As I start writing this, I already feel ridiculous. Hypocritical. Spineless. Overprivileged. Maybe if I just write whatever’s on my mind, I’ll get some clarity and balls. Let’s see.
This afternoon, Jack and I are going to pick up the keys to our brand-new studio. It’s a big, lovely empty space made for doing nothing in but making art without interruption.Jack can’t wait. The weeks since he moved out of his studio in Providence have been torturous as his mind brims with unpainted paintings. He’s itching to get to work and put them all on canvas.
Jack has a clear sense of himself as a painter. He’s not thinking about the whys of making art, not concerned with who will see the work and what they’ll do in response. He knows that he’s meant to make art and so he’s been like a clamped firehose, thrashing around the pavement, struggling for release.
I am stomped down, bottled up, and tightly capped. I haven’t made anything larger than a sketchbook page since we left Los Angeles, almost two years ago. Even that period in the garage was an anomaly. The idea of making art that could hang on the wall is still scary and ‘wasteful’. I have used our lack of wall space as an excuse for decades. I have long-claimed that art with a small ‘a’ means focussing only on the process and filled books to gather dust on shelves. I tell people not to think about what they will have made but only on what they are making now. When you are done, store it, frame it, burn it, I don’t care.
This is not just a black and white matter. On the one hand, I believe that when I take the pressure off myself to produce something finished and public, I am freer and more likely to take risks and make progress. So working in obscurity has helped me develop. And on the other, I don’t liven a hermitage. I do share images of my images in books and on-line. You’ve seen ’em. So have thousands of others.
But there are shortcomings to this approach. For one, I am always off-hand about the images I make. They are mere illustrations for my blog posts or book pages. It’s a way of avoiding real responsibility, this business of making pictures that are just marginalia, just a record of a nice breakfast, a quick sketch here or there.
I know this is gift-horse dentistry, a problem we’d all like to have.
I could say the same about my writing. Even when published in a book, my words still lack a certain seriousness, a full embrace of their role. It’s as if I only write captions, quips, epigraphs, body copy to be tossed out with tomorrow’s trash. A brief amusement in a social media post here, an email there.
Am I writing or drawing for the ages? Can I? Do I dare?
Maybe my years in advertising convinced me that what I make is always subservient to someone else’s agenda, another’s strategies and goals. And making advertising is inherently impermanent. A commercial last for thirty seconds, a print ad runs for a couple of months. It’s a diversion, never the main event. I know that some of my books have been in print for years, and that they have had more than a passing effect. Nonetheless this, sense of triviality is deep-dyed in me. I’d like to make something that matters. But trying to also scares the shit out of me.
Jack is a wonder to watch because he doesn’t feel a burden to achieve greatness each time he picks up a brush. He throws things around, then paints over them. He doesn’t stop to explain or justify. He just does. He’s the same kid who made elaborate Lego towers, then knocked them down to build something new.
Before Jack was born, my mother and my sister chipped in to rent a painting studio for me for a moth. I entered it with a sketchbook, a marker, and a lump on my throat. I hadn’t really drawn for ages and this room seemed designed to strip me of excuses. The first week there I wrote a long polemic about art and posted it on the wall. The next week, I made a few half-hearted collages. I spent the final two weeks trying to make a painting from an old photo of my grandfather. When the month was up, I left behind the handful of things I’d made and ran like hell.
I know it won’t be like that when we start this new adventure. First off, Jack won’t let me get away with it. But also, I have the feeling I can get there, that there might actually be stuff in me that is worth saying, worth saying large, and worth saying well. On that last point, I know that I need to work harder on what I make. Instead of dashing off a sketch or a watercolor, I want to push myself deeper into a painting, to explore, to respond, to refine. To evolve from playing the field to deepening my relationship with a work of art.
I know this is gift-horse dentistry, a problem we’d all like to have. And I am ashamed to start a summer in a painting studio with a whining screed about my inadequacies and fear. But I hope this self-assessment helps me to move past the anxiety of starting something new.
Thanks for holding my hand while I steel myself for the first leap.