Grand Themes, Fleeting Moments

Yesterday’s post elicited a response from someone dear to me who asked about the nature of my blog, what it’s about, implying “how is a personal journal about art and art making?” It’s a good question, really, and one I’ve been pondering since I started this blog.

"Parting" warp-painted weaving, cotton, fiber-reactive dyes

Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Blink, writes, “when it comes to the task of understanding ourselves and our world, I think we pay too much attention to those grand themes and too little to the particulars of those fleeting moments.” He’s talking about the difference between “analyzing the world from great remove” and how we make instantaneous impressions and conclusions. How we decide, he asserts is through examining those “fleeting moments” more carefully.

I think this applies to how we as artists (and writers, but I’m going to talk in terms of a visual language here) decide to create what we do, moments where we make very rapid innumerable decisions about a work of art’s appearance. Will it be in two or three dimensions? How big will it be? What will be its shape, texture, color? How will it be composed?  Artists typically don’t labor over such questions, instead we work with our materials directly to process these questions. (I am treading lightly here; it’s wise to not make sweeping generalizations about how artists work. I will say that in my experience as a teacher and artist, it seems to me that many of us visual folks work our ideas out through action…more on this in a future post.) We hope that we exist, on a good day, in what writer Mihaly Csikszentmihaly calls “flow”, that space that seems to occur outside of time, the place where all of those instantaneous decisions come together in a harmonious execution of those ideas. In my case, this is usually, but not always, the labor-intensive slowness of tapestry weaving, which requires patience. For me there is a constant dance between the instantaneous and the laborious, alternating between instinct and conscious decision and action.

Picking apart the source of where those decisions come from, though, isn’t a useful exercise. That’s where meditations on the particulars of life come into play–the journaling, sketching, day-dreaming about what matters TO ME, so that when the creative spark happens, I know that what I make will have its roots in something true and meaningful. To me. I develop my understanding of myself, and of the world (and by extension, the art I make) through the “microscopic truth.” For example: I make time in my day for stillness, whether it is in meditation or simply pausing for a moment to feel the sun on my back as I walk across campus. I value silence. Not all the time, but I am aware of how silence can focus my attention, and I appreciate that. Because I pay attention and value those very small, very simple things in my life, my work will have a quiet heart to it. Not because I try to make it look “quiet” by giving it the design qualities of that particular state (though I could do this with a stable composition, monochromatic color scheme, etc.), but because I’ve connected to these qualities over time, and made a concerted effort to notice them. Sorting out how I feel about “the small stuff” helps me trust the my work. It helps me trust that those fleeting moments will feed my work in an authentic way.

To make art is to marry the personal with the universal. It can be a visual personal journal, but what makes a journal entry interesting to someone other than the writer? We recognize a shared experience, nod our head in understanding that someone else in the world GETS IT, and it becomes a mirror to our own life. That’s not to say that we always need to feel the same as everybody else. There is great value in having our eyes opened up to something completely outside of our experience. I would argue, though, that it is those threads of human experience, those details, that even if expressed by someone in a different language, with different background, motivations, experiences, that there will be that thread of truth that is universally recognizable.

So I tell my students, JOURNAL! SKETCH! Write down, draw out what you love, what you hate, what you are thinking about, how you are responding to the world around you. Respond to what you read, what you hear on the radio, what you think about things. It could be that you will find your voice wanting to speak about something going occuring on the other side of the earth, that what’s going on now in Japan or Libya or Syria or so many places in the world in turmoil. But perhaps you will be sparked by looking at what’s going on in your neighborhood, in your house, or in the small quiet moments of your life.

Sometimes I know what my work will be about. Other times, I simply make it and it becomes clear later on what it’s about. Art and life cannot be separated. What I think about becomes who I am. What I care about becomes the colors and textures of the things I make, and the life I live. Every now and then I reconsider how I spend my time, how I can better live on purpose, imbue my life and my art with meaning.

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