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The Act of Naming

Posted by Sarah Jane on January 5, 2010

One of the hardest parts of art-making, at least for me, is bestowing a title on the work. Whether one is naming an infant, a city, or an art object, the act of naming has always been understood to be powerful and mysterious. With a name comes identity, definition, and belonging.

In my art-making, I like to put this off until the last possible minute, holding out in desperate hope of gaining a better understanding of this new thing I have made. Even that is not a flawless system, because many times I don’t fully understand my own artwork until I’ve watched viewers interacting with it. And so the act of naming is fraught with uncertainty and guesswork and hope.

Since I’m a real language nerd, naming also tends to involve a complex dance with the thesaurus. I am consistently attracted to unfamiliar words and phrases, and those with multiple layers of possible meanings — language that challenges viewers to stop and play with the new ideas, rather than jumping to easy conclusions. (I’m not interested in making my viewers feel stupid, though, so I always provide a definition when using unfamiliar words.)

I’d be interested in hearing from some readers, though. What do you think is the relationship between an artwork and its title? Is it possible for a poorly-chosen title to undermine the power of a work of art? How do you go about choosing a name for your own work?

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You Can Be an Artist; You Already Are

Posted by Sarah Jane on December 18, 2009

“I’m excited about the visual arts and want to continue pursuing my own creativity, even though I’m not majoring in art. How do I go about that?”

That question came to me twice this week. This is one of my favorite parts of teaching – witnessing that moment when the coursework suddenly intersects with a student’s dreams and passions outside the classroom.

Once I quieted the part of myself that kept trying to shout, “Well, change your major!” it occurred to me that my earlier thoughts on nurturing creativity had prepared the way for this question. In the pattern of Joseph Beuys, I believe that everyone is an artist. It’s not confined to a certain college major or to those with gallery representation; the sacred spark of creativity is a defining part of being human.

I think the answer to that question comes in three parts. The first is to start by making something. There’s something very meditative about making things: when our hands are busy in mixing colors or trimming pots or placing mosaic tiles, the mind is allowed to wander freely. In this open-ended time of asking questions, making connections and playing with ideas, we may come to a greater sense of understanding and direction.

My second piece of advice is to listen intently. What is it that we called to bring into being? Sometimes that answer comes through something like gut instinct; other times it’s inspired by reading books, looking at art, or taking a walk. A friend of mine has a ritual of looking through old issues of National Geographic when she’s in need of visual inspiration. In my experience, this is the most spiritual part of the process – the time during which my creative spirit sits in waiting for the voice of its Creator.

Finally, an artist must have a community. We all need someone to both challenge and encourage the creative process – to tell us when we’ve done something brilliant, to act as a sounding board, and sometimes to tell us sternly to get back in the studio immediately and not come out until we’ve made something. This doesn’t have to be a formalized group; just a few people who understand the artistic process themselves and can be as engaged in the actual making of the work as they are in the end results.

I had one last thought, too, a thought that didn’t occur to me until after the last student had left my office and I returned to my grading. Perhaps the most important element of all is one of simple encouragement – you can be an artist; you already are.

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Terribilita: Making Sense of the Artistic Temperament

Posted by Sarah Jane on December 14, 2009

Terribilita. That’s what they called it in the glory of Renaissance Italy, in the days when a fiery young Michelangelo spit on Pope Julius II, and the enraged Holy Father (who had plenty of his own terribilita) threatened to hurl the artist from his own scaffold.

Our own times are quieter (or perhaps merely more anesthetized) but we still recognize that there can be something terrible about the so-called artistic temperament: the moods and misery that somehow seem deeper for creative types. Popular culture often suggests that creativity is inextricably linked to suffering, trauma, and mental illness — a belief frequently echoed by my students. But is art ultimately something that comes from pain, from depression, from our fallen and destructive tendencies? Or is it something that comes forth from the sacred creativity hidden within us; from the shards of grace that tumble from our fingertips when we least expect them?

I believe that the natural prerequisite to creating something great is not some ideal quantity of personal suffering, but the capacity to make oneself vulnerable, to feel deeply, and to empathize with the suffering of others. Human creativity is the ability to reach into the chaos and bring forth meaning and order: to touch the ugly and the broken, and transform them into something beautiful. That’s why creativity is ultimately a God-like quality.

If I’m right in this, then suffering may provide the fuel, but it is the order-making, beauty-making fire of creativity that brings forth artistic work. And we must not mistake that common fuel for the creative fire. Creativity is what allows a painter to bring forth great art out of the nightmare of chronic depression; it’s what allows the composer to weave harmonies out of terror and destruction. We will never make great things by wallowing in our own sufferings, but only by transforming them into something new.

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More Thoughts On Process

Posted by Sarah Jane on December 10, 2009

Prototype

I hope to be posting more regularly once my grades are in next week — I’ll definitely have more time then, if not more intelligent ideas. In the meantime, I’d like to talk some more about the artistic process.

I’m currently working on a prototype for a piece that will be in Asbury’s faculty show next semester. In some ways, this piece is very different from any of my earlier work, and I’ve had to learn some new techniques and wrestle with some new ideas in the process of developing it. Exploring new directions is vital to any artist; without it the work remains undeveloped and stagnant. But necessity doesn’t always make it less scary.

Do you ever find yourself doing something that just doesn’t fit anywhere with your previous work? It’s like a first date — thrilling and scary and full of unknowns. I ask myself a lot of scary questions: is this a glimpse of what more of my work will look like in the future? Is this piece destined to be an anomaly; a work that never seems to fit with anything that I make? Will I look back in ten years and see the whole project as a waste of time and energy and epoxy?

In some highly rational part of my mind, I’m convinced that work is always worthwhile; that even my most complete failure now will give rise to the inklings of some future work. But those scary questions are incredibly persistent, and they still rattle me around a lot.

What about you? Have you experienced a dead-end project that was never fulfilled in some future work? How do you move yourself forward through uncharted territory?

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Artistic Process: Following the Threads

Posted by Sarah Jane on December 3, 2009

The artistic process feels at times like a many-layered friend, whose complexities I have come to understand through long acquaintance, and who occasionally still manages to surprise me. I have great trust in this faithful and mysterious companion.

Wendy Richmond’s recent Art Without Compromise intrigued me in its description of “visual reflection notebooks” created by the author: mixtures of article clippings, images of her own work, and images of other artists’ work that she admires. She describes playing with these disparate elements, varying the juxtapositions and letting the images lend each other meaning and context, and then using that information to identify common threads running through her work and thought processes.

This book has been a timely read for me, since one of my goals this winter is to identify and pursue some of the ongoing patterns in my artwork. In gathering my own materials for a visual reflection, I opted for loose cards instead of a notebook, in order to continually reconfigure and recreate the various juxtapositions. My material was gathered from a variety of sources — images of my own work, important words from my artist statements, images of other artists’ work, interesting quotations, and photographs of various natural objects. It’s an open-ended collection of elements that can grow and change along with my ideas.

My initial assortment consists of 80 images and words, but revelation struck even before I had completed that collection — exposing a previously-undiscovered thread dealing with fragmentary knowledge and the complex relationship between the known and the unknown. That particular pattern spans from a 2005 body of work exploring my grandmother’s experience with memory loss to my current projects in which community-wide participation ensures that no single person has full knowledge or control of the results.

Perhaps this fascination with fragmentary knowledge comes from a deep awareness of the limitations of my own understanding. I have no idea where the process is leading me. I’m just following the threads.

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Nurturing Creativity, part 2

Posted by Sarah Jane on December 1, 2009

A performance, a reading, an exhibit; all artists need to have their creative work showcased and celebrated in a public setting. The creative process is largely a private one, but it depends on the response of an audience — the acknowledgment that this work is important and meaningful to the broader community. One of the most effective ways to affirm and validate our artists is to provide opportunities for their work to be experienced by others.

In working with lots of young artists, one thing I’ve observed is that there are relatively few informal venues for displaying artwork or hosting performances — venues available to artists who don’t yet have (or perhaps aren’t seeking) formal gallery spaces, theatres, or concert halls to showcase their work. It’s a role that’s sometimes partially filled by coffee shops. But the need is greater than that, and can be filled by a broad array of organizations; a church can host an evening of recitals by community musicians, a library can sponsor a poetry reading or show an independent film, and a doctor’s office can feature an exhibit of local artwork.

I’m a big fan of such unconventional venues for art events. The artist is able to share his or her talents with a broader audience — not just personal friends and family, but also a variety of strangers who frequent the venue already — and benefits from the encouragement and validation of that experience. In addition to being enriched by the creative offerings, the venue welcomes in a crowd of newcomers and is able to better serve and connect with the whole of the community.

But this is when things get really serendipitous. When art moves out of the gallery and the opera house, and into the spaces where people live and work and spend their time, it reaches a much wider audience — an audience of people who might never have gone out of their way to listen to poetry or look at a painting. They may never have had a meaningful experience with theatre before, or they may feel unwelcome in a posh concert hall. But art doesn’t belong to the elite; it’s a fundamental part of what makes us human. And so I believe (and my experiences back this up) that these people, too, may be moved and transformed by an encounter with creative work.

And finally, at the end of the cycle, it begins again. There is nothing to spark creative thought like coming into contact with artists and with the fruits of their creative labor. If we want to inspire future creativity, one of the best ways to do so is to showcase and celebrate the creativity we already have.

*** The kinds of arrangements I’m describing here could be initiated by the organization wanting to host the event — but they could just as easily be proposed by the quilters or cellists or poets seeking a venue for their work. Either way, I recommend creating a written agreement in advance of the event, which can prevent miscommunication and protect both parties.

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Nurturing Creativity, part 1

Posted by Sarah Jane on November 30, 2009

I’ve been thinking recently that it’s not enough for a community simply to acknowledge and embrace the diverse gifts brought by its various members — that the community also has an obligation to seek out and discover the as-yet-unknown gifts of its various members, and then to intentionally create opportunities for those gifts to be shared and celebrated.

We already know how to do this; we do it all the time with our children and teenagers — encouraging them to try music, athletics, church groups, etc. until they find something they enjoy and want to pursue. And we work hard to celebrate the results: watching their concerts and ball games, listening to them sing in church, showing off their artwork on the refrigerator. We put forth a lot of effort figuring out ways to nurture and support their budding talents, and our kids reap the benefits as both their abilities and their confidence soar.

And yet, once those children and teenagers turn into thirty-somethings or fifty-somethings, that encouragement evaporates. You want to run a triathlon, design clothing, or write a children’s book? We listen politely but without enthusiasm, and then carelessly dismiss these budding passions — what interesting hobbies! it’s great you’re enjoying them so much. And so we reduce a neighbor’s beautiful hand-made quilt to a mere diversion, and a friend’s excellent home-brewed beer to an idling pastime.

We fail to recognize that the whole community is enriched by this outpouring of creativity — that the trifling hobbies we casually dismiss are producing a wealth of good things that benefit all of us. As a result, we do not honor them as we should. We do not encourage our neighbors to pursue their creativity with passion and focus. We do not actively seek out and create opportunities for their talents to be showcased, appreciated, celebrated. And so our gloriously creative artists and gardeners and cheese-makers slowly come to believe that their talents are no more than selfish diversions — and all too often lay them aside in favor of more “practical” service to their families and communities.

We are all poorer as a result.

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Co-creating: Pleasure in the Unexpected

Posted by Sarah Jane on November 22, 2009

One reason I enjoy primitive firing processes is the glorious unpredictability of the results. In giving up rigid control over my work, I am blessed with beautiful, organic markings that are completely unique and impossible to reproduce — markings that reflect the richness and diversity of the universe.

In a pit-firing, the vessels are surrounded by flammable material, and then a fire is built on top of them. The surface of the vessels is marked by pockets of hot gas that form in the heart of the fire. (Some potters smother the fire to concentrate this effect; I prefer to let it burn down unhindered so that some vessels are exposed to air and others are buried in the ash.)

Here are some of my favorite pieces from a recent pit-firing at my in-laws’ house in Indiana. My apologies for the mediocre photography.

Pit-fired vessels, Sarah Jane Gray, fall '09

It has taken me a long time to to embrace that lack of control. When I first began sculpting, I agonized over every part of the process, polishing and fussing and worrying in a vain effort to make everything “perfect” — exactly as I pictured it in my head. It was a good way to get really excellent at my process, and some of those early pieces were very beautiful.

Yet in time, my own head simply began to seem too small; too finite and predictable to express the wonderful serendipity of the universe.

Surface markings on a pit-fired vessel, Sarah Jane Gray, fall '09

The first place I began to let go of control was in my drawings, as I began to use water, smoke, powdered pigments, and other unpredictable materials to create richly organic markings. Later I fell in love with the loosely-controlled firing methods that would create similarly rich markings on my ceramic work: raku-, saggar-, soda-, and finally pit- and barrel- firing. In addition to producing beautiful results, these processes felt better to do. I wasn’t desperately wrestling against the materials and process to force them to do my will, but working with them in cooperation and dialogue. I was co-creating.

Surface markings on a pit-fired vessel, Sarah Jane Gray, fall '09

“Co-creator” is a word that my undergraduate mentor, Rudy Medlock, used all the time. A man of deep faith, he never let his students forget that we weren’t just making art for fun or for a class, but that we were actively participating with the Creator of the universe. It’s an idea that has steadily deepened for me in the years since then. There is a vast difference between knowing something in an intellectual or religious sense, and stepping into it as a personal experience, both vibrant and transformative.

That’s what unpredictable processes are to me: a chance to eagerly and playfully cooperate with the Creator and with the universe itself — the richest collaboration of all.

Surface markings on a pit-fired vessel, Sarah Jane Gray, fall '09

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It’s Not About Me

Posted by Sarah Jane on November 14, 2009

I believe the call to art-making is primarily about serving and enriching my community. It’s not about expressing my private angst, marking my artistic territory, or creating a name for myself in the circles of wealth and fame. Short version: it’s not about me. It’s about my community, which has a need for visual meaning and embodied truth.

That’s not to say that I am unimportant or interchangeable with any other artist. The only truth I have to tell is the image of God hidden within my own soul, and no one else can speak it for me; if I fail to discover and to tell this truth, it will go unspoken this side of glory. The fulfillment of my calling hinges on a willingness to crawl down inside my soul and search out the truth I have been given to speak to the world.

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Bits & Pieces

Posted by Sarah Jane on November 13, 2009

Nothing solid, just some passing thoughts — feedback is welcome.

1) Lots of really amazing artwork & ideas floating around at the Arts & Faith Conference at Asbury this week — I’ll definitely be posting more about that as I process everything over these next few days.

2) I’ve been thinking recently that living in community isn’t just about good fellowship within the church, but about an arching sisterhood and brotherhood that transcends church walls and religious creeds. Is it possible there’s something communal in our salvation? More to come.

3) One resource I’d like to add to this blog is a bibliography of materials that address issues of art/faith/culture/community — preferably complete with short descriptions or reviews. I’d love to include the well-loved classics, but what would be most helpful of all would be information about recently-published material that might not be referenced in other locations. Would you find something like this useful? Materials I shouldn’t miss?

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