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Waxing Existential: The Dangers of the Creative Process, Part One

Posted on 03 Oct | 2 comments
Photo by Jennifer Rensel.
Photo by Jennifer Rensel.

I was an art major in college. I studied painting. I was immersed in the New York art scene, as my school was just two hours north of the city. The small, liberal arts school I attended encouraged this involvement. We were to go down and see the shows, go to openings, see what was out there. It was the New York art world of the 80’s, before the migration to Chelsea, when SoHo was still the hub of activity. I considered it a kind of Mecca at the time.

I saw the shows that were supposed to inspire me and teach me about line, form, and color. I made my pilgrimage to Pearl Paint on Canal Street and felt the rush of excitement in my body as I trekked through the various floors filled with textures, colors, and tools that I had to have. Huge rolls of canvas and tubs of gesso were lugged back to school on Amtrak, and I deposited them in my studio, tired but ready to get to work.

My senior year culminated in a thesis show that I entitled, “Inner Landscapes.” It was a series of a dozen or so abstract paintings. My work combined the look of a color field painting, with the process of action painting, or gestural abstraction.

A number of paintings in the series were black or white. I felt that I had evolved into creating those paintings. They were my most meditative.

Years ago, I came across a cassette tape that I made of my professors critiquing my final project. I had worked with these three artists and educators throughout my years at school, and had an excellent relationship with all of them. It was interesting listening to their critique again, as well as my responses. However, it was painful. I realized, in listening to their comments that I was struggling to see things their way, and I must have been doing so for four years. Since this was several years ago, I found their conversation to be somewhat foreign, but like a language that one uses for a long time and then returns to, hearing it again brought it all back.

The tape starts out with a big discussion about why I had eliminated lines and the drawing process when making my paintings. I remarked that I wanted to make something that you could feel with your eyes. Throughout the recording, I could sense that my intellect was fighting with the feelings I had about the paintings. My paintings were narrative to me, but not to them because of my procedure.

They talked about how I evolved into doing the black and white paintings and how interesting that was. They asked me how I decided to do this. I told them that my sources were not tangible. They asked me what I meant by that. I began to answer in that foreign tongue arts jargon, using their dialect, intellectualizing, leaving my heart out of it, as if I should be ashamed of my real process. They focused on the content of my work:

“The concreteness is fragile.”

“I find the black and white a very dangerous place to settle in for a long time—it can make you lazy about dealing with color. I don’t mind you being in that place now, but how do you see our use of color changing in the future?”

I answered, in the local dialect, “Well, I’ve been working with composition, trying to figure out what the problems are.” I realized that even after four years, I wasn’t fluent in this language. That was like saying the weather is inclement when being asked where the restroom is. They went on:

“The danger in these paintings is not knowing what to grab on to—the engineering of the painting…how do you know when it’s done?”

I knew my paintings were done when I felt a sense of cathartic completion within me. I didn’t tell them that. I did say, “I don’t just do things randomly. I go through a process of looking at it for a long time. Is it balanced the way I want it to be? But the way I work is very much, at least in the beginning, about just getting paint on the surface.”

I was not courageous enough to tell them about my experience of getting so lost in the painting that I felt like I had become a part of it. I was clearly in an altered state of consciousness at those times, but they wanted me to be so conscious about everything. It seemed that my process did not lead to compositional sense and may in fact be “dangerous.” It seemed that they wanted me to have a formula. I struggled to have a formula because not having one was not right, not good, not art. (The thing is I’m not convinced that any of the abstract expressionists had a formula, no matter what they have said or what has been written about them. Just sayin’.)

And they went on to say:

“The danger here is that you are composing a feeling and there is some kind of opposition. Those things don’t go together. You can make a painting work, but it doesn’t necessarily work as the feeling. The purity would be the feeling and that may destroy the workability.”

And my personal favorite:

“For a painting to be beautiful and elegant is not quite enough.”

“There has to be some kind of criteria outside your psychology that gives the painting necessity for being the way it is…There is a danger in the nebulous process and product of having anything be all right.”

Construct, procedure, necessity, danger. Was I getting all of this? What was I feeling when they were telling me this? Certainly, I was as naïve as a 21-year-old about to be thrust into the “real world” could be. I wonder if I was taking it all in, or I just wanted out of there.

One of their final comments was:

“As far as the content, I’m afraid of it being a little too spiritual…without universal context…too closed off…too personal…non-ending…too much about infinity and eternity.”

But I took risks, they said. My senior project was very successful, they told me. Good job, they cheered. Now, the success of my project is certainly not the point here, and I have chosen to highlight the more provocative commentary. These comments, however, captured the gist of the critique and my college education in studio art.

The year following graduation, I lived in Brooklyn and continued to wear the mask that I had acquired during those undergraduate years. I worked in a gallery in SoHo, went to all the openings and shows, tried to keep painting, and even managed to get my work in an awful, crowded group show just to “get shown.” That was enough for me to stop and wake up to a very personal truth that I had tried to push away for the last time. I had lost my authenticity and my voice as an artist.

It requires courage to create, and herein lies the value of danger being part of the creative process. Vulnerability can be terrifying, but is the foundation of authenticity. As a student, it was my job to be dangerous and be in the process of discovery, however that played out.

In Part Two of this post, I will further explore courage and creativity, a topic near and dear to my heart, and that of my posthumous mentor, Rollo May.

-- Sibel Golden

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Comments and Discussions

Noticing that many

Noticing that many humanistic-existential people are artists, we have started a small group called
the humanistic artists and if you are interested, Sibel, we could add you to that group! Let me know: rbargdill@comcast.net

I have had a similar journey,

I have had a similar journey, but with dance. From an MFA to an MA in dance therapy, I continue to navigate that bridge. Check out www.tamalpa.org. Working with the Halprins changed my life, and I continue to ask these questions in my ongoing studies with my mentors. Thanks for your post!

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