faith&foolishness

art.faith.culture.community

Posts Tagged ‘art’

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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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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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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An Alternative to Solitary Genius, part 2

Posted by Sarah Jane on November 10, 2009

In my last post, I asked about the difference between excellence and elitism, and queried whether accessibility in art must come only at the expense of quality.

It’s a common enough sentiment — well, of course it would be nice to make art that is readily accessible and could be understood by people of all backgrounds and education levels, but that would mean dumbing it down or making kitsch. The cynics don’t want for examples, either: there’s a seemingly-endless abundance of smarmy, kitschy stuff out there masquerading as artwork. But does the excess of poor art point to an actual demand for kitsch objects in our culture — or is it instead a symptom of severe neglect on the part of an increasingly elite and inaccessible art world?*

Is it genuine quality we have been seeking in our artwork, or merely a sense of our own importance — we chosen few who have been initiated into the inside joke? Because at the end of the day, our small gains are measured against a great expense to the culture in which we live and are called to serve. Our most brilliantly-expressed artistic truths are unnoticed and meaningless, and the inside joke is more pathetic than funny.

The time has come for artists to reclaim our cultural calling and to reach out to the communities we have abandoned and neglected. It is for this reason that I suggest accessibility as a central aspect of artistic excellence — not something to be avoided at all costs, but an essential quality to be carefully cultivated. After all, an uneducated viewer isn’t a stupid viewer. She isn’t seeking cloyingly simplistic kitsch, but meaningful artwork in which she can gain some foothold of understanding — in which there is an element of shared visual language between the artist and the viewer. As a gallery director, I often observed that a shy viewer who connects with the artwork on one level is then comfortable (and curious) enough to investigate more subtle levels of meaning in the work, as well. Let that happen often enough, and she will become an educated and appreciative viewer.

I would love to hear your thoughts on the divide between fine art and the culture at large. What makes a work of art meaningful to you? What is an artist’s responsibility to find common ground with less-experienced viewers?

* Bruce Herman compares this situation to a present-day Tower of Babel in his 2003 essay, Breaking/Open: Postmodernism & the Return of the Religious Element in Art.

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An Alternative to Solitary Genius, part 1

Posted by Sarah Jane on November 8, 2009

Over the past couple of years, my artistic process has increasingly involved collaboration. Sometimes I’ve worked with other artists, but most often I have worked alongside friends and family members: people who are deeply invested in me and in my work, but who would not ordinarily identify as artists. And I’ve struggled for a while to give words to the deep rightness I sense in collaborating with non-artists — a significance that goes beyond the simple pleasure of doing something I love in the presence of people I love.

I’ve long been bothered by the specialization of art — the notion that only a chosen few should have the power to create objects and meaning, and that their efforts should be appreciated and interpreted by a similarly-elite class of curators and critics. And what happens beyond this charmed circle who have been initiated into the complex code of contemporary visual meaning? We don’t know, and we don’t care, the contemporary art world seems to say.

So cheerfully inviting non-artists into the artistic process is a satisfyingly concrete rebuttal to the image of the solitary artistic genius. The work we produce is no longer the product of my own genius (if I do possess any genius, it hasn’t surfaced yet), but of relationship and cooperation. And the art itself no longer belongs to the cloistered elite, but to the whole of the community — to the critics, yes, but equally to the priests and students and farmers and auto mechanics.

That, to me, is art worth making.

Coming soon: thoughts on the difference between excellence and elitism — does accessibility come only at the expense of quality?

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The Possibility of All Things

Posted by Sarah Jane on November 5, 2009

I’ve had four solo exhibits in the past 18 months — lots of time spent making art, very little time for thinking. We finish installing the fourth exhibit this coming Monday, and after that there are only a couple of commission projects still on the horizon. And so the unknown yawns ahead in a spreading void; inhabited only by the possibility of all things.

I’ve been looking forward to it. This is, for me, the most mysterious part of the artistic process — the unstructured time of waiting, watching, and listening that must always precede the time of making. New ideas require empty time and open space to take on form and life. And so I wait.

Stephen Cottrell describes the act of waiting as “not a waste of time but, as we see in nature, a time of change, growth and transformation.”* For artists — perhaps for all of us — the discipline of waiting is an opportunity to participate in the Spirit’s creative movement over the face of the deep; to listen in anticipation for the sacred Word that speaks all things into being. In waiting, we embody not the creating Spirit, but the boundless void itself: a wide, expectant womb in which the unknown and formless can be made flesh.

I don’t know what comes next. I am staring into the possibility of all things. And I am waiting.

*”Rediscover the benefits of waiting this Advent,” The Church of England, 24 November, 2008. Those at Asbury will recognize this as one of the central ideas behind my recent “Breath” installation.

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