All The Art I Will Never Make
Circa 1993, when I worked with hand-felted wool.
"The goal is to wander, wander through the unknown in search of the unknown, all the while leaving your mark." ~ Richard Hunt
Sculptor Richard Hunt nails it for me. Art making is like wandering. Artists wander without the intention to find anything specific, but usually, the search results in finding something we didn't know we were looking for. I've wandered through the tunnels of art-making for over forty five years; making my mark, as Hunt says, like leaving a crumb trail. A mark that proves I lived and noticed the world in my own distinctive, quirky way. A world that I honed and dressed up in my imagination. A world that becomes even more interesting to me the older I become but one that is rapidly moving on. I'm sixty five years old. My age suggests many things, some of them cliches which I try not to fall into. But what is certain is that I am no longer young, no matter what age I feel. I can't claim youth when, (statistically at least) 3/4 of my life is over. This is not negative or morbid. Just a fact. A fact that brings me into panic only when I think of all the art I will never make.
I recall a moment in my twenties, when my then boyfriend's mother muttered a similar lament one holiday gathering after receiving all her favorite books that year. I will never live long enough to read all the books I want to. It struck me then, that this life-living was not only about the "fill" zone of adventures to follow and achievements to accomplish, it's also about how we narrow our lives naturally by many factors that we both choose and don't choose such as geography, class, wealth, and profession. One lifetime, no matter how rich or exciting can only fit so many experiences. It never occurred to me in my younger days to think about all the things I would never do. No one dreams of that. This has become known commonly as the "fuckit list". The idea of my future art landing on this list has lately left me with a sense of urgency. To paraphrase poet Mary Oliver's oft-quoted question, what art do I plan to make with the last part of my wild and precious life?
Part of the thrill of invention is to walk around the world being flooded with images. These come from observing of course, but also from reading and writing poetry, listening to music and odd things people say in random conversation. Maybe it's a product of undiagnosed ADD or older onset, but I've realized what causes the anxiety is that the flood of ideas are all exciting to me. Which ones to choose?
I have a habit of (ability for?) "images dropping into my brain like slides." When I once read this verbalization from the painter, Francis Bacon, it was like a light bulb for me. It was the perfect way to describe my own particular mental download. That is, collaging or superimposing bits of the world together that suggest or spark a dialog. The irony is that I paint as a way of asking questions, and don't know much about what I'm going to paint until I'm painting. But those mental pairings or juxtapositions that crowd my brain definitely have an influence in the way I put things together-both in paint and words. Old sketchbooks bear this out. Sometimes it is years to get from the mental download to interpreting that idea into a poem or a painting. I'm a slow painter. I stare at my paintings a lot.
I once had a sketchbook in college that had directives by artists on each page intended as inspiration. One I'll always remember was, Do more work. It's easy to be an artist in your head. I conjure this phrase whenever I forget the "work" part of art-making. Getting the idea out of my head and into a tangible form. Part of that work is decisions. They are hard enough during the making of something, but deciding on the many ideas or directions from which to begin is sometimes more daunting. When you hear of artists being stuck or blocked, that is the reason. Decisions are what propel an artist from A to B, whether it's a bold brushstroke or an eloquent sentence. It's much less risky to leave ideas in your head. There, they are always successful. I imagine myself on my deathbed, running through a catalog of "successful" images like a cartoon flip book.
But before that event, I am lucky to have had a lifetime of art-making so that I can grow old with art. I've had years to establish a relationship to my practice, so there is no danger to lose the impulse or curiosity to make it. As a young artist, I worried that at some future date I would run out of ideas--ideas being the stuff of art in my particular education. Your art was deemed weak without one. I came to believe in ideas and so I was certainly concerned with retaining and generating them. As I became a working artist, I recognized early on that it would in fact, be impossible to run out of ideas and (much like my young boyfriend's mother) I will never live long enough to realize all of them. Art making has a way of building on itself, but also detours deliciously through unintended alleys along the way. This results in a lot of choices. The artist's job is to decide which of these alleys offers the richest landscape full of the most possibilities. As time gets shorter, I attempt to be more attentive to what is persistent. And whether my mental downloads ever get realized, I at least get to enjoy them in my mind's eye.
We often hear art historians discussing and interpreting dead artists' unfinished work and we are meant to feel deprived that the vision-- surely a great one-- would never be fully realized. Much has been said and written about what it means to be an older artist. Most will tell you that whatever their path: fame or obscurity, there is a surge of freedom that results from other obligations in life dropping away.
Faith Ringgold , honored with a retrospective at age 92 at New York's New Museum in 2022, recognized at 82 that "Being an artist is a way of life". Well before 82, one would hope to have found a way of life that fills your gut, and sustains your curiosity. Artists enjoy a profession that not only promises to keep our brains alert, but has the potential for greater insight as we age than the work made earlier in life. And the art that never gets made? To keep working is to keep generating questions, and that's what keeps the world interesting. It is all part of the process: making marks as I wander through the tunnels. I feel like my best work is just an alley away.