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.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions.
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.
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.
A wonderful post from Susan Cornelis. I was lucky enough to share a week with her, Wavy Gravy, Laura Foster Corben, and many others. Metaphoracards were as wild and unruly as ever; strange how random images glued to little paintings catch the little idio-synchronicities of our lives! Bravo, Susan!
watercolor and Uni-ball Vision elite pen in 5 X 8″ Strathmore Watercolor sketchbook
Q: What did the earth say after the earthquake?
A: Sorry, my fault!
Q: How do you keep a bagel from getting away?
A: Put lox on it.
Yes, this third grade humor helped to set the tone for the last week of adult camp with Wavy Gravy, where it’s never too late to be a kid again. But there was the Hip Hop dancing and the singing and walking the labyrinth and trapeze and stilts (I watched) and painting and Zen clowning and well, I guess you had to be there. Each morning Wavy on the rainbow stage got us chuckling and I had moments to do a bit of sketching. So here they are – of Wavy – and the backs of other campers as they sat and listened.
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?