In Search of an Artist's Statement
It's almost a year since I started painting and drawing in earnest, and in that time I've started identifying more as an artist than as the writer I've been for more than 40 years. But I had something of a crisis in confidence this summer when I read Nell Painter's fascinating memoir Old in Art School. Like me, Painter decided to become an artist late in life. But, unlike me, she decided to actually enroll as an art student – first at Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers and ultimately at one of the pinnacles of art education, RISD, where she earned a masters. At both institutions, she subjected herself to what seems to me to be the utter subjectivity of the art world. One professor would laud her efforts; another would rip her work to shreds – and no amount of logic or reason could untangle or predict the contradictions. Painter arrived at art from an esteemed career as a scholar and author, where one assumes she had a healthy ego. Art school was more than humbling; it was brutalizing.
Somewhere in the middle of the book, Painter tosses off a basic tenet of art education in America today: pretty doesn't count as art at all. It's mere decoration – the aesthetic equivalent of paintings on the walls of second- or third-rate hotels.
What? Pretty = bad?
And so I began a private internal crucible. While Painter endured real critiques, mine were internal, imaginary – withering second looks at paintings I had spent hours happily working on, like the Floating Dock above.
It's absurd, of course, to think in less than a year of starting to draw and paint in earnest, I should be a capital A Artist – or even that it matters. I'm thousands of hours short of Malcolm Gladwell's rule for basic skill mastery (10,000 hours – a mark I met decades ago in writing.) I only took one class in art history in college, and have barely any grounding in the history of art. I look at large bold abstracts with mystification: How did they think of that?
So it was lucky I stumbled on a recent article by art critic Jerry Saltz on the "33 Rules of Becoming an Artist." Lesson 1: Don't Be Embarrassed. Lesson 5 is Work, Work Work – a habit that comes to me easily. It's Lesson 23, though, which has stuck with me the past week: Learn to Write. Saltz was talking about that paragraph I've seen so many times but had never thought to apply to myself, the Artist's Statement.
I've mulled that while driving around, wondering if there is any one principle that organizes my artistic life. And I came back to something I told my therapist last spring.
When I got a diagnosis of Triple Negative Breast Cancer in 2015, I had to make an acquaintance of mortality. Though treatment was successful, I came to appreciate the finiteness of my time on earth. I have always loved snow globes and if I could have taken my happy life, encased it in lucite, and made it permanent, I would have. I was desperate to savor every moment and to stretch time out.
When I started painting and drawing in the beginning of 2018, taking up a long-dormant talent, I discovered that art provided just the cheat I was looking for. My first painting was of a rickety wooden fence set against the snow, a study of blue shadows and the slant of a fading sun. I had come upon the fence on a walk, and snapped it with my phone. But for two days in January, I defied the laws of time, stretching that one second of appreciation into hours of discovering the shadows inside the shadows and the blues inside the blues.
I am still experimenting with media, and I have not settled on one particular subject. I paint whatever delights and amuses me, mostly landscapes, streetscapes, roofscapes and roadscapes, from clothes dancing gayly on a sunny Soho rooftop to the play of tail lights on a highway on a rainy afternoon. In the end, I believe in beauty. I don't believe anybody says on their deathbed, "If only I'd seen one less sunset."