Archive for January, 2020

Fine art as conversation

Wednesday, January 15th, 2020

I recently read an enlightening little book called “How to Make Conversation,” by Daniel Wendler. Most of us learn how to talk when we are quite young. But many of us have never properly learned to converse in a give-and-take manner, both permitting and actively encouraging all parties to participate.

Some people love to talk and seem to do it nonstop, never inviting the listener to respond or contribute additional ideas beyond expecting an occasional head nod to assure the speaker that they are still present (even if not actually listening anymore). Others are reticent about speaking up or offering unsolicited comments, so can be difficult to draw into an beneficial exchange of ideas.

It made me begin to think about art in a similar way.  As artists, are we encouraging a conversation with our viewers, or are we merely making a flat statement and expecting unquestioning agreement, with no room for viewer input?  Are we either “sermonizing” or “theorizing,” or are we encouraging an enlightening discussion through our work?

If a painting’s concept is either so mundane that no one cares, or so esoteric that few can understand it, the potential power of interaction is lost and, like listeners who continue to nod as their minds wander from a speaker’s endless rambling, viewers may stop thinking about our art and turn away.

A conversation is not unilateral but an exchange of ideas, thoughts, reflections, and insights.

We might think of illustrative art as lectures—a visual retelling of established “fact” in the form, perhaps, of a written story. Decorative art “tickles the eye” just as flattery and platitudes “tickle the ear” without requiring or stimulating deeper thought.  There is nothing wrong with either of these art forms, and I certainly don’t mean to denigrate either, as both are valid and have their own uses. But whether they can be considered “fine art” is open for debate.

Fine art more closely resembles a discussion or conversation among two or more participants, the artist and any viewers.

The fine artist poses a concept—a topic—depicting it according to a personal point of view, but then invites viewers to attach their own reflections and understanding to what is presented. Viewers consider the information given or suggested, interprets it in light of their own understanding, background, and point of view, and creates some kind of explanatory narrative to continue the visual interaction. Such visual conversations often become verbal conversations when viewers voice their ideas to one another or directly with the artist.

The more the artist invites viewer participation in considering a work, the more extensive and fruitful the conversations (both visual and verbal) may become, drawing viewers back repeatedly to reconsider and perhaps rewrite their perceived narratives. The conversation continues and stimulates even more extensive revelations.

Is your art:

– a “gabble-monger,” with extensive, indiscriminate detail but leaving nothing open for discussion?

– a “snap-shot,” depicting the subject without revealing the artist’s personal response to it?

– a “conversation starter,” introducing the topic and inviting viewer participation?

Me? I hope to become more conversational with my art this year.

Making the most of what we’re given

Wednesday, January 1st, 2020

In mid-December, while on a cruise in the Caribbean, my husband and I found ourselves in the custom-designed cruise port of Costa Maya, Mexico. This port, far distant from any major town, was designed specifically for cruise lines to use as a jump-off point for tours to the sites of several Mayan ruins. But for those of us who had already taken such tours or who didn’t look forward to spending several uncomfortable hours driving back and forth on a tour bus, our alternative options for ways to spend our day were to stay on shipboard or to browse among the gift-shops and bars in search of something revealing a bit of the Mexican “flavor” we’d presumably come to experience. We chose to wander.

Living in Florida, an easy drive away from Port Everglade, cruises and land tours are no longer a novelty to my husband and me, so my goal on this trip was to paint, or at least to make sketches of some of what we would see. In Costa Maya, the Mexican ambiance is as carefully designed and manufactured as in a theme park to entice tourists to “buy local.” This approach is not one that stimulates my creative imagination or inspires great artistic concepts. So I narrowed my focus, looking for individual features that might catch my eye—a heavily laden coconut palm, perhaps, or …

1912---Costa-Maya-FlamingoI had never had the opportunity, before, to really study a live flamingo. So when I saw a small flock of birds (no doubt with wings clipped to ensure their continued presence in their picturesquely designed setting), I took the opportunity to sketch one—or more accurately, an amalgamation of several, since they kept repositioning themselves.  I also took a number of photos for future reference in regard to overall proportion, various angles, attitudes, coloration, and neck and leg convolutions.

1912---Costa-Maya-Coconut-CSimilarly, a cartload of coconuts had been positioned outside a shop in a consciously staged arrangement. It was indeed picturesque, and I liked the variety of colors represented.  Fresh green nuts filled the cart, many with the “wild hair” of the inflorescence, like umbilical cords, still attached. Older, more dried nuts lay stacked on the ground.

But as I sat on a nearby bench to set to work, a continuous stream of cruisers meandered by, often blocking my view. So I simplified the scene, studied it sporadically when the human parade occasionally split to permit a clearer view, and freely edited the literal scene to establish a credible impression of it in my sketchbook.

I began each study with a light, exploratory pencil sketch. In the case of the coconut cart, I then restated it with pen, adding some hatching to mark shaded areas in case impending rain moved in before I could add any color. A few quick strokes of color with a waterbrush captured my basic color impressions.

Only after I was well into the second sketch did I realize that I’d been holding my sketchbook up-side down for both studies! Ha!

Ah well. The sketches still serve their purposes, reminding me of the experience and supplementing my written journal of the voyage, as well as providing plein-air (on site) reference material for future paintings I may make in the studio.

Through this coming year, I wish you, too, a fresh outlook when prospects may at first appear dim, insights into “old news” that enliven and enrich your outlook, and the ability to laugh at and find hope and enjoyment in your circumstances even when everything seems topsy-turvy!