Surfing the Ideal

When I was young, I thought that every centimeter of a work of art was supposed to matter.  Ah, youth!  I suppose I’ll still grudgingly admit that every centimeter ought to be trying to accomplish something, not just sitting there reflecting back photons.  But time has tempered an idealism that I was not in any case capable of attaining in my youth, notwithstanding how charming an idealism it might have been.  Today I realize that sometimes a drawing doesn’t get what you were after, no matter how earnestly you search or how boldly or sensitively you work, and that’s okay.  That’s the reason God made trees so that we’d always have more paper lying around to use for having another wack at it.

Even if a particular drawing doesn’t capture your goal, it may supply the experience you need to get where you’re going.  In drawing we learn stuff about reality.  If you draw flowers, you learn about flowers.  Often we think that we already know what we draw — even that we know what things look like.  Yet if we really look deeply, we discover something new about the familiar world.

I started a drawing as a study for a painting.  I work on it in sessions — but I figure that of course these sessions still count as “drawing a day.”  Here’s a few peeks at the parts.  This drawing doesn’t feel to me like it’s going anywhere, but I work steadily all the same because sometimes you just go along for the ride.  The moments spent looking are taking you somewhere unknown.

Corresponding Qualms

This writer has been doing something that I hope everyone takes time to do once in a while: rereading old letters. Of course it goes without saying that to reread them, you probably had to write some — to which the ones you reread are the replies.  Ah, the lost art of letter writing!

Back when I first struggled with learning to paint, these letters exchanged with a dear friend gave us both a shared feeling of camaraderie and purpose. I never realized when these letters were new how much they lifted my spirits. Of course I enjoyed them immensely. But reading them now has an effect that is really hard to describe. Though sadly my friend and I have lost touch over the years, the letters take on a deeper and new meaning.

Over time, you can begin to question the worth of what you do. Artists really struggle with and worry when they are earnest and idealistic — as we were. Over the years — even though you have various triumphs (I’ve come a long way with my painting from those early days) — it’s still tough not to doubt, especially when the current of the “art world” rushes past you in a different direction.

Reading these old letters from my friend reminds me of the ways we held ourselves to high standards — to how we were quite firm in our decision to do painting the way we wanted — as realists (of a sort) when realism wasn’t at all trendy. (Goodness, it’s so less trendy now!)

I admire our spirits of determination back then. We were so young. But we had guts. We did so much work from life. We wanted to have the immediacy of the subject before us. We looked at things really deeply. We wanted to understand nature and life.

I am also struck by our qualms. My friend particularly asked again and again: is this the right way to be an artist? Gosh, I wish we got some of the well deserved credit for earnestness that truly characterized our seriousness of purpose.

How many others ask themselves in spells of recurrent soul-searching — does what I do matter? Do congressmen in their endless finger pointing ask this? Do all those companies that put you on hold when you call them ask this? Do bureaucrats who put you through endless mazes ever ask themselves? Artists, real artists, don’t get near enough credit for their very laudable sense of purpose and their high standards.

Does what I do matter?

And so often, in the cases where the answer is resolutely “yes” — yes, what you did really did matter — in those cases, so often the answer doesn’t even come until decades, perhaps even centuries later!

Now, that’s dedication!

[This post has been adapted from an August 2007 essay called “Nostalgia” at Art Writing Bold Drawing.  Top of the post: a letter from a high school girl’s French pen pal from 1939.]