In conversation with some friends recently, someone expressed the idea that I seemed to be skeptical about (or distant from) my own art process, indeed my own paintings. I can only guess at what this meant for the person who said it, but I've found it a fascinating comment, and have been letting it percolate within my own frames of reference and the ideas I have about how I work.
Another word which came up in the same conversation was 'prolific'. I have a feeling all of this is connected somehow.
In letting these things percolate, I keep seeing things that at first glance seem a bit contradictory.
First pair of apparently contradictory thoughts
The first idea is that making art is the most important thing in my life (leaving aside being able to eat and breathe, and having shelter and food, and love). It's something which I'm totally committed to. This is not some mysterious god-given compulsion, but simply a recognition of what I need to do to feel right in the world, fuelled by having lost the capacity to make art completely for over 20 years. I tried to come back and lost it so many time, that this time I'm determined not to let it fade away.
The second idea is that though making the art is so important, what actually appears in front of me as I do this making thing (the image, the song, the improvisation, the movement) is almost irrelevant. I don't mean that I don't have ideas about what I want to make, or that I don't have reactions to what appears. I have them in shippingcontainer-loads. However, I've learnt over this last decade of making that it is ideas about what I want to make, and reactions about what I actually do make, that are responsible for the annihilation of my ability to make things.
Second pair of apparently contradictory thoughts
I have to believe utterly in what I'm doing
There's no room for doubt. I can't think about whether what I'm doing is important, or whether it's living up to what I've always dreamed of doing; whether it's doing justice to my impulse and my vision, whether it's honouring the importance that making art has had for my being my whole life long. These thoughts and feelings, while important for my mind to articulate in terms of seeing what matters to me, are at the same time the enemy of my free creative spirit.
I have to not take any of it particularly seriously
I try to just make SOMETHING, or sit and look at something, or sing something, or move in some way to music. If I consider the nature or value of what I make or do, I end up stationary on the couch. My focus is on making something, ANYTHING!
This doesn't mean that I can be artistically or emotionally careless and just stab at things with a paintbrush. I tried this, and it can be freeing. But I've found it also can offend me, because, while I need to not take myself too seriously, I also can't be without care.
Some other random ideas about process
I've been working all these years on accepting what actually appears. Noticing how different what actually is is from my feeling of what I think I might make, or what I used to dream of making.
I was so disgusted at first that I could scarcely bear to pick up my pen or brush again. I hated the paintyness of paint. I did! But I had to stop walking away and come back and ask myself, well, if you don't like the paintyness of paint, but you want to use paint, what is that you want?
My whole artistic life seem seems to have been a repetition of 'not this', 'no, not this either', 'no, not this'. This is like continually failing at job interviews or having funding applications knocked back again and again. But slowly I realised that 'not this' was a communication from my underworld, the underworld that had the capacity to send parts of itself into the light, and that I was constantly blocking with my ego fantasy reactions about what 'I' thought 'I would make' as an artist.
In order for this process to have a chance of learning itself, I had to screen out any feedback from 'the world'. I had already screened out acceptance by the art world after art college. By the time I came back, I had experienced many decades of being an insider in a public institution. I had sat on the power side of interview panels, had had my writing accepted and lauded, had suddenly - after 40 years of 'the world' being completely uninterested in who I was or what I had to say - been the recipient of admiring emails and gushing praise. It was wonderful to find out what 'success' felt like, to feel accepted and to be part of a conversation. I learnt a lot, and many parts of my isolated soul were soothed. But it was also completely empty, because what I was doing was not the right work for me.
When I left and started painting again, I put everything online so that nothing was secret or hidden or a big deal for anyone to see. I didn't advertise this though, because I knew that art tutor feedback had destroyed me before. I wanted no feedback, only my own. I wanted to be my own critic, judge, admirer and cheer leader. I wanted to find out what I actually could make, what really could be there, instead of sitting frozen on the sofa with my fantasies and longings.
All through my academic career I tortured myself by comparing myself to a colleague who used to get up on holiday at 6 am to read more philosophy. Why was I not doing that? And yet my articles got written, and people even thought I was prolific. I seemed to find my own way to produce, even though I didn't get up at 6 am.
Most of my artist friends have to do paid work that they'd probably prefer not do and many of them have families. They sit on committees and support new artists and organise things for other people. A lot of the time they have to make their art in tiny interstices inbetween everything else, and when they get some time they often feel frustrated that they don't produce as they want to.
I couldn't make any work at all if I was doing what you're doing. That's why I did nothing all those years that you were applying for funding, making shows, running workshops, writing poetry and producing albums. You did all of that, even though you could scarcely get five minutes to yourself to even begin to think about art.
I can't do that. You guys are my heroes. You show me that art can get made in the small spaces. You help me to see that when nothing is happening, even though I don't now have to do other work for a living and I don't have a family, it's ok. The art will still get done, in its own way, in its own time. In the way that is befitting for who I am, and what I can do.
If I look prolific to someone who doesn't have the time that I do, please remember that I don't do anything else.
Another thing I've learnt is that so much of working and making art is invisible. It took me years to realise that I had to look at things for a long, long time, doing nothing. That I couldn't just be making endlessly. That I had to go outside and let the world and the birds and other artists feed me. That I needed to rest and do nothing at all. I even made a four part model to try to remind myself:
(in any order...)
Most of the time I'm not making images. To make what I do I have to have so much nothing time. How do the rest of you still make stuff in the midst of all that you do? I am in awe.
art form and intention
It's easy for me to look prolific. I can make some marks on paper and share what results within half an hour. A musician can practice their instrument or work on a song for two hours or two weeks, an actor can spend a day learning lines, but at the end of that period they still have nothing that they can immediately show.
I share on fb because I don't want art world or art gallery audiences. There's no performance coming up for me which you can all come and be my audience for. You, here now, reading this, you are my audience, and what I do every day and share with you, that's my show.
I have a particular intention and a particular process. It's mine, it works for me. Don't compare yourself to me.