On Originality, Part 2

Contemporary painting by Lee Puffer
Neon Yellow, by Lee Puffer. 2016. Watercolor on paper.

Recently I wrote about the urge to be original, observing that young artists are especially  concerned with making something absolutely “new”. I believe that research and study is an integral part of art-making. When artists have done thourough research,  they almost always find artists who have made work similar to what they are making.

Indeed the point of research is to find the other artists, either historical or contemporary, whose work shares qualities with our own work. There are several reasons why this matters:

Most importantly, other artists will inspire us. We call this inspiration “influence”. We will see how other artists approached issues, materials, and expression and learn from their progress.

We are required to know who our influences are. Our first influences are usually our teachers, parents, or peers. As we develop the practice of research, our influences will grow and change. This is a valuable, even critical, part of artistic identity. We are all members of a continuum, it is important to remember that.
Also, from other artists with whom we share certain qualities, we will find out where our markets might be, who our audience is, and which galleries may like our work.

Ideally, when we connect with these artists we will find friendship and camaraderie. Trade secrets will be shared. We will know what to call our style or movement. Importantly, we will be able to put our practice into context.

Just as a singer needs to have musical knowledge, an artist must study art.  Knowledge should be both broad and specific. A broad art historical education includes at least a basic knowledge of all major art movements in human history. Ideally this would include art from all continents and cultures on earth. Along the way, specific movements and genres intrugue us more than others and we naturally develop a deeper knowledge and affinity for those.

Contemporary painting by Lee Puffer
Neon Red, by Lee Puffer 2016. Watercolor on paper.

Regardless of our personal preference, it is also important to be aware of art hierarchies even if we choose to disregard them, which many contemporary practitioners do. We must familiarize ourselves with the arguments surrounding Art versus Craft, for instance. It is valuable to be able to differentiate between High Art and Popular Art, for example. These distinctions are becoming less and less relevant to artists, but the philosophies that form the basis of those arguments still effect us.

Fortunately there are many channels through which we can acquire this knowledge if we are motivated. While Art History courses at a college or university may be useful and enjoyable, they can be prohibitively expensive and time-consuming. With a little effort we can educate ourself with books and essays easily obtainable through libraries and reputable internet sources.


Who Cares About Originality?

There are artists, especially young artists, who tend to focus on originality. These artists try to do things that “haven’t been done before” or something “entirely new”. This is a waste of time. I’d like to say that originality doesn’t exist, that it is a notion based on a failure of research, which I do believe to be true, but with technology moving so quickly I have to allow that there will be new, utterly original ideas, tools and objects.

So I guess my argument is, so what? SO you were the first to use a material or technique? Who cares? Other people will do it; some will even do it better than you. After a while it won’t matter who did it first. Quality works of art that resonate will stand the test of time and be examples of their form and style.

Young students, especially those who have not had much exposure to art and design history, often think that because they have never seen something like what they have just made, that it is something entirely new.

I tell them newness is irrelevant. Not good or bad, just not relevant. The more research we do, the more real looking, the more we are able to recognize elements of other artworks in our own. This is a good thing. Acknowledging these influences and investigating them is deepens our engagement to the work and the rest of humanity.

Humans have been around for a long time. All along we have been making things. We are all connected by those objects and images.

Originality doesn’t matter, quality does. For an original object there has to be no other before it, the only one of its kind, never been done before. As soon as something is invented in the world, artists begin to adopt the new material, style, equipment or technique to use in their own way.

Ceramic Sculpture, by Lee Puffer
Snake Dream Brainstorm, by Lee Puffer. 2016. Ceramic and mixed media.

The point is to do what you do in your own way. Do not be too concerned about whether or not is has been done before. If you are working on making your most authentic work, you will be creating a unique artwork, even if it may share some qualities with an existing artwork.

What is Contemporary Art?

In its most basic definition, Contemporary Art means art that is made today, by living artists. It may suffice to stop there because although there are many more detailed and specific definitions, there are often contradictory definitions as well. If contemporary art is distinguished by any one factor, it would be that it defies definition. Contemporary art can be made in any material or media. Contemporary art encompasses all current practices, cultures, methods, and technologies.

Contemporary Art, Watercolor and collage on paper, by Lee Puffer, 2016
“Thinking” by Lee Puffer, 2016. Watercolor and collage on paper.

There are some common threads that run through most contemporary art practice. Contemporary art usually references culture. This can happen in a variety of ways. It can engage with its culture of origin, or offer commentary on world events. Sometimes the artwork will reference history. Sometimes popular culture is a latent or overt theme.

Contemporary artists are keenly versed in art history and the artwork reflects this through subtle references or direct quotations either in method or image.

Contemporary art practice is not necessarily materials based. Artists are free to use any media and technique and often use multiple media. The use of new technologies, or at least and awareness of new technologies is essential. There are as many ways of working as there are artists. Art materials vary widely from the traditional (paint, clay) to things not usually identified as art materials such as found objects and the human body. It’s the artists utilization of the media that makes it art.

Contemporary Art, painting, watercolor and collage on paper by Lee Puffer 2016
“Sculpture” by Lee Puffer, watercolor and collage on paper, 2016/

The unifying factor, if there is one, in contemporary art, is the artist’s concern for meaning. To take it one step further, I would say that art, for the artist, is a way of interacting with the world that makes life more meaningful for the artist and uncovers meaningful truths about the human experience for both the artist and the viewer. While meaningful experience has always been the result of interaction with a successful artwork, the notion of meaning being primary to the artwork is a contemporary idea.

This a very exciting time to be an artist as there are no limitations to what or how art can be. While some artists find this liberating, the lack of parameters can seem overwhelming to others. Artists must decide what methods and materials to use to say what they need to say with their art.

Art is an Open Country


Red Brainstorm by Lee Puffer 2016. Mixed media on paper.
Red Brainstorm by Lee Puffer 2016. Mixed media on paper.

Art is an open country. Everyone can stay. In a creative environment where everyone is welcome, there are bound to be differences of opinion, differences in modes of expression, and delivery systems.

Sometimes there is chaos in my classroom. I see it as controlled chaos, but some may see it as out of control. I am aware of that. It is ok. Some may think that I am lazy and that is why I do not take control of my class. Or perhaps I am inexperienced and lack the ability to deal with the disorder. It may be that I don’t notice it.

I assure you, none of those things is true. I see who gets annoyed, who sighs and judges and shakes their heads. I see you. I value your comfort, I do. But I value the chaos more. No one is getting hurt. No one feels threatened either physically or emotionally. It’s all ok.

Blue Brainstorm by Lee Puffer, 2016. Mixed media on paper.
Blue Brainstorm by Lee Puffer, 2016. Mixed media on paper.

Art is an open country. Everyone can stay.

Even the noisy ones. Even the ones who mutter to themselves. Even the ones who ask the same question over and over again. Even the ones who need a ton of extra help just to get through the day.

All opinions are valid. You get to have yours, I get to have mine. That guy who is going to vote for Donald Trump gets to have his. We all get to express ourselves in art class. That is why we are here. We may not love the chaos. We may prefer a more serene environment in which to practice our art. Sometimes I prefer that too.

If you want silence, go to a library. If you want an open forum for self-expression, come to my art class.

Blonde Brainstorm by Lee Puffer, 2016. Mixed media on paper.
Blonde Brainstorm by Lee Puffer, 2016. Mixed media on paper.

Music, theatre, literature, and visual art can all represent the highest form of human expression. In fact, entire ancient cultures are evaluated based solely on their artistic output. Perhaps art is not valued so much these days, but that’s a topic for another time. Art matters and always will, despite current fashion.

Human expression needs an open forum to grow. An open forum can, at times, be chaotic. Controlling that chaos could limit the potential for human expression to grow. I’m not willing to risk that.

Green Brainstorm by Lee Puffer, 2016. Mixed media on paper.

So what if we are uncomfortable? Art thrives in discomfort. If it doesn’t, it should. Sustaining an artistic practice demands we be resilient. There will be many things in life that to try to distract us form our practice. Partners, kids, and jobs come to mind.

If we can learn to create within the chaos, we will be better artists. If we can accept and appreciate a variety of opinions, diverse manners of expression and different temperaments, we will be better spokespersons for our culture.

Brown Brainstorm by Lee Puffer, 2016. Mixed media on paper.

Surprise Video

The San Diego Mesa College Museum Studies students stopped by the studio for a vist and seruptitiously recorded me talking about some recent work. Dia Bassett recorded and edited this video. I’m glad I didnt know it was being captured at the time, but I’m happy to have this clip now. Thanks to the San Diego Mesa College Museum Studies program for the visit and for all great work you do supporting artists and arts professionals.


As artists we are always making manifest our ideas, literally making stuff, physical objects. Some are good. Some are bad.

Some of us throw out the old or unsuccessful (we think) objects. The others we display or place in boxes in storage. After years theses objects accumulate, as residue of our lives. Looking back we can see the objects and remember what we were thinking, feeling and struggling with during the time the pieces were made.

Residue, by Lee Puffer. Collage on watercolor.
Residue, by Lee Puffer. Collage on watercolor.

If we are making life meaningful through making artwork it is because the process itself feels important, the results are mostly satisfying, and/or we benefit in some other way, by making sales or having exhibitions. What we also do is leave a legacy behind. Our personal histories are in those boxes and digital files. We leave this history behind, a record of us. Adding to the history of the era of our lifetime. Art becomes a record of our own existence as well as part of human history.

On the personal level, something more substantial than the trail of breadcrumbs that Hansel and Gretel left behind happens when we leave a path back to our former selves through our art. As artists with many years of practice and production under our belts, we are able to clearly see the arc of our development, to see how far we’ve come. Looking back through the old work is important not just for the historical aspect but for our current work as well. We change as we go through life but some fundamental aspect of who we are remains. It is fascinating to find the thread of imagery or issues that persist in the work throughout the years. It can also be helpful to be reminded of topics, materials and ways of working that once interested us. There was a reason we made these things. They are the seeds of our current practice.

I’m sure someone famous once said, “Work from your work”. This means that we start where we left off. If we’ve been out of the studio for a while, we start again by making what we were making before we left. It is ok to repeat ourselves; in fact, making things in series is a useful and legitimate way to make progress. Van Gogh painted the same bridge over and over; Monet painted the same pond again and again. There’s something about repetition that brings us ever closer to the essential truth about a subject.

Having access to our own historical body of work can be a valuable resource when we are stuck or stagnant, or having a hard time getting started after and absence from the studio. There are the dominant themes that we remember, but there will also be many other things in the old work that we will have inevitably forgotten about. These little surprises can awaken a dormant interest we once had. Don’t throw away old, seemingly unsuccessful work before completing a thorough documentation, it may turn out to be a future source of inspiration.

Creatures of Comfort

Snake by Lee Puffer. Watercolor and collage on paper. 2015

We are creatures of comfort. Many of us avoid uncomfortable situations whether physical or mental. This can limit our health if we avert physical discomfort by avoiding dentists or gyms. This could limit our relationships and career if we avoid difficult conversations or people. To risk rejection and/or failure is uncomfortable. Artists have to take these risks.

It occurs to me that good art is about discomfort, at least a little bit. And artists need to be able to tolerate a little (or a lot) of discomfort in conceptualizing and actualizing the work. Let me explain.

Discomfort is a sign we are challenging ourselves. Therefore, discomfort is a symptom and a sign of progress. If we are challenging ourselves, this is a good indication that we may challenge the viewer. And by challenging the viewer I don’t mean we try to confuse or confound or repel, although that may be a result. Our goal, many of us, is to challenge the viewer to engage on some level, with the work. At best this engagement can be transformative, at least it will be thought provoking. Without engagement, we have clutter, stuff, knickknacks, dust-collectors. We encourage the audience to engage with the artwork in a meaningful way by challenging ourselves to invite discomfort. Evidence of that challenge is apparent in the artwork, and this elicits a response in the viewer.

What causes discomfort feels challenging is different for each individual artist. This is also true for the viewer. That is why different people love different art.

In order to make good art, the artist must choose one aspect of herself to explore. The artist must challenge herself to make authentic work about that topic, specifically, intentionally, and truthfully. The choosing of an aspect of the self to investigate is or can be the uncomfortable part, I’ve said before that art takes bravery. I am not talking about navel-gazing here. When I say that an artist must choose an aspect of herself to investigate, I don’t mean the work is literally about her, although on some level it always is. I am talking about the artist’s distinct point of view. What the artist chooses can be anything at all, from an in-depth investigation of the color yellow or a childhood memory, to her feeling on race relations or the state of the economy. When viewed through the lens of the artist, every topic becomes somewhat personal. Art is not the news. Art is the editorials. Unlike the newspaper, the audience is not required to know the topic of the piece. It is enough that the artist know and challenge herself to truthful representation of this specific idea, regardless of the form the final artwork may take.

It is this specificity and truthfulness that becomes apparent in the artwork and engages the viewer, even if the topic itself remains the artist’s secret. If an artwork is successful we don’t need to know what it is about or even to understand it, we need only to feel it.




Making it Matter

In late July I traveled to Vermont to spend a week at Art New England. Dean Nimmer, professor emeritus at Massachusetts College of Art and Design, my alma mater, holds a workshop there every summer. The workshop is called The 100 Drawing Challenge. I remember hearing about Dean Nimmer when I was an undergraduate at MassArt but I was firmly ensconced with the freaks in SIM and I never managed to take his class. Later Dean wrote a book called Art From Intuition, which I stumbled upon when looking for some proven warm-up exercises to use with my students in the drawing classes I was teaching at the time. I love Art From Intuition because the approach to artmaking Dean describes is so different from the methods I employ. In making my work I am rather logical and calculated. To begin a body of work I conceptualize the idea and message first. Then I decide which materials and techniques to use, recognize the influences on the work and identify the references I will (probably) make. I usually have a fairly clear idea of what the resulting artwork might look like, although I do allow for the work do morph somewhat during the making process. Any deviation during the making of the work is invariably an improvement on the original idea. For me the inspiration and excitement of artmaking occurs in the brainstorming and planning the work. As much as I enjoy making art, I love conceptualizing even more.

Lobster, by Lee Puffer. Watercolor and collage on paper. 2015
Lobster, by Lee Puffer. Watercolor and collage on paper. 2015

In my research for both my own art and my teaching, I have found it valuable to define, clarify, and analyze my artistic process and philosophy in order to understand it myself and explain it to others. I discovered that in my work intuition and insight are at play in the conceptualizing process. Intuition is also useful to me in analysis of my own completed work and aids in my ability to assist other artists in the development and analysis of their work.

In the actual making of my artwork, I never rely on intuitive processes. Am I missing something? I went to Vermont to find out.

Pink Mouth, by Lee Puffer. Watercolor and collage on paper. 2015
Pink Mouth, by Lee Puffer. Watercolor and collage on paper. 2015

As a sculptor primarily, paper and dry media are not a big part of my process or product. It was a challenge to work in media I was not accustomed to, with only the supplies that could fit in my suitcase. I brought watercolor paint and paper, dry media, and some collage elements I had accumulated. The instruction was to make first, in the spirit of play, and to analyze later, if at all. This process was foreign to me. I made some pretty abstractions. It was fun to play with paint, people liked the work, but I kept thinking “So what? What does it mean? Why?”

Why make art if it doesn’t have meaning, a message, a purpose?

Dean just laughed at me. I was missing the point. His philosophy is that creative expression is a basic human need, and that humans cannot live healthily, happily and fulfilled without creative, exuberant expression. Dean’s goal is to preach and teach this message for the benefit of all mankind. That is a noble mission and he does it well. I discovered, however, that the process of self-expression, as fun as it may be, is not enough for me. I need to make it matter.

Eye, by Lee Puffer. Watercolor and collage on paper. 2015
Eye, by Lee Puffer. Watercolor and collage on paper. 2015

Unlike many humans, I have always allowed myself the freedom to create. Finding permission to express myself has never been an issue. My issue is making something meaningful with the time, energy, and resources that creating requires.

In the end, I was able to see how the work I made during The 100 Drawing Challenge fits into my ongoing practice, and I added a few new materials to my toolbox. It was a week of great artists and good fun in a beautiful location.

What I did take away, however, was the notion of a 100 Drawing Challenge. Since returning I have consistently made drawings, posting one a day on my Instagram account with the hashtag #arteveryday. It has been 35 days, I’m hoping to get to 100.

This project is satisfying for several reasons. First, I love the lack of self-censorship this challenge demands. I will post a drawing even if I don’t think it’s great. I do not disallow any ideas. Second, it is very gratifying to quickly express ideas in art . This is a big change for me. While I do work consistently on my sculpture, it often takes months or even years to see a finished sculpture in its entirety. Seeing a finished work daily is keeping me excited and disciplined with my large, long-term projects. Thirdly and unexpectedly, while engaging daily with the Instagram community, I have discovered many interesting artists from all over the world in the last 35 days.

Will I make it to 100? Follow @leepuffer on Instagram to find out.

Earth, by Lee Puffer. Watercolor and collage on paper. 2015
Earth, by Lee Puffer. Watercolor and collage on paper. 2015







Kids These Days


At the moment it’s very contemporary to be cross discipline, as an artist and an all around human. The changing economic situation for young people has caused them to focus on multiple income streams instead of just one job. As full-time, career path jobs with benefits such as health insurance and retirement, paid sick days, and vacation, dry up and a become memory of how previous generations lived, a paradigm shift has taken place. And young people do not seem to interpret this as a bad thing. Never having had job security, a salary, or employee benefits of any kind, they don’t miss them. Also, many young people witnessed older folks lose everything while focusing on just one job or career. Young people see no reward for loyalty.

The Joker, by Lee Puffer
The Joker, by Lee Puffer

We have a new generation of freelancers. The ones I know are very liberated by this. They follow their hearts. They do what they want to do and they do whatever they have to in order support that.

Choosing to do what you love is no longer a terrible career choice as “sure thing” careers no longer exist.

Artists have always been this way. Very few of us make our entire living from making and selling artwork. We have always had a bunch of other jobs, skills, and talents.

Just to sustain a career in as a visual artist, and not even fully support ourselves financially, we need many abilities. Obviously we must be disciplined, knowledgeable about our own art as well as the contemporary and historical context of our art. We must be experts at our chosen material, as well as many other materials. We write blogs, articles, statements and thesis. We lecture about our work, using presentations we create. We teach, and we handle the administrative duties related to teaching. We do our own marketing. We are able to interface with and charm gallerists, curators, journalists, the general art public and one another. The list goes on.

These are the things we do; in addition to the studio work that is the core of our practice, in order to be able to continue making our art. Even the most successful among us still need additional income to survive.

So we do the jobs that earn us a living. These other jobs require a host other skills. In this way we are like the youth of today, freelancers, multidisciplinary. Artists always have been. Artists have always found creative and individual solutions to the challenge of making a living and sustaining an art practice. Who is to say one way is more valuable than another? Now that other more stable career choices have lost their promise of security, we artists are more equipped than anyone to adapt. Just like the young people for whom security has never existed in their lifetimes, the same has always been true for many of us artists.

The youth of today are artists but they do not define themselves as such. It used to be that if you were a painter, you couldn’t be taken seriously if you also enjoyed fashion and beauty. If you were an actor, you wouldn’t also be a fashion designer. If you were a potter, you wouldn’t also direct music videos, or be a food stylist, or have a handbag line. As artists it was even worse if you had a professional career. Then you were a sellout, abandoning your art. Painting on the weekends was not good enough. It used to be that having multiple interests or a conflicting career defined you as a dilettante or a hobbyist. Not anymore.

There’s a reason freelancers are bright-eyed and bushy tailed. We have to hustle. We have to take the best/first offer instead of waiting for that contract that may never come. We don’t expect our tenured colleagues to understand, but we kind of wish they did. Our experience is different than theirs; it is in fact a lot more like the challenges that face their students. Tenured Faculty, there’s a benefit in making an effort to comprehend your freelancing/adjuncting brethren, you’ll understand your students a little better, too.