10 July 2012

How to Be an Artist

It is heresy to say it, but I do not believe that there is such a thing as an "authority." For that matter, there is not even such thing as a "reliable source." You simply cannot—and must not—ever believe everything anyone says. A fact, if it is a fact, is a fact because it is true, not because it was said by an authority or a reliable source.

I suggest, therefore, that you apply your own reason and experience to the following. These thoughts are based on my personal experiences...

And yet...

Mountain Hemlock on Mt. Shasta

I have been walking The Way of the Artist for many years, so I have accumulated a lot of experiences. I have spent many years struggling to "make it" as an artist. I pass these thoughts along as my personal observations. I earnestly intreat you to judge for yourself whether what I say is true.

I was seventeen when I noticed that I would rather die than not do art.

I do not recall making a decision about that. It was an observation.

But it gave me my orientation. My peers had their ideas of what success was; I had mine.

Certainly, we all wanted good jobs. And by "good jobs" I mean we all wanted to do something that was both fun and profitable. Some of us had high enough ideals that we wished to live lives that were of value to others, and we were willing to forego riches for the sake of service. Some wanted fame. Some wanted money and money only. In the scale of social value, I deemed those type of people at best—worthless.

There's nothing wrong with wanting money. The question was, "What are you willing to do to get it?"

I wanted money. Of course I did. Money is great. Money is fun. I wanted fame too. Why not? You always hear famous people complaining about how it is not so great, and sometimes I believe them, but for an artist, fame puts a big, fat exponent next to the prices you command. However, I was not willing to do anything but art to get fame or wealth; more, even if my art did not provide me with wealth and fame, I was still not willing to do anything but art.

South Fork of the Scramento River, Rocks and Water

There were things that others wanted that I did not want.

I did not want to "settle down, buy a house, and raise a family." I looked on the suburban lifestyle—the lifestyle in which I was raised—with horror.

That kind of life never even crossed my mind as something desirable. I wanted to wander. I wanted to roam. I wanted to look at the world, and I wanted to do art.

I was a little bit more free, but in many ways, I had set myself up for a life of suffering.

I was free in that I did not have to worry about the things other people worried about. I did not have to worry about school, sticking with a job, or a family. I did not have to worry about food, rent, clothing, or shelter.

The only thing I had to worry about was getting the next piece made.

I quit high school. I never even graduated. All the indoctrination that was supposed to turn me into obedient worker or complacent manager just did not work on me.

I would have stuck it out, but they weren't teaching me anything in school that I could not learn on my own. Worse, they were not even trying to teach the things I really wanted to learn.

At that time, I wanted to learn the painting techniques of the high Dutch and Italian Renaissances, and no one, to my knowledge, was teaching that, so I figured I would just have to figure it out on my own.

My life became very calm and orderly. When I looked for a job—and I've had many—all I needed to ask was, "Will this job help or hurt my art?"

When I met a girl, I need only determine, "Will she be good for my work or bad?"

When I considered moving somewhere else, my only question was, "Will I find inspiration in that place?"

Frijoles Canyon, Bendelier National Monument, New Mexico

Food was merely fuel: rice, beans, and whatever meat and greens were on sale. Clothing was simply practical: jeans, boots, and thrift store button up shirts we fine; for winter, fedora hats and trench coats. Housing had only to be cheap and spacious; a garage or a bunk in a warehouse was perfect.

Seeking, as I did, beautiful environments in which to ponder the universe, I got jobs at resorts and vacation spots. I cooked food and waited tables, mainly. I took evening jobs. This meant I could stay up all night if I wanted, and I would still get plenty of sleep. Day jobs drained my energy and left me too tired for art.

If a manager gave me any shit, I quit. I always wondered, "Where do they find these guys?"

If a girl said, "What about me? Am I less important than your art?" I told her, "Babe, you just said the wrong thing."

Later, I learned to warn her at the beginning. There are plenty of women who can dig an artist's passion for his work, but you do have to let her know at the beginning rather than blind-side her later.

I made a lot of mistakes. It seems I mainly made mistakes.

If I had it to do all over, I would have been more gracious and kind to the people who cared for me. But I would change little else.

I could not have known that "The Techniques of the Master's" was an artistic dead end. I had to walk that road to find that. I was not really living in the present world as it was. I was living in nineteenth century France, fifth century BC Greece, Kamakura era Japan, or 14th century Florence. I was pretty out of touch with the current scene.

Frijoles Canyon kiva atop cliff

The funny thing is: I knew that.

But I did not care. The world as I saw it had taken the wrong turn. All those skyscrapers, factories, chain stores, and fast food places seemed preposterous to me.

I rarely made money with art. I did not attempt to promote myself as an artist. I never tried to get into a gallery. I never even wanted to have an art show. I just did art.

Beyond practicing lovemaking skill, I did not attempt to be much of a boyfriend either. I did not go after women. I let them come to me, and they did, often enough that I never felt deprived that way.

If not quite a cad or a rogue, I was certainly a flake.

No. I take that back. I really was a bastard sometimes. I actually said, "Fuck off, bitch," to a woman one time. I was not toying around, either. I wanted her out of my life, and we never spoke again. I did not even feel guilty about at the time.

But it haunted me.

I would change that part if I could. I did a lot of things wrong. But I did do one thing right. I never quit.

I continued to do art. I got better, and better, and better. I got to where I had no trouble selling; then, I would get bored with the sellable style and go off on another learning curve, beginning with crappy work all over again.

I was seeking my voice. I was trying to find the magic nexus where what I had to offer was also what the world wanted.

There is a quote that is supposedly by Aristotle. This is my version, written in active voice: "Your path lies where your skills and the needs of the world meet."

I've read a lot of Aristotle, and I never found where he says that. I asked two classics professors as well, and both were like, "Hmmm. Doesn't ring any bells."

So if you, dear reader, know the proper, complete, exact attribution, please do let me know!

Yet it really doesn't matter who said it. Remember, there are no authorities. So regardless of who said it, I agree with the sentiment.

However, It seemed to me that the world wanted some goofy stuff. Top news was celebrity gossip and scandal. And in the contemporary art world, well, I thought the artists were over educated buffoons with barely infantile skills.

Self Portrait in Charcoal

I looked at a lot of art. I went into galleries and museums everywhere, all the time. I was always looking at art.

But I was too shy to talk to gallery owners and other artists, generally. That was another mistake. My road would have been quicker and happier had I engaged such people as passionately as I engaged my art.

I was always looking at the universe. I studied the sky, the clouds, the patterns of bird flight and the ways of the wind. I walked all over the mountains and along the coasts, looking and listening. I found that the best things to watch were life forms. I had always wanted to draw and paint animals, but I was advised that it was a "genre," and "serious" artists did not do that. I avoided those subjects. I did become good at drawing and painting people. My study of "The Masters" had equipped me for a fine career as portrait painter had I cared to pursue that. I did not. It was a bore to do only that all the time.

Finally, one day, only a couple years ago, I had and itch to carve some wood. Living as I was in a little mountain town and fishing in the river a lot, I wanted to carve a trout. I said, "Ah, what the hell!"

I had been working that summer cutting and selling firewood. That's a rough business. My fuel cost alone for a pickup truck of wood was $40.00. After the work of finding trees to cut into rounds, I had a good ten hours of work to split it. Plus, I was paying one or the other of my nephews to help me and always buying him a good lunch.

Well, one afternoon, taking a break from the splitting, just for fun, I took my chainsaw and carved a trout with it. It took me about twenty minutes. It was pretty loose work, but it had a certain panache. I liked it. I had fun making it. I left it sitting on the log where I had my "Firewood for Sale" sign propped.

Then, I had this one guy who thought $165.00 dollars for a pickup load of really good, well split, perfectly seasoned tamarack pine was just too much money.

But he was happy to give me $20.00 dollars for the fish I carved.

A dollar a minute?

Yep. I'll take that. I took his money and gave him a carved fish.

Brown Trout, Brush and Ink

I never looked back. I became a chainsaw carver. My egalitarian ideals were delighted to have a form that delighted all people, everywhere. I was not limited in my market to a small handful of wealthy customers who were besieged by large armies of hungry, desperate artists. I had broken the box. I did not need a gallery. I could sell anywhere, even on the street. I cannot even express the joy this gave me. It so happened that my work was well received by the wealthy elite. The way things are going, my prices will soon be climbing very high. Were I the P.T. Barnum type, I would advise you to buy now while I am still affordable.

Already, I sell fish like that first one for $200.00, but I do take more than twenty minutes to make them. I use a lot of tools besides a chainsaw now.

The point: My skills and the needs of the world had finally crossed paths.

Now, I don't worry about whether carving animals is "genre" work or not. I do not worry about any of the sniping criticisms that pervert the art world. I have paid my dues. I do what I want just like I always have with no apologies and no compromises.

But there is another point I would like to make.

I did not start becoming financially successful as an artist until I became a better person.

I never quit trying that, either.

These days, the biggest problem I have is producing far enough ahead of the demand to actually get together a show.

Oil on Canvas, The Oracle

Here is the part where I shift into the second person; that is, I start saying, "you." If the following does not apply to you, great. Understand, however, there is a particular audience I am trying to reach and help.

You may find you have a long road ahead of you in order to find your voice and an acceptable skill level. Mastering the techniques of art is arguably more difficult than learning to be a doctor or a lawyer because you can learn about those things in school. I know there are millions of people who will take exception to this, but no one can really teach art. Technique, yeah. Art? No.

That is why you have to have that tough attitude I told you about at the beginning of this essay.

You have to look Death in the face and smile.

It is not that difficult to face death. Haven't you heard? Everybody dies. Once you recognize the inevitability, you can relax.

Why not live a life worth living in the mean time? Why not fight the good fight? Why not be a contender instead of a face in the crowd?

I told you I was often living in another era? Well, there's the viewpoint of an ancient, republican era, Roman or a pre-Hellenistic Greek.

And the old Romans and Greeks were right about that. Ask anyone who is at death's door. He or she will tell you, in the end, the only measure of success is: Did you enjoy life?

It does not really matter whether you "make it" because no one ever "makes it."

Do you see this? The game is in the living. It is not about winning or losing. The only way you can lose is to quit.

But there's a catch.

You may think it is enough to just try to enjoy life. I know a lot of people who do think that, but per my observation, they are never as as happy as the ones who strive for something great because if you do that, man, you are living!

I rarely presume to give advice, but this is good advice.

Never give up. Never surrender. You do not have to compromise your ideals. You do not have to sell out. In fact, while I'm at it, let me clue you in on this whole idea of "selling out." If they were not buying you before, they will not buy you when you sell out. "Selling out" is a term that applies only to people who have already achieved fame. As Orson Wells put it, "You make your reputation on the way up, and your money on the way down."

You, my friend, just have to keep working.

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Anonymous said...

It's an at times brutal self-appraisal Rick but your dedication to your art shines through. Not sure everyone would agree with your choices but they'd have to agree it's what drives you.

Thanks for your visit and for the add too :-)

Richard G. Crockett said...

My pleasure and you are welcome.

Choices. Yes. It could have been easier, but had I not been hard on myself, it certainly would have been even more difficult. So it seems to me.

It took me the longest while to see that one sentence, spoken in anger, could invalidate, a thousand, spoken in love.

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