The Laws of Nature

Monday, May 24, 2010

Artist to Artist: An Interview with Wendy Richmond

Dear Readers,
I'm going on holiday for a week and want to leave you with a substantive post to digest while I'm away. Today I have a special treat for you. Recently, I asked artist-teacher-author Wendy Richmond for an interview for this blog and she generously consented. You’ll remember that a few months ago we discussed on this blog Wendy’s marvelous book Art Without Compromise, and some of you were lucky enough to win free autographed copies. You can imagine how thrilled I am that Wendy consented to an interview, and I learned a great deal from it. I hope you will as well! But first, here’s some biographical information for those of you who are unfamiliar:

Wendy Richmond is a visual artist, writer and educator whose work explores public privacy, personal technology, and creativity in contemporary culture. She began mixing traditional and new media at MIT in the early 1980’s, co-founded the Design Lab at WGBH in Boston, and developed courses in expression and media at Harvard University. Richmond’s photographs, installations and collaborations have been shown internationally. She is the recipient of a Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center residency, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, a LEF Foundation grant and the Hatch Award for Creative Excellence. She is the author of Design & Technology: Erasing the Boundaries and overneath, a collaboration of dance & photography. Richmond’s regular column, “Design Culture,” has appeared in Communication Arts magazine since 1984. Her new book Art without Compromise* is published by Allworth Press.
For additional information, please visit Wendy's website at

*********** THE INTERVIEW *************************

Kathy: As an artist, what label do you apply to the type of work you do?

Wendy: I see my work as three intertwined areas: art-making, teaching and writing. Each area feeds the other. For example, I think a lot about the process of making art, and I write and teach about that. Another example: my writing explores questions concerning “What is public? What is private?” and my last body of work was about overheard cell phone conversations in public urban spaces. In regards to the medium I use in my art, it ranges from etching to photography to video projection to interactive media. I try to choose the medium that best supports the message.

Kathy: What do you see as the significance of your work?

Wendy: In my writing and teaching, I hope to be supportive, especially to help people to understand their work more deeply, and to identify and give credit to their own particular process for making their own work.

Kathy: That’s an interesting mission because it’s outwardly directed. Most artists strive to bring attention to their own work and identity as they struggle to compete with other artists in this tough market. How do you go about promoting your artwork? How do you find opportunities to exhibit and sell it?

Wendy: You are very right that my answer, which was just about my teaching and writing, was “outwardly directed.” I don’t think about the significance of my artwork other than its significance to me personally. In terms of promoting my artwork, I find that one thing leads to another, if you take advantage of it. For example, after a show at a museum a few years ago, I was interviewed on the radio. By alerting people to that interview, a lot more people were then made aware of my work, which led to an article in the New York Times, which then led to a TV interview, which led to another exhibit…. In other words, use the media, spread the word. It also helps to figure out what makes the work topical and interesting for the media. My exhibit was about surveillance, cell phones, which is quite topical. In terms of selling my work, it depends on the medium. Some of my work is basically un-sellable, because it is performance- and installation-based. And a lot of it is collaborative. It is easier to sell work that hangs on the wall. I have a few collectors who tend to buy my work. But I have to admit that selling work is low on my agenda.

Kathy: When did you first self-identify as an “artist” and what inspired you to do so?

Wendy: It is hard for me to use only that term to identify myself, as it is hard to use only the term “writer.” The work is so integrated that to use one label feels like I am short-changing the others. The subtitle of my first book was “Erasing the boundaries.” That has always been my underlying philosophy— to erase boundaries between art and technology, between disciplines, between media, between cultures, etc. etc.

Kathy: Yes, your approach is very integrated. However, most artists aren’t interested in writing and often feel lost when it comes to the mandatory writing for exhibition purposes (e.g. the Artist’s Statement and Biography). You, however, seem to be as inspired to write as to create art. How do you account for that?

Wendy: Yes, I can relate to artists who have trouble writing about their art. It is very difficult. I have two kinds of writing. The first is very free form. It is literally a conversation with myself. The second kind of writing takes a huge amount of effort, where I really am trying to communicate a specific idea to an audience, and I want to do it as clearly and accessibly as possible. (I write regular column in Communication Arts magazine called "Design Culture.")

Kathy: How do you balance writing, which is a left-brain function, with your
art, which is a right-brain function?

Wendy: This refers back to your previous question. I don’t see writing as left-brain at all. Most of my writing begins with “freewriting” which is a stream of consciousness. It is not at all linear. It jumps around like mad. I could even say that it is more left-brain than art making. Sometimes it is illegible, which doesn’t matter because I rarely go back to read it, until perhaps years later, for clues to what my state of mind might have been.

Kathy: What are the top three concepts that you want to convey to your readers?

Wendy: This addresses my creative process, which is in my book in the chapter titled "The Creative Process Loop." Sorry for the brash self-promotion, but that really is where it is most clearly stated.

Kathy: Readers, Wendy has given permission for me to reproduce that chapter here:

From Art Without Compromise*
Wendy Richmond
"The Creative Process Loop"

I have a young friend, Ariel, who is a gifted photographer. Her images are unique, quirky, and fresh. One day while we were talking about her work, Ariel confessed her persistent fear: What do I do when the ideas don’t come?

Anyone who has seriously pursued creative work has faced this problem. It is the visual equivalent of writer’s block, and it’s especially troublesome when the work is client-free, self-motivated, and personal. We often assume that we have to ride it out, like a physical disease, until that random lightning bolt miraculously returns.

But I believe that the problem is not a lack of inspiration. Instead, it is that the initial spark of an idea is so delicate that it is often prematurely stifled. It is subject to the terrible forces of nature: doubt, distractions, fear of the work being derivative, overwhelming technical complexity, lack of time, lack of discipline, and lack of money, to name a few. There is the desperate need to have the “answer” before one allows a simple germ of an idea to grow and morph, and to finally achieve its fullest realization. This all comes down to two opposing fears. On one hand, you have the fear of the unknown: not having a clear idea of what the final product will be and wasting valuable time in a state that feels aimless and amorphous, without any sense of accomplishment or progress.

On the other hand, there is the opposite fear: that you will commit too quickly to an initial idea and invest so much time and energy in that path that it becomes too precious. At that point you cannot abandon it, even if it is not what you want, and you continue, plagued with the pestering feeling that if you had stayed in a more exploratory stage early on, you would have found the right direction.

Is there a way to sustain one’s creative confidence and energy throughout the entire process, from spark to product, keeping a balance between the unpredictable state of not knowing, and of tangible, visible progress?

One practice that I have developed to support the creative process—not only for my students and readers, but for myself, as well—is the Creative Process Loop, a disciplined approach to maintaining a balance between these contradictory poles.

The Creative Process Loop consists of three stages:
1. Observe. This is a natural act for any artist: watching, looking, and focusing on unnamed quirks of interest. Anything, from a stray hair on a sleeve to two people engaged in an explosive argument, can spark a nascent creative idea. The observation is accompanied by a method of recording, such as sketches of the strand of hair or notes of the couple’s dialogue. These are not meant as final pieces, but simply as actions that set the scene firmly in your mind, as you might record a dream when you wake up.

2. Reflect. When you look at the sketches or notes you have made, which ones hold your attention? These pages are full of unformed, valuable nuggets that are often not evident until you look back on them. Reflection requires the discipline to review the notes and sketches and see what sticks. I have found that when I apply that discipline, it provides the space to daydream, and furthers an idea in a non-pressured way.

3. Articulate. In the first two stages of the Loop, the work is for your eyes only. The thoughts and ideas are not spelled out and are not in any cohesive, comprehensible order. They make sense only to you. Articulation is the hardest stage, the one that requires the greatest discipline: stating these ideas clearly, translating them into a tangible form that can be communicated to others. It’s also the stage that reaps the greatest rewards. When
you articulate, i.e., create a physical piece that can be presented to others, you achieve a sense of accomplishment and visible progress. But, because you know that it is merely a small piece in an iterative process, you don’t have to be so invested; it is a step along the way. When you present this tangible piece, you begin the cycle again: observing the reaction, reflecting on the feedback you receive, and creating another iteration—in other words, engaging in the Creative Process Loop.

The most important part of repeating this process is to maintain the balance between not knowing and having the “answer.” Imperative to the success of the Loop is that you move quickly through the stages, resulting in a form of rapid prototyping that removes the preciousness of investment. With each cycle, you move closer to your goal.

Kathy: I really connected with this chapter in your book when I first read it, and I think that many of my readers did as well. Although I don’t keep a physical journal I do keep a mental journal and seem to remember most parts of the narrative and images as time passes. If I’m correct, it looks like you’re suggesting an integrative process whereby artists use a synthesis of logic, emotion, and intuition before committing to the physical act of artmaking. Is that correct?

Wendy: Not quite. I feel that it is useful to make a physical act immediately. What I mean is that one does not have to commit right away to a defined path. So yes, we use logic and emotion and intuition, over and over and over, in an evolving process of mini commitments.

Kathy: You’ve applied what you know to teaching graduate students in a
university setting. What are your general goals as a teacher?

Wendy: To clear the runway of obstacles, so that my students can take off and fly.

Kathy: What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?

Wendy: I am going to combine the last 2 questions, with this amazing quote. It is a guidepost for me, not only for teaching, but in my relationships of all sorts.
This is from Lawrence Wechlser’s book “Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees: A Life of Contemporary Artist Robert Irwin.” In the book, Irwin explains that his teaching is focused on helping each student to develop her own sensibilities. He says, “I think the most immoral thing you can do is have ambitions for someone else’s mind.”

Kathy: That’s probably the best advice I’ve ever heard! Thank you, and thank you for this interview. Best wishes for success in all your future endeavors!

Sunday, May 23, 2010


Art & Fear: Observations on the perils (and rewards) of artmaking
by Bayles & Orland
Image to right: The Canon

Picking up where I left off in Chapter 5, "Finding Your Work," the authors turn their focus to our body of work. They note that our creative path is hardly smooth and continuous. We encounter bumps and even deep ravines that impede our progress. The authors call this the "Artist's Funk," which is characterized by feelings that (1) you've entirely run out of new ideas forever, (2) you've been following a worthless deadend path the whole time, or (3) (fortunately) neither. We all suffer disappointments from work that just doesn't turn out the way we imagined it should, but these "failures" are still part of the equation that help us produce the next work that "succeeds." Knowledge and experience aren't wasted.

Bayles and Orland suggest that when our work begins to suffer, it may be because we departed from a successful method or process to pursue another way of artmaking. Perhaps the way to regain that success is to go back to the old methods. On the other hand, the authors also recognize that this could lead to a bigger problem - conceptual inertia.

There's more. The tools we use to make art have evolved throughout history and, while they facilitate certain forms of expression, the also act as limiting agents. When particular tools and materials disappear, artistic possibilities are lost as well. And likewise when new tools appear new artistic possibilities arise.

So, we face a dilemma (actually, two dilemmas in my opinion). First, when should we stick with the tools and materials that we already know and when should we go out on a limb an experiment with something new? Second (in my opinion) there are so many tools presently available to artists that how can we possibly decide which to select?

But, there's a larger challenge we artists face. Most of the myriad of steps that go into making a piece (or a year's worth of pieces) go on below the level of conscious thought, engaging unarticulated beliefs and assumptions about what artmaking is. Yikes! It's not just what and how we make art, but why. Some of this is habit and becomes intuitive, and the rest of it is hard-learned lessons that remain at the conscious level.
It's probably not useful to spend lots of time considering all the whats, hows, and whys when we should concentrate on producing the art and gaining expertise (the when). But, if you're anything like me, you need to be somewhat deliberate in your choices in order to progress and rise to new challenges. Over time, the life of a productive artist becomes filled with useful conventions and practical methods, so that a string of finished pieces continues to appear at the surface. And in truly happy moments those artistic gestures move beyond simple procedure, and acquire an inherent aesthetic all their own. They are canons.

Next time, we'll jump into Section II of this wonderful book. And, on Wednesday I have a very special treat for you before I go on holiday for a week.

What are your thoughts?

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Laws of Nature

I like to devote my weekend blog to things other than reviewing art books. Today, I'll focus on the six paintings in my new series entitled "The Laws of Nature." The overarching concept for this series is to comment on the constraints of the physical laws of nature upon man's attempt to harness and utilize the energy and materials of the universe. The medium is watercolor on Arches CP paper and the size for each is 26" x 20". It takes about one full week to paint each one and I don't use any physical references but prefer to rely on intuition. More will be added to this series as I continue to interpret more "laws" in the future. These paintings are presented below in the order that I painted them:

The Law of Reciprocal Actions
To every action there is always an equal or opposite reaction. Or, the forces of two bodies on each other are always equal and are directed in opposite directions.

The total entropy of any system cannot decrease other than by increasing the entropy of some other system. The chance of something becoming orderly is a lot smaller than the chance of something becoming disorderly.

The Universal Law of Gravity
Every massive particle in the universe attracts every other massive particle with a force which is directly proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them.

The Law of Inertia
The resistance of any physical object to a change in its state of motion. An object will always continue moving at its current speed and in its current direction until some force causes its speed or direction to change.
The Zeroth Law of Thermodynamics
If two bodies are each in thermal equilibrium with a third body, then all three bodies are in thermal equilibrium with each other.
The Law of the Conservation of Energy
The total amount of energy in an isolated system remains constant over time. Therefore, energy can neither be created nor destroyed, it can only be transformed from one state to another.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Finding Your Work

Art & Fear: Observations on the perils (and rewards) of artmaking

by Bayles and Orland

We've reached chapter 5, which is about "Finding Your Work." This seems to be a common theme in many of the books that I've reviewed on this blog over the past year, but let's wade in anyway and see what these authors have to say about it.

The chapter begins by describing how our artwork mirrors us: Look at your work and it tells you how it is when you hold back or when you embrace. When you are lazy, your art is lazy; when you hold back, it holds back; when you hesitate, it stands there staring, hands in its pockets. But when you commit, it comes on like blazes. Indeed, if we are truthful in our artmaking, the our work must mirror us.

Unfortunately, there are many obstacles along our path to "finding our work." Foremost among those obstacles is uncertainty. The process of artmaking is bounded on one end by a concept and the other end by the finished product, and in between lots of uncertainty. We have to figure it out as we go along, and this leads to many of the doubts and fears that we discussed in chapter 2, "Fears About Yourself."

Another obstacle is inhibition. The truth is, most of us are too inhibited to express in our art what we're really thinking or feeling. We hold back in fear of the judgement of others and that's an obstacle to our work. The authors dealt with this in the previous chapter, "Fears About Others."

Despite these obstacles, we do have a starting place for finding our work. Artmaking is done within a historical context and usually reflects the time in which it is made. We express the world as we see and experience it. There's always something we can say that's a unique perspective. Recognizing and responding to that starting point is essential to finding our work.

If, indeed, for any given time only a certain sort of work resonates with life, then that is the work you need to be doing in that moment. If you try to do some other work, you will miss your moment. I like the word "moment." The job of the artist is to capture moments from both the external and internal realms.

However, the authenticity of artmaking today is threatened by the vast amount of information-sharing and technology that enables artists to appropriate images and ideas with which they have no personal knowledge or experience. This renders the work somewhat meaningless, and worse yet, misunderstood. There's a difference between meaning that's embodied and meaning that is referenced. As someone once said, no one should wear a Greek fisherman's hat except a Greek fisherman.

What are your thoughts?

Where You Are ...

Art & Fear: Observations on the perils (and rewards) of artmaking
Bayles and Orland
Painting: "You Are Here" by Mike Farruggia

Chapter 4 ends with the admonition to artists to avoid courting approval from others, which puts a dangerous amount of power in the hands of the audience. Furthermore, others aren't in a position to determine whether or not we're making progress in our work since they have little interest or knowledge of our process. The only pure communication is between you and your work. So, only we know where we are.

Where we are ... conjures up another thought. I've learned that art is not a valuable commodity everywhere. Sometimes, we're lucky enough to live in areas where the fine arts are supported by numerous galleries, museums, and discerning collectors. Others of us live in areas that don't support the arts and must seek opportunities elsewhere.

The questions I have for you today are:

1. Do you live in an area that supports the arts and provides venues for you to show your work?

2. Which areas or cities of the world/country do you think are important for contemporary artists to display and sell their work?

Tuesday, May 18, 2010



Art & Fear: Observations on the perils (and rewards) of artmaking
by Bayles & Orland

Acceptance - we all want it. The alternative is either rejection or indifference and neither is satisfying. The authors ask us to consider this question regarding acceptance: When your work is counted, will it be counted as art? I'm hoping so. It's neither craft, nor hobby, nor decoration. It's art.

Acceptance and approval are powers held by others, whether they be friends, classmates, curators ... or author of the definitive history of your chosen medium. I suppose this should intimidate me, but it doesn't because there's nothing that I can do about it. My conscience tells me to create art in my own voice and by my own devices. I can't paint to gain acceptance, but I can hope that what I produce may find it.

The authors also remark on something we're all familiar with: the acceptance of an artist's work posthumously. The explanation offered makes sense: at any given moment, the world offers vastly more support to work it already understands - namely, art that's already been around for a generation or a century. Expressions of truly new ideas often fail to qualify as even bad art - they're simply viewed as no art at all.

Therefore, if we're motivated by acceptance then our work will probably be more conventional and identifiable as "art." The authors point out that this isn't necessarily a bad thing - at least for beginning artists who learn by recapitulation. But, once having done that, the far greater danger is not that the artist will fail to learn anything from the past, but will fail to teach anything new in the future. I believe that we artists have an obligation to create work that enhances and moves forward the "dialogue" in art. It's essential to the life of the discipline.

This takes us to a whole other level - one that moves us beyond seeking acceptance to making authentic and original art.

The real question about acceptance is not whether your work will be viewed as art, but whether it will be viewed as your art.

What are your thoughts?

Monday, May 17, 2010


Art & Fear: Observations on the perils (and rewards) of artmaking
by Bayles and Orland

Chapter 4 deals with our fears about others, and the first section of this chapter examines the implications of creating work that is understood by others. In following the path of your heart, the chances are that your work will not be understood by others, the authors write. Does this mean that if our work is understood that we haven't followed the path of our hearts? I doubt it, since artists frequently express the commonalities between us - the human experience.

But, we want to be understood. Months ago we had a discussion on this blog about art as a form of communication. What is the purpose of art if it doesn't communicate to others? Is it a purely self-serving enterprise? Should we even worry about communicating when we're artmaking?

The risk is fearsome: in making your real work you hand the audience the power to deny the understanding you seek; you hand them the power to say "you're not like us; you're weird; you're crazy. Personally, that doesn't bother me. I've never fit into groups very well and don't expect to in the future. Conformity isn't my bag.

The authors point out that we get instant feedback about our artmaking these days because of the internet. This can influence how we proceed from one work to the next, and that influence might inhibit our individual voice. They cite Andrew Wyeth, who retreated from the public for years to create the Helga series. This gave him the advantage of listening only to his own voice and working through problems until he arrived at successful solutions in solitude. I think there's great wisdom in that approach.

Catering to fears of being misunderstood leaves you dependent upon your audience. In the simplest yet most deadly scenario, ideas are diluted to what you imagine your audience can imagine, leading to work that is condescending, arrogant, or both. Worse yet, you discard your own highest vision in the process.

What are your thoughts?

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Fears About Others

Art & Fear: Observations on the Periods (and Rewards) of Artmaking
by Bayles & Orland

We've arrived at Chapter 4: "Fears About Others" where the authors reveal how we artists deal with the opinions of others. Before entering this chapter, I want to acknowledge that I DO care about what others think of my work to a certain degree (but not enough to change direction). In fact, I think that anyone who exhibits their work also cares about what others think of it. We want feedback, and we hope it will be positive. So, let's take just a few steps into chapter 4 and learn more about how we deal with the opinions of others.

First, we're asked to consider the expectations of others. As an artist you're expected to make each successive piece uniquely new and different - yet reassuringly familiar when set alongside your earlier work. You're expected to make art that's intimately (perhaps even painfully) personal - yet alluring and easily grasped by an audience that has likely never known you personally. That's a TALL order.

This reminds me of something that happened to Bob Dylan when he decided to lay down the acoustical guitar in favor of an electric one. The first time he appeared on stage wired, his audience booed and called him a "traitor." They couldn't stand the change - familiarity was more important than Dylan's creative ideas. I'm relating this story because I think that creating in order to fulfill the expectations of others is akin to being a traitor to oneself. It inhibits our ability to freely create.

The authors add that when we're feeling insecure or tentative about our own work we tend to listen more to the opinions of others. Conversely, when things are going well we listen less. I think that we tend to panic when things don't go well, and we actively seek solutions by turning to others. I used to do that a lot, but now I've learned to dig deeper within myself where the real solutions lie.

I think this chapter will be a good read. What I've covered so far is found in only the opening remarks. Next time, we'll consider the first section of this chapter, entitled "Understanding."

What are your thoughts?

Friday, May 14, 2010

Magic & Expectations

Art & Fear: Observations on the perils (and rewards) of artmaking
by Bayles and Orland

The last two sections of Chapter 3 conclude the authors' discussion of our fears about ourselves. The first section, "Magic," begins with an insightful quotation from Mark Matousek:

There's a myth among amateurs, optimists and fools that beyond a certain level of achievement, famous artists retire to some kind of Elysium where criticism no longer wounds and work materializes without their effort.

This is the "magic" and it isn't real. But, many aspiring artists are under this spell and this leads to constant disappointment in their work. Maybe they don't have what it takes - that special spark of magic that's necessary to create great works of art. And, when something turns out well it's a "fluke," and if it turns out poorly it's an "omen." The authors note that buying into magic leaves you feeling less capable each time another artist's qualities are praised. This leads to a defeatist attitude. It's more important to recognize that each artist has "something" that gives them the ability to create. But, one artist's "something" can't be substituted for another artist's "something." As artists, we arrive at solutions for our work as individuals. My magic isn't your magic and vice versa. There isn't a single universal type of "magic."

Moving on the the second section, "Expectations," we're reminded that our expectations are a delicate balance between imagination and calculation; between intuition and logic. The temptation is to become too fanciful in our expectations so that we can't begin to fulfill them. Unfortunately, expectations based on illusion lead almost always to disillusionment.

But, the authors point out that expectations can also be one of the most useful tools that an artist can possess. What you need to know about the next piece is contained in the last piece. The last piece taught us about our materials, designs, and ideas. Our work is our guidebook. It shows us where we've been and helps us intuit where we might go. From that, expectations arise. The trick is in finding a way to look at our work objectively so that we may learn from it. That's the only way we can develop realistic expectations.

Now that we've concluded chapter 3 and considered a number of fears about ourselves, it's plain to see that all these fears are self-inflicted. Isn't it interesting that we'd engage in emotional and psychological self-destruction when we'd never, ever do it to someone else? We often treat ourselves worse than we treat others. That's sad and destroys our ability to create uninhibited truthful works of art. The authors have exposed these fears as lies, and that's the first step to banishing them from our thoughts. Next time, we'll begin chapter 4, which is "Fears About Others."

What are your thoughts?

Wednesday, May 12, 2010


Art and Fear: Observations on the perils (and rewards) of artmaking
by Bayles & Orland

This section of chapter 3 reminds me of the many individuals who, upon retirement, find themselves lost. Their identity was their job. Here, Bayles and Orland observe that a dry spell in artmaking would be a serious blow; for a few it would amount to annihilation. I hadn't thought about this before, but it's very true that when I'm forced to attend to matters that take me away from my studio for more than a day I become anxious. Painting IS my purpose and I can't imagine having a dry spell. Maybe I've succumbed to the second observation made by these authors: avoidance. Some avoid this self-imposed abyss by becoming stupendously productive, churning out work in quantities that surprise even close friends. Yup - that's me!

I've definitely confused "doing" with "being" when it comes to art.

But, this might not be unusual. After all, if I stopped making art then a part of me would die (or at least wither). The authors note this, and write that the depth of your need to make things establishes the level of risk in not making them. For me, that's a huge risk.

What are your thoughts?

Tuesday, May 11, 2010


The Zeroth Law of Thermodynamics
by Katharine A. Cartwright
Watercolor on paper
26" x 20"
This painting is the fifth in my new series entitled "The Laws of Nature." The "Zeroth Law of Thermodynamics" states that if two bodies are in thermal equilibrium with a third body, then all three bodies are in thermal equilibrium.

Art & Fear: observations on the perils (and rewards) of artmaking
by Bayles and Orland.

In Chapter 3, the authors continue their examination of fears about ourselves by considering the role of perfectionism. Thankfully, this is not a problem that afflicts me. I'm happy to expose my flaws and embrace them as part of who I am. But, there are many who don't accept flaws and the authors offer great advice:

If you think good work is somehow synonymous with perfect work, you are headed for big trouble.

Art is human; error is human; ergo, art is error.

Without warts it is not clear what you would be, but clearly you wouldn't be one of us.

The belief persists among some artists that doing art means doing things flawlessly - ignoring the fact that this prerequisite would disqualify most existing works of art.

Ansel Adams, never one to mistake precision for perfection, once noted that "the perfect is the enemy of the good."

To require perfection is to invite paralysis.

To demand perfection is to deny your ordinary (and universal) humanity, as though you would be better off without it. Yet this humanity is the ultimate source of your work; your perfectionism denies you the very thing you need to get your work done.

Ultimately, perfectionism leads one to abandon artmaking with a feeling of utter discouragement. Isn't it great that we don't have to succumb to that fate if we can just embrace the flaws that make us who we are? Whew - what a relief!

What are your thoughts?

Monday, May 10, 2010


(not a picture of Kathy)

Art & Fear: Observations on the perils (and rewards) of artmaking
by Bayles & Orland

Continuing in chapter 3, we've reached the section about "talent," which the authors define as what comes easily. But, they ask, what happens when we reach a point where our artmaking doesn't come easily? Does this mean that we don't have "talent?" No, because talent is a gift and nothing of the artist's own making. So, whatever we have is exactly what we need to produce our best work.

But, talent isn't all that it's cracked-up to be. It may give us a good start, but if we don't have direction and do something with it, it doesn't amount to much. The authors remind us that the world is filled with people who were given great natural gifts yet never produce anything. And when that happens, the world soon ceases to care whether they are talented.

But, there's more to it than just having talent. One can develop that talent to higher levels by using it in challenging ways. We can learn and sharpen our skills. And, if we challenge ourselves then artmaking becomes progressively harder. That doesn't mean we don't have talent, it just means that we're trying to take it to another level.

In conclusion, the authors give us this perspective: Talent is a snare and a delusion. In the end, the practical questions about talent come down to these:
Who cares?
Who would know?
What difference would it make?

And the practical answers are:

What are your thoughts?

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Fears About Yourself ...

Annie Leibovitz' self portrait

Many thanks to all of you who took time to consider the answers to my Mother's Day Quiz. Our resident "whiz kid," Don, provided the correct answers. Good job!

And now, back to Art & Fear: Observations on the perils (and rewards) of artmaking by Bayles and Orland. Chapter three is entitled "Fears About Yourself" and begins with the observation that when you act out of fear, your fears come true. The authors go on to be more specific to artmaking and lump our fears in that regard into two general categories: 1) fears about yourself, which keeps you from doing your best work, and 2) fears about your reception by others, which keeps you from doing your own work .

These fears naturally lead to what the authors call "pretending," but I call it "the impostor syndrome." It's doubt about our skills, intelligence, talent, credentials coupled with the fear that others will find out that we're really pretending to be an artist, or impostor. Of course, when things aren't going well in the studio this feeling increases since we often fall into the trap of thinking that true artists aren't subject to the shortcomings that we find in our own work. This feeling causes many artists to quit or at least take a prolonged break.

But, for those of us who don't quit, there's still the temptation to make excuses or even put-down our work. The authors also point out that it's easy to feel like a pretender when the definition of what is and isn't art is a moving target. If we're not certain about what we're doing then self-doubt creeps in.

What solution is offered to cure the impostor syndrome? While you may feel you're just pretending that you're an artist, there's no way to pretend you're making art. Your work may not be what curators want to exhibit or publishers want to publish, but those are different issues entirely. You make good work by (among other things) making lots of work that isn't very good, and gradually weeding out the parts that aren't good, the parts that aren't yours. It's called feedback, and it's the most direct route to learning about your own vision.

I completely agree with this statement. It's how I've struggled through. Tomorrow, we'll bite off another chunk of meat from this chapter.

And now, what are your thoughts?

Saturday, May 8, 2010

The Devil is in the Details ...

On the weekends I like to depart from reviewing books to blog about other matters. Today, I'll share with you the details of putting together a solo exhibition. I have two solo exhibitions scheduled for this summer - one in New York and the other in Maine. The fun part was creating all the paintings (over 100) and the difficult part is all the rest. So, here's the "rest" -

Negotiate and sign the contract
Painting selection and inventory list
Price paintings
Photograph paintings for publicity and catalogue
Write and publish catalogue
Make certain the show is insured
Create a catchy title for the show
Frame paintings
Create labels for the paintings
Modify hanging space, lighting, and wall color if necessary
Decide in what order to hang the paintings
Create publicity materials
Compile mailing list
Write Biography
Write Artist's Statement
Pack paintings for shipping
Double, triple check everything
Follow-up emails and phone calls to make certain everything is on track
Plan opening night reception
Prepare speech for opening night
For one show I sought and obtained a grant from the New York Foundation for the Arts
And then there's all the bookkeeping for taxes and personal reasons
Did I leave something out?? Probably.

I'm doing all this for two shows right now while working on my new series of paintings for future shows. Recently, I told a friend that I need a personal assistant but can't afford to hire one. She recommended that I find a student intern from one of the local colleges. It's a great idea and I might look into it.

Exhausted? Yes. But, it's an nice problem to have.

Hope you have a more restful weekend!

Thursday, May 6, 2010


Art & Fear: Observations on the perils (and rewards) of artmaking
by Bayles & Orland

All that you do will inevitably be flavored with uncertainty - uncertainty about:
what you have to say,
whether the materials are right,
whether the piece should be long or short
whether you'll ever be satisfied with anything you make.

These thoughts, found in the concluding section of chapter 2 remind us that doubt extends to our decision-making process as we create a work of art. I'd say that this is true of life in general. Is there anything that we can be completely certain about? For every answer, there's a contradictory opinion. For every solution there's an alternate approach. For every natural "law" there's a statistical uncertainty. Why should the process of artmaking be any different? In my opinion, it's the uncertainty that keeps it interesting!

The truth is that the piece of art which seems so profoundly right in its finished state may earlier have been only inches or seconds away from total collapse. Yup - been there! So much teeters on the edge and could go either way. Sometimes, when I'm painting I actually find that I've been holding my breath. It's like walking a tight-rope.

In making art you need to give yourself room to respond authentically, both to your subject matter and to your materials. Art happens between you and something - a subject, an idea, a technique - and both you and that something need to be free to move. This is true. Art is like a relationship (hopefully, a good one!) where understanding, commitment and flexibility are essential for it to work. Like marriage, art is hard work and full of rewards.

Control, apparently, is not the answer. People who need certainty in their lives are less likely to make art that is risky, subversive, complicated, iffy, suggestive or spontaneous. I think that predictability is boring. It's good to entertain the "what-ifs" and to explore unknown areas. You never know where something may lead. Take risks.

What's really needed is nothing more than a broad sense of what you are looking for, some strategy for how to find it, and an overriding willingness to embrace mistakes and surprises along the way. Simply put, making art is chancy - it doesn't mix well with predictability.

In other words, if we want to succeed in art we must embrace uncertainty and take risks.

What are your thoughts?

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Imagination & Execution

Art & Fear: Observations on the perils (and rewards) of artmaking
by Bayles and Orland

Continuing in chapter 2, we arrive at the section entitled "imagination." The authors begin by defining the role of imagination during the creative process:

Imagination is in control when you begin making an object. The artwork's potential is never higher than in that magic moment when the first brushstroke is applied, the first chord struck. But as the piece grows, technique and craft take over, and imagination becomes a less useful tool. A piece grows by becoming specific.

I never thought about it in this way, and it makes sense. When I'm initially drafting a painting in pencil my imagination is my guide. But, when I pick up the paintbrush to color in my design technique takes over. My imagination has already done its job, although it occasionally guides me through color strategies and corrections as I work. That may be the reason why, when I'm in the midst of painting a piece I'm thinking about the next one. My imagination doesn't want to turn off.

The authors point out that the first few brushstrokes to the blank canvas satisfy the requirements of many possible paintings, while the last few fit only that painting - they could go nowhere else. So, at the onset of creating a work of art the possibilities are endless. But, once the piece has begun, the possibilities eventually disappear and we're locked into only one solution. Although this seems paradoxical, it really isn't. After all, don't we intend to express something in particular when we begin a work of art? Isn't there an idea or concept that we're going for - one thing that inspired us in the first place?
Bayles and Orland portray the moment of completion of a work of art as a moment of loss - the loss of all the other forms the imagined piece might have taken. I have just the opposite feeling. When I complete a piece I'm either elated by the outcome or determined to do better the next time. I never feel "loss" because it's always my intention to create an unending number of paintings. There's always a next time!

The final idea expressed by the authors in this section is that a finished piece is, in effect, a test of correspondence between imagination and execution. I suppose that what we imagine in our head is always better than what we create with our hands, but that doesn't mean we can't find satisfaction in it. These authors feel that the artist's life is frustrating because our imagination and execution don't match. While that may be true, I tend to be a little more pragmatic about it. I don't expect my work to be perfect and, certainly, my imagination isn't perfect either. For me, it's a matter of embracing my flaws and making the best of it. After all, perfection isn't all it's stacked-up to be!

What are your thoughts??

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Making Art and Self Doubt

Art & Fear: Observations on the perils (and rewards) of artmaking
by David Bayles & Ted Orland

Returning to chapter 1, I'll pick up where I left off last time. Doubts. We have so many that can keep us from being productive in our work. And, we often have clusters or "swarms" of doubts once we open the door to them. Here are common ones that the authors identify:

I'm not an artist - I'm a phony
I have nothing worth saying
I'm not sure what I'm doing
Other people are better than I am
I'm only a [student, physicist/mother/whatever]
I've never had a real exhibit
No one understands my work
No one likes my work
I'm no good

In my opinion, none of these statements can be TRUE of an artist except for "I've never had a real exhibit" which could be true in some cases. Nevertheless, we tend to believe these lies about ourselves and, according to Bayles & Orland, this leads to:
resistance to deadlines
irritation with materials or surroundings
distraction over the achievements of others
and, whatever else keeps us from our work

What separates artists from ex-artists is that those who challenge their fears, continue; those who don't, quit.

I'd like to add something here that the authors didn't. Facing-down the swarms of self doubt that arise nearly daily for an artist takes GUTS and DETERMINATION! Nothing makes me angrier than for someone to tell me that I'm not good enough or smart enough to do something. So, why would I tell myself that?

There are all sorts of motivational stories that we learned as children. Stories like "The Little Engine Who Could," "Jack and the Beanstalk" and "The Tortoise and the Hare" taught us that perseverance leads to success and never to quit. Have we forgotten those lessons? I hope not.

Each day is an opportunity to silence doubt and give voice to our imaginations. And, tomorrow I'll reveal what Bayles and Orland have to say about "imagination."

What are your thoughts?

Monday, May 3, 2010

Art and Fear, II

Art & Fear: Observations on the perils (and rewards) of artmaking.

by David Bayles and Ted Orland

Chapter 2, "Art and Fear," begins with an interesting quotation by Stephen DeStaebler:

Artists don't get down to work until the pain of working is exceeded by the paint of not working. I've never been a procrastinator, so this isn't my experience. I LOVE showing up to work in my studio every day. But, I think that it's true that when we face uncertainty and indecisiveness in our work we tend to engage in avoidance.

On a larger scale, Bayles and Orland remind us that throughout history, more people have quit art than continued. I guess there's no way to be certain of that statement but it's a pretty good guess. Those that stick with it have learned how not to quit. That's an essential skill!

The authors make the astute observation that while artists always have a myriad of reasons to quit, they consistently wait for a handful of specific moments to quit. What are those moments?

1) When we're convinced that our efforts will only result in failure. But, there's a difference between stopping and quitting. Quitting happens once. Art is all about starting again.

2) When we can't find where our work belongs - we see no future for it. Avoiding this fate has something to do with not letting your current goal become your only goal. Another important remedy is to associate with other artists and share your in-progress work frequently.

I'd like to discuss these two "moments" with you. The first type of moment - failure - occurs over and over again. Each time I produce a painting that just isn't "right" I wonder if I even have it in me to overcome failure. Maybe my previous successes were a fluke. Maybe, as the movie asks, this is "As Good As It Gets!" Self-doubt arrives unimpeded and is very difficult to drive away. Why is it that I'm more prone to believe something negative about myself rather than something positive? This seems to be a common trait among us, and one that is particularly destructive to artists. But, art IS all about starting again! I keep reminding myself that I'm not a "one hit wonder" and that exploration is an important part to finding myself again and again.

The second type of moment - seeing no future for our work - is also easy to succumb to as paintings pile up in the studio with no place to go. The authors' advice is terrific! There are short-term goals, but also long-term ones that always give me hope for new venues and new opportunities. A series of paintings might be stacked in the corner of my studio for a few years and then suddenly find itself in one or two solo shows. You never know! The key is to remain open to all possibilities.

I've only covered a small portion of this chapter in this particular post, but will continue tomorrow. There are so many gems that it's good to savor only a few at a time.
Before I close, I'd like to thank and acknowledge a fabulous artist named Donna Zagotta who recently featured my work on her well-written post about the creative process. You can read it by going here.

And now, what are your thoughts?

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Art & Fear

Time to begin a new book: Art & Fear: Observations on the perils (and rewards) of artmaking by David Bayles and Ted Orland. Several of you have read this book and enthusiastically recommended it, so I'm looking forward to our lively discussions over the next few weeks!

Diving right in, chapter 1 is entitled "The Nature of the Problem" and begins with the sentence: Making art is difficult. How true. In reality, it seems like most of what I imagine remains unresolved in my paintings. Lots of stops and starts, uncertainty, and technical errors pave the path of my career in art. So, the authors pose a number of questions:

How does art get done?
Why, often, does it not get done?
What is the nature of the difficulties that stop so many who start?

Bayles and Orland point out that these problems are more relevant to artists today that to our predecessors because contemporary art isn't very well defined (our recent discussions dealt with that subject). Making art now means working in the face of uncertainty; it means living with doubt and contradiction, doing something no one much cares whether you do, and for which there may be neither audience nor reward. (p. 2)

Geez, I'll hang up my brushes now! Maybe I should read on and look for motivation...

Indeed! A solution is offered. The authors offer up some basic assumptions about human nature that place the power of making art in the hands of the artist. Here's the list:

Assumption 1: Artmaking involves skills that can be learned. The contrary notion is that artists possess a form of "genius" or "talent" that sets them apart from all non-artists. The authors feel that art can be taught and that hard work and perseverance are key to success.

Assumption 2: Art is made by ordinary people. Our flaws and weaknesses enhance our ability to create art because we've learned to overcome obstacles.

Assumption 3: Making art and viewing art are different at their core. Making art is all about "process" for the artist. Viewers are concerned only with the finished product. This is why artmaking is a lonely and often thankless occupation. The majority of our time is spent creating work that is met with indifference by the rest of the world. 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. Therefore, even failed paintings are important. I think that the most profound comment stated here is: The best you can do is make art you care about - and lots of it! That statement alone is enough incentive to keep me in the studio. That, and the admonition to persevere until our "ship comes in."

Assumption 4: Artmaking has been around longer than the art establishment. This is a great perspective to adopt. The cave painters (as far as we know) had no art critics or scholars to answer to. They just did their own thing. Pre-Renaissance thinking treated art as craft. Today, the term "artist" has an entirely different connotation mostly due to post-Renaissance theorists and more recent art critics and experts. We have been defined. But, shouldn't we artists be in control of our own identity? Shouldn't we follow our own path?

Taken altogether, these four assumptions deal with our individual identity as artist - the one we formulate and choose to adopt. I've always felt that self-declaration as "artist" is key to being one. Of course, one must acquire technical skills, but without this important acknowledgement and adherence to a personal vision, skills don't mean anything.

What are your thoughts?

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Another Definition for Art

Francis Bacon, Three Studies of Portraits, 1966

I've just finished reading the seventh and final chapter of Cynthia Freeland's book, But is it art? and am impressed with her indepth examination of what makes art art. In the last few chapters she unfolds another definition for art as she travels through the theories of Tolstoy, Freud, Danto and others that we've previously discussed on this blog. Freeland concludes her book with this definition by the prominent environmental artist Robert Irwin: art is a continuous examination of our perceptual awareness and a continual expansion of our awareness of the world around us.

I can see why Freeland likes this definition. It treats art not only as the expression of the internal thoughts of the artist, but also as an expression of the world outside of the artist. This isn't an original thought, however. It's been offered in many different forms, but I think Irwin packaged it nicely for us.

So, when Freeland considers art in all its forms from "shock art" to "beautiful" art and everything in between, she's also providing us with the broadest possible definition for why ALL of it is art. It appears that boundaries are fuzzy and ever expanding (kind of like the worn out elastic band on an old pair of underwear!). Where do we go from here?

Next week I'll begin a new book: Art & Fear: observations on the perils (and rewards) of artmaking by Bayles and Orland. I hope you'll join me in that discussion, too!

Your thoughts?