Have you ever watched a dance performance that gave you chills? While the dancer expresses herself, seemingly effortlessly moving through space evoking emotion in a highly individual way, it’s nearly impossible to imagine the training that proceeded that performance. Dancers practice for hour upon hour at the barre, perfecting small repetitive movements. Year after year they do this. If you’ve ever taken a ballet class you know. The class is structured and rigid, the movement is extremely specific. Eventually the most dedicated dancers become those performers who take your breath away, but there exists a distinct contrast between practice and performance.
In art we have exercises that build our skills. These exercises can be repetitive, challenging and often boring. They are not what we have in mind when we imagine expressing our creativity through making art. Just like the thousands of plies dancers do, we visual artists have our exercises too.
A dancer will have a fit and flexible body for as long as she practices regularly, but it is her performance that is the Art, the body is only the tool. When visual artists perform skill-building exercises, there is usually a drawing or a pot as a result. These results are not the Art, and we shouldn’t expect them to be.
I’ve been teaching kids. A young student burst into tears this week because she felt she “messed up her drawing”. We were doing value studies on black construction paper with plain chalkboard chalk. The subject was white paper cups, cubes, and spheres. We discussed the notion of exercises, how we do push-ups and crunches to make our bodies stronger. All these kids play soccer. They know the difference between the warm-ups and the game. I explained that these exercises were the warm ups, not the game. I chose plain, cheap materials to reinforce the notion that these were not precious drawings. Nonetheless, there were tears.
There is a student in my night class who is a beginner at 85 years old. He is a fit, smart, outgoing man. He expressed his frustration at his awkwardness in clay compared to the advanced students in this all-levels class. He told me that after several class meetings he went home vowing he “wasn’t coming back”. I tried to explain the years (20 or more for some of us!) of practice and failed attempts each of the other artists have endured to get to their stage of development. We use inexpensive recycle clay, its just mud, nothing special. Nonetheless, there was frustration.
As we search for meaning in our lives through the practice of art we need to recognize the value in the ugly, awkward, boring, repetitive stuff we make along the way.
The warm up is not the game, but it’s still important.