Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Coolest Thing I Ever Saw

Spoiler Alert: It's real live lava. (I thought I should give a spoiler alert so as to not psych you up in such a way that some of you think, "...all this hype...for that?!")

We had been walking for over half an hour across jagged undulating ground--to a place the (Kilauea National Park) ranger said that civilians are not supposed to go...after which he proceeded to explain where to go. We were within 100 yards of the ocean. It's mostly cloudy. At the horizon, to the right, is a band of yellow orange where the sun is going down, sandwiched between a purplish cloudy sky and a blue gray ocean. Up the slope to the left, the hillside is largely veiled in clouds, although strips of the light of lava poke through in a couple of places, probably a half a mile away. It is starting to rain, but only lightly. We're in the tropics, so the air is sort of warm. It's December, so the rain is sort of cool. Finally we see a gathering of people directly in front of us, on a large sort of balcony at the cliff's edge. We get there and look at the crashing surf. (Most of the action is off to the right.)  The rock formations--which are actually gigantic masses of cooled lava--make a raggedly cliff line against the ocean. At various points, say, a hundred to three hundred yards away, lava is pouring out of holes in the cliff sides into the ocean. There are perhaps a half a dozen flows going to the sea. The lava is a yellowish light, getting seemingly brighter as we head into twilight. It flows at the speed of slow syrup. The ocean waves that crash onto the flows are vaporized immediately, sending up huge columns of steam. The sound of the surf just barely drawns out the sound of the perpetual *hiss* of water against molten rock.

A few people are leaving this makeshift lookout to walk over a littly farther along the "path." Curous, I follow. Another hundred feet awayis a lava flow--the size of a small brook, if you will--that you can walk right up to. And there I stood, mesmerized for what seemed like a a really long time. I couldn't get closer than about eight feet without it feeling too uncomfortably hot. I did however find a stick about four feet long that I used to poke the lava just so I could say I did. It was like standing close to a really really hot fire. My whole body was pulled back because the heat was so intense. I quickly stabbed the tip of the stick into the lava, saw it burn, and then I couldn't stand the heat anymore. I stepped back and just continued to stare.

The experience was very interesting as so many senses were in play. The dirty yellow orange light of the lava was the most profound. And as night fell, the light of the lava, both here at my feet and everywhere in the distance, grew increasingly brighter. Feeling the heat radiating off the lava was particularly interesting because, at the same time, I'm feeling the cold of the raindrops. There's a bit of the tropic humidity combined with the wave-against-lava steam, while wafting on the air is a not-so-pleasant sulfuric smell from the lava, which, in turn, is interspersed much less intensely with the more familiar salty scent of the sea. Compounding the myriad sensations is an intermittent light breeze.

Deciding to write about this experience has me analyzing why I remember it so fondly and, more specifically, why I think it's the cooles thing I've ever seen. I think that it wasn't just what I saw. It was what I experienced with all my senses, simultaneously wrapped up in a memory that, at first glance, was seemingly only visual. The combined sensations totally heightened the experience. I'll even concede that it's entirely possibly that, insofar as we were advised not to go so close to lava, the element of danger may well have played into the stimulation.

So, back to the point...the connection to art? Hmm...Maybe some questions ought to be posed: What can be put in your creations that optimize the sensory experience? Is it more detail? Is it doing something more to bring out the main subject? Is it to be sure the scene captures the mood so well, by, say, effective composition and attention to detail, that emotions are meaningfully stirred? Sure my own art is two dimensional, so sensory possibilities can't stack up so well as seeing the aoutflow of an  active volcano. But can having thoughts, such as these, arouse one's passions to be a catalyst for a more sensory-charged creation?

Monday, October 27, 2014

Why You Will Fail to Do Something Great

I saw a YouTube video, "Why You Will Fail to Have a Great Career," and the gist of the message has tremendous carryover value. First I want to give credit where credit is due: This was a TEDx  talk, given by Larry Smith, an economics professor. I recommend you watch it before proceeding with reading my stuff here. Let him build up to the finale that spurred this writing.

Have you watched it yet? Okay then.

Now just substitute whatever accomplishment/item/task/you-get-the-idea for "career" in the talk's title. And then wrap your mind around the meaning--for you--of the magic word "unless." Savor the implications. Let it compel you, impel you to act differently, better. As this is ostensibly an art blog, imagine: Why you will fail to make a great painting...unless....

I find that electrifying. To preface your prospective actions with some version of "Why I will fail at _____ unless" is eye-opening. I'm not going to articulate an answer to the "unless" here. I like to think that that is answerable in its own respective way for everybody--not entirely unlike Curly's "One Thing" in the movie "City Slickers".

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

If You KNOW the Grass Is Greener, Don't Pick This Side

Some years ago my brother learned that I was taking art classes at a community center, saw some of my work, and commissioned me to do a colored pencil drawing. It was to be a "group, action" basketball scene/portrait, as it were. It would show his then-favorite player on a fast break. He also asked to have certain specific supporting players in the scene. He wanted this 'n that in the crowd. Oh, and he wanted the star to have a certain expression on his face. I was only too happy to agree. I'd just gotten back into doing art, and I feld validated to be hired to make a piece of art.

The problem, I soon realized, was that I didn't want to draw group portraits. I didn't want to be a hired gun. I had ideas rolling around my head, and I began taking art classes to develop some chops so that I might more convincingly get my images rendered. By saying "yes" to commissions I was saying "no" to the art I was intending to create. And, no, it's not like commission work would have been what put food on the table anyway.

Be that as it may, I started slogging my way through sketching some semblance of a composition that would fulfill my bother's wants. What he wanted was a basketball scene that threw in everything but the kitchen sink. I figured I'd gather references of what he various players looked like in the nearest sports magazine du jour. Oh, but it's not that easy. Those magazines had the gall not to have the actual reference pictures for which I was looking. All right: I'll trot on down to the library and find the right sports book. Wait a sec: Did you know the poses my brother wanted weren't readily available already wrapped up in a bow for me? Well (so to speak) I didn't. Fine. Now was time to use my "Photoshop" skills--minus actual Photoshop. Let's see...I put this head on this body. I move and tweak the perspective on the basketball court. Oh and also, do you realize the gargantuan task of creating a large, looks-like-it's-for-the-NBA audience? At the correct angle? With matching lighting vis a vis the focal point? The ovals I resigned myself to throwing in for heads/faces looked a lot more like a bunch of Easter eggs.

I trudged along. Insofar as I'm not a sports person, it was interesting learning about different players and simply the sport itself. I actually did start to get a smidgeon of inspiration from reading about the stars. On a lark, I even bought some "cheap seat" tickets to a real NBA game just to get the experience. I admit I liked that bit of research.

As for the drawing... Well, I'd quickly lose interest shortly after I'd begin working on it. It wasn't coming together in a way that at least mildly mimicked my brother's vision. Sitting on a (to me) gold mine of inspiring picture ideas of my own--that I'm not working on, made this an increasingly frustrating experience. I kept feeling like the grass was greener on the other side. I wanted to throw in the towel, but I'd made a promise.

While there was not designated "due date," more and more time went by, making my brother wonder what this was taking so long.. So much so, that, well yeah, my brother contacted me and bailed me out: "Send what you have actually finished. I'll send you a few bucks for your trouble."

So here's the thing: If you KNOW the grass is greener on the other side, don't CHOOSE this side. Do the art that you're here to do. That's it. That might mean forgoing artwork for which you might've been remunerated. That's okay. You'll be happier, get more done, and the audience at large will benefit more assuredly from your passion.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Jacuzzi Music

It was a big deal when it was announced that, on February 26th, 1987, the first four Beatles albums were coming out on CD. I was working at a record store at the time, and it was decided that we would promote this release like crazy. My recollection of the promotion, though, consisted of playing nothing but Beatles albums in the store. All. Day. Long.

I really don't dislike the Beatles, but I sure did get tired of them that day. You listen to song after song after song, and many of those songs even are repeated several times through the day. (I considered listing a few songs here to underscore the point, but I'm confident something would be left out.) Anyway, expecting to have to endure this onslaught for my entire shift, the following curious turn of events proved to be (sort of) life-changing. It was around 11:30 pm. Yet another Beatles' album had finished--and they really were vinyl albums we were playing, and I was considering what other Beatles record I should (force myself to) put on. As we were going to close within half an hour, I asked that evening's supervisor if I could play something else. She said, "Yeah...as long as it's not rock." No problem. I sifted through the box of records we had behind the cash register, and stumbled upon a Tchaikovsky record I'd not heard before. It was his Serenade for Strings. (Yeah, I gave a link for if you're not familiar with the serenade--which I supposed was reasonably possible. I decided you didn't need a link for the Beatles however: If you're not familiar with them by now, well, welcome to our planet.)

When I heard this new piece of music...Oh my! It was as musical to the ears--after having been subjected to 7 1/2 hours of Beatles--as slipping into a nice hot jacuzzi is to the body--after a hard day at work. (And yes, I too see the play on words I so easily could have put). The Serenade for Strings instantly became my favorite piece of music, and it held that distinction for years.

Where am I going with all this? Mostly I was recalling this experience and kicking around the idea of "What would a prospective viewer of a work of art have to be subjected to to be able to engage more acutely than ever in the creation?...to make the work more appealing than previously thought possible?" The thing is, you can see how the contrast primed my aesthetic sensibilities to really soak up the Tchaikovsky, to really revel in it and enjoy it. Could an experience of that sort be orchestrated more regularly?

A similar experience occurred for me one Saturday about eight years ago. I'd rented four movies I thought I'd like to watch--in one day. Three of them were relatively serious/dramatic movies, and one was a comedy. I don't remember intentionally arranging to see the comedy last, but that's what happened. And it's hard not to think that I thought it was the funniest thing I'd ever seen precisely because of the contrast I'd unwittingly orchestrated leading up to it.

So here again, I'm thinking: What can one do to arrange for the maximum appeal for a work of art? Sure, this question essentially is a thought experiment. But maybe the query will catalyze some new thinking and some insights into how one exposes, and gets exposed to, art.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Eye of the Beholder - Only If Money Goes Where Mouth Is

I subscribed to a couple of rock music magazines back in the 80s. Frequently the magazines had polls about who the best band was, the best guitarist, the best singer, etc. I was a musician, and I loved all permutations of heavy metal and hard rock. Of course I had my opinions as to who and what was "the best." And every time the poll results came out I was aghast at the choices for top picks. How could they?! How could they not recognize that so-and-so is a better guitarist? ...that he's faster, more virtuostic, flashier? And best bands: Are you kidding? Why would you pick them?

Over time I thought a lot about results like that. I concluded that the musicality, such that it was (manifested more quantifiably in airplay and album sales), and overall performance (manifested in concert success) trumped so-called technical ability. I could now get on board with the reasoning of why the winners won. If the band is selling records better than anybody else and/or selling out concerts more than anybody else how do such benchmarks not constitute a standard of "bestness". In a simpler way, music that people actually want to listen to should certainly fare better than flashy music qua flashy music.

Which brings us to today: I participated in an art contest recently (having entered some oil paintings). It was a little online thing of which the winnings were little more than a pat on the back. I thought I should win, but no, I didn't prevail.  And yes, I can appreciate how this diatribe might look a tad like sour grapes. It doesn't mean my point is without merit.

The thing is: The victor is just like the bands and guitarists I thought should have won 30 odd years ago. Technically the work was well done. It's full of meticulous detail; it's dark; it's disturbing. My contention, however, is that it is not the sort of work that people actually want to hang on their walls. They'd say, "Yeah, that's very good," but then they'd go and buy something a little more easy on the eyes. Like my stuff.

You see, this time around, the voters were the guitarists, as it were (see above), not the actual record buyers and concert goers (figuratively speaking). Yet art really should only be judged by prospective buyers (including artists, if they're truly considering buying said pieces), by the people who decide what to put on the wall--not pretentiously criticism-prone artists already in the field, who are apt to judge based on sheer technical ability (as happened in my aforementioned contest). A pretty good litmus test to inform the judgment might well be: "How much do I want that in my living room?"

The answer to that question should be the beginning and end of how well a creative work should do.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Emperor's Old Clothes 1.0

Can you tell if the person you're looking at--as far as you're concerned--is attractive? Can you determine if the food you're eating tastes good? Can you recognize whether you like the music to which you are listening? These answers seem obvious to me and, hopefully, to you too. If you can recognize something that strikes your senses favorably, can't you recognize whether a piece of art is good?

Just as noticing attractiveness, enjoying food, or enjoying music stirs the emotions positively, seeing good art makes you feel something positive too. It's not just a mere technical acknowledgment of skill. It's an emotional experience. You feel the impact. And again, I mean this reaction emotionally, not physically. That emotional reaction to good art is your qualification to judge art.

People sometimes say, "I don't know anything about art." So? That doesn't matter. Everybody is qualified to judge art. There are no prerequisites to be able to tell if something makes you feel good (or feel anything else for that matter). Sure, an art education--whatever that constitutes--may provide perspective in a way that can make you appreciate something to an extent that you otherwise wouldn't. It doesn't, however, confer the power to determine "goodness."

You don't need someone to tell you why, or if, something is good or bad. You don't need someone to tell you if something is "worthy." You are the sole decider, as it matters to you, as to the merits of a work of art.

Now you can see through the snake oil-type praises of for emperor's new clothes and, despite loud pompous convoluted proclamations to the contrary, you are fully equipped to call the emperor out as actually being naked.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Medal Mettle

On your mark.

Get set.

Go!

Blah, blah, blah...

And now...

Break. The. Tape.


What if every painting you rendered was like an Olympic event? And what if, theoretically, there were an unlimited number of participants in the process of creating a painting? And, as a kicker, what if medals were given out for completing those paintings? Who would get a medal?

Let's say, for the sake of argument, that there are an unlimited number of medals. Let's further say that the medals are figurative: They are actually pride or freedom or energy or time or money or praise. I submit that everyone could get a medal. However, the only ones who shall receive medals are those who finish their respective work of art.

Simply starting a painting would yield no reward, no medal. Working on a painting would yield no reward, no medal. Showing off how well the painting is going would result in no reward, no medal. It matters not how great the project is until it reaches completion. Many so-called great works of art that are unfinished do not hold a candle to a(n) (allegedly) not-so-good creative work that is done.

So, in the spirit of this post's admonition, I'll shall vow to finish my paintings--and keep my mouth shut about them while I do--before starting new stuff. Likewise, I'd better publish this post, warts and all, without further ado.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

There's No Time and There's Always Time


I remember a boss I had when I worked in a laboratory years ago. When we had to redo a batch of tests, he'd say, "You never have time to do it right, but you always have time to do it over."

Wow, what a great line! It was an "aha!" moment the first time I heard it. Even though it seemed to take on the life of a mantra for this boss, I felt I "got it" right away: It was a cautionary implicit warning that I heard in my head ever after (at least in the lab). Stressful though some assignments may be, it actually gave me an inverse kind of freedom to "do things right," as it became easier to follow a procedure to a T than opt for seeming time-saving shortcuts--shortcuts whose results could effectively wind up necessitating the do-over. And the cherry on top was the peace of mind for having stuck to the right procedure.

Long story short(er): Some years ago, the idea of a picture of carousel horses escaping a carousel came to me. That is, they pretty much came to life and ran off. I thought, "What a cool idea for a picture!"

Once I decided that I was going to render this image, there was a problem. While the picture in my head had elegance and pizazz, figuring what exactly to put on paper and, eventually, canvas, was surprisingly tricky. All along, I had this nagging feeling that there was a step-by-step way, evolving though it may be, that I could implement to realize this cool idea. However, not heeding my former boss's advice, I plunged ahead, repeatedly discarding much too much possible planning that would've made this a pleasant process. I worked on this piece like I didn't have time to do it right. Ultimately, I started--but didn't quite truly complete--four paintings before I rendered one that I could plausibly say conformed to the original idea.

Good Night Carousel
 
Until then, you see, I violated the lab's mantra. I didn't take the time to do it right. I didn't want to wait any longer to show off my "being an artist," and, ironically, I actually lost waaay more time with my false starts than simply taking the time to systematically plan and execute how I was going to realize this image. Of course, I never had the luxury of saying those first impatient attempts were acceptable...but I had the time to "do it over."

It was gratifying to finally say, "I'm done." And while I recognize that it didn't really match what was in my head, the eventual rendering actually excited me that I could create more art along the same lines (and way)--confident that they will only get better and better....
 



Sunday, August 31, 2014

Poker Face

One time when I was playing poker, I watched my opponent bet the river and then confidently stare at me. The board had a four flush on it, and she was obviously betting that she had a flush. Or at least representing that she had a flush. All I had was one pair. Did she have the flush? I decided there was a reasonable chance that she was betting to represent it but that she might well not have it. I called. Sheepishly, she turned over one pair--a pair lower than mine. She was pretty good, but she didn't quite execute a credible poker face. Ah yes, the poker face...reading one's opponent's expression to draw conclusions as to the contents of his or her hand.

I played a lot of poker over the last decade or so. I think of myself as a tight, patient player. I folded a lot--and I mean a lot. As such, I spent a lot of time daydreaming. One day I was rolling around the concept of "poker face" in my head and thought: What if everybody at the table was staring at me at the same time? What if they were staring with, oh, let's say, an emotionally-charged, yet meaningfully unreadable expression? How unnerving would that be? If I bluffed and then got stared down, who would blink first? I kept mulling over the idea, and then my daydreaming shifted--as if taking on a life of it's own...and not entirely unlike Dumbo's dream sequence when Dumbo inadvertently got drunk. I thought: How could a poker player's face get more assuredly unreadable? Suddenly something clicked. I thought: What if the players wore masks? Yeah, that could be visually engaging!

 
That's how I came up with the idea of the Poker Face paintings (so far: "Poker Face", "Poker Face II", and, "Poker Face III"). Initially, my first plans for the image would be that I would populate a poker table with people wearing all different styles of masks. I quickly realized that that may look too aesthetically jumbled. So I pared down the style variations to just one. For my first few Poker Face paintings, I opted for the Venetian Carnival theme because I thought that was the most pleasing--and gave me a still extremely wide variety of individual looks. I'll move onto other mask styles eventually, but for now, I found this Venetian motif to be very satisfying.

One more thing: I feel my concept is substantially different than the "Dogs Playing Poker"-type of paintings and their sundry permutations ("Celebrities Playing Poker," "Monsters Playing Poker," etc.)--which I do like, but I think that my idea departs sufficiently to illustrate a different concept: Engaging the viewer as if he or she is in the game. I think that that, plus the sheer beauty of the Venetian Carnival costumes, makes the images compelling.