Thursday, September 27, 2012

Artist Statements and Writing About Your Work

Writing an artist statement can be the worst thing in the world or it can be an amazing way to really understand what it is you've been doing. In 2009 I started a blog called Impermanence where I posted a single image each day for a year.  I had a couple of different goals but the main one was to understand, at a deeper level, what digital photography was really about.  I was very familiar with film, I knew its voice and its language - but I didn't really have an intimate understanding of what digital could be about. I'd been teaching it for a while...but not using it personally. Setting up a process that allowed me to really have a deeper experience seemed like a good idea. 

The first year was just an image a day with no themes so there was no writing involved. The second year I decided to do longer projects and the plan was to write about them - but as I was doing the longer projects I found it really hard to think of anything to write about. In fact the strangest thing I've learned in my current blog is, it's much easier for me to write and then add images - rather than starting with images and then try to add words - and yet that's the point every artist arrives at when they realize  "okay, now I have to write an artist statement." 

I think one of the big problems was that quite often the work I was posting was very new - and frankly - at that point I don't think you even know what the work's about. You may be aware of the circumstances that lead to you do it, but you may not know what it's about. The idea of an artist statement is probably a more recent construct - earlier artists didn't have to deal with it as much - but probably that's because they were involved in work whose purpose and reason was much more obvious. 

The whole point of an artist statement is to give a context for the viewer as they look at the artwork. Quite often when I go to an exhibition I like to look at the work, then read the artist statement, then go back and look at the work again. I want to experience it first just cold, then I want to see what were they thinking, and then I want to go back and see if it changes what I see.  

It was interesting for me to think about this new work I'm doing. I've always loved images of beds, but for some reason it jumped from being something that I've taken on a regular basis...usually weirdly enough I've taken them when I'm by myself traveling...because I'm in the room, by myself and I've got a camera. This was the first time that I took something that was a very intimate thing and brought it into a public viewing platform. The first obvious name was Unmade - its current working title - but I've found the images can be a Rorschach test for people - they read into them what they will.

My first artist statement covered the obvious things - it wasn't until a few weeks later that I realized, in a much more interesting way, that over the course of this summer my life has taken some pretty big changes - the career path I thought I was on - may, or may not, still be there - and even what I thought I wanted may, or may not, still be true.  I thought about how from 5th through 10th grade I went to 5 different schools, lived in 4 cities and 2 countries. Each morning, when I had to face my new world there was this jolt where I'd realize I was a stranger in a strange land - so mornings have always been this kind of edgy experience for me. This summer, almost intuitively after I got the whole news about work, I started taking these photographs and I realized that they were also an image of my struggle each morning, coming to grips with reality - that space between where I'm just me - and where "Oh, I belong to the world."  

For me, the best artist statements give me a context in which to view the work - I don't want them to tell me what it is, or what to think when I look at it, but I do like the idea of being able to see into the artist's world about why this is important to them, why they spent time on it, why they want to put it up on the wall and why they feel it should have an outside audience.  Remember that making art is an entirely different process than choosing to exhibit art. Art must find its place in the world - and the process of writing an artist statement gives the artist a chance to understand what the work is about - and gives the audience a window into how art is created.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Reaching Out - The Importance of Community

Who are you going to for advice?

Do you often wish you had the same sense of community that you had in college? That wonderful ability to wander from studio to studio and discuss art...or just hang out?

The hardest part of being a working artist (or other independant creative) is the sense of isolation from the rest of the world. That feeling of being a "lone wolf" may not be the best thing to keep you moving forward in your career. I know with Facebook and other online social sites we can connect digitally, but I've found it's not the same as that in-person connection.

A few years ago, I started a photo-critique group which met every month or so at my home. The group started when I returned from Photo Lucida in Oregon and emailed every participant from the So Cal area. It was a very good experience, lasted for a good 3-4 years and brought me a much larger group of friends and colleagues. Like most organized activities, it languished when I got too busy to dedicate more time. But, while it was going, I found it a good nudge to make sure I kept making images. I also found the critiques extremely helpful when trying to edit my own work.

In New York there's The NY PhotoGroup Salon which meets the third Wednesday of every month and reviews the work of a rotating group of photographers. It started in one of the founding member's studios...apparently this was back in the day when the studio had a chef who made amazing food for the meetings...and now meets at the SoHo Photo Gallery. I heard about it through Bill Westheimer an inventive photographer I met years ago at Photo Lucida.

There was an interesting article in the NY Times that Dan Shepard (see post from 6.28.12) brought to my attention on Photo Collectives which discussed a variety of approaches, everything from groups that are fully enmeshed both financially and creatively, to those that work much more informally. The article stated that this has been a natural response on the part of photographers to give themselves a bigger voice in the world.

In my conversation with Dan he talked about creating a photo-collective and described his idea of the perfect collective. He felt the biggest issue is really the amount of pre-planning that's involved - since it's very important to discuss and plan out what the goals and vision of a group would be.  While it's great to have a group of people to share expenses with,  it seemed to him that the format also gives the possibility to have a bigger voice on topics they feel are important.  The big issue is really making sure you have a group of people who are committed to the collective, even when it's not their specific work that's being shown. It's not enough to just need to really be a part of it.

I'd like to start my critique group back up - but more than that, I'd like to find a group of like-minded individuals would be oriented to the business end of photography - really getting careers going. I'd want to be able to sit down and define our goals, be very hard-headed about our time and see if using the power of the group could work for me.

What kind of a community are you going to start?

Thursday, September 13, 2012

How To Be Creative Until You Die

Are there prime ages for creativity? I hope not...because I hate the thought of uncontrollable absolutes being out there (yes, I know the obvious one).  There are so many factors involved in creative output - a big one being the culture in which you live and ours tends to favor the young.  Being outside of the "chosen" set can be discouraging, but let's face it, it's better than the alternative.

My goal is to do more than just stay creative - I want to know how to actually reinvent my artwork continually throughout the rest of my life. The prevailing science seems to indicate that there are two main approaches to creativity - the "experimentalist" and the "conceptualist." So says a study called Age + Creativity by David W. Galeson. In the study, he looks at a wide range of creativity, from art to science, and concludes "my work suggests that it is the characteristics of the individual that determine the shape of the creative life cycle. This implies that our opportunities for creativity are not dictated by our professions, but are determined by our own choices and abilities."

Looking at these two very different approaches to creativity, which do you think you are? The experimentalist is constantly on the search, but never quite attaining that perfect work. The process becomes the important part. They usually have a lot of things going and find that the "goal" keeps moving forward - the more they know, they more that want to know and generally have a lifetime of exploring. This is in contrast with the conceptualist, for them it is the idea which becomes paramount. That flash of insight, which is often planned minutely, and then the process of production is almost an after thought. This type tends to have those big splashes...but after that...not so much. I'm not sure if we can choose which type we want to be - but hey, why not give it a shot? 

I think life-long creativity has certain elements: must be willing to take a risk, to be uncomfortable, to risk looking foolish or awkward or even (especially) stupid! Turning off that "voice" in your head usually helps. 

Change, which often rides with its friend Risk.  As we get older we get more established - we can end up using the same set of solutions. Some of that is self-preservation so we don't have to reinvent the wheel every day, but if we're not careful, our avoidance of change can stop our growth. On the other hand, it's not enough to gobble up the latest trends and move with them - find a balance that allows you to bring in the best of the new and blend it with the strengths you already have. 

Obsession. It's been my experience that, once I get serious about a goal, then solutions start to present themselves. It's not that the solutions weren't always there, but in the act of identifying the goal...we start to understand what we're looking for.

• Persistance...just sticking with the process even after failing more than a few times. This goes with a willingness to work hard, to push yourself.

Be An Outsider - beginner's mind if you will. Being a "newby" with just enough information to do something, but not so much that you start limiting yourself, is a great way to stay continuously creative.

Good luck...let me know how it goes...

Thursday, September 6, 2012

In Praise of Small Towns: Rediscovering Your Roots

Life in a small town

For the past week I've been visiting my hometown and it has enveloped my bruised grown-up self with a warm mix of community and nostalgia. It's a small town in northern California, the kind where ex-cheerleaders slowly go to seed over the decades and your friends think you're more brilliant than you really are. Where the slow lazy days of summer get you out of your car and onto a bike. Where strangers say hello as they pass by on the street and everyone gives up the right of way at an intersection...except for young guys in pickup trucks...but they're that way everywhere. Most days are highlighted with the pleasant surprise of running into friends or relatives and you often find a bag of home grown tomatoes on your doorstep from a neighbor.  Hard to believe? I totally agree...but it does exist and I'm being wooed by it. 

When I was growing up I couldn't wait to leave and get on with my life. Now I return two to three times a year on holidays, or when needed. As a kid I was oblivious to the incredible beauty of the surroundings. An agricultural center (rice and almonds), the fields put on a rhythmic and constant series of changing views. Over time, each visit home was also punctuated by pilgrimages to remembered sites. As the years went by the sites evolved and recording those changes became a more central interest in my creative life. 

What I love about L.A. is how much variety it has. On one street I can go through Japan, Korea, Mexico, El Salvador,'s a movable feast. I like being able to find the last letterpress printer, seeing great art whenever I want and the first run of that obscure foreign film. It's been my home for a long time and I love telling its stories. 

But small towns have indie bookstores, accessible music scenes, real bike paths and a sense of connection to the people around you that I find soothing to the soul. It's said "you can't go home again" but in many ways home itself moves forward to meet you as you continue on your own path. New faces inhabit most of my old haunts...but the former imprint does remain and so the experience becomes this interesting blend of the new and old - connecting to my younger (wilder) self without the intensity of the actual experience.

I fully understand that a big part of my gratitude at this homecoming comes from being somewhere other than the stage of my recent troubles...but what I've truly gotten from this experience is the reminder that there are many ways to live our lives...with many paths to happiness. It was very important to realize that my current life is not the only one - in a way it's much like my experience with creativity - learning to go beyond the idea of reality that my brain has mapped out becomes a pathway to peace and happiness.