ESSAY TWELVE – The Very Idea!
“Wow! Where do you get all of your ideas?”
For many people who dream of becoming an artist, the actual “idea” seems to be the most elusive. Where do you get that initial idea, the spark, and the inspiration - the “AHAH” light bulb over the head? To the non-artist, or the aspiring artist, those amazing, creative flashes of insight seem arcane and magical, and in truth, those catalytic moments are one of our most precious commodities. They are the source, the inspiration and in all probability, the reason that we do art in the first place. Out of nothing, something. . In viewing or reading the finished art piece, the initial idea, the starting point, is invisible, while all of the other aspects of the work of art are quite visible and easily evaluated. When looking at a completed work, often it is what we don’t see that was the inspiration and its’ reason for existence. The creation of art is often the result of joining idea and object.
To help, I’d like to draw a distinction between idea and subject matter. The subject is what you see, what is in front of you. Children’s pictures and stories are heavily loaded toward subject – a house, a tree, my cat, etc. In primary and elementary school, these simple subjects were what we relied upon, but when we got into secondary school or the university, we discovered that we were expected to abandon simple nouns and adjectives, and deal with abstractions – our writings and images were more sophisticated, and hopefully, richer. Something to consider – when we abstract, we take something obvious and concrete, and alter it in some personal or symbolic way. One result of that alteration or transformation, is that the origin may not be immediately recognizable. Even though it may have grown from that same house, tree or cat, the point of origon may no longer be obvious. A cat, whether or not it is a realistic image of little Puffy Poo, licking his paw, or an unrecognizable swirl of color or sound, that represents little Puffy Poo racing around the bedroom with a sock, is a subject. An abstraction, is not an idea, it is merely a different kind of cat. Ideas are far, far more powerful.
It is tempting to feel that as we move through our prosaic lives, we encounter nothing of import, nothing of merit – certainly nothing worthy of being our “art muse”. A wonderful example appeared on a blog entitled Tales From the Overground, written by a young woman in London. She is a self-described “hobo” and she collects stories, incidents and observation gleaned from her travels about the city, and the following overheard dialogue she transcribed is a wonderful potential art source:
"Oh Andy he's such a lovely bloke, I call him my teddy bear."
That's nice I thought as I absent-mindedly eavesdropped.
"I mean seriously, he is such a lovely bloke.” Her friend made a sound like "hmmm"
"He has just got out of prison though". Her friend turned to her.
"Oh yes" she said”, what did he do?"
"Manslaughter. Although don't know how they got it down to that. He did reverse over the bloke. Twice"
"God!” Said her friend.
"No but seriously he is lovely. You just can't push him or he'll loose it"
"The thing is" said her friend "There will always be someone to push him"
The woman paused "I hadn't thought of it like that"
saturday, february 28, 2009
posted by unpaid intern at 10:28 am http://talesfromtheoverground.blogspot.com/
On the surface, if you happened to overhear this, it is easy to dismiss the conversation as nothing but silly chatter between to young women. However, if you listen more closely to these few lines of dialogue, just think of the wonderful insights you have gleaned. You could write many paragraphs about the “girlfriend”, her judgment, her neediness and perhaps her grasp of reality. The heart of any good piece of storytelling is conflict – just what will be the reactions of the girl’s confidant? Will she try to break them up? Will she succeed? Imagine writing eight to ten more lines of dialogue where you allow the “listening” woman to present her ideas to the girlfriend, and how those ideas are received.
Story telling is one of the core concepts of any art, not just writing. When you take the actuality of the overheard conversation, and transform it into what might be or what you want to be, you have started the process of abstraction. This is one of the steps necessary in proclaiming yourself an artist. The good news is that subject matter is all around us. Look, listen, and carry a small notebook.
Looking, listening and observing are a start, but it is only when you make those snippets you encounter your own, do they start to have meaning and impact. I’d like to narrate a brief story:
I was teaching a yearlong art class to 15 and 16 year olds. We had started a unit on painting, and after covering some fundamentals; their assignment was to create an acrylic painting, based upon something that was deeply important to them. I promised they would never have to reveal the source of the idea, nor talk about what the painting represented to them– our only critique would be based upon what the rest of us could see. We had talked briefly about abstraction and the use of symbols, but the style and choice of image was up to them – my only restriction was that it couldn’t include somebody else’s story – Superman, Harry Potter or a copy of the latest Anime’ character.
“W”, who was the most promising artist in the class, divided her canvas in half horizontally, and the top, she carefully painted flat light blue and the bottom flat dark blue. Precisely in the middle of the “horizon” line, she painted a small, almost childish boat. Since this class was fourth period, immediately before lunch, it wasn’t unusual for kids to bring their lunch to class and stay and work. She did, and worked on her painting, never changing or adding, just going over what she already had. She finally told me during lunch one day, that the boat was Noah’s Ark, during the 40 days and nights rain.
A bit concerned, I mentioned to her that the assignment was to focus upon some deeply held personal belief, fear, memory or dream and not someone else’s story I asked if she was deeply religious, as perhaps her belief was her subject and the explanation for her imagery. She mentioned she was not religious, and that she had rarely been to church. Since the nature of my assignment meant that I was not allowed to dig, deeper into her idea, I gave her some pointers on perhaps making the water more dynamic or some detail to the boat, but basically, she worked non-stop, without any obvious change.
One day, while we were alone at lunch, she opened up. The boat, the Ark, represented her. Inside the boat, where we couldn’t see them, was her family. Her mother had been spiraling down into a deep depression for the past three years, and rarely came out of her bedroom. Her younger sister was becoming a social butterfly in seventh grade, and W was afraid she was also becoming very sexually promiscuous – perhaps due to her absent mother. Her father, unable to cope with his family life, rarely came home before nine or ten at night, and spent most of the weekend at the office. W saw herself, as the only salvation for her family, and she prepared meals, cleaned, took care of the rest of the family and tried to hold off the advancing waters of destruction. She was Noah, saving mankind.
Let’s go back to subject matter vs. idea and inspiration. The subject matter for W’s picture was simplistic, childish, and frankly trite for a 16 year old. Had she not finally shared some of what was inside, I obviously would never have known, and in all likelihood evaluated her project rather harshly – she obviously didn’t try very hard. Just as obviously, I now knew that her painting was as filled with passion, fervor and feelings as intense as any painting I have viewed, but also her passion was bound tightly in restraints that attempted to hold off desperation and destruction.
While over the next few weeks I was able to get her to visit with one of the schools councilors, and her family received some much needed help, I would like to return to the subject/idea topic. Without her information, I would never have known what was behind the deceptive simplicity of her work, and in truth, as her teacher I might well have given her a less than stellar evaluation. Because we had a warm relationship, I was able to understand a great deal more about the child and also her art, even if I had not been aware of the painting’s meaning. But, even if I had never discovered any of the layers of meaning, hidden in that simple painting, W would still have had the experience of presenting something of herself to the world, and knowing the satisfaction of real creation.
Over the next few essays, I would like to suggest some ways that anyone can access dreams, memories or feelings that will supply them with more ideas than they can ever use. And if, like W, you are afraid that by revealing, everyone will know your secrets, that is not the nature of art. Her painting was plain to her, but until she felt safe enough to give me a roadmap, a Rosetta Stone, it was just a dopey little boat on a bland sea.
If anyone out there has stories that they would like to share, I would love to read them. And, as usual, if you have comments, criticisms or suggestions, please either post publicly or send me an e-mail.