If you’re making any kind of art, it is essential, no matter what stage you are at in your development, that you seek out feedback about your work. Not just the typical, “Wow, that’s wonderful! You’re really talented” that you get from your wife/husband/boyfriend/girlfriend/kids/parents/siblings, but honest, objective critical feedback from people that are not worried about hurting your feelings. (And as an aside, you should never take critical comments about your work personally. Even if a comment is meant as a personal attack, passive aggression disguised as constructive criticism always says more about the flaws in the character of the person making the comment than about any flaws in the work being discussed.) Feedback is indispensable as a means of helping you gauge the efficacy of your methods and it should always be considered carefully.
About nine years ago, I had a more experienced artist and teacher critique some of my work. She said that I was “trying to do too much” and that I should figure out what’s important to me and just do that. At the time (as is so often the case) I wasn’t sure exactly what this meant. I thought of Rembrandt, Cézanne and DeKooning, three artists whom I always felt tried to do too much and succeeded at it, so maybe trying to do too much wasn’t such a bad thing. Still, I took her comments to heart, filed them in my subconscious and continued to work.
Looking back, I realize that as my work evolved over the ensuing years, my periodic dissatisfaction with it resulted in what was essentially a distillation process - the systematic removal of certain aspects of my work (e.g. the influence of other artists, description of specific subject matter, objective color, etc.) – and this process continues today, as I find myself trying to really hyper-focus on the things that are important to me and jettison those things that aren’t essential. I once took a photo of a tiny section of one of my paintings and when I saw the image I realized that everything I was trying to say was contained in that microcosm, and that a lot of what was in the painting was extraneous.I had, indeed, been trying to do too much.
Years ago I was out running on some old railroad tracks near my home in Massachusetts. My shoe had come untied and when I stopped and crouched down to tie it I happened to notice a section of the steel track that had rusted so much I could easily break pieces of it off. Right next to it was a small plant that was beginning to bud. I was captivated by the contrast between the resilience of this little plant and the ultimate fragility of the steel. Decades from now, the plant might be a majestic tree, rising high above the dust that the tracks would have become and yet to look at the plant, one would see no visible signs of growth or activity.
I’m always fascinated when I look back at work that I did years ago and see not only how my methods have metamorphosed, but how the changes have, for the most part, occurred in microscopic increments and in a way that now seems inevitable. I find great comfort in the realization that although I often feel like I’m forging blindly into a vast and murky darkness, there’s a force greater than me at work guiding me inexorably toward some destination. Not that I don’t have to work hard, because I do, but it’s important to remind myself that as long as I’m moving forward, it isn’t imperative that I know where I’m going to end up. The essence of any journey lies in the step that you’re taking right now.
When my daughter was young, she and I spent a lot of time together, both in the car and on long walks. She would often say to me, “Daddy, tell me a story about when you were little.” There were perhaps a dozen or so stories that I would choose from and eventually, she would ask me to repeat specific ones. Her favorite was the one about the time an enormous snake slithered across a fallen tree that I was walking on right in front of me. What struck me was that, thinking back to my first twelve to fourteen years, there weren’t that many events that really stood out as clear, distinct memories – surely no more than a few dozen. A vast percentage of that time was just an amorphous haze, a smattering of disconnected moments only vaguely remembered. Even more fascinating, at least to me, was the fact that when I was experiencing those events that would become long-lasting memories, I had no idea of their eventual significance.
Memories are always subjective. We remember things the way we want to. Oftentimes, we remember the way things made us feel, rather than the details of what actually happened and we project those feelings onto the events and people that populate our stories. Two people remembering the same event will more likely than not recount two significantly different tales.
Memory plays an important part in my work. I used to do a lot of drawing and painting from direct observation outdoors, but lately, although I still go outside to draw regularly, the images that I create are conjured up in the studio from memories, not just of places I’ve seen and drawn, but from memories going all the back to my early childhood. I’m not so much interested in the memories of how things appeared as I am in the memories of how they made me feel and I like the idea of triggering memories in the viewer that are specific to them. When we make art, we try as much as we can to control the viewer’s experience – to communicate our content as effectively and articulately as possible using visual language – but, ultimately, each person is going to experience the work in a unique way. Even when we come back to a work of art that we’ve seen before, we have a different experience because, depending on how much time has elapsed, we have changed and so have our expectations. You can only experience a work of art for the first time once. Every time that you come back to it is informed by each and every previous encounter. When we engage with a work of art repeatedly, we bring to each encounter our memories of previous engagements with the work.
Artists always have to consider the element of time with regard to their work, even if the work itself is static. Art can represent a person or event from the past or it can allude to something in the future. A work of art is a record of a time in the past during which the artist was actively engaged with both the subject and the materials. Art can demand that we spend a lot of time looking at it, slowly revealing itself to us over extensive and repeated viewings. Art can stay with us in our memory, long after we’ve disengaged from it. And art, like poetry, can trigger personal memories within us – images and feelings from our own story – temporarily transporting us back to a time long since past.
I am a full time artist, originally from Massachusetts, currently living in northern Maine. I work primarily in oils and pastel, and occasionally watercolor. I offer instruction in drawing and painting at my studio, which is in an old renovated potato barn. Please feel free to view samples of my work (You can see a larger version of each picture if you click on it.) and leave a comment if you are so inclined. Be sure to click the "Older Posts" button at the bottom to see more work. I don't always have time to respond to comments, but if you wish to correspond with me, you can e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org