education

Exploring Austin Galleries, Part 1

We’ve been spending the winter months in Dallas, TX so while there, we really wanted to visit the state capital, Austin (mostly because we heard it was a lot like Asheville). I had a list of galleries we planned to visit and while most of what we saw was really frustrating (see next blog entry), the exception was the Guo Aihe exhibit at the Russell Collection Fine Art Gallery. Understand, I may be unique in the way I view and judge art, but what really grabs me is when I see a painting and wonder “Oh my gosh! How the HECK did they do that?” See, to me, that mystery is what captivates me.

art gallery painting

When Joy and I entered the Russell Collection gallery, we were warmly greeted by a young Chinese man and woman who explained what it was we were looking at. Rather than being pushy salespeople, they were merely informing us and I really appreciated that. Turns out his father comes from a village of artisans in China and he produced all the art on display in this exhibition. When we entered, I thought we were looking at lacquered paintings, but I was wrong. They were each ceramic paintings, glazed with extraordinary color; luminous, shiny, bright (see why I was attracted to them???). I commented about the amazing color and was told that when the color is applied, it’s applied as a ceramic glaze, i.e. EACH color looks like a brick red slurry. How that uniform monotone slurry turns into the intricate coloration I saw in each exquisite piece utterly baffles me. I felt like I was in the presence of greatness, and that I was only a poser. I don’t mean that in a self depecating way but in a (I think) really healthy, humble way. This was really unique to me. I’ve never seen anything at all like this and oh my gosh, if you’re anywhere near Austin, you should visit this gallery.

I am an oil painter in Asheville, North Carolina (which BTW is still way cooler than Austin). I have an open art studio there and meet people from all over the country on a daily basis. And it’s easy to get comfortable and complacent with what I do. But it truly is not often that I see artwork that really causes me to pause and wonder. What I saw in Austin (at the Russell Collection gallery) did. No other gallery hit me this way on this trip, but I’ll spill my angst in my next blog.

A Word About Accolades

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Since it's Sunday and my "day of rest" in which I can enjoy some down time to think and relax, I was mulling over this past week at my art studio. There were moments of listening to critique and moments of listening to praise. I've written previous blogs about some of the critique artists can get, and learning how to gracefully listen to that critique (without punching someone) is a useful skill. But there is one skill infinitely more important to master and that is how to deal with praise. Not dealing with praise correctly, I think, can destroy creativity and ruin a life and I'm not being overly dramatic when I say that. I'm speaking from personal experience. 

When I was a kid, art was the only thing I did well. I was teased a lot and easily crumbled emotionally. But I found that if I created something artistically, the same people that teased me earlier would praise me. So...I wanted to be the best at art. And the insidious thing about it was that this determination was unrecognized by me (or anyone else) as being dangerous at all. What's wrong with wanting to be really great at something? We praise people who have grit like that. But I didn't just want to be great. I wanted to be greatest. And because I probably had some natural abilities in art, and because I applied myself to the extreme to creative endeavors, I was consistently the best artist in all my school classes and life was sweet. Until...

When I entered high school, I met a guy that toppled me from my throne: John Howarth. John was a nice guy and popular. But I kept my distance. I did not like John Howarth, because he ruined life for me. He was the first person I met that was a much better artist than I was, and for the next three years, I was forced to deal with being "second best" (which to me, felt like utter failure).

Thankfully, I can honestly say I learned something from that whole experience. I learned that praise is addictive. It's nice but the more you get, the more you need. It's never enough. I learned that I was USING my art and my abilities to create and bolster a sometimes sagging self image. But I came to believe that creative ability was not given to me as a means to an end. I firmly believe that art is a joy in and of itself. It is the gift, not the means to the gift. And interestingly enough, I can look back at my high school years and the emotional-spiritual processing going on in me and can see that that was a real turning point for me, and my creativity radically increased. When I stopped using art to get attention and "be someone" and simply enjoyed art, creativity opened almost unbidden, like a flower in my hand.

So, I feel sorry for people who are criticized. Unasked for critique especially is difficult to hear and not become instantly defensive. But I'm terrified of people who can't bear to not be "the best". I've been nearly destroyed by people like that. But I'm probably scared of them because I was just like that, so it's like looking in a mirror if I can be honest (and it's my blog, so that's my prerogative). They say that the things that bug you the most about someone else are probably your own weakest areas. I have found that to be true.

So for what it's worth, here's some advice:

If you're criticized for something you do, don't let criticism crush you. Listen to it. I mean, there may be some helpful nuggets of truth mixed in with all the garbage, so sort out the critique like someone sifting through a latrine for a wedding ring dropped into it.

If you're praised for something you do, just enjoy the praise for what it is in the moment it's given. Don't live off it or for it, and don't make adulation and attention that thing you need to base your life on. Personally, I need something much more stable and eternal for something that important. That's just my opinion. Happy Sunday!

World View #4: Nihilism

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In our basic survey of world views, we have looked at three so far: Theism, Deism and Naturalism. We have considered the basic assumptions espoused by these world views and their affect on culture and specifically upon art. By way of reminder, the basic assumption of theism is that "God is here". This world view asserts that the Creator is present and wants relationship with us. Deism asserts that God is "out there somewhere" (not here). He, she or it exists (order we see in the universe would suggest that) but that God is distant and a personal "relationship" with him/her/it is not possible. Naturalism states that to debate whether or not God exists is pointless, because the only way to determine the truth of something is to be able to prove it scientifically (hypothesize, predict, test, repeat). Since the existence of a deity is impossible to prove scientifically, the notion of God is therefore dismissed. Nihilism is the natural and obvious next step in the evolution of western thought. Nihilism is a philosophical position which argues that if naturalism is indeed correct, then it stands to reason that human existence is without objective meaning, purpose, comprehensible truth, or essential value.

So Nihilism simply looks at naturalism and draws the natural conclusions. For instance, if there is no deity, no "judge", no absolute standard of right and wrong, then there is no point in us judging anyone or anything because the notions of right and wrong are purely human constructs. A strict nihilist therefore could not say "racism is wrong" or "sex slavery is wrong" or "mass murder is wrong". They may say it's painful, but they could not say it's "wrong" if the concept of "wrong" is in actuality non-existent.  

Nihilism has profoundly affected western civilization, and its effect can be very clearly seen in the arts.

Personally, I find Nihilism fascinating, but fascinating like studying the Ebola virus would be fascinating (deadly but fascinating). This is a really powerful (and incredibly influential) world view, and when it was propagated by philosophers like Friedrich Nietzsche, it was unique as a world view in that it offered no future hope of things made right. We are left with the "rule of the jungle" -- the strongest tyrant  rules -- and what he or she does or does not do matters nothing, because nothing has ultimate value.

A strict Nihilist would say that finding "meaning to life" is an opiate to get you through this existence with at least some semblance psychological health, but that's all it is (an opiate) because real "meaning" is non-existent.  Nihilism asserts that we are all here by chance and in a few billion years when the sun explodes there will be no trace we ever existed and so nothing anyone does ultimately matters at all.

What kind of art would you expect to be generated by an artist with this world view?

You might assume that such a pessimistic world view  would have not really caught on, but  you would be wrong.  Nihilism has profoundly affected western civilization, and its effect can be very clearly seen in the arts. So many people coming into my studio in Asheville's River Arts Distrct have said things like "I really don't 'get' most art" or "I look at some artwork that's supposed to be great and think 'this makes no sense at all! A four year old could have thrown the paint onto this canvas! And this is supposed to be 'art'? It's pointless!" See, this is where you must consider the world view of the artist in order to understand what he or she was trying to communicate with the art. I mean, what kind of art (painting, sculpture, prose, poetry) would you expect to be generated by an artist with this world view?

The Madman

by Friedrich Nietzsche

"Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly: "I seek God! I seek God!"---As many of those who did not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter. Has he got lost? asked one. Did he lose his way like a child? asked another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? emigrated?---Thus they yelled and laughed

"The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. "Whither is God?" he cried; "I will tell you. We have killed him---you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.

 

Understanding Art 101

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As an artist with an open studio in Asheville, North Carolina, I am around artwork and people all day long. People from all over the country visit me, check out my paintings and sometimes chat with me. Oftentimes, we talk about the types of artwork they like and don't like and they ask a lot of questions to try to understand my specific technique. I love these conversations. I love talking about art and help people appreciate the artwork they're seeing. My passion is that people at least appreciate (if not enjoy) all the artwork they see, whether it's from the ancient Greeks, Renaissance masters or modern abstract.

Recently, I was having a conversation with a studio visitor about different art styles and artistic periods and he admitted that he did not understand most art at all. That conversation got me thinking, and because of that, I decided to write a blog series based on a lecture I've given several times on the subject of "understanding art" because I think that's important. Understanding art does not mean you have to enjoy it or like the art at all. Understanding the art involves understanding the world view of the artist. This is crucial because knowing the world view of a person (their comprehensive conception of the world) helps us interpret what that persons says and does. 

So, for the next few weeks, I'm going to talk about chronological periods of world views and how those views affected the arts and culture. The world views I will cover include theism, deism, naturalism, nihilism, existentialism, modernism, new-age pantheism, and post-modernism. Sound exciting? Maybe I'm a geek but I think it's fascinating! Knowing a bit about these world views and knowing where a person is coming from helps us to better appreciate and understand that person. Who doesn't want to do a better job of that? 

 

How to Make a Living as an Artist

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I was recently asked “How do you make a living as a full-time artist?” That is the million dollar question for a lot of really creative people out there, and there are so many factors involved in the answer. I’ve seen people become really successful with an art career and some miserably fail. It’s really not rocket science, but there are certain things you should do and some you shouldn’t do that can help or hurt your chances. Let me explain.

A few years ago, a gentleman came into my art studio and told me he was an artist and wanted to talk to me about getting his paintings into my “gallery”. He then proceeded to remove several oil paintings from a cardboard box to show me. I had to explain that this was my studio (where I create and sell) my own art, and not an art gallery per se. And honestly, the level of skill I saw was not something that would inspire sales and sales are the only way an artist can make a career out of creating art.

Just because you want to sell something
doesn’t mean anyone will want to buy it.

I am reminded me of an experience I had when I was four years old. I wanted some money to fund a trip to the store for candy and baseball cards, so I cooked up a scheme involving a handful of rocks. See, I decided I would set up a card table out by the street and make a sign that read “ROCKS FOR SALE”. These were super cool rocks (I thought) and I was sure someone would agree (enough to part with a quarter). No one even stopped to look at these gems-in-the-rough. No one. Important lesson learned: Just because you want to sell something doesn’t necessarily mean anyone will want to buy it.

In my opinion, if someone desires to make a living creating and selling artwork, they need to be willing to seek solid artistic training, critique and learn the basics of promoting their business. 

TRAINING

If you want to create and sell your artwork as a career, get training, and pick your school carefully. Not all art schools or art programs teach actual skills. Visit the school and take a look at the student art and ask yourself a question: “Does this look like something people would actually purchase?” Some of what I see at art colleges look like the students are having a truly cathartic experience creating some really edgy art, but unless that’s combined with real skills learning, how do you make a living with that when you graduate? This is why so many art students graduate and end up flipping burgers. Training is really important. Look, if someone works on my car or repairs my air conditioner or operates on my brain or makes me Beef Wellington at some expensive restaurant downtown, I would absolutely expect they were well trained and have some real ability. Same with art. Same with everything else we do.

I can hear someone say, "So you just dismiss everyone who's self taught? You think we all need art degrees?" And I would answer a definite "no". I basically invented (self-taught) my whole technique I use (with the help of the foundation I received with my training). I'm not discounting the concept of "self-taught" at all. I just think that a person can go a lot farther in any profession we're talking about it if that person got some coaching, and the easiest way to get coaching is school. There are actually "rules" in art that would be really helpful for an aspiring artist to be very familiar with.  Knowledge of those rules will help you create something amazing. When I was a kid, I was bored with normal tomato soup and so...I decided I would experiment with adding orange juice to it. I learned very quickly that certain flavors blend well together and others definitely do not. There are rules. An art degree is definitely not the only way but it's the easiest way. If you don't go that route, try to find a mentor. All I'm saying is that in addition to any possible self-teaching, get trained. Get input from others (and especially experts), which conveniently leads me to my next point:

CRITIQUE

If an artist has an arrogant personality that doesn't listen to or seek out critique, I don't think that's going to help them move forward. (I have more to say on this subject in an earlier posting if you're interested.) To make a living doing this, you have to listen for criticism and not just TO criticism. Sometimes what an artist wants to paint may be really therapeutic, but won't be sellable. When you look at art creation as a career, you have to find a balance -- it should be both inspiring to you and inspiring to the viewer of your art.  

I’ve had one artist a couple years ago visit my studio and ask if they could make an appointment to ask me for advice as to how to make art his career. That was totally flattering and I liked the fact he asked for an appointment (that was respectful). When you show someone respect, they will be much more likely to help you out with some advice. So seek out other artists and/or gallery owners. If they’re too busy, they’ll tell you, but you may get some really great advice this way. 

The other thing you could do would be to enter your work in juried art shows. If your artwork is consistently rejected or consistently gets attention and/or wins an award, that will be a real gauge as to whether your abilities are what they'd need to be. 

SELF PROMO

Get professional looking business cards and create a website. The website should have your artist statement, bio and lots of photos of your work, and how to contact you. Do you do commissions? Explain how that works. Don’t be afraid to look at other artist's websites and make notes of what you like and don’t like. If you can’t afford to pay someone to create a website for you, there are DIY website programs out there and they’re fine. Just make it simple and clean and informative. 

GET OUT THERE

After training, critique and creating professional-looking self promo tools, you’re ready to begin actually putting together your career. In my next post, I’ll discuss the variety of ways you might do that and explain what I did (which was a bit less “conventional” than most professional artists out there) but it worked really well for me. 

Angsty or Terrified?

So last week, as I said in an earlier entry, a husband and wife breezed through my Asheville art studio/gallery without saying a word to me and then left, sitting down on the chairs right outside my door (which was open -- with me working just inside said door). At that point, the man said (loud enough for me to hear) "well I know, but it's ridiculous! I wouldn't pay half what he's asking for that!"

To that man, I would like to say "thank you for your rudeness. You gave me something  to write about in my blog!" Because of that encounter, I began thinking about how best to respond to critique and I am taking this platform to share my thoughts to anyone interested. I have already addressed what I call the "angsty" artist who doesn't care WHAT anyone thinks about their craft (whether it's painting, writing, music or whatever). They do not digest criticism because they immediately deflect it.

The other type of artist I know is not angsty at all. They are frightened and completely insecure, not wanting ANYONE to see their artwork.  Putting their art out there for people to actually see absolutely terrifies them. I tried to teach art students who were the "terrified" type, but found them just as difficult to teach as the arrogant students who would not listen to my advice or instruction. I remember a young woman that was in the class I was teaching. She was working hard on a painting, but when I walked over to her desk to see how it was coming along, she swept it up and hid it from me. "Please don't look! It's a mess! Yours is so much better!" If you can relate to this woman,  may I gently suggest that the "terrified" artist is not that much different from the "angsty" artist? See, neither the angsty or terrified person them allows any criticism or correction -- they just take different emotional roads to the very same end.  Whichever side we fall on, we can be categorized as arrogant.

"Arrogant?" I hear the terrified artist type cry. "I'm not arrogant!" (The angsty artist doesn't see themselves as arrogant either.)

Well, follow me here. The angsty type doesn't listen to any criticism and neither do you. In my opinion, whichever side we fall on, we all think far too much of ourselves. The terrified artists (I was one of you  at once point) think we have to be perfect at what we do and critique is crushing and to be avoided. The angsty artist thinks he's already perfect, and critique is pointless and unnecessary in his mind and is to be avoided. So what's the difference?

Both the angsty and terrified artist (or whatever) types need critique. We need to be okay with correction and advice. When I finish what I think was a great idea and no one pays any attention to it, I may have to conclude that the idea may be great to me, but if the people purchasing art do not agree, I won't be selling that piece. If this is repeated with all my work, then I'm out of a job.

A professional artist has to listen to critique and adjust sometimes. Hopefully as we mature, we begin to know the difference between a good critique and someone just being rude. I think we need to feel the freedom to toss what we think is bad advice. I also think we need to feel the freedom to accept advice with humility, and that's admittedly really hard to do sometimes.

To the "Angsty" Artist...

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Note: This is a continuation of my last entry. I would advise the reader to take a look at that first.

Have you have seen that Food Channel show "Master Chef"? My wife and I are kind of addicted to it and especially the first few weeks are really interesting. The show depicts all these home cooks that are vying for the Master Chef title, which is supposed to mean they are the very best home cook in the country. In the first few weeks though, you inevitably watch some cook who thinks they are God's gift to the culinary world. They innately know it all. It becomes very apparent that they are not listening to Gordon Ramsay's instructions and they will outright argue with him sometimes (I would personally never recommend arguing with Gordon Ramsay). So inevitably, you watch them proudly present what they are convinced is awesome gourmet fare and Chef Ramsay will look at it, look at the cook, look at the dish again and yell "ARE...YOU...KIDDING ME? This looks like a dog vomited up his dinner on this plate!!!" And you can't help but think "YES! Put this guy in his place Gordon!"

See, no one likes an arrogant man or woman and it's refreshing to see them taken down off the pedestal they created in their own mind. But the guy probably has no idea he is arrogant. In his eyes, he's not arrogant, he's just right and Gordon Ramsay is obviously a jerk and everyone who watches the show shakes their head in disgust and embarrassment for people like that.  It's probably wrong to be so entertained by that but I confess, it is entertaining.

What's this have to do with artwork? Well see, if we're the angsty artist type, I think we can learn a lot from this illustration, because if we're in that camp, we can be very much like the arrogant cook who refuses to listen to the instructions and advice of the professional chefs on the show and everyone sees the insecure arrogance (except the arrogant chef, or in our case, the artist).

"But what if we're not that "angsty artist type"? What if we're more the "I'm completely terrified of anyone seeing my creative work" type? Really glad you asked. Read the next entry for my thoughts on that. 

"I woudn't pay HALF of what he's asking!"

I am a professional artist (oil painter) in Asheville, North Carolina. I have an open studio in the River Arts District and the front part of my studio is my art gallery/work area (where my artwork is hanging, and where I do most of my painting). In the back (behind the curtain) is where the messy or secret stuff happens (to get back there,  you have to learn the secret handshake).  So during the day, I'm usually painting just to the right of the doorway out to the street, and I talk to people all day long and answer questions about my work.  So the other day, I had a couple breeze through my studio without saying a word to me, and then leave, planting themselves into the chairs I have just outside my door. Because I work right on the other side of the door, I could very easily hear the man exclaim to his wife, "well I know, but it's ridiculous! I wouldn't pay half what he's asking for that!"

So, if you're an artist, what do you do with comments like that?

I would like to take a few blog entries and share some thoughts that have been developing in my mind. I think it would help me to put these thoughts to virtual paper, and they may (?) help some other artists that struggle with insecurity.

Most artists I know fall into basically two camps: The "angsty" artist and the terrified artist. That first camp (the "angsty" artists) would say, "I don't care WHAT people think of my art! It's MY art and I'll do what I want to do with it and if people like it, fine. If not, I really don't care." If that's where you're coming from, and that singular sentiment describes you, that's fine. My hat's off to you, but you're probably not making a living selling your artwork are you? I say that because when you make your living by selling your artwork, expressing yourself is crucial but...you have to be listening to critique well and sometimes adjust what you do in order to sell your artwork.

Ha! I can hear the angsty artist crying "SELLOUT!" It's about expressing yourself! It's not about making money!" Again, my hat's off to you, but I personally prefer expressing myself AND making a living selling my artwork. What is wrong with listening to critique and evolving your craft as a result? Do you think listening and considering another opinion makes you small and weak? It's really easy to think we already know what we're doing, but input (if we take it in) can actually help shape what we're doing as time goes by, don't you think?

More on the "angsty" artist in my next entry.

"What makes this painting so sparkly?"

Questions, questions...

I'm asked by a lot of people why I paint local North Carolina landscapes (usually mountains, lakes, rivers and trees) on aluminum leaf, and I explain (at least daily) that it's because aluminum leaf reflects light. Painting on aluminum leaf, I can create a painting that is back-lit. This greatly intensifies the color.  How I came up with that is, well, the fault of a French architect in 1163.

When I was twenty years old, a friend of mine backpacked through Europe with me and during those travels (every American twenty year old should do this trip by the way) we found Paris, and the highlight was Notre-Dame Cathedral.

I was quite surprised to see how large the cathedral actually was. It is hulking and awesome.  Honestly, I didn’t know much about the Notre-Dame apart from the Hunchback that made the place famous.

One side of the cathedral was lined with cafes for people queuing up to go in the church. Interestingly, the chairs of the restaurants were almost all facing outside. I thought it was strange as I would probably prefer to face in towards whoever I was with. If I was alone, I would not face outside, I don’t like strangers in the queue watching me eat.

We got there during Mass ("hey, don't mind us Presbyterians --carry on, carry on"). It was magical. So utterly beautiful. And when Mass was done, I turned to leave and then I saw it: the rose window. Oh my gosh. I'd never seen color do what it was doing as the sun penetrated the colored glass. I remember thinking, "How can I get PAINT to do that?" At the time, this seemed like a ridiculous question because you paint on a canvas and how do you shine light through a canvas, right?

This idea went no where for many years until I saw the Orthodox church answer to stained glass windows: ICONS. Icons are painted on gold. P-A-I-N-T-E-D on gold. Well, I couldn't afford gold so I found aluminum leaf and a new genre of art was born, from a rose window in Paris and a Madonna and child on gold. You never know where a creative muse will lead you. You just follow it and see!

What is 'good' art?

There are different answers to that question, which doesn’t surprise me. What does surprise me is that even asking the question scandalizes some people. I’ve heard folks say things like, “there’s no such thing as good art or bad art. Art comes from inside the soul. How can you judge that?” So before I even begin to take a stab at answering the question “what is good art?” Let me first defend the right to ask the question in the first place.

You Can Judge Art??

To begin with, let me say that yes, it’s completely improper to criticize the self-expressive art of a six-year-old. A six-year-old cannot produce good or bad art. To a parent, it’s all beautiful. It can’t be judged. The same could be said for someone who enjoys dabbling in watercolor or oil paint for fun or self-expression. Painting, sculpting, practicing the piano… is all fun and personally, I would encourage anyone to explore their creativity—society would be healthier for it. But not all art is like that. The art of a college student earning his painting degree should be judged and analyzed. The work of a professional artist is judged all the time, and rightly so, because he has submitted it to the public eye, not simply as self-expression, but as true art—as expression of something transcendent. If you handed me a page from your diary, it would be completely inane for me to redline a spelling error. On the other hand, if I were a creative writing instructor and you were my student, it would be kosher for me to mark up your essay. Indeed, I would be a poor teacher if I did not, even if it were a good essay. So whether we can judge art is entirely dependent on our context. In the right context, we are free to make certain judgments. In fact, we judge all the time, and that’s not inherently problematic. Does everyone sing equally well? Are all poets equally skilled? If you have a favorite restaurant or a favorite beer or favorite movie or a favorite band or a favorite anything, you’re judging—you’re praising something as superior to something else, or to everything else. We judge, and that’s simply the truth. Some things are better than other things, and it is inconsistent, even dishonest, to pretend otherwise. So can we judge art? We do, whether we think we can or not. What we need most, then, is to critique and analyze our criteria. The criteria which we use to judge between good and poor art will be the subject of my next few posts.