Friday, January 20, 2012

What's Wrong with this Picture? The Value of a Good Critique.

Being an artist can be tough.  Art school can be cruel.  You have to develop a tough skin if you want to be an artist!  That being said, there is a line between a valuable piece of criticism and an opinion.  And the difference is: who delivers it!!  Because every criticism is really only an opinionThe bottom line is there are really no hard and fast rules in art by which we can measure its worth.  Art is personal and subjective.  And everyone has an opinion. 

I think it's very valuable to surround yourself with people who's opinions and criticism is constructive and delivered in the right way.   I have friends whom I respect as artists and have credibility with me because I know their work and trust their eye.  These artists have raised my art to a higher level.  They give their opinion only when asked.  And we  support one another and have a safe place to do what we do, without judgement.

Yet there are those self appointed critics who feel the need to let you know what you lack.  I am always amazed when fellow artists or others give me unsolicited advice or criticism.  If you do that, you had better be Picasso yourself or you are only making enemies.  Again, advice, criticism, opinion or whatever you call it may have value and be legitimate, but only if the person delivering it is someone you respect.  Someone you want to learn from.  Those generous with their time and talent and interested in helping me be a better artist.  

Artists are sensitive people.  But the truth is when you put your art out there you are essentially asking the world to look at what you do and to judge it. I don't paint them to put them in a drawer. It would be very mature and together of me to say that others opinions of my work do not bother me. That wouldn't be the truth and I don't really believe artists who say that.  My paintings all carry a part of me, so it is personal. If they love them, I'm happy. If they hate them, I have to decide if I value their assessment.  If I do, I could be bruised.  But I've learned from entering juried shows, from being in critique groups or having them in a class that these situations can lend objectivity to my work and teach me valuable things.   And- that it's not always valid.  Ultimately I need to learn to find those who can reliably help me and keep growing as an artist.  Just realize that if your paintings have no flaws, then you have arrived and now you have no where to go. And most likely, no one to go with!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Grizzly Bears and Art

Last summer I had a grizzly bear encounter.   It's only significance to this blog is how it relates to my life and my art.  As is my habit, I want to share the metaphors with you.
The short version is that while in Montana visiting our son in Glacier National Park I had a very close call with a grizzly bear.  In case you don't know, Grizzly's are mean and very unpredictable.  They are the last type of bear you want to meet!
My sister in law and I took a very short trail to the hotel to return a room key.  The trail was a horse trail we had just seen traversed by four riders.  We thought it a short trip and the guy's needed the bear spray for their trek to the river to fish.  I figured it was safer than the narrow highway with little or no room for pedestrians and a blind curve by the hotel.  Surely all the bear hype was just that - hype? These parts were so full of people and bears tend to shy away from the more populated areas.  But I was wrong.  Lesson number one:  it's not the first time I've been wrong...
So down the trail we go.  Getting further in, the path becomes dense with brush and trees.  I was more uncomfortable now.  Talking loudly and walking quickly to alert any bears we were on our way, I noticed movement out of the side of my eye.  Turning to see what it was, up on hind legs popped a young bear not ten feet away!!  I looked him full in the eye and we stared at each other for a beat; long enough for me to register some real fear.  (Note: You are not supposed to look a bear in the eye!) 
Now you might think this a stretch, but how often has your art gotten you into any real danger?  My guess is, not often!  So what are you afraid of?  Why are you not doing more with your passion?  The answer is that you looked the bear in the eyes and you are afraid!  He's big.  He's powerful.  He could consume you and your life or at least change it forever!  It's risky to walk down that path even with bear spray!  If you really pursue this art thing, it could be a huge failure.  It could take all your savings if you quit your day job.  You could find you are a no talent hack and you were just deluding yourself all along!  It could be a huge disaster!  Or...
The young bear then came out of the brush at us!!   We screamed and ran-- hearts beating outside our chests!!  Yes ran.  (and no you are never supposed to run).  Your odds are thin to nil you'll ever out run a bear.  So why did we run?  In short, instinct took over.  And there's the next lesson.  We all have that same instinct.  My sister-in-law lives in Montana and is married to the director of Parks for the state.  She knows better.  We both did.  And yet, we ran!  We ran because there was imminent danger and we let our fear dictate our actions.  Bears that pop up out of nowhere give you no time to think!  The lesson here?  Practice so you are prepared when the bear pops up!!  What is the bear you fear?  Figure that out and then prepare and rehearse so that when you meet him, and you will if you wander around in the forest long enough, you are prepared to live through it!!
Luckily, the bear ran straight as we ran forward and he disappeared into the dense cover on the other side.  The lesson?  Most of the time you just see a bear at a distance.  But if it gets as close as ten feet, or even appears to charge at you, and if you can run faster than your sister-in-law, your odds of survival are better!  (Just kidding!)  My thought is that while I don't take unnecessary risks, I have learned that taking calculated risk usually does not kill me.  So, while you might see a bear on your path, it's highly unlikely it will be as bad as you think it will-- if it even happens!!  You must take some risks in your art to get any further.
Recounting my trauma to my son later, I was still very shaken.  I had cheated death!  And my heart still raced when I thought about it.  In this very deep way he said "Mom, you are more alive now than you were before!"  He knew what I felt having had a similar experience himself.  But what he didn't know, was how profound that statement was for me.  I was indeed more alive for having that experience.  Do I want another one?  Not on your life!  Yet it reaffirmed some things.  One, my understanding that the here and now is all we really have.  Two, what I worry about is seldom if ever as bad as I fear.  Three, keeping my eyes open and being prepared help keep the fear and self-doubt at bay. 
 I want to live with more intention now.  I do have a greater sense of urgency to experience life more fully.  And I don't want to waste another moment with the unnecessary.  I want to live my life and do my art more fully.  
And I have to thank a bear for that.