Wednesday, May 7, 2008

ways to be an artist

Years ago I wrote down a quote by Bill Ball of San Francisco's American Ballet Theater: Artists need to be working all of the time. That way the best work just gets tossed off.

In a perfect world, yes, we get to work all the time. Or rather, we produce work all the time. But I've come to realize that processes, over a lifetime, vary with the individual.

I wrote down that quote after going through a stretch of not making art, or least art that anyone would see. You can get panic attacks when the constant question is what are you doing now?

Tom Cramer once said to me: "You've got to know when to not make art." That makes so much sense to me. Some of us make art not by making it, but by thinking about it, or by just taking a long walk - maybe for months.

When you are young and don't paint for a month, you can feel all worried. And it's true that many artists do not survive after 35 or so - I mean their intensive art practice does not survive, or their aspirations. So I guess you better worry and always get back to work.

But I no longer feel that way. Just making objects for the gallery system doesn't cut it for me - though without them, many would grasp no real measurement of an artist. I think young artists also get confused because they want an interesting, courageous life and then find themselves stuck in a room, whether it’s making objects or teaching - and that often does not feel very courageous. Real life is much more interesting. I'm glad to have had both, but you can pay a price.

While putting together a punk art show in 1979, I received an immense amount of heat from my supposed peers. "Our art doesn’t belong in the gallery system, blah blah." I almost buckled and didn't go through with the proposal. It was Katherine Dunn who told me: “Don’t you see - you've got a responsibility as an artist. If you step down, you'll have done what so many women do in the face of men trying to tell them what they shouldn't do. You have to do this thing.”

I don’t think Katherine considers herself a big-time feminist, but it just so happened that it was a bunch of cool dudes telling me what I shouldn’t do. They were all my friends, so I couldn’t see a bigger picture. But the point is there are many ways to be an artist and it goes way beyond making work. She really clued me into that.

Fast forward to around 2001, when I was visiting NYC and ran into Leon Klayman. He told me about his book project called Who gave you permission? He asked various artists: did an individual provide some kind of lightbulb or turning point for you? And what was the story? Many of us have one, a crystallizing relationship or event. It might have been that moment for me.


Marie Wise said...

Long stretches of time without making art leave me empty and drained. But just the act of thinking about what I'm going to paint is part of the process of making art (for me). Thus, I end up "making art" all the time, even though on some days I only paint for a short time. Thanks for your insightful posts! I really enjoy them.

Sheree Rensel said...

Regarding panic attacks when asked "What are you doing now?"

You know Eva, I think this ties in very well with what is happening right now in today's artist society. With all the blogging, vlogging, websiting, and video making, an artist can start to freak out. It is almost like "Big Brother" is watching you ALL THE TIME.
I started a little YouTube Channel and began making videos about my art and art life. I slowed down and stepped back because it started to have an effect on my art and work habits. Between the channel, my website, and blog, I started to feel pressured. I would begin to work and feel like someone was standing over me watching and getting ready to pounce. I see this as being akin to someone continually yelling "WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON NOW?" on a daily basis.
Yikes!! Excuse me while I go look for a brown paper bag to breath into!! LOL LOL LOL

Anonymous said...

Interesting Sheree.... I actually found that posting about stuff released a bit of that pressure. Because people then know.

But years ago I stopped making art for a while, for the first time right here in Portland, Oregon, after going through a whirlwind year or two. I was 23. Some snarks gleefully said "She's no longer an artist," like I was toast. It was tough.

But I didn't know about breaks, that we need them. It's hard to make changes if you, like Bill Ball said, work everyday.

m. said...

i really needed to hear this today being mostly wrapped up in building the house that will host the new studio...sometimes you know things...important things...but put this another way for my own amusement...if you're constantly dribbling the ball hither and thither, there's no time to stop for a few seconds, suss up your situation on the court, and make a well-considered pivot into new territory...xxxx, m.

namastenancy said...

Very insightful post - I worry sometimes when I'm not "making art" everyday but when I try to force the making, what comes out is crap. I actually think that we are making art when we are walking around, doing our life because something will be bubbling away just under the surface. It just takes time to "be born."

Anonymous said...

Right now the reviews are pouring in on Paul H-O's film Guest of Cindy Sherman. One thing he says is that he couldn't be an artist in the prescribed system of New York. But the film and his commentary running throughout is, in a way, his art. As was Gallery Beat. He found his way to be an artist there.