Some Things that Being an Artist has Taught Me About Living in and Changing the World: random installment 1

These notes are not about what art teaches; only what I have learned from my practice of it. This is an ongoing list that I will continue to post in installments at random times.

1) Ways of seeing. I work both in color and in black and white. These are different ways to describe reality. Each speaks to a different aspect. Black and white reveals a universe divided into bright light and deep shadow. It exposes the bony structures of the world. A bright line can show things that cannot be seen otherwise, it also creates deep shadows that hide what would otherwise be visible. When you soften the light, the grays appear, revealing that dark and light, parts of a continuum, can morph into each other by imperceptible degrees; that you and I, whatever our conflict, are only a progression of shade points from each other.

Color tells of a world of multi-directional change; a community in which each component vibrates to wavelengths that resonate to each other with seeming randomness. The tomato shares its redness with the fox, its brownness with the earth and its green with the grassy hills. The droplets on its surface reflect a blue sky. All of shifts and transforms as the sun goes down; colors trade places and drain into a shared blue darkness.

The either/or binary thinking that so dominates our culture is not harmful in itself. It is a useful lens for discovering certain kinds of patterns in our surroundings. It becomes toxic when it is confused with being the structure of the universe instead of a particular way of studying it under certain lighting conditions.

2) An anatomy of feeling. When I am drawing a person’s face there comes a point everything is seemingly in place complete – the proportions are right, the shadows where they should be – but something isn’t right. It has no life. I scrape away a little shadow at the corner of an eye. No, that made it worse so I ink it back in. Now I darken below the other eye and at the edge of your mouth. That doesn’t do it. Then I slightly change the highlight at the rim of an eye and the entire picture leaps into focus. It is as though the subject’s spirit has finally accepted my invitation to land on the page.

The muscles around the eyes and mouth contain the story of our emotions. It is a unique of trauma and relief, connection and loneliness, explosive hope and crushing disappointment. I have been subtly adjusting those muscles with my tools, looking for that story. I don’t know either the story or the anatomy; in fact we each combine them in different ways. But I can capture them.

I think that’s what lets me sense the gap between what is said and what is felt; the ambivalence hidden in the bravado or the certainty wrapped in a veneer of insecurity. I think that my artist antennae are picking up that tightness in the lip or the sadness concealed in the shadow of an eyelash.

When I face opponents in the field of struggle I cannot hide from the complex contradiction of who they are, the injured child inside the anger, the shame deeply embedded in the scorn.

3) Choice of story. The artist chooses where to attract the eye. A painting of a forest can be about birds, about chaos, about harmony, about fierce survival. The width of a line or the intensity of a color can bring a detail to the fore or nudge it into the background. A richness of detail can obscure the underlying structure of the scene or become a pattern within it.

The choice of how to present a story can determine the success of any effort. African anti-colonial activists in the 1960s decided that colonial injustice was the story of their struggle so everything they did had to tell that story. Each time they attacked a Portuguese military base they would send a letter to the Portuguese community expressing regrets for the loss of life and explaining their struggle. The dictatorship in Lisbon could not distract or confuse that story and disintegrated. Those movements of that era that framed their struggles in racial or religious terms are still unresolved or were settled in ways that did not deal with the underlying grievances. Story is the heart of struggle.

4) Perspective. The word “perspective” describes the depth of knowledge you gain by seeing things from more than one location at once. Having two eyes, just a few inches from each other, provides me with invaluable information about distance and motion. The diversity of experience in a community provides it with perspectives that would be out of reach to people who share the same assumptions. Art tells us that the world seen through other eyes reveals different truths. That is why dictatorships view it with such suspicion. The military regimes that took power in Latin America in the 1970 outlawed the playing of indigenous musical instruments. They had no tolerance for the destabilizing activity that can grow from unsanctioned perspectives. The Tucson Unified School District knows what I’m talking about.

5) Art and possibility. Our imagination about what is possible is compiled from our experiences and from stories. The US government suppressed news of Black Seminole units defeating government forces because such news would reveal to those still enslaved that Whites could be beaten by Blacks. When the dominant art form is advertising, we internalize its story that we are fundamentally flawed and must purchase our way to adequacy. When we hear stories of defiant courage, we prepare our imagined selves to be defiant and courageous. When we are abused, the example of those who resisted or escaped abuse can light the way.

The South African Apartheid regime censored all published and imported stories: books, songs, news. Television was prohibited completely lest people see places where the races interacted. In their fascist paranoia they banned the book “Black Beauty” because placing the two words together could give people dangerous ideas. They were right, of course.

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