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The Creative Process: Part 3

©2022 Janet Maher, InterBeing #4, mixed media altered prints collage drawing

      It was a bit shocking to see how long it’s been since I’ve updated my own website. As the webmaster for Artists’ Cooperative Gallery of Westerly, apart from quite actively living and accomplishing a good deal of new work in the studio this year, the months have been significantly devoted to getting that site up to the look it currently has. It should now be a matter of routine monthly updates and less labor-intensive maintenance from here on out. Please have a look at the ACGOW site, but do return to read this last installment of my young self’s philosophizing about the Creative Process. I will attempt to adequately refresh and update my Circlegarden Studio site by the end of this year.

The Creative Process: Part Three, Janet Maher ©2022, renewed from 1994.  (Note: these are continued excerpts snipped from my original 20-page paper and lightly edited.)

     Showing the work, receiving a response from outside oneself is necessary. The response may be positive, negative or undecided, but without allowing the work out into a part of the world beyond ourselves the creative act is incomplete. When a tree falls in a forest, perhaps the other trees hear, but if an artwork is only seen by the other artworks stored alongside it, the effort to produce the work was about something else besides making Art. It is then a private personal involvement…done, like beginners’ work, beyond outside judgement.

When the work is received by an audience apart from the maker a dialogue beyond the self may begin. Any and every member of the public is a potential audience, and the maker must be ready for any and every response. The material object must hold its own in a seesaw of objective/subjective experiences on the part of every person who sees it. The quality of the response is relative to the level of quality that the work embodies, but the viewer’s aesthetic experience and predisposed opinions are also important factors.

In my view, we ingest an artwork through our objective sensors almost instantaneously. The physical object-ness of the work catches our attention. We look at its size, manner of presentation, surface, color, overall composition and wonder about its content. The work, on its own, must get us this far. If the object cannot draw us away from our own previous reveries or from our attention to something else near it, it has already failed as art. Once a work has attracted our consideration, it is impossible not to switch immediately into subjectivity. We cannot enter into the work on a deeper level if we are not subjectively interested in it unless we do so as a purely intellectual exercise.

The first subjective part of the test begins – how interesting is this? We flip back into objectivity. How is it made? Where does this part connect to some other part? What will happen if I move to the left and look up at that part? How was that effect created? Subjectivity asks that a new layer of objective-technical information be revealed and the conversation between work and viewer continues: objective reality—subjective interest—objective matter—subjective association—deeper layers of objective understanding, visually peeling back the layers. Through this incremental series of checks and balances we are either led to an increasingly richer appreciation of the work or to a waning or dismissing of interest.

When an artwork is good, it becomes a multi-faceted gift. It is a testament to the gift of talent that its maker has been given, who in turn has passed this gift to the outside world. The acceptance of the work through appreciation by its audience returns the gift to the maker through the validation of an energizing “yes”. Sustained by this vote of confidence, combined with the personal satisfaction in one’s correct assessment of the work, the maker continues. The gift within her/him is enlarged, expanded and made ever more personal and complex as it goes out and returns, like breath.

Sometimes the gift is inadequate or is refused. The artwork is beyond our knowledge and experience and we cannot rise to meet it, or the work falls short of the expectations we have set for it, or we simply relegate it to a category that we do not value. Sometimes the artwork cannot find the right audience. Sometimes the artist has over-assessed her/his talent or readiness to show and needs to work at improving before venturing out again.

…Showing one’s work can be a very delicate activity, and part of the creative process includes knowing when not to do so. Showing something prematurely may serve more harm than good to oneself and to the work…Without having clear ideas about the work, yet asking for others’ input, criticisms or suggestions can muddy the waters. A work may be yanked prematurely from its incubation process. Especially when one is trying out new techniques or manners of working, it might be necessary to sit with them for a while, honor the process of the work on oneself that is also occurring as one learns through interaction with the artwork.

…Privacy and a completed dialogue between the maker and the work is crucial. Often an additional time in the studio is helpful, where a work can rest, seemingly finished, while the maker may catch it unaware at various disconnected moments in time, able to check and recheck to be sure it’s really “done”.

…In the beginning of any pursuit it is necessary to be experimentally non-judgmental and to maneuver through the foreign lands of anything that comes to mind. From pure beginning through the first sense of communication with others through the art, it is not long before one wants to become better at what s/he is trying to do. We learn a new language and want to converse, realizing quickly that we need more verbs and nouns in order to make headway. Some will be content to be capable of simple conversations, others may wish to write poetry and some may seek to become fully and beautifully bilingual.

If one wishes to evolve as an artist it is necessary to see the creative process through to its deepest areas, which may be at least uncomfortable and possibly downright treacherous. It becomes necessary to become critical of one’s work in as objective a manner as possible and to develop a thick enough skin to allow one’s work to be seen by an audience beyond one’s friends, family and locale. At every stage of growth the same decisions need to be made, but the risks and sacrifices become greater as ever more of one’s life has been invested in the endeavor. As the work ventures out into more and farther reaches, the critical voices may be less unconditionally accepting and less kind. The larger the audience one seeks for one’s work, the longer back into history is the pool of works by other artists against which one’s own is assessed and among which it attempts to coexist.

Many years ago I was briefly staying at the studio of an older artist friend of a friend in New York. I showed him slides of recent work, had just had a successful solo show and was generally feeling hopeful and optimistic about continuing to be involved in artmaking. He challenged me to think about why I wanted to be an artist. He said, “There are already too many artists in the world as it is who can’t “make it” and are struggling to support themselves and trying to believe in what they do. If you are just doing this in order to try to make your life more interesting, or because you might get to hang out with interesting people, forget it. You have to commit to it. And, if you’re really serious, what are you doing in New Mexico? You should be out here, really doing it.”

I was crushed, of course, and thought he was being overly opinionated and somewhat insulting, but after many years I am starting to understand what he meant and actually agree with him, as impossible moving to New York would have been for me at any point in time. Now, after having paid a great deal of dues, and being more committed than ever, I am still holding my own feet close to the proverbial fire. I realize how much more complex everything about art has become for me as my own level of awareness and experience has matured,  informed by its dialogue with my life–even if I continue to choose to live off the beaten path.

…(addressing my large project The Anatomy of Solitude) … just having recovered from completing this long, complex and physically and emotionally draining endeavor, my feeling was one of celebration of the group work and the contributions of the many people who became involved with it.  …It would require another paper to write about the project, the amount and level of creativity, courage and discipline that it required, and the manner in which it drew upon every skill and lesson learned from every previous work I have ever done. It would be necessary to distinguish between the work I do for myself in my studio, alone, and the work I do as a channel for other purposes…Having been working at my craft, having accepted my vocation many years ago, I am involved in all the concerns I have discussed so far. Projects such as The Anatomy of Solitude or Drawing Shelter, (an artist’s book and exhibition project with the homeless), are examples of a personal content complications I have included in my endeavors.

Now, not only am I concerned with producing, with the quality of what I do and mindfulness with which I do it, I am also concerned that my spiritual beliefs and societal concerns factor into the mix. As an artist-person, how can I earn my right to exist on this planet? How can I balance the sublime-time in the studio with a contribution to greater causes overall? As an artist-person, what can I do to help generate and move positive karma in some way in the world, however small? How can what I do bypass the consumer-oriented system of the art world and speak to larger concepts than home and museum decoration? 

These questions are added to my version of the big picture, held in tandem with the necessity to make a living by other means than artmaking. I have succeeded at levels that are no longer important to me, so now it is necessary to begin again—and again, probably for the rest of my life. One is always either on the path or not. Since the act of creation requires starting from where the artist last left off, there will always be improving, delving deeper, committing more, enlarging the vision—that, or turning away entirely to delve whole-heartedly into full attention to the Art of Life instead.

…These are the questions I ask myself as I continue to observe my involvement:

* Why make (what you determine to be) art?

* Who do you make it for?

* Who responds to it?

* Where do you fit in the history of contemporary art?

* In that place, what is the relative value and quality of what you do?

* Is it worth the life investment required to continue?

* Will it still be as or more important to you 10 years from now? 50?

* Will it be important to anyone next year? 10 years from now? 50? 100?

* Do any of these questions really matter?

©2022 All Rights Reserved. Janet Maher, Trusting the Process: Getting There From Here, located on the website: CirclegardenStudio.com. Copies of this may be shared as long as there is no charge for them or changes made, the author is fully credited and this full copyright is included.