Thursday, October 25, 2012

What Are You Hungry For?

I returned to photograph my favorite field today - don't know why I love it so much...but I do. It's in the middle of two places that are kinda in the middle of nowhere themselves. Over the years I've gotten a lot of great images out of this field, but today I returned just because it makes me happy. There's the smell of it - across the road there's a cow pasture - but these are cows that get about 50 acres to roam, so it's not so bad - just a touch of cow. But the rest of the smell comes from the grasses and the land itself. 

I love the grasses and it was fun to shoot without worrying or thinking about meaning. There was no reason to take the big project I'm going to do when I'm done with them...don't know that anyone would ever buy them. They were taken just because I love the space...the openness of it...waiting for truckers to pass (most of whom will wave or smile as they go by). 

Right now, the trees still have their leaves...there's this amazing breeze that comes through...and this beautiful sound of the leaves rustling on the branches. I tiptoe my way past the "no trespassing" sign and walk down the service road, which is lined on both sides with wild raspberry brambles that have overgrown and are reaching out to close up the road if they get the chance. There's such a peacefulness here, the grasses have this subtle color, shape and texture. I love how the light shimmers through - it's cloudy today - supposed to rain tomorrow - so the plan is to come back and shoot in the rain. Shooting in the rain is interesting because most people won't, so your images look slightly different. 

There's something about returning to a place you find nourishing...and I can honestly say that, even though I recently sold an image I shot on this road - that's not why I come back to shoot. I return because this space is just a great place to play around in. This time of year the grass has grown up and there's cattails, culverts, bee hives, bugs, small snakes (and probably some big ones) and even little flowers coming up. It's not quite winter - just becoming fall - it was a hot, hot summer, so the grass really went crazy and you can tell the ground is so rich. There's this stand of trees on the road and behind them a field with a row of telephone poles that disappear into the distance. The row of trees are flat and form the two-dimensional plane they will eventually exist on (in the print) and peeking through them gives one a sense of openness and movement. 

If you can find a place that nourishes you and allows you to have a dialog with it, then you've found what I think most artists are looking for...maybe that's even what people are looking for when they buy art. Often, as teachers, we'll ask a student "what are you trying to do here, what are you trying to say?" Maybe the question should be "what hunger are you trying to feed, what need are you trying to meet?" I think art has to have a purpose and I suppose that would be the difference between pretty and beautiful. Pretty is decorative, but beauty really nourishes. It's more than just about looking - you can almost feel your eyes "feeding."  

So, on this day, I took pictures for no other reason than the pure joy of being in the space - just to say "I was here and this is what it looked like"...or "I was here and this is what nourished me."

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Asking The BIG Question...

An interesting exercise I recently tried had me tapping into my  stream of consciousness - I had to write down (or ask) 100 questions in a row.  It came from the book How To Think Like Leonardo Da Vinci. The book posits that one of Da Vinci's true gifts was his curiosity - that the basis for creativity is curiosity.  

It's strange but it occurred to me  that I've been doing this blog on creativity for many months now and have never asked a very simple question - what is creativity? Is it a single entity? Is it an actual thing that you make - as in you make stuff, therefore you must be creative? Interestingly enough, it reminds me of our origin myths - they are the story of a creation - so at least creation holds a hallowed space. But what is creativity? Maybe it isn't just an action verb - maybe creativity is a byproduct of curiosity.

There's this fatal neurological disease called Primary Progressive Aphasia (PPA) where the patient slowly loses their language capabilities. Within the disease, there is a small group who develop new creative skills in music and art. The individual becomes driven to create and wildly does so even after the ability to communicate with words has disappeared. Apparently there's a part of your brain that is a governor - it's the part that stops us from wearing our jammies to the job - well when this governor is laid of...the rest of the brain goes on a creating frenzy.

I digress ... back to my original thought, which is - what if creativity is merely a byproduct of something else? Isn't our curiosity where much of it all starts - that dreamy stare into space that starts the brain on the road to figuring out how to go to the moon? We're intuitively drawn to something and that's when the questions start. "What if I try this?" "What if I did it in blue?"

So, back to the exercise, they ask you to write down 100 questions and you've got to do them all at once because there are layers to your thought process and you need to get past the group at the top of your head. Somewhere towards the end you'll start to go somewhere new. I tried it and I must stay that #87 took a completely wild turn and I ended up with an extra 20-30 that I'm very interested in exploring.

What's really interesting about the exercise is the intense focus on asking questions - rather than finding solutions. I do know that it's important to focus on process as opposed to just results. The power in questions is that they can reframe how you look at a problem. Your questions come from your assumptions about how life works. The right question can flip the subject and open possibilities.

So...the challenge for today is to give it a try. Find somewhere you can sit undisturbed and start writing them down. It's okay to repeat things, that just gives you a sense of what you're focused on...go for it and see what happens!

Thursday, October 11, 2012

What's Haunting You?

This morning my husband had a great way of describing a common experience "I've got this unresolved problem at work and it's really haunting me."  I realized that I completely understood what he was talking about and it was a great way of describing a very common experience.  Another interesting way to think about it is "you're always meditating." Whatever's on your mind is what you're spending one of your most valuable resources on - your subconscious. It's a powerful tool that can help you become more creative if you stop clogging it with crap. People who accomplish a lot, do so by narrowing their focus to the areas they feel are important.  It takes a certain amount of self-confidence and self-esteem to defend that mental resource. 

So, I ask you, what's haunting you and how do you go about changing it? How do you make sure you're using that energy building your creative output as opposed to frittering it away on the worries that follow us around?

A good first step is becoming conscious of what's happening. By consciously realizing you're spending your time haunted by something other than creative issues, you move closer to changing that dynamic. 

Decide what you will be thinking about, what's going to be "haunting" you. There's an urgency to negative problems that probably has evolutionary roots, as in "Oh, look there's a bear coming, better deal with it." But too often we're ruminating on imagined consequences and travails...nothing that moves us forward. So "tell" your mind what you'd like to be meditating on. 

Think about looking for patterns of interest in your own life. As a kid I was obsessed with mythology and stories...all while being dragged to art museums by my art historian mother.  I was always interested in an alternative reality - under the life we think we know...there's this entire other world. I don't think we make art out of a vacuum - I think there are always threads in our early lives. I'm not sure how these early experiences and passions will play themselves out as visual images - but I'm pretty sure that focusing on them will set me on a path to make images that feel personal and relevant for me. 

So, consider these three recommendations as steps to set you on the path to becoming a more effective, creative and personal artist: 

1. Recognize the problem - we are always meditating - we are always being the question is  What do you want to spend that energy on?

2. Start to define your goals - I know it sounds boring and lacks the magic of pure creativity - but I don't actually think creativity is magic - it's more like slow cooking - you put in the ingredients - give it some time and magic happens when you allow the items to marinate, to evolve, which they will if you have faith in the process. The more you experience this magic, the more faith you'll have in it.

3. Going back. Mining your own experiences. What did you obsess about? What were your passions as a kid - those intense experiences that imprinted on your psyche? There's often a thread of authenticity in the experiences we have as kids - and "reviving" that intensity may put you back to that open child-like mindset.

Speaking of what's haunting me - you may be aware that Photography is one of the programs that could be cut due to budget deficits this year. In response our students in the LBCC Photo Program posted this video on the program and why it should be saved. Please feel free to repost.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Critique: Discussing and Thinking About Your Work

Back before the dawn of time, when I was in school, critiques were the "slash and burn" variety. Or, you could experience its ugly cousin the "death by a thousand suggestions." I've sat through crits where the instructor knocked the bad work to the floor and then walked on it for the rest of the class. Obviously this tended to incite a bit of anxiety. 

I've been to several of the festival review sessions that have become such good money makers. Some were useful, others were crushing. But overall,  I found that the 20 minute speed-dating method never worked for me. This past year I was fortunate enough to have two gallerists spend a few afternoons with me and really thoughtfully review my work. In this day and age, I completely realize what a gift it was to have that kind of attention - but I think "back in the day" that's how it was done on a regular basis. In both cases, I came away with significant insights that are still guiding the changes I've been making this past year.

I've also had very good experiences with critique groups. For several years I hosted one that met every six weeks at my home. The group started fairly strong...and eventually ended up being a core group of 4-6 people - which actually was a bit of a sweet spot in terms of really having intense time to discuss a body of work. In general, the visual aesthetics and goals of the individuals were fairly similar - I found this helps, having also been a member of a group which had a much different aesthetic...and it never really jelled for me.

Some suggestions for discussing and thinking about your work:

1. Give us some context for the work. Although I like work to grab me, it's also true that people want to do more than just buy an image. They want a sense of the world you're living in. Collectors want to know the background of the artist - who they are and why they're doing what they're doing. This also holds true for fellow artists - giving us a framework helps in terms of deciding what kind of feedback to give.

2. Try to emotionally distance yourself from the project. A good method is to put the work away for a few weeks/months and then come back to it with new eyes. 

3. Review it all at once. You've got to find a way to spread it all out. I found this extremely useful when I was editing my book on Val Verde. I went to the Pasadena library, which had these enormous tables and literally laid out the sequence. There were some changes later, but this is where I realized how I wanted to sequence the work.

4. Look for trends. After you've laid it all out, start seeing which pieces seem to fit with the group and which don't. Often it will be your favorite image that doesn't seem to fit with the group...figures, huh? But don't despair, perhaps it was meant to be in a different body of work.  Be ruthless with your edit. If there's a question...then you have your answer.

 5. Make multiple edits. Consider that you're just looking for maybe 30% of the images to survive the cut

6. If you're working with a group...try not to argue with their may not be relevant, it may not be something you want to change...but it's important to understand the impact the work has. This doesn't mean you have to agree - and you can always restate what you're trying to achieve.