Who's In Charge Here?
Updated: Nov 18, 2020
Something occurred to me recently while discussing with a friend, the progress I was, (or was not) making on my newest sculpture. I realized that I quite often refer to various elements of the work as the creation of unknown laborers, or maybe the results of mutation, driven by the evil tinkering of some rogue geneticist with nothing better to do. It’s as if I am looking for someone else to cradle the blame (or credit) for what it is that I’m making. And it's true that I often see the work as something that comes to be, in part, independent of me. In my most recent bird piece, I find myself feeling like I'm working alongside a crew of shoddy and well soiled engineers, straight out of the sepia-tone days of the industrial revolution. These guys don’t talk. They don’t confer. It's not quite chaos, but they just do whatever it is they do, along with my evil part-time geneticist, who knows a bit about birds, but not so much as to be able to make one that works.
At first I thought that maybe I was just unwittingly referring to myself in the third person, but that doesn’t really describe what is going on. As I went back over my emails and other conversations I’ve had, I see that the process of design, for me anyway, is more a process of discovery. I’m discovering my works as I work on them, almost as an archeologist might discover a buried urn. Finding things that someone else must have left behind.
I work from crude drawings, and interpreting a drawing is just that: interpretation. 2D and 3D are different mental tasks. My drawings are usually vague in detail, dimensions, depth, and textural complexity. They could be interpreted in many different ways, and would be so by different artists, tasked to make the same drawing into a three dimensional form. It is that interpretation that offers a second opportunity of discovery, after the drawing itself. I first draw an idea, and then, should I decide to make it into an object, I discover the dimensional reality of that object through the process.
Is this splitting hairs? Maybe, but split hairs are a real thing. I saw them talked about on TV in 1970. (I think I recall that somebody had “the frizzies”, which must have been terribly traumatic.) But the ways we approach our creative lives are likely as individual as we humans are, one from another. I know some artists work from models as much as possible, and some work up very elaborate plans for what they are making. Some make a maquette, or in the case of a former clown-smith like myself, a bozzetto. (Gotta use the word bozzetto whenever you get a chance!) I make one drawing from one point of view, and then wing it from there. No bozzetto. (Look it up. It’s a word.)
If one is tasked to sculpt a life-like cat, it makes sense that a model would be important. Hair patterns would be a large part of any interpretation of a life-like cat, as would the musculature and skeletal structure. If tasked to make a cat-like form, then interpretation takes on a different and dramatically more variable meaning. In the case of the life-like cat, I suppose I would grant creative credits to the animal itself, or the animal’s lineage, while any shortcomings to that goal would be credited to me. In the case of a cat-like image, I, as the creator, would become the interpreter, would become the discoverer. The credits for the creation are no longer so specific. My interpretation of a cat-like image might owe but a small amount to the actual cat, while the bulk of the credits might more deservedly be divvied up amongst the many influences that led me, as the artist, to create something other than a lifelike cat. The art isn't the cat. The art is the interpretation. (Though it is true that our cat Zippo is certainly a work of art!)
In my work, these outside influences simply become “others”. Other beings, other things, other gestures that conjure up the subject, “cat”. They could be any little thing that has crashed the party going on inside my skull, from a bit of theatre work I may have seen, a depiction in a children’s book by Dr. Seuss, or even a bit of wall texture or a pile of burnt debris from a house fire, that from a certain angle, screamed “CAT”! When I draw a cat, I might draw on what my experiences have been that fall roughly in the category of “cat”. Finding out what the elements of that drawing really are is a process of discovery. Invention, certainly, but discovery is the real meat of invention. We find ways. We find shapes. We find textures as we fiddle with things. And often as not, these “finds” are repurposed relics of things around us. Creations around us. Mutations around us. At some point, these influences acquire personalities, and then they become like little creators in our employ, (or us in theirs) somewhere in the sweat-shops of our cranium. They aren’t really us. They were given to us. We have plenty of things that we need to be without our becoming everything we see or hear. No, these busybodies, in the recesses of our brains, are not fully under our control. They flip us off on a regular basis, any time we try and discipline them, and they comingle like rabbits, such that we hardly can know from whence they came, one influence from another. They are the “other” that we have to work around, and they are often a recalcitrant bunch.
Here I go again. Them and me…and I guess together, we. I suppose it is at least good that we are all dressed more or less the same.
I don’t mind the company. Life would be much the sadder without it, but it isn’t me that runs the show when it comes to what I make. I just get to operate the hands, clean up the messes, (or learn to live with them), perhaps select some of the parts, and pay the bills when things don’t work out just right. If there’s a problem, I have to take it up with the guys in the pilot house. And they will either do something about it or not.
I think, in my way, what I’m trying to say is that anybody and anything might take center stage, or at least make the credits in the art of another. We don’t get to know what all will make its way across the threshold of our subconscious mind, and then into our art. It is how art speaks to us. To us and from us, through often random, but common threads and subtle influences from our ordinary mingling with the universe. Okay, that sounds a bit grandiose. Maybe our mingling with the neighbor’s cows. But our interconnectedness is as inevitable as is our uniqueness, and when art speaks to us, it might be because we are kin to its source.
These “other guys”, these interlopers, as I think about them, are wide awake while we are sound asleep, doing whatever the hell they feel like doing! It brings to mind a precious story shared to me long ago. I’m not sure how these things are related: Second cousins perhaps. But they are related. You see, as the story goes, this friend of mine went to bed one night, sometime in about his fourteenth year of life, in certain regards, as pure as the driven snow, and then he woke up the next morning in the climactic throws of his first, and for all I know, his last ‘wet dream’. As exciting as it was, it was also deeply disturbing. Nothing in his education, to that point, had addressed this phenomenon, but he knew deep in the terrified pit of his stomach that it could mean but one thing. He had never had any sexual relations of any sort, but after gaining some composure, he went into the kitchen and sat down to breakfast with his mother. He knew it was time for the reckoning. He didn’t know any discreet way of telling her of his predicament, so he just blurted it out. “Mother,” he said, “I have VD.”
His mother sat silently for a moment as the tears welled in her eyes, and then she sobbed, “Honey, I don’t know what you do when you go to town!”
So, there it is. I don’t know what all is going on in my head. Anything can happen at any time in something as strange and conniving as a human mind. And is it anybody's fault? I don’t really know. But it is sometimes kind of a nice feeling, while at the same time, a bit concerning, the sorts of goings on in your synapses that you just don't see coming!