Tuesday 12 August 2014

When Things Get Crazier

The Lure
photo collage 

            Becoming a juggler was not in my life plan when I set out to be an artist but a juggler is what I have come to be in this circus that is my life as an artist. My big top is the interface between making art and doing everything else. See me teetering on the very uneven ground destabilized by the current economy and world politics, juggling three full-time occupations, each squeezed into part-time time: making art as an ongoing, body-of-work process; teaching others to make, think and talk about art; and exhibiting art by other artists who themselves are jugglers in their own circus big tops.           
The show must go on. Busy-ness isn’t any excuse. These days, my current even more-than-usual busy-ness is due to an upcoming exhibition of my own work, so the added pressure of preparing for it is actually a blessing! I am one of the artists in a trio entitled and themed “Inner Narratives’ that will open on September 3 and to which I will be contributing work in clay, pencil, and mixed media assemblage. Today is… August 12! The day of the opening is nearing at an alarming rate.
The work to be included in the exhibition is almost ready. I don’t usually like being unprepared to crate and transport the work a month before the opening but it’s been a struggle to even make new pieces. They are demanding: given the inner narratives theme, they require a level of reflection and focus not easily achieved with repeated interruptions. And the interruptions are certainly not only repeated but equally demanding of my reflection and focus.
What is difficult in this juggling act isn’t the busy-ness – I love all three aspects of my professional life - it’s being able to free myself from the two other aspects of my thinking and visualizing when I go into my own studio to work.
Teaching is a demanding profession for me, whether I do it in the school system, say as a high school teacher, in so-called ‘alternative’ contexts such as co-ops, art centers and not-for-profit environments, or independently, out of my own studio. While different, and regardless of the age group I’m teaching, what all these practices have most in common is the teaching itself. To do it well, and like any good teacher, I have to have expertise, of course, as well as a clear focus and a well-defined course intent. I have to have a tight, progressive curriculum, and a well-prepared series of lesson plans. Since no two groups of people making up a class are the same, and individuals in each group need different levels of instruction, explanation and supervision, I also have to be able to switch and adapt the class improvisationally, in real-time and in direct response to the students. This means I have to immerse myself in techniques, subjects and themes from their most basic levels – levels I have long since integrated in my own art – to their most complex – levels I am myself in the process of exploring. While my teaching has to be authoritative, I also have to work from a completely open position, with sympathy/empathy for the students’ ideas and needs. This complicates my own process.
Similarly, being the curator of an art gallery that does not focus on sales yet that must support or enhance the Value of the artists’’ work requires a specialized type of approach. By Value, I mean not the commercial worth of the work but the importance the medium, the technique, the imagery and the narrative, thematic, conceptual or philosophical content have for the artists themselves. I have to understand and integrate these things as if I were each artist I exhibit to have a sense of how to install, light, write about, promote and conduct tours of the exhibits as the curator. To do this, I must visit the artists’ studios, grill them about every aspect of their work, read everything about them or those by whom they are influenced, look again and again at their art and think about it as an artist, as a viewer, as a historian, as a critic, as a teacher, and finally as the curator.
Walking into my studio each time after I’ve taught a class or mounted an exhibition becomes like a medical procedure, say a brain transplant. It takes me time to reconnect my artist brain: I have to seek out, recognize and disconnect concerns and imagery that are for or about my students or the artists I show. It’s a job to re-identify who I am when I’m creating, not a different person from my teacher or curator self but the same person coming at imagery, my own, from a completely different perspective. This takes time, and I’ve had to develop numerous cleansing rituals to help me proceed such as writing in a studio diary, singing and dancing around to my favourite music as I prepare the studio, going methodically through my sketch books and plans and carefully lining up the tools and materials I’ll need for the work ahead. It’s a good thing I work alone because in extreme cases, I also talk to my images as I encourage them to materialize. Until I actually start creating, I feel like Dr. McCoy in the original Star Trek 3 series episode entitled ‘Spock’s Brain’, where he had to restore Spock’s brain to his body (Written by Lee Cronin and directed by Marc Daniels).
Should I ever ‘retire’, it will only mean that I’ll stop juggling. My aching joints will be happy. I’ll try to do each of my three ‘things’ separately, perhaps alternatively. I’ll mostly sculpt, draw/paint and write, of course; these are absolutes. They are manifestations of the brain function, ‘artist’, that fits most snugly into my cranium. But I will still teach, because it is amazing to awaken or encourage the art passion in someone else, and I will organize exhibitions, because it is my most satisfying way to celebrate and support my community.
Until then, however, a juggler I must still be, today in my studio, tomorrow visiting other artists’ studios, the day after conducting a tour of the group exhibition for which I am the curator, the day after that back in my studio…