealists used collage as an alternate language. Austin Kleon recommends collage, even little messy ones like the Metaphoracards, for coming unstuck. Maybe even especially the little messy ones, the imperfect ones, the ones that will never see the inside of a gallery.
Laura Foster Corben and I invented Metaphoracards as a play activity for Wavy Gravy’s Camp Winnarainbow Adult Camp. We would take the cards the group made and tell fortunes with them. We wanted to stay out of the territory of the serious, archetypal, and therapeutic, and instead encourage play. But even before that I made series of small collages one summer with my friend David Short. In looking through them, I don’t know now which of us made them– but we had a grand time.
Collage is communal. It’s trashy and it violates rules because it rips and tears stuff. It releases energy, especially when it is done for itself alone, with no desire to show it publicly. It’s totally stealing images, and so it is mercurial and a bit sleazy. I never show my Metaphoracards in public because someone else– many others, in fact– made the individual images I stole.
Collage also invites synchronicity and magic. Austin Kleon writes about how artists cultivate messiness, precisely so that the unexpected can appear. I have begun to think that even collecting images in advance to use later “kills” them, because they no longer exist in the moment.
How are Metaphoracards different than other forms of small collage? Well, we paint first. Getting your own hand and colors on the surface first claims it much better than a glossy cutout background, no matter how beautiful. And it’s so much better if it IS a we, a group, because image finding is best done communally, through a large, messy pile. There are also no words and no suits. With Metaphoracards, you’re always playing with a full deck!
Frog Chalice Shrine
Love After Laundry
If done randomly enough— which is no easy thing– the cards catch a message to deliver both to the maker, and to the group around it. It’s like they are little nets that catch a fragment of the zeitgeist of the present.
And, by the way, they blow dynamite into any creative blockages you might have. I like to make them at the start of the year, to mystify myself. I love to try to figure out what the heck they mean. And they endure as a source of pleasure for many years to come.
You don’t need to take a class to make them, but I’ll be doing a Metaphoracard Class on Saturday, February 24. In the meantime, why not try a random collage with stuff on hand around you? The little spark that is creative intuition will flare up. You’ll see.
And if you can interpret any of the card photos here, let me know! Happy Valentine’s Day! Remember making our own valentines in the old days? These are like Valentines from the collective unconscious.
Small does not mean diminshed intrigue or impact. A good small painting reads big. I remember that in the Denver Art Museum that you could see the Georgia O’Keefe small painting from across a vast room, before we could even identify it as hers. It just shone. I’ve been working on larger pieces for a while now. It’s an interesting lesson: large is NOT small scaled up somehow. The dimension changes meaning. This one will be on display this Saturday.
Confession: the very small works are often traces of projects that lead to larger works for me. My own sense of detail is not robust; I prefer the BIG. Even my handwriting is large and scrawling. I like to work small on paper– it feels more open and free. But sometimes I do “smaller” canvases: 10″ x 10″ is one of the smallest. I like mixed media on smaller canvases to make more of an impact. Everything is small-ized now. Just think of your Iphone and Ipad.
Small can be very expressive. I did the piece above when my dad was diagnosed with cancer. I wanted to make a response that expressed sacrifice and rebirth as his living spirit started to transition. The Little Sun Cow below was just pure play and joy. We all have our art totems. Cosmic and regular cows are mine.
One artist who has a great sense of the small is Susan Cornelis. You can see her latest cool “fossil” smalls here. Come visit me this Saturday, or, better yet, start your own small series. Small can lead to big things. Surprise yourself!
In the tradition of side amusements for The Players– the musicians, clowns, dancers, arialists, stiltwalkers, magicians, storytellers and poets of the cosmic, comic Circus– the cards provide diverse diversions, a little taste of trickster mind at play.
As in my Saltworkstudio classes, we work in series, doing three at one time, and follow one of the Almost Unbreakable Cardinal Rules–Paint First. Getting the mark of the hand, paint, brush or ink down before applying images is vital. I’m not sure why, but it seems to transform the cards from stiff constructions to flowing, “wavy,” spontaneous combustions of dreamy image.
They are meant to be entertainments, in the way that some novels are called “An Entertainment.” There is no number to the deck. The deck is temporal and temporary, created in time by a group, played with, and dismantled after. Because they call forth a certain bubbly synchronicity, their accuracy can be astonishing, but unrepeatable. Like an appearance of a Loch Ness Monster, they leave splashy traces, but can’t really be nailed down or captured in a net of a single meaning. And they dissolve after the week at camp, each player claiming their own trading cards of vision, dream, and just plain weird stuff.
Since Camp Winnarainbow emphasizes fun, play, and performance, we wanted to create a recreational visual art form that would give satisfaction in the both in the making and in active use after. The cards were read by a raggle-taggle Amuse group in the temporary Amuse Grove you see below. There’s a Cosmic Phone for when we get stuck. We just dial up the Demigods to get an anwer. The chairs are decorated with old wedding gowns from the Costume Tent.
Metaphoracards require a community. You need a group to get a deck, and you need someone else to read your card. It’s the rule of the Cosmic Trickster that you can’t know what your image might say. I puzzled over my image of Faulkner, doggies, and a flower, until my husband Scott said, “That’s easy. It’s Power: dog power for the body, Faulkner power for the intellent, and the flower is pure vegetative power, an idea bursting out.” Huh, and wow. Flower power?
Painting can take you to strange places. I offer these older paintings as a travelogue of a surreal journey through spontaneous image.
Some years ago I mounted blown-up, cut-out photocopied images of my own pinhole photos on Masonite. I had a photo series of a small, two-inch Mummy, an Invisible Man model, a Barbie doll, and a plastic toy lizard. Keep an eye out for them, as they pop up in various combinations in all four paintings.
I varnished the black and white photocopy mounts with clear acrylic varnish as a protectant, letting it dry. I then covered each panel completely with oil paint. The images disappeared. That was scary! We love our figurative images, and to cover them makes us feel like we have lost our way . But it is important to completely cover the surface, so you can’t see the original images any more. Just choose a few analogous colors to start.
Oil paint stays open, or wet, for quite a while. Using a soft rag, I would rub parts back to the original photo, then add more paint, and repeat this, over and over, until new images started to form. It was like watching a mysterious image develop. I had no plan for the original mounts. The images just appeared. The first one was Eye Boat, below. You can see the guts of the Invisible Man, and the lizard became a sort of surfboard. They are led by the Eye Boat–led by the eye, or vision–which tows three fish. Maybe they’re the next three paintings.
Okay, I had a start: two figures in a sort of journey. The second painting was Nature Walk, at the top of the blog. A giant gorilla peered over the horizon at the two small figures enjoying a stroll, and the Mummy got a cigarette. I loved the thick, greasy, slippery feel of the oil paint, and the sharp smell. Shapes and images surfaced and submerged. It was mesmerizing. It took a long, long time. Apply, rub away. Add, subtract, change, cover, lose it, reclaim it: hide-and-seek with images.
The Sacrifice is the darkest of the series. The couple becomes androgynous, with the partner becoming a sort of butler or servant. A table appeared in a desert. Hooves and feet were scratched into cartouche forms. A smiling cow head appears on a table with two glasses of red wine. This has a forsaken feeling; I thought of Shelley’s poem Ozymandias. Motifs kept repeating: the high horizon, the pillars, the animal forms. I was dreaming in paint.
Belly Thoughts came last. A world of landscape appears inside a cow, and the Mummy has become a sort of householder or landlord, surveying his domain. There’s a snake in the garden, though…
These turned out to be important paintings to me. I think they may have actually foretold my future: a kind of before-sight rather than hindsight. Obliterating the image is very freeing, and moves the painter rapidly toward increased abstraction. Meaning won’t be lost; it reasserts itself constantly . You never have to worry about that.
Studio notes: This is my favorite method of painting with oils, because it fully exploits their oily quality and reluctance to dry. Oil paints have a mystery and resonance with film– all those chemicals! (Black and white photos used to be colorized with oil paints.) I did these during the last class that Holly Roberts ever taught at UC Santa Cruz. The painting studios had a view of the Pacific, and I had a key to the studios to come early and stay late. She taught us how to paint in oils without turps, using linseed oil as a medium and baby oil as a brushcleaner. Holly’s work is superb: mysterious, intelligent, passionate, and completely expert. I am grateful for the series of classes I took with her.
As I was going through my overcrowded art storage area, I came upon my nemesis– the art collage box. It was full of things I collected at one time. I was sure I would use them some day.
I won’t tell you everything I found, but there was Monopoly money from a broken antique set, German fortune-telling cards, a work on rice paper by an artist from Bangalore, India, and Mexican loteria cards. Out fell ancient notes and antique photos, a Virgin of Guadalupe print and a Holga photo of Spidermen, and a paranormal magazine I got in Prague in the 90’s.
I thought I might tell you what I kept and what I discarded, but I found I was reluctant to list things I threw away. Hey, it felt like a taboo. Why?
I’ve always said that collage itself had some connection with destruction and death, the dark side. Things are dismembered and removed from their original space, time and context, often by cutting or tearing, actions that have an air of violence. There’s an air of secrecy about them. That box felt like a coffin for dead ideas combined with a treaure box, a graveyard for things that had once compelled me.
Someone would be sure to ask, “Why did you throw that out?” Even worse, they might say, “You could have given that to me. I would have liked that.” I would be responsible for disappointing someone. Another person would become implicated and entangled in my decision. I’ve encountered this a lot. People really do not like it when one simply disposes of things. A taboo has been broken. Improper burial? Disrespect for objects? Then the discarded object comes back to haunt you through the remonstrations of others. And now, with the advent of eBay, all junk has been acquired a false patina of consumer value.
Each item is really the representation of a certain dream, experience, or longing. An object then has become a literalized metaphor, carrying meaning far beyond itself. If I discard the object, do I discard the idea? Or does the object become a substitute for fresh experience? Each item becomes a love letter from a past idea-affair.
Nowadays I use only two kinds of collage: text and black and white non-copyright photocopies of drawings or my own photos. Often the collage vanishes completely, or is torn to become an area of texture that may have figurative associations for me, but not for the viewer. I’ve never liked using “old” or “failed” paintings as collage parts. It seems disrespectful to the original impulse, a Frankenstein construction that I am forcing to life.
I think I’m just as happy putting this flotsam on the floor and photographing them, and then letting them drift back to the strange ether of discarded objects, or the garbage. But then, again…
There, I’ve revealed my collage underbelly. What’s in your boxes?