Thursday, July 20, 2006

Suffocation of a Renegade

Here's "ME" in the center, surrounded by the swirling, encroaching, suffocating piles of "My Stuff"...I did this mini-journal entry after one of my various adventures into the mountains of papers, fabrics, doodads, dohickeys, and thingamabobs I have bought and hoarded in anticipation of future projects. Every time I launch into one of my organizational sprees, I feel exactly how this journal entry looks: A bright, happy artist filled with potential brought to her knees by the crushing stacks of stuff that already has a look of its own. All that stuff is color-coded, obsessively neat, and artfully displayed but inside me, chaos and conflict reign.

I think the need to hoard is an age-old instinct leftover from the caveman days when food was scarce and every scrap had to be tucked away for the inevitable lean times. As agriculture developed and the need to wander miles for food was eliminated, humans still felt the itch to hoard. Fast-forward to 2006, and I am scratching that itch raw. I know there are plenty of artists out there scratching along with me. The problem is that hoarding is actually counterproductive to the artistic life. Instead of filling us up, it fills up our homes and simultaneously starves our creative wells.

When the great masters of the Renaissance painted, they didn't wait anxiously at the local art supply store, hungering for the latest shade of indigo blue or the latest set of cool sketching pencils in a fancy tin case. Leonardo didn't spend his time thumbing through the most recent sales catalog, dog-earing page after page of alluring new products. He simply painted. He got down to the business of art-making rather than wasting countless hours patronizing art-making businesses. And when you gawk at his art, you don't point to a speck of paint and say "Now there's that shade of burnt umber he purchased at "Oil Paints R-Us." Back then, the artist commanded the supplies and they bent to his or her will, product names & trademarks disappearing into the canvas as the art emerged. Looking at trends today, I really feel that, more often than not, the artist creates after the supplies have supplied the inspiration. Creativity is at the beck and call of all that stuff: "I see something new and cool....oooh! Got to have that! Don't know what to use it for or how but it is the latest, greatest, and hottest! I'm sure I find something to use it for!" "Aaaah, now I need it in every color and derivation." And so the stash gains a life of its own.

Now this may be an unpopular statement (and its just my personal opinion so don't send hate mail) but I feel that the scrapbooking phenomenon is a lot to blame for this trend towards creating for the supply and not for the artist. At least it started there and has spread like a virus to other artistic arenas. How many of us can look at a project and say "There's that paper from_____" and "There's those stamps by______"? When you lean heavily on products that are so predetermined that they are instantly recognizable, a little bit of the recognition for the artist is sucked away. While I love to look at and admire Lynne Perella's style or Claudine Hellmuth's collage work, I don't want that to be all people see when they look at my work. Throughout traditional art history, the artists that came before were used as inspirational springboards into the unknown. I want to leap forward into uncharted (or at least, less tested) waters, not into the same old stagnant pool. And quite frankly, I'm tired of only seeing the popular trends in other people's work. If the first thing that runs through my head is the catalog or company that stars in an artwork, that work is diminished in power. Instead of making the soul front and center, the product butts its head into the process and in many cases, just simply takes over.

This is really an age old struggle. Popular and mainstream sells. There is comfort in the familiar. And the familiar can be beautiful. But the familiar and beautiful aren't typically the bastions of breakthroughs and new paths. Most of what becomes considered pretty and popular was once regarded as odd and even ugly. The Impressionists were blasted by the critics after their first public showing. Now Impressionist art is considered to be one of the most sublime developments in art history.

I long to be a renegade. I look at my collection of embellishments, rubber stamps, and scrapbook papers and I don't see me looking back. The key is to incorporate those products cautiously into work that is predominately determined by just little old me. Serendipity papers, hand-carved stamps, altered photos, personal drawings and paintings: All of these things can sing for my artistic self when brought together in harmony on the page or canvas. And as a bonus, using personally-created imagery, handmade embellishments, and neutral supplies (like paints, inks, mediums etc) help the artist more easily avoid entanglements in the web of copyright law. Collecting new techniques is a far more useful and enlightening venture. Don't get me wrong: I love all that I have collected but often, I now try to repaint, pull apart, tear up, and otherwise crush the easily recognizable, at least in my personal work. I put on another hat when I teach in a product-driven setting but my private classes are all process-driven. I'm interested in nurturing artists, not art companies. I want to enrich my life, not impoverish my pocketbook. This is a battle I think I'll be waging for a long while but if I persist, eventually MY style, taste, look, and story will rise above the stuff.

Tuesday, July 4, 2006

The Newest Family Member

You never know what is going to flutter down from nowhere, land at your feet, and steal your heart...

Last weekend, my son was out, wandering around our apartment complex, looking for something to do on yet another muggy summer day, when he found a new friend...or perhaps, this little friend found him. A dark grey & white cockatiel with a bright yellow head and orange cheeks flew down from a rooftop, landed on the ground and walked right up to Daniel. It climbed onto his outstretched hand and rode his shoulder home.

I was, all at once, surprised, dismayed, and intrigued by our feathered visitor. We already own a cockatiel named Maxie, a sweet drab-colored hen who loves nothing more than cuddling, kisses, and neck scratching. She creates noise & mess enough and yet, there we were, suddenly hosting another bird. It posed quite a dilemma: one bird is really all I feel equipped to handle but as Daniel argued, there really was no leaving it outside. Cockatiels are domesticated birds (everywhere but their native Australia) and they don't last long on their own in the wild. In addition, there are several rather vicious children that roam the complex, all of whom have a reputation for torturing anything they can get their hands on. It seemed somewhat fortuitous and wondrous that this lost soul chose my son to approach. I did insist that Daniel post signs asking people to call and identify the foundling but other than a gentleman looking for a wayward yellow parakeet, no one came forward to claim him. And so, in an instant, we were adopted by Milo (as we have named him.)

Milo is very different from Maxie. Besides being at least four years Maxie's junior and dressed in much more flashy feathered finery, Milo is not as personable. He will climb onto an offered finger only when he sees fit and otherwise will peck and nip until the human flees to protect tender flesh. In the first day or so, Milo ate and drank as if he had been on his own for weeks. When he wasn't hungry or thirsty, he slept, balancing on one leg and head tucked under his wing. In general, he tried to stay out of Maxie's way, who seemed both annoyed and excited to have a new companion. The guidebooks say that cockatiel hens establish themselves as the dominant half of a cockatiel partnership and Maxie wasted no time in proving the experts right. She is content to eat, preen, and now, after a period of cautious introduction, even sleep next to Milo. However, the minute Milo strays into her personal space, she warns him off with a hiss and a half-hearted nip at his tail.

Milo spent a week slowly adjusting to his new home and roommates. His days were fairly uneventful and we simply let him be, admiring him from afar and donning a garden glove when we needed to move him and he was being stubborn. And then, Milo decided he was happy and rediscovered his voice, much to our astonishment and delight.

Female cockatiels are generally not singers. Maxie is no exception; her vocalizations are limited to short, sharp shrieks. In the first week of Milo's residency, that was all we heard from him as well. And then, one morning, he began to sing and chatter and entertain. It seems obvious he has had training. Daniel and I were treated to "pretty bird" followed by a devilish wolf whistle, monkey noises, water dripping, low growls, a chattering sound, a hawk's call and little tune that sounds oddly like the Rice-i-Roni commercial ditty. Milo mixes his noises around, recombining and rearranging as he pleases and aside from the shrill hawk's call that could shatter glass, it is all extremely amusing. In a way, we feel honored that he would decide to share his talent with us. And so, plans are underway to fund a new, larger cage and clean-up/caretaking chores have been assigned. Milo is home.
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