Tag Archives: artist

Ignorance is Bliss

We who wish to make art, many of us, and who are serious about it and dedicated to the dream, have come at it from essentially the same direction – a direction shaped and codified through the centuries, ever since humans began creating representations of things, or making things that exceeded mere functionality and displayed an “added value” of some sort that appealed to something greater than utility. That direction was either a formal or a catch-as-catch-can student or apprentice training, during which one learned how to perform one’s task, to have the basics drummed into him, then to do the work over and over until one attained a certain mastery of skills. If one wanted to be a painter, say, it would include the grunt tasks of mixing paints and cleaning brushes and stretching canvases, and acquiring a second-nature knowledge of tools and how they are best used, and the nature and properties of mediums to be painted with and on, and so much more. If one were to be a writer, the novice would need to know grammar, and punctuation, and have a good vocabulary, and know how to put words together, and then paragraphs, and how to get as close as possible to putting down on paper what is in your head, and to do so in your own voice. Beyond the mechanical skills, one also needed to be taught the ineffable wisdoms – of perspective, proportion, color, metaphor, assonance, consonance, repetition, rhythm, symmetry, syncopation, harmony, juxtaposition, and so on – all these to modify and enhance and, in the hands of good craftsmen, to personalize.

But the problem with becoming knowledgeable, to the point that these abilities and acquired bits of information become as much a part of your life as breathing, is that too many get mired there, stuck in that place of skill and knowing. For them, the knowing is sufficient – more than sufficient: the knowing, and the doing resulting in replicable, polished, admirable and talented end-products, were the endpoints, the pinnacle. That to have it down is to have “made it.” For many, this is enough, this is the point, like breaking a horse so that it will respond to your slightest knee prompt. And one can make a fine living, and receive the accolades of fans, and also experience some self-satisfaction, by arriving at this level of doing – the attainment of the level of craftsman, of tradesman, of technician.

But, in some sort of ironic twist, to be an artist, a true artist, one must know all that needs to be known about how to do what one does … and then one must venture into areas where one does not know anything, and, by using the skills now inherent in him, must wade into the unknown and grasp it.

This is most perfectly articulated, in a recent documentary about Charles and Ray Eames, by Richard Saul Wurman. In speaking about the multifaceted achievements of Charles Eames – from chair design to filmmaking to exhibition design – and how, in a sense, he might be considered the epitome of a true artist, Wurman said: “You sell your expertise, you have a limited repertoire. You sell your ignorance, it’s an unlimited repertoire. [Eames] was selling his ignorance and his desire to learn about a subject, and the journey of him not knowing to knowing was his work.”

Nice work if you can get it.

To know every step, no matter how skillfully you stroll, is to follow paths and create ruts. To start with the knowledge of how to walk, then to set off in a way that will challenge you to overcome your ignorance, redefine your way of walking to suit the terrain, and arrive at a place that the journey compelled you to find – that is the making of art.

The place where art resides is the place furnished with your knowledge but fueled by your not knowing and your wanting to learn, to do not what is merely acceptable but creatively unexpected, and yet inevitable, to embrace the challenge even if you have never met that challenge before, and to use the old to form the new, and use the new to remake yourself. The outcome will not always be successful – Eames had his failures, and his reliance on the chair that he helped design in many ways limited him (though financially supported him) – but, then, it needn’t be. Perhaps it shouldn’t be.

Art is not the place you are now, but the next one. You get to it with a sense of direction but no map. And where you end up is where you were meant to be.

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He Was a Friend of Mine

The Grim Reaper works in mysterious ways, claiming some too soon and others a bit late. But his aim is true, regardless of the time or willingness of the spirit.

For Warren, it was too soon. I met Warren in 1986 when he and Janet bought the building next door at about the same time that we bought ours. There were some interesting connections that we shared from the get-go: people we already knew, a desire for unique live/work space, art and art-making. And, too, physically, our buildings shared connections: of the land’s history, of being held jointly by several generations of owner-occupiers and their entrepreneurial endeavors, and, of Warren and Janet’s structure having been erected on what was once our building’s orchard way back in the late 1800s. But there was also a connection of friendship and of finding our way simultaneously in our shared new neighborhood.

As working artists, Warren and I spent time together, visiting each other’s studios, talking about projects we were working on. We would take strolls through the neighborhood and find other artists who also were setting up camp – we had a kind of “art-dar” about locating them. In many ways our association was like a continuation of art school: studio visits, discussions, salons which Warren and Janet would throw. And, ultimately, Warren and I had some shows together, first in his large loft space and then in both houses, a distribution of works at both sites in which the attendees would flow from one building then out and into the other, making our houses connected again into a complex of art galleries. It was a great time. Later, Warren’s interests moved to temporary installations and performances. I remember heavy canvas boots with about forty long screws emerging from the soles, salvia plants and several dozen watering cans. Or mass-produced bunnies placed in nooks above doorways, crouched in out-of-context sites throughout the city. Warren’s work became a kind of guerrilla artfare but in such a gentle way.

When Dana was born, we were the ones who brought special pillows and a packed overnight bag to the hospital for the duration of their stay. During the sweltering summer, we bought a paddling pool to cool off in and our trio from next door would come over and join in. We have video tape of Dana kicking and bobbing in the water, just a few months old, looking like a small cork with limbs. When any of their or our relatives, largely from the Midwest, would visit, we would meet theirs and they ours. In many ways we felt like family. While Dana was small, Warren did a good deal of childcare and, once again, I would accompany the two of them as we ferreted out treasures in thrift stores or flea markets. Warren was an excellent dad, including his little girl in his life and being very much aware of her needs. And I loved the little color-packed ensembles he would dress her in – I assumed he dressed her because there was something very Warren in the patterns and the palette. When Dana was old enough to appreciate it, we all built a snow-woman together after a big snowfall. And when our steep hills became bobsled tracks, Warren would be among the first on the slopes with his super sled. I remember vividly the first time he took Dana down the hill and her resulting screams of utter delight together with his equal delight. Warren had that wonderful combination of mischievous childlike wonder, gentleness of spirit and a practical Midwestern groundedness.

Fast forward twenty-five years and a lot of change has occurred – Dana is a grown woman, Warren and Janet moved forward in separate directions, now a new tenant is inhabiting their house next door and Warren is no longer with us. We were invited to a party by the new neighbor, just having learned of the terrible news of Warren’s death, and we sat dumbfounded and sad, encircled by Warren in that huge space. I mean surrounded. It is so apparent that in his absence he is so present. He is everywhere in that place, from the design/build work that he did to make a warehouse a home, to the collection of farm implements that decorate the walls, including the array of fire-engine red and brass watering cans, to the hand-painted furniture that he covered with his own special calligraphy and color-palette, to the folding screens that he fashioned for the function of capturing contained space in a vast room – and they are beautiful free-standing works that bring art into the center of the room, plus the large number of ink and wash drawings, some with text, that are mounted on walls and which, together with the screens and the furniture, bring a sense of artwork from the perimeter walls, and weaves it through the space as all of it envelops you. Warren is there, still. It is a loving tribute to him that Janet has left it untouched. We went downstairs to his former studio and felt his presence there, too, with all his tools and boxes of materials. It was an empty feeling of sadness but, yet, there was a sense of placeness – of the artist manipulating his environment and leaving it forever changed.

I think one memory I will hold in my mind about Warren was this one: It was another of those cold snow-covered wintry days, darkness arriving too early and a kind of bleakness in the air. I looked out my window at the long night and there, along our shoveled sidewalk path was a landing strip of lights, small white paper bags nestled into the snow with a single lit candle in each. The effect was like flickering candles set adrift on a stream. The white snow holes glowing and illuminating the landscape. It was magical. It was Warren. 

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In Dreams

Every night of this past week I have had dreams, all very different, but all occurring in the same location. Not the same house, exactly, or the same room, but in each dream, or string of dreams, I found myself in the same town – a locale I am familiar with, one I have come, in the past year and a half, to consider a home away from home and, perhaps, some day, simply home.

I can’t tell you what’s happened, precisely, in these dreams – not that I don’t want to but because I can’t quite recall them in enough solid detail so that recounting them to you won’t make me sound like an idiot, or someone who knows a joke but forgets the punchline. Like most dreams, they were like exploded diagrams, full of familiar pieces that, reconnected, don’t combine to build anything that is recognizable or makes sense – fragments floating downstream, forming a porous whole.

I can’t begin to explain why I’m having these dreams. It could be because of a longing to be there, or because I’m working something out in my mind that’s related to it; maybe it’s just a fantasy of a play on words that’s got me in a vortex; or maybe it’s something murkier. Or maybe it’s just nothing, just one of those things, signifying nothing, sans sound and fury.

But there they are, these dreams of mine, and there it is, that location. The what and the why of it all, frankly, doesn’t engage me as much as does thinking about what a dream is, and what I am in it.

When it comes to these dreams, and others, the operative word, I think, is not what and why, but “where.” And that is because all dreams occur somewhere, and we are there then. And when we are there, being there is as real to us as my being here now writing this, and you being where you are, reading this. In fact, our location-consciousness may be greater in dreams, because we always seem to be extremely conscious of and impacted by and linked to where we are in our dreams, and often more so than in waking life, when we are so task-focused or self-focused that our surroundings recede to somewhere outside our sphere of self-consciousness. Where we are in dreams is often the point of the dreams themselves, and rarely too far off the point.

I would suggest, then, that a dream is not a mental state, or a process, but a place – a place that we are removed to, and one that is so with us at every moment we are there, intense beyond waking life’s intensity, bound only by its own rules, its own laws, its own physics, grounded only by our need to be awake and alert and integrated even when we are asleep and susceptible to exterior threats and fragmentation. Dreams are the essence of placeness.

But more: When we dream, we create. Even those who, in their waking lives, will admit to being uncreative will create magnificent dreams. We create places, sometimes out of nothing, other times out of pieces of “reality”; in this, we are like set designers. We create characters, some based on people we know, others from who knows what, and we give them lines to say, and we create “scripts” for them to follow, and plot lines that put most movies to shame (except those movies that are based on the belief that the more dreamlike or nightmarelike, the more effective the experience; see Hitchcock, Alfred). In this way, we are writers. The way we see our dreams – the angles, the movement – are like the way a director envisions his play or frames his shots. Like improvisational geniuses, we take sounds or smells that exist just outside our dream world – that is, in the so-called “real world” – and work them seamlessly into our dream scenarios, turning the storyline in a new direction instantaneously. In our dreams, we write autobiography, and fiction, and Greek drama and, unlike so many in Hollywood, actually get them produced. And when we awake, the “real” world seems drabber than anything we experienced during the night, like the way we feel when leaving a great museum, or a theater.

I would suggest, then, that to dream is to be an artist. And that the dream itself is art, but art with the life of one of those newly discovered elements that exist for a millisecond, noted solely by tailings recorded on a sensitive receptor. Dreams, as dreams, cannot be exhibited in galleries, although some physical art is based on dreams, nor will we see them on pages, though dreams can inform a written work, or jumpstart a creative process. But, despite their ephemeral nature – or, maybe, because of it – dreams’ impact on our waking lives can be as profound as any art of any form we put ourselves in the way of. They are our own portable, hard-wired creative suite.

This blog will not become a place for dream analysis, or ruminations on the supernatural (although we here tend to believe that nothing is supernatural, just not yet apprehended). But, if the term arslocii is designed to represent the idea of placeness as art, then dreams can not be thought of as – excuse the pun – out of place here.

And though I still don’t quite get why I am having those dreams of mine, and may never understand why, exactly, I do know that they are, at the very least, a creative effort, a form of personal art that can do nothing more or less than express something in me completely, with no intermediate medium to dilute the essence. And, knowing that, I am somewhat awed, and oddly comforted. And can’t wait to dream, to create, to be in a place of art and be an artist again tonight.

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Home Place

Arslocii writes a lot about place, especially other places, sometimes far-reaching places. But there is another place, the most significant one really, and that is the place we call home. Home can be as difficult to find as those other special places are, or it can be easy. It is not easy for us. Maybe that is why we seek placeness in all locales, although we know the difference between placeness of the soul and placeness of the heart. Our quest for a sense of place may be a direct result of feeling like misfits most of the time. Our strongest sense of place is inside us – we are trying to find it externally as well. Our guess is that many people derive a sense of place from external factors: being in a family, being a part of a community, living in a neighborhood, structuring their lives around what is meaningful to them – their world reflecting back at them what their place in it is. Building from the outside in, like a house.

What about those of us who build from the inside out? Maybe we are not the norm but there is no manual for life that says it can’t work that way. There is more struggle with this approach, more effort required but, perhaps we hope, more reward. We begin with a strong sense of who we are and try to maneuver our way through an unyielding maze of conformity. Or maybe we build that internal sense through trying to negotiate the maze – it’s a chicken/egg thing. The attempt is to find one’s own way, creatively, uniquely.

We have found house, but have we found home? We love our abode. We should, we made it, in a sense. Starting with the original 1873 manse built by a stone mason/builder for himself to live in, a place that from certain accounts had indoor plumbing and an orchard on its grounds. Fast forward nearly a hundred years, and watch while the late 19th century and most of the 20th reveal the up- and down-side of the economy reflected in this one building: As house became a local bottler’s retail outlet (with the plant built behind – goodbye orchard), then an empty prohibition casualty, later a series of taverns, take-outs, a boarding house and finally, (drum roll) offices for a plumbing and heating contractor (with warehouse behind). And, as is often the case, as the usefulness of a structure wanes, so does the viability of the surrounding neighborhood. When we rolled in it was no longer recognizable as a house, let alone a home. And, too, the neighborhood had been on a downward spiral along with it.

Following our twenty-plus years of sweat production and hard decisions, we have, like a tugboat, escorted this large ship into the 21st century as a house once more. And we think it is wonderful. Most likely unrecognizable to the guy who constructed and designed it, we like to think he would be pleased that it has returned to its original purpose. We honor his memory and his ability to build the most solid house we have ever known by making his work whole again and living in it. Happily living in it.

As we have actively improved our house, we have watched as the immediate area – the community – has changed from a mostly working-but-not getting ahead-class to a mostly non-working-and-selling-drugs-but-not-getting-ahead-class to, now, an influx of student-renters who are being funded by their suburban middle class parents to make them into useful citizens somehow in between their prolonged periods of inebriation. Sometimes I believe we are living in 1970s Russia. Speaking of which, there are coincidentally, Russians buying up empty lots in the area and building mega-houses for the new crop of young professionals pouring out of all these colleges, once they have sobered up and become “citizens.” Or maybe not.

But such an in-flux, together with a vying-for-space mishmash of people does not build stability. In a sense, you could call us pioneers, since we were among the artist wave of early adopters of funky old buildings that nobody else saw value in, other than the generations that were stuck in history-repeating cycles. We had community at the start since we all were outsiders and we could pick each other out of the line-up of houses based on the non-traditional touches we applied to our residences. We all knew each other, some of us visited each others studios and some of us became friends and socialized. There was a smattering of us, not too concentrated, maybe one house per block which made it fun to seek out our other partners-in-crime. So our inner selves got to be expressed, in a small but significant way, in our external interactions. For a while.

Only, just like our house and its changes, many of the artists grew up or grew apart or outgrew the neighborhood and moved on. We might be the last ones standing. And as twenty-plus years went skating by, here we are, still in place but not experiencing a sense of place any longer. In our house, yes, but not so much here in the neighborhood. Although the neighborhood is still changing and trying to figure out what it is now – it is currently a cluster of mini-neighborhoods: the old, the brand new, the temporary, those not-too-thrilled about change, those desperately clinging to what they have known in the face of a disappearing way of life, those looking to a brighter horizon or a beginning.

Where are we in all of this? A little lost. In a place but not of it. We are, surprising to us, looking for a kind of place to call home. A place that speaks to us on a number of levels, or maybe different levels from what we desired oh so many years ago. We are seeking arslocii as a place to live. It takes both the house and the site to create the synthesis. Maybe we will find it again. In the meantime, we have one of the two.

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