THE PROBLEM, THE EPIPHANY, AND THE POEM

Exactly one year ago, I spent a Saturday afternoon in my friend Timothy’s apartment, writing my artist statement. For those of you who haven’t encountered this particular vehicle of torture, the artist statement is supposed to sum up everything about your inspiration, message, vision, and world view in 200 words or less.

It is one of the standard things asked for when applying for grants/shows/competitions. It is a Big Deal, as evidenced when my friend who is working on her MFA at the School of the Art Instsitute in Chicago told me, “for us, the statement is almost more important than the work.”

I had been turned off from artist statements ever since I read the one by an artist who puts motion sensor cameras in the woods & then frames the resulting photos of passing woodland animals, and….well, that’s it. Her statement made it out to be critically important, groundbreaking work.

Please.

My favorite one ever is by Anthony Howe, who makes kinetic sculptures that move in the wind which are truly mind blowing (If you do nothing else today, click on that link). His artist statement? “Let’s sit out on the patio and watch the whirligigs.” I love this man.

Nevertheless, faced with the edict to come up with something or lose out on the opportunity to enter in a show, I sat down with Timothy, (who loves artist statements, and the type of art where someone puts motion sensor cameras in the woods), and got to work.

After 5 versions, during which Timothy would read what I wrote, give me feedback, and leave me to it while he got on with his life, he finally took the ipad away from me and wrote out a very thoughtful statement about my work. I pounced on the free help with profuse thanks and called it a day.

Having spent a restless night being chased by words about intent, voice, purpose, and Why I Paint, I got up in a strange mood and wandered around the house aimlessly for awhile before stepping into the shower.

Most creative people will attest to specific times when something comes upon them from quite outside their own minds or beings. Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk discusses this beautifully: in ancient Rome, artists were believed to have a “genius” living in the walls of their studios. Note, the artist was not himself a genius. He had a genius–an external creative force that helped him create his art.

When that happens, it is as if someone unscrews the top of your head and pours a whole bunch of stuff in: fully formed ideas that had never occurred to you before. In this case, I ended up wrapped in a towel on my bathroom floor, sobbing as image after image came into my mind: the statement, the purpose for my work, the very reason I am painting. The next series I would paint. Who I would paint.

That’s big. That’s huge. I had never found my voice with painting before, and had pretty much dabbled with anything and everything that I felt like, wandering from still life to plein air landscapes, to animals, and lots in between.

Now I knew. I knew that portraiture is my voice, and I knew that I have work to do. I sat down and wrote out a whole new artist statement. It was quick, it was easy, and it was all true. And it brought back a memory of a poem I had read many years ago, which was about to become the basis for the next 2 years of work.

Famous
by Naomi Shihab Nye

The river is famous to the fish.

The loud voice is famous to silence, 
which knew it would inherit the earth   
before anybody said so.   

The cat sleeping on the fence is famous to the birds   
watching him from the birdhouse. 

The tear is famous, briefly, to the cheek.   

The idea you carry close to your bosom 
is famous to your bosom.   

The boot is famous to the earth,   
more famous than the dress shoe,   
which is famous only to floors.

The bent photograph is famous to the one who carries it   
and not at all famous to the one who is pictured.   

I want to be famous to shuffling men   
who smile while crossing streets, 
sticky children in grocery lines,   
famous as the one who smiled back.

I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,   
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular, 
but because it never forgot what it could do.

From Words Under the Words: Selected Poems by Naomi Shihab Nye. Copyright ©1995.
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