Sunday, 16 September 2012

An Artist Looks at Habits...on keeping on, keeping on!

Habits for the artist, just as in any of life’s other endeavors are pathways toward satisfaction, wonder and freedom or a debacle of dysfunction and chaos. They are in effect the development or changes to synaptic routing's, initiating potential actions with either positive or negative results. They are repetitive choices to think and act either in ways that uplift toward character building or black ice decisions that send us slipping toward destructive action, inaction and meaninglessness. 

The habit itself isn’t aware and doesn’t ‘give a rip’ whether it will bring productivity, be ultimately helpful, or tear down and become destructive. All it wants is to maintain its own superiority and autonomy. Habits could also be described as either an unengaged drifting down stream or the fight to conquer higher ground and new territory. 

As a young boy I had opportunity to wander in the coastal mountains of British Colombia. During spawning season, streams run blood red filled with brilliant mighty Salmon, facing the reality that their days are short.

Intuitively they recognize that the baton must be passed, that the arc of their lives is setting momentarily in the West. They stop at nothing to arrive upstream at that place of inception to leave their mark of reproduction. Pushing themselves hurdle over hurdle, they work out the best way to succeed in their effort to give another generation a chance at life and success. Nothing close to a bed of ease marks their last ‘retirement’ year, but rather an unselfish instinct to leave a legacy by making their kingdom grow and flourish as they end their life’s journey. To them the process is innate. 

To change habits of any kind there is always an ‘aha moment’ and then a choice to modify and become, to turn 180 degrees and go the opposite direction. To ‘repent’ if you will. At that stage, the decision is but a remotely possible resolution. Habits of value become fulfillment when chosen repeatedly despite the challenges of pain and discouragement. They are the very personal, lonely and difficult exercise of continually fighting upstream against the crowd, cultural norms or toward deeply embedded lost longings.

The act of making art is an exercise of repetitive habit making. By continuing this uphill journey I hold out hope that in some way the activity will bring some value to others. Whatever medium I choose to use, or subject I am inspired to represent through the process, it brings to me the creator, a mental stimuli. It could be a sense of romance, well being, or possibly its opposite, feelings of despair.

I have overheard superficial ‘romantic’ conversation regarding the act of making art and its subsequent perceived rewards. Often simultaneously, the same people who comment or consider it an activity of enjoyment, relaxation or hobby making, also consider it an easy route to fame and fortune. Just a few weekend seminars and we’ll ‘make it!’ That, to be sure, is the only way to get your 15 minutes of very local success, if that!

It never seems to cross their minds the idea of literal years of lonely, frustrating journeying in a consistent direction. The reality is that it is an odyssey full of pitfalls, disappointment, extended stress-filled nights and years and years of rejection upon rejection. 

It is here one might introduce a deeper question as to the ‘why’ of developing habits of excellence that lead upward toward goodness versus those that don’t. If there exists no ultimate moral compass, then why would we strive to be intentionally upright? If there were no ultimate purpose to life, and we are merely DNA dancing on the head of a pin, then why wouldn’t we let our lives and our art slide to the lowest common denominator in a mad rush toward depravity, fulfilling our basest hedonistic instincts just to please the high priests of the cultural elite? In that sphere of the art world, Christ hanging on the cross encased in a glass of urine or rotting cow flesh draped on a wire human figure, is applauded as the ultimate in creative endeavor and funded through the national councils for the arts. Anything that draws us to consider beauty and dignity, let alone the source of creativity is denigrated and mocked, let alone funded!

All human endeavor of value is about struggle with the implementation of either positive or negative habits. ‘A Long Obedience in the Same Direction’ as stated by Eugene Peterson gives us the idea. As in any undertaking, creating art of value doesn’t allow for short cuts. To be successful I must learn to ‘see.’ To ‘see’ I must develop the disciplined habits of sensitive observation and contemplation. To achieve this, the idea of pondering, meditation, solitude, and quietness need to become part of my habitual life. Over time my eye becomes trained to ‘see’ and begins to pick out negative shapes, values, graduation of tone, warm versus cool color relationships, lost and found edges and a thousand other observations and possibilities.

Having seen, I then must apply what has been observed as an impression onto whatever substrate I’m working with. In painting, as in any structure with lasting value, a foundation must be established. The acts of painting directly or indirectly, glazing, reworking, subtracting and adding are part of the process. There are no quick fixes. 

I need to interpret. Interpretation requires specific tools. Tools like habits are inanimate objects. They lie there, not caring whether they will have value or not until they are picked up and integrated. A mark in and of its self doesn’t allow me to interpret. The act of habitual ‘mark making’ finally reveals uniqueness and style, something recognized from afar as unique and different and having value. It is in this unique language that finally one is ready to make a statement. These habits require time, discipline and a warring against the easy route. They require saying no to the good in exchange for the chosen best. They require the artist to take control and have the last word.

The clay says regularly to the potter that its preference is not to become a pot, and fights back. The artist/potter must invoke habits of mastery over the tools and materials required. It is interesting to note however that the potter gets intimately involved with the clay...right up to his elbows caked deeply in the mud, willingly involved in the mess. He expects the pot to fight back, reflecting relationship and not the numbness of the automaton. The wrestle includes him using his providential will as he intentionally places the pot into a fierce crucible of intensity to be hardened for endurance. This may happen on more than one occasion as he beautifies the piece, layer by layer, ultimately making something that even centuries later can be still of great value and beauty. 

The act of picking up a marking device and making a mark sets me off on the marathon. A series of marks made regularly with consistent repetitiveness brings the beginnings of something subconsciously habitual. Years of mark making bring me a little closer to the idea of the pain threshold the runner often experiences...that of breaking through to that second wind where I can fly and compete. This is the ongoing discipline of back breaking repetitive and yet fulfilling lonely endeavor. No one else can make the marks for me. No one else can live our life for us. One must have the courage to make ones own marks. Habits in the arts whether writing, sculpting, haute cuisine or music making all have the same foundation. To consummate excellence is to have achieved the disciplined habits that are chosen and developed through the deep waters of secluded adversity, instead of being easily discarded.

The relationship of this metaphor to the Christian life is of course a similar process. The beginning of that journey is one of infantile ineptitude. Being born only gives us the ability to recognize we are needy. We begin this life by responding to our reflex action of taking what someone else provides, expelling and then complaining when our next request is not immediately responded to.

Growth occurs when tools that bring us toward maturity are presented and acted on as options. Slowly, very slowly, these options are recognized as having value and can become habitual activity.

Almost immediately we understand that we are hardwired to accept the route of least resistance. We seem programmed to aim at the lowest common denominator. Only with regular contribution from some outside source, can we begin to recognize that there may be value in growth, community and maturity. If allowed, others can come alongside, giving us tools and insights that can become positive helpful habits, which can in turn become the venue for value to others. 

Serving and enhancing another’s life is really ultimately what the making of art is about. As a Christian artist, my first objective is to bring honor to my King, through making art as an act of personal worship. To bring a sense of awareness of what others may miss while passing same the scene is what I hope to achieve as they involve themselves in what my mind and hands attempt to interpret.

Just as in mark making, believers in Christ must be engaged in habit forming, simple repetitive processes, failing often, and yet being encouraged and encouraging others to start over and over if we are to make a mature mark of significance on others.

I’ve noticed that although artists often work alone, they are for the most part, when asked, generous in opening the doors of their knowledge and insights to others, whereby those recipients in turn come to learn, achieve and give away. Often they long to share their time and knowledge with a small group of like minded journeyers. It’s called fellowship. We as fellow strugglers, some, further down the path in our Christian journey, need to be generous in supplying those coming behind or alongside, a few helpful avenues and habits that have been learned by encouraging them to get up again, keep on going and renew the challenge to keep on trying, repeatedly.

Ultimately, it is up to me, an individual traveler, to see and accept the directions and secrets that bring success, implement them into my own palette of regular positive habits, if my life is going to end up anything more than just a series of disparate marks or if it will to become a work of value or even a small masterpiece.

“But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him.” Jeremiah 18:4 NIV

“But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’”Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special purposes and some for common use?” Romans 9:20-21 NIV

“You turn things upside down, as if the potter were thought to be like the clay!
Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it,“You did not make me”? Can the pot say to the potter, “You know nothing”?” Isaiah 29:16 NIV

Lakeland Mist 40" X 60" Acrylic on Canvas

Copyright: J. Douglas Thompson 2011