On the Subject of Practice

Me playing an Eddie Van Halen guitar

I always cringe a little when another artist talks about their art “practice.” The word doesn’t fit what I do in my studio. Maybe it’s that it sounds slightly pretentious to me – and by that, I mean that I would feel pretentious using the word “practice” in this context. Again, this is just my opinion as it relates to what happens when I make my own art/animation. If you have an art practice, cool! That’s great, I hope you keep it up, and that it works for you.

From the Internet:

prac·tice

noun

noun: practice

  1. 1. the actual application or use of an idea, belief, or method, as opposed to theories relating to it. “The principles and practice of teaching”
    synonyms: application, exercise, use, operation, implementation, execution, enactment, action, doing
    • the carrying out or exercise of a profession, especially that of a doctor or lawyer. “He abandoned medical practice for the Church” synonyms: profession, career, business, work, pursuit, occupation, following”such was his disillusionment that he gave up the practice of medicine”
    • the business or premises of a doctor or lawyer.plural noun: practices “Dr. Weiss has a practice in Essex”
      synonyms:business, firm, office; More
  2. 2. the customary, habitual, or expected procedure or way of doing of something.”current nursing practice”synonyms:custom, procedure, policy, convention, tradition, fashion, habit, wont, method, system, routine, institution, way, rule; 
    • an established method of legal procedure.
  3. 3.repeated exercise in or performance of an activity or skill so as to acquire or maintain proficiency in it.”it must have taken a lot of practice to become so fluent”synonyms:training, rehearsal, repetition, preparation, exercise, drill, study;
    • a period of time spent practicing an activity or skill.”daily choir practices”

verb

verb: practise;

  1. 1. perform (an activity) or exercise (a skill) repeatedly or regularly in order to improve or maintain one’s proficiency. “I need to practice my French”
    synonyms: rehearse, run through, go through, go over, work on, work at, repeat; 
  2. 2. carry out or perform (a particular activity, method, or custom) habitually or regularly.
    “We still practice some of these rituals today”
    synonyms: carry out, perform, do, observe, put into practice, execute, follow, exercise
    • actively pursue or be engaged in (a particular profession or occupation). “He began to practice law” synonyms: work at, pursue a career in, have a career in, go in for, engage in, specialize in, ply, follow; More
    • observe the teaching and rules of (a particular religion). “They are free to practice their religion without fear of persecution”
    • ARCHAIC scheme or plot for an evil purpose. “What a tangled web we weave when we first practice to deceive”
Me at guitar center playing one of Steve Vai's autographed Ibanez JEMs.

I have given a lot of thought as to why this bothers me. Chiropractors have a “practice.” Lawyers have a practice, as do dentists. As for myself, I practice Kung Fu, Tai Chi, mindfulness, and the guitar. I don’t think that I practice art. For me, the process is what’s important. The process of making art is the living, breathing space where something happens. Once I complete a piece and post it here, I have mild feeling of “empty nest syndrome” around that work. I need to move on immediately to the next piece, because the work is in the making. I wrote about the two sides of this coin in my defense of Jim Carrey – what happens for the artist in the creative process, and then what’s left for the world and viewer. Both things are vital, and different sides of the equation.

I read a quote at Hyperallergic and it resonated with me, so I want to share it.

It’s by the late Carolee Schneemann, and it sums things up perfectly:

 I don’t have a “practice,” I have a process. My work has concept, but is not conceptual as such; I don’t “unpack” anything except my travel bag.

from https://hyperallergic.com/
406640/carolee-schneemann-on-
five-decades-of-meat-harnesses-and-innovation/

The full quote, in context, is below:

There is currently a fundamental difference in the way students initiate their process, because of its digital mediation, and because increasingly formal art education encourages them towards a predetermined concept of what the work must be. There is a sense of, “you tell us what to do and we will do it, then get a gallery and sell work.” I let them know it is chaotic out there in terms of commercialism, I let them know I reject common academic language: I don’t have a “practice,” I have a process. My work has concept, but is not conceptual as such; I don’t “unpack” anything except my travel bag. I tell them to question rhetoric, to stop being fearful of history, to look at what excites them, and to what has vigor and history. You belong to what you inherit and can transform.

from https://hyperallergic.com/
406640/carolee-schneemann-on-
five-decades-of-meat-harnesses-and-innovation/

Thanks for reading this. Perhaps you agree, and perhaps I’ve missed the point entirely.

Nathalie Djurberg & Hans Berg

Nathalie Djurberg on stage with Hans Berg and Laura Albans, Curatorial Assistant at the BMA.

In May, I went to one of the Art After Hours evening events at the Baltimore Museum of Art. It was during the Surrealism Show. I attended the artist talk by Nathalie Djurberg and her partner, Hans Berg. Nathalie is a self-taught animator, and Hans is a composer specializing in non-vocal, psychedelic electronic music.

Nathalie talked a lot about the importance of process – process as being more important than the finished work. She doesn’t plan too far ahead, and just makes the work.

“The art itself is the making of it,” she explained. “It doesn’t matter if it is even considered art. Art is the one space in society that’s free. Freedom in the studio. Craft is not even as important as the act of making.” The rules can be, should be, ignored here. It is the Joy of Making. She also talked about how, when workin in her animated world as the creator, she is the Goddess of that world, and is both the protagonist and the villain(s). In this way, she is free to experience all sides in the story. She is, perhaps, free to be the things that one cannot be in daily life.

Djurberg explores obsession, fantasy, and desire in her films. Uncensored, yet couched in absurd/Surrealist visual storytelling, I was moved by her honesty and depth of vision. She’s found a way to openly explore very private things (secrets), using her own language. I think this is something most artists strive to do.

Here are three excerpts from the films that were showing at the black box at the BMA. They are rough, from my phone, and incomplete. I just want to share a little of their style and approach.

They are:
Snake with a Mouth Sewn Shut, Or, This is a Celebration 2018
Delights of an Undirected Mind 2016
Dark Side of the Moon 2017

Here are a few things on YouTube, some in Swedish. Note: I hope these links are working as you read this – sometimes, permissions on the videos change, or they are removed from the Web host.

Art21.org has an excellent overview with these two, in English, that features lots of behind the scenes footage. Please take a look, it’s GREAT.

SCHOOL33 OPENING

Getting ready for this show was a lot like recording an album – each diorama is like a song, with its own story. In 2009 I wrote about the joy of process and, toward the end of preparing for this show, I remembered the end of the semesters in college when I was working furiously to complete assignments and study for finals. This felt a little like that. I thought, back then, that if I could maintain that level of intensity throughout the whole semester, then I’d make the dean’s list every term and be the male equivalent of Hermione Granger. Or, Béla Bartók.

I was up until 2 or 3AM many summer nights working. Unlike preparing for finals in college, this show was a complete joy for me. I was exhausted yet exhilarated. Applying that same college level cramming intensity into something one loves is easy.

I spent the beginning of summer doing research on Magic and thinking/drawing and then I switched to production mode sooner than I usually would and Death emerged as the primary theme, with Magic playing a supporting role. Joy-of-process and production have merged and now happen simultaneously. Kind of like the two sides of a zipper. I didn’t see that coming back in 2009.

My kids and friends have been patient with me this summer. I came up with 31 completed pieces in this show, and there are 6 that didn’t make it in (not-finished-in-time/not-enough-space/not-quite-appropriate).

I’m also so very grateful to René Treviño at School33 for giving me this opportunity. He’s kind, easy going and encouraging. He let me hang the show myself, and decide how to organize it, offering helpful feedback if I asked. Emily Slaughter is super great, too.

I made a zine for this show – I always thought that would be a cool thing to do. Since there’s a deep narrative behind the dioramas, I wanted to give a few hints as to what I was thinking when I made them. Not too much, just a little more of the story than is obvious when looking at the pieces. I decided to sell work during this show, too – something I don’t usually do.  Six pieces were sold at the opening.

The opening was so wonderful and I’m so touched by everyone who came out. The Herzingers made the trip from Annapolis  – a complete surprise! My jaw dropped and I felt like my own parents were there. I’m sorry Neil couldn’t be there, but having his folks come meant the world to me. The Foster/Jewells, Roni & Bill, Amanda, Kate & Garrett, Jessica, Paul & Anna, Mandy “Slap Shot” Liberto, Saint Brawli Girl, Lauren Boilini, Brandy & Jeff, Helen & Adrian and all the new people I met made this a really wonderful night.

Memento Mori

Memento mori is a Latin phrase translated as “Remember your mortality” or “Remember you must die.” It refers to a genre of artworks that vary widely but which all share the same purpose: to remind people of their mortality, an artistic theme dating back to antiquity.  [Wikipedia]

I think another way to say it is “Remember to live well.”

The show is organized roughly into several sections. As you enter the room and move around clockwise, there are scenes from the Land of the Dead. Then, part of Dr. F’s story is told, along with the research of the Grackles.  The sea, the City of Lost Things and some major deities follow.

I am immensely grateful and delighted. It feels a lot like living well.

Work in this Show

  1. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
  2. Danse Macabre
  3. And then there was Light
  4. Always
  5. Deathwatch Beetle
  6. The Guide
  7. As Above, So Below
  8. Deathcat on Pine Island
  9. Vanitas
  10. Frida My Love
  11. In the Name of Research
  12. The Port Authority at the Land of the Dead
  13. Memento Mori
  14. The Magician’s Apprentice
  15. The Assistant of Dr.F
  16. Summoning the Demon
  17. The Early Works of Dr. F
  18. The Ghoul and the Grackles
  19. The Capture of Dr. F
  20. The Binding of the Ghoul (Reliquary)
  21. Chorus of Grackles
  22. Like a Fish Needs a Bicycle
  23. Shipwreck Lake
  24. The Reverse Clock Tower
  25. The City of Lost Things
  26. Vanity
  27. Midsummer Night
  28. Thy Body is a Temple
  29. The Saint and the Sinner
  30. The Three Graces
  31. A Muse when You Need Her

 

The Sea and Grass

This post began as an abstract comic and developed into several paragraphs about blogs-n-sketchbooks plus an abstract comic. I’ve been posting a mishmash of stuff lately, much to the disappointment of my fellow water tower aficionados, and that got me thinking about writing about making.

I once attended a conference where a fellow talked about  open source software development.   He described a release cycle that including the work (designing, writing and debugging code) and releasing the code (for peer review/testing/acceptance). Don’t work in a vacuum – be a part of a community. Share your work incrementally. Don’t wait until the epic masterpiece is finished and perfect because, odds are, it will be neither. Put your stuff out there. Release, release, release. It’s how one grows.

This idea applies to a lot of things besides software. It applies to things like music, cooking, writing, teaching…art. It’s how we improve in our endeavors.

Last year, I started (and ended) a sketch blog. Its purpose was to support the mission of drawing every day. I thought it made sense to relegate the daily sketches to another site. I learned that not everything that ends up in a sketchbook needs to be (or should be) published. Not at all. And, that THIS blog is the place to release sketches.  It doesn’t matter that a lot of what I post here is quick and slack and unrefined. What matters is that work is being done (like in a sketchbook) and shared (the potential for peer review, chronicling of progress).

Sketchbooks are about thinking and ideas. They are diaries, laboratories, journals – they are messy, private, clumsy, joyous, random and sometimes enlightened places. They are worthless empty and priceless when filled. They are, in my mind, absolutely essential.

All people are creative. We design our lives. We make choices based on ideas, feelings, superstitions, various rationale – aesthetics.

Yet, is it essential to post one’s thoughts/sketches/art on the Web? Maybe. Many artists are discovered only after they pass on to the Land of the Dead, and I’m betting that some were happy in their obscurity. Everyone makes things for different reasons, but I suspect all humans receive the same rewards for their efforts.

Yet,  I bet a lot of those unknown artists would have LOVED to have been part of a scene/movement in their times. Because what is a scene/movement, really? A community. A very special one.  Not everyone is a visionary or catalyst for something “new,” but there are others who need to participate. A cook needs to feed people. And there was a lot more the the beatniks than bongos, man.

This blog supports the other half of  my sketchbook process – release, release, release.  I think that’s important – what do you think?

The Joy of Process

I began the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes in October, knowing the deadline for the National Arts Program Exhibit was in early December.  I chose the title and started putting ideas down in a sketchbook.  I made a lot of sketches, did a lot of thinking and eventually settled on the idea of a triptych.  I’ve been experimenting with the old school nibs and India ink  which I loved as a kid. I find they are difficult to use, though, and tend to bleed big blobs of ink.

Nibs, ink bottle

Still, little that’s worth doing is easy, and I continue to practice with them. They offer great possibility.

In October and November (especially over Thanksgiving break), I had a lot of  ideas, and the piece kept shifting focus. But when the actual day started to approach, my thinking solidified and I was “forced” to make decisions about the piece and execute them. I realize that without the deadline, I would have continued to develop ideas…forever.

This is the joy of process – getting lost in exploration and discovery and practice. I am a master of  JOP. To a fault, perhaps.

Joy of process sketches

When I noticed the deadline approaching (it tried to sneak up on me, but thankfully I glanced up and saw it coming), I heard an audible “click” in my head. The pressure increased, decisions were made and the piece was assembled. Mr. JOP stepped aside and Mr. Assembly-line-worker took the plans got down to business.  This guy is the person who likes to make lists and accomplish things – a very good partner for Mr. JOP.

Joy_of_Process2

I used to do this with music – I’d write songs and record little  ideas and fill notebooks and tapes – I have gigs and gigs of this stuff – some of it is quite good, too. What was missing was a partner to work with, or a show to play or an album to finish.

Deadlines are good. Pressure is good. They add a dimension of purpose in what we do. They bring JOP together with Mr. Assembly-line-worker, the two halves of a whole.

Even more joy of process sketches

It’s very tempting to remain Mr. JOP. I think being him is more comfortable, and certainly more fun. He’s the mad scientist, loose on new frontier of possibility and wonder.  Do many other artists feel this way? I know a lot of my fellow developers do. And, I should add that these rough sketches in this post lead to other things – they all came from Mr. JOP’s efforts.

There are levels of deadline  pressure, too. A professional illustrator may be given guidelines, such as “Dead Fish Smoking a Pipe” or “Ruttabaggit” needed by next Tuesday. Open ended projects, on the other hand, may offer a little too much creative freedom, thus becoming a JOP trap. This can be especially daunting to non-professional creatives who are developing their own inspiration engines. Luckily, we live on a web with things like Illustration Friday, Spark and a bazillion other outlets to help us develop a JOP-creative output balance.

Alas, there’s work to do. Back to the drawing board.