To Be or Not To Be?
It has been wonderful to be ‘just’ an artist for these weeks! See, my vacation from being a Director/Curator and from teaching was to be a full-time artist during four of the six-week run of my trio exhibition. The gallery has a talented Curator of its own who did a terrific job blending our three different styles and media together. I had nothing to do with the hanging other than to assemble my two multi-part works. That’s a real vacation!
The exhibition is still ongoing, though my vacation is over and I once again have to divide my time and shift my focus from just my art to exhibiting other people’s and teaching. However, we three co-exhibitors are still going in almost daily as Artists in Residence. We have done so since the exhibition opened to the public for I proposed that for its six weeks, we each create individual work publicly in a room adjacent and connected to the gallery. We will present it and a related performance piece publicly at the end of the exhibition in a week or so.
My first experience of this kind as a visual artist was when I was a Banff Centre (Banff, Alberta, Canada) participant. I originally went for a month in August of 1983, but thanks to grants, spent the next year and nine months there in the fall, winter and summer studio programs. I believe the format has changed since then, but at the time, summer meant we participated in a series of workshops and winter and fall were each a three-month period of working on our ideas or collaborative projects and receiving studio visitors, attending lectures, presentations, performances, exchanges, tours of the region, doing sports activities, and so on.
For each session, we were ten in the Ceramic department. We each had our own workspace in a shared open studio where we could create at our leisure – so called since there was nothing ‘leisurely’ about it. While we worked, people attending conferences of all non-visual arts kinds could come by and see what we were doing, usually at restricted times so as not to be too distracting. Many participants found it difficult to concentrate on their work, because there were so many distractions in fact: so many choices to make daily about activities, so many interesting people, both famous and not, to meet or collaborate with, and so much to see of the natural environment!
My studio space faced a huge bank of windows. I would often go there long after supper (deliciously prepared in the main dining hall) when most other participants had been lured by some evening activity or other. What distractions could there be when humans were elsewhere? Herds of elk. They would gather as evening fell on the well-tended and spacious lawn outside the windows, thirteen to fifteen strong. Man, they are beautiful!
Nature was a huge presence in all our psyches. The mountains of the Rockies chain surrounded us majestically on all sides. It would be pitch dark in the am and suddenly the sun would clear a mountaintop and there would be spectacular light! Or a group of us on the roof of the Sally Borden building at some late hour would oh and ah at the incredible Aurora Borealis display. Or I’d be sitting alone on top of Tunnel Mountain listening to the howl of wolves in the distance, or walking along followed by a curious, noisy flock of magpies, or squatting patiently by a path to watch a coyote watching me before deciding to cross in front of me and disappear into the brush. How full can a heart get?
Sleep? Who cared! I worked at night to concentrate but also because the day was too full of amazing opportunities to miss any of them. Besides the eye-popping environment, guest artists came regularly to each department of the Banff Centre, Dance, Musical Theatre, Music, Creative Writing, Photography, Painting, Fibers, Ceramics, Film and Video… I wanted to hear or meet them all, maybe get to work with some of them. I met Margaret Lawrence and John Cage, John Roloff and Dennis Oppenheim, Rita McKeough and Nancy Cain, Anthony Braxton and Vera Frenkel, Bob Arneson and Michael Lucero, Gene Youngblood and many others. What a thrill to have many of them visit my studio and respond to my work!
This was the unique thing about the Banff Centre experience, the cross-pollination among disciplines. Not all artists had time or the inclination to venture outside their medium or technique, but those like me who did were richly rewarded. I discovered through the artists who came to give me critiques and share their creative and life experiences with me that all arts are bound by the same procedural and conceptual frameworks, that inspiration and imagination function the same way whether one is composing for violin, building a wooden structure or taking photographs. To whatever degree and no matter how symbolically coded as image, sound or pixels our creations are, we all work from the deep core of who we are and what we’ve experienced that opened our eyes to the world.
Besides the nationally or internationally known artists, I also met fascinating fellow participants doing all manner of creative work. My background in theater, dance and story telling came into play when I acted, danced or read for other artists, but they also allowed me to conjoin medium-based elements with performance-based elements, adding movement to drawings and voice to sculptures, for instance and learning to begin bridging the gap between usually stand-alone disciplines.
I also got to curate exhibitions, help re-build a wood-burning kiln, dance madly at parties with relay good dancers to improvised music by really good musicians and trek up and down mountains for art events, careful all the while not to damage the incredible variety of tiny, delicate and susceptible plants growing in the tundra. The audiences for all these things were always engaged, attentive and intelligently responsive, and my co-creators when we collaborated were knowledgeable participants from all over the world.
What an experience I had! In its scope, accessibility and variety it probably will never be repeated. If those twenty-one months at the Banff Centre with professionals and other pre-professionals in all manner of artistic and creative disciplines taught me anything, it is this: artists who don’t ever have the chance, even if short-term, to devote themselves full-time to their practice and process, who can’t connect with other artists in different disciplines as peers, who don’t have the opportunity to have serious, ongoing discussions about their and others’ intents, meanings and achievements, and who never venture outside their own techniques, these artists are severely deprived in their personal development.
The experience taught me to understand in a professional sense why I make art, why I make the art I make with the mediums I use, and how to make it despite all the distractions and difficulties. I wish all artists had the opportunity to have similar experiences, say in an artists’ residency somewhere, preferably where Nature is one of the participants. Or, if they can’t leave home, to create mutually supportive or collaborative projects that bring in people in other disciplines, and carry them out publicly. The challenge is invaluable.
Other than the work in studio itself, I found that there is nothing better for my artist’s soul than to have had the experience I described above and I try to carry its spirit into all art projects I create today.