Yes! I Can Paint! And Draw! And Stuff!

What art-making stereotypes did you grow up with?  

Audiences, students, and artists sometimes believe that if you can do realism, then you must be a very talented artist. This is a big fat mislead of our time. But it is a stereotype of the art cultures that I grew up in, and which many people today also experience. 

In contrast, sometimes when confronted by experimental artworks, the inquisitive critics among us might comment that ‘anyone could do that.’ To which my response is ‘A great part of visual art is how we can make art, in many styles, methods and approaches. They are beautifully open to everyone, and the arts provide places where we can all belong and can all participate.’ Some art skills take years of careful practice and thinking, whereas other important art skills are shared with everyone. And the core skills and desires — communication and imagination — these we share with everyone, artist or not. 

My own studies included intensive practices of contemporary figurative painting and drawing. I studied realist-academic ways of drawing and painting in both the college and atelier/academy settings. For many years, I made a series of bird-related paintings that were very popular. Some of these were songbird portraits based on sketches from my backyard here in the Berkshires:

Tufted Titmouse, acrylic on panel, 4″ x 4″

And some were comments on art history:

“Relativity of Wrong”, oils on panel, 11″ x 14″

While others were a long series of nature and climate-change oriented observations of tree swallows in flight:

painting of tree swallow, "Field of Probability"
“Field of Probability”, 18″x24″ oils on panel

And much more. Also I did years of figure drawing, anatomy, still life, and many other common forms: 

“States of Mind”, charcoal on paper, 6″x10″

 

“Self Portrait during a Time of War”, charcoal, 11″x14″

 

Galileo’s Dream, oil on panel. 11×14″

These images show serious, quality competency at variations of realism and academism.

For me, the challenge of gaining these skills was almost an engineering dare, to figure out how something can be done. Sometimes the studies lasted a long time, other times only for a few months. Some explorations become lifelong intrigues while others fell away. It’s been the same with writing… for many years, I wrote poetry. And then fiction, essays, research. And made Mail art. Collage. Mashups of painting and text. Nature photography. Long ago, my graduate thesis work was combinations of painting and poetry. Those paintings looked like this: 

“Celestial Circus” oils on canvas, 5′ x 10′

I loved the multipanel approach, and you might think of my career as a kind of multipanel assemblage of multiple methods, styles, and explorations. How does one explain the desire to try out new and different art methods and approaches, that grow into such widely varying styles and genres, when what arts audiences, gallerists, and granting organizations want is a sense of coherence and one single, continuous body of work? I really like how the photographer Arno Minkinnen talked about the many paths artists might take during a lifetime of visual explorations, likening them to getting on a bus at a vast station of many possible routes of travel, some routes shared with many others and some routes more iconoclastic. [Link] In a way, all travel can teach integrity, insight, imagination, variety, and observation. 

Probably I should warn you about something. Despite cultural stereotypes that it must be good art, a realistic painting isn’t necessarily a good thing. It could just be the result of an earnest student learning and performing the script they think they have to do, rather than really thinking critically through the artmaking. The imagery and methods may misdirect audiences to think of wayward spiritualisms, or anti-science, anti-critical worldviews. It could emphasize all the wrong politics that hold people down and demand repeating history’s dumbest mistakes. In fact any artwork could do any of that. If it’s doing either of those things (mere mimicry, wrong ideas, and/or wrong politics) then it’s probably not that good.

There’s a big difference between what an artwork looks like, and how artworks engender and provoke us to think about important ideas, especially while the artist is in the middle of the process of artmaking.

Thus, when encountering artworks, I encourage everyone to consider what the artwork is provoking us to think about and to experience, and why, and whether that’s useful, intriguing, honest and delightful. Personal, highly subjective tastes matter a great deal too. It’s no wonder then, as an artist grows and learns, that the artist’s methods, styles and approaches might also change.

Today, in case you’re wondering (I know, you were dying of curiosity), I’m mostly interested in short story fiction writing, cartooning, and never-ending paintings. I’m a lot less interested in making new realist-academic paintings or drawings, and much more interested in the goofy, free-wheeling, wildly inventive potentials of writing and cartooning.