Growth and change

How does one find one’s purpose as an artist? Should we build that into how we think about our work?

Ravening Wolves, 24X30, oil on canvas, is as close as I get to didacticism these days.

“How have you grown as a painter in the last ten years?” a student asked me.

My drawing and brushwork aren’t much different, but my color choices have certainly changed, as has my ability to relax into abstraction. That doesn’t seem like much growth for a decade’s work.

In intangible ways, however, I’ve changed a lot—I’m far less anxious about the outcome, and less didactic in my subject matter. I’ll never focus on figure as I was doing a decade ago. Although I’m proud of the work I did about women’s issues, I’ll never paint that subject again. Which reminds me: this is the last weekend you’ll see Censored and Poetic at the Rye Arts Center; it ends Saturday night.

Main Street, Owl’s Head, 16X20, oil on archival gessoboard

Ten years ago, I was still wrestling with the legitimacy of my calling. Those of you who were raised thinking that art wasn’t a ‘real’ career understand that. Today, I barely remember the question. I’m an artist because it’s all I know how to do.

Which leads me to the second question I received this week: “How does one find purpose? How have artists done it over time? Should we build that into how we think about our work?

“I see people at figure sessions banging out the exact same thing over and over. I get the impression, from talking to them, that they have been doing that, or variations of that, for years on end. And they aren’t that good. Why do these people show up? Something to do?”

Spring Greens, 8×10, oil on canvasboard

I’m the last person to denigrate regular practice, and figure is one area where that is particularly important. If I had the time right now, I’d go to my local life drawing class myself. It’s good exercise and I like the people who attend.

But I have known people who never progress past that. They were taking classes 25 years ago and are still doing that today. Some are stuck because they have day jobs. Some aren’t that skilled but enjoy the process. Some are excellent painters, but uninterested in making it a career. Amateur status is nothing to be sneezed at.

I’ve also had students who’ve just gone through a major trauma—an unwanted divorce or job separation. They were floundering and it gave them an anchor. Creativity is cheaper than therapy and for many it serves as well. When they worked out their next step, they moved on from art.

Midnight at the Wood Lot, 12X16, oil on canvasboard

But there are always that few who want to make art their life’s work. For them, the question of artistic purpose is critical. It’s inextricably bound up in one’s life purpose. Your work ought to be an expression of your thoughts or feelings, or it’s meaningless.

When I was younger, I thought that my purpose was didactic. Today, I’d be hard-pressed to put my mission statement into words, but it has something to do with glorifying Creation and helping people feel connected to it. That’s tied to my faith, but I don’t feel a need to preach through my paintings.

That, too, may change as I get older. One’s mission and calling in life is fluid. The important thing is to have the tools at our disposal to answer whatever comes up. And that’s where all those weeks and years in art class come in.

A friend challenges me to go deeper.

Paintings aren’t made in grand gestures; they’re made with brushes, one stroke at a time.

Morning Fog over Whiteface Mountain, by Carol L. Douglas. Available.

When I was younger, I did a lot of work that told a story and had deeper meaning. Today, much of it seems sophomoric. I prefer to concentrate on simple landscape.

In one sense, I’ve been resting. My childhood wasn’t easy, and I carried psychic wounds for a long time. I’ve no interest in poking at the scabs. Moreover, I don’t know where to start. While the Bible is my own personal source text, all the reasons to paint Bible stories are obsolete now. Film and the written word are far better at communicating sermons.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t great modern painters who’ve told Bible stories. Sir Stanley Spencer’s The Resurrection, Cookham, manages to wonderfully humanize a difficult idea, with its blinking villagers awakening from their long sleep.

Snowfall, by Carol L. Douglas, available.

Story-telling is intimately tied with figure painting, for the obvious reason that our stories are based on people. This week I came across a cache of figure sketches. “These are not bad,” I told Adam Levi, who is the Executive Director of Rye Arts Center. They’ll be mounting a show of my figure work in 2021, and I thought the sketches would make a good counterpoint to the framed work.

But landscape painting also has meaning. A Turner maelstrom, a Constable sky, or a Rockwell Kent sea convey as much about our anxieties, fears and hopes as any figure painting. Which conveys isolation better: Edward Hopper’s Nighthawksor Winslow Homer’s Weatherbeaten?Tough call.

The ideas conveyed by landscape painting are largely non-verbal. When I’m asked for an artist’s statement, I try to put them into words, and I can’t. “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands,” wrote King David. It’s hard to improve on that.

Beaver Dam on Quebec Brook, by Carol L. Douglas, available.

This week, John Nicholson sent me a quote that stopped me cold. John’s a Southern Baptist pastor from Marion, Alabama. He’ll undermine every stereotype you ever had about southern preachers.

“The allotted function of art is not, as is often assumed, to put across ideas, to propagate thoughts, to serve as example. The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good.” 

The writer of this terrible challenge was the famous Russian filmmaker, Andrei Tarkovsky. Tarkovsky was, like me, a rotten student, a troublemaker in school, and had trouble settling down to a career. After booting around as a prospector in the taiga, he decided to study film. It was the one thing that held his interest.

The Late Bus, by Carol L. Douglas, available.

Tarkovsky remained a devout Orthodox Christian during a time when religion in Russia was actively suppressed. In the end, like so many other Russian intellectuals, he was forced to defect. “The Soviet authorities left me no other choice,” he said. They’d allowed him to make only six films in a quarter of a century. They considered him a “dead soul, a zero.”

In 1966, Tarkovsky made a three-hour epic film about an icon painter, which was immediately suppressed. Ivan Rublevis at once a loose biography of a 15th-century monk, a portrait of medieval Russia, and a self-portrait of the struggles of a modern Russian artist. It won an award at Cannes and today it’s considered a masterpiece.

In the face of such depth, I feel like I have very little to say with my happy little landscapes. I don’t even know if I’m capable of rising to the challenge. But paintings aren’t made in grand gestures; they’re made with brushes, one stroke at a time. I’m thinking about it, John.

Engineering, symbolism, or art?

What was once necessary then becomes beautiful, then iconic… and then interpreted.

Stone Celtic high cross at Iona. Own photo.
At Mesa Verde National Park, a line of shallow circular holes marches across a flat stone patio in front of an ancient pueblo. I sat through a ranger’s talk about their religious significance. I asked him if they might, instead, be footers for a wooden structure, now gone. “Impossible!” he exclaimed.
We moderns see things through our own cultural biases. One of these is that we are more rational than our ancestors, who lived in a world dominated by superstition.
Iona in the Hebrides is notable for its cluster of Celtic crosses; historians debate whether they or those at Ahenny in Ireland are the oldest. The design is certainly Anglo-Irish in origin. Columba, the founder of Iona Abbey, was an Irishman.
Pictish Kirkyard stone, Aberlemno, Angus, Scotland, UK. Here the circle is motif, not structure.
Christianity was first introduced into the British Isles by the Romans. By 200 AD the British Christian church was flourishing. However, with the end of Roman influences, Angles, Saxons, Jutes and others overran England, driving out the Celts. Christianity survived (with them) in the wild outposts of Ireland, Wales, and Scotland. By the time Augustinelanded at Canterbury to found the English church, there was a well-established tradition of stone high crosses in the areas converted by the Hiberno-Scottish mission.
They may reflect the lack of trees in the northern islands, or that stone lasts longer than wood. Or, the stones may have been a fusion of wooden crosses and the earlier pagan tradition of standing stones.
Cloncha cross and church near Culdaff, County Donegal, Ireland. Without the circles, the arms must be squatter and shorter. Photo courtesy Radosław Botev
Much ink has been spilled over the question of what the ring of the Celtic cross means. Ringed crosses were seen in the Byzantine Empire by the 5th century. The circle itself has represented many things worldwide, including the celestial sphere. The early Irish Christians were certainly familiar with this iconography, and with the Coptic tradition of a cross based on the Egyptian ankh.
On the other hand, the circle gave an engineering advantage. A cross with a circle can have larger arms. This is true in wood, but it’s critical in stone. The more workable the stone, the softer it is, and the more support is needed.

When these stone crosses were made, there was no deep division between engineering and art; for stone masons, the question still doesn’t exist. Therein lies a problem with leaving art analysis in the hands of people whose education is overwhelmingly one-sided. They may know myth, but they have no idea what holds up a building.
“What was once necessary then becomes beautiful, then iconic…” muttered my companion as we stood at the foot of an ancient Celtic cross. She then added, “and then interpreted.” The circle of the Celtic cross was intended to give strength, but became a symbol in its own right, a product of the mid-19th century Celtic revival. It’s beautiful and potent to modern man, but it means something different than it did to the person who carved it. His primary goal was to cut the Gospel into rock.
Liam Emmery’s Celtic cross in the Irish hills. Photo courtesy Ken Finlay.
Forester Liam Emmery passed away in 2010 after suffering a traumatic brain injury. A few years later, a Celtic cross appeared in his former patch. It’s made of a patchwork of larches among evergreens, meaning that as autumn approaches, the cross turns gold.  It won’t last as long as those stone crosses—maybe a century if all goes well—but the impulse was the same.
“He just loved things to be perfect, and I think the Celtic cross is perfect for him,” said his widow.

Party dogs

What is art? That’s something nobody can agree on.

Great Danes and Doberman Pinschers talk about what they plan to wear to my daughter’s wedding.
Last night I assembled an august panel of artists to help me with a project. Barb is a printmaker with an art degree from University of Maine. Sandy is a gallerist with degrees from Pratt and Hunter College. Together, we dressed 42 dogs in wedding finery. (As so often happens in sweatshops, I ‘forgot’ to pay them.)
“Is this art?” I asked two other artist friends.
“It’s like asking if a soy product in the shape of a chicken leg is food,” said one. “Technically, yes, but it’s bad food.”
“I guess the individual sculptures are art,” hedged the other, who then raised the question of whether they’re craft or even, just possibly, crap.
Two coats of silver and three of glitter… good taste, by the way, is repressive at times.
‘Artistry’ is easier to define than art itself. That means the skill necessary to produce a work of the imagination. But what defines the product of the imagination as art rather than engineering or craft?
Ars longa, vita brevis, wrote Hippocrates. He probably meant that it takes a long time to acquire and perfect artistry, but that the practitioner has only a short lifespan in which to practice. We repeat it, instead, to mean, “art lasts forever, but life is short.” That is, of course, a modern conceit. The ancients understood that “what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” (2 Cor. 4:18)

Barb felt that a DeWalt glue gun was not the tool for the job.
Platosaid that art is always a copy of a copy, an imitation of reality. This leads us from the truth and to illusion, making art inherently dangerous. (Rich words from a philosopher!) Elsewhere, he hinted that the artist, by divine inspiration, makes a better copy of truth than may be found in everyday experience. This makes artists prophets of sorts.
A lot of artists have had a go at defining art. Many are coy, like Marc Chagall, who said that “Art is the unceasing effort to compete with the beauty of flowers–and never succeeding.”
Even in non-traditional art, imitation is a recurring theme. “Art is either a plagiarist or a revolutionary,” said Paul Gauguin. What makes an Andy Warhol painting of soup cans different from the soup cans themselves? Intent and meaning. Pablo Picasso said that art is a lie that makes us see the truth.
In some way, art is the taking of an idea and making it manifest. Otherwise, it’s just a fleeting thought.
Sandy and I sewed their garments, Barb dressed them.
People frequently debate the line between art and craft. Art is useless in practical terms; it exists solely to drive emotion and thought. Fine craft does that and more. It must serve a practical purpose along with being beautiful. Since I didn’t drill their noses out to hold flowers, my party dogs fall on the side of art. 
Neither fine art nor fine craft are mass-produced, however. That is manufacturing. Those brass birds from Home Goods, as inscrutable as their meaning and purpose might be, qualify as neither art nor craft.
“The craftsman knows what he wants to make before he makes it. The making of a work of art… is a strange and risky business in which the maker never knows quite what he is making until he makes it, wrote R.G. Collingwood in The Principles of Art. That sounds very nice, until I think of dye-master Jane Bartlett throwing pots of color into the snow to see what shows up. Her textiles end up as clothing, but her process is wildly unpredictable.

Wasting time, and other lies about art

The artist’s first responsibility is to tell the truth. But what does that mean?

Child prodigy Alma Elizabeth Deutscher, courtesy Askonas Holt.
“Some people have told me that I compose in a musical language of the past and that this is not allowed in the 21st century. In the past, it was possible to compose beautiful melodies and beautiful music, but today, they say, I’m not allowed to compose like this because I need to discover the complexity of the modern world, and the point of music is to show the complexity of the world.
“Well, let me tell you a huge secret: I already know that the world is complex and can be very ugly. But I think that these people have just got a little bit confused! If the world is so ugly, then what’s the point of making it even uglier with ugly music?”

That was said by 12-year-old British child prodigy Alma Elizabeth Deutscher. I didn’t understand that at 12; I don’t think I understood it at age 40.
The artist’s first responsibility is to tell the truth. But the truth is enormous, and an artist can only bite off so much. For me that has included times of serious self-questioning and times of feminist rage. Right now, the greatest truth I want to share is a command: look around and notice our blessings.
So much of modern culture is bleak, negative, and destructive. Meanwhile, we’re healthier and less stressed than any time in history. Our kids don’t die of tuberculosis and our men are not being conscripted to march off to war. So why do one in six Americans need prescription drugs to get through their days, and so many others dull their reality with opioids or booze?
I know they’re not faking their distress. But the gap between our actual condition and our perception of it is enormous. As an artist, I can’t bring myself to contribute to it by pointing out any more problems. Who needs that on their walls?
Wall hanging in Planet Coffee in Ottawa, Canada, part of series hommage Barack Obama, by Dominik Sokolowski.

A friend was recently in Ottawa and saw the picture above. “This is a large wall hanging in Planet Coffee in Ottawa, Canada. Why is President #44 on display in Canada and not the US?” she asked.
Sometimes art is propaganda. But in general, art is a personal statement that conveys the ideas and feelings of the artist. This, by the way, is not a flattering portrait of President Obama. It seems, instead, that the artist is very conflicted.
The other answer to her question is that Americans may need an escape from the relentless bad news of politics right now. More relentlessly bad news about sex crimes is not the answer. Some conversation about our blessings would be more helpful.
Here’s an idea that never went anywhere, a maquette of a painting-sculpture, by me.
Last night, a friend said that he never understood how ‘you have too much time on your hands’ came to be an insult. “It’s the rallying cry of jealous, small minded people who think that uncomfortable employment is the mark of a moral character.”
It’s a slam I’ve heard many times. In fact, I’ve had to consciously let go of my Puritan work ethic to make headway as an artist. Sometimes my visions are not brilliantly developed, and often they look suspiciously like play. But it’s in that fizzing that the artistic mind does its work, and it often happens when we’re engaged in the most boring of tasks.
Part of that work ethic is the idea that art has to make us uncomfortable, or it’s not ‘real art’. Rubbish. It’s the ability to see the world in a new, happier way that makes a child such as Alma Elizabeth Deutscher such an asset.

Amazing what you find if you clean your room.

From The Blue Beetle Faces the Destroyer of Heroes, Blue Beetle, Vol. 1, No. 5, November 1968, Charlton Comics Group, Derby Connecticut. 
It’s Memorial Day. I’m not up to anything particularly deep about the meaning or execution of art. Instead, I’m giving you Steve Ditko being deep about the meaning of art and heroism: selected panels from “The Blue Beetle Faces the Destroyer of Heroes,” Blue Beetle, Vol. 1, No. 5, November 1968, Charlton Comics Group, Derby Connecticut. Script by  D.C. Glanzman, Penciled by Steve Ditko, Inked by Steve Ditko.
You want to read the whole thing? I recommend you hunt down the comic book, since it’s still under copyright. But, pretty much, you can see where he’s going with this.
From The Blue Beetle Faces the Destroyer of Heroes, Blue Beetle, Vol. 1, No. 5, November 1968, Charlton Comics Group, Derby Connecticut. 

In 1968, clothing was a better indication of social status than it is today. But oddly enough, as the elite has become more nihilistic in America, their clothing has gotten rattier. Coincidence?

From The Blue Beetle Faces the Destroyer of Heroes, Blue Beetle, Vol. 1, No. 5, November 1968, Charlton Comics Group, Derby Connecticut. 

I don’t think I paint women in bondage because I’m celebrating their nature, but rather I’m celebrating their ability to endure. But he has a point here:

From The Blue Beetle Faces the Destroyer of Heroes, Blue Beetle, Vol. 1, No. 5, November 1968, Charlton Comics Group, Derby Connecticut. 

 And I’m just happy to see this type of cultural critic lampooned. He never changes.

From The Blue Beetle Faces the Destroyer of Heroes, Blue Beetle, Vol. 1, No. 5, November 1968, Charlton Comics Group, Derby Connecticut. 

Ditko comes perilously close to the idea that there is a spiritual battle being fought all around us, one we cannot see unless we have “spiritual eyes.” I suppose that is a kind of superpower.

From The Blue Beetle Faces the Destroyer of Heroes, Blue Beetle, Vol. 1, No. 5, November 1968, Charlton Comics Group, Derby Connecticut. 

This makes me want to stick to landscape painting.

From The Blue Beetle Faces the Destroyer of Heroes, Blue Beetle, Vol. 1, No. 5, November 1968, Charlton Comics Group, Derby Connecticut. 

 This was definitely the 20th century battle of viewpoints:

From The Blue Beetle Faces the Destroyer of Heroes, Blue Beetle, Vol. 1, No. 5, November 1968, Charlton Comics Group, Derby Connecticut. 
Speaking of heroes, I’ve been thinking all day about ArmyPfc. Dwane A. Covert Jr. of Tonawanda, NY, killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom on November 3, 2007.
We are involved in an endless war that seems to have few casualties, so it’s easy to forget the ones our nation has suffered. But a moment to remember the men and women who have fallen in the quest to keep us safe does not come amiss.
August and September are sold out for my workshop at Lakewatch Manor in Rockland, ME.  Join us in June, July and October, but please hurry! Check here for more information.