Thursday, July 02, 2009


For many of us, there is a real turmoil between wanting to be an artist and feeling that we have nothing of any import to say to the world. We look around us and see paintings that that are filled with mystery and importance, and we read novels or poems that show an awareness of the rich and nuanced tapestry of life. Even our photographs seem flat and uninspired when we compare them to photographers who reveal truths that lie beneath the obvious subject matter.

Perhaps that last line may hold a key. “Truths that lie beneath the obvious subject matter.” How do they do that, what does that mean, and perhaps, most importantly, how do I access that ability?

First a word of assurance – very few artists, whether they be musicians, painters, writers, sculptors or poets have a life of wild abandon, surrounded by bizarre and outlandish people, while living in a yurt or among banditos on the Argentine Pampas. As a matter of fact, if you passed by one of those artists in the mall, at Starbucks or filling up at the gas station, you would probably never notice them, for, on the surface, they are probably every bit as ordinary (and boring) as the rest of us.

Where they may well differ, is in their vision. Not what they LOOK like, but what the SEE. Artists are people who have developed the skill and ability to see beyond the simple and superficial, and extract detail, meaning and incongruencies in their world – the world of the physical (what they see and hear) as well as the world of their mind (what they think about and their reactions to the stimulus. An artist has the ability (or willingness) to see more than the obvious and to put her own stamp upon it.

I don't paint things. I only paint the difference between things. ~Henri Matisse

The artist's world is limitless. It can be found anywhere, far from where he lives or a few feet away. It is always on his doorstep. ~Paul Strand

The artist does not see things as they are, but as he is. ~Alfred Tonnelle

I would like to give you an example of what I mean. For many of us, a family trip to visit Grandmother was not an unusual thing, and if we felt moved to describe the occasion, we would rely upon remembered details: how long was the drive, how many people were there, and perhaps whether or not you enjoyed yourself. In other words, the account would be factual, or at least as factual as memory allowed. The details we supply are those of location, quantity and time. They are small newsp[aper accounts.

For the artist, however, the critical aspect of the narrative would be not be whether the house was painted blue or green, and not whether grandmother had chocolate chip cookies, but impressions, feelings, incongruencies and most importantly, how it all affected her. Let me quote a short narrative, written by a friend who lives in Texas:

Fairy Tales

Grandmother's old, two-story farmhouse in the Rio Grande Valley was a magical place. The black Ford my parents owned rattled down the solitary road lined with exotic palms curving in lazy loops, swaying against the sky like green nets in shallow water. We were kicking up dust, leaving civilization in our wake and so made our way down the winding path to the porch entrance. I waited, as befitted a miniature adult in the back seat, fighting back the impulse to embrace adventure, breath held in.

Oblivious to the buzzing in my head, I behaved.

When the formalities of familial greetings passed shortly thereafter, I endured the obligatory remarks from the adults about my more positive attributes and made my way outside their field of vision as quickly as practicable, bypassing the back yard of Grandmother's farmhouse, a place of dread for me and avoided if at possible, as it was patrolled by a singularly unpleasant feline with smokey gray fur named Sylvia. Her pink tongue showed as if it would like to have rolled out of her mouth like a snake's fang, when she hissed hello. Her entourage of roosters and hens with mean bead-like eyes scratched the earth mercilessly.

The hollow sounds of tractors echoed and was heard along with the field workers shouting to each other in this solitary setting with its yellow land and sky. The Sisters (my mother and aunts) communed with each other amid ornate furnishings in the parlor leaving some personal space for me to escape past them to the second floor, away from Grandmother's oriental rugs and the small soldier, a French Renaissance figure who dominated the marble side table, standing vigil there. He held a saber with his sword arm thrust upward.

The few men like my father, who had managed to stay in the good graces (or not) of the Adams girls vanished noiselessly. It wasn't hard to imagine them suspended in time until an alarm sounded by the soldier broke the spell and allowed the hands of the clock to move forward again.

It was a world that set up residence in my mind, unlike any other place I could imagine, isolated in memory, an era, a culture and the eccentricities of its guardians, the Sisters. So, while the women talked among themselves, I indulged my curiosity, investigating each room, one after the other until I opened a door and having opened it was compelled to step inside. In its interior pinpoints of bright light drifted in the air currents, muting the visual impact of an odd collection of objects stacked randomly on the floor. I picked my way thru the odds and ends to a rocker and looked out the windows facing cultivated rows of dry earth from two of the room's four walls, finally letting my eyes settle on the less harsh vision of the floor and roam there thru the assortment of mysterious goods. That is when I saw a miniature still life of a field of bluebonnets. The carved frame was gold. The little painting became my frame of reference for the magic I experienced that day. Maybe the bright, wet looking colors made such an impression because of the contrast to the bleak unpromisingly sight of the world outside stretching forth to an empty horizon.

The women told me there was no such room, as I tried to share with them in their magic circle, under the umbrella of evening's darkness, where it seemed appropriate to talk about such matters. This host of beautiful women, who made up my world, lost their bigger than life aura, once I understood that their power could not see into my world or know my secret and not knowing, they could not possess it. The knowing was my treasure.

SARAHLAH Life On the Blue Planet

Notice, while there certainly is detail, it is internally anchored into the perspective of the young girl telling the story. The descriptions are evocative, personal and subjective, and by the time we finish reading, we realize that the information presented has told us a great deal about Sarah, and virtually nothing about the house, Grandma, or its location. While we may not be able to ever discover the whereabouts of the property, Sarah has allowed us a very intimate and compelling visit with her.

Artists look beyond the obvious subject matter, and allow us to see more than what is there, and most importantly of all, they are willing to put their own personal stamp upon it.

Artists don’t point to interesting things they may encounter, but rather allow us to experience those interesting things through their eyes.


gypsywoman said...

hi bob - just dropping by to browse your words - love this post - interestingly, i had just come across several of your quotes here myself and almost used them in my posts - see u next time - jenean

Sister Mary Martha said...

What I like about the story is that it's art about art. That creates embedded layers that you have to peel away. A frame within a frame within a frame. Nested boxes. Russian dolls. It pulls you in deeper and makes you think.


artquest1 said...

Hi Jenean - the same quotes, eh? You must be checking up on me - I better be careful about my attribution.
Thanks for your comment, Sister Mary Martha - I really enjoyed your observation about embedded layers - when I used to teach art, one of the analogies I'd use in class to describe the difference between something that might be attractive, well made and designed and even striking, and something that you could considered art was the analogy of layers. With art, the more you look at it, read it, think about it, etc, the deeper into it you can go, but a beautiful piece of fabric is just what it looks like. Art is like an onion - you can peer within.
Thanks to both of you for visiting. Bob

gypsywoman said...

hello there - just dropping by to see what's new and happening at your place - perhaps you'd care to drop by mine later - hope so - have a great evening - jenean