Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Progression

I am often captivated by process. Lately I have been thinking back on the progression of my creative process. Years ago I used to sit on my living room couch and draw from photographs with pencil. It was the beginning of learning how to see.

Eventually I felt competent enough to go public and I enrolled in a life drawing class at the local art college. I was in my late 20s and had just gotten an MBA. I have always had a need to balance myself between opposite polarities, salty-sweet, arty-business. I recall I also took a class in palm reading to add some leavening. I grew up in a generation where going into business was frowned upon so after an intensive business curriculum I felt a need to bolster the other me.

Each week I would go to the ivy covered art building where I straddled a wooden bench called a horse. A plank jutted upward, the horse's neck, and against it rested my drawing board and paper. I would pull out my conte crayon and kneadable eraser and prepare for the model. A robed model would appear, gracefully emerge from the robe and step up on a platform, holding poses that we intently tried to capture. I'd steal glances at my fellow students' work, often quite skillful, and bemoan my ungainly marks. This was much harder than drawing from photographs. And the other students looked so arty. I felt as if I were masquerading, an imposter.

I still have the drawing that captured my eureka moment. The model lay upon the platform, perspective foreshortening his limbs and this time I got it. Something shifted within me and I began to see what was there rather than filling in with a shorthand for what I thought a person looked like. It was not unlike riding a bicycle. I was learning to see just as we learn to balance. I began to go to three drawing co-ops a week. I saw the world as if I was drawing everything. If I spoke to you, I was mentally drawing your face. Each week I would go to the campus art store after drawing and buy a new pencil. That pencil had a very high return on investment thought the MBA in me.

Eventually I fell back to one drawing coop a week and twelve years later I met my husband there. He was more focused on being an artist and more ready to define himself as such. By then I had a career in finance and art was an avocation. He got a studio with several other artists and they began to have a weekly painting coop. I took a morning off from work each week to paint, hurrying back to my other life afterwards, checking carefully for telltale signs of paint on my fingers. In a back room I set up a print making studio and bought a small press. When we moved to our own studio I began painting in earnest. Often I painted from photographs, images of family and random strangers. I did a series of people on subways and buses, still some of my favorite images. I painted steadily and quietly, no ultimate goal in sight. I painted for my own personal pleasure. It absorbed me and immersed me and often delighted me.

So what makes one an artist? In its most elemental form, making art. But if art is a form of communication, does it need a viewer to complete the circuit? At that time I was my own audience, often surprised at my creations, almost as if another hand had painted them. I knew this was part of my process even with no clear destination or audience beyond me.

When I left my job seven years ago I decided to focus on my artwork. I am a purposeful person so I always expected that if I brought energy to it, it would go somewhere, but I wasn't sure where I wanted that to be. I wasn't seeking to make a living at it. That would have changed how and what I painted. I was accustomed to painting for me and I knew that had to be at the core. My interest in family history took me down the rabbit hole, first family history, then Holocaust history and then Jewish identity. Each topic was an exploration of something I needed to figure out and was often accompanied by intensive reading on a topic. Story became central and the way in which I painted began to change. I recently realized that my last three paintings, while based on story, are created out of my head. No model poses for me, no photograph is my source. I imagine the image based on story and try to create it, often painting over many false starts until I arrive at an image that speaks to me. And those painted over versions are an important part of the process. I need to see something to know if it is right and conversely I need to see something to know that it is not quite there.

I've learned many lessons from creating artwork. When I first left my job, I thought I would paint every day, bringing the same commitment to it as I did my job. I soon learned that artwork has a different rhythm. Now I paint in brief spurts, then live with it for awhile to decide next steps. I've learned to have a conversation with the artwork that unfolds over time. And I've learned not to be afraid of destroying a work to create anew. I have more trust in my ability to recreate.

Somewhere along the line I began to share my work with others. I went from being a private artist to engaging others in my exploration. Much to my surprise I found I enjoyed that aspect and particularly enjoyed talking about my work and the stories within it. I also began to widen my scope. Now I paint and write and talk about the things that intrigue me and each action allows me to delve more deeply into a subject. Had you told me seven years ago of this rather organic path I've followed, I would have been quite amazed and probably a bit intimidated, but step by step I have charted a satisfying course. I still believe that creating art is the fundamental definition of an artist, but I have come to believe that interacting with others around the work makes the process much more enriching.

 

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