By default we think of drawing, both noun and verb, as dragging pencil across paper or the evidence of that action. That is not untrue. If we also consider drawing as anything that works in parallel to, or in preparation for, an artist’s primary practice, then these collages are also drawings. Using cut paper, and quickly assembled, these sketches allow me to record ideas for possible future sculptures. There are always so many more ideas than there is time to make them in sculpture. Some ideas are not worth pursuing further. Drawings are artworks and sometimes they are the only record of an artistic idea or impulse. What I find most interesting about drawing as a record is that it gives insight into an artist’s thought process, sometimes more than the resulting sculpture. These collages are part of an ongoing sketchbook. Some of these thoughts make their way into The Hankie Project, some into the Welcome to Oblivion or Stimulatorium series.
Do not avoid conversations about your artwork. When you are asked to explain your work to others it helps you to clarify and distill your ideas. you benefit from these interactions, especially when the people asking are truly interested in the work. When you are asked to defend your ideas, you define them, hone them, and invest in them. You may state your thoughts and opinions, but you wont truly know where you stand until you are asked to defend your position. This is why presidential debates, and debates in general are important. It’s great exercise to defend oneself. It makes you stronger. In art you will be asked to explain your choices, be it material, subject matter, or style. Embrace the opportunity to have conversations where you are asked to defend your position, or to justify your choices. See this not as criticism or evidence that your choices are wrong or invalid, but as an opportunity to be pushed further into your certainty.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Style, if there is such a thing, develops over time. Each artist is an individual and in the course of a lifelong practice natural propensities begin to emerge regardless of the material, subject matter or techniques deployed. No matter what they do, if artists are earnest, thoughtful, and true to themselves, the art that results will always look and feel like their work. The look and feel of an artists work can be called their Style. Developing a style takes a while, and is very personal.
Young artists often think that they should develop a style and, once established, they should not deviate from that style. This is a somewhat antiquated notion. In the post-postmodernism era, anything goes. Artists are free to use any material, subject matter, and technique they want. Artists are free to change all of that at any time.
Style is not a preconceived thing. The artist doesn’t sit down one day, perhaps at the beginning of freshman year of college and decide “this is going to be my style!” and commit to it for life. On the contrary, as artists continue to make and research their art, and to learn skills and experience life, the look and feel of their art becomes more discernably their own. Eventually, art made from any material, technique or subject matter will yield results unique to that artist.