Monday, April 25, 2016


This essay is part of a continuing mediation on meaning in art.
‘Anybody could do that.’ It’s not ‘art’ if it doesn’t convey the uniqueness of my perspective.

‘Anybody’ didn’t do that. I did that. Not everything about my perspective is unique. What I have in common with others is also true.

We create works of art in the context of a community of people who are like us in some ways and differ in other ways. Every artist is in some ways unique, while also sharing a great deal in common with other human beings. We all share this planet, breathe its atmosphere, eat and drink of its biosphere, look up to the same sun, moon and stars. We all share certain genetic traits that make us human (though there may turn out to be other sentient beings who will share our inclination for creative work.)

At the same time, no one sees the world from quite the same angle as anyone else does. No one else sees exactly as I do, with the same slightly astigmatic, myopic distortion, or the same imagination suggesting the same faces in the trees and stones or the same writing in the spaces between the granules in the cement beneath our passing feet or in the textures of acoustic ceiling tiles.  
The impossibility of finding enough time – using paints or even Photoshop – to realize all the visions that come to my mind is part of what made me turn to writing. Your imagination can take my descriptions and turn them into visions in your own mind’s eye.
David Bowie once said something about how artists hate their own work. I might hate mine at times – but while in the midst of the creative act, I’m loving it: loving the colors, the textures, the imagery and the act of engagement with them. 

Back in the late 80’s I went through a period of chronic depression. At the same time, I had no idea how to make a living as an artist. I tried different things – creating art t-shirts, offering to create fantasy portraits, making pillow-bags and whistles to sell at craft shows or on consignment.

 I had little discipline for the business side of things and little income to fund my own efforts. My mother tried to help out with some of that, but we didn’t communicate well enough with each other to make this work.
Frex: I wanted to place some stationery designs at local shops on consignment. My mother very generously had a whole case printed up for me, but without prior consultation. There just weren’t that many appropriate shops I could reach by public transit. I’d already placed a few samples at the few places I could reach - and the demand for more never materialized. I was left with a huge weighty box of nice stationery and a feeling of guilt for being unable to use it.

I visited a mental health professional out of concern for my continuing depression. Hearing about my BA in art and aspirations, he suggested I volunteer with the 26th Street Project. The project was the brain-child of Pat Young, sponsored by the Mental Health Association of Minneapolis. It took the form of an art class for adults with emotional disabilities. 

What we mostly did was check in with each other and paint watercolors, spurred on by Pat’s enthusiasm for the beauty in each and every work. And the abstract expressionist watercolors were as uniformly beautiful as the heavens. Whether the soft gray beauty of a rainy day or the jagged beauty of lightning. 

I helped Pat lug materials around and encourage participants and introduced clay whistles and re-made crayons to our activities. Inspired by the class, I tried some watercolors of my own and especially loved the stained glass effect of my crayon-resist mudras.

After working for some time as a volunteer, Pat got me on as a paid assistant on a part time basis, and encouraged me to apply for part time work teaching arts & crafts to kids through the park system. I followed through and taught a few afternoon classes at Whittier Park and later another park, and also taught a few classes for adults through Community Ed and Open University – introductions to basic drawing skills and portraiture. My students all seemed happy with the classes and the adults showed noticeable improvements (I used Betty Edwards’ ‘Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain’ as a source-book for exercises), and I took a lot of pleasure in helping the students learn.  I felt appreciated and respected in the teaching role. Feeling valued did a whole lot to alleviate my depression, so kudos to the psychologist who steered me toward volunteering in an area where my skills were appreciated.

The financial rewards of the part time work weren’t ever enough on their own to support me, so I also worked temporary clerical assignments, and at times needed government assistance. When the parks cut budgets, the art classes were among the first casualties, and eventually Open University replaced me with an art teacher with more impressive credentials than mine. The 26th Street Project couldn’t keep me on for the long term either. The work may not have lasted, but I had gained a new respect for my own capabilities and an appreciation for the artistic potential in all of us.

When a temporary assignment at the Hennepin County Government Center turned into regular full-time employment, I no longer had time for the part-time teaching through Community Ed and my career in teaching was over. 

On the plus side, the steady work enabled me to buy a house for the first time in my life, and to keep a car. I also started taking evening classes at the Minneapolis Community and Technical College, studying computer-based graphic design and web design (the course was called Electronic Publishing) to supplement my Wellesley degree in Studio Arts and Classical Archeology.  New avenues for creativity!