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Let the Work Take Over

Sunday, 27. January 2013 23:51

It is very common to hear fiction writers talk about characters taking over the novel, play, or short story. Characters, it seems, sometimes go their own way, taking the plot along with them instead of performing in the way that the author envisioned. The writer becomes almost a spectator. For those who don’t write, this may sound a bit silly. After all, who is the one whose fingers are on the keyboard? What is really happening is that the story is taking on a life of its own. It’s just a convenience to blame it on the characters—since that’s often what starts the story moving in a certain direction—perhaps one unforeseen by the author.

Creations do that—take on a life of their own, and it doesn’t matter what kind of creation it is. The same phenomenon occurs in almost all arts. An actor’s performance can rise above expectations on certain nights, reaching emotions and insights never before (and sometimes never after) touched. Even the actor him/herself has no idea how or why it happened. They just treasure the experience, and, if they try to explain it at all, write it off to “inspiration.”

It involves creating in flow (discussed here and in several other posts), which almost removes consciousness from the creative process. But more than that, it involves letting the work take over. It’s almost as if the painting or the collage or the poem or characters start telling you what to do next and how to do it, guiding the artist in the creation.  In extreme cases, the artist is unconscious of what is going on. He/she becomes a tool by which the creation realizes itself.

This process may not be as mystical as it’s beginning to sound. There are, of course, psychological explanations. If you read flow theory, you find that what I am talking about here is perhaps a subset of that or an enhanced version of that. This state certainly shares many of the characteristics of flow, but the “sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity” is missing. The creator seems not only to not be in control, but seems almost to be missing. And the creator is certainly not directing the work on any kind of conscious level.

Jackson Pollock put it this way:

When I am in a painting, I’m not aware of what I’m doing. It is only after a sort of “get acquainted” period that I see what I have been about. I have no fears about making changes, destroying the image, etc, because the painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through. It is only when I lose contact with the painting that the result is a mess. Otherwise there is pure harmony, an easy give and take, and the painting comes out well.

Pollock is not the only artist to have to wait to see what he has been about. An acquaintance, an accomplished sculptor and painter, commented about his own just-finished painting the other day, “Perhaps in a day or two I’ll figure out what I was trying to say.”

This is certainly not to say that all we have to do is sit down at the keyboard, or easel, or wherever we work and art will happen. We all know better than that. Of course we have to learn and practice and investigate and imagine and apply experience. But once we begin a project, we can, with sufficient concentration, move into flow, and then, if conditions are right and we are willing to take a risk and release a little control, we can perhaps move one step beyond to that place where the work takes over. And then we can, like Pollock, achieve that pure harmony that lets the life of the work come through.

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The Artistic Value of Networking — Yes, There Is One

Monday, 23. July 2012 0:04

One afternoon when I was in graduate school, we had a big deal guest lecturer, as was demonstrated by the suspension of all theatre classes so the entire department could go hear this person. At that time, I was not very knowledgeable about directors, particularly those from England, so his name did not register, and I could not tell you today who the celebrated director was. But I went and observed that this man was enjoying playing the role of British Artiste. And why not? But I listened, and what he said has stayed with me.

His thesis was that the stage director is like a magpie. I did not know that the European magpie is “considered one of the most intelligent of all animals,” and I knew nothing of the folk tale that the bird is a bit of a thief, picking up this shiny thing here and that trinket there and taking them home to decorate his/her nest. The guest speaker went on to explain how the resourceful director would take a bit from something he/she read, something from a play or movie that he/she had seen, something from a conversation with an actor. The director would then use these bits and pieces to modify and decorate, if not fabricate, his/her production.

What this director described was not so much stealing whole ideas or approaches, but rather a gathering of a pinch of something here and at smidgen of something else there and then using it along with original ideas, sometimes unconsciously. Such an approach is a long way from the “theft” I have discussed a couple of times: here and here, or, as some would have it, “homage.” Such blatant activity is attributed to film director Brian De Palma, who, interestingly, is described with the same simile: “Like a magpie, De Palma would take a camera angle from here, a plot idea from there, and weave them together into his own cinematic nest.

It seems to me that most artists do something similar: we take an idea from a conversation with a colleague, a concept from something we have seen, an image or metaphor obtained from someone else we meet at a party. Then, if we are at all original, we add these notions to our own—sometimes subconsciously—and bring forth a new idea, something we might not have conceived otherwise. Then we turn that idea into reality. And sometimes, a single work will suggest a series, and we are really able to capitalize on this new idea.

This happened to me just this week. It was an unusual week in that I went to three openings. These were very different events. One was a one-person show at a community college; one was a group show at of diverse artists in a converted warehouse, and one was a group show of emerging young artists at a storefront gallery in a trendy neighborhood. And the art involved was as different as the locations. But somehow sights and sounds and little bits of conversations at the three locations resonated and coalesced with a possibility that had not resonated before and which was suggested by a colleague some time ago, and there was a brand new idea—not quite the same idea that had been suggested, but literally a connecting of pieces to construct a new possibility, which, before the weekend was over, had turned into, not quite a series, but a diptych.

And the experience of putting the diptych together spawned other ideas, so there may be a real, if vaguely-connected, series that comes out of these experiences.

So it turns out that networking, which many of us have a tendency to avoid, can be about things other than making connections with other people and moving the business side of your art forward (not that that’s a bad thing). It can be about gathering bits and pieces and arranging them in your mind with a touch of imagination and creating something brand new. It is decidedly worth your time.

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To Make Good Art, Find Your Type and Embrace It

Sunday, 29. April 2012 23:38

Last weekend, I was cameraman for an acting-for-film workshop. Among the issues that came up were questions and suggestions about auditioning and getting jobs. The instructor advised students to learn what type(s) they were and then go after roles that were that type. She went on to say that actors should be comfortable with what types they can and cannot play believably.

Her basis for all of this was that film is an intensely visual medium so it is very useful to know how you come across on camera. This enables you to go for roles that “fit” you physically, which means that you can be visually convincing for your audience. At the same time she said that the camera will pick up your personality whether you want it to or not, so it makes more sense to admit that your personality informs your work.

Essentially her advice was to find out who you are and who you can be and embrace that. It seems to me that this simple instruction might be sound advice for any artist in any medium. Perhaps those of us who are not actors need to discover who we are as artists and embrace that and let it inform all that we do artistically.

Perhaps then we can actually make art that represents us and our world view and our values and emotions and all of those things that we were going to do when we first started. And that would guarantee that we would put ourselves into our work. Perhaps then we can allow ourselves to ignore the fusillade of advice that bombards us daily about how to sell our work, how to advance our careers, how to modify what we do so it will better fit the marketplace.

But then what about those careers? How are we to sell what we make if all we do is make art that represents and pleases ourselves? The workshop instructor’s answer to this question was, “Money follows bliss,” another version of the more familiar “Money follows passion.” As simplistic as it sounds, almost every career guide echoes this idea. If we are blissful or passionate doing what we do, it is likely that that will come through, and we will do a better job and create better artifacts. And it is equally likely that viewers of our work will see the quality and the passion and reward us.

If we try to be all things to all people or if we try to produce whatever is trending in the marketplace, we do a disservice to ourselves and to our talent. And we may find that if we wander too far from our own “type” of art, from who we are, our work can become confused, unconvincing, forced, or trivial.

This certainly does not mean that we cannot change. Most of us do change; many of us evolve. Some of us care about different things at different times; those changes can certainly be reflected in our work. Others of us have much the same interests and concerns that we had decades ago, but we may develop new ways to express those concerns and interests. Regardless of who we are or how we express ourselves, what is important is that we allow ourselves to create work that reflects us, and does so honestly.

None of this means that we can disregard auditions or juried shows or gallery exhibitions or having an internet presence or networking. But it does mean that that we can believe in what we are presenting, that we know what we are offering is real and valuable and genuine—and ours. It may take a little longer to find our audience that way, but we can and we will.

 

Category:Audience, Creativity, Originality | Comment (0) | Author:

What’s Important – the Image or the Artifact?

Monday, 23. April 2012 1:28

An acquaintance of mine recently declared that he was going to hang no more prints in his home; from now on it was to be only originals. To me this means that there will be no more lithographically printed images on his walls, but only things created by the artist. It also means that those pieces hanging on his wall will be one-of-a-kind. But I wondered what this person would do with regard to photographs. What constitutes an “original” in photography is open to discussion, if not debate.

Photographic prints do not have the uniqueness that hand-drawn or painted pieces have. This is particularly true of digital prints, which can be reproduced infinitely, with each print being just as good as the previous one. What then constitutes an “original” photograph?

There are several responses to this question. The first is to issue prints in limited editions, a procedure used by many fine art photographers. The number of prints in an issue is fixed, but different series of different sizes or formats may exist. Generally the purchasing public relies on the photographer’s integrity to guarantee the originality and scarcity of limited edition prints they might buy. Some US states have laws that regulate photography editions; some do not.

This procedure is not without its difficulties. One of these came to the fore recently when a collector sued renowned photographer William Eggleston after Eggleston created a new issue of images that had previously been printed and sold as limited editions. The new images were of a different size and printed using a different process. At stake, according to the lawsuit, is the value of the original collector’s images; he maintains that the new issue has devalued the prints he owns.

The problem gets a little cloudier with open editions, that is, editions that are essentially infinite. Then whether it is an original or not usually depends on some rules of thumb, such as whether the photographer actually printed or directed the printing of the image, or whether was it done by someone else or after the fact.

The second response to the problem of original photography is to somehow create a unique artifact. There have been two articles in photography trade magazines in recent months on making encaustic photographs, one about a photographer who uses the process and one how-to article. Even though each piece is based on the same digital print, each is unique because of the manual encaustic process used. Thus each is an original, and some would say much more than a photograph.

There are other solutions. Some photographers, like Gregori Maiofis, make prints using archaic and complicated chemical process which induce small differences print to print. This guarantees that each image in a limited edition is original.

Also recently I had a conversation with an instructor of print-making who had spent an entire semester working with a graduate student developing a process by which photographs could be used as a basis for creating plates for intaglio printing. Since each print is hand pulled and because of the unavoidable variations in every printing, each image would essentially be an original.

On the other end of the spectrum are photographers who celebrate the infinite reproducibility of the digital image.  Counted among the reproducibility advocates are those who appreciate the giclée, a reproduction of a hand-drawn or painted image. Digital files are made from the originals; then reproductions are produced using a giclée printer. Some are accepting of giclées because of their quality; some consider them mere copies. The advantage of any digital reproduction is, of course, that the image can be duplicated in an affordable format.

Money and quality are always issues, but the question really is are you interested in image only, regardless of how it was created, or do you want to own an “original” artifact?

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Separate Yourself: Maintain Your Artistic Vision

Monday, 9. April 2012 0:43

One of the things that separates the artist from the rest of the world is his/her vision. As Jason tweets, “Anyone can pick up a camera and make a photo. A photographer expresses a vision.” This is true of painters, poets, novelists, playwrights, sculptors movie-makers, song-writers. This is also what separates the “one-hit wonder” from the working artists who continue to produce month after month.

There are two main problems with artistic vision. One is making work that does not match you vision. I once worked with an actress who was upset to the point of tears that she was not connecting with the role the way she wanted to. She talked about how sometimes she just couldn’t get there, and it didn’t matter what others thought; what mattered was what she thought. She had discovered the truth that was perhaps put best by Nobel Laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer when he said “Every creator painfully experiences the chasm between his inner vision and its ultimate expression.”

The point is not so much that you don’t get there, but that you try with everything in you to realize your vision. I’m pretty sure that you never do. At least I have never known an artist who was able to. Sometimes we come close, occasionally very close, but we almost never fully realize our vision. And knowing that, we still press forward. We begin every project hoping that this time we will achieve our vision, regardless of what experience has taught us. And often we get closer, so we do it again and again and again.

The second problem with an artist’s vision is maintaining it in the face of innumerable distractions and pressures. Photographer Stephen Salmieri says, “In a medium which is so profuse with ideas and techniques and technologies constantly invented, I found it necessary to cut a clear and precise path to chart my trajectory and to keep my ideas consistent and in the forefront.” Even those whose art does not involve cutting-edge technology face similar problems. There is always a new technique, a new pigment, a new material, a new approach.

Now add other pressures and distractions: networking, maintaining a presence on social media; establishing a career path, dealing with the current emphasis on sales and marketing. And all of these areas have sub-areas that also need attention.

The real trick is to maintain your vision. It is easy to change the direction of what you are doing because “your skills would fit nicely into that niche” or “your audience would like your work better if you just changed this or that” or “you could really make a fortune if you only. . .” The problem is that in each of these cases, you are not only modifying your art, you are creating an even larger distance between your vision and your art. Or you may be modifying your vision itself.

Being an artist can be frustrating. First, you have to deal with the gap between your vision and your art. Then you have to deal with forces that pressure you to modify your vision or distract you from it.

Before you begin to waver, look at some other artists who have had similar pressures. Singer-songwriter Harry Chapin, for example, refused to modify his “too-long” ballads despite of pressure from radio stations. Did he suffer financially? Maybe, but when he passed away, he was, according to his widow, “supporting 17 relatives, 14 associations, seven foundations and 82 charities.”  There are others who have held to their vision; likely they are the artists you respect.

Maintaining your vision and working to express it are not easy things, but necessary. Your vision is what makes your art your art.

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We Can Do Better: The Need for a Fresh Approach

Monday, 26. December 2011 0:29

Well, the Ovation Channel was at it again. Evidently their “Battle of the Nutcrackers” is an annual event; those who watched have had the opportunity to see five different versions of the seasonal ballet again this year and vote on their favorite.

Although I have written about this television event before, it is still a very interesting thing to watch five different interpretations of the same basic story, told to (mostly) the same music.  What struck me this year, however, was the effort that the director/choreographers put into making their work fresh and new.

We all know of recurrent productions, be they plays, musical performances, or ballets that simply repeat every year what has been done by that particular producing organization before. It’s much like they know there is a market for the seasonal production, but somehow they can’t put their hearts into it—after all, they’ve done it and done it and done it before. We also know of directors and choreographers who, instead of doing what is required to bring a new vision to the stage, will attempt to reproduce other productions or movies of the work they are staging.

Not so with those who produced these world-class versions of the famous ballet. Productions ranged from the traditional to the surreal to a complete restructuring of the story and the characters.  Each is remarkable in its own way, and each fresh and new in some way. And each seems to be aimed at a different audience. It does not seem to matter that the directors have done the show before; this time it’s different and new and important that it be that.

Certainly, I do not want to tackle the question of which one was the best. That, after all, is the point of the “competition,” with the audience favorite having been aired in prime time on Christmas Eve. But some departures are worthy of note. One is British director/choreographer Matthew Bourne’s version. To say that Bourne has reimagined the Nutcracker is a gross understatement. His version retains the plot and a few of the characters, but the rest is completely new and different. Of course, Bourne has the habit of reimagining almost all of the traditional pieces that he directs. And there are other innovators: Mikhail Chemiakinâ’s surrealistic approach is  a “darker and more adult retelling” of the familiar story, produced at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia. And then there is the version by Patrice Bart, set during the Russian Revolution, which, again, is a significant reimagining of an old story.

The point, of course, is that each of these artists works to make his work his own.  Moreover, these director/choreographers do not rely on what has gone before, or the interpretations of others. These works, although retaining identifiable parts of the traditional story, are fresh departures, new ways of telling that story, and aimed at a particular audience. These artists are following Ezra Pound’s injunction, “Make it new.” We would do well to do likewise. And although I have written on this topic before, it is a topic that deserves to be discussed repeatedly for those interested in art and creativity.

Regardless of the medium in which we work, we could learn a lot from these experts in staging ballet. We might step out of our comfort zone, let our imaginations run, and follow where they lead. We might consider our audience, or rather, a different audience or segment of audience.  We might find that stepping into the scary world of the unknown is just what our art needs. If all we do is repeat our past successes (or someone else’s), we cease to be artists and become artifact- or performance-producing mechanics. We can do better.

 

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Creative Advice from Spoken Word Poet Sarah Kay

Monday, 5. December 2011 0:08

The Domino Project, founded by Seth Godin, is about reimagining publishing in the twenty-first century.  Last week under the title Why publish poetry? The Domino Project introduced Sarah Kay to those of us who hadn’t heard of her.  Living up to the idea of using new media to spread ideas, the posting included a YouTube video of Sarah Kay at TED, where she earned not one but two standing ovations. Her presentation was a demonstration of her first love, spoken word poetry, followed by a talk about making spoken word poetry.

Kay, it turns out, is not only a remarkable poet, but has taken it as her mission to teach and encourage others to make spoken word poetry. The majority of her presentation was about this aspect of her career. As I listened to her, I realized that what she was saying not only applied to spoken word poetry, but to any creative undertaking, irrespective of the medium. And it is valuable advice—probably as important as her poetry.

Kay notes that her poems are for her a way of learning and “figuring things out;” I think this approach to creating may be true of a number of artists. She says that artists should bring all they know to bear on the project at hand, “gathering up all the knowledge and experience you’ve collected up to now to help you dive into the things you don’t know.” Of herself, she says, “I show up to each new poem with a backpack full of everywhere else I’ve been.”

A second thing that Kay teaches is how to get to the poem. She uses a list-making exercise as a springboard for creativity. This exercise often takes the form, “list of 10 things you know to be true” or, in one case, “list of 10 things you should have learned by now.” One has the feeling that she has hundreds of list possibilities. In any case, the lists can be compared to the lists of others, or simply used as a way to discover an interesting story or idea, which in this case, can result in an interesting poem, or for those of us who are not poets (yet), an interesting painting or play or photograph or dance or sculpture or novel. It is truly an inspired creative tool, even for those who, like one of Kay’s students, think they don’t have anything interesting to say.

Another thing that Kay believes and tries to pass along to others is her belief that each artist is unique. “I’m trying to tell stories only I can tell.”  Then she combines the ideas of utilizing things you know to be true and allowing yourself to be unique. She says this of one of her students, Charlotte: “By putting the things she knows to be true into the work she’s doing, she can created poems that only Charlotte can write.”

All you have to do is take that statement, change the pronouns to “I,” change “poems” to whatever your art is, plug in your name instead of Charlotte’s, and you have a mantra that you can live by, at least artistically speaking.

Kay’s last piece of advice for artists is one that we have all heard before: “grow and explore and take risks.” But you have the feeling that when Kay says it, she not only means it, she lives by it. Perhaps we too can use her words to guide our artistic lives.

 

 

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Artist or Artisan?

Sunday, 6. November 2011 23:32

Over the last couple of weeks, I have had occasion to reread two of my favorite plays, The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.  Between readings, I sometimes forget just how good these plays are. Both are complex multi-layered pieces that take full advantage of the unique properties of the live stage situation, albeit in very different ways. What is also very apparent is that these two pieces of theatrical art were penned by writers who were at the top of their game, in terms of both art and craft. The men who wrote these two plays are not just artisans; they are artists.

In an article called “No, Not Everybody’s an Artist (Despite what they may think)” and the follow-up article, “C’est La Vie,” John Stillmunks tries to get at the difference between artists and artisans, pointing out that having a good idea or a new product or a marketing angle does not make someone an artist.  In his first article, Stillmunks says that real art touches the heart and soul of the viewer. In the follow-up, he goes further, saying that “an artist takes something out of his or her heart and soul and places it on that page, canvas, song, or whatever.” For him it’s not about technique, but the notion that the artist takes the “camera, brush, voice or pen to an entirely different level…a unique place.” This is not something that just anyone can do, and Stillmunks is convinced that it cannot be taught.

Stillmunks, a painter, points out that the current art market is just that, a market. There are juried shows and submission requirements and things that just don’t interest a number of real artists. Real artists are about making the art, regardless of the medium, and often regardless of the potential market.

Of the many who have tried to write like Tennessee Williams or Edward Albee, either in terms of style or material, most simply don’t measure up. They may have the technique, the technical knowledge, the skills. What they do not have is the willingness or the ability to put themselves into their work. No matter what medium is involved, that takes guts; sometimes it seems that it takes obsession or worse. Some artists talk about the need to put themselves into the work. This is not merely self-expression; there is a readiness, perhaps a necessity, to put the most personal parts of the inner self on display.

Once that will exists, the rest follows. There is only one of each person and if that person is truly putting him/herself into the work, the artist will do whatever he/she has to do to get the work “right.” The result may not be pretty; it may even be painful, but it will be honest. It will be unique and authentic, and more important, it will speak to people—and not just to their minds, but to their hearts and souls. Art, real art, moves people.

With the current state of the arts market, it seems that many who make things have become more artisans and vendors than artists. There is nothing wrong with creating artifacts that will sell, nor is there anything wrong with selling reproductions of your work. But I have to agree with Stillmunks: technique and sales acumen are not what make people artists.

Artists are those whose work we look at over and over again. I reread plays by Williams and Albee and a few others. We look at certain paintings and photographs and sculptures repeatedly. We watch familiar ballets and listen again to musical masterpieces. The work of artists enriches us, and so we return to it—because even if it’s not pretty, it’s very often beautiful.

Category:Creativity, Originality, Theatre | Comments (2) | Author:

Art and the Potential of Technology

Monday, 31. October 2011 0:26

Make no mistake, I love traditional art forms—not necessarily traditional content—but the forms themselves: live theatre, dance, poetry, fiction, painting, film. And like everyone in the arts I have, for a long time, been aware of the impact of technology in the arts. Who can be involved in photography and not be aware of that? Most photography, however, just uses new technology to arrive at the same old place: a print on paper that can be put into an album or framed and hung on a wall. Much the same thing happens with other current uses of technology.

Our acceptance of technology is evolutionary. We adapt in order to do our jobs or our art and don’t think much about it. I sit here typing on one in a long line of successive keyboards; the hardware has changed, the operating systems have changed, the software has changed, but the keyboard is still the old qwerty design, albeit in a far more (for me) ergonomic package. So I don’t notice the changes so much.

We also don’t notice the evolution in publishing. Technology is what makes it possible for you to be reading this. Most of us don’t think what a recent innovation this is; we sit down at the keyboard, go online, read what we want, publish what we want. One of the ongoing themes of Seth Godin’s The Domino Project is the impact that technology can and is having on writing and publishing.

Despite our love for the feel of paper and page-turning and the physicality of books, many of us now read on mobile devices of some kind or another. It’s easier, more convenient, and (in most cases) cheaper. It also works better for publishers: same income, less investment, no inventory. So we download ebooks into our Kindles or Nooks or apps and read away.

None of this is big news. At least that’s what I thought until I was this week introduced to a “book” called The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore by Moonbot Studios. It is really an iPad app that is designed to “revive a love of story in all.” The creators have used animation, words, voice, music and genuine interactivity to produce a work that is “old-fashioned and cutting edge at the same time.” It’s an amazing piece of work.

Then, all of a sudden, the capabilities of this technology hit me.

Now I have seen video and film in art exhibits and museums. I have played with “interactive” art pieces. Usually those pieces are unsatisfying. In many cases it is an issue of production or presentation values, a lack of understanding of interaction, or editing. Such work often engages one or two senses, but is not fully absorbing. This was the first instance where I have seen technology really used to its fullest. Morris not only engages all of the senses (except smell), but also activates the intellect and the imagination.

And it is not just the book, although it is truly delightful. What is really exciting the potential. This is finally immersive computer technology with a use other than gaming. This is technology used to create and present art, art which fully engages the viewer and is distributed via the internet. The possibilities are astounding.

At present, most, but not all, animated book apps seem to be geared toward children, and certainly they are appropriate to the young, but the implications of the technology are much bigger than that. It doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to see how this technology could be used to create all sorts of art projects. Yes, it requires a different sort of thinking: it is not applying paint to canvas, or even digital manipulation of captured images, or text-only story-telling. But it does allow artists to leap into what has become the mainstream of communication in this century.

Category:Creativity, Originality, Technology | Comment (0) | Author:

Nor is Making Art for the Tentative

Monday, 3. October 2011 0:19

Several weeks ago I proclaimed that “making art is not for the timid.” It was a post about making choices and presentation. Recently I was reminded that there are other ways timidity gets in the way of making art.

Not long ago a friend invited me to a ceramics studio for a charity event. It was for a good cause, and I have a quiet interest in things ceramic so I went. It turned out that my friend, who is a beginning ceramicist, was at one of those places we all get to in whatever art we do where nothing seems to go right. But he was game, and kept throwing and working the clay and not succeeding. I watched.

There were seven people throwing and, although they all had the same instructor, each person had a different approach and rhythm in working with the clay. It was instructive to watch individual methodologies. My friend was not having a great day. I watched for an hour or so and then went on to do other things.

We got together later for drinks. He said that he had been progressing well for a good while and then hit a stumbling block and now nothing worked. He was trying to determine exactly what was wrong, and had, after I left, talked to more advanced potters, few of whom had concrete advice but all of whom were encouraging. He was a bit discouraged. I claim no knowledge at all about ceramics, but I had noticed one thing: he was tentative. It was as if he was afraid of the material or what he might do to it. It was my single uninformed critical observation, and we soon moved on to other things.

Being tentative is an easy thing to do. You are worried about not succeeding, and because you are worrying, you hold back; you decline to commit to the work. You become tentative, you begin to falter; then your work falters. Your brush strokes are not firm and confident, so you painting is not what it could be. You are hesitant in postproduction so your photographic images are less than you envisioned. You decline to make choices and your acting is not interesting. You waver in selecting words so your writing is weak and not at all what you wanted it to be.  And it’s all about being afraid.

You have to be aware that if you set out to make art, you will fail somewhere along the way, and you need to be ready. As Ken Robinson says, “if you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.”  It may be that you have difficulty learning a technique. It may be that you have temporary coordination issues. It may be that you are afraid of embarrassing yourself. It may be that you are not concentrating.

There are hundreds of things that will cause you to do less than your best work, but the one thing that you can do is resolve to make each element of your approach strong and confident. I do not mean that there can be no delicacy in your work. Sometimes that’s when strength in resolve is the most important. Make your choices and follow through fully, strongly, confidently. Approach your work as did author Edith Pargeter, “with absolute conviction.” And the odds are that you will be right, or certainly more right than if you had held back.

My friend took a week off, then went back to the studio. By then he had thought about his approach, and decided to modify his timing, adjust his technique, and be less hesitant. He was suddenly back on track. At least a third of his problem had been tentativeness. Don’t let it be yours.

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