Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Conscious Artist

Draco--beaded embroidery on black velvet.
     The other day at the Sandia Mountains stitch-in, I heard someone call someone else “artistic.”  It has gotten me thinking about the differences between being artistic and being an artist.  I think I have been artistic all of my life, but I have only been an artist, a conscious artist, for the last ten years or so.  That is the key word, “conscious.”  After being an embroidery teacher for almost thirty years, after teaching color theory for twenty years and design theory for fifteen years, it was only ten years ago that I started calling myself an artist.
            It was ten years ago when I joined two other artists, Karen Schueler and Emily Holcomb, in a group that met every Wednesday that I began to strive to be more than artistic, and to be an artist. It was in Wednesday Group that I consciously began to do art as opposed to just designing embroidered pieces for me to teach.  Before that I had been in many art shows and had won prizes for my work, but I was principally a teacher and not an artist for art’s sake.
            A conscious artist has certain characteristics:
            Creativity--probably the essence of art and being an artist.  I cannot imagine an artist without imagination and the ability to create things from her own mind and soul.
            Independent thinking--along with the compulsion to work, an artist must have intelligence and must be able to work independently.  I don't mean a genius with a sky-high IQ, I mean someone who thinks, plans, and figures things out.  Artists are often very articulate about their work.  They explain things to their viewers and to other artists. 
            Problem Solver --Doing art can be like solving a puzzle or a problem. Artists who do many commissioned pieces are better problem solvers than anyone else I know.  I like to have a problem or two in each of my pieces.  If I don't have a problem to solve, then I am being redundant.  To me that is standing still and not improving.  I like to improve and learn something in each piece.
            Vision--an artist sees things in different ways from other people.  An artist can often see right into the heart of the matter.  An artist can see things from the back or underneath; she doesn't look at things, she sees into them.  And an artist can see the motives.  This is a talent that comes naturally for some people, but it can be taught to some degree.  The hardest part is that an artist must bring this vision to the ground fabric and convey it to the viewer.
            Emotion-sensitivity--an artist feels things very deeply and she can be very sensitive to the potential emotion of a subject.  Sometimes artists work without emotion and create wonderful pieces.  But a work of art that has some emotion behind it is especially wonderful.
            Builds Bodies of Work--this is also known as integrity or internal consistency.  In every art class and every drawing class I have had, it was emphasized that artists should create bodies of work.  That is, pieces that are related in some way.  Bodies of work can be related by theme, by medium, by color, shape, or even emotion.  An artist can work on several bodies of work interleaving them, as Picasso did.  Building integrity, internal consistency, and working in bodies of work tells the public and art critics that the artist is mature.
Artistic integrity is that an artist is true to herself.  For instance, I could not seriously do a piece a la Monet.  Monet had his own work, his own subjects, his own style and they were and are among the best that the world has seen.  But for me to copy a Monet in needlework, or even try to copy his exact style, would be a farce.  I must do my own work in my own style.
6 Pot Garden--transfer ink on cotton/poly mix with silk threads.

What Are the Duties of an Artist?
            A.  Originality is essential.
                        The EGA defines original, adaptation, and interpretation as follows.
                        Original:  An original work is one that, from the beginning, is solely the creative product of the embroiderer.
                        Adaptation:  An adaptation is one that is inspired by another source, modified through significant changes, and worked by the embroiderer.
                        Interpretation:  An interpretation is one that is from an existing design in which colors, threads, and stitches are selected by the embroiderer.
            You will find that these definitions are fairly stringent.  Outside EGA circles there are other definitions that also serve.
            Expertise in two or three unrelated media.
            A good artist, one who is well educated and trained, is able to work in two or three media.  I am not talking about needlepoint and smocking.  I am talking about embroidery and photography.  Or embroidery and printmaking.  Or embroidery and ceramics.  Each medium has its own rules, but the essences of the rules generally translate from one medium to another.  Design theory and color theory are always the same.  I am not saying that you should design and exhibit in another medium, just that you learn it very well and are able to navigate in it.
            One thing that ALL artists should be able to do is draw.  Drawing is one of those skills that can be taught.  I took my first drawing classes at Arapaho Community College in Littleton, CO.  Since then I have taken several more, but what I do most is practice.  Now I sometimes sell my drawings, but they are not the main thrust of my art--just my embroidery.  But my embroidery is much better now that I have the basic skills of drawing which include:   perspective, composition, scale, value, and proportion.  Yes, we can go to design theory classes and learn about these things, but a drawing class makes us learn them at a gut level.
            Drawing from life also helps us practice to be keen observers and analytical thinkers.  This helps in the process of self-evaluation and analysis.  It is from this observation that a lot of ideas for art come.
            To Thine Own Self Be True
            Have you ever heard the words, "Write what you know about?"  The same thing goes with art.  I know a young woman who had taken art classes in high school and college.  She started painting kachina pictures from the Hopi communities of New Mexico and Arizona.  This woman is from Kansas and has lived there and in Colorado all of her life.  Her neighbors saw her paintings and started ordering some to match the sofas in their rec rooms.  It is my opinion that this young woman, the niece of a good friend of mine who is a watercolorist, did herself, her community, the Hopi nation, and art a great disservice.  She could put none of her own soul into these paintings.  The kachina are religious paraphernalia of a another culture.  She knew nothing about the kachina she painted.  She did them in odd colors at odd angles on the canvas.  I hated them.  There is a good ending to this story.  Her aunt finally clued her in.  She has stopped doing kachina and is now in a couple of art galleries in Denver with her own work.   
            The story of this young woman has to do with the art term "authenticity."  An authentic piece of work from an artist is one that springs from "knowledge, skills, experiences, and attitudes of the artist."
            Continuing Education
                        An artist has to continue to improve.  One excellent way to do that is to take classes that will lead to new experience.  Take classes out of your area of expertise.  Take design theory from many different teachers.  The same for color theory.  By the way, design theory is more important than color theory.  Color theory is just one small part of the huge field of design theory.  Take a beginning watercolor class.  Take a jewelry making class.  I like to take photography, paper-making, and basketry classes.  Each of these can lead to new insights about embroidery, about the way real textures develop, about how colors darken and lighten on certain materials.  Take a pottery class.  But learn, learn, learn as much as you can.  An artist who slows down and does nothing new is a stagnating personality.
            Self-evaluation--This is also known as Reflection.  I think the hardest thing that an artist does is to self-evaluate.  I work and work on this myself.  Keep in mind that your most popular work, the one that earns the most praise and the most prizes, may not be your best work.  Only you can know this.
            One good method of self evaluation is to keep a newly finished piece unframed for a while.  Let it cool off.  Put it away for a month or two (if you have the time).  Then bring it out and pin it to your bulletin board.  Look at it at odd times from odd angles.  Think about its impact.  Think about the framing or other mounting.  What is good about the piece?  What could be improved next time?  Pieces that you dislike at first may turn out to be, a few months down the road, your favorite works.
            But self-evaluation has more to do with the artistic experience than just looking over the work.  Reflecting--looking into ourselves--makes works of art valid and full of depth.  Using life experiences and life emotion for artwork is part of what an artist does.
            What is an Artist?  An artist is a person who says she's an artist.  I am an artist because I declared myself an artist.  No one nominated me or voted me in.  I am an artist because I do art.  I do art because I am compelled to it.  I must do it.  Art is both the easiest and the hardest thing I do.  Being an artist is as easy as that.

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