Thursday, December 31, 2009

scratching for the spine

Happy New Year!

I am not one for new year resolutions but am one to use calendar milestones, such as a new year, for reflection. Why is it easier to think about the things I didn't do, or tried to do, but didn't succeed at, than the things I actually accomplished? Am I alone in this? Am I uniquely cruel?

For instance - Why didn't anyone ask me whatever happened to my Range Project? I was so passionate about it back in the summer (see archive July 2009 ). I seemed pretty convinced that a photo essay on the impact of the firing range on my community was my next big project. I daydreamed visions of Vermont Art's Council grants and Seven Days art reviews. The Range Project was my ticket to fame and glory! It would make me THE photographer everyone in Vermont knew. The Range Project would lead to a future of money and endless requests for commissions! Finally I would get the recognition I deserved!

As the months of 2009 went by not one of you said "Hey, Michelle, How goes the Range Project?" Although, to be fair my, Creative Muse comrades did ask from time to time, but that wasn't enough to hold me accountable.

Being enlivened by a project only to have it fizzle away is not uncommon for me. I use to think that not completing something was due to a flaw in ability. I was a great idea person but lacked follow through. It wasn't until I read Twyla Tharp's autobiography Twyla Tharp The Creative Habit Learn It And Use It For Life (thanks to Jonathan Silverman's suggestion) that I understood that this is simply my way of working, a way that many, many artists share.

Tharp calls the idea generating process scratching. She describes scratching as groping around in the dark, randomly looking everywhere and at everything, to see what might give rise to a project.

Tharp writes: You need an idea. It's not enough for me to walk into a studio and start dancing, hoping that something good will come of my aimless cavorting on the studio floor... You can't just dance or paint or write or sculpt. Those are just verbs. You need a tangible idea to get you going." (page 94)

Projects ideas come from scratching yet, for an idea to move on to implementation it needs a spine. The meaning of the spine is pretty self descriptive. The spine becomes the back bone of the idea. The structure that gives substance and stability to an idea. The spine is the framework an artist needs to move forward. The audience doesn't need to see the spine or even know what it is, but the spine keeps the artist focused and moving forward, especially during those times when it is easy to forget why you are creating something or where to take the work next.

The spine doesn't need to come first, and, in my case, only does about half the time. An idea may come first but it won't go anywhere if it doesn't have substance behind it or a rationale based on something concrete.

For an idea to grow into a meaningful work it needs to be guided by it's place in history or a personal connection.

Everything has a context. If, as artists, we don't investigate the personal or creative ancestry behind our work then projects will lack structure and significance. I remember a fellow art student, who, prior to a painting class critique, told everyone that he had invented a new way of seeing. He was excited to share with us an original and break through style that he had developed while painting in his studio. What he then revealed were beginner level abstract paintings that looked an awful lot like cubism. He could have avoided embarrassment by taking time to develop his spine. He would have uncovered the gifts of Picasso and Braque and other great painters, that came before him and might have used their paintings as a way to deepen his own vision and create more meaningful work.

This anecdote is only part of the spine concept.

What I take away from Tharp is the understanding that I will likely generate millions of ideas but only some will develop into a project. And, what determines development, is the depth of thought and the heartiness of an underlying theme. Also, for me, the idea has to have an authentic personal resonance. That is why the Range Project never got past a few phone calls and snap shots. Although the work came from my life and was personally relevant it didn't touch my core. The core from which I make my art. The project didn't require me to go deeper within myself. Even researching the history of the Range and my town didn't give me the spine I needed to generate the work. In retrospect, the idea didn't challenge me to dig into myself or encourage me to find the intersection where culture and self definition meet.

After reading Tharp's book I was able to let myself off the hook and realize it's not that I lack follow through. I have a better understanding of what may form a spine for me and how to develop a structure to support an idea. I recommend her book.

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