Thursday, December 26, 2013

Robert Genn on Life's Purpose

I subscribe to a twice-weekly artist newsletter from Robert Genn.  They talk about a lot of different things: the painting process, the business side of art, the spiritual side, you name it.  The newest is a really powerful and well-written one.  I'm going to quote the full text here.


A few years ago, Adam Leipzig attended his 25th reunion at Yale University. At Yale, he had been a theatre geek and literature major. Mingling in the party tent that summer evening, Adam listened to complaints about emptiness, wasted years, and general confusion about life's purpose. He concluded that eighty percent of his former classmates were unhappy with their lives, even though most were now in positions of power, were prosperous, and had ticked many of life's trophy boxes. In contrast, the twenty percent - the happy Yalies - were arts and history people, and those who had studied subjects for the joy of learning. Adam posited a theory: Happiness is having a purpose. People who are happy, he found, know five things:

Who they are
What they do
Who they do it for
What those people's needs are
And what they get out of it lists 151,928 book titles about finding life's purpose. It's a going concern. But life teaches that if we make others happy, we're taken care of. Somehow, our most important needs are met on a level that cannot be matched by acquisition or achievement. Focusing outward is the key.

Creative people, in particular, often stumble when asked, "What do you do?" Some find the question confronting, or downright troublesome, especially when between projects, or if there's vagueness about professional status. Many others do something else, something they feel is not the thing that defines them. Still others believe they're not yet ready to identify with the title "artist." The word itself is as loaded as a mid-summer's Ivy League mixer for the middle aged.

Adam suggests that you need only answer the last question in his formula: "How are the people you're doing it for transformed by what you do?"

This holiday season, if you happen to be mingling with the other eighty percent, you may find the question "What do you do?" unnecessary. More valuable will be, "How do you do that?" 


If you like this article, you can find more at the Painter's Keys website.  Go take a look.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Act of Painting

Robert Gamblin, of Gamblin Artist Colors, periodically sends out notes on technical issues and random thoughts.  One showed up in my in-box this morning and I thought it was particularly good.  So here it is, in its entirety:

"Dear Artist,

We simply call it painting, but actually there are two distinct parts to this art that stretches back at least 30,000 years to the caves of southern Europe. I’ve always spoken about every painting having two lives, the one it has as while coming into being through our efforts in the studio, and its next life that begins when we step back from the easel and say, “it's done.”

Our culture, for understandable reasons, tends to focus on the finished product; there are no museums devoted to the process of making a painting. At this Holiday time, I want to celebrate the act of painting.  

After having supported artists’ processes professionally for the last 34 years I feel unequivocally that the most important aspect of painting is its creation. As much as I love interesting paintings hanging on the wall, for me, this isn’t as important as the creative process itself. 

I think that making a painting is one of the most intricate things we do in our lives. The mystery of creativity requires us work with our head, our heart, our hands and our intuition. All of it comes out, brushstroke by brushstroke, though the luscious intensity of oil colors. 

It should be not be a surprise then that you feel so good while in the flow of a painting session. In that state you are pounding on all cylinders. They talk about a “runner’s high,” well there is certainly a “painter’s elation.” I feel it often. 

And by painting over a number of decades the rewards to one’s life are immense. You achieve a life-long dialogue with yourself around what it is like to be a person in this world at this time. In oils you are creating a record of your life that will endure for centuries. 

What a great privilege to be born and living in a time and place where we can pursue our art. That is a lot to be thankful for. And, from all of us at Gamblin, thank you for bringing our materials to your painting process, it is a privilege to be there.

Robert Gamblin"

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Survivors Series

Don't know if I've discussed this before, but I'm working on a series of paintings about survivors.  This is an outgrowth of my earlier series, "Meditation on War", which explored the results of combat.  I found that series to be worthwhile, but a bit of a downer.  The general theme of the paintings was "bad shit happened here".  After a while, focusing only on the bad shit got to be a drag.  I wanted to work on a theme that was more optimistic, but still dealt with some heavy and important stuff.  The answer came during a life drawing session in which our model was a woman who had survived cancer.  Her body was ravaged with the removal of her breasts, surgical cuts everywhere, and no hair, but her spirit was strong and cheerful.  I've seen the same sort of strength from wounded soldiers and others who've survived serious incidents.  This looked like a theme that I could work with.  And I thought these stories needed to be told.  Right now, I'm working on three stories.

One is of a woman who was brutally raped.  She has gone on to rebuild her life, serve in a rape crisis center, and focus on making the world a better place.  She's given TED talks, written prose and poetry, gotten married, and raised some wonderful kids.  Her attacker was eventually caught.  He had viciously attacked another woman and is now serving a life sentence.

The second is of a man who was a Marine in Viet Nam.  He was in some vicious battles - the kind where two squads start up a hill and only six guys make it to the top.  The kind of campaigns where you spend over two months fighting in the jungle and never even change your skivvies.  He went on to a successful civilian career and raised four smart daughters, two of whom are now in the military.  But he's still going up that hill many nights.  

The third is a man who was on the Bataan Death March.  He's 93 now and as sharp as they come.  Not just sharp for his age, I mean sharp, period.  He refuses to be called a "hero".  He came out of the Japanese prison camps, returned home, got married, built a small business, and raised three kids.  Now he's in a VA assisted-living facility, speaking at schools and churches, active in many social events, and probably has a busier calendar than I do.

So now I have three strong stories to tell.  I'm trying to figure out how to tell them.  I don't want to just paint portraits of these people.  Portraits are fine, but they don't tell the "survivor" story.  Other things need to be included in the picture that speak to what they've gone through.  This calls for some creative compositions, of adding, subtracting, and rearranging things until they come together.  Even the way the paint is applied is important.  And that's what I'm struggling with right now.  

I've got basic compositions worked out for the first two paintings, know what will be in them and how the'll be arranged.  My normal style of painting, though, is going to be lacking, I think.  My style is pretty quiet and descriptive and doesn't, in itself, convey much emotional turmoil.  This is fine in paintings such as "Warrior", in which a quiet and understated approach makes the impact of the loss of the soldier's legs more powerful.  

Oil on canvas, 60"x60"

But these three survivors have stories that are not visible.  To see them on the street, you'd have no idea that they'd been through such experiences.  I need a way of painting that is energetic and turbulent in its own right.  I think I've found an example of an artist whose style provides that energy.  So I'm going to do a number of small, experimental paintings, where I'm taking the basics of his approach and trying it for myself.  It's kinda like trying on a new suit to see if it fits.  And it's got to be the right suit: just as you wouldn't wear a Brooks Brothers outfit to a track meet, the painting "suit" has to both fit me and be appropriate to the task.  I don't know yet whether it will do either.

So there's only one thing to do.  I'm off to the studio to sling some paint.