artists, Chuck Close, creativity, fine art, intention, Kathleen Volp, Manos Studio, pottery, Sally Mann, Sophia Ainslie
My fascination with creativity started at our kitchen table, where I’d sit across from my grandfather, both of us drawing. One day, while I worked with my pencil and crayons, he painted a landscape on the back of an old shirt box. I don’t know what happened to it, but I still have this one that he painted on canvas.
Back then all I cared about was my inability to make “realistic” drawings. Too bad he didn’t tell me (or maybe he did and I don’t remember) that making art is much more about perseverance and hard work than it is about innate talent and inspiration.
As artist Chuck Close says, “ Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work.”
Practice may not always make perfect, but it does put you on the road to creation. It helps you figure out what you like to do and helps you develop skills and goals. If my grandfather were alive today, I’d ask him, Why that house, those mountains, that tree? Does the scene on canvas match the one in your head? Was there a message behind it? What were you thinking about when you took out your paints and got to work? What was your intention?
A few weeks ago, this video of designer Karin Eriksson at work in her pottery studio, captured my attention. In it, Eriksson seems both deliberate and intentional as she measures out her lump of clay, places it on her wheel, and goes to work. She knows what form she wants that lump of clay to take and how to get it there.
In this case, I’m guessing, the form is already designed — we don’t see if any “rejects” or “seconds” come out of her kiln — and so this video is about process and control, not about what went on in her head when she made the prototype for these pieces. Perhaps this work was executed exactly as planned, but it also may be the result of trial and error or happy accident.
For photographer Sally Mann, accidents are part of the plan. She captures her images using old cameras, faulty lenses, and prints them using the wet-plate collodion process. The resulting photographs have streaks, dust spots, and other “imperfections.” She likes the element of the unexpected that her process engenders. As she says in this clip, “I feel I’m at the whim of the angel of chance because all these wonderful things happen on the plates.”
Last year, when I interviewed artist Sophia Ainslie, she said that in some of her work, “… accident was an important part of the process.” But even when your goal is specificity and deliberation, you have to work with mistakes, “If the mark happens to be in the wrong place—whatever that may mean—,” Ainslie told me, “then you’ve got to run with it and make it right.”
When putting my own ideas down on paper — as opposed to writing up an interview, for example — I may have a broad sense of what I want to say, a tiny kernel of an idea, or even just a feeling to build on, and the bulk of the piece comes while I’m writing and rewriting it. As Chuck Close suggests, I often don’t discover where I’m going until I get to work.
Sometimes I’m hit by that hyperbolic “bolt of lightening” that puts me in “the zone,” and the words seem to flow of their own accord. But that rarely happens.
The other morning my friend Kathleen told me that she has so many ideas that she is having a hard time settling on a direction for an upcoming show. Then the next day she reported that she’d just spent a whole day working on a new piece only to be disappointed with the outcome.
I tried to remind her that this always happens when she’s starting a project. And then I joked that as a writer, when I’m not satisfied, I can just hit the “delete” button. She didn’t laugh. For artists, the cost of rebooting is much more than frustration and dejection — the materials they use are expensive.
Here is some of her work-in- progress.
In their tiny gem of a book, Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking David Bayles & Ted Orland caution that, “The function of the overwhelming majority of your artwork is simply to teach you how to make the small fraction of your artwork that soars. One of the basic and difficult lessons every artist must learn is that even the failed pieces are essential.”
Frustrating but true for all of us, whether we express ourselves through music, words, or images. As Kathleen says, “It’s all about bringing your own voice to your work. You have to be clear and be true to that voice.”
Doing so is hard work. It is painful, messy, and frustrating. But it is also satisfying, affirming, and just plain wonderful.
So, artists, photographers, writers, musicians and bloggers,
- Where do your ideas come from?
- How much of your creation is about controlling your medium and how much is about overcoming obstacles and setting yourself free?
Erica Holthausen said:
Where do ideas come from? With my work, I show up and just brainstorm ideas to act on. It’s less inspiration and more perspiration. But in many instances, I have absolutely no clue where an idea came from–it just appears.
Sometimes an idea will be sparked by something I witness or a conversation I have or a book I read. Other times, an idea will start with just the smallest of voices. When I ignore these little voices, they often become more insistent. The seed of an idea starts to wriggle, as if its an egg ready to hatch. It draws my attention. If that doesn’t work, the idea will stay with me and demand my attention. “There’s something here,” the idea will say. “You should do this.”
Sometimes the time between the first idea and my actually doing something with it is short — under an hour. But it’s not uncommon for the conversation between me and my idea takes years. We talk about it, I think about it, the idea grows and changes and fleshes out in response to the conversation.
The strong ideas always result in some type of action. They just don’t let me rest until I take action.
I love that you can run, but you can’t hide from your ideas. And I agree, sometimes the “conversation” with our ideas can go on for years before they crystalize into action. And sometimes that conversation changes over time when we give our ideas time to gel.
Kathleen Volp said:
Erica, the thing about conversing with an idea for years is spot on. Not only does it simmer, it shows up in bits and pieces of other pieces. It is also the way with materials and objects for me. I have hauled around several rolls of old linoleum for 3o years, from Minneapolis to New York to Boston. I don’t often know why I collect what I do. The best part – like the little voices you hear – is the stuff people give me knowing me well enough that someday it will show up in a piece, or in the least build on an idea.
Erica Holthausen said:
I’m now picturing a woman driving happily from Minneapolis to New York in a beat-up old pickup. The windows are rolled down and it’s a beautiful sunny day. Music is blaring from the radio and she is singing along. In the back of the truck are odds and ends, pieces of this, pieces of that and several huge rolls of linoleum. One was rolled inside-out, so you can see the pattern. It is the exact same pattern that was on my grandfather’s kitchen floor when I was growing up.
And that’s where ideas come from! Just a comment from a woman I’ve never met that evoked a vision that I happened to be able to capture in words. Inspiration for ideas can come from the most unexpected places.
And, I have to say, I just can’t wait to see what you do with that linoleum!
Martha Nichols said:
I love the questions you would now ask your grandfather: “Why that house, those mountains, that tree? Does the scene on canvas match the one in your head? Was there a message behind it? What were you thinking about when you took out your paints and got to work? What was your intention?”
You’re so right that these are the kinds of open-ended questions that drive creative people, and that their answers define the final, unique outcome. All this matters to me, although I may not figure out where I’m going when I begin a new written piece until I finish the first draft. And that’s when I ask myself the questions.
I really enjoyed seeing your grandfather’s painting, too. (And, yes, I just got back from California–let’s talk soon!)
I like your grandfather’s painting. And the whole post.
I like the question because it’s one that I have often in my head too and one for which I didn’t find a real answer except that I believe human beings are inherently creative, we needed to be to get where we are…..though how it is or isn’t expressed is something else. Also, I love the point about your grandad….I envy my eight year old daughters ability to draw like a child while she is obsessed and intimidated by the fact she can’t draw properly…Picasso said he spent all his life learning to draw like a child again….
Mark, thank you for coming by. Your daughter sounds a bit like me at that age — especially given the wonderful artist she is living with. I have a feeling you can talk her down from that particular ledge of being obsessed and intimidated about what she believes to be her own weaknesses. Though that she is obsessed with art is a good thing — hopefully it will keep her going.
My eldest son (now 29) was obsessed with art-making and drawing from the time he was old enough to hold a crayon. And he loved the Ed Emberly drawing books. Eventually he moved on to origami, making more and more complex folds as time went on.
What is he doing now? He’s a working musician and composer.
I’m so happy to know about your blog and have added it to my list of followed blogs on bloglovin.com