faith&foolishness

art.faith.culture.community

Posts Tagged ‘artist’

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?

Advertisements

Posted in art, culture | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

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.

Posted in art, community | Tagged: , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

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.

Posted in art, culture | Tagged: , , , , , | 2 Comments »

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.

Posted in art | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

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

Posted in art, faith | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

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.

Posted in art, community, faith | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

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?

Posted in art, community, culture, faith | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments »

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.

Posted in art, community, culture, faith | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

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?

Posted in art, community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

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.

Posted in art, faith | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »