The Laws of Nature

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Art of Finding Yourself When You're Lost

The Accidental Masterpiece: On the Art of Life and Vice Versa
By Michael Kimmelman (2005)

Chapter 7: The Art of Finding Yourself When You’re Lost

True stress and danger bring out the best in some people and inspire art in a few. Kimmelman provides numerous examples of this fact, including Picasso’s masterful work which he produced when Paris was occupied. A long time ago I posted another another remarkable example, the Indian artist Sonabai, who was forced into a decade of solitary confinement in her own home where she created a whole new art form.
Additionally, there are the quilters of a poor and isolated community in Gee’s Bend, Alabama (this one's for you PAMO!). Geographical isolation and poverty preserved generations of elaborate and unique quilting designs made from worn and left-over clothing fabrics and cornmeal sacks (photo). The author praises their quilts as some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has ever produced. Folks, if you’ve never seen these quilts, do yourself a favor and look them up on the web.

There are also many stories of remarkable art that emerged during the term of a prisoner’s incarceration. Ray Materson, for instance, taught himself to embroider unique and highly skilled baseball-related pictures. Much of his work is smaller than a baseball card and contains 1,200 stitches per square inch!

Kimmelman devotes most of this chapter on the work of Australian photographer Frank Hurley who served on the Endurance during Shackleton’s ill-fated exploration of Antarctica. Hurley’s photographs were much more than illustrations of his surroundings, they were fine art – art created in a physically hostile environment during a struggle for survival. The best of these images have an extraordinarily modern quality, stark and stirring; their reduction to irregular geometric forms brings to mind Alexander Calder or Ellsworth Kelly.

After his rescue, Hurley continued to photograph and film various situations and events, but his work suffered. It lost its impact and artistry. Kimmelman makes an excellent point about this: If we are affluent enough today, we live amid a mounting glut of distracting choices, killing our time mulling over what food to eat, which clothes to wear or gadgets to buy, where to go on vacation. We can easily lose our way. When Hurley gained choices, he lost his focus. Wearing the same clothes, eating the same seal pemmican, staying in the same place, day in and day out, he was better able to concentrate on making the most with what he had at hand. That’s perhaps his most enduring lesson. The same may be said of Sonabai, the quilters of Gee’s Bend, and Ray Materson. Perhaps the real lesson is that no matter what our circumstances, it is only when we completely focus on creating and ignore the distractions around us that we produce our best work.

What are your thoughts?


Anonymous said...

Hi Kathy, And we have distractions galore! Or, I should make it personal, I have distractions galore. I use routine to try and simplify and focus. Sometimes it works.

Casey Klahn said...

Think of Henri Matisse's works (paper cut outs and the chapel at Vence) as a post-war invalid in Nice.

Mark Sheeky said...

Good post, perhaps alternatively titled "why success (usually) spoils artists". Consider the brain as finite and that every thing to see or do or think destroys something you previously thought and worked hard to learn. That's why I'm wary of distractions!

Unknown said...

Hi Peggy - you're wonderful daily creations that you share with us on your blog are proof of your focus and discipline! It's wonderful to see.

Hi Casey - yes, another great example. Thanks!

Hi Mark - hmmm...I'll have to ponder that with the few brain cells I still have left. I've always thought of the brain and storing everything (input from all senses) and simply rearranging it somehow. But, I know nothing about it really. You always give me something to ponder :-)

M said...

This is such a timely post for me as I am awash in a sea of distractions that currently feel like glue that is holding me from what I should/could do.

I feel that the more single minded you are, for whatever reason, the stronger your art becomes. I have experienced this in the past and usually paint best at my summer house for that reason. Often times of great emotion or hardship causes artists to cut through to the core of things and produce stunning work from basic materials. Distractions of many types fracture our ability to be single minded. Right now I'm allowing the world to crowd my mind. Perhaps I have it too good!

Leovi said...

personalmente mi creatividad aumenta cuando no tengo preocupaciones

Unknown said...

Hi Margaret - I do allow myself to be distracted from time-to-time because it helps me refocus on my work. Perhaps you experience the same benefit as well. I prefer not to feel too much guilt over it, but always feel a twinge anyway.

Hi Leovi - ¡Eres muy afortunado! Me parece producir un trabajo mejor cuando estoy bajo presión.

Dan Kent said...

I think it is inspiring that personal tragedies or hardships can mean an increased focus and intensity in artmaking. I never thought of that before. That is good, and potentially timely for me (but I hope not). Certain events (or the potential for certain events) impacted my blogging for the month, but have not stopped my art, though it may have changed the art through my restlessness. Distractions are a problem, but mostly it is responsibility that keeps me from my art goals.

-Don said...

Great post, Kathy. I enjoyed reading it and all the comments. Now I'm going to move along as this distraction is keeping me from the easel... Happy Creating!


Unknown said...

Hi Dan - I hope you're OK!! Whatever's happening, it's good to know that you're still producing art. I'm a big fan of your work!

Hi Don - good choice! Thanks for reading.

Meera Rao said...

I think it is a testimony to human resilience and spirit that art springs forth even in the most dire of circumstances -because of it, in spite of it.

Unknown said...

Hi Meera - thank you for a beautiful comment. Inspiring!

Anonymous said...

Hi Kathy! I almost missed this one because of other distractions. What I find most endearing about the Gee's Bend quilters is that they were not making art, but making warmth for their family. It was just in their souls to make it artful.

I'm grateful for my life even if it means choosing between eating a cupcake while watching TV or working on a drawing. Artists who prevail in harsh conditions deserve accolades.

Thanks Kathy! A wonderful post.

Unknown said...

Hi Pam - it IS neat that this artform was creating during a practical act - keeping the family warm. Very cool. Glad you like this post :-)