Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Making Ideas

A few years back I found myself in a lively conversation with a noted west coast photographer and author during a summer program at an equally noted east coast art and craft school where we were both teaching. She maintained that ideas were the most important aspect of art. I took a different view. I said ideas were cheap and easy to come by, it’s what you do with them that matters, and I subscribed to the notion that only the idea manifested has any value.

Where Ideas Come From: You make them in your Head

Needless to say it was a very lively conversation. I don’t mean to diminish the importance of concept in artwork at all; I think it’s highly important. But for me, in artwork, it’s the “work” that makes it. Among professional artists it’s virtually a maxim that work makes work. Working on an idea generates ideas for new work.

Writer Neil Gaiman* in an essay about where ideas come from, suggests asking the questions “what if?” and its variations (I wonder...? and wouldn’t it be interesting...?) to generate ideas. These are questions as progenitors.

So ask questions, lots of questions.

The whole world is a source for ideas but you have to pay attention. You have to notice what you notice. And then you have to act on it; write it down, draw it, speak it, record it, photograph it, build it, make something. Otherwise, as humorist Arnold Glasow said, “Ideas not coupled with action never become bigger than the brain cells they occupied.”

*for a great commencement speech by Gaiman go here.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Not-so-Steel Magnolias

I had a lover once who told me she didn’t think she could trust a man who didn’t have wrinkles around his eyes, preferably from smiling. Fortunately I had a few at the time (wrinkles, not lovers), even though I was only about 32. Her point (I like to think) was that the wrinkles meant there was some content there; that experience leaves a visible mark. It has it’s own depth and beauty. The act of living transforms.

The magnolia is an ancient tree, evolving before bees, and is pollinated by beetles rather than flying insects.

In Greenville we have Magnolias, perhaps the singular, most recognized, symbol of the south. One grows* in my back yard and the street I live on is lined with them. Their blossoms are magnificent and huge. Their seed pods, formed after the flower has had its day, are also striking, with bright red seeds beloved by song birds. Lately I noticed under these trees, on my daily run, an odd object littering the street that I found especially visually interesting. I finally figured out what it is. It is the seed pod, transformed by traffic.  The magnolia, with wrinkles.

 The magnolia pod with a few red seeds remaining

 The wrinkled Magnolia

Ceramic Sculptor Ellen Ornitz, in speaking about her work, said it embraced the idea that “biography becomes biology.” What we experience is written on the body. Scars, changing hair color, and wrinkles around the eyes are evidence of a life lived. And like the magnolia seed pod, though we are changed by time and events, our form is no less beautiful.

*If you want to see a cool video of other flowers growing check it out here

Sunday, January 20, 2013

What Gets You Into the Studio

It’s been said that artists don’t get to work in the studio until the anxiety of not working exceeds the anxiety of working. 

What not working feels like.
The Mouth of Hell. From the Hours of Catherine of Cleves ca. 1440

David Hockney painted a large sign that he placed at the foot of his bed that said, “Get up and get to work” to remind him of what was most important each morning. Georgia O’Keeffe* reported that endless quotidian diversions would keep her from painting if she were not vigilant about getting to the easel.  

In an interview with Charlie Rose, Chuck Close said, “I am plagued with indecisions.”  He spoke of setting limitations in order to be able to work. There are countless similar stories.

I know what Close means. Sometimes I have so many ideas I have difficulty choosing where to start. The crazy/busy schedule of full time teaching or, just as likely, a glass of very good bourbon and a new book on poetry (after a crazy/busy day of full time teaching) will be way more compelling than studio work.

But sooner or later I start to get very anxious if I don’t get to the workbench. I just simply have to make something. Maybe this is one of the things that separates the life-long artist from those who ultimately give it up. For them the unease of not making is tolerable or even non-existent. For the rest of us it’s a relief to finally get into the studio and work. 

  *O'Keeffe also said there was nothing overtly
sexual about her flower paintings.  

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Choosing a Totem

I think the hummingbird has become my new totem. I seem to have a charm of them. Not to mention a bouquet, a hover, a shimmer, a glittering, or a tune ~ all names for a group of hummingbirds.

Detail of a Painting by artist and colleague Catherine Walker

As a florist’s son I admit I’m attracted to bouquet but charm, apparently the most common group name, seems fitting for a jeweler don’t you think? (A glittering comes a close second). And too, the bird was christened Joyas Voladores or Flying Jewels, by the first Spanish arriving in the New World. Whenever I see one it reminds me of the jewel-like yet transient quality of certain experiences, a particular summer day, a kiss, a promise made, a perfect moment in love.  Hovering over a flower full of nectar, then gone in a whirr of wings.

From a long list of hummingbird facts* I learned that a hummingbird's brain is 4.2% of its body weight, the largest proportion in the bird kingdom. It’s a mega-mind mini-bird.

They can remember every flower and feeder they have visited and even how long it will take for a flower to refill with nectar.

My favorite and the last on the list ~ “Hummingbirds don't read books on what they are supposed to do and tend to do what they want.” Well now. While I am sure I’m not the only one to think so, they seem like a perfect totem for an artist. 

 Santa Fe fetish

  Found drawing by Paula Garrett held in trust

 Rainbow Gate (Santa Fe) coffee cup

Yuma Symposium swap pin 

Society of N. American Goldsmiths
swap pin 

Listen here to a pissed-off hummingbird chewing out another for trying to sneak into “his” guarded feeder.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Bug & Bolos

It’s a bit of a mystery how to develop an assignment that will capture the imagination of a class or an individual student. I will think that the project is just challenging enough, is ripe with potential solutions, and would be really fun to attempt. My students groan and roll their eyes. Well, okay the groaning and eye rolling might be my imagination but as often as not it’s hit or miss. Sometimes they get into it, sometimes they don’t.

This enameling assignment handout got some good results.

When I assigned a bolo tie as a wearable object, Rumor Control reported that there was some initial grumbling (“what’s a ‘bolo’ tie anyway?”)* but without a doubt I felt every solution was a keeper. Students later told me it was their favorite project ~ go figure. Many made theirs for a family member, others for friends or heroes. I sometimes wonder if that was a factor. When we have in a purpose or direction in what we’re making I think we are more receptive to a problem’s potential for an innovative solution. Intent guides the form.

This semester = faces, maybe more bugs (or bolos) and definitely a mystery project.

*Apparently the bolo was born mid 20th century when an Arizona Silversmith tied his hatband around his neck to keep from losing its ornament. And so the brooch on a string necktie came into being. He even patented the design.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

3 Lists

Sometimes I think of lists as if they are ingredients for a recipe.

I figure if I can just get the ingredients together, in the right order, with the proper steps to follow I might make something really good. Like maybe get a pet project finished, a productive day in the studio, or a new direction for my work (or life?). The operative word here being “make.”

1. Colors and shapes ~ a visual list of possibilities for pieces to make.

2. From an older notebook, a partial list of clues. Collectively they’re a kind of mnemonic for future memories I’d like to make.


3. And this, of course, is a list of ingredients to make a sauce*.

So. For lists to be of any use you actually have to do something with them.
And sometimes (okay, as often as not in my case) what you do with them turns out to be a mess (List also means lean, tilt, tip, careen, and keel over).  But once in a while a list leads to something really worthwhile and then, well, kick back and savor the sauce.

*What to do with the above list: Finely chop the walnuts (grind in a blender or coffee mill). In a large mixing bowl blend the chopped nuts and remaining ingredients. Cook pasta to preference, drain, and add to sauce while hot. Mix well (if too dry add a little more cream) and serve warm with a good red table wine. 

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Thick Skin

Dennis Overbye, in his book Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos wrote, “The reward for a new idea is not applause but argument from people who take you seriously enough to try to destroy you.”  There’s a lot of competition in science. (Apparently a lot of animosity too).

Part of the process of teaching art is the formal critique.

Here’s the thing about critiques. Any critical comment about your work that makes you uncomfortable, anxious, or wince internally is something you already know. You probably just didn’t want to hear it or admit it to yourself, but there it is. Someone went and said it out loud.

 Rhinoceros skin. I’m pretty sure the slings and arrows of outrageous critiques 
would bounce off this stuff.

Elbert Hubbard* said, “The best preparation for good work tomorrow is to do good work today.”

So here’s the other thing. It’s important to do good work, to develop a strong sense of who you are, how your work is made, and what your work is about so that when criticism does come, you can respond from a position of strength and calm rather than react from doubt and uncertainty.  And remember when others are critiquing your work, regardless of what position they may hold in the art world, they are most often talking about themselves.

Alligator skin. This one would likely bite back.

Elephant skin. The Elephant represents strength and steadfastness. 
Pretty handy in a critique.

*Elbert Hubbard also said, “To avoid criticism, do nothing, say nothing, and be nothing.” 
Thanks Elbert. I guess that’s a pretty good defense against criticism too. 

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Fortune Teller Redux

About a year ago I made this Fortune Teller/Cootie Catcher for a lecture. It was a handout (one of several) for a presentation I gave, titled “Feeding the Muse,” during the Material Topics Symposium at my university. It was intended to both amuse and advise. Whether it managed to do both is debatable but I, at least, was amused (if not particularly well advised). 

  You can find folding instructions Here

Anyway, I offer it here once again at the start of this new year. Maybe you’ll find it useful (or amusing) in those moments when you just don’t know what else to do. 


Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Sacred Junk and Treasure Maps

There are mimosa trees in Greenville.

 This is a mimosa seed pod

When I was a kid I used to take the seeds from mimosa pods and string them with a needle and thread into long heishi-like strands for necklaces. I kept them in cigar boxes, along with bits of colored paper, drawings, feathers, small bones, stones, colored shards of glass, and treasure maps that I drew myself* ~ relics of an imaginative and active childhood.

Not unlike my jewelry bench today.

 Typical view of my jewelry bench today

In graduate school I studied philosophy and religious studies with the wonder-full Lynda Sexson. In her book “Ordinarily Sacred” she says that inventories of children’s treasures and those of religious holy places are remarkably similar; that the “junk” that’s precious to kids, and adults, is the stuff of the sacred.

She writes, “The sacred, when not bound by politics and economics, is nearer to something we call the aesthetic.”

Precious junk --> Sacred --> Aesthetic. It makes perfect sense to me.

*Tip: coffee will stain the paper to a nice treasure-mappy, old-timey, pirate-worthy look. Fold multiple times and scorch the edges a little with a kitchen match for the full effect. And don’t forget a little red ink stain to simulate spilled blood because, c’mon, what’s a treasure map without bloodstains?