Art FOR and BY Non-Artists

Impossible-Party

In the early 2000s, I went through a spell of making all sorts of strange art. It began with simply making footprints with milkpaint, my feet, and found boards. (Really. My first creations were made using wood rescued from a discarded pallet.) I put together a collection called Art by the Foot and an accompanying exhibit called “Barefoot in the City.” As unlikely as it seems, I even sold a few pieces. From there, I did some more experimenting with milk paint, and eventually added markers on paper to my media. When I found I’d exhausted my limited drawing ability, I turned to digital art. This piece, Impossible Party, is an example. It’s a mix of marker, colored pencil, and milkpaint footprints, all collaged together on a Mac in Photoshop.

I still enjoy tinkering around with making my own art, often again in the digital realm, but now using Gimp, which is similar to Photoshop in its capabilities but FREE! (https://www.gimp.org/). More than making my own art, however, I still love art in general. My own skill as a visual artist is so minimal as to be frustrating, but I can really nerd-out on other people’s art, and getting into deep philosophical discussion about the meaning of art. What is it? How do we measure its worth? (“Just by the pleasure it gives here on earth?” Thank you, Burl Ives and Johnny Marks!)

Curator/author Sarah Urist Green is fond of saying a person should not let a lack technical skill prevent them from making art. In addition to her YouTube channel, “The Art Assignment“, she has recently published a book called You Are An Artist: Assignments To Spark Creation that offers encouragement to the inner artist of even the most inept of us. I also recommend The Art Spirit by Robert Henri. (This was apparently Keith Haring’s bible.) My favorite art-related how-to book is Paul Fata’s 101 Rules for the Starving Artist. This one might be difficult if not impossible to find, because I’m not sure if it was ever published as anything more than hand-made copies.

Recreating a Famous 70s Poster

Let’s dig into my “Caring for the Muse” list a little deeper. One of my suggestions in yesterday’s post was to:

Take your smartphone or camera and take some pictures. Take anything. Make it silly or documentary or sexy or weird or whatever you want. Try out some of the strangest filters on your phone, or on an app like Instagram.

I’ve been doing this recently, and the results have been…er…mixed. Some of the pictures have come out terrible, some bland, some comically unusable, and some simply comical. Case in point—

Farrah Fawcett and Brian Hutzell
My not-terribly-serious recreation of Farrah’s famous 1976 poster, the best-selling poster of all-time

The beautiful lady on the left is, of course, Farrah Fawcett, who was one of the iconic stars of the 1970s-80s. The not-so-beautiful guy on the right is me. This all came about as the result of a crack my wife made about my hair getting too long. “You look like Farrah Fawcett,” was her innocent enough comment. That was enough to make me wonder if there were any way I could recreate her famous 1976 poster. When I spotted a red, white, & blue striped blanket tossed over a chair, I knew what I had to do: Make that photo happen! While the result may be cringe-worthy, I got a lot of laughs out of it on Facebook (see the original post here). It was also a fun, off-kilter way to exercise a little creativity.

My point is that you should not be afraid to try even a silly, outside the box idea. I was not in a great headspace going into 2020, but I was at least cautiously optimistic that things might be on the upswing on a personal level. Then COVID-19 came along, and all bets were off. For the past four months, staying healthy, happy, and sane has been a struggle. Trying new things, finding ways to be creative helps me. Maybe it will help you too. If anyone asks what you’re doing, tell ’em Farrah sent you!

PS: Farrah Fawcett died of cancer at age 62 on June 25, 2009. The Farrah Fawcett Foundation is dedicated to cancer research. You can visit their website here: https://thefarrahfawcettfoundation.org/

Caring for the Muse – Part II

I am a list-maker. Every day I have a To Do list, and if I do something that isn’t on the list, I have been known to write it on the list and then immediately cross it off. It’s very satisfying.

So I’m going to continue yesterday’s theme with a slightly expanded list of “How to Care for Your Muse in Troubled Times.” (I suppose these might also work in non-troubled times, if there are such things. The present times seems especially troubled, however, so those are the conditions I have in mind for this list of artistic self-care.)

  • Check out Sarah Urist Green’s fun, inspiring, & educational YouTube Channel, The Art Assignment. Her series is filled with ideas for making art whether you are an artist or not, and whether you have art supplies or not.
  • Watch this dated (yes, the language is entirely masculine, and yes the people are mostly white) but still awesome short film: Why Man Creates.
  • Take your smartphone or camera and take some pictures. Take anything. Make it silly or documentary or sexy or weird or whatever you want. Try out some of the strangest filters on your phone, or on an app like Instagram.
  • Try journalling. Sometimes this helps me, but other times it can actually make me feel worse if I fall into a tailspin of self-pitying introspection. Jude for yourself how it’s making you feel.
  • If there is a certain movie that inspires you, watch it! For me it’s (don’t laugh) 1985’s Desperately Seeking Susan.
  • Move! I don’t mean load all of your belongings onto a truck and move across the country, but physically get your body moving. Run. Dance (this one terrifies me, which is one reason I should probably do it). Exercise. Go for a walk or a bike ride. Play a sport. Move!
  • Make a thwinting sound. I’ll explain what I mean by this later. Or not. In the meantime, do whatever YOU think it means!

Caring for the Muse in a Troubling Time

As a result of COVID-19, I lost my job back in March. I had a small cushion, but have now reached the point where money is going to get very tight very soon. This is, unfortunately, not a unique position to be in these days, but in this case having lots of company doesn’t make the situation any less miserable.

Ideally, I would be doing a lot of writing, making art, and composing music. After all, these are all things I love, and I have often found myself wishing I had more time in which to do them. Well, now I have the time, so why am I not doing them? Truth is, I’m having a hard time concentrating on any creative pursuits while my mind is preoccupied with worrying about trivia like rent and food.

Here are a few things I’ve been doing to try to keep the muse alive, even if it isn’t currently being very productive:

  • Reading. I have to be careful of this one, but I am a real book nerd, and I can easily find myself reading to the exclusion of all else.
  • Walking. Serves the dual purpose of providing some much-needed exercise as well as giving me a break from sitting in my apartment. Also: I sometimes get good song/story/art ideas while walking. Sometimes.
  • Trying to write a page of lyrics a day, even if they are really terrible lyrics, which most of them are. Collaborating long-distance with a friend in Canada on some new songs.
  • Free improvising on an instrument (mine happen to be piano and trombone). If anything sounds worth keeping, write it down or record it.
  • Listen to music and/or podcasts that inspire me, or at least things that I enjoy.

None of these are terribly original suggestions, and none of them has solved the bigger problem of income and lack thereof. But by tending even minimally to my inner artistis spirit, I am keeping myself back from the brink of despair.

Everything Old Is New Again

I wanted you
And I was looking for you
But I couldn’t find you
I wanted you
And I was looking for you all day
But I couldn’t find you
I couldn’t find you.

– Laurie Anderson, “Walking and Falling” from the album Big Science (1982)

I first heard Laurie Anderson during my freshman year of college. I was at Northwestern University, suddenly out of Iowa and into the Big School in the Big City. I grew up in Des Moines, and compared to the rest of Iowa, we were the big city. I never thought my myself as a small-towner. Quite the contrary! I found Iowa outside of Des Moines to be painfully hick. Those farmers talked and looked hick. I was not like them; I was from the big capitol city of Des Moines!

Then I got to college. Northwestern is in Evanston, Illinois, just north of Chicago. Suddenly I was competing with folks from Chicago and New York and Philadelphia and Boston. I was now officially the hick. And I had never heard of Laurie Anderson.

I fell in love with her on first hearing. Her Big Science album was artsy and weird and quirky, and even though I thought I had fairly wide-ranging tastes, I had never heard anything quite like it. Since then, I have seen her on film, in concert, and hosting art shows. I’ve bought her books and her albums, then her cassettes, then her CDs.

But it was only a few days ago that I made a connection: Her lyrics remind me of Biblical poetry with its stairstepping lines and repetition.

Compare the above lyric to this, from the Old Testament:

Upon my bed, night after night,
I looked for the one whom I love with all y heart.
I looked for him but couldn’t find him.
I will rise now and go all around the city,
Through the streets and the squares.
I will look for the one whom I love with all my heart.
I looked for him but couldn’t find him.

– Song of Songs 3:1-2

It was while reading this latter passage that the theme of looking and not finding jumped out at me, and only because I had just recorded a video in which I quoted the Laurie Anderson lines at the top of this post. But then I realized that it wasn’t just the theme that was similar; it was the writing style. Anderson uses this sort of building repetition frequently, as does the Bible. Consider these rather graphic verses:

She struck Sisera;
she crushed his head;
she shattered and pierced his skull.
At her feet he sank, he fell, and lay flat;
at her feet he sank, he fell;
where he sank, there he fell—dead.

– Judges 5:26-27

I love making connections between two things that you wouldn’t think shared something in common. The passage from Judges is part of “Deborah’s Song,” and is one of the very oldest pieces of writing in the Bible. I don’t know if Laurie Anderson deliberately borrowed her lyric style from ancient Hebrew poetry, but I’m happy to have spotted a similarity. Everything old is new again.
Continue reading Everything Old Is New Again

Keith Haring (Annotated)

KH

New York, 1983: a decayed monster slowly regaining life
True: the Lower East Side still looks like a battle ground,
42nd Street is still lined with porn shops
Bums still sleep on the curbs in the Bowery
But look! There’s art everywhere, though not everyone recognizes it.
Art to wear, to lean against, to walk on, to wallow in
I’m even sitting on some.
It covers abandoned buildings and billboards, junked cars in Alphabet City.
There are SAMO tags on St. Marks and aliens on the benches in Tompkins Square.

Mostly, I’m struck by the babies
Radiant babies in subway stations,
Along with barking dogs, flying saucers, televisions with arms and legs
It’s funny, cartoonish – just doodles
Primitive drawings in modern caves,
Backdrop for the city soundtrack:
Angry young punks, New Wave poseurs, art school poets
Screaming, rapping, howling, defacing the status quo.

Childish art precociously tackling racism, religion, greed
Here’s an ugly 4-letter word: AIDS
The cancer no one talks about
It will eventually take the father
But your babies continue to radiate with undimmed energy

Artist Keith Haring was just starting his climb to fame and fortune in New York in 1981, only two years before I arrived in Boston. Back then, you could hop on People Express Airlines for $25 at 6:00 in the morning, and be in Manhattan in just a couple of hours. The first time I made this trip was in 1983. I’d like to be able to say I was a hip insider of the downtown art/music scene, but the truth is, I was a wide-eyed Iowan with no knowledge of Keith Haring, the Mudd Club, or any of the other happening stuff.

Who was Samo? It was Jean-Michel Basqiat, who was about to become the art world’s favorite bad boy. The aliens were the creation of Kenny Scharf. That beautiful sound floating above it all was the unearthly voice of Klaus Nomi, who had already become the first start of the New York New Wave scene to succumb to AIDS.

Calling: Writing

Flower

I try to avoid “realty” TV like the plague. Whenever I mistakenly see a bit of it, I am reminded what a good decision it was to ditch my television set over ten years ago. Occasionally, however, in a waiting room (Why does every waiting room in America these days have a fleet of televisions, all turned up VERY LOUD?), or at my parents’ house, I have had realty TV foisted upon me. One show that has made an impression (not a good one, just an impression) is “Hoarders.” I have also seen segments about hoarders on other programs or online. My parents are collectors and savers, but I would not call them hoarders.

Real hoarders have a real problem. They save and collect compulsively, obscenely. One category of items that seems to be a particular favorite (this is that part that made an impression of me, since this is something I also allow to take over a great deal of space in my apartment) is BOOKS. The stranger part is that the type of book very often hoarded is “self-help books.” Clearly they aren’t helping.

All of which is to say I have a healthy skepticism of self-help books, in spite of having read a lot of them myself. A LOT of them. They always feel inspiring while reading them, but the effect quickly wears off. These books create a false impression of accomplishment, but leave me right back where I started. By far the best self-help book I’ve ever read was a handmade pamphlet by artist Paul Fata. It didn’t belong to me, so eventually I had to return it to its rightful owner, another artist, David Zermeno. The pamphlet was called 101 Rules For The Starving Artist . Good luck finding a copy.

This brings me to another self-help book that I recommend: Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art. In this short but actually helpful book, Pressfied comes back again and again to the same theme: Whatever calling you are most resisting is probably the calling you should be following. For me personally, I can immediately think of two such callings. The one I’m going to discuss today is: writing. Once I get into the groove of writing regularly, it feels nice and natural, but I very easily fall out of that groove and once out, it’s very hard to get back in.

So it comes as a surprise that I have lately been having more ideas that I know what to do with. This is a nice problem, but it does lead to too many irons in the fire and not enough finished products coming out. I get started on one thing, then another thought occurs to me (usually  when walking or trying to sleep) and I plunge into that one. The result is a whole slew of works in progress. I’m writing the present blog post as a sort of placeholder—something to dash off by way of explanation as to why my recent posts have been more erratic and eclectic than ever.

I’m no longer resisting; I’m giving in fully. I’m letting my muse run amok for a while. Stick with me; it could be fun!

 

Why Create?

Aladdin

“Why does man create?” Probably the first time I heard this question was in grade school art class. The teacher showed us a short film called Why Man Creates by Saul Bass. A couple years later, a different teacher in a different class showed us the same film. There may have even been a third viewing. I loved it every time, even though I didn’t understand most of it.

Several years ago, I reconnected with this brilliant little movie, and I have watched it probably at least once a year ever since. It was made in 1968, and it is definitely of its time (witness the title), yet it still resonates with me. Why do we humans create?

I started composing when I was quite young, and have copyrighted several hundred original songs. Most of them are terrible. Likewise, I have tried my hand at visual art and also writing for the stage. Again: rather terrible. But I still do it. A palm reader once told me I have almost no innate creativity. My level of success as a creative artist would seem to bear this out. Perhaps that is why I have a bit of an obsession with other obsessed but untalented artists. (Please understand that I am writing this with a good portion of tongue in cheek. I admire anyone who creates original work, and dislike almost everything about the term “talented.” A better way of describing these people—modestly including myself—would be “non-traditionally talented.”) Check out In the Realms of the Unreal, about artist Henry Darger for an extreme example.

Why did I stat this blog? To quote Tevye, “I’ll tell you; I don’t know.” I know it’s a creative outlet, but why I need such a thing is a mystery. I’ll give the last word to Why Man Creates:

“Yet among all the variety of human expression, a thread of connection, a common mark can be seen: that urge to look into oneself and out at the world and say, ‘This is what I am. I am unique. I am here. I am!’”