"Profound Remembrance", Linda Laino, 2013 (collection, Buckingham Railroad, Virginia)
“Tell me, doesn’t your painting interfere with your writing?”
“Quite the contrary: they love each other dearly.” ~ e.e.cummings
This response from poet, e.e. cummings resonates deeply as I have always known that my visual art and my writing often look to and play off each other as he describes. I’ve been grateful for the intersection. Some days however, I immerse in painting in order to avoid writing. And some days I write (mostly in random ways) when I want to avoid painting. This pinging back and forth feels like a game of creative dodge ball that signals my brain to regress into doubt.
In between breakthroughs of semi-brilliance in the studio, artists move between doubt and fear most of their lives. Like a drug, making art can take us on a magic carpet ride one minute and thrown overboard, gripping the fringes the next.
Add to this, the out of whack emotional ride that most everyone is feeling during this quarantine and some days I find I can’t make a simple decision. Like whether to paint or write. I stare at my work a lot. This allows me to avoid successfully, but feel like I’m working (in truth, I am).
I can get lost for hours in a swath of color, an organic form, incisive phrase or arresting image. Only to then add some very small mark, or edit a very few words. Sometimes they are significant marks and words, but still, progress can be plodding.
Even though doubt and fear can sometimes propel my curiosity, I seem to feel avoidance on a cellular level. My logical brain wonders why I would want to avoid either one of these activities that I love so much and have practiced all my life. When there is no clear path in the studio or on the page, artists and writers sometimes go to great lengths to avoid their work(suddenly deciding to organize the studio ), just as much as they can get lost in it. Avoiding it is one thing, but why do we fret so much about the avoidance?
Is avoidance the same as creative block? I think they are distant cousins. I don’t feel like I’ve ever had a complete creative “block”, devoid of any ideas — the older I get, it is quite the opposite — but avoidance sometimes can creep in when the time comes to shift to some structure. Beginnings are naturally spontaneous and full of potential. Essay revision and detailed painting can be tedious. Spontaneity and structure are each part of the creative process and an artist has to learn when to apply each at the right time. This is true of painting and writing.
Making art boils down to two actions:
1. Make a decision.
2. Execute it.
3. Repeat #s 1 and 2.
And here we come to the aforementioned doubt, along with the exhilarating high of painting and writing:
1. There are countless decisions.
2.There are countless ways to execute them.
What colors to work with? Which line quality to apply? How far to render an image? What structure for the poem? Which media or material? Will this next change elicit a more poignant image or simply a different one? Just to name a few.
It often astounds me how many small but rapid decisions I make throughout the course of a painting, especially; how many aspects I am considering at the same time: color, form, line, treatment, composition, rendering, gesture, suggestion, meaning, context, relationship. A painting or poem is a live thing. Change and growth are the roadmaps.
The creative process is always myriad and different each time. It’s like looking at the earth from space and realizing all the billions of places you could live and zeroing in on that one point. Imagine that. How would you choose? Where would you go? Decisions can be paralyzing. It’s easy to see how avoidance comes to the rescue.
To put a decididly dramatic spin on it: artists face death everyday on the canvas or the page; death in the form of failure (however each of us defines that). We doubt our decisions, and fear they aren’t the right ones. But often, we are in too much of a hurry. In too much of a hurry for results, and forget to enjoy the process, and all the little deaths that occur throughout. Nothing is ever really final.
As we are all slowing down in this quarantine, I am slowing down in my painting and writing. Not in the pracitce, but in my expectations for a product.
For me, making art and writing is as much about study as applying the paint and writing the words. Study takes many forms. Each artist knows what works for them. Reviewing our own painting and writing requires not just looking but learning how to really see, and try to “pretend that my art has nothing to do with me” as Roy Litchtenstein said. Sometimes objectivity should make the decisions, not an emotional attachment to an image or outcome. “Study” often doesn’t look like work, but there are many ways to take in and process information.
Can I move deeper into the avoidance and just observe what happens? Don’t write a word. Don’t paint a mark. Just read for awhile. Just look for awhile.
I fundamentally agree with all of the adages and aphorisms from artists and writers that tell us we need to “sit our butts in the chair”, “work comes from work”, and “inspiration is for amateurs”. I have many instances of forcing myself to stay the course of something that wasn’t going well and been rewarded for it.
But it’s also okay to let a painting or a piece of writing rest. I believe it will begin to show its own life at the right time. It becomes clearer to me how to proceed because I have made space in my mind for the direction.
If I fine tune my perspective to the “long view”, letting something creative unfold instead of wrangling it into submission, I am more generous with myself and practice. Avoidance turns into patience, and knowing that if I pay close enough attention, connections lead to conclusions.
When avoidance shows up, I lean into it, let my mind wander and take a tip from film director, Jim Jarmusch:
"Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light, and shadows.”
Being an artist is a way of seeing the world. Observing is what artists do. We forget to give ourselves time to actively do just that.