Category Archives: Visual Art

So Creative…

Manage-Stress-Get-Creative-C1In a writing workshop, one of my classmates called my poem “creative,” and my teacher held up his hands and shrugged.

“What’s creative,” he asked, “what does that word even mean?”

My answer finds trouble at each turn:

1. To be creative is to, well, make something, but making something new isn’t enough. If creativity and novelty were perfect synonyms, art would be easy. Recombining letters and words—or notes or pigments or movements or gestures—would suffice. But artists seek a different sort of novelty mixing the strange and familiar to find truth. Sometimes we call “creative” what we should have noticed or known but didn’t. “Creative” isn’t the same as “odd”… though that could be what my classmate meant.

2. And can something be creative only once? Is a cliché a cliché only if you’ve heard it? Which standard of freshness shall we apply—the absolute or personal? What’s more stultifying than absolute? What’s more finite than personal?

3. New and right to me may not be, and no assay or measure will establish what “creative” means definitively and universally. Its elusiveness is welcome magic.

4. For the artist, creativity consumes itself. Art loses heat the instant of completion. The object signals creation’s (and imagination’s) end. Though audiences warm their minds on the ashes, they examine artifacts of an artist’s experience and thus reassemble. Interpretations add perspective. Yet, from the artist’s outlook, they stir spent coals.

5. Creativity is more pursuit than achievement, never accomplished finally or entirely. Its only purpose may be prompting more of itself.

6. Some creativity arrives only when exhaustion looms and nothing remains. What once appeared creative proves an earlier stage.

7. Genes, circumstance, sensory equipment, or disposition fence artists. Makers want to leave themselves and be creative but find an unexamined patch of their own yard instead.

8. Maybe some artists are demi-gods, just naturally original, endowed with genius and a special touch, but, if so, their attributes won’t sustain them. Exercising your voice until it’s worn out isn’t creative. Art requires subverting, rejecting, and redefining all you think you know, continually.

Which is what I’m guessing my teacher was trying to say. His patience ran out. He wanted us to stop talking about what was or wasn’t creative and get to work.

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Or What’s an Education For?

1425522-LOnce during a parent conference I found myself pulled into a dispute over an advisee’s mark in a freshman art class.

“I don’t think it’s fair they grade subjects that rely on talent,” the parent said.

Teachers know it’s unwise to contradict parents—understandably, they expect you to acknowledge their feelings, not challenge them. Still, foolishly maybe, I answered, “Every school subject calls for talent. Sometimes you’re developing skills you don’t have yet. Why should art be different?”

The parent answered, “It’s different because it’s not as important as other things.” I swallowed hard. I suggested that, since art was challenging for the student, she should spend more time working with her teacher.

The parent replied, “But it’s a waste of time… that’s just my point. She doesn’t like art, and she’ll never be good at it.”

This exchange sticks with me partly because I spent the next week developing counter-arguments:

  • People may regard art as “extra,” but the ability to think visually grows more and more essential in a post-literate world. Exposure to art seems especially relevant whether you’re good at it or not, and those who can “do some art,” have a serious leg-up in the working world.
  • What’s more, if we appreciate, value, and admire art, sustaining it relies on taking it seriously, ratifying its importance to assure its continuance. Whatever your tastes, who wants to live in a world without art?
  • Yes, receiving a high grade in art acknowledges special talent, but someone good at art deserves affirmation. Do you want to tell a student who makes an “A” in art that it doesn’t matter? Talent should count.
  • Even if art doesn’t count to everyone, students rarely like every topic they meet in school and learn even by struggling… perhaps particularly then.
  • Is the problem grades in general? What’s really in dispute is the mark. Without letter grades, students might argue less, worry less, and explore subjects that are not strengths and, hence, learn more.

If you follow this blog, you know which argument is most compelling to me. However, I have another reason for rehashing this exchange, a bigger lament, one encompassing our increasingly narrow sense of what education is for.

This spring, while trying to praise training programs in Wisconsin, President Obama joined my problematic parent in dissing art, specifically art history:

I promise you, folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.  Now, nothing wrong with an art history degree—I love art history. So I don’t want to get a bunch of emails from everybody. I’m just saying you can make a really good living and have a great career without getting a four-year college education as long as you get the skills and the training that you need.

The President’s immediate backpedaling and subsequent apology acknowledged, his vision of what’s needed from education and what’s not is ubiquitous, as is his position on education’s exclusively extrinsic purpose. He assumes all schooling must lead to “a really good living” and “a great career.” Every college degree must contribute to the economy, or else it is a failure. Lost is how education adds, intrinsically, to enjoying life and appreciating others’ talents.

As it happens, art students have transferable skills and typically find gainful employment even when they leave art behind. Supposing they didn’t, however, they still receive more than a positive feeling about their contributions to the GNP. Indeed, they may find more pleasure in creativity and aesthetic appreciation than those with really good livings and great careers and money.

Perhaps I should have said to my advisee’s parent, “If for just a moment you can put aside the mark and your resentment (which may be poisoning your daughter’s encounter with art and artists… but I wouldn’t say that) has she benefited? Can this one freshman class contribute to her larger sense of how diverse and variable learning is?”

I suspect I know the answer—you can’t convince people how to feel, after all—but I’d remember myself better if I’d been true to my own thinking.

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Hermit

photo 3-29At Kenyon for a literary hybrid workshop, I wrote and created books to contain my work. The story below is around 250 words, and the first two lines come from the 20 “first lines” I submitted before arriving. The book (pictured) was a simple quarto, designed to demonstrate how formats change readers’ experience. In this case, turning one page into eight pages meant the first page inside was right side up and second upside downphoto 2-31photo 1-32. The cover is outside and the two center pages. To read the book, you flip back and forth first to last pages—through the center—then turn over to read the second and fifth pages.

Don’t follow? Exactly. Some happy accidents occurred—the story talks about middles, for instance. However the account makes a little more sense (but only a little) in this version…

“WILL THE CRABS GET US?” she asks.

In any alphabetical list, I’m almost always in the middle—not keen enough for A nor bold enough for Z… and blending in.

You won’t find your way out of any list without meeting others as mild or anxious or lost.

“The crabs will not get us,” I say, “if your hand goes near them they pull into their shellsand they have no claws.”

But they do, narrow as straws and barbless, useful for lifting the sea’s leftovers to mouth.

Appendages as implements.

Shells put you a moment from solitude. Though I’ve seen only shells’ front halls, their walls are shiny eggshell with a blush of azure and iodine.

“I need a smoother, tighter sky,” I might say.

She won’t reach into the tank. The crabs amble into and out of cracks in the rocks. The exhibit burbles with pumps. Everyone else talks, and some grab a crab, call it, coax it to emerge. They name their prey, but, when nothing summons the resident, they drop it into the pool again.

I close my eyes against the splash and picture the crabs as they pendulum against water’s resistance—flat stones, bubbles rising as the last air in their homes escapes.

“They’re ugly anyway.” she says.

We’re no company to each another. The shadows of this space leave us alone, and voices nearby—but not here—pause for laughter. We leave together, neither first nor last, pushed and pulled by the current of another moment ebbing.

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Doing and Being

office-art-mindset1Today I travel to a Literary Hybrid workshop at Kenyon College that combines writing and visual art. The program promises to “Blend techniques of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and visual arts to generate creative writing through the art of the book.” It appeals to, “A writer curious to write in more genres, or an artist wishing to deepen engagement with text.”

So I’m in those descriptions somewhere, and what I want is to put my two abiding creative outlets in the same room and see what they have to say to each other. Whatever else comes out of the experience will be a bonus, but I’d like to see my work a little differently, whether this label “literary hybrid” fits.

I generally don’t call myself a visual artist. It’s presumptuous to do so because I stand in awe of people who hold and deserve the title. If they are citizens of that country, then I’m standing at its border staring in. Oh I know there’s no fence, no river, no guard keeping me out. People tell me part of belonging is striding over the line with a smile on your face.

I’m just hesitant to transgress. I do art, but does doing make being? Unsure.

As part of my sabbatical project, I’ve been reading Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck, and it has me thinking about the difference between activity and identity. Dweck argues that humans fall into two broad categories, those with an open mindset and those whose mindsets are closed. You don’t want to be on the closed side. Those people take everything they do as contributing to their identity, some measure of who they are and what they’re worth. They are “A Students” because they make A’s. They are athletes because they once excelled at athletics. They make nouns of life’s verbs.

The price is high. Closed mindset people may become inflexible and timid, afraid to risk how they see themselves. They may choose not to run a race they can’t win, and they’re far more sensitive to setbacks. Trouble compromises self-images they’ve cultivated. In fact, they’re prone to call setbacks “failure” and mistakes “failure” and shortcomings “failure.”

On the other side are the open mindsets who see half-full glasses everywhere. A low score on an essay—even if it’s unexpected—is an opportunity to learn and grow. A flat tire on the way to a job interview is an unfortunate episode and not a judgment from the gods. People with open mindsets enjoy struggling because they see themselves growing. They don’t care about what they’re growing toward as long as they’re creeping upward.

Sounds great—let me be an open mindset person too!—but something in the idea (and the hype-y, self-help-y voice Dweck deploys in her book) rankles me. I’ll pass by the contradiction of a label-based division that makes being one identity good and another bad. Dweck wants to create a clear division, and that’s fine. And she’s right we ought not to think so much about ends. But my question is more fundamental: Is it so terrible to wish for achievement, mastery, and an assurance you’ve reached an accepted level of competence?

If all it takes to be an artist is doing art, for instance, how meaningful is the distinction? If labels weren’t so desirable, we all could just have fun, but humans generally seek affirmation. I know I do.

My motivation to attend the workshop at Kenyon comes mostly from an open mindset. My clumsy art won’t bother me as much because I don’t consider myself an visual artist, and perhaps my struggles as a writer will bother me more for the opposite reason. I’ll deal with that. Ultimately, however, I want both to do and to be and also to understand where I am. I don’t need a grade—I’m against those—but I need honest appraisal beyond “Thanks for trying!”

I want to know: was I selected from applicants of more than the 15 participants or was I one of the first 15 to apply? Dweck may call that a bad question, but respect motivates. The possibility of being makes me want to do.

A good time will be had by all—I certainly intend to have a good time— and we’ll all get trophies, I’m sure. Yet I also hope someone will let me know where I am. I don’t mind waiting at the border of Artistia—I’m comfortable there—but I’d love to be invited over, and, if I’m not, well, I need to deal with that.

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Seeing Surprises

WheIannmen my son was very young, he told me he’d drawn a dragon on his play table. They weren’t his first marks there, so I needed to know what color he’d used to find this dragon amid the commotion of his earlier flailing. He held up a green marker, the color of new moss. I saw shapes in green, unclosed boxes, drunken circles, sinuous lines attached at one end.

Then I recognized what he meant. The shape was the first real, perceptible thing he’d drawn. The dragon was there, its eyes and scales and a second color—a lurid red—fanning from its mouth. They were flames, he said. I saw that.

Next week, my son graduates from college and a similar revelation lurks—funny how individual days amount to something recognizable at last. All the evenings at the kitchen table sighing over math problems or another wacky paragraph of The American Pageant or an online physics quiz led to something too, his graduation from high school four years ago.

But that I witnessed. Now I only see college pictures—he’s dressed up, standing with friends at a party, or hidden in sunglasses attending some sunny celebration. I don’t see him work or study, don’t experience the marks of knowledge and understanding amassing and something forming in the mess.

Over the phone, he sometimes tells me about a class, paper, or lecture but usually impatiently, always assuming—rightly—my limited comprehension. I like to think he believes me capable of understanding, but I’d have to be there to truly get it. Not being there sometimes seems the central quality of our new relationship, and, of course, I miss him.

And, thinking about his graduation is a little like realizing every mark on his play table is one unnoted image. When children are born, no one says you’ll discover they’re strangers. No one mentions the alien things they do and make and think on their own, quite apart from anything you give experientially or genetically. No one says they will surprise you or that, ultimately, it’s all surprise, a cascade of shock starting with the first identifiable word.

I know my son is anxious about what’s next, and in these times I don’t blame him. His mom and I are nervous too, but mostly we’re proud, happy to accept whatever credit people want to give us for who he’s become, but well aware he’s responsible. His voracious curiosity began the moment he opened his eyes and has hardly paused since. He and his sister are the brilliant lights of our lives.

Once he learned to speak he talked all day, from the moment he woke to the moment he slipped into sleep mid-sentence. Like any parent I still see that little boy when I look at him in tie or tux, but I also know everything he’s made himself. I’m sure he worries it isn’t enough, and some employer will ask for more. I hope he can put his apprehension aside and pause to celebrate his accomplishment. My wife and I care less about what others might want from him and more about what he wants, his continuing desire to learn and do and play and work and feel.

We are in awe of our beautiful stranger.

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On Being An Aesthete

72-1I’ve never really liked aesthetic theory. I studied quite a bit as an MFA student years ago but haven’t continued. As interesting as it is to learn what writers and artists think “good” is, thinking about “good” can be distracting, an invisible, meddling hand.

Impatience also prevents me from learning. Theorists push me toward affirmation or argument whereas I’m improvisational, hoping for discovery and skeptical of restrictions. Artistic goals re-form like horizons as I walk, work. Sometimes, just the next word or mark appears. Sometimes rhythm lays down tracks to follow.

I fail often and hope to see failure rising up the next time so I can skirt it.

Orson Welles despised the necessity of being “with it,” for, he said, “an artist always has to be out of step with his time.” Mostly, I think he’s wrong—who would an artist be talking to if not to his or her contemporaries?—but I get his thinking about being out of step, that required estrangement. I wonder if anyone would read or listen or watch or look if all art verified the perceiver’s own limited experience. In that sense, maybe aesthetic theory could be helpful. It could shake your frame, throw perspective out of angle. Some artists seem to benefit from knowing what others do so they can do their own thing.

But I prefer finding out for myself, trying, trying, trying until some anchor holds.

For the last month or so, I’ve been writing haibun (I posted a sample recently) and have been thinking much more deliberately about what I’m doing. Composing in an established form means, on the most fundamental level, making your work recognizably fit. With haibun, that’s easy enough. The convention requires prose and haiku. If you look at the page and see a paragraph and a three-line poem—or any variation on that order and number of paragraphs and haiku—you’re looking at a haibun.

Form, however, is paradoxical. As limiting as any rule might appear, rules invariably require a higher order of resourcefulness. Dancing on one square meter of floor space would quickly become tiresome, but if you moved brilliantly, inventively, startlingly… your dance might be more impressive than one granted the whole stage.

Restrictions lead into subtle territory. With haibun, you ask how the prose and haiku interact, whether the haiku echoes, complements, or disturbs the prose. You ask which comes first, whether one supersedes the other in flash or substance, which might stand out of the way for the other, or what balance or imbalance creates the greatest dissonance or harmony. Looking at each element independently, you might experiment with purely evocative prose or purely metaphoric haiku. Or reverse that. Or even it out.

Most importantly, you do whatever you didn’t last time and see what happens. Robert Frost’s famous description of free verse—“tennis without a net”—disrespects barriers artists make, form created themselves, rules forged… and then pointedly violated. “Art,” Alfred North Whitehead said, “is the imposing of a pattern on experience, and our aesthetic enjoyment is the recognition of the pattern.” The pattern’s source, convention or invention, matters little. Something tells us we’re in familiar and unfamiliar territory, which is where we want to be.

I’m aware of the hypocrisy of beginning by rejecting aesthetic theory and then writing like an aesthete, but I’ll offer this defense—ultimately, you make any theory your own, never absorbing what you might test instead. Only then do you make making your own.

 

Note: My celebration of NaPoWriMo is to write a haibun for each day of April. I’ve cheated—I’m 16 ahead. But I intend to reach 30 no matter what, and, for April, I’ll be posting a haibun each Thursday in addition to my regular posts on Tuesdays and Saturdays.

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Another Attempt

One of the nicest reviews of my book was in Haibun Today. I sent it there thinking it was a haibun, but the reviewer, who I trust entirely, said no. Since then, I’ve been reading more haibun both in Haibun Today and elsewhere.

I’ve learned haibun present minutely descriptive moments, scenes, or statements. According to Wikipedia, they may “occupy a wholly fictional or dream-like space.” All haibun, however, need haiku that communicate, overtly or covertly, an essence of the account.

The four haibun below are new tries. I’m hoping to solicit my reviewer’s opinion on what I have and haven’t accomplished. I’ve included some of my art.

Clippingsedi.

Sometimes memories of crabbing return. The morning sun raised the scent of creosote from the ties of the railroad bridge, and I squatted, tugging—as slowly as I could—the package string. Either the loose skin of the chicken neck wavered like a ghost into view, or the broad green back of my prey materialized from dark. Everyone said they felt crabs chewing, but I guessed. Often, circular rainbows of fat surfaced when just meat arrived. Any hope, and I’d call my sister over with the net. She was swifter, decisive at the right instant. In the wide-bottom bucket nearby, the already captured edged along the walls, claws half-raised against their fellows.

from deep night,

lapping waves, echoes

of passing barges

glasspideredii.

A recent dream happened in many rooms, each weighted with complicated Persian rugs, ornate burgundy upholstery, blocky tables, and mahogany paneled walls. The lamps offered barely enough light to dislodge shadows. Each room, roughly the same, still seemed different, as if only this stage were suitable for this conversation. We moved from place to place, recalling what we never quite said.

sandalwood and smoke

she whispered another name

to call dawn

orchidsediii.

My anger comes out in hints, never visible enough to define. I like thinking it’s veiled by smiles.

a twist of wind

spinning and dropped, flattened,

wheels of dust

When people are mad, it feels like the moment just after someone shoves me. Their faces say distance, the stretch of a landscape moving away, but nothing happened. No one budged, though the room seems changed.

Once my mother spoke to me through a door she wouldn’t open for an apology. I heard half her words but understood I’d gone too far, said too much. Time would never settle our struggle entirely.

a blackbird chooses

now to cry—his brown notes

a song for dusk

lockworksediv.

shattered beer bottle,

afternoon sun, sparks of blindness

salting sight

When sleep eludes me, I think of it as madness I want to charm and trap. Odd but welcome associations of amber and shoes, or rust and old horses, or a gardenia blossom in a bowl and waning tides—any irrationality creeping closer—and I say, “Stay.” If I’m unlucky, sanity reasserts itself, another list unreeling or a new bulb of worry blinking to life. Around the room, points of reflection map depth and dimension. The heater breathes. On a good night, I may hear a voice as if it’s outside my mind and believe it. Then I know sleep summons. I let it. I close my eyes to join.

past midnight

buildings blend into sky,

piles of lost objects

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