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.

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Summer Workshop Registration Now Open

This summer I have the pleasure of leading a two-week Ceramics handbuilding intensive for artists of all levels in the beautiful mountain retreat center, Idyllwild Arts Center.

Plans for the workshop include working from the live model and 24 hour studio access.

Class sizes are small so register now! I can’t wait to see you this summer in Idyllwild.

www.idyllwildarts.org/ceramics for more information and to register.

Workshop Flyer for Lee Puffer Summer Ceramics Intensive

Catalog image for Ceramic Scuplture: Anything is Possible! A two-weel ceramic workshop led by Lee Puffer at the Ifyllwild Arts Center in California

Reaserve your spot in my two-week ceramics intensive in the beautiful mountains of Idyllwild California. This summer, July 4-15, 2016. Register at www.idyllwildarts.org/ceramics

Reaserve your spot in my two-week ceramics intensive in the beautiful mountains of Idyllwild California. This summer, July 4-15, 2016.
Register at http://www.idyllwildarts.org/ceramics

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.

Faculty Exhibition at Boehm Gallery

Critique vs Coaching

At its very best, an art critique is a very high-level and personal conversation with professional(s) who care about your work and development as an artist. As an artist and an educator I have been present at many critiques, both as participant and facilitator. In a traditional art critique the goal is to more deeply understand the artwork in question. This deeper understanding helps art instructors evaluate the artwork, often for a grade. Critiques in art departments are frequently scheduled in advance and serve as a deadline for the completion, or near completion, of an artwork or series. Participants include the artist and the instructor. There may also be other professors, invited guests, and other artists in the class or program. Usually, everyone present at the critique is invited to ask questions and contribute to the conversation.

Ideally the artist presenting work at the critique will come away satisfied that he/she was able to adequately explain the artwork and that it was evaluated fairly. Even if this is true, critique seldom gives an artist the kind of feedback useful in improving and moving forward with a body of work. It is not the goal of academic critique to help an artist to overcome obstacles, find meaning, or to hone ideas for future work. The formal critique process ends when formal schooling ends.

Hoarder, by Lee Puffer. Ceramic and mixed media.

Hoarder, by Lee Puffer. Ceramic and mixed media.

Traditionally a coach helps an individual player and/or a team to succeed at a sport. Coaches work to improve the performance of athletes and push athletes to achieve at high levels. There is more of a focus on developing the athlete and preparing for and maintaining a productive career. Artists could benefit from the sports coaching paradigm. Here’s what I envision a coaching-based critique to do. Since coaching discovers useful and meaningful strategies for improving output, sustaining production, overcoming obstacles, and growing as a human being, and critiques evaluate the work,

I propose combining elements of critique with insightful coaching to better serve the artist. The word critique is useful, and lends an air of academic legitimacy to the conversation so I suggest we continue to use the word critique moving forward.

We could now define critique as a thoughtful analysis of an artwork or series with the goal of improving understanding of the artwork and encouraging artists towards their best, most authentic and mature work. As artistic practice is a continuum, regularly scheduled critique keeps artists going and growing, while providing benchmarks and deadlines along the way.

Stalling

The Joker, by Lee Puffer

The Joker, by Lee Puffer

One of the most baffling mysteries about artists is that when we want to do something, when we really want to, it takes so long to get started. We stall, even when we know exactly what we need to do.

We stall even when we have done all our research. We have carved out the time for artmaking and justified it to everyone who might care, including ourselves. We’ve analyzed. We have prioritized. The sink is clean, laundry done. We know that this activity, this step in the process is the thing to do at this moment.

Furthermore, we’re convinced that making art is our soul’s calling, that it is important work.

Why then, do we still stall?

There is that myth that making art is always pleasurable, and although it may be good for your soul, it is really kind of a luxury. Like getting a massage.

This is not an idea I buy into for two reasons. First, making art is not always pleasurable. Like any work, it can be challenging. It can be drudgery. Secondly, art is not a luxury. If art is important to us, if our practice adds meaning to our lives and helps us contribute to the world, it is not a luxury. For me, and perhaps for all of us, this is a necessity. Sometimes doing important work is fun, sometimes it is not.

This is a tricky position to be in. We have to find and justify the time to do an activity that, while critically important to us, might be difficult. Additionally, with art, there’s no guarantee your time spend making it will produce a favorable result. So much of what we do is experimental, problem solving, and speculative. And sometimes the problem doesn’t get solved right away. Sometimes the problem gets worse.

This is a lot of pressure. This is why we stall.

Flesh

"Sanctimony" by Lee Puffer. Ceramic and mixed media, life size.

“Sanctimony” by Lee Puffer. Ceramic and mixed media, life size.

There are qualities inherent to each art media. We call these qualities Material Properties. These days, when artists are not bound to one medium alone, material selection for completing and artwork is challenging and important. We can choose a material because it is the one most suited to fulfill the physical demands of our vision or we can choose a material because of its inherent conceptual implications.

When I was in graduate school a fellow classmate returned to the studio after a walk in the hills with an armful of fallen eucalyptus bark she had picked up on the hiking trail. This artist had recently moved to Southern California and was unfamiliar and with this tree. She began to sew the bark pieces together with wire to form large boat-like platters. The bark was already curved to imply this form. This artist’s work has always been about nature and community. This idea; the boat form implying her recent voyage, the platter signifying togetherness, the bark connecting with nature, was in keeping with her process. Almost right away, however, the bark began to dry and turn very brittle. Within a couple of days it could no longer be handled without breaking into shards. There was no way to sew it and doing so would be an exercise in futility. The material properties of this tree bark were not suited for the project this artist had in mind.

I choose clay for the construction of human faces because to me, clay is like human flesh. When wet, clay is malleable and moist to the touch. It warms when we manipulate it. Clay gives to gentle pressure while holding its overall form. What better choice for creating the expressions made by skin and muscle over bone?

Ripe. Palomar College Faculty Exhibition

Just a few days left to see the Palomar College Faculty Exhibition at the Boehm Galleryfaculty exhbition

Exhibition view, Palomar College Faculty Exhibition, with works by Lee Puffer and others.

Exhibition view, Palomar College Faculty Exhibition, with works by Lee Puffer and others.

"Road Rage" 2014, by Lee Puffer. At the Palomar College Boehm Gallery through Dec. 10, 2014

“Road Rage” 2014, by Lee Puffer. At the Palomar College Boehm Gallery through Dec. 10, 2014

The Enemy of Good is Better

One of my colleagues in the ceramics studio at Coronado Clay is a Cardiothoracic Surgeon. That’s his day job. As an artist, he’s a perfectionist. I watch him regard with disgust his recent creations; nothing he makes is good enough to keep.

One day while working he asked me when or how I know when a sculpture is finished. I said I never do know but I stop when I believe the piece to be good enough. If the piece seems to be working, I consider it finished and move on to the next one. I do this not because I don’t want to push myself to make the work better, but that I do not want to go too far and ruin something that is already good. I have a tendency to keep adding layers of imagery and information to my sculpture. In recent years I have been trying to pare down the work, spread the ideas a little thinner and simplify the sculptures both formally and conceptually. This is tricky for me. I am a “more is more” person.

Ceramic and stitched vinyl

“More, More, More ” Ceramic and stitched vinyl

Luckily, there is always another sculpture to make. It is in subsequent artworks in a series where I am allowed to challenge myself to take additional risks. Because I always work in series, I can exhaust an idea thoroughly and/or allow it to lead me to the next piece, always trying to improve and evolve.

My surgeon friend understood this idea. Evidently in surgery they say “The Enemy of Good is Better”. Surgeons are perfectionists. They use this phrase to remind themselves to stop when the procedure is “good” rather than invite risk by trying to make it “better”. In art or surgery, we stop before we go too far.