“Painting to me is not a metaphor for writing, but something people do that can never be reduced to words.”—A. S. Byatt
People seem to be intrigued by artists. They like to watch artists work, fascinated by the way they seemingly turn nothing into something, elevating the imagination, doing the impossible. And they want to know what goes on in their heads as well.
Lately I have been more conscious of how much time I spend making art, and also how much time I spend thinking about art, about what goes on in my head. Unless I deliberately distract myself with things like eating, cleaning house, watching tv…, I am pretty much thinking about art, and even then, I am pretty much thinking about art.
As the novelist A.S. Byatt says, “I think there are a lot more important things than art in the world. But not to me.“
This has not always been the case. Until a couple of years ago, I had a full-time job and only pursued art in my free time. Then one day I realized I was paying a great price and that my time was not free. So I quit my job and devoted myself to myself. I know this sounds selfish and self absorbed. And it was. It is. But in many ways, this attention to self has nurtured in me a desire to move more and more outside myself.
Art, after all, is communication. While I live a rather self-contained life, I am not sure how it would impact my art if I never showed it to anyone. I like to think that my dedication to making art transcends the need for affirmation, that I can keep my narcissism in check.
As a full time artist, I admittedly feel the pressure to sell my art, to make money to support my ‘maker’s” habit. This can lead to obsessive networking and manic marketing.
Add into this complicated mix the fact that artists sometimes become stymied, stagnated, or just stuck. I personally refer to this state as having forgotten how to paint, because that’s what it feels like. And it can descend upon me suddenly and ferociously!
So it is the contemplation of these elements--my response to a voyeuristic public, my obsessive thinking about art, my consideration of time and money, and my inability to control my ability—that recently provoked me to push myself to try something more difficult just for the sake of trying something more difficult. And then I fell back on marketing and networking as tools to help distance myself from the project and force myself to move onto the next one…
For a couple of years I have been working on a series of mixed media pieces that I call “I Just Don’t Read Like I Used To” in which I cut books into strips of text, collage them to canvas and apply a wash of paint to add color and detail. The series consists primarily of portraits, mostly the faces of characters and authors. And since I am the one who came up with the idea, I am the one who made the rules and who changes the rules when I get bored. My latest, and most ambitious, entry into this series is cut from three volumes of the novel Possession by A.S. Byatt. The image comes from the cover of the book and is a depiction of the wizard Merlin who is beguiled by Nimue, the Lady of the Lake. I chose this image for several reasons. I am drawn to the idea that we consider fictional characters in the same way we think of real people. And I have become increasingly lured by meta-fiction, which is defined as a literary device used to self-consciously and systematically draw attention to a work’s status as an artifact, posing questions about the relationship between fiction and reality, often using irony and self-reflection.
Meta-fiction references or comments upon its self. And I have come to think of my art more and more along these same lines. There is no doubt that my approach to art is self-conscious and systematic, that my product is often ironic and self-reflective.
Byatt says, “The point of painting is not really deception or imitation.” Then what is the point? For me it is contemplation. By making myself look intensely and sincerely at something, I am able to look with a similar intensity at everything else in my life.
I have spent the past month in an intimate relationship with Byatt’s language, and now I will distance myself from my own artistic response to it, moving on to the next contemplation.
Cheryl Hicks is a writer and an artist. She is happiest when she can combine the two pursuits.