I’m doing experimental mark making and painting. I start with automatic writing on each surface with drawing tools: conte, graphite, China marker, charcoal, oil pastel. Then I white or obliterate areas of the writing or painting. I follow ideas as they arise. From automatic writing I get ideas and phrases. An example: “History seeks to remember the mantra.”
I am fascinated with the process of making “sense” of random marks, images, words, and events. The creativity lies not so much in the painting process as in the slow excavation of meaning out of fields of chance.
As I worked on this series of 3 20″ x 20″ paper pieces, the word “Cherubim” appeared to me. Originally lions and bulls with wings, they “devolved” into Valentine Cherubs. Cherubim guard the Tree of Life. Cherubim guard The Big Chair, that is, God’s Throne: Chair-u-bim. It seems that floating forms, surreal automatism, and a bit of religious icon are melding in this series.
Experiments are risky. That’s why they call it “risk taking” and not “sure thing making.” Below you can see one in progress. I know they are done when a certain internal narrative about them crystallizes like rock candy in my mind. The point of “finishing” is in my psyche, not in the painting itself.
I think the real old-style Cherubim would be terrifying, more like wheels of UFO flame or hybrid winged lions, yet we know that sometimes monsters guard the gates we must enter as artists. I go forward with some trust in the process. Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition, friends.
If you’re in Northern California this Saturday, November 14, come to Winterblast, the best homemade holiday EVER. I’ll be there with the studio doors open… if I’m not dancing in the street.
Big Magic, by Elizabeth Gilbert, is the latest in a tidal wave of creativity books, and a very fine one. I believe it will be the go-to creativity guide for the next decade. It was only in the last twenty years that bookstores developed sections devoted to creativity in the written or visual arts. For many years it was just If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland , Art and Fear by David Bayles, or The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. And you never knew what section to find them in the bookstore; they were obscure. Gilbert’s message is not new. In fact it is ancient, but is desperately needed today. Why are we dealing with an erosion in the basic knowledge of how imagination and creativity work? Is creativity among our endangered species? Why is a book on creativity a best seller, besides the fact that Gilbert writes like an angel, or a daimon? Anyway, Big Magic was in my bag during my recent open studios. Interesting that its cover is abstract art. Hey, I make that stuff.
I approve of Big Magicand its exploration of Big-I Imagination. I first learned the tenets of Imagination that Gilbert espouses through studying the Romantic Poets with poet Diane di Prima. The primacy of Imagination was stressed; the world be damned, and often was. David Meltzer taught gematria and the concepts word-as-creator, letter as energy, word itself creating the universe, for good or creepiness…. go Golem!
I’ve always been lucky with teachers; I was taught about Blake’s Spiritual Sensation. The line was drawn deeply in the existential sand. Imagination is more important than reality. It creates reality, in fact. Ideas exist independently of us. The Big-I Imaginations fly, walk, swim, or lump about all on their own, shedding light and shadow, ambrosia and dung.
Diane di Prima also taught Western Magical tradition and guided visualization to students back in the 1980s, long before the vogue, as part of her own rich creative resources. In Big Magic, Gilbert quotes her friend and mine, Caroline Casey: “Better a trickster than a martyr be.” And Gilbert has the right idea on gods, spirits, angels, archetypes: they are both real and unreal, terribly important and trivial at the same time. Her approach is positive and full of stubborn gladness and a durable mysticism. I think it is the creativity book for our time, just as The Artist’s Wayby Julia Cameron touched a nerve in the 1980s. Cameron’s book was based on an archetype of wounding, addiction, and a 12-step style reclamation of damaged creative impulse. I prefer Gilbert’s straight-ahead optimism and humor.
Here’s what I loved in the book: The return of the notion of the individual creative daimon or genius. We each have a little whiz-bang spirit assigned to us at birth to guide or goad us. Ideas have lives independent of us. Court them, invite them, respect them, don’t ignore them too long. If you lack inspiration, curiosity and showing up are enough. Permission– Bob Burridge’s permission slips for painting, for example. The right kind of entitlement. Her own experience with the Day Job: no shame, keep it as long as you need to. Your art is not actually your “baby.” You can’t dissect, discard, neglect, or chop up a real baby. You can’t ignore it in garages or sell it.
She’s so funny! How to speak to your inner critic: “It’s best to be insistent, but affable. Repeat yourself, but don’t get shrill. Speak to your darkest and most negative interior voices the way a hostage negotiator speaks to a violent psychopath: calmly, but firmly.”
And when you’re in a lull– as I am right now, exhausted from open studios and down with a cold– she writes, “Any motion whatsover beats intertia, because inspiration will always be drawn to motion. Make something. Do something. Do anything.” And some sort of inspiration has visited… the next step in narrative abstraction, the next series, maybe called “Themis.” Or not. Or maybe some silly illustrated journaling or un-sellable Metaphoracards. But something, something, to give a little pinch of snuff or spice or something stronger to my daimon.
In Sonoma County, one person in ten describes themselves as some kind of artist. For each one of those, there may be a hundred who want to be. In the meantime, we swim in a polluted ocean of information and mind-waste created by nameless others. (I have just read the excellent novel The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness. The book postulates a nightmarish culture where we all must hear everyone’s thoughts, all the time, a decent metaphor for the interweb. Fortunately, in his book, men are more susceptible than women to this infection.)We have become greedy gluttons of instant, fragmented nano-art rather than makers of a modest, enlivening, everyday creation. Everyone wants to be an artist. Gilbert’s Big Magic could help.
The “creative manifesto” is a popular idea right now. You’ll find a good variety, and they’re fun. But I have a problem with the word manifesto, which has a political agenda. A manifesto is to unite a group under a banner, to inspire. I suggest a creative “declaration”, from the old Latin, to make clear. The root has implications of brightness, to call out clarity, to make a contract– thus “declaring” taxes. It is a commitment, not a call to action.
Rather than another bullet point list, it’s challenging to try to condense your artist statement into a sentence or two. This should be a statement that will always return you to the authentic reason why you make art.
“My creativity feels like a divine gift to me, and I honor the gift by making my art about Spirit. I want to express the numinous quality of life, where the elements of nature and the stories and the stones and the places of power come alive and speak to us on a deeper level. ” Caren Catterall
“I paint from a longing to give form to what is hidden, even to me, until I paint it.” Susan Cornelis
“I work spontaneously to grow paintings as Nature creates, looking through the visible world to the undercurrents of inner forces.”Karina Nishi Marcus
“I explore archaic worlds to forge ancient metaphor into contemporary vision.”Suzanne Edminster
As Americans, we can’t hear the word “declaration” without the word “independence” implied. But these concise declarations, with their brevity, clarity and commitment, are at the foundation of creative structure. Fuzzy, overused “creativity” differs from demanding, grounded creation, where the spark is made, however imperfectly, manifest.
In Santa Rosa Junior College’s beautiful print show, 30 Years of SRJC Printmaking, I came on students doing drawings of Caren Catterall’s Giantess series of prints. They drew in the manner of illustrated journaling, with notes and impressions on the page along with the sketches. Art ripples out. You can see the prints on Caren’s website.
Students at SRJC drawing from Caren Catterall prints
This is an amazing blog by the extremely perceptive Summer Pierre. Her “three reasons” were a gift to me that helped clarify why I am an artist. Her notes on commissions, pleasing others, and the Internet are invaluable. This was republished by WordPress in freshly pressed and recieved a lot of well-deserved attention. Enjoy.
Longtime reader Sarah asked in the comments on my post about Edith Pearlman if I could share my thoughts on how I skate the inevitable line of doing work for work sake and doing work to be seen. To which I say:
Oh boy–how much time do you have?
Every artist I know struggles with this dynamic–don’t you? Isn’t this at the very core of wanting a life in the arts? You have something to say and don’t you want someone to hear it/see it? This seems like a very simple idea, though we know it is not. The minute someone DOES hear/see/notice your work is when things get really FUNKY.
This is “A White Ago.” The title was taken from an e e cummings poem. He was one of the most romantic poets of our time, and a painter.
Painting with hearts is tricky. You always are in danger of falling over the boundary into treacly greeting card territory. I liked this notion of a heart in a field of white, time sweeping away old loves and perhaps bringing in the new.
I titled this one Salamander Winter. Again a heart, but there are little salamanders hidden in the base… small fire dragons. My husband, Scott, places boards in wet places to provide little houses for real Arboreal Salamanders in our yard. In alchemy, the salamander represents fidelity and the animal that can survive the flames of adversity. Here’s wishing you luck in love.
“The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct acting from inner necessity. The creative mind plays with the objects it loves.”
C.G. Jung, from Psychological Types
This quote made me pause. When we lose play, and give it over to force, we lose our contact with the creative world. On the other hand, the “inner necessity” has to include work and bringing the play or fantasy to fruition.
“The creative mind plays with the objects it loves.” This painting is called Europa. I wanted somehow to play with the Greek myth of the bull swimming with an abducted river maiden— and play simultaneously with abstract form. I experienced both these desires in a visceral, childlike way. I wanted to physically play with the figures in the myth, like playing with dolls or action figures, and I wanted to splash paint and watch it pool and run. The two plays came together in this painting. (Sometimes they don’t.)
This painting, an abstract mythic narrative, will be shown at The Gallery of Sea and Heaven in their upcoming Myth and Legend show opening February 16. They took two paintings. The other one is a private narrative , where the visuals construct a strange story; it did not exist until I collaged it. In other words, there’s definitely a story, but I don’t know exactly what it means, like the stories and plots of dreams.
I think of Jung with his Tower on the lake and his mandalas. He loved to play, and having a rich wife didn’t hurt the cause of “playing” with architecture . When we play, we always trust that the practicalities of survival will take care of themselves, like children. What “objects” do you love to play with?
I’ve been incubating this Dionysian series for a while. I have three 2 foot by 4 foot canvases waiting for paint to develop these themes, colors, and forms. The starts shown above are meant to act as “thumbnails’ for the next phase of larger paintings on canvas.
I have the best luck with my finished pieces when I am purposely experimental, uncontrolled, and unfinished in my draft paintings. I’m groping in my own darkness when I paint. I don’t want the whole process to happen even before I hit the canvas. I don’t want to pre-paint it in my head, my notebook, or anywhere else.
I found a useful new metaphor for thinking about any creative project, whether it’s painting or cleaning out the junk room. These ideas are from The Path of the Everyday Hero, a book about mythic themes played out in life. The six phases of creativity are preparation, frustration, incubation, strategizing, illumination, and verification (or manifestation).
Dignified, precise language allows us to reframe creative pauses or lapses. It’s interesting that frustration comes immediately after preparation, right at the start. Frustration is the failure stage, the belly of the whale, the so-called “block”. What now?
My friend Karina Nishi Marcus is very clear on the idea that “block” should be eliminated from the artist’s vocabulary. She says creativity is more related to nature metaphors, like “low tide” for the ocean, or “fallow” for the land. It is a necessary part of the creative process.
Frustration stops us from action, and makes us incubate our ideas, like an egg. It’s on the back burner, in the nest, warming, passive on the surface but active underneath, mysterious, the seed under the ground. To incubate properly we also need to strategize, to try things that might nourish or warm the invisible idea. Some might work, some not. But the passive time is needed, yin to the yang of action. Paintings can stay successfully in this stage for a long time, even years.
The painter or artist may have to go back and forth in the frustration–incubation–strategy realm for a while, then illumination, the “aha moment” strikes, and elevates the venture to a different level, perhaps to completion. The creative round, like the phases of the moon, will start again with a new idea.
These paintings are not done, but after some months of incubating, I am strategizing. The notebook helps keep me on track. When you find your way through an art dilemna, the solution often seems absurdly simple. Still, it took time to get there. The cycle may play out in one painting, or in series spanning decades.
The Dionysian metaphor is one of unbounded spring growth and ceremonial theatre, among other things. Perhaps I should drink a glass of wine to Dionysios, and return to the paintings. A flash of lightning, a sprouting vine, or a Greek chorus might illumine the way to the next act of painting.
Mythic notes: The Dionysian mystery cults tried to loosen the bonds between the worlds through sacred intoxication, theatre, dance and ritual. The Pompeii Murals, with their glowing Pompeii red, were thought to have depicted aspects of this.