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If You Don’t Make Art

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photo credit: Gregour Beatty

A few years ago while cleaning our old apartment my wife, Grace, found a scrap of paper.  On that scrap was written “If you don’t make art, I think the world might end. Fight.” I sadly don’t have any recollection of who wrote it of when they gave it to me. I thank them if I could remember.  Grace framed that scrap and displayed it in our living room.  Since moving into our new house, I am continually trying to find time to get into my ceramic studio.
I am haunted by that scrap of paper.  An old  friend seemed to think the world could end if I don’t make art- or thought it was at least important that I did.  I sort of make art right now.  I go to my studio trying to relearn how to do things that were virtually second nature for a while. There is always an excuse:

I don’t have a kiln yet
I’m too tired
I have to walk the dogs
It’s really, really cold in my basement
I’m not feeling creative

These are my excuses right now.

There is a bigger question though: “Why do some of us need to create things, art, music, sentences, paintings, etc?” Well I know the answer. That’s not true, but I will pontificate anyway.

Why do we create? I think it’s because we are observant. Not that we are Sherlock Holmes or anything, but we see things that could be there and aren’t yet.  Better yet, we think we can create something new that speaks to the human spirit. I don’t know how many new things there are, but I know that astronomers, musicians, biologists, painters, programmers and well, people in just about any field you think of are discovering, inventing or making something unseen before.

So logically you would like to know what art is, right? Well, I can’t tell you, it’s a secret. Ok, no not a secret, but I don’t have a definition. I do know Thomas Kinkade does not make art.  I am not even going to put a link, because you should have to put some effort in before your retinas stop working. I guess you could  have a definition through negation…. maybe.

I digress.  Creating doesn’t not equal art.  Technically, I don’t make art either when I make a vase.  I work with clay which is a crafting material. But whoever made up that rule hasn’t seen Kirk Freeman’s work.  Tell me that isn’t art and I will punch you.  I get a little worked up about the distinction between art and craft. I’m sure I will add more on this subject later.

I am still haunted by those few words, “If you don’t make art, I think the world might end. Fight.” So I fight to make art. We all should fight to create.

Being Normal

I am not a writer for those of you who are wondering, but various assessments (i.e. Strengths Finder) seem to think that writing is something I should do… So I am going to make a go of it by blogging my thoughts, ideas, and evaluations of whatever comes to mind.

Recently, I was sitting on the bus to work listening to a TEDtalk about mental health. Or more precisely the unquiet mind where the tension between insanity and sanity spark creativity and greatness in some people is found. See here to listen to the episode.

Jon Ronson was interviewed about one of his Tedtalks about his investigation into psychopathy and made a comment about the the current size of the DSM.  To paraphrase Ronson, there is a push to be normal in America which essentially gives rise to a larger percentage of people being diagnosed with a mental illness.  It makes you wonder.

Now if I were a conspiracy kind of a guy, it would be fun to believe that the pharmaceutical companies are behind all of the new cases of mental illness and our push to make “normal” fit a very narrow definition. Maybe restarting the economy is just a few quick sessions with your therapist.  Who needs a jump in the housing market when all you need to do is get a prescription from your shrink?

To be clear I do think mental illness is serious and real in many people. And that drugs and therapy can do a world of good for many of those people.  But I am skeptical of this movement towards normalcy.  There is significant value in being unlike everyone else.  And not in a disconnected loner sort way either.  And frankly striving to be like everyone else is selling yourself short.

Where did we go wrong? Why do we feel like we need to be like everyone else? And who is this “everyone else?”  If Plato is right there is an ideal Everyone Else that we are all striving to be.  Thank god Plato was wrong. There is no ideal “normal” form to strive for.  It is our “unlike” everyone else that builds stronger relationships, friendships, families, and communities.  Isn’t that what everyone really wants? Strong trustworthy relationships where there is actual safety. Not the false security of normalcy.

Art and Craft: Twins Separated at Birth

The last 2 years of my undergrad was spent with my hands covered in slimy mud or burning my retinas trying to see when cone 10 dropped.  I was living the dream: dry, cracked hands, calloused fingers, minor burns randomly strewn about my body.  I was a potter trying to finish his degree in philosophy.

The debate between craft and art inevitably came up.  It was an exciting conversation for a philosophy student to dive into.  I took a few extra art history classes and avoided anything having to do with art theory.  Who needs it anyway?   It was rarely an open discussion, more a subdued tone of the Bethel Art department.  I felt like I had to prove to the painters and sculptors that non-sculpture ceramics was still art.  I bought into it, there was no going back and I had to prove that a thrown vase or bowl or anything pottery could be and was art.

Art is often about the ideas, commentary, criticism and the ilk.  When I think of craft I don’t think about the actual creative genre, rather the quality of the work.  Being a great craftsperson is a worthy thing.  But being an artist without any craft leads to “meaningful” crap called art.  Art is found in the quality and craft is found in art.  Art and craft are not enemy or polar opposites rather good friend with uncompromising views about the world.

So why all the negativity and fighting?  Education and pride are major factors.  For those of us who have spent hours and hours of studio time trying to learn, explore and master our particular medium, we want that to mean something.  No we don’t want, we need it to mean something.  Artist can’t be crafters and crafters can be artists.  It’s insulting to an artist’s pride.  Well not really, art is not and should not be defined and held hostage by where and who taught you art.  To limit art to a ‘school’ limits human creativity.

Now that the art/ craft debate has been settled I will move onto easily understood things like happiness.

Fly Fishing

Nez Perce Fork

I like to fly fish. Well, if I can call it fishing.  I walk through rivers and streams with funny waterproof pants attempting catch a trout with a small object that resembles a super moldy jelly-bean. Now, I usually go fly fishing with a more experienced, we’ll say passionate, person than I will ever be.  Some others, in particular my wife and his, would say that Isak is obsessed with fly fishing.  I mean he even goes fishing in New Jersey.  I think obsessed might be an understatement. 


When I fish it is less about the trout and more about getting lost.  Not physically lost; rather, lost in the moment.  When you fly fish there is nothing but the river, your fly and hopefully a trout lurking below.  There is no room for thoughts about work, family, money, only the moment.  There can be no lapse in concentration or you will lose your one chance to hook your quarry.  

The reality is that I am a terrible fly fisherman.  I rarely catch the trout I am searching for.  I don’t have the knack, skill or passion Gus does in The River Why.  I just don’t focus long enough to learn which flies I should put on the hook.  But the reason I fish is to get lost, not catch a beautiful rainbow trout.

A great example of my skill as a fly fisherman comes from last summer when Isak and I went to Michigan with our wives for summer vacation. Isak and I decided to head out to the Pere Marquette river to see what a blue ribbon river looked like.  It was beautiful.  The river snaked through the forest carving its own simple path.  The water was flowing glass, cold and frothy at points.  I couldn’t help craving a cold beer looking into that water.
We tried our hands at a few nice holes and runs on the river as we tromped upstream searching for those famed brown trout.  As we came around a bend in the river we watched a hatch emerge out of the water.  It was like watching individual excited dandelion seeds rising out of the river.  They gently floated off the water as the trout below nabbed as many as they could before leaving the water.  I watched while Isak figured what was rising off the water.

I fish because there is nothing like standing in the middle of the river feeling the water rushing past my legs trying to force its will on me. Standing, focusing on a tiny white dandelion seed floating precariously on the top of the water hoping to see it vanish in a blip.  In that instant, that blip is a rush unlike anything else.  I pull, hoping to feel the line go taught, the rod bend towards the rushing water with a silver flash running upstream.  I rarely see that, but I am not discouraged.  I fish because there is nothing else in the world; just the rushing beer bottle colored water, a speck of white and my anticipation of what may never come.