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What we really need more of

December 7, 2016

I’m writing this one off the top of my head, no research, not a lot of links, etc., though I’ve written about the topic extensively in my book in progress.

A very young child appears on Idols or on YouTube and a talent is discovered. Take Jonathan, a three year old at the time the video of him was put online, ‘conducting’ a Beethoven symphony in the living room.  It was hysterical, but also so fresh, so open and completely uninhibited. Picking his nose (gratefully most of that was cut out), and at the end, losing his balance and giggling uncontrollably on his back on the carpet as only a 3 year old can.

Couple of years later- Jonathan at 5 in a tux  conducting a real orchestra, very serious.

First of all, a disclaimer here- in J’s case, I think there is a genuine desire to conduct, and the hunt for fame and money doesn’t seem to be the motivator. There is truly music singing in this kids veins. So please, if any of his relatives see this, don’t be offended. I’m sure he’s maintained a lot of his original purity.

I’m actually thinking less of him and more of the kids that appear on Idols, with their pushy parents, greedy for the recognition and money the kids talent can be used to gain.

What I’m trying to point out here is that important things get lost when what starts out as a gift gets turned into a commodity.

Having the ability to sing, conduct, dance, etc is a gift. It is connected to intimate internal values like life path and purpose. It needs time to develop and mature and become one’s own. Gifts are connected as well to the larger whole, our gifts are gifts to our community as well as for ourselves. In many non Western societies, the gift is how money and goods move around, and there are clear guidelines for how a gift is handled. Is it kept or passed on? Is it used up, is it used as a diplomatic gesture? There are myriad ways a gift travels and as many ways it influences what it comes in contact with. Gifts are powerful, they can awaken forces which contain the potential to incite or heal, to create or break connections, and more. They engage the imagination and call to unseen powers to participate in the giving and receiving.

In many folklore tales, hoarding a gift for one’s own enrichment is often the first step on a road to calamity. And we feel this-  we know why when something for the the good of the community is appropriated for personal use, it is wrong.

Lewis Hyde says that every artist labours with a gift. He names 3 ways an artist and gift interact: first is the gift of talent the artist has; the second gift aspect is developing the talent and engaging in the creative process, the artist moves to a new place; and third, the result or product of this process is also a gift. Hyde acknowledges that each artist needs at some point to find out how to keep the qualities of the gift amidst the inevitable pressure of interacting  with a purely commercial system.

When young Idols winners, or young, undeveloped art talents are pushed into the spotlight before the talent has matured, before the person himself is mature enough to understand the nature and application of their gift, then we all lose something precious. The artist and their work become links in the commodity chain, and the values change from giving, gifting, freedom of expression, taking risks, doing something for the love of it- to ‘What do I get for it?’ We all know what that looks like and there is really nothing new to learn from it. Same old same old buy and sell.

But next time you see a conductor lost in the spirit of the music, leading his orchestra to new heights, or an artist working on a project making urban wildlife habitats purely out of love for the animals, or anyone at all using their hands and skills for love and/or betterment of something, try to see what that does to you.

My experience every time is that it opens a place of generosity and inspiration in myself.

Isn’t that what we really need more of?

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Taking risks as a painter

August 20, 2015

Beets from garden - oils 50 X 60 cm

Beets from garden – oils
50 X 60 cm

Have you ever attended a painting workshop and been given a chance to work completely outside of your habitual approach? You’re freed up, you make some pieces that really surprise you during the day, new possibilities suddenly seem endless. You go home on a ‘workshop high’ resolved to start working more freely from now on.

Here you are, back at the studio- there is a blank canvas in front of you, all your materials are there arranged as usual, your workspace is the same. The stimulation of the other people, the instructor, the unfamiliar environment, and above all the uninterrupted time just for you, are in the past. You try to recover that feeling of freedom, but before you know it, you are working as always, wondering how to get out of a rut.

So how does one integrate new insights and experiences into old work patterns and actually begin to let their work change and grow? Many of our habitual ways of working have grown with us and are an important part of making our unique kind of work. But sticking exclusively to one way of working doesn’t lead to the kind of risk taking that is needed for growth and renewal.

I’ll share a recent experience with some visuals which may help.

In my last post on artists needing play time, I spoke of Shaun McNiff’s suggestion to begin working, not out of a concept (the mind), but out of the body- using a movement or gesture and translating that into marks on the canvas. And then using the interaction with the materials to keep taking steps in developing the composition.

I’ve been working in oils commitedly for 4 years this month, completing around 15-20 paintings a year. Mostly I’ve been learning the medium, since in my career I worked mostly in watercolours, drawing and acrylics. I feel constrained by just realistic painting, and have been trying to free myself up to work more loosely, to let go of realistic portrayal and to use colour more intuitively.

The painting of beets opening this post is my most recent one, I liked where it was headed, but it was still too slavish to the photo I was working from. In the weekend, I did as McNiff suggested in his book and used all kinds of media and movement to do a series of free work. Here are the results below.

free expression drawings

free expression drawings

At the time I couldn’t see how to bring what I’d learned into my oil paintings. So I did a series of watercolour stick drawings, but first scribbled and sketched on the paper with white crayons. You can see the white lines showing up through the watercolour sticks since the white wax lines resist the water medium. I liked this effect, and the second one down, I loved for its subtlety and spontaneity.

watercolour sticks and crayon 3

watercolour sticks and crayon 3

watercoloursticks and crayon 2

watercoloursticks and crayon 2

watercolour sticks and wax crayons1

watercolour sticks and wax crayons1

What I wanted to do was bring in that same kind of spontaneous, airy spaciousness into my oil painting. The painting of the beets, by comparison to where I want to go, is very dense and concentrated.I like that but I want to be able to choose that look, not to do it because I can’t do anything else.

I started with a 50x70cm canvas board and began with movements and gestures while listening to music, only having a faint idea of where I might want to go with it (the subject is that Beets revisited). I didn’t do a drawing, just squiggled on some shapes with a brush.
I love the feel of it, I used oils thinned down and let them run. There will be beets and leaves and thicker paint, but it will be very different from the first one. I have no idea where it will end up. This is ‘trusting the process’.

Start of New Beets

Start of New Beets

One more thought to add. What inhibits most professional artists from doing this kind of risky experimentation (it is scary) is the need to stick to the things that sell. I’ll probably be producing substandard work for several months at least while I experiment with this new approach. Another inhibiting factor is your idea of yourself as a ‘good’ artist. Changing your approach is going to produce cr*p for a while. Accept it. It is the only way to move forward and go deeper.

later: I did a little more work on it and decided to just leave it as it is. The qualities it already has are enough for me right now, they remind me of where I’m headed and I didn’t want to overwork it and obscure them. 

Slow art, soul art

July 18, 2015

Art holds time, oil pastel collage, S Zoutewelle-Morris

Art holds time, oil pastel collage, S Zoutewelle-Morris

Who doesn’t have the ‘bread and butter’ part of their art practice? I sure did back in the 70’s when I made little landscape prints and calligraphy pieces to sell at art markets.

My husband told me of an artist who, a long time ago in Holland, was having trouble making ends meet. He set up a stand on the sidewalk and started making quick drawings of clowns for passersby. He did so well, he was able to finance his less saleable work.

Problem is when the clown drawings take over. When work made to sell becomes the focus, and not making work according to inner values, which then eventually may or may not sell.

Commodity art is a branch of business, like a supermarket or a clothing store. It operates on exactly the same principles- supply and demand, customer’s wishes are central, profit margins before quality. And virtually no ethical underpinning.

How does an artist let herself become part of this consumer chain? One current scenario is, the person has average or above average drawing talent and makes something which is trendy and appeals to a large public.

They have no trouble seeing their art as a product. For them, selling is just as exciting and challenging as making art. They are 100% dedicated to self-promotion.They are artists of business, rather than artists first. Mostly when they find something that sells, they keep working in that vein rather than taking risks and developing their art.

While they may start out making things that are connected to their own creative journey, they soon realise that to keep selling they have to make the kind of art their customers want. They’ve found that wholesale and licensing earn the most, and the fastest. Every piece of original art regardless of merit is unfailingly available as prints, phone skins, silk scarves, T-shirts, mouse pads etc..

Then they realize that they have now become administrators of a business, have to spend hours working the social media to keep up people’s interest in them and their products, and spend more hours (or hire someone) to package and post their work. They accept this and consider it the price needed to stay ‘on top’.

Eventually everything they do is in service to their career. As one artist put it, they have become walking infomercials.

Excuse me. But if an artist decides that this really isn’t what his heart was telling him when he first felt he gift of his art come through him, he’s the one that is supposed to be crazy???  I, and more than a few artist friends, when openly questioning this insanity have gotten flack for not being ‘realistic’ and realizing you have to have money to survive. But the core issues here aren’t just about money.

 continued in next post

 

 

Slow art, soul art II

July 18, 2015

please read part one, previous post first

So what is going on here?
There is a book called, ‘The Gift ‘by Lewis Hyde which exhaustively explores why art belongs to the gift and not the commercial worlds, and what is lost when we enter the market with a gift (I’ve written a series of posts on the book.) Basically, in gift cultures, to give something away freely was to enrich the tribe/community. A gift actually increased in value when given, and perished when held on to. Gifts and art were linked to something bigger than the artist- to the ancestors, to the spirits of the land, to the gods.
And in engaging in gift exchange, these large forces were also invoked. So that when you gave or received a gift, it connected you to the larger powers in the universe. Money exchange is anonymous and impersonal. But gift exchange in a small community creates a connection, a web of relationships. If I give something away freely, I create an empty place in my own life that will automatically be filled by the community.

Compare this trust that my needs will be met, with the desperation that so often accompanies selling art for a living in the above model.

The thing is, if you reject the pressure to commoditise your art and yourself, you are rejecting the main paradigm, the actual foundations of reality nearly everyone in this society is being run by. You are stepping off the path. You are dangerous. that is why when you start to withdraw from the accepted ‘way it is done’ people will feel threatened and try to make you feel like a fool.

What is actually happening is that one by one, people are starting to question the usual way of doing and thinking about things. Charles Eisenstein calls this familiar way the ‘old story’ and says we are collectively moving toward a ‘new narrative’. This is true for the arts as well. He also says that it is almost impossible to hold the new story alone. If you try, you will be drawn back into the old way of seeing things, either by peer pressure or money issues. The only way to create and hold the new story is through community – one more reason to talk about these things together and support each other in making unconventional choices.

There are many, many artists looking for new ways of working with their gifts. These channels are not yet in place as  secure money generating structures, but they are coming. Actually, it is artists like us who are questioning the current paradigm who are creating the new forms.

What we need more of is slow art: art that holds time as a vase holds water: art that grows out of modes of perception and making whose skill and doggedness make you think and feel; art that isn’t merely sensational, that doesn’t get its message across in ten seconds, that isn’t falsely iconic, that hooks onto something deep-running in our natures. In a word, art that is the very opposite of mass media.
-Robert Hughes

I would call this ‘soul art’. It has a lot to do with Hyde’s idea of art being a gift:

There are three aspects of a gift involved in creating a work of art:

  1. The inspiration, vision or idea that makes one want to create.
  2. The talent and skills to  bring that idea into tangible form. The artist creates something higher than herself and is
    enriched by doing so.
  3. The work of art is offered to something larger than the artist’s ego- the tribe, community, the muse ,whatever,
    there is an acknowledgement and gratitude and releasing of the art so that it can enrich others.

This kind of art takes time and belongs to other natural processes which are of value and take time; healing, nurturing, tending, growing, creating. It is made as a response to an inner intention and is deeply engaged with the artist’s growth and development both in his skills and as a person.

Soul art, when shared freely with the community, creates nourishing relationships. Coming from the heart, it is naturally sustainable and in harmony with nature. It is made from the sense that what we have is already enough, so there is trust that we’ll find what we need rather than trying to manipulate, control and compete for it.

Hyde, in his book, admitted that we live in a reality where an artist needs to sell to live. He offers one suggestion- make sure your art is created in service to your gifts, to the higher aspirations of your soul and heart- where you take risks, don’t think about the market, where there is a pure, gift sphere to create from. Then, after, you can see if it has market value, sometimes is does, sometimes it doesn’t.

The art that matters to us, which moves the heart or revives the soul, or delights the senses, or offers courage for living…that work is received by us as a gift is received. Even if we have paid a fee at the door of the museum or concert hall, when we are touched by a work of art something comes to us which has nothing to do with the price.
Lewis Hyde, The Gift

Nicholas Wilton’s most recent post gives food for thought, again. I find his sharings always thought provoking, and they definitely give me insights that help with my work. This one though, hit a nerve.

I happen to be wrestling just now with the part of my book in progress that is about art and livelihood. I’ve found a way to sidestep the money is good vs money is evil discussion by asking, ‘which story do I want my energy to contribute to ‘. It isn’t about money anyway, it is about creating meaning. What image of life do I want to strengthen by giving it my time and energy?’

If I jump whole hog into the art as commodity reality, then I am supporting an economy based on money as the bottom line for determining value. By proxy I am acquiescing to exploiting people and resources to get high profits. I am saying yes to non-ethical long-term negative consequences of short term thinking. I’m using my life to perpetrate a system I don’t stand behind in any way at all.

My heart, unlike Nicholas’s was never wholly into selling my art as a life goal. I wanted a more collaborative, connected, kind of art. I wanted to do good, add value to life, and there weren’t channels for that kind of socially engaged work until just recently.

What I get from Nicholas’s post and from his art, is that it isn’t a black and white thing. There are artists like him, who seem to be able to dance with the marketplace without losing the gift aspect of their art- the aspect connected to the muse, to the sacred, to the greater things. The kind of art that carries a connection with life’s mysteries and large questions, the kind of art that can soothe souls and inspire people to either make art themselves or make changes in their lives to let in more play, imagination, connection.

The danger in approaching art as commodity/product is that this aspect is too often lost in the fray to get the work seen and sold. An artist starting out with all her values intact can easily get overtaken by market values.

I guess this is the essence of my problem with saying ‘there is nothing BUT money in art’, it places art squarely in the marketplace. Seeing the world as it is now, in seeing old systems collapsing and creativity needed for renewal in every part of life, I would ask, do we need more art products? Or do we need artists leading authentic lives, creating from their heart and soul to bring these much needed values into the world? I learn from other artists all the time, that it isn’t either/or.

But I want to make a case for the alternative to seeing art, like everything else in this society, as a transaction.

 

 

 

 

 

An artist I respect recently thought of a scheme to get  people to buy her work. She sells inexpensive sweepstake tickets and has a draw, giving away several artworks a year this way.

It is clever. Artists need to be as creative in their promotion techniques as their work these days.

I am still enmeshed in an ongoing moral dilemma about doing the promotion needed to sell my art or not. Early in my career, selling went without effort. I had a show, I sold work. People came to visit, they saw something they liked they bought it. I had a stand at a quality juried art fair and sold work easily.

For some reason that all changed when I moved to another culture. Here in Holland, it was years before I created a good social network, but even then it couldn’t compare to being naturally embedded in my home town, Pittsburgh, where the people I and my parents knew, loved and valued art.

Here in the Netherlands, the shows I had sold little, people walked past my stands at the various mediocre standard fairs I did attempt to do (and then mercifully stopped with) , and there is only one friend of ours who, every few years, sees my work and falls hard for a piece and actually buys it.

Because I’ve known a modest degree of professional recognition and success, I refuse to take the low sales figures personally. My work, if anything is growing in quality and depth. The factors have more to do with a different mentality here in northern Holland about art, and buying art. And many artists I know are fighting an uphill battle with this and the fallout from an ongoing financial crisis here.

In the last years, I’ve argued that the path of selling  art was not for me, but it never really feels resolved. I hear about my friend and her sweepstakes tickets, putting in everything she has to be able to make her art, and I feel doubt about my own stubbornness in refusing to use the social media, in promoting my work more actively etc. One main difference is that strictly speaking, I don’t have to live from my art anymore. People who have chosen to survive from their art have harder decisions to make. But I do miss the feeling of having something the society values and will pay for. And it would certainly make my day if my work were to start selling again. Unlike most socially engaged artists, I still seriously paint and draw. And this creative work is the source I draw on to move out into the society and share my skills, and knowledge of the creative process. It is fundamental to it.

Yet writing this makes me realise that I’ve made a healthy decision for me-  I’ve stopped doing things which weren’t working, and which didn’t make my heart sing. But doing so also has severed me in some ways from my old tribe of struggling artists. It landed me in ‘the place between’- when the old wasn’t working and the new hasn’t yet materialised. But I think each of us who rejects a path that no longer fits us is forging a new way, for ourselves and for others to follow at some point. Each step on the invisible path creates a new way forward. But on days like today, it is lonely and uncomfortable.

Luckily there are artist friends I can still toss these dilemmas around with. And also people who have arrived in a similar place to me like Milenko Matanovic who says,

Long ago I decided that making art for galleries and museums was not going to serve my notion of making communities and society more meaningful, liveable, and beautiful.

 

Show Your Work book coverIt’s been awhile since I posted here. I have been writing- the intended outcome is a book, but I can’t quite get the words, ‘I’m writing a book’, out of my mouth at the moment. It sounds too pretentious and it scares me a bit.

A lot.
Considering how many times I’ve started and stopped work on this project in the past decade or so.

I will finish the manuscript this time, because I promised a friend I would. But whether it will be anything worth sharing at the end, I don’t know. Anyway, it is keeping me occupied, a recent task being going through every one of the almost 400 posts on this blog, printing the relevant ones out and categorising them. More on all that another time.

Anyway, back to the topic of this post which is a book review.

Anyone who has been reading my posts over the past 7 years will know my anti-marketing stance when it comes to art, so surprise surprise, I am about to sing the praises of a book that could be seen as a book on promoting your art, but which is SO not an art marketing book.

I was cruising Amazon and this title was on the recommendations for me. I immediately liked the format and cover and took a ‘look inside’. I was sold from page one. This was an author who understood my reluctance to make self promotion the ultimate goal for my life on Earth, and who has written a kind, heart-filled guide on how to not hoard your creativity, how to not give up, how to keep your integrity while getting your work out there, how to not turn into ‘human spam’ (loved that), and have a great and fulfilling time doing it.

This book is so lovely in every aspect. It has a smooth cover, silky to the touch, the small square format appeals, it simply exudes friendliness and encouragement. There are loads of keri smith style handwritten pages and illustrations by the author, Austin Kleon (who wrote ‘How to steal like an artist’ which I didn’t read because I already know how and am already an artist).

Almost all the people I look up to and try to steal from today, regardless of their profession, have built sharing into their routine.  These people aren’t schmoozing at cocktail parties, they’re too busy for that. (paraphrased):They are working in their studios, getting good at what they do, and sharing their process.

‘By generously sharing their ideas and their knowledge, they often gain an audience that they can then leverage when they need it- for fellowship, feedback or patronage. (personally, I’ve never had any luck with the last one, SZ).

I wanted to create a kind of beginner’s manual for this way of operating, so here’s what I came up with, a book for people who hate the very idea of self promotion. An alternative, if you will to self promotion…Imagine if your next boss didn’t have to read your resume because he already reads your blog. Imagine being a student and getting your first gig based on a school project you posted on line… Imagine turning a side project or hobby into your profession because you had a following that could support you.

Or imagine something simpler and just as satisfying: spending the majority of your time, energy,and attention practising a craft, learning a trade, or running a business, while also allowing for the possibility that your work might attract a group of people who share your interest….

This little book is full of original, funny, insightful, wise advice that can help anyone gather the courage and get organised to share their work more. And who knows where that could lead!  Whether you are a writer, crafter, artist, or hobbyist in anything at all, give yourself a present and go buy it.( And, no, I’m not being paid to say this!)