Sometimes a perfectly good, though mediocre, painting is pushed past the limits of what it is capable of becoming. It then either has to perish and be forgotten, or it can rise like a phoenix and become something totally different and, perhaps, strange. The question to the artist is this: If you are sensitive enough to realise a work’s limited potential, do you leave it be or kill it off, like an unsentimental breeder with the runt of the litter?
It may not be great art and it may not be up to your standards, but it may yet have given someone pleasure. It may even be, however unlikely, a masterpiece—because who are you to judge?—whose demise will be mourned by art historians in centuries to come.
Is it then just pride that drives your decision to destroy it? You do not, after all, want to be associated with inferior work. Or is it a higher feeling of magnanimity towards mankind, whom you do not want to burden with another piece of wannabe art? More than likely it is just frustration—you know you’re flogging a dead horse, but you can’t stop hitting. Let it go to hell then, and good riddance.
It is also possible that your painting, like an underappreciated racehorse filly, does have the genes of glory, and it is you who lack the geniality to take it there. Your midwifery only reaches to mediocrity.
I have killed off many paintings-in-the-making by forcing on their fresh and mute mediocrity my desire for profundity and meaning. I have taken photos of some, and the images of stillbirth saddens me. Others only survive in the hidden layers of paint under better, more satisfying paintings, the base layer of a palimpsest. Perhaps in future I will be more careful and caring. I will send them off, free to a good home and incognito, denying all authorship, and get on with the business of creating new ones from scratch.
But for now, here I am again, breeding chimeras from packhorses. Even these may never win any race, but heck, it’s such fun trying!
Imagine, as an adjunct to your five or six senses, a symbiotic ability of your neurological and electromagnetic systems, an extra sense located perhaps in the pit of your stomach. Wherever that clichéd location may be. See it as a glowing, vibrating spot with feathery antennae like a moth on a moonlit night. We will call it your aesthetometer.
Let it measure beauty. And, to pander to all beauties in the eyes of all beholders, let it measure your interpretation of beauty.
How acute is your aesthetometrics? Does beauty hit you like a fist to the solar plexus? Does it leave you nauseous and panting for breath?
I have, at last, found a name for this malady. I am, for better or worse, an aesthete. My aesthetometer pings at the slightest breath of beauty, as fine-tuned as the needle of a seismograph picking up rumblings in the earth’s tectonic plates a hundred miles hence. It trembles and flutters at a drop of colour, a veil of light, a note on the air.
Beauty does something to me. As other creatives are affected by pain or love or unfairness, I am blown away by beauty. It grips me by the throat, so that I want to cry out “Look! Look! Listen! Isn’t it beautiful?”
The colours and composition of summer fruit in a bowl, the sliced surface of a red cabbage, the way the trees dance in a forest, the smell of a lily, the clear call of a butcher bird – I am overloaded with impulses, brimful with beauty, and I don’t know what to do with it. I lack the skills to reproduce it or even to reinterpret it in art or writing. It is beyond me.
This is perhaps where photographers have an advantage – the ability to precisely capture beauty in an instant and hold on to its mercurial attraction. In a next life, I would perhaps choose such a direct way to deal with beauty.
But here and now I groan inside because I cannot sing. I limp because I cannot dance. I shed words like tears, blurry and inadequate. Because, as Joyce Kilmer put it so beautifully
“Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.”
Look, art is difficult. I am not by any means the first or the only one to say it and I won’t be the last. Whenever I hear or see this mentioned, I want to nod my head like a woodpecker on high speed.
It takes a tremendous amount of introspection, dissociation, persistence, patience, and probably just plain don’t-give-a-damn weirdness to make art. On the other hand, it is also child’s play, which can be pretty hard to achieve once you’re past the age of about ten – just ask Picasso*.
The process and the results can be either extremely frustrating and disappointing, or deeply, soul-wrenchingly satisfying. Or both.
But art isn’t all heart and guts. It is also bone structure and skin and hair and a face, although not necessarily a pretty one. Art has a surface and it’s called technique. The good news for all struggling wannabes? Technique can be learnt. And practice makes near enough perfect for my liking.
Now I am not a full-time professional artist. I am not even part-time, since my creative down-time has to be divided between visual art and writing, and then subdivided into drawing and painting, poetry and prose, and again subdivided into realistic and more abstract, Afrikaans and English, and then... You get the idea. I can’t even presume to take an artist’s holiday (see Julia Cameron**), as this would be a holiday from a holiday. I’m more or less artistically schizophrenic.
The point is, I have spent the past three or more decades pottering in and out of art and I have always envied the apparent ease with which real artists could make pen or pencil or paint do exactly as they wanted to. Other writers could sit down for hours on end churning out words by the thousands, while I struggled to fill one page or stay put for more than an hour at a time. Other artists wielded their craft with the authority of the pros they are on a daily basis, while I had half a sketchbook of mediocre images after years.
But now, as if overnight, all the years of ambling along seem to have paid off. Those weekly walks around the drawing block have strengthened by muscles. The five-minute finger exercises have strengthened my hand.
I am no genius, no master, but I am better than I was. I have become writing fit. I have become drawing fit. Suddenly and unexpectedly, I can do that five-day hike and I won’t slip on the slopes. Eye and ear and heart and hand all aligned, fighting fit.
So keep going, because see, after all, it’s easy. (But oh, boy, is it difficult!)
* Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up. Pablo Picasso
** The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron
Like a fun quiz? Then here’s a question – just as a test of character; there are no wrong answers.
It’s a rainy public holiday and you and the cat have spent the whole day indoors. Now, just before five in the afternoon, the drizzle has finally stopped, which means the cat can go outside and won’t be scared out of her wits when you start the vacuuming that you have been putting off for a week or two. But with the rain gone, the clouds are opening up and it is the most glorious autumn afternoon outside. Soon it will be dark. Do you:
1) let the cat out and spend half an hour vacuuming, because you won’t have another chance until the weekend,
2) neglect your household duties again and hasten outside for a lakeside walk before the light disappears, or
3) put down your smartphone and start getting ready for your favourite TV-show that will start sometime soon?
You even ask? Of course I went for a walk along the lake and it was gloriously magnificent and splendiferous! And because I have so many dear friends with whom I would have liked to share the walk but probably never will, I tried to write it all down for them. Here it is, bare as bones and unedited, in Afrikaans, but because I don’t trust Google Translate, there’s an English version at the end.
Hierdie aand wil ek neerskryf, voor dit soos ’n droom verdwyn.
Vyfuur en die reën wat heeldag kat-en-muis gespeel het met die son gee toe, gee op en sluip weg. Die lug word helder van die son se ondergaan. En ek gaan stap langs die meer.
Die water is ’n silwer spieël vol rimpels en kleur. Die lug is skoon en lou en in die wolke bloei die son vir oulaas soos waterverf. Dis ’n landskap wat vra om geskilder te word, maar ek is nie die een nie.
Hierdie strook langs die meer is ’n openbare wandelstrook. Grasperke strek van die huise af tussen die bome in tot aan die oewer, maar dit het openbare toegang. Mens kan ver langs die meer stap. Ek koers oos met die sakkende son agter my.
Orals is bootjies en kano’s op die oewer uitgesleep en onderstebo geberg, boggel teen die reën. Daar is sitplekke ook – tafels, stoele en bankies van hout of plastiek of gietyster, soms aan ’n boom vasgeketting – vermoedelik daar geplaas deur die bewoners van die huise wat aan die wandelstrook grens.
Vanaand is daar nie baie mense op die paadjie nie. ’n Ier met ’n lui poedel wat aan ’n halsband beur, ’n vrou met ’n netjies geknipte spanjoel, ’n man en twee seuns stil op ’n bankie asof in meditasie. “A lovely evening, isn’t it?”
Ek loop oor die netjies gesnyde gras, tussen bome deur – casuarinas, melaleucas met skilferende stamme, bloekoms. ’n Wildevy groei hoog in ’n dooie bloekomstomp, lank gelede se saadjie wat daarbo ontkiem het. Daar’s ’n wind in die toppe.
Die son sak laer, die lug vergrys, die water word silwerder. Ek draai om.
Corellas, ’n soort klein wit kaketoe, kom raserig in die bome slaapplek soek. Reënbooglorikiete gesels en hang hanswors aan boomtakke. Die lig vibreer. Iewers braai iemand vleis. Die lug is lou van skemerte.
By die pier staan ’n seun met kaal bolyf en slaan op die blink water met ’n stok. ’n Sterretjie vlieg oor, vlerk en bek in skerp gepunte silhoeët. ’n Fotograaf pak sy driepoot op en stap weg.
Die krieke begin tentatief tril soos viole wat stem voor ’n opvoering. ’n Lelkiewiet staan in die vlak water, sy twee kuikens benoud piepend tussen ons. Die kiewiet se maat skel my van verder aan.
En die lug word donkerder en ’n boepens halfmaan hang al hoog en die silwer water ril van visse wat spring en ka-ka-ka-ka-karrakarrakarra lag twee kookaburras en die krieke tril harder en dertien bos-eende breek onewe op om my deur te laat en o! die lug en die wolke en die silwer water.
A lovely evening, isn’t it?
I want to write down this evening before it disappears like a dream.
Five o’ clock and the rain that has been playing cat-and-mouse with the sun the whole day yields, gives up and slinks away. The sky becomes clear from the sun’s setting. And I go for a walk along the lake.
The water is a silver mirror of wrinkles and colour. The air is clear and warm and in the clouds the sun bleeds like watercolour. It is a landscape that begs to be painted, but I am not the one.
This strip along the lake is a public pathway. Lawns stretch from the houses through the trees to the shore, but it has public access. You can walk a long way along the lake. I head east with the setting sun at my back.
Everywhere there are boats and canoes pulled out onto the shore and humped upside-down against the rain. There are seats as well – tables, chairs and benches of timber or plastic or cast-iron, sometimes chained to a tree – presumably put there by the inhabitants of the houses that border on the pathway.
There are not a lot of people on the pathway this evening. An Irishman with a lazy poodle pulling against the leash, a woman with a neatly clipped spaniel, a man and two boys on a bench, quietly as if meditating. “A lovely evening, isn’t it?”
I walk over the neatly mowed lawns, among the trees – casuarinas, melaleucas with flaking bark, blue gums. High up in a dead eucalypt trunk grows a fig tree, taken root long ago from a seed. There is a wind in the tree tops.
The sun sinks lower, the sky greys, the water silvers. I turn back.
Corellas congregate noisily in the trees to roost. Rainbow lorikeets chat and hang clowning from branches. The light vibrates. Somewhere someone is having a barbeque. The air is warm with dusk.
At the jetty a bare-chested boy hits upon the shiny water with a stick. A tern flies past, wing and beak sharp silhouettes. A photographer packs up his tripod and walks away.
The crickets start their tentative trill like violins before a performance. A lapwing stands in the shallows, its two anxiously cheeping chicks between us. The lapwing’s partner scolds me from a distance.
And the sky gets darker and the potbellied half-moon hangs high and the silver water shudders from jumping fish and ka-ka-ka-ka-karrakarrakarra laugh the kookaburras and the crickets trill louder now and thirteen wood ducks divide unevenly to let me through and oh! the sky and the clouds and the silver water.
A lovely evening, isn’t it?
Instead of boring you with a list of books read in 2017, I’ll take a leaf out of the book of the Writers Write Book Reading Challenge 2018 and give it a little tweak. So here is a little writing prompt for the year ahead and those times when your creative inspiration has hit a wall.
Try writing a story (or a poem or an essay if you prefer) according to each of these guidelines:
Have fun and Happy New Year!
PS: My award for the best book I read in 2017 is shared by Lost and Found by Brooke Davis and The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon, both with young girls as protagonists.