Stormy Weather Talk
My bride and I recently attended the Stormy Weather Art Festival in Cannon Beach, Oregon, where I was a featured artist at the Bronze Coast Gallery. It was made clear to me that I was to
give a bit of a talk to a small socially-distanced group of gallery visitors who had signed up for the presentation. I possess the public speaking poise of a fifth grader boy who's just discovered, in front of the whole class, that he's forgotten his pants, so I wrote out what I figured a more competent speaker might say, with the intent of reading it with a casual, but professorial sort of delivery. Between scratching my neck and ears until they were bright red, and occasionally checking to make sure I was in fact wearing pants, I mumbling away under my Covid mask, random parts of the following speech: (Bare in mind, I had a two hour block of time dedicated to my presentation, and I had 7 minutes of material. That allowed me 113 minutes for scratching and blinking, which was plenty!)
First off, I’d like to thank all of you for coming out to the Stormy Weather Celebration here in Cannon Beach! We are in the strangest of times, when gatherings of any sort have been few and far between for too many of us. As for so many small businesses, these have been times of finding new ways forward. We’ve all had to adjust to the world as it is, while trying to make sure we are still in the game, doing what we have to do.
But solitude is nothing new for an artist. If we aren’t alone, chances are, we aren’t making anything. Even in the best of times, art is a lonely pursuit. So coming to this event, seeing people with whom I share something, at least in the visual arts sense, (or I would guess you wouldn’t have come), feels like some special treat to me. Even for an artist, I’ve felt too removed from my friends and my family, and people in general. And I think, by the end of our little event here, if I work this right, you will all be going away completely satisfied that you’ve had quite enough of me, thank you.
But you see, I am a man for these times! Ever since I was but a wee child, people have just naturally wanted to stay at least six feet away from me, if not more like twelve. People naturally want to wash their hands when they handle something I’ve handled, or if they have accidentally come in contact with me. All the best photos of me as a child, and as an adult, have been ones in which I was wearing a mask. People naturally self-quarantine after being seen with me, often for weeks, or until their friends forget. So, if not Renaissance Man, maybe I can be Covid Man! A man that anybody would be proud to socially distance from! So, as I raise my glass, and you your N-95s, Here’s to Stormy Weather 2020! And let’s all have a good time!
Solitude. Over the course of my life there have been certain questions I've had that have never really gotten the sort of attention they might deserve. “What am I doing? What is this art thing? Why do people make art? And why does anybody in particular make the particular art that they make? And once we have made a piece of art, why do we share it? Is it just to make a living? Are we trying to show off?!" Yes, I know, the world still spins if I fail to resolve these questions, and you and I will probably still get our morning coffee, but with so little distraction, it has been a good time to contemplate place and purpose.
I can’t say I’ve found the meaning of life. That one is likely lost somewhere in the couch cushions, so I’ll still be working on that. But the meaning of what I do, and why I do it has become more clear than ever.
In real terms, most of the traveling that Tori and I have done throughout our lives together has had something or other to do with my art. We’ve gone to so many places that we likely would not have, but in these past months it has become abundantly clear to me that in absence of travel, art itself is a trip. The making of an idea into a thing is a journey. Each step, from the familiar path of scratching down an image on a piece of paper, to the bewildering and tentative steps where you are feeling around for good footing, finding direction for a mood, or a gesture. Every little nuance of texture and line is a little piece of the journey. A side trip.
Like most any trip, getting there is part fun, and part just putting one foot in front of the other. Seeing where you’ve gotten to can be all you hoped for and more, or it can be a let down. Should have stayed home…
But the image that we have in front of us when we have completed a piece of work is the documentation of our journey. At its best, this journey shows through to its viewers, not unlike Uncle Carl’s slideshow of his travels. The lines, the textures, the colors, (Carl's son, Dorkwad, and his stupid grin), the mood, the ideas, the quiet and the loud gestures alike, that went into the making of the piece are all in the object that is the result of this walkabout. It takes you places, even if you are just sitting in a chair. And that is what art is about. And maybe that applies to every art form.
A few years ago, I was asked a very interesting question while giving my presentation here in this room, much like that which I’m giving now. I’d brought my new works, and had thought through what I might have to say about them to those who’ve gathered for the show. I’d shared some of the ideas that drive my images to wherever it is they go, when a fellow artist piped up from the back of the room, and asked, “How much of what you are saying about your art is part of the thinking of the piece, and how much of it is just bullshit you’ve made up after the fact?”
Okay, they were somewhat kinder words, but the point was clear, and an exceedingly good point. It cut to the real question about art in general. Are we just scratching in the dirt, or is there a guiding force, or social intent, or commentary in our work. I was a bit at a loss for how to answer this question in the moment, but I knew it struck a cord. I don’t recall quite what I had to say for myself, but I saved it as something to chew on, like a piece of raccoon jerky that gets stuck in my teeth.
I thought, maybe he is onto something in way of critique. Maybe I make things of random happening with my hands and my mind, and then ascribe to them some random meaning, but no. I get to look back now at a large body of work, and the message is clear. We are almost incapable of random images. We are not innocent enough to produce such things. Certainly we artists cannot escape responsibility for our lines, our textures, our composition, our thoughts as the image progresses. These things are products of our journey, our trip through this world, the places and events that form a life, and an experience.
No matter how many works I do, there are themes that recur, time and again, whether intentional or not. The interaction between one person and another, one species and another, one era and another, one snippet of time or another, all are in our work. It is no point of pride that I say there is real meaning in the images I make. The work may not mean anything at all to one viewer, but to escape responsibility for its content, both deep and superficial is impossible. It is my product, distinct from the work of any other artist, like the work of another artist is their product. A piece might have different meaning to a different viewer, but the one person who cannot escape the baggage of their imagery is the creator of the piece. A piece of a lifetime is in an image one makes.
A casual observation of a hill of ants might lead one to believe that there is nothing but random motion going on by a great mass of insects, but taken on the whole, over a period of time, it is quite clear that the workings are driven toward a very specific purpose. Maybe our brain cells are less purpose driven than any individual ant, but they are no more innocent of having created the ant hill they make, complete with the little complex galleries for storage, and reproduction, and shelter from marauding forces. We don’t make random images. They are our fault as much as they are to our credit.
So to answer my friend’s question, while it may be interpreted after the fact, none of it is just made up after the fact. It all is our journey. In my work I see a fairly narrow variety of themes, regardless of how I might want to expand my palette. I see a sense of humor, as the world around me is both remarkable and at times funny. I see a sense of tragedy as an observer of the goings-on of a complicated world order. I see a sense of commonality, as one of many similar being kicking around on this Earth. I see a sense of purpose, as one who owes a great deal for the wonderful trip I’ve had. And maybe I see a sense of bewilderment peeking out from the folds of the more deliberate lines. That first glance at an ant hill isn’t all wrong. There is random motion along with purposeful motion. But a glance is just too brief of a study to see that the marching orders are not so linear as to be obvious within ones attention span. Like I expect your attention span is, or should be right about now, as viewers and as creators, we don't always keep our focus to the point at which the point becomes obvious.
If someone finds another meaning in something I make, well, that becomes a part of their journey. It isn’t the job of an artist for his work to mean one specific thing to his audience. We don’t own that space. We can only provide our own perspective on where our images come from. For good or for bad, these things we make, once we make them, are no longer just ours. Once you’ve seen them, they are yours too, whether you like it or not! Life is a journey, and art is a language by which we share it to others.