On the Artist Process


It was already midnight when Rich brought me up to his studio. Crumbs of sleep were already hardening on the edges of my eyes, but I knew that our best conversations occurred when I wasn’t quite sure if our conversation itself was just a dream.

What is the artistic process? It seems to me, that art is not some mystical process that we take great pride in fancying. Some great force that comes from the burning hearth of the soul. And certainly not some heightened cult that we must wholly subscribe ourselves to.

The room was lit with only a small incandesce bulb that seemed to only make the room more dim. Rich placed himself in his computer chair and I leaned back on a couch only feet from him.

One might think this was a therapy session, and in many respects it was. He listened through bebop swings of his guitar, and I talked through head nods. I gave up trying to film these sessions long ago, my iPhone couldn’t register the sound right (everything sounded tin-like) and the room was too dark anyway.

Rich is my cousin, a retired department chair from MICA in Baltimore. The refining of my artist practice took part here, through discussion and guitar licks, and a lot of personal frustration.

He — like a librarian who only provides you with the catalog number, but you’ve got to dig around to find the title you want on the shelf — never served me what I wanted easily.

You come across some books you’ll peek at, or revisit in a few years. No quite cyclical, but not liner, either. A learning that’s always resisting itself, always asking more than it’s answering.

Questions about life, art, and the artistic process always came with a catch: “I’ll give you a swig of my experience to get you started, but you’re going to brew your own moonshine and share it with me.”

I don’t think Rich ever drank, but if you met the man, you’d know he didn’t need to. His blood was thick, and made of the the blues that could only come from the men of the Iron Mills in Pittsburgh, where he grew up.

Parallel Lines

What is the artistic process? It seems to me, that art is not some mystical process that we take great pride in fancying. Some great force that comes from the burning hearth of the soul. And certainly not some heightened cult that we must wholly subscribe ourselves to.

Though, our reverence of the artist process is evokes these images. We hold art in the highest regard because it is the best of us. Let’s take the credit for our own genius.

The artistic process is the highest of our psychic processes. It operates by bringing together disperate systems, often times unrelated systems, and finding order and structure between them.

It is the two neurons bridging across the hemisphere of the brain. It is the “ah ha” moment that we feel when we come to understand something beyond ourselves. Something abstract. Come to a point of intersection between two parallel lines that we though could not exist.

This is why the art making process feels shamanistic, or mystic. It is euphoric, and feels beyond us. But it springs from the well of our history, knowledge, personality, references, hang outs and baggage.

It extracts and mines from the worst of us, our form, and distills the moonshine of ourselves. An intoxicating liquor. A substance that alters our world view, made from our own rotten fruits.

It can cure our pain. It drives some to madness, and can even blind us. Hell, it can even be bottled and sold if it’s good enough.

Robert Adams in Beauty of Photography remarked, “Why is Form beautiful? Because, I think, it helps us confront our worst fear, the suspicion that life may be chaos and that therefore our suffering is without meaning.”

What could be more comforting than to know that our wondrous artistic forums could be derived from our suffering, our anxiety, our loss, our compulsions, fetishes, lies, ignorances, our vices, our kindness, our pride, our intelligence, our consciousness?

Great Art

Art is ‘us stuff’, it is not subject matter. Perhaps this is what causes so many young artists to never create great art before they abandon their practices to the demands of daily life and office jobs.

When we consider a brain, new connections are bold. They are brilliant flashes of light. They are new highways between invisible cities — different fragments of the same consciousness.

Great art are neurons firing, and carving a path between the chasm of psychic void and disorder. Perhaps greater the chasm, the more bold the work. The starting point (the intention in first creating the work) and ending point (subject matter) matter little.

It is the risky and vulnerable process of creating the bridge which is the work. It invites others to cross and find the path pleasant to refresh themselves, or the height to wake them from their daily stuppor, or it does little for anyone and the work is discarded, ignored, or used only for the artists personal voyage.

If the bridge is great, then many come to visit and reflect. But this bridge is not static. As it is traversed more with reproductions, related works by the same or different artist, or parody the bridge grows to accommodate more traffic.

The neuron gains strength, and more tendrils wind off. This roadway becomes normalized. This neuron path becomes cemented into our collective understanding of the world. New paths will veere off of it, as new connections are drawn from the same axiom.

What once was void is now highly structured order, what is known as the cliche. Very helpful in drawing order, and communicating stories — but complicated when exploring the dark reaches of ourselves.

Art, after all, can only exist in the void, bringing from it matter. Where there is a road, there is no void. And we hit artist dead ends. Think: the “arty” portrait of a teenager girl. Or the “arty” photo of a chain link fence. Or the “arty” subject matter of photographing the homeless.

It is not that new art can not exists in these places, only that to do so, it must forge a new link to another neuron not yet discovered. It must traverse the void.

This is entirely possible (think Anthony Hernandez’ homeless photos) but the young or inexperienced (I myself guilty as charged) make the honest mistake that the ‘art’ is found in the crossing the bridge. They are drawn to the starting point and end point. The subject matter.

This, among many reasons, is why knowledge of art is so important. We must look in the void to pull matter from it. We may start here, or start there. It may be a deep or shallow chasm, long or short stretch. But it is here we must dug.

These are places that are hardly mystical. We carry these places, and the great artist can recognize the value in them, and structure a way to access or cross these places without too much danger as to be lost, but enough to stir our senses.

The artistic process is to brew from great depths all of the scattered molecules and neurons that float in the aether of our skulls.

Image credit: Anthony Hernandez.

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