faith&foolishness

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Posts Tagged ‘artistic process’

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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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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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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