Monday, January 31, 2011

Art or not

Being a parent is challenging enough without making issues where they don't need to be any. Last week in the Times the topic was how to dispose of the volume of works on paper kids generate—too much to save, so what do you do? 

Really, this was one of my last concerns as a parent. I can only guess that writers on parenting have run out of topics—or, parents are over-involved and over-identifying with their children to the point that they assume their little ones must feel possessive about their "art" in the same way adults might.

My observation of children is that they’re much more interested in the process than the product. When my sons were small the house was awash in drawings, and when it got to be too much, I simply saved the ones that meant something to me (some of which I still have) and tossed the rest. If they’d cared, I would have instituted a regular time when we sat down together and decided—on the basis of “interesting” rather than “good”—what was to be kept. I would not have thrown away anything they really wanted, even secretly. However I can assure you it would not have been an issue. 

Parents often ask me how they can encourage their children's artistic abilities, and appear disappointed when I suggest that, outside of providing them with materials and unstructured time alone, they do no such thing. Children don't need encouragement; they are by nature obsessive, creative beings. Why turn something they love to do for themselves into an opportunity for praise and approval? It's only when it becomes drummed into them that the activity (as opposed to, say, building a Lego© tower, or a sand castle that gets washed away) has something to do with their self-worth, that they begin to consider the end product—to the point that by age 10 or so, they’re so self-conscious most give up drawing up altogether.

When I was a child, I didn't care if my parents saw what I did —in fact it would have been ruined for me if they had. That it was private, completely mine, made it special.

Now that I think of it, drawing was always in my life—and the same for my children. My father, an engineer with an artistic bent, drew for pleasure and my children’s father could usually be found, of an evening, penciling designs for futuristic cars. Drawing was a pastime, nothing to be fussed over, just something people did, like reading the newspaper

I know two people who grew up with parents of wildly different attitudes when it came to their children's output:

Artist Marilyn Minter’s mother not only didn’t keep the things she did as a child, she discouraged Marilyn from drawing altogether (see the story in the Times).

Then there’s Erica, whose parents allowed her to save everything she touched—EVERYTHING, no exaggeration. Not just art, but all of her written papers, tests, party invitations, and myriad keepsakes, such as her 8th grade boy friend’s football jersey, were stashed away in their Great Neck home until just two years ago when, at 32, Erica, a documentary filmmaker, began dismantling, disposing, and documenting, what she refers to as the Erica Spizz Archives and Presidential Library (I was gifted with an invite to her Sweet Sixteen). It’s still an ongoing project.

Anyway, from what I can tell, both Marilyn and Erica have turned out just fine.

Published with permission from the Erica Spizz Archives and Presidential Library.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

More on Plan B

It’s curious how many people (like Mario Naves) interpreted my case against Plan B, below, as meaning that I have a conflict with artists working outside their studio. Not so! I’m a big advocate of the Work Ethic (I wasn’t born Carol Dickinson—how WASPy can you get?—for nothing).  I simply would not advise college students who want to be artists to study another profession they’re not completely committed to as a backup in case of failure—such as those whose "Plan B" is a Master of Arts in Teaching. The artists Naves and I know in New York are the ones who were resourceful, who survived. The people I'm thinking about are those I meet at places like the Vermont Studio Center or the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, who now are struggling to get back the thread of their art after doing something else, such as teaching in grammar or high school, for years—challenged by being just too long out of the conversation.

And why is the conversation important? Because it keeps you sharp and current, and your work alive. I seem to be arguing for art school these days when I didn’t think I believed in it, but this is one of the main reasons to go, to get critical feedback and create significant life-long relationships with other artists (years ago you could have gotten the same experience less expensively, by hanging out at that long-lost institution, the art bar).

As long as you stay in this very important loop, you can do almost anything outside of it. Henri Rousseau, famously, was a customs inspector. Color field artist Gene Davis, was a sportswriter and White House correspondent. Robert Irwin played the horses. I have a friend, Tom Kovachevich, who’s a doctor with a full-fledged art career, another who has a government job as a therapist and lives in Vermont (yes, he travels to New York a lot). Further, there’s no question that Stella’s outside job as a house painter, Rosenquist's as a sign painter, and Warhol’s as an illustrator changed the course of art history.

As for having to work, I’ve often done my best art when squeezed for time. In fact I started painting seriously when I was the suburban mother of two toddlers who were in nursery school for half a day. I was also, however, deeply involved in the Chicago art scene, sharing a studio with three other committed artists, writing reviews for The New Art Examiner, and going to openings every Friday.

In fact, looking back on it, the biggest turning points in my development as a painter were born directly out of the frustration of having neither the physical ability nor the time to work.  The first time I used writing in my paintings (which I no longer do, BTW, having seen too much of it) was in 1976 after a back injury from an automobile accident kept me from sitting down to work and my boy friend had just broken up with me. I couldn’t think of any images I wanted to make so I just poured out my thoughts, scrawling all over the paper with oil pastel, and then afraid that someone might actually read them, obliterating the words with asphyxiating amounts of turpentine.

Carol Diehl, It seems silly..., Oil pastel on paper, 1976

Later, in the 90s, I was working as an assistant to a literary agent, writing for Art & Antiques (under editor Isolde Motley, when it was a great magazine), art consulting for TIME—occupations for which I had no formal training—and coping with an unnamed illness I now know to be Lyme disease. Yet I had a studio and the urge to paint, even if I could only eke out 15 minutes at a time. There was no possibility of buying a stretcher and preparing a canvas, so I took an old painting, ruled it off with colored pencil into forty 2” horizontal stripes and chronicled the events of my life in one painted strip each day—a format that later became the “journal paintings” that were eventually shown at Hirschl & Adler.

Carol Diehl, January,1997,Oil on canvas, 36" x 36"

Another thing I hear when talking with frustrated artists is, “You don’t understand; I live in Cleveland.” What they are really saying is that they’ve made other choices that have taken them off their path—but these things didn’t “just happen.” If living in Cleveland is a problem, then don’t live in Cleveland. Or accept that you live in Cleveland, find other people like you, and start something up there. The problem isn’t, and has never been, Cleveland.

But it could have been “Plan B.”


Note:  I just now received a notice from the Vermont Studio Center regarding their fellowship applications, closing February 15. More info here.

Monday, January 24, 2011

10 reasons to love this weather:

1.     No mosquitoes.
2.     You can leave the refrigerator door open and it won't make any difference.
3.     Wearing black makes you more visible.
4.     You can hide your holiday fat under your coat.
5.     You don’t have to wonder what shoes to wear.
6.     You don’t have to make excuses for being late.
7.     You don’t need to get a pedicure.
8.     You can leave the water running when you brush your teeth. Actually it’s a good idea to leave it running before and after as well.
9.   & 10. It’s a good excuse for a hot toddy.

Friday, January 21, 2011

The case against Plan B

A review of a show about artists’ day jobs reminded me of another aspect of my talk last week with the St. Olaf visual arts students—they mentioned a strong emphasis on minor studies, and I asked if these were subjects that contributed in a significant way to their artistic pursuits (I’m all for a breadth of knowledge) or if they constituted “Plan B.”

I am SO opposed to “Plan B.” 

How successful can you be at anything, when you’re simultaneously planning for failure? Especially now, when it’s impossible to predict future needs, it seems like a waste to spend time (and considerable money) on anything you’re not passionate about. My parents’ idea of Plan B for me, given that I liked art and bought a lot of clothes, was fashion illustration. I bet most of you don’t even know what fashion illustration is, since outside of a few Lord & Taylor ads that made it into the eighties, the field evaporated shortly thereafter. Besides, I hated it.

Lord & Taylor, 1984 (Copyright may apply)

However what my parents would really have liked was for me to get a good corporate job so I could live a lifetime of security, and we all know how long that lasted (it did work for my brother, a computer engineer, but only because he was ahead of his time—and he couldn’t have studied computer science in college because there weren’t yet programs for it).

It’s amazing to think that just a few years ago students were crowding journalism schools (Journalism? What’s that?), and last week the Times ran an article entitled, “Is Law School a Losing Game?”  Is nothing sacred?

[Interestingly, I did take a class in eighth grade that has always stood me in good stead: typing, a subject that was discontinued soon after, as it was seen as helpful only to those who would become secretaries.]

Outside of an ability to get to a place on time and actually complete tasks (qualities that are more unusual than you’d think), what do the times require? What will they require?  Well it’s always good to be the best at whatever you do, and those people will succeed, even if they choose to be journalists or lawyers. But also…people who are flexible and adaptable, who can think on their feet, think outside the box, are realistic about their strengths and weaknesses, have good social and organizational skills and surprisingly—we didn’t expect this, did we?—can write well. People who know how to learn, since in the future we will no doubt be reinventing ourselves on a regular basis, if we aren’t already (and while I always hesitate to agree with David Brooks, he touches on some of these same issues here).

So where do you go to develop these essential attributes? For one, a school like Bennington College, where I used to teach, where learning to think for yourself is built into the program, and barring that—well, I never saw myself as an advocate of art studies, but it seems as good a way as any to find out who you are and explore what you can do.

And who knows? You might even become an artist.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

What's in a name?

In a talk last week with 18 bright and down-to-earth Senior visual arts majors from Minnesota’s St. Olaf College, in NYC for a month (!) of twice-daily talks with arts professionals (organized by artist Peter Eide), there was, of course—why else do we do these things?—a question that spurred a bit of self-examination: Do I think titles are necessary?

The appellation “Untitled,” as far as I’ve always been concerned, is a cop-out that makes whatever’s not being named seem flat, no more than a piece of decoration, as if the artist didn’t care enough about his/her work to put any more effort into it (I have a friend who always threatened to name his child, “Untitled”)—whereas a title can add, hopefully, another layer of poetry and mystery, or at the very least, help identify the artwork. So the question was easy to answer but personally annoying because it made me realize that I was going to have to title my spate of recent drawings—so many of them!—something I had conveniently avoided thinking about. As if just making them isn't challenging enough.

How do artists title their work? Hardly anyone talks about it. I remember that Walter Robinson once found names for his paintings by randomly stabbing a finger into Stendahl’s novel, The Red and the Black, always coming up with the perfect pithy and enigmatic phrase. At the time I copied his method using my giant antique Webster’s dictionary, and the words I retrieved that way were always surprisingly apt. I just now finished writing a review of Keltie Ferris’s thoroughly abstract paintings, and her titles—from oooOOO()()() to Rain Dogs Unplugged which, of course, has no rain or dogs in it—add extra zing.  My all-time favorite, however, is Frank Stella’s title for at least two of his early black stripe paintings: The Marriage of Reason and Squalor. 

If he’d left them “Untitled,” he might still be painting houses.


The Marriage of Reason and Squalor, II
Frank Stella (American, born 1936)

1959. Enamel on canvas, 7' 6 3/4" x 11' 3/4" (230.5 x 337.2 cm). Larry Aldrich Foundation Fund. © 2010 Frank Stella / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Friday, January 7, 2011

Happy New Year!

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness; it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity; it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness; it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair; we had everything before us, we had nothing before us; we were all going directly to Heaven, we were all going the other way.

Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities,1859.

A friend, who’s in his 40s, commented at New Year’s that these are the darkest times he’s ever lived through. It’s true, things are awful in a lot of places; I wouldn’t want to be living in Afghanistan or Haiti right now. But the worst of times? You won’t find me yearning for “the good old days” –like the Sixties, when he was born and I came of age, when an inter-racial family such as his own would have been discriminated against by both races, there were still lynchings in the South, and African-Americans had to fight for the right to vote. When sexual harassment of women was the norm, abortions were done in back streets, and in Connecticut, where I lived in New Haven, birth control was illegal. An unmarried heterosexual couple would have had a hard time finding a place to rent, and gays…forget it (it’s important to remember that the reason gay marriage is an issue now is not because so many people are against it, but because so many are for it). Those were the days when my father’s problem with alcohol didn’t have a name, and life was lived through a haze of cigarette smoke. Not to speak of the fact that there was only one kind of lettuce and no one outside of Italy knew what a latte was.

Therefore my New Year’s resolution is, as it has been for the last several years, not to listen to or watch the news. I will read The New Yorker, as well as the headlines and anything I find interesting in the Times. I will remain informed, but I will not allow myself to be bombarded with every detail of every terrible thing that’s happening in the world this very minute. As far as I’m concerned, all of this is Mind Control in the form of negativity-training (not just Fox News but even—and maybe especially—your beloved NPR, whose lack of blatancy makes it even more insidious). I feel compassionate, but must I demonstrate it by being miserable?

So, while I appreciate the invitation, I will not be joining the culture of complaint. Instead I begin this year grateful for all I have to celebrate: I had a great month in California, a long-term legal hassle in my life has been resolved, my children are happy, I have a new baby grandson, the sun is out, and I’m on fire in the studio as never before. Welcome 2011!

Carol Diehl, Drawing 1/6/11, pastel on paper, 9 1/2" x 12 1/2"