Saturday, February 16, 2008

The Calling

My most recent entry mused about that call an artist hears and has to answer; why this of course becomes the artist's calling.  When I was a boy living in Rome, walking home down Via Margutta, I would turn into #48 and all was right with the world. It was the most beautiful and enchanting sight. I know people experience this, they turn into their driveway, come around a bend in the river, fly over a piece of mountain, and their heart lifts because they are home. This was my favorite home growing up. It wasn't about feeling safe or being back in my own space. Via Margutta was beautiful, and as a ten year old I felt it intensely. It is more responsible for me being an artist than almost anything else, and it is especially responsible for the artist and person I am.

I've joked about how Richard Tuttle gave me grief as a young man for my blind devotion to beauty, about how else could he have thought otherwise considering he grew up in New Jersey. Not fair, of course, because beauty is everywhere, but there is something about certain kinds of beauty that day in and day out cause you to wonder, to be enchanted. Some people are not easily enchanted, and they are proud of this, who knows why. They like to say that they are not easily impressed and they take comfort in some sort of sense of superiority that this gives them; they are picky. You have to feel for the picky ones, perhaps a question of imagination, or the law of attraction.

#48 was a simple doorway compared to #51 where they shot Roman Holiday ten years before, (one scene right under our window as a matter of fact); but everyone agreed #48 was a vision when you looked inside. Stone steps led up a long stairway framed by dusty carmen pink walls, plants, flowers, and vines and sculpture to an archway which supported the stairs to our apartment on the top floor. Through the archway one could see the tops of the pines of the Pincio, and the sky. It was as magical as a dream. Our apartment had three floors and a terrace on the roof that looked out over every hill and dome of the golden city, the top of the Spanish Steps to one side, the twin cupolas of the Piazza del Popolo on the other, etc., etc., etc.

That doorway is always with me. It is part of what art is to me, and what calls me. Of course anytime we talk about art, it is always from where we are standing, like looking at a building or a flower, we can describe what we see from that perspective at that moment. The rest is from memory. Memories of doorways.

One of the strangest questions I am sometimes asked is how long does it take to make a painting. As long as it takes, of course. We're not talking about boiling an egg after all. But the questions persist. How do you know when a painting is finished? Now that is an interesting question, because of course even the artist wants to know that one. The answer might be the same as for the first: that it depends.

It depends on what the artist is up to. You could say that a painting is finished when it purrs. Like a car when you start its engine. When a painting is somehow complete it will purr and you will hear it purr, that's how you'll know. But that is not enough for some artists. Purring is just the beginning for them. 

As a parent you bring a child into this world and at first you are thrilled that they are alive and well. It's huge, but it is just the beginning of course. Soon you have help them to eat and stand and walk and swim and catch a ball and read and so on and so on. Maybe it ends, maybe it doesn't. But when you've achieved one of these milestones at a child's side, because surely you share in their triumph, you think for a split second, well, I've done my job, there...but it passes quickly and you are on to the next challenge so fast you can barely catch your breath. It keeps you going, it keeps you climbing to the next level. 

Painting is the same. Maybe a painting seems finished because you have brought it to life. Maybe you want that painting to just be happy. Maybe you want that painting to go far. Maybe you want that painting to make you proud. These differences will factor into how long a painting takes and when it is done. Parents are different and so are painters. Some are cats and let their babies fend for themselves; other breeds never let their offspring leave home.

Where I fit in between these two is a concern. Recently an art dealer who wants to help me, and I've definitely alienated a few of them along this line, suggested I let her rent my paintings to companies that need something on their walls. She chided me for mourning a painting I had just sold. She asked me if I was nuts. They are not your children, she said. Here was my reply:

I'm sorry this is so hard for you to get about me. Imagine if you were a painter, and everyday that you painted you were surrounded by the family you loved, that each painting was painted in their presence, and was fed by your life with them, well, that would be me. I am not a greenhouse painter. I am not a corporate painter. I don't go to a studio, like an office, and punch the clock. I paint where I live and I live where I paint. If this is nuts, then I am nutty. I can't imagine doing it any other way if I can help it, and I feel very fortunate to be able to do this. Maybe a dozen years from now when they are all grown up and I am not so fortunate, maybe I'll be there, but I don't think so. There is nothing in this other thing; this painting like a businessman. I grew up in Europe and was influenced by a non-commercial art world. I remember how my European friends used to complain to me when I lived in New York. How commercial the art world was. I ignored both. 

My paintings mean something to me,J. I wouldn't do them if they didn't. I'm not knocking them out, especially these days. Each one is a place on a journey I try to make count every second. I put learning very high on my list. Learning and growing. Each painting is as much about where I'm going as where I am, and where I've been, but MOST of all, they are about where I am at that very second, which is why they are always changing. If they don't change, then I need to be afraid. It means I'm not learning or growing. It means I'm not alive. It means I'm not paying attention, to the world or myself. Maybe this will help. I spend a lot more time with each painting these days because I can. Not so much about time spent working, as time spent paying attention. I'm really happy about that.

No word. I've never made any secret of the fact that I'm sentimental. A good thing in my mind despite how it plays out in the world. I'm sentimental up front and no one has to like that.  It is who I am, as a person and a painter. Doesn't make for good corporate art, and I wouldn't have it any other way. I'm still in that stairway in Rome, and my paintings are finished when they take me to the top.

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