Sibiu, Romania

Added on by Archer Dougherty.

I’ve been here for two weeks and haven’t written, but I don’t feel remiss - I needed time to adjust. It was only after I arrived that I realized how much I needed this trip to be outside urban surroundings. 

The city is a place with which I am utterly familiar. And I don’t even mean specifically this city; I know parts of it but it is still largely unexplored, which is, of course, my own fault. But I am familiar with cities and I have learned over the course of my 36 years that I am slightly stifled, claustrophobic, and withdrawn inside them. They tend to be loud, of course. Too many people. Too many straight metal lines and no horizon, too little actual air to breathe, too much of people talking but saying nothing, too much hurry, too many superficial interactions and meaningless, muffling white noise. There is no calm, no spaces between, no deep breaths and no silence. When I am in the city I run more on nervous energy than anything else - I neglect to eat as much as I should or as well as I should (which goes hand in hand of course) and I also struggle to find the motivation to make meaningful, quiet artwork because my environment is neither. The energy feels superficial, shallow, and afraid in a city. 

I used to think that I should be able to make the artwork I want, regardless of surroundings. But a residency in Assisi taught me differently. 

It was five weeks in the middle of the Assisi national forest. In a converted barn house, I and four other artists were able to sit in the solitude and create. I went for day long hikes amongst green hills and rivers, I breathed the sweet night air through my windows, and the only sounds were the birds, the occasional rickety mail truck, and the approaching thunderstorms - never mind the food they served us. Our nearest neighbor was another farmhouse four hilltops away; but at night I could still hear his dog barking. 

There I learned to create from an internal source which I hadn’t known was present. I was more productive during those five weeks than I had been in the two years previous. And most importantly, the work meant something to me. At the close of every day the other artists and I would have dinner, wine, and talk about our work. It was so deeply fulfilling on every level I have never experienced anything like it. I wrote poetry, which I hadn’t done in years. I woke up, present in my own head and my own body, and stayed that way. It was that magical line an artist dreams of: between being internal enough to foster an awareness of ideas and present enough to let the environment form and mold those ideas. 

When I returned from that trip I realized that magical balance had tipped drastically away from the internal, and it was because of my environment. I no longer took walks every day amongst the trees and the silence just to take them, because in order to get silence like that I have to drive almost an hour outside the city, and I rarely had the time. Being an adult, especially one in a marriage, requires a certain level of responsibility and my day is usually broken up into mental and physical tasks which require me to break away from thought and deal with things at hand. It’s not a bad or good thing, it’s simply a fact. And while Italy was amazing in nurturing my artistic growth, it really didn’t do much for my expectations when it comes to living real life. I still haven’t managed to reach that balance in urban environments and I’m not sure if I am able, two years later. 

I always surprise myself with the things I want to do when I am away from cities, in quiet, mostly solitude, and peace. I never let myself do them, because I am unaware the desire exists. The silence outside always helps me breathe into it and sink into my own identity, and let things float to the surface. 

So, yesterday was the first trip we took outside the city. It was to a lovely national park, Muzeul Astral, which is large enough to wander through and make you forget it doesn’t just go on forever and dip off the edge of the earth. Enclosed by trees, and venturing far enough away from the main road, I was able to find my quiet. It began to rain gently. I broke off from the main group and began to wander through the trees. I actually heard the rain pattering on the leaves and the birds were echoing. The smells and sounds were magical and the sky was that lovely pale yellow white that makes everything darker, so it seems to glow. Muzeul Astral is a traditional Romanian preserved community - windmills and blacksmith huts, pastoral houses and a community kiva of sorts. It isn’t a lived in community, but a chance to show people how Romanian villages used to look and the arrangements of households. It was very scattered, the houses were quite small, and far apart. I walked for almost three hours without seeing another person. 

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At first I didn’t want to work at all. I was taking in my environment, physically breathing as deeply as I could, stopping to close my eyes and smile to myself. Every once in a while I came across my fellow artists, busily painting and drawing and in general being very productive with their time. Technically I suppose I was supposed to be working, as was the purpose of this trip, but the purpose turned out differently for me as I spent hour after hour just walking, slowly, taking a few pictures but generally just enjoying the solitude. This little guy was out in the rain, so I spoke to him and patted his nose a few times. And this lovely black cat was sitting on a balcony, completely aware of his graceful silhouette I’m sure. 

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Eventually I did feel like working. I let it come to me rather than forcing it and I realized I felt like drawing - which didn’t really surprise me because in Italy all I wanted to do was draw. As much time and energy and money I have spent learning to paint, I’ve come back to drawing again. Usually that’s what it comes down to, and I haven’t listened lately. Sometimes I feel guilty not wanting to paint, considering all I have done and learned to get where I am. But things change. I took my brush pen and my small sketchbook and began to organically draw compositions as I came across them - which were many, because everywhere I turned there was something waiting to be sketched. The light chased itself in and out, the wooden architecture complimented the curvature of the hills and trees. I began with a few lines on my pages and they quickly turned into full double spreads. This is easily the best work I feel I have made so far. Now I know I will be in search of the countryside much more often and am actually looking forward to the work I make; which is a big deal, considering I haven’t wanted to work at all in close to a year. But that’s another post for another time. 

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#6

Added on by Archer Dougherty.

The maw of trees opens wide

I turn

My feet rest on the path beside

A valley. Its bottom

Of rivers and rocks and trees

Erasing itself

Ahead of the phantom evening

A desperate fling

Out of the world behind. 

 

Stones shift under my weight.

The twilight chases down

The silhouette - a velvet

Red against the mountainside.

The fiery pillar of the sinking sun

Holding up the sky

Lights the dancing sparks that lift

And glide

Melting into the soft folds of night.

 

A shadow bearing my shape

Creeps

And slides beneath my feet

Pulling itself over the edge

Growing and slinking into the weight

Of rocks

And branches and leaves

As the red sighs and sinks behind me. 

 

A halo of darker shadow

A presence beside

My fingers twitch.

The soft shock of touch

And sound. 

'Are you coming?'

 

The red swallows itself - then

Nothing. 

Silent shapes blend

Into a mass of dark against dark

Then emerge again

To wait and to watch

A tremulous fractious mass

Straddling the sky and the earth. 

 

My shadow cast

Down the mountain, longing

Into the silence echo the quiet

Words - 

                 'Are you coming?

                                ...coming?

                                    ...coming?'

 

#5

Added on by Archer Dougherty.

The cracked green teacup sits

On its plate.

It no longer fits

In the small space - for which

It was intended. 

 

The constant cold

And constant heat

An oscillation between extremes

Has transformed its chemistry. 

 

The same tepid temperature

Would have kept

It whole. Careful, considered.

Unchanged.

 

The winding rift is a road

Of intensity.

The cup has contained 

The fluctuations of a lifetime

And endured the ebb and flow

Of eternity. 

 

Melting into the ferocity

Of existence

Leaping from pole to pole

Flashing through the distant

Night;

Every scintillation, every vibration

A vicious delight - 

 

Finally on its perfect finish, so ordinary 

One small breach.

And a gentle refusal to sit inside

Where it once sat, so comfortably. 

 

The Trap of Serious Art: Rediscovering Joy in Making Things

Added on by Archer Dougherty.

I've always been a very cerebral, existential, esoteric sort of person - but also an excited, passionate, fairy-tales and fantasy sort of person. Like everyone, I have a very dark, melancholy side, and a very bright, social side. However, my two sides tend to manifest extremely aggressively. Bad days and good days are very far apart on the mental spectrum and I have no idea how my husband deals with me.  

Making dark artwork keeps me in balance. It helps me actually participate in the other aspects of my life, instead of being consistently bogged down by unanswerable existential questions. If my artwork engages those questions, then mentally I don't have to deal with them other than in the studio.

Right?

There's a certain word in making art that I avoid like the plague, and so do other 'serious' artists I know. Simply put, it gives our work the wrong connotation and pisses us off when people mention it. This word makes the work light, easy, 'not a real job', etc etc. It undermines the dedication, sweat, obsessiveness, and general gravity of what we do. It's the word fun. 

If you're an artist and have come to this post, then you know what I mean.

But I have come to realize, slowly and painfully, that I was (and still am, though I'm working on it) attributing the same qualities to that word as other people: How dare they ask if what I do is fun! Don't they realize how important my work is? How hard it is? How mentally exhausting and emotionally draining? Don't they realize that their little 'desk job' is far more meaningless and far easier than anything I do? They don't understand. What I do is so far beyond their understanding. 

If it sounds bitchy and snobbish and condescending, that's because it is. And I'm not making excuses for that sort of thinking; it is absolutely pervasive throughout the arts. There is an elitism surrounding our attitude about our own work that has driven the separation that defines the art market now; a sort of caste system, a definitive split between 'high' art and 'low' art. It's like the difference between seeing someone enjoying the hell out of a cheeseburger and fries, sniffing a little sniff, turning away, and ordering steak tar tar (or, if you're the millennial hipster type, some sort of gluten-free kale atrocity with pine-nuts, mango, grilled chicken and asian pears. Also, let's ignore the location impossibilities of this scenario). You don't order the steak because you think it tastes better or even looks better (you're probably jealous as all hell that guy is enjoying his five dollar lunch as much as he is), but because the steak tar tar (or kale conglomeration) has a specific cultural association that places it, somehow, uniquely above that fantastic burger and fries. Of course, there are certain people who prefer uncooked ground beef over a damn fine green chile cheeseburger (New Mexicans unite!), but I don't know any. And those people are similar to art critics, anyway. They can't cook for themselves so they turn to maligning cheeseburgers while munching away on something they wish was a cheeseburger but wouldn't dare let anyone see them eating it. 

I'm slightly getting off topic, but the general idea to take away from that analogy is this: at some point, art making began to become an extrinsic drive instead of an intrinsic one, and lost its playfulness, experimentation, and all around enjoyment simply because of some elitist idea, based on historical patterns, of what art should and should not be. And I am just as guilty of that elitism. 

I didn't start out that way, however. When I was young, I just made all the stuff. Everyone is naturally creative, just in different ways. I happened to take the things around me and make other things with them. Then I would write about these things, create stories for them, and overall enjoy the worlds I was making for no other reason than I wanted to. I was born in 1982 and as all of my in-betweener generation (Not quite old enough to be Generation X but too old to be a Millennial) fellow creatives will tell you, we were not-so-subtly influenced by the technological/entertainment dissonance from our childhood. Unlike the Millennials, we are the generation that remembers what it's like to write letters, or to try to meet a group of friends and if one didn't show they either forgot, got lost, or were kept home by an adult; we actually didn't know because we had no computer in our back pocket to tell us so. We just carried on without them. But we also were introduced to technology at the formative age which made us far more comfortable with it than our older Gen X. Oregon Trail, Super Mario Bros, dial-up internet, chat rooms (before they were cesspools), etc. etc.

Because of digital capabilities, comic books, animation, and gaming became far more engaging and as a result exploded in its cultural impact. So it's no wonder that the distinction between 'high' art and 'low' art became so sharp, and so vehemently observed during the 1980's and beyond - the more people liked it, the 'easier' the art must be, both in process and accessibility. And we all know 'easy' art can't be good art (I will have the steak tar tar). But it's also no wonder that our generation of creatives chose the graphic arts, the character arts, and the entertainment arts in the face of post-modernism and its conceptual fluff, much to the disdain of the art elite. We like Goosebumps, and Marvel and Disney, and the Goonies, and Tetris and Asteroids. Why shouldn't we make things that reflect that? We are the generation that saw the first freaking computer animated movie by a tiny little company called Pixar - which subsequently changed the face of the entertainment industry. Why shouldn't we become animators, game designers, comic artists, street artists, background artists, or character designers? Why can't we make art that is fun, and other people enjoy simply for its own sake, without relegating it to a 'lower' tier in the art market? 

 As I mentioned before, I am also a very cerebral person. I love my Sonic 2 and my Kirby, but I also love my Ouspensky and my Borges. By the time I was in college and decided that art, instead of writing, was my thing, I realized I was in an institution that was as elitist as they come. It was not a good art department; hell it wasn't even a mediocre art department. It existed in a substantial post-modernist bubble - the very old and distinctly male professors were all about concept. They didn't give two shits about the end result; it was the idea behind it that made something worth while. (I will always remember talking to the grad student who made excellent, really cool sculptures of little creatures; then she had her first grad review in which 'they all' decided her work was too 'cute' for the art world and she had to start making something else.) Even if something looked god-awful in every way (however subjective art may be, there are some things that are just bad), if you could talk endlessly about the concept they were happy. In college I learned how to professionally bullshit my way through anything. 

But all I wanted to do was draw people in weird fantastical situations. At that age I wasn't reading Tolstoy. How can you at 23? No, to hell with that, I was reading Ray Bradbury (always a staple, even if he's not my get), Orson Scott Card, Stephen King, Anne McCaffrey, Terry Brooks. This was also when the 'art of such-and-such movie' books began coming out - and you can be sure I looked at all of them too. I wasn't taught anatomy or proper drawing skills. My professors derided my work openly and I was actually forced to make 'conceptual' work to get good grades. It didn't occur to me that good grades for an art major mattered as much to my career as the difference between one Merlot from 1975 and the other from 1976. Most people just don't give a shit and can't even tell the difference. 

I majored in the two studio practices that require the biggest and most expensive equipment, thereby ensuring my poverty and limiting my studio practice to the best of my ability: Ceramics and Printmaking. I did a few multi media shows and realized I didn't have the funds to sustain the work. I was absolutely sick of it by then anyway, having been doing it all through college and a few years after which amounted to almost a decade. 

So, naturally, I had to switch to a medium that was cheap and highly accessible in terms of supplies: painting and drawing. 

I'd always loved to draw, since I was little. Painting was a new one (I took one painting class in college and learned absolutely nothing) but I took to it with an ecstasy rivaled only by St. Theresa. Without a decrepit professor breathing down my neck I realized I could draw and paint what I wanted without fear of being reprimanded for making art that was obviously for the basest intellect: the uninformed masses. The reason?

Well, it was fun. 

I drew upon my love of fantasy, fairy-tales, the flat spaces and patterns of art nouveau and art deco, and the ornamentation of the Renaissance and Rococo. I drew with lines (good linework makes my heart happy; every time I see a good comic inking tutorial on youtube I start drooling) and painted with flat, bright colors and patterns. Sometimes the subjects got a little darker, with tears that looked like roots streaming forth from gigantic eyes and demons sitting on shoulders; but the style, process, and results were very distinct and very 'me'. Those earliest pieces married by darker and lighter sides in a way that was spontaneous, instinctual, and completely without reference to any extrinsic artistic mandate. I was looking at contemporary work which resonated with my own imagery, of course: Mark Ryden, Camille Rose Garcia, Ray Caesar, Glenn Barr, etc, and of course my work was visually influenced by them. But I wasn't doing it to make money, I had a part time job and my husband had a good full time job. New Mexico is a cheap place to live, we had a tiny little place and were happy. 

I remember waking up in the morning and being so excited to start working I would take my breakfast into my little studio. I remember working until 3 AM and getting up at 6 AM. I would bring smaller pieces into the bedroom with me so I would see them right away when I woke up. The work was fun. It was exciting, it was experimental, I was exploring directions completely unknown and ones that I was infinitely curious about. I began to work on my figure drawing because I wanted to learn to draw them better. I got anatomy books, drawing books, painting books. I began to learn about color and composition. I was devouring information on my calling, and it was something I really, really wanted to do. 

But then, something unexpected happened: my work began to sell. 

Money is a terrible concept. Like Borges says, "Money is abstract...money is the future tense. It can be an evening in the suburbs, or music by Brahms; it can be maps, or chess, or coffee...a coin symbolizes man's free will." 

Money is not a thing, it is the promise of things. It gives power to the holder; the power to decide  for him or herself without having to rely on others. It is a potentiality - and because it is the only thing in the world that is pure promise in a physical form, we always want more of it. 

When my work began to sell, I began to take it more seriously. I wanted to suddenly make 'good' art, whatever that meant. And when my work started to sell was when I decided the internet was my friend and spent much more time on it, and thus spent a lot of time seeing the art other people made and compared my work to it. And when you begin to feel ambitious is when you begin to feel competitive. Competitiveness can be extremely helpful in the short term - I really believe I learned more and worked harder in the span of eighteen months than in all the years spent doing art previously. I wanted to not only make good art, I wanted to be the best. 

However vaguely defined 'the best' was in my mind, I knew that it meant learning a great deal more. I delved into art history like I hadn't done in college. I connected with other artists to grill them on techniques, I made use of youtube, and slowly my work began to change. The more work I was exposed to, the more I thought about content. And the more I thought about that, the harder the work became. Composition, anatomy, color, concept; all those things that I didn't care about in college were suddenly damned important. So I learned them. I probably have the equivalent of two masters degrees in self-taught time and study.

Attending residencies overseas and meeting artists whose higher education completely dwarfed my own opened my mind even further to all these possibilities. Conversations were exclusively about art, art theory, art philosophy. Art became not a thing I did; art became a responsibility. Art became an extension of myself; it became something so inseparable from my core that it was like walking, talking, or breathing. Obsessiveness isn't quite the right term. It's more like living in a universe where everything you think of, see, and hear, is somehow relatable back to the work. You know you're at that point when you squint at everything every time you go outside to see the value/chroma/hue separation and dissect how you would paint it. When everything you see looks like a painting you've come across in your studies. When you rearrange real-life scenes in your head until the composition is better. When everything you read connects with other ideas until it forms one gigantic concatenation of universal events and the work couldn't possibly come close to engaging these inferences, both in concept and quantity, but you try and try and try, and fail and fail and fail. 

Almost constantly in a slight mood of frustration and anxiety, I found myself dissecting others' work constantly and finding everyone lacking - except those whose work indicated that thought had come first. I respected artists who clearly read philosophy, poetry, history, and literature. I no longer respected artists whose work was done simply for enjoyment because it was easy. I gave my cerebral side full reign, and actually, consciously suppressed my reactions when I saw some animation or character art that I enjoyed because it was beneath my own, obviously higher calling. I was jealous, angry, and condescending at the same time. 

Fun not only did not come into play any longer, it became completely unrelated to the work and relegated to the mental tier of 'cheeseburger'. I was too busy ordering steak tar tar and looking around to see who noticed. 

How did I get here? Well, you can't make art, be career ambitious, aspire to the 'high' art market, and keep the enjoyment without being really, really self-aware. And enjoyment is so important, but so misunderstood. 

Enjoyment in art making comes from a uniquely intrinsic place. There is something that tells you making things with your hands is what you like. It's very primal, and very basic. If you obey that something, the reward centers in your brain get their fix and you are mentally, spiritually, and physically satisfied. It's figuring out what things to make that can become tricky, but eventually your influences and world-view will sort themselves out and what results is uniquely you. If you're like me and you like to make all the things - well, sorting out gets trickier but you will return to certain things again and again, and suddenly realize you've stripped away all the unnecessaries and you're doing what you should be. Unfortunately, I'm 35 and I haven't gotten there yet. I haven't learned the knack of telling my brain to STFU. 

Now I do believe in being an informed artist. (Here, 'trained' vs. 'informed' are not the same thing, and require an entirely different post for some other time). I don't believe all those years of study and reading and learning was wasted time - I don't believe in returning to the beginning. Things happen, if not for a reason, but because time is an arrow and we can't turn it back. The decisions I made were made specifically because I was driven to be better, the best, at what I do, and I don't regret them. I am much better at what I do - technically and conceptually. I really believe I'm a better artist now than I was. 

This past year, 2016, I was accepted into a two month residency in a space nestled in the national forest outside of Assisi, Italy. I needed it badly. I was at the point of burnout, my work was consistently for shows and collectors without any time to myself for experimentation or drastic growth, for which I knew I was overdue. My work felt stifled and stagnant, frustratingly convoluted and repetitive. When you're a career artist at a certain level (think above co-ops but below Kiefer), certain things are expected of you: the market wields its paddle and you say "thank you sir may I have another". 

When I got to the residency I literally had no idea what to do with myself for the first two weeks. Art hadn't been my 'sole' responsibility in my entire life. Yes, it is my job and yes, I am thoroughly controlled by it, but I am married with two dogs and adultish responsibilities creep their way in. I make my meals, clean my house, walk and feed my dogs, run my errands, etc etc. At this residency, I was cooked for, cleaned after, with no dogs and a gorgeous studio space just waiting for me. The hosts had no requests to make; there was no solo show required, no gift to make to the space. They just required that I work, and use the forests and mountains to my quiet advantage. I had made work for reasons outside myself for so long I had forgotten why I made work in the first place. Why my hands itched to create.

What the hell do I do now? 

I felt like some sort of poser trying to be a real artist. If I couldn't think of anything to make when there were no shows, or sales, or people to see it, what the hell was I doing there? Clearly I wasn't an artist. Clearly I had no business making things when the internal drive to make them wasn't there. 

Those first two weeks were some of the most difficult I've ever had in my entire life. I questioned everything. After living and breathing a career so external, I found that I had neglected my internal terribly. All the things I enjoyed had been formed and reformed into some shadow of themselves in order to placate my own ambitions. I needed to be quiet, to be silent, put down my own fears and expectations, and listen. 

To make a long and incredibly rich experience short, I did listen. And I found the intrinsic motivation again. 

My work had changed of course. Everything does, that's our fate. It was dark, varied, and rich. It was illustrative without being answerable to an external narrative and it was conceptual without being condescending or elitist. Again, like the earliest work I made, it combined my darkest and lightest personality traits into an organic whole. I enjoyed it. I was patient with it. When I didn't know how to continue, I stopped, and began something else. It was magic, it was reviving, it was absolutely what I needed. It was as if I was giving myself permission to make things unanswerable to anyone else. 

Then I returned home and real life smacked me in the face like a freight train. 

Show requests. Collector emails. Social media, selling, produce produce produce. I came very, very close to an emotional breakdown. 

Career growth and artistic growth, ironically, aren't very good for one another. Unless you've reached the point where just your signature is enough to sell a piece, artistic growth usually bends to career growth, and vice versa, depending on which is more important to you. They don't grow simultaneously; that's not the way the art market works. And I've always been interested in a great deal of different media, styles, and concepts, but too ambitious to really indulge myself, so my growth was always very linear and very predictable. 

So, in order to focus on growth, I turned off my phone. I deleted my social media apps, deactivated my Facebook account and actually deleted my substantial Instagram account. I'm starting over from scratch and rebuilding my work without it being beholden to anyone or anything. I need to regain my enjoyment, I need to start having fun again, and not have to travel the world to find it. I need to rediscover my joy in creating worlds simply because they are there to be created. Because, while I do believe my own work isn't necessarily about having 'fun' in the given sense, I still need to be able to take joy in what I do. I need to be eager to get into the studio again and find the passion and motivation to make work without thinking about what might happen in the future. I need to recognize when I'm making excuses not to work and why, and fix whatever needs fixing.

Since Italy I have been making work for myself and taken a break from showing. However, I find myself still weighted with the need to be the best. But alongside this drive to make the best work is the fact that meaningful work doesn't have to be a personal struggle, or so convoluted that it gets bogged down in unrecognizable references. My work doesn't have to be intellectual in order to stimulate. I didn't begin my artistic journey thinking I was going to be a famous artist, that I would sell my pieces for unimaginable amounts of money, or museums would acquire my work for their collections. Those thoughts are stressful. The common thread amongst all artists I consider both great and successful is this: they don't directly pursue 'success'. They pursue knowledge, they learn about the world, they make work in which they are interested and passionate. Enjoyment = longevity. The more you enjoy it, the longer you will do it. There's a reason Rembrandt painted into his nineties. If he had lost his joy in painting when he was 35, do you think he would have continued?

Probably not. 

Making art is a difficult calling. It requires the burning desire for knowledge, skill, openness, awareness, sensitivity, empathy, and a certain malleability. But there is one thing it does not ask of you: that you suffer for it. And often that becomes the case. I have come too close to very dark and miserable places in my mentality to think otherwise. Somehow, we equate serious art with suffering. History is peppered with creatives whose lives were dramatic, brilliant, dark, and short. There is a romance about being the isolated artist who creates masterpieces behind closed doors and dies unknown, only to be discovered after his or her death. Joy and fun are nowhere to be found in such scenarios. 

So I am doing myself a favor each day, and reminding myself, while looking at all the beauty around me for its own sake, that this is all I have. I can't spend every day without enjoying what I do, especially since what I do has such a capacity for enjoyment. I'm learning that I can take breaks from the mentally tough work and just draw or paint characters, or digitally play around; indulging my very distinct halves. Not everything has to mean something. It's ok for me to like video games and comic books and want to sit around and watch Star Trek while noodling around with some sketch or other. It's not necessary for me to be constantly thinking so hard I depress myself about my place in the universe, and make art accordingly. I can indulge my Goonie Generation tendencies and draw characters with stomper boots and steampunk goggles along with my existential painting called "Metempsychosis, or the Transmigration of Souls" (in progress). 

Oh, and another favor I'm going to try to do for myself, though it's been a long time: eat a cheeseburger and fries. 

 

 

#4

Added on by Archer Dougherty.

by Archer Dougherty

**************

Yellow evening rolls down the mountain

Burning tips, black silhouettes of the cottonwood trees.

 

The warm white sheep trickle into a stream, under

The marble sickle moon. 

 

Cool indigo shadows flow out among the golden

Hills; the crow settles into his shroud.

 

Evening sinking silence cushions the tick

Of the clock; stills, then moves, then stills again. 

The red wine grabs the sun in a pair

Of green glasses - the stars in their shadows dissolve

In the fading light.

The orange flame of evening extinguishes itself 

In the perfect shadows of your hair. 

 

Slow thumbnail strokes;

a strong chin in a marble palm - cradling a light smile. 

 

Cool moonlight slides over our naked

Skin. 

#3

Added on by Archer Dougherty.

by Archer Dougherty

***********

Blowing the white dandelion seeds

Silently tells the time.

 

- a girl, with worn out shoes and her head through the door;

Small soft seeds placed in a small green bowl

Kept for later.

The sapphire morning in its slow unfurling

- rising, soaring! A timeless burning

 

A pink evening.

The door has shut of its own accord.

 

- the clock, now; amber mechanic, a furrowed brow,

…the velvet shadows wrap around

An empty bowl.

The heavy rustle, a whisper creaking – and a sleeping

Dog; black and silent on the floor.

 

#1

Added on by Archer Dougherty.

by Archer Dougherty

*****************

Ribboned silver water -

Luminescent trails slant in soft cotton light

High near the wood front door.

 

Blue pillow of night enfolds the white

Trees;

The pantheon of blackness arches overhead endless

Soundless, starless.

 

No moon shadow to illuminate gold

Pale quick darting

Dark within darkness, just the cold

Drops

 

Near as pluming breath. And the nothing I see –

Cold, heavy, close stillness

Massive void of silent presence

Hunching heavily in its transience

Is the nothing which reaches back. 

The Spaces Between: Thoughts on the Nature of Composition

Added on by Archer Dougherty.

by Archer Dougherty  

 ****************   

     All creative endeavors have a rhythm. 
It is a natural sort of balance, a breathing; a combination of form, idea, and execution which constitutes a successfully composed creation. Whether it is based in sound, physical action such as dance, or a pictorial reality, this natural rhythm – a hum of pieces fitting, a completion of the mind and senses – is present in all manmade things that have continuously indicated landmarks of humanity’s creative brilliance throughout history.
It is this delicate motion that the senses recognize and follow, and absorb its effects during spaces of rest. When looking at a work of art, or reading poetry, or listening to music or watching dance, this motion requires a plasticity of thought – an organic and malleable way of internalizing the successive patterns between each beat. And, of course, this internalizing is subjective, and differs for each individual. Just as language can be interpreted in myraid ways depending on who hears what is spoken, why they think it was spoken, their relationship with the speaker and their individual associations with what has been spoken – so is looking at a painting and understanding the astronomical possibilities of connections between image, artist, and composition – however, these possibilities become smaller and smaller as the internalizing takes place. This ‘compounding’ of elements does not merely result in a direct, linear conclusion – rather, as Ernest Fenollosa writes: “In this process…two things added together do not produce a third thing, but [instead] suggest some fundamental relation between them.”
It is this relationship which comprises the flesh and soul of a work of art. It is the creator’s understanding of these spaces of observation between elements which makes it possible to direct the viewer to an almost inevitable conclusion, however subjective it always must be. In such spaces the mind must be in a state to accept alternative ways of thinking, so the creator can then introduce brand new thoughts completely unconnected prior to the experience. It is within this expanding of the mind that the spaces of rest and absorption become so very integral to the nature of composing meaning –  composing a visual language in such a way that it creates a mental map, leading to almost a single outcome. A great artist can compose a great work of art by consciously manipulating these successive beats to be taken in a specific order, or pattern – through whatever means necessary his chosen media offers.
In other words, sometimes it is simply about the spaces in between. Spaces in between conscious thought; spaces in between the beats in a visual rhythm – and the infinitesimal but crucial space between image, and word.

Poetry

Painting is silent poetry, and poetry is painting that speaks.” ~ Simonides

     When I began painting not too long ago, I associated it very strongly with my tendency to write out ideas and thoughts, rather than sketch them as images. I used to feel guilty about not sketching. For some reason I had it in my head that it was what artists just ‘did’. I was bombarded through social media by artists whom religiously kept sketchbooks – had filled so many of them in fact, they published books of them, and insisted it was the only way they could work through the preliminaries of a piece.
But as for me – I wrote long lists. I filled not sketchbooks but journals, and if I happened to feel a guilty sense of obligation to do a ‘sketch’, it often consisted of a few uncertain lines surrounded by words, question marks, and phrases indicating the intention behind it.  I have always thought in words, and not given any consideration to the glimpses of images that must arrive prior to the words. Those vague lines on the page represented some sort of image – and the fact that I would pepper the paper around the lines with question marks meant I had the visual in my head, but was uncertain of its meaning.
And because I was uncertain of its meaning, I felt this strange urge – almost responsibility – to put ‘things’ in my paintings which were quite arbitrary but I thought were needed in order to ‘fill’ the composition. I was not aware of the guidance toward meaning, which is the artist’s ultimate responsibility. It has taken me a very long time to understand that I was betraying, not fulfilling, my obligations as a creator to the people who view my work. I was creating haphazard imagery, scattered and fractured, which did not lead my viewer through the steps necessary to come to a personal conclusion. This idea of conscious composing was something I had never, ever considered.

A few weeks ago, I was speaking with a friend and this concept arose quite casually – almost in passing in our conversation. He told me he had always thought in words as well, and that it took someone else, over a long period of time, to teach him to think in images. That thinking in images was necessary to work out a painting to its most potent capacity. It was the very nature of visual thought which enabled a work of art to communicate its creator’s intention to its fullest extent.

To me, that was not quite it – it is not the nature of thought, and whether it is in images or words, but rather the understanding of the nature of the beats of rest and action, and the relationship between them, which comprise the meaning behind a work and its effects on the viewer. It doesn’t matter whether the communication is thought of verbally or visually – in my experience, the two are so interconnected you cannot separate them. One does not trump the other in terms of  ‘what is best’ to make a painting. The answer is not “images or words” – the answer is in both, and in the linear quality of things.
Ernest Fenollosa, the co-editor (with Ezra Pound) and collaborator of “Instigations: An Essay on the Chinese Written Character”, writes:

“…Perhaps we do not always sufficiently
consider that thought is successive…because
the operations of nature are successive.
The transference of force from agent to object
which constitute natural phenomenon, occupy time.”

If anything matters in that quote, it is this: thought occupies time.
It can be very disjointed, jumbled, difficult to ascertain the what and even more difficult to ascertain the order of things in which you came to some sort of stopping point – or conclusion – but the time it took for these things to transform from unexplainable, visceral, instinctual images into phrases your brain could interpret, passed.
The true connection, therefore, lies not in our ability to think in terms of words or images  – but, rather, in our ability to recognize and interpret forms of meaning based on and throughout both, and understanding which comes first.

In very old Japanese poetry – a form called uta – anyone could write a poem. Some were more successful than others, but the more ‘aristocratic’, rigid forms of verse which were isolated within a specific rung of society, such as haiku, had not quite yet been established. There is a wonderful description of Uta poetry by Ikeda Daisaku which illuminates the essence of its nature:

“…the poems of the [uta] represent the sparks thrown off
by the combustion of the human spirit in early times.
The men and women who produced these poems probably had
very little consciousness of literary genres and, in most
cases, did not give any deep thought to what sort of social
function their works might fulfill. They simply found themselves
with a kind of rush of feeling that demanded expression.
They were possessed by something that welled up from deep within them.”

Consider this raw, unrefined nature of Uta poetry, and also consider the fact that Chinese poetry has the unique property of being both word and image, resulting in an incredibly rich and multi-layered emotional understanding. Its very nature is comprised of both the visual and verbal, and as a result,  the poetic language is rife with double entendres, generous word play, and symbolism. The characters themselves represent many layers of meaning – they are comprised of individual “verb thoughts” which add together to form its overall intent within the context of its verse – as most characters describe not a letter or sound, but an inherent property (or properties) in the thing which it illustrates. But underneath, so many mental connections which equal this “meaning” are hidden inside, around, and over each other that the characters represent not so much a single idea but all the natural actions and reactions which lead up to its final, inevitable, conclusion – just as in a composition in a painting.
Another quote from Fenollosa describes this nature more specifically to poetry, but enhances our understanding of the concept of  “additive” composition:

“A true noun, an isolated thing, does not exist in
nature. ‘Things’ are only the terminal points, or
rather the meeting points of actions;…Neither can
a pure verb, an abstract motion, be possible in nature.
The eye sees noun and verb as one: things in motion,
motion in things.The [pictogram of the] sun underlying
the bursting forth of plants = [the sign for] spring.
The sun sign tangled in the branches of the tree
sign = east….”Boat” plus “water,” = boat-water, a ripple.”

This way of thinking – this ‘compounding’ of concepts which formulate suggestive relationships, is key to developing works of art which clearly utilize this unique rhythm and balance between emotion and conscious thought, associations and new ideas – and in that order. Understanding this linear quality of thinking (and linear, here, is used as a “building” concept rather than an A to B concept)  is the only way to manipulate the plasticity of thought necessary to compose the connections the poet/artist wishes the viewer to make.
This is what makes the conclusions about carefully constructed composition so fateful – not necessarily concrete, and exactly the same for all who experience it – but an organic, subjective, and absolutely conscious manipulation of thought and time.     Mood, vividness, familiarity, and absolute economy; this is exactly what composition is. All those things woven together in specific order, compounding together to create an emotional conclusion,  is what composition does. And this understanding of action, of time as related to thoughts which pile upon each other with each successive word or mark and are gracefully directed to a final inevitable (but subjective) conclusion is behind the conscious creation of all great works of art. 

Language

“In the autumn mountains
The colored leaves are falling
If I could hold them back
I could still see her.”
~ (Kakinomoto-no-Hitomaro, 10,000 Leaves, 625-750 AD)

     What is most interesting is that the visual artist must recognize the words associated with his own images, and manipulate their additive relationships in order to fully control his composition. They can be his own words, remembered words, or even a poet’s words which come to mind after the pictorial experience, but the conscious understanding must be there. Visual art is image, and so it must come first – but the artist must be conscious of both image and word to fully be present in the viewer’s conclusions. Even if a painting, at first, seems a jumble of images without meaning, closer inspection must result in order, relationships – and conclusions gleaned from these. 
The artist must have led you there. As I said from the beginning, this guidance – which amounts to nothing more or less than responsibility – has to be understood from the creator’s perspective. How else must he have led you to a particular conclusion than first imposing this order consciously, which means words themselves – or, more appropriately, language – must come into play.

Images come prior to language. It is no mistake that, in the history of humanity, pictures preceded writing. They are organic, they are malleable, changeable – they are an expression beyond words.
Language, by its definition, is a narrowing of possibilities. Its very concreteness, its purpose in putting thought into the confines of words, undermines intuitive understanding. It is humanity’s attempt to be universally understood.
Great pictures have captured our imaginations throughout history because they don’t need to be understood universally. They don’t ask to be understood universally. However we feel them, we connect with them without having to explain or understand, and each and every individual experience with that picture is unique from all others before and after it. It is ironic, then, that the greatest works of art are indeed universally understood – but on a dichotomic, individual level. Because images are not confined by the need for specificity, they reach any and all.  It is this microcosm/macrocosm effect which is so much more difficult (not impossible, but difficult) when dealing with language. The connection with visual art is a connection which goes beyond the confines of words – of hacking off information until the best statement is made. That particular plasticity of thought necessary to formulate nonverbal conclusions exists only in that portion of the human mind which is subconscious enough to bypass language entirely.

The artist Iliya Mirochnik wrote in his lecture on artistic composition:

“…language is not merely an expression of our thoughts.
Instead,it actually plays an active role in the development
of these thoughts. One need not develop a vocabulary to
better express oneself; needs to develop [a vocabulary]
in order to think new thoughts…The very nature of the
flat surface and the compositional developments which have
taken place in exploring the pictorial potential of a
[painting] surface…is that visual language, when studied,
will bring about ideas and potentially new variations and
developments in painting.”

In other words, new creative possibilities only exist through the development of a deeper understanding of the historical creation of images – which, in turn, create these additive relationships specific to each individual creator; which then, literally given the number of artists at any given time, generate an infinite number of pictorial possibilities.
The study of language, as Mirochnik stated above, is necessary to think new thoughts. That is an interesting phrase. How are these “thoughts” being thought of? In words? Or in images? Or in both simultaneously? Is the constant study of art necessary to think in new images? For me, personally, this is true. The growth of my pictorial vocabulary has been exponential since I delved deeper in to the psychology of what we call ‘art history’ – but is really a mental record of these ‘new thoughts’ as landmarked by history, constantly building upon and overlapping one another through each individual artists’ interpretations. However, as discussed previously, language itself is a mental suffix. It is a post-script to what is already going on in the human brain.
Pictures developed in order to express – language developed in order to explain.

Hitamaro’s piece earlier is a brilliant example of composition. I do believe Japanese poetry, along with visual art, is the closest we can get to a marriage of the instinctual with the intellectual. The explanatory with the expressive. But the explanatory, in any artistic language form, arrives first. In visual art, the expressive is first. It opens up in ways, and affects in ways, which are – foremost – unexplainable.
The creative process necessary in manipulating thought to successfully compose visual art is, I believe, far more complex than language – as it deals with the reverse construction of the associations behind an image, rather than using words to formally narrow the understanding of a concept. Iliya Mirochnik wrote in his lecture on artistic composition: “the understanding of the idea of a painting is greater than its [formal] explanation.”
It is this, very succinctly put, that gets to the heart of the matter. Language – however pictorially explained – still needs to be consciously processed  in order to absorb its effects. The actual words, first, have to be read. Again, there is a specific action here which occupies time. The most important understanding of the differences in composition between language and image is this specific chain of thought and in what manner the mind is receiving this information – thus affecting its processes. In the book The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard writes:

“The poetic image is not subject to an in inner thrust. It
is not an echo of the past. On the contrary: through the
brilliance of an image, the distant past resounds with
echoes,and it is hard to know at what depth these echoes
will reverberate and die away. Because of its novelty
and its action, the poetic image has an entity and a dynamism
of its own; it is referable to a direct ontology.”

The image itself, to Bachelard, has its origins simply in awareness. The purity of this image is directly influenced by the thought processes which consciously mold it, after its inception – memory, associations, expectations. But it is precisely this awareness in which artists can discover and express an unadulterated and completely visceral “phenomenology of the soul” (Bachelard, Poetics of Space).

Imagination

“Sometimes, it is more about the spaces in between.” ~Giorgio Morandi

When I would draw all those question marks and vague lines on pieces of paper, I was, literally, thinking way too hard about it. There is a conscious awareness, and a subconscious one. Bachelard, again, puts it very succinctly:

“A consciousness associated with the soul is more
relaxed, less intentionalized than a consciousness
associated with the phenomena of the mind.”

I have always been way too involved in my own head. I am always very aware of the past and future, and too little in the present. My expectations of my own work involve abstract “what ifs”, running the spectrum from a single brush stroke to gallery exhibitions and sales – all before I start a piece. When I was painting in this way, I was composing with the mind, rather than the soul. As existential as this may sound, one must remember creating great art is an existential act. It is, quite literally, an extension of oneself.
The image that has its origins in awareness is, itself, a source for multiple levels of action, reaction, and branches of consciousness. It can be formed by a multitude of things: culture, environment, societal impressions, education, etc – and so its level of existence is directly a reflection of the things which have formulated who we are. These images, or perhaps ‘source images’, can lead to entire strings of associative thought, developing into a narrative that naturally communicates the things which are important to us, and the relationship between them.
I don’t really worry about keeping sketchbooks anymore. It’s simply not how my brain is wired. To me, a sketchbook is similar to the ‘intentionalizing’ of a true source image. When I do draw in them, the images are derived from photographs I find interesting, words, phrases, and abstract patterns. It amounts to meaningless motion, when I need to clear my head and simply perform the actions.
Sometimes, drawing in this way may lead to a stirring of associative images which I try to pay attention to. But I believe my truest work begins much earlier, and has its origins in something much deeper, than when my hand finally begins to create an image on a flat surface. By this point, it has gone through the filter of the psyche – it has been compressed, reworked, and refined into something the conscious mind can interpret and comprehend on a level with language, with poetry, and with that specific reality which comes about only after the brain has been directed to a specific path of understanding.

In an attempt to understand the importance of this ‘deeper’ well of sensation, I must bring to the table a term which has been greatly misunderstood in more contemporary times; even spoken of with derision:

Imagination.

What exactly is it? From where does it arise? Do some people have it, and some don’t? How can you use it to create things? How can some people seem to have tapped in to it so deeply, and others not?
The term imagination, simply put, is this: “the ability to form new images and sensations in the mind that are not perceived through senses such as sight, hearing, or other senses.”
Sound familiar?
This is the very essence of the source image. I believe everyone is capable of forming these new images and sensations – it is the level of awareness of each individual which determines how well he can grasp them, and retain the purity of his intent. This requires, among other things, a heightened consciousness of the mind, not the soul. But it is the consciousness of the soul, or imagination, in which all these unadulterated images come into being; first and foremost, before words, before language, before all the things the brain has learned as sensory explanation – molds them into a cognizant order.
The same friend who spoke of ‘thinking in images’ also brought up the term, a long time ago. He said he wanted to work more from imagination, that when he first saw Matisse and Picasso he believed he understood exactly what imagination is, and how it translated into great art.
For me, the correlation lies not in what imagination is, exactly – how can one describe a phenomenon of existence? The correlation lies in the awareness of the abstract, the imagined image, and the final product resulting from that awareness.

The path between imagination and great art – the additive construction, the associative relationships, the understanding of language and how the mind assigns words and emotions to the things it sees – lies in great composition.

And  remember, I am speaking of composition as building upon all I have discussed earlier. It is not simply the utilization of specific techniques, nor arrangements on a flat surface or pictorials on a page. Those are all simply tools manipulated by someone through which great composition is already thoroughly understood. Great composition is not a linear path but an entire mental construct. Retaining the integrity of the source image, of the imagination of the artist, cannot be done singularly but through an entire complexity of rhythm, of balance, personality, dedication, intent!
When I added things to my paintings because I felt the narrative wasn’t complex enough, I was not dealing with imagination, I was dealing with explanation. Mostly to myself, as well – how can I simply depict a person? Wouldn’t it be too ‘boring’, too simple? Forget composition, rhythm and rest, psychology. Forget that some of the most powerful images in history are portraiture. I decided ‘things’ must be added, so the work kept its ‘energy’. That was the word I always used. I hadn’t yet discovered it shouldn’t be ‘energy’. It should be ‘honesty’.

Great works of art take time to absorb. They take plasticity of thought, a willingness to let the piece open up, a feel for the rhythm between the lines, or the images, or the notes. Poetry, painting, music. The kind of honesty required to make work that is to be remembered is not easy to look at. It can hurt, it can frighten, overjoy, overwhelm.

Indifference is the greatest indicator of badly composed work. 

Honesty arises out of an artist’s ability to stay true to his own vision – that phenomenology of the soul in which true images exist. But composing the work so the viewer comes to the necessary conclusions – that is the greatest challenge of all. Like Uta poetry, the end result must be a successful marriage of word and image, suggestiveness and association, and happen in such quick succession the viewer only recognizes the immediacy of the piece. So that whatever is felt is powerful, and lasting. The artist must travel through his own composition step by step, and plan it out to the last degree in order to keep the spontaneity and integrity of his own imagination – and realizing it in actuality is the most beautiful thing in this world. 
A successful composition is truth, in all ways. It unravels intention and ends up pointing directly back at the person who composed it. Great composition is like a fingerprint. I don’t need “things” in my paintings to tell people they are mine. I don’t even need a signature. What I do need is to understand that I can’t make things in isolation, or that are arbitrary. I need to understand that, like Uta, my own images are the “sparks thrown off”, that deep well of feeling without regard to form or restriction; but like anything learned throughout history, a careful molding of those images will strip them down to their most bare, raw, and powerful – and yet filled with something indefinable, immediate, and unforgettable.