Sunday, January 1, 2012

Making Art & (In)Forming Life

I was recently asked by Kira Campo (@T_C_P) what 'life' lessons I had gleaned from being a practicing artist. You can read Kira's post on the topic here.   In that post, Kira writes:
Lessons acquired through the process of expression inform daily life.  Once the lessons of art are internalized, key principles become relevant in contexts which are independent of art, as well.
There's a lot in those words--much to agree with such as the idea that lessons learned via art making can and often will (in)form other aspects of life.  I understand these insights as threads of meaning that get (re)woven into new compositions--found in art and independent of art.

I learn. I forget. I recall, sometimes.

Here's some of what I am coming to know...

1. Actively learn. I study other artists' works, not to replicate their work, but to (in)form the work I compose.  There's so much to learn by studying other work and choosing which work to study.  For example, a couple of weeks ago I went to see the exhibition,  Romare Bearden: The Soul of Blackness/A Centennial Tribute at the Schomburg Center in Harlem.  What resonated so strongly was Bearden's use of space: A head does not connect to a torso--there is a space left there--suggesting continuity.  In many ways this absence causes the viewer to work harder; to fill in what is missing.  It was this idea I took with me as I began to work on the image I made below. I had shot images that day of the brownstones, birds, and the woman in the red coat. I didn't know how they might go together until I started to play a bit.  Using absence and space to suggest continuity was an idea I was playing with.

Uptown in Harlem
I borrow ideas and techniques from other artists (amateur and professional) and in doing so at times reinvent method, break rules, and trust my intuition 'not to get it right,' but to learn.  For me, mentor texts require my agency.  It is why I oppose units of study where the 'mentor texts' have been selected for others, such as is common practice for writing workshop.  This makes little sense to me.  Children and adults need to select their own mentors (both real and virtual). Helping others to do so represents important teaching work.

2. Observe. Observation, an embodied experience, is an important way of knowing.  At times when my work is stalled, I  get back to some essentials: slow down and notice.  This requires me to be in a place for a while and to take it in: listen to snippets of conversation and other sounds, breathe deeply, be still, touch,  scan, study, walk out, taste, wait for what I don't know will appear/happen. Put down my camera, my pen, paintbrush, phone, notebook.  I write a fair amount about learning walks and I think this practice of walking is well connected to observation. A learning walk is not a power walk.  Think of it as meandering--of way leading on to way. Of frequent stops. Of being in the present moment. Most of what I teach centers on some form of embodied observation.

3. Play.  Play is a source of creation--acts of emergence. Some days I prepare backgrounds using various media (water media, torn paper, acrylic, ink, wax, crayon, pastel, gesso, transfer, bleach, tea, textiles) and invent method and mixtures, textures and tones. Other days I take and/or take apart images of textures, people, environments. I then play with these partial works, remixing them into collages. This form of play allows meaning to emerge.  It is in the emergence and then refinement that art is made.  Hans-George Gadamer (1973) in "The Play of Art" observed:
In human fabrication as well, the decisive moment of technical skill does not consist in the fact that something of extraordinary utility or superfluous beauty has emerged. It consists rather in the fact that human production of this kind can set itself various tasks and proceed according to plans that are characterized by an element of free variability. Human production encounters an enormous variety of ways of trying things out, rejecting them, succeeding, or failing. “Art” begins precisely there, where we are able to do otherwise (NR 77, emphasis added).
Trial and error, and randomness are important ways to play.

4. Notice negative space. It is often noticing empty spaces that allows me to name something essential.  It is not the 'named' thing, but rather the dynamic between it and the surrounding space that I pay attention to. Noticing what surrounds is an adage that guides my life. I think this noticing of negative space is an asset to teaching. Often, attending to intention as opposed to only outcome is required when living with, loving, and working with others.

House by the Tracks (M.A. Reilly, 2008)
5. Juxtapose. Placing seemingly incongruous things/ideas next to one another helps me to create.  I trust that my mind will form connections, especially between seemingly disparate things.  Making art is largely this process. This is metaphor making.  I love the idea of error, as error is often a moment, not an end and when nurtured can lead to new insights, compositions, and ways of knowing.

6. Create via self-imposed constraints.  Self-imposed constraints (materials, time, technique, perspective) often serve as a means to liberate my work by establishing borders (flexible) in which to work.  Constraints also allow me to notice that there are multiple pathways through a work: Start again and select a new set of constraints and see what happens... Knowing the value of constraints is liberating in all sorts of situations.

7. Read and Reread.  looking across, by reading and rereading, allows me to understand changes, differences, and continuities that (in)form my work. Knowing that meaning is dynamic allows me to understand that nothing and no one stands still.

8. Embrace limitations. Making art is often about not understanding and/or unlearning. I often don't understand the work I am making or find that I need to unlearn a 'truth' I had held.  Often others are the very source of knowing I need.  One might situate these as limitations and if so, they are ones I try (not always successfully) to embrace.  Knowing on a regular basis that there are lots I don't understand or need to unlearn is humbling. This stance helps with so much.

Children engaged in art conversations. (Reilly, 2008)
9.  Be Open to the Unexpected.  Since not knowing and having to unlearn are requisite processes in making art, remaining open to the unexpected is equally as important. Being open by remaining in the present is a gift I remember now and then. 


  1. Thank you for such a vivid response.

    Your words "It is in the emergence and then refinement that art is made." resonate. This arc is what fascinates me about the creative process.

    Number 7, Read and Reread, is a favorite. An acknowledgment that art and life are never static.

    And, " I love the idea of error, as error is often a moment, not an end and when nurtured can lead to new insights, compositions, and ways of knowing" is marvelous too.

    I will be returning to your list again, of that you can be sure

  2. you make me rich.
    thank you dear.

    thank you Kira.. for inspiring this particular capture.

    I'm especially drawn to...
    attending to intention as opposed to outcome..
    randomness as important play...
    and the need to select your own mentors...

  3. Thank you for allowing me to "experience" your creative process through words. Beautiful.

  4. @Kira, thanks so much for suggesting this topic. It took me some time to think about it and I am grateful for the nudge to do so.

  5. @Monika,

    I so appreciate the clarity with which you read and represent ideas. The three ideas you are drawn to, are critical ones for me.


  6. @Muareen,

    The pleasure was surely mine. Always pleased to know the work resonates.

    Thanks for taking time to read/view/respond.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.