Saturday, February 28, 2009

Blog in a bog

A work in progress

What's been going on? Too much to mention.

But I had what I think is an insight the other day, as I was talking to Ms. Moments of Clarity. We were talking about two artists we were both familiar with. One is a well-known name in southwest art, the other, an up and coming contemporary of ours. In a magazine Melinda was thumbing, we saw a work of the latter's in an ad on one page, and one of the former's on another page.

The contemporary's work was an image from imagination, which was (we surmised) intended to whimsically convey child-like joy, a young person ready to take on the world. The well-known's was a social comment, delivered as nearly a characature, complete with a word balloon.

But we were both struck by how 'off key' the contemporary's piece felt: the figure was distorted, with a neck too long, and the rendering lacked depth. A painting from the mind's eye. The well-known's was unselfconsciously whimsical, ironic and captivating. A painting from emotion.

It reminded me of an article I read at by an acting coach on why Gov. Bobby Jindal's response speech to President Obama's was such a failure:

"In life we have thoughts and feelings and then we find the words to express those thoughts and feelings. It is a straight line. In acting as in public speaking, we start with the words. What should the great actor and the great orator do? They should find the thoughts feelings [sic] that make them need to say these words...

"What Jindal did is focus on How he wanted to come across. In acting I call this a General Attitudinal Choice. He thought of the effect he wanted to have on the audience. He wanted to come across as likable and friendly. He wanted the audience to think that he is a good guy, so he adopted a general demeanor of kind and empathetic. This is why he came off as condescending. No matter what he talked about the the pose was the same. He was trying to project his idea of a warm and friendly guy. Therefore he came off as patronizing."

It struck me that these two statements about "trying to come across as something" versus "trying to get across an idea" are the differences we saw in the paintings: and this is what everyone seems to be talking about when they say "art needs to be authentic."

A distinction I will struggle with, in completing the painting above.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Part III, Conclusion: Maurice on integrity, success and turning the tables on me

In case you missed them, Part 1 of this is here. Part 2 is here.
I can't express often enough my gratitude to Maurice Sevigny for taking time out of his art-making day to talk to me for these articles. The conversation continues to fascinate and enlighten me as I review it and reconsider it.

Integrity versus market demand

Edgar: [Some of us struggle with being artists for our own sake. My wife doesn't want to make art for a 'market', and she's not sure she wants to sell it in any case.] But I come from a marketing background, so to me, art is about persuasion. ... I don’t care how it gets reproduced, or whether it sells or not, but whether I connect with an audience in a certain way.

And we [struggle] with this idea, “what is ‘acknowledgement’?” We’ve used the word acknowledgement, and in some cases that’s the sale of a painting. And in our culture, that’s almost the ultimate compliment, that someone parted with their hard-earned money – or their daddy’s hard-earned money. They are buying something of yours because they had to [possess] it. But that isn’t art’s traditional role, in [broad] human civilization, generally art wasn’t sold. Maybe it was bartered, but it was usually done for the group or for the individual.

And now we have this ambivalence. We say, “Well, I’m going to express myself, and I don’t want to compromise my self in that expression. I want people to accept what I do, and if they accept my raw expression, they are accepting me. But if I compromise, they are accepting some propped up version, some artificial version of me."

Maurice: Well, now you’re speaking of integrity, an artist’s integrity. Integrity is about being true to yourself. So, if you don’t know yourself, you can’t be true to yourself. But your wife’s truth to herself is about unadulterated non-commercialism. [It goes like this:] "if I get discovered and someone spends a million dollars on one of my installations, or whatever I’m making, fine, I’ll take the money, but that’s not what it’s all about." On the other hand, knowing what your values are, knowing what your goals are as an artist, and trying to be true to them, you know, there are different kinds of artists. There are ‘professional’ artists, which means you get paid for what you do.

E: That would be the IRS’s definition.

M: That would be part of it. On the other hand if you are a ‘commercial’ artist, usually that means you are working for someone else’s goals, and using your skills and talents to do something for them. And that’s a designer or an illustrator. They’re setting the parameters. Someone always sets parameters. When you go to school, the teacher sets the parameters...People who can’t survive as an artist are those who have difficulty self-actualizing their own parameters. If I can’t give myself a problem, I’m stuck. I’m going to go look around for something outside of me and get unstuck. So this is writer’s block or artists [block]. One of the ways in which you keep yourself in a flow, is to continue to evolve your imagery, and your technique, and your strength as an individual artist.

If you’re just making art for art’s sake, are you a hobbyist? Because your intention is not to be professional. Your integrity is to be true to yourself, and that usually means trying to be inventive, while wanting no external influence. You’re trying to divorce yourself from the market place because your integrity is pure, or your unadulterated imagery is all you, and no one is influencing it… Try to put those in a portfolio and bring it to a gallery, and the gallery is not interested. “Go back and do some red ones these are green.” Or, “The colors people are buying in the southwest are A, B, and C.” And so…

E: Have you heard those answers?

M: Of course!

E: Oh, my God!

M: Yeah. “Can you make this in blue?” -- So, you answer “No, I already made it [red],” or “Sure, I can make anything in any color.” So, ‘blue’ is the challenge.

...I have a friend, Barbara Rogers, who primarily works in earth tones, it’s her ‘Bible.’ And I tend to use a lot of purples and pinks and magentas. My wife’s always saying, “Easy on the pink.” I like pink. So, I think you grow up with a certain palette, that has something to do with the things you think look good, are comfortable with. They are the colors you live with, like when you decide what colors to paint your living room. Some people like excitement, some like calm. Some people want go home to a sanctuary and be peaceful, some want to go home and be excited.

All those things influence who you become. And the more you know about them, the more you can control them in your work, otherwise they’re all pulling at your attention at a subconscious level, and they may not be harmoniously integrated.

E: Does the Market compromise integrity?

M: It’s a variable. I don’t know that it compromises it. If you want to work in a marketplace, and you don’t know it, you aren’t going to succeed.

E: If you’re unaware of your desire to work in a marketplace, is that what you mean?

M: That’s what I mean. Enter it carefully. Gather the facts. Most artists try not to (garbled – confront?) them. They don’t want to. Somehow… Most artists over time, when they’ve “Sold out” – sold, selling, that you’re “selling your soul” in some sense when people buy your stuff, is on a continuum: [For example,] The artist who doesn’t have to sell their stuff makes a painting. Some critic writes about them, and suddenly after they die, somebody buys up all their stuff that they didn’t sell while they were alive, so it’s “pure.” So there’s a purity element. I’m not sure that’s so. I’ve not met many artists that were successful that didn’t like their success, or the money that came with their success.

E: Right.

M: But they would tell you that their success was related to their absolute integrity to self and their absolute discovery of a voice that is unique from everybody else’s in the world. So it’s more about trying to discover what your voice -- your talent is, you know? If you look at kids in art school, so many of them want to emulate people that they like… the way they’re different, the way they make things, whatever. Copy this one a little bit, copy this one a little bit, and they look through ArtNews and they flip through magazines and they pull out pictures and [make scrap books of what they like]. They scout faculty and try to find out which faculty work like [the artists] they like. And then they are gonna study with that faculty. Maybe they can learn something.

Who you are -- and how we challenge it

So, in every sense, every artist creates a fragile reality of who they are, and what images they can make. And somebody goes in, or a student goes in, or another artist comes in their studio, and they try to breach that reality. And they’ll say, “Okay, this guy’s too commercial, this guy uses too much color, and this guy works too small.” And that’s fine, what they’re really doing is evaluating what their purposes are and how they might want to work, when they do work of their own. So you step into someone else’s reality for a short time, and you borrow from that the attributes or variables that interest you and you forget the things that didn’t attract you at the moment.

And that’s sort of how we grow an eclectic of all the artists that enter our lives. That doesn’t mean we pick up and copy all the artists that enter our lives, we leave some of the things behind and don’t do things of other artists we’ve met. That’s what feeds visual knowing, is seeing visual things.

Most artists like to go around to other artists studios, or flip through books or go to museums, or whatever. Why do we do that? To keep embellishing our visual repertoire, things we know about paint, things we know about color, things we know about distortion. Things that tax us, in terms of, everybody’s got a frame of reference, and they keep wanting to push that. So you’re always pushing the edge of what you accept as art. You know, the art I made twenty years ago is nothing like the art I’m making today.

E: [Okay.]

M: And maybe the art I made twenty years ago is better than the art I’m making today. There’s an assumption that you grow and art gets better. It isn’t necessarily true.

Artistic success—a personal view

E: I’m going to ask you about success, but I don’t want you to try to define it for everybody, because the question’s too big, but… what does it look like?

M: What does success look like?

E: What does success in art look like, to you?

M: Oooh. … I would guess, not being in the unemployment line?... I think success is a continuum. Ultimate success, is that what you’re asking me?

E: I don’t think so, because I think you see art as a process, and your life as a process, too. There isn’t necessarily an end point.

M: Well, I think that success is a continuum that has something to do with connoisseurship. Those people who know success, anoint you with that success, whether that’s a well-known critic, or a gallery owner, or if it’s in a museum. So, it’s back to the notion of audience, and people recognizing that you have something that rewards taking time to write about, or to look at, or to sell, or any of those things. Success is about your ability to capture the attention of someone else with what you do. And that varies significantly between people. Am I a successful artist? No. Am I an artist? Yes. Could I be a successful artist? Possibly.

E: But for you, does that really hinge on giving away the power to validate your work to someone else? Saying, “If I don’t get a blessing from you, then I’m not successful”?

M: No, because my success is defined differently personally. My success is about experience and knowledge of art, because basically, I’m an art administrator. So part of my success is the ability to do, to make, to live with artists, in a community of artists, to talk about art in a way that takes advantage of self-knowledge and connoisseurship in the field. So, I know a lot about artists and art people, and obviously I’ve been successful as someone who’s moved up the ranks in terms of the occupation I have, which is an art educator. So, to teach about art, you have to learn to talk about something that’s a visual phenomenon, right?

E: Yes.

M: So, to talk about a visual phenomenon, it’s difficult finding words which is not a visual phenomenon – language -- to talk about something different. Part of the skills, success, one has as an art teacher is the ability to have people understand what you’re talking about in terms of certain attributes of works of art. So, my success as an arts administrator is contingent upon my ability to make and do and move materials around and know what I’m talking about. That’s how I’m measuring success now, and it’s not relevant to me to measure my success as an artist, that’s not been my goal.

E: Okay.

M: But when I make the transition someday, it might be. And then maybe I’ll work harder at the marketing, showing my work to galleries, you know, working bigger, finding out what I need to do. I don’t know. But that’s yet to come.

E: I’ve gone over time, are we okay?

M: Sure.

Are "artists" and "community" mutually exclusive?

E: I have one more question, and it’s [tied to] what we’ve talked about: the relationship we have with other artists, and the fact that we as artists go around and push our threshold of understanding. In many cases that’s why I go on the open studio tours: what can I learn about what I know about art by looking at how somebody else is doing it, and why they’re doing it, what they’re getting out of it. But I heard an interview of Francisco Franklin, a local artist, on Arizona Illustrated and he talked about spending time in France and Iceland, hanging out with artists, and he really wanted to be part of the artists’ group. And he said, “Eventually I realized that art was a solitary activity.” And he now he practices art in his studio, and apparently he doesn’t relate very much with other people.

Are we stuck with that? Is that a reality? Is there an art community? Can artists support each other, or is it too competitive, too trade secret oriented?

M: I don’t think so. If you look at the history of art, you look at Picasso, you look at Van Gogh, the people that tried to isolate themselves, they didn’t do it very well, they still had to write letters back to one another. Gauguin went to Tahiti, but he still came back to France to be with artists.

I mean, I think that, when we talked about audiences before, the ultimate audience is another artist, who understands many of the dimensions of making art and working with materials. So, when you have a dialog with another artist, you are talking about “How did you do this? How do you work with PhotoShop?” So, the amateur comes to the studio and asks me questions about process, where the artist comes and asks me concept questions: “What were you thinking about when you made this image?”… “Is this meaningful to you? Is it speaking anything beyond what you can do as a designer?” So, some artists will attack your intention or your conceptual value of a work of art (there’s a difference), and most artists need that, to some extent. And if they don’t need it from another artist, they may need it from another connoisseur, which could be a gallery person, it could be a museum curator, (it could be someone who’s a scientist that just happens to spend a lot of time looking at art and reading about it.) So it’s only as good as the level – if you’re a beginner, you don’t have much sophistication to talk with somebody with a lot of it either. It’s always trying to find someone with a little more sophistication than you, who gives you feedback, that allows you to keep growing, and pushing us up.

E: That may be why I’m blogging.

Interviewer becomes the subject

M: Because, why else would you be spending all that time, when you could be making art? I mean, are you justifying your blog? Are you justifying you’re a wannabe artist? … Why are you an artist, why do you think you are an artist?

E: Um, unfair question!

M: Why? An interview is an exchange.

E: I discovered I’m just very, very intensely interested in what people do to communicate. That is: relate ideas, present themselves, share themselves, gain acceptance, and it’s why I think I was comfortable going into advertising. I actually got into art from a political point of view.

M: Were you a design major?

E: No. No, I originally went to school thinking I was going to be a theatre technician. Then I changed degrees and wound up in studio art.

M: A lot of people do. I mean, they want to make a living, but they really want to be an artist. They learn to paint scenery and stuff, and wonder, will I make a living doing this? So, they go back to wanting to be an artist. That is kind of interesting.

E: I recently had trip to New Mexico, a couple weeks driving around New Mexico with our son. Took our sketchbooks and did some watercolors, and I realized in doing that – I’d not set pen to paper or anything for years – how much that nourished my soul. And I realized, “You know what, if I stop it, I’ll die.” And now I’m stuck with that feeling. Having rediscovered that part of myself, I can’t say “no” to it anymore.

M: What if I said to you, that you are more inclined to be an art critic? You’re building skills, you’re a smart man, you like to write. It seems to me that part of the realm that you may be exploring is your ability to deal with art criticism, and esthetics, and art as social commentary, art as psychological commentary… So the things that interest you, under the guise that you’re going to inform your art are really in some ways your training as an art connoisseur, that will allow you to know artists, to know artists feelings, may allow you someday to write a book, or write a blog or some new vehicle, electronic publishing. Essentially, I say look at what you’re doing: you’re toying with the idea of finding knowledge about changing fields of art, and the complexity of the artist’s perspective. And it gives you pleasure.

E: If you were to say that, I’d acknowledge, yeah, it gives me pleasure to write about it, talk about it, learn about it, but I would also argue that that’s a personality trait that I have that I would apply to anything is interesting to me.

M: Fair enough.

E: My brain is built for abstraction, and I’m very good at taking big ideas and tearing them apart and reexamining them, so, yeah, I can write about art, I can talk about art, I’m a very verbal person. But…

M: Hmm. Does that prevent you from being a visual person?

E: It may. I may ultimately find that it does.

M: Now, when you're teaching art, all day long, talking about it, it’s difficult to go home and make it. Part of it is you’re giving your best ideas to your students, and you’re exhausted. So, there’s a certain part of art that needs incubation.

E: That’s right.

M: You know, you need time to reflect on what you’re doing. The biggest mistake most people make is that they keep drawing. And they don’t pause. You know drawing is 90% looking, [10%] moving pencils around or whatever. And most beginners are 90% drawing and erasing, and making mistakes – so, it’s observation, it’s critical thinking, it’s esthetic thinking and creative thinking… and if you don’t allow time for the thinking, then you miss something. That’s why this process works nicely for me, and how I can manage it just doing it a few days, “You’ve got an awful lot of work… are you not working full time at the University? I mean, where did you get all these paintings?” Part of it is because, I have a lot of space between the Saturday and Sunday that I do work, to think about what I’m going to do.

And I intend to, like finish a piece, and I’ve got eighteen pieces going at the same time… “This one’s – Oh, I’m going to work on this one today. That one didn’t talk to me.” It’s going to stay there another two, three weeks, or a year, before I get back to something.

E: That’s an excellent skill to have, it’s one I’m trying to nurture in my wife. She’s got one project, and stays on it until it’s through.

M: I know, and what if it’s a bust? That’s so hard. That’s the thing I learned about computers. If you don’t know, you can decide if it’s going to be in the red tones or the blue tones by sliding a scale, instead of “Unh, let me make it red,” [paint it red] and then “I don’t like it, start all over,” five hours later.
E: I did that for my wife one time. She was working on it, and said, “I don’t know where to go with it.” I took a picture, put it in PhotoShop, made a couple layers, zip, zip zip: “Look, this is how you can change it, change the saturation, change a color, see what you like?…print you out copy” And she was saying “That was about two days worth of work in thirty minutes.”

M: Yeah, just about.

E: Yes… I may find out I’ve got two careers in art.

M: Actually you may discover this was an alternate way of getting an education. Because you didn’t go through art school.

E: Right.

M: I mean, you’re older, more mature, you want to sidestep four years in the classroom… which is fine! If you're coming from the perspective of understanding performance in theater, and scene painting and flat making, and you’ve got skills that would apply to visual arts or decorative arts as well. Maybe that’s what you’re doing too. Who knows? It doesn’t matter. I’m just saying, “Who are you, what are you?” What are you? You are someone that’s seriously engaged in learning about art and yourself as a knowledgeable person of art, and a potentially knowledgeable artist, right? And you’re meeting interesting people, your time is well-spent, and you’re content.

E: You know, one reason for wanting this [interview with you], was in response to somebody who was selling work to get validation, and what rejection feels like, whether it’s rejection from the gallery or rejection from the customer. And I realized, coming out of commercial art, that I’ve got a very different perspective on what that relationship with the customer is, that client, that audience. For me, I’d do a design, that was a knock out. I’d take it to my client and say, “Isn’t this the most creative thing you’ve ever seen?” they’d go, “It’s not at all what I asked for, it doesn’t fit my needs. Change it.” And I knew it was good work, but I also knew I wasn’t going to make a sale.

M: Frame it and sell it.

E: And I realized, ultimately, in that relationship, my responsibility was meeting the client’s needs, not my own.

M: Unless you are your own client. Unless you can afford to be. Unless you’re a trust baby and you can afford to sit in your studio all day.

E: But the thing that I also learned was that, just because the client rejected it, doesn’t make it invalid work. It doesn’t make it bad work.

M: Well in one case the function was more esthetic, and in the other, the function is more commercial and the intention of the client is to exaggerate one thing over another, and you didn’t do that for him.

E: But even though the work is commercial, they become art critics. Clients become art critics.

M: Nah, they’re clients.

E: They ask, “Why did you choose ‘blue’, why is this bar here?” And what I learned, what made me articulate about it, is that I learned to defend my art. I’d say, that’s there because it does this, and there’s a purpose for it, and concept behind it. If you don’t like it, we’ll work on that, but you can’t argue that it’s just random.

M: Many clients want artists to tell them the value of the work. Because they don’t really know art. They may know coffee, but they don’t know art.

E: And it helps them feel good about it.

M: So, they’re ready for an argument. A lot of designers – interior designers, landscape architects—all these people have to go and sell a point of view. “If you buy my services, you buy my expertise, so trust me on this one.” Or you didn’t really do your homework before you did your art, on what the client wanted. Or the client doesn’t really know what they want, til they see it.

E: Right.

M: They might say, “ I know what I like, but I don’t know it until I see it.”

E: That’s an interesting point – I just read in How to Survive and Prosper as an Artist, Caroll Michels was saying all of these accoutrements that we’re supposed to deliver with our portfolio -- an artist bio, a statement, a brochure -- are ways of comforting a potential buyer that they are making a good choice in choosing your work, that you’re validating their acceptance of your work, and saying “Look, I really am somebody, you’re not just crazy for liking my work.” And that’s no different than I run into with marketing.

M: Artists who are successful commercially, often don’t do that for themselves. So, if you want to be successful commercially, you need to have an artist’s marketer. You need to have an agent. I have an agent who goes out and says how wonderful my work is. If I do that, I’m some kind of egotistical, self-centered arrogant person nobody wants to be with. But if she goes, she can convince people that this is really good work, and very popular, and if you don’t buy it, I’ve got ten people who will. So a lot of that has to do with, who is skilled at something. Most artists are not skilled at marketing, or promoting or selling their own work. The art field has millions of people out there in different roles.

E: yeah, and we need that range—look at our audience.

M: We’re past making the goat on the cave wall. There is public art, though. You talked about it earlier, and there’s a lot of public art for the whole community, including museums. Looking back to the old days, it’s like, “I have to own this. I’m obsessed with ownership of things.” So that’s collecting. And collectors are different than buyers, because collectors are focused on a certain kind of thing. They’re obsessed with having the biggest and the best example of something. There is a kind of fanatic collector of Mayan art at the museum, and he found a billionaire, and he can afford to buy the best of everything, and he did, amassing a collection that nobody else has. It was pretty important to him.

E: I had a discussion with an archeologist one time, and his view on collectors was… something to take note of.

M: I bet.

E: And he made an extremely good point, that, once you take this pot out of its context, it has lost much of its meaning. Now it’s just an object, and everything that you say about it being beautiful or ancient, and therefore rare and unique and wonderful is really lost… you’re just adding stuff to it.

M: But that’s an archeologist. And for him, it’s about context and history.

E: But it’s true. When we collect Roman art we’re assigning to it different meaning than the Romans ever had, and we’re looking at it differently too. They had polychrome statues, they painted them. And all the statues we have left over from them are just plain marble.

M: Right.

E: The paint’s worn off, and we say “Look how beautiful it is.” And, it’s not what they saw.

M: No. But it’s a different time too.

E: Right.

M: When Duchamp put a urinal in a museum.

E: Yeah, now everyone wants a urinal.

M: People saw it and – yearn for a urinal. (laughter) I mean, the context changes: the meaning changes. So, the function is changed – the esthetic function versus, “This is a pot.” But if [it was only] a pot, in that culture, why is it so unique? Why did a person have to put marks on that pot that elevated it? So, the role of the artist over time has been, he who can embellish something ordinary in a way that other people stop and pause and contemplate. The history of art is full of them, examples of artisans that did something – extraordinary – with techniques that were pretty primitive at the time.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Part II: My conversation with Maurice: marketing and audience

Continuing the conversation with Dr. Maurice Sevigny, from where I left off:

Marketing and art

Edgar: Okay, you touched on marketing, so let’s talk about that.

Maurice: Sure.

E: You said, that because you had supplemental income, you feel less constrained than somebody that feels strictly dependent on the market… [Dependence on the market] creates a conflict…

M: Sure.

E: … that I guess many of us are dealing with. Some of us are quite comfortable with the idea of making art which is strictly for the pleasure of some audience. So, there’s a question of the relationship between the artist and the audience.
Let me give you some background on myself: I have a [perspective] in that area. I started out in theatre, the performing arts, and there, the feedback from the audience is instantaneous, immediate. Recently, I submitted for a show for the Dinnerware, and I went to the opening and kind of went (frowning), “There’s no applause here!”

M: Yeah… (laughter)

E: So, I have a very different perspective on it than most visual artists would. But there is a relationship, intentional or not, between an artist and an audience. And I, personally, would dispute anyone who says, “I only make art for myself.” I think they’re just hiding something [from themselves].

M: Well, everybody’s got an ego. And you either stroke it yourself – and you know what that’s called (ahem)… “denying.”

Picasso is a good example of someone who continually reinvented him self. Because you can get stuck in a rut of fame or a market that’s accessible, and you can only go so far. And we all know artists like that.

E: Yeah.

M: But the luxury I have currently is that I can afford to make lots of mistakes, because time’s not money to me, so I don’t ever just think, “What’s going to sell?” And that’s good, especially the last six months– ‘cause nothing’s selling. (laughter) On the other hand, I think I am more aware of the commercial market as well, because of the rent on the studio. ‘Cause I was like, “Well, let’s at least break even. Instead of being an expensive hobby.” Especially with all the technology—which is expensive—... rent, and all your stuff. So, for a while I was saying, “Okay, everybody’s working big, and everybody’s working abstract for the most part. I’m going to work small and be affordable. And I’m going to work with techniques that allow me to work fast, and because I can be efficient, I don’t have to put two, three thousand dollars on each of my paintings to compensate for my time. So, finding a niche market is helpful but that’s not (unintelligible) ,’cause you know, sometimes I think about market forces, sometimes I don’t.

Artist and audience

You make images, and you get feedback from audiences, because we have open houses.

People come through and say, “Oh, what colors! You’re a colorist.”

“Yeah? What was your first clue?”

And what does that mean? [That] Most people are afraid of color, especially exaggerated color, because it’s one of the variables that starts to make things less recognizable to some people. So when you abstract, what you’re doing is taking shape or line or color or texture in a new way, sensing it in a new way.

I work with a couple things, one, I work with technology as underpainting and two I don’t limit myself to one medium. It always looks a bit different to the average person, but their attention to my work is sometimes captured a little longer than somebody else’s.

Some people come through your place pretty quick. Some want to look at each painting. And the way in which people go around, some are ‘flies’ and some are ‘ants’ and they march around in circles. Some people come up and look at something and study one thing and leave. So, it’s kind of fun to watch audience, and how they take in information.

And then their questions. (unintelligible) You’ve got wannabe artists, who wanna know how you do it. They want to come in and steal some secrets. You got people who collect—

E: …Maybe they want to come in and learn.

M: Maybe they do!

E: [I say,] In self-defense.

M: A lot of them do want to learn. And most of them want to get inspired, because you get a rush. You see something and think “I won’t buy that, but I think I could do something like that.” And run back to the studio and try it out. So, when you think [about] markets: When are you going to be an art teacher? When are you going to be an artist? When are you going to hold back information? When are you going to give away trade secrets?

The dialog that results from [the thought of] “audience” is very interesting, because it’s not one audience. There are as many different audiences as there are people. There are different degrees of sophistication. Your questions are different than the average beginner, looking for a couple of paintings for their lavender bedroom.

[Edgar's note: I'll be posting the final portion of our conversation, in which Dr. Sevigny discusses artistic integrity, in a few days.]

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Finding words... a conversation with Maurice

Update: Part two of this conversation is now posted here.
Dr. Maurice Sevigny is both a local artist and the Dean of the College of Fine Arts at the University of Arizona... in other words, someone who has made a lifetime of the study of art theory, the practice of art—and the teaching of it. He has a studio in downtown Tucson, which I visited last year during an open studio tour. The studio is jam-packed with framed work and works in progress on easels and pinned to partitions, in a crowded circle around a countertop island from which he surveys his creations, plucking them from the wall to rework as the muse strikes him.
The work he's doing is (essentially) representational, but distinctive in its embrace of digital technology to provide underpainting and abstraction for his images, which he overpaints with mixed media.
I thought it was exceptionally nervy of me to ask him for an interview, out of the blue, but he is generous, and his answers are very stimulating. Well versed in the conversation of art, Dr. Sevigny is articulate, educated and experienced. Of him, I got to ask all my questions: the ones my art teachers forgot to talk about. With gratitude, here's one expert's point of view.

Why we do it

Edgar: Why do we do art?

Maurice: Why do we do art? ...We do art because we have to. It’s a form of communication for some people, a form of expression for others, it’s a form of catharsis, and therapy for some. There are as many reasons for doing art as there are people. For me it’s a balance, and I’m doing it as something of a therapy in my life. At the same time, I’ve always done it, and it’s a way of being, and art is a way of knowing. So, my work is representational to a degree but abstract because I take what I know and I invent in it something that didn’t exist before. So, to me, bringing something to fruition that was not in existence before is… a trip.

E: You said art is communication and expression. What would be the difference?

M: Well, when it’s communication, it’s the artist doing it, when it’s expression, it’s the reader [that’s looking at it] interpreting it. Often, those things don’t come together. What someone interprets is different from [what] somebody expressed or intended to express, but it doesn’t really matter, because art is a two way street.

A segue to audience

If you don’t have an audience, do you even have art? Maybe: Because, if you step away from the painting, suddenly you become the audience; the real fact is, that art is a dialog, a sense of communication, usually a dialog between the artist and the object, and the object gives permission to continue or stop. Or the object becomes, you know, the game. You’re looking upon it, and you may be comparing it to what’s real (or not real), and then you may be saying, “How can I change that?” or there may be parts that you want to change. So, there’s this little bit of creativity and creation involved in the art concept.


And I always find it amazing when people come to my studio and want to know how long it took for me to make a particular piece, because they are sizing up the price. They’re asking, “How long did this take you?” My answer is always, “Sixty-five years,” because I couldn’t have done it last year… it’s a process, and you are the sum of who you are, at that moment.

E: That’s an excellent answer. I like that. Now, we make art, I think in many cases, as an expression of our response to what is around us ...

M:… or inside us.

E: … or inside us, yeah. And I know that there are lots of art movements where people are trying to get to that very directly.

M: Trying to be spontaneous, trying to let things emerge… I’m not sure that’s possible.

E: I’m not sure it’s possible either, because we have a context, and we can’t avoid it.

M: Everything is contextual.

E: But art, I think, is seen by western culture as being “creativity,” and there’s this idea… some of the non-objective artists are trying to pull something from nothing – and [it’s a struggle to make that] work. But what you said a moment ago is, that art was a “way of knowing.” And I find, as many artists do, I find out about what I feel about what is going on “out there.” And there’s some sharing obviously, because we’re making marks, instead of keeping it up here, inside our skulls. It’s a complex process, not simply one thing or the other, and it’s not strictly creativity. Much of it is reproduction, much of it is reaction.

M: Well you’re talking about art as function. When the function changes… if the function is religious, it brings back images of spirituality.

E: Right.

M: If your work is commercial, your job is to sell something or create some kind of metaphor for something else. If it’s illustrative, you’re trying to tell a story, that may be more communication. If it’s for its own sake, then it may be abstract, or it may be much more about the surface qualities and less about the emotional qualities or psychological impact. So, you’ve got intention, and you’ve got function, and you’ve got materials and you’ve got different subjects. If you’re going to be a naturalist, then you’re going to render something, if you want to be an artist, then you want to render it in a way that no one else is rendering it, because that makes it to be a signature or a brand. It’s important because, as in business, if yours looks like everybody else’s, then it has less value if you’re going to the market.

On function

E: What is it to you? What is the function of art for you?

M: You know, it changes. Right now… I think in some sense, the way in which I get back to art --because I haven’t made art for 25 years-- was in preparation for embracing a new self, because I may be retiring in the near future. So, before one can retire, when their identity has been all wrapped up in some kind of work or job, you need to have a new identity to embrace, to say goodbye to that [old] identity. But for me, it’s a kind of catharsis or evolution into something that I’ve postponed being for a long time, in order to make a living. Now, it’s going to be a way to supplement a living, so in some sense, somewhere between a commercial world and free expression.

Essentially, for me, because I have another income, I’m not constrained to commercial art. I can keep experimenting and developing new things. And the art I’m working on currently is kind of taking advantage of new tools that are electronic and digital to design and experiment and be more efficient. So I’ve got that luxury of time to play with technology and traditional media combined in ways that other people weren’t doing before.
So, to me it’s still invention. And also a chance to embrace the introvert side of me… getting away from my public life. Going into the studio, having alone time. Telling something it’s going to be ‘red’. And it becomes red without arguing why it has to be red. So, it’s an opportunity for pleasure, opportunity for stress reduction, opportunity for a lot of those things. And opportunity to get to know this other side, [that I’ve put aside] for twenty-five years.
[Edgar's note: I'll have more from this conversation posted soon. Dr. Sevigny's image, from his website, is used with his permission.]