A couple weeks ago, I finished my first painting of 2018. Actually, that’s not entirely accurate. I mean, it is accurate that I finished it in 2018, but the four paintings that are underneath it were started, abandoned, scraped, sanded, and painted over again and again over the course of several months throughout 2017. I even did several Instagram Live sessions working through the various iterations. Every painting I’ve ever done is a fight. Regardless of the notes I take, the pre-visualization I do, or the thought I put into them, they never turn out exactly the way I think they will—and I think I am finally okay with it. My work is messy, both in process and in outcome and I’ve fought with that fact for years, trying to impose through sheer force of will what I want it to be. In the end, the work is what it wants to be, maybe even what it needs to be. And who am I to argue?
I think I’ve been working towards this acceptance for years—sometimes consciously, other times less so—but it really became clear last week after seeing the Outliers and American Vanguard Art show at the National Gallery. Assembling the show is the work of senior curator Lynne Cook and features nearly 300 pieces of work by “[s]elf-taught artists—variously termed folk, primitive, visionary, naïve, and outsider—[who] have played a significant role in the history of modernism, yet their contributions have been largely disregarded or forgotten.” The word “primitive” is a perfect way to describe much of the work on display. Sister Gertrude Morgan, for example, routinely used found pieces of wood, cardboard, and paper as substrates for her tempera-based work. James Castle didn’t use sable brushes or the finest milled pigments—much of his work is made from soot and saliva on found or salvaged scraps of paper. Yet in these and dozens of other cases, the work is more than the sum of its material parts, elevated by both content and context to what we call Art. I’m not suggesting for a moment that my work should hang alongside theirs in the National Gallery, but this show makes me realize that perhaps it could and that’s the difference.
One of my biggest hangups about my own painting has been my lack of any “artistic pedigree,” which at least in part, convinced me to put down my brushes since I would never be a “real” artist (something I have since learned is a total crock). Sure, I took some Saturday classes at Art Center, but I was a technical theater major and what little I know about art or artists has come from my own research and study outside of academia. So when a show like Outliers comes along and shines a light of legitimacy on artists for whom training, experience, or even an awareness of what modern art is or is not—let alone the discourse around it—is more or less absent, it serves as a rallying cry of inspiration to get my own hands in motion and just make. I’m also still riding the wave of finishing and publishing Photography by the Letter, which was a massive accomplishment both personally and professionally. All this to say, the making has to be the fuel, not the potential accolades. Pick up the camera, the brush, the pen, or whatever your creative tool of choice is and make. Make often and with purpose and let the likes, the views, and the other distractions fall where they may. Just make.
What are you making?
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Benjamin Shine was recently named one of the 500 people shaping the global fashion industry, but he’s not a model or a designer. Benjamin is a sculptor and his medium of choice is fabric. He creates incredible gossamer-like portraits that look as if they are made of smoke, floating effortlessly in 3D space. Check out this YouTube video to see Benjamin at work and hear a little about his process.
My freshman english teacher in high school let me borrow her VHS copies of all 13 episodes of Carl Sagan’s landmark series Cosmos. The show was really my first introduction into both Carl Sagan and astronomy and I’ve been an ardent fan of both ever since. I also love pop-up books, so when I happened across This Book is a Planetarium in a post on Brain Pickings—which makes not only the stars, but also various laws of physics accessible to young learners—I knew I had to share it. The book is beautifully designed and features some very clever pop-ups. Get a copy on Amazon.
One of my favorite recent Instagram follows is The Half and Half, a design studio in Columbia, SC that first came to my attention when a piece they shared by illustrator Zach Landrum popped up in my feed. They do all kinds of work, from gig posters to beer branding and their feed is a terrific source of inspiration, especially when you’ve spent too long staring at the blank pages of your notebook.