The Art & Insanity of Creativity is the theme for the fall issue of Hunger Mountain, so here on my blog, I am going to spend May and June reading and thinking about art: how we create it, why we create it, and what are the blocks (fears, worries, concerns) that stand in our way.
I am a new reader of the seminal book Art & Fear: Observations On the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles & Ted Orland. How and why I never picked up this book before a few months back, I don’t know; but I am a firm believer that when the time is right the book will find me. Or perhaps when I am ready I will find the book. So here I sit with Art & Fear in hand.
The opening of Art & Fear outlines a few assumptions about the artistic life. These are creeds I wholeheartedly believe in:
1. Artmaking involves skills that can be learned.
Ah, so going to grad school to learn story structure had a point. So does the building of the Writing Barn where I will soon be teaching and inviting other novelists to come share their work and wisdom. So does the reading of blogs and writing my Reading Like a Writer essays. Writing is a constant and consistent study and the study yields constant and consistent rewards.
2. Art is made by ordinary people.
Oh, I love this one. It reminds me of the Anne Lamott quote, “Plumbers don’t get plumbers block.” The ordinary is extraordinary. That is what observation, which all art making involves, is.
3. Making art and viewing art are different at their core.
So, this is why “to all viewers but yourself, what matters is the product: the finished artwork. To you, and you alone, what matters is the process : the experience of shaping that artwork. “ And Bayles and Orland even go on to add, “The function of the overwhelming majority of your artwork is simply to teach you how to make the small fraction of your artwork that soars.”
I agree. I throw away pages, I do major revisions, I turn picture books into novels and I take my time—ten years from inception of idea to the “final product” of a book is not uncommon for me and it is also not something I am ashamed of. Art takes it’s time. Even when I forget and I want to rush and just get it done and off my plate so I can move on to the next thing or have the semi-momentary feeling of acceptance surge though my veins art is there always to remind me: take your time, don’t rush, go deeper, be more honest, did you hit the wall yet?, did you breakthrough? Did you learn something new? Did you allow yourself to where you needed to be?—angry, distraught, frustrated, hopeful, encouraged, devastated. Process is about processing and process is introspective, alarming, uncomfortable but it is ultimately freeing.
4. Artmaking has been around longer than the art establishment.
This is why in the Passion for the Picture Book piece that I did for Hunger Mountain has two wonderful writers, and wonderful friends—Kathi Appelt and Cynthia Leitich Smith—going back to the cave paintings as the beginnings of where art and text began to merge to tell one whole new and newly complete story.
Beginning with the drawings on cave walls, humans have been pairing story and art for as long as we’ve been standing upright. When we read a picture book in its current form, a “package” of illustrated pages and text, bound between covers, we’re experiencing not only the story in front of us, but we’re also sharing that long human legacy of storytelling that includes two dimensional art.
We all begin with the language of images. We all began that way as babes in arms. We all began that way as members of the human family, starting with the earliest cave drawings. Perhaps even before those. The picture book builds on that early, almost instinctive, visual literacy and fosters our vocabulary, introduces concepts, and nurtures emotional bandwidth. Moreover, the picture book does all this while entertaining, informing, and delighting readers of all ages.
I loved reading these two quotes from those two fine writers and seeing the similarities there—that both reinforce that art began before the art establishment did whose intention is to judge, to quantify, to declare something “dead” or “over.” Artmaking for the sake of self-expression (an essential component to sanity) is reason enough. It is where all art begins.