I’ve been reading a book called Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland, and one particularly salient point I found (among many) was this:
“Your reach as a viewer is vastly greater than your reach as a maker. The art you can experience may have originated a thousand miles away or a thousand years ago, but the art you can make is irrevocably bound to the times and places of your life.”
Which also reminded me of a conversation I had with one of my painting professors, where he essentially said that “you have to live in your own time. You can’t be Monet.”
This is incredibly valuable advice. It’s normal to be a student or developing artist and to have artistic heroes- people who you look to and just think, “wow, if I could paint like that…” The problem comes when you essentially try to replicate work from a certain artist or era with the intent that it all but pass for one of those works. There are plenty of painters out there, for instance, who fancy themselves to be Monet-esque impressionists. But their work, being produced in the present and therefore divorced from the context that the original impressionists painted in, just looks like a cheap imitation- and that’s because it is.
The Impressionist’s work was highly innovative in their time because from their cultural context, they were solving a problem and presenting something new to the world. They actually took incredible creative risks in doing so. People today who try to imitate these artists (or artists from any other historical period,) however, are merely piggybacking off of their innovation and banking on the nostalgic feelings that some retain for the group. As Bayles and Orland go on to say, “There’s a difference between meaning that is embodied and meaning that is referenced.”
Admiring artists from the past is completely natural, and a great way to see different approaches to solving formal or even thematic issues. And I know and understand the whole Joseph Campbell, “nothing is truly original” thing and all that. But taking bits from the past and mixing them with your own personal point of view and painting style derived from the actual, present world around you is much more worthwhile and brave than just chasing after the ghost of Monet.
Being an artist who spends many hours alone working in the studio, sometimes I want to fill the silence that accompanies, but I don’t really want to jam to some tunes. Listening to podcasts, I’ve found, fixes this. They’re long, not usually super sturctured, and you can usually fade in and out of listening to them while working. Podcasts also just often end up creating a really interesting vibe to work under.
Janet Varney’s JV Club podcast is amazing. You may know Janet from FX’s You’re the Worst, or as the voice of Korra in Legend of Korra, or just from many things on Nerdist.com (which JV Club is hosted by.) She has a fabulous radio voice, for one, and she interviews many great comedians and actors about their awkward teenage years. And every episode ends with a game of M.A.S.H. Awesome. Listening to really funny, talented, successful people parse through their teenage fumbles and embarrassments is, of course, an entertaining and affirming experience.
Another podcast I’ve been listening to a lot lately is comedian Paul Gilmartin’s The Mental Illness Happy Hour. I’m lucky enough not to seriously struggle with any mental illnesses, but the podcast is great in that the guests own struggles end up being incredibly relatable even if you’re not a sufferer of their particular illness or have personally experienced their trauma. As the homepage says and the entire podcast affirms, “you are not alone.” It’s like an unofficial, often hilarious, sometimes deeply sad, therapy session for both the guest and listener. I’ve definitely been listening only to later be brought to tears at my canvas. The episode with Ashly Burch is particularly gut-wrenching.
Podcasts are kind of an odd thing. They’re sort of old-fashioned, in a way. They’re so low-tech. We have thousands of HD movie channels at our fingertips, access to millions of artists on spotify, and yet, a lot of people just want to sit down and listen to an audio recording of some people having a conversation. That’s pretty cool. And I totally get it. That stripped-down format allows you to really learn about the participants in a way that feels more intimate than even a televised interview. I can’t get enough!
Ah, Kiki’s Delivery Service. Along with My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki is certainly my favorite childhood movie. I remember seeing a commercial for it either on TV or on a VHS (remember those?) and immediately demanding that we go out and rent it from the video store (remember those?!) My parents would let my sister and I take turns choosing a movie, and every time (to my sister’s annoyance) I chose Kiki– until, of course, my parents just bought me the VHS for my birthday since they’d already paid the cost of the movie many times over in rental fees by then.
So, naturally I own the Art of Kiki’s Delivery Service book from Viz. It’s filled with beautiful concept work, sketches, and commentary from director Hayao Miyazaki and others on the development of the film.
I totally recognized the above painting from its fully realized use in the film:
There are also some interesting early explorations of Kiki’s appearance:
This drawing was one of my faves:
Looking back, I can see why Kiki intrigued me so much. The fully realized female characters (including the protagonist,) the story of being on one’s own for the first time and finding one’s independence, and the fact that the whole “teen witch” thing is really just a metaphor for being an artist. Kiki has a seemingly innate talent for flying on her broomstick, but gets into a funk and loses her ability. She confides in her artist friend Ursula, and realizes that she needs to find “her own inspiration” to fly. Of course, she eventually finds this inspiration and gets her “powers” back in the end through self-discovery and an act of bravery. I think it’s great that a “kids” movie explored something so complex. And it’s no surprise, being an artist myself now, that I was drawn to such a story!
Ah, the oft derided “selfie.” Those crazy kids these days with their shallow documentation of their own appearances! No one remembers that the (much longer!) process of immortalizing ones appearance in art is a longstanding, and respected, tradition!
Probably anyone who’s ever pursued art in some capacity has (maybe begrudgingly) had to face (get it?!) the challenge of depicting their own likeness from a mirror. Whenever I was given such an assignment, I seem to remember most of my classmates moaning and groaning while I was at least mildly excited. It just always seemed to me like such a cool, “artist” thing to do, to sit down and paint your own portrait.
Artist self-portraits are also great because you’re basically seeing the face, more or less, that you make when working.
Self portrait by Megan Koth, Oil on Canvas, 18×24″, 2014.
Apparently, I look pretty stern while working!
However, I understand how it can be scary. The portrait assignment is kind of the perfect challenge for students because it’s a great way of getting them to paint something from life that they actually feel personally invested in. It’s hard to get invested in getting a crumpled paper bag or some random kitchen utensils right (we had some pretty terrible still life setups,) but their own face? Now that’s something a student isn’t likely to want to mess up. There’s also a unique personal intimacy that comes with painting a great self-portrait. I mean, you have to look at your own appearance at a level you never had before- noticing every detail, including every “flaw.” I can see how the latter would make some uncomfortable, and that probably explains a lot of students lack of enthusiasm for the assignment. But I’ve found over the years that painting myself has made me more accepting of the “flaws.” In that way, the self-portrait can end up being much more than just an assignment, but a process of self-discovery and acceptance. Or, if you’re not an artist and just wanna take a picture of yourself because you look fly as hell today, you can do that too.
Hilarious top “Mona Lisa” image courtesy of Sangerous on Imgur
The felting continues. Because I’m the best sister in the world (and because I had leftover felt from Fibers 1) I made my sister this adorable felted Totoro for Christmas:
If you don’t know what a totoro is, then I feel really sorry for you and your laughably inferior childhood. Hayao Miyazaki’s film My Neighbor Totoro is basically the cutest movie ever made. A staple of many childhood film viewings.
Despite the cuteness, the movie is really about the relationship between two sisters, about the same age difference as my sister and I, who are struggling to deal with their mother’s illness and hospitalization. It’s a coming of age story, but with cuteness.
A totoro is actually a great project to start with, as the form is pretty simple and round. And all that you need to make one is a needle-felter and some soft felt, also sometimes called wool roving. You can buy bags of it at Joann’s or pretty much any craft store.
This is the needle-felter that I use- it’s not the best (the needles are really brittle). But what differentiates a needle felter from say, a cheap plastic tube with plain ol needles stuck in, is the fact that its needles are serrated. So, the little grooves in the needle grab at the wool fibers to felt them together into whatever shape you want 9and in turn makes the form more dense.) Basically, the needle felting process is just stabbing a ball of roving over and over again to gradually build up form.
Currently, I’m starting to make a hamster, specifically a roborovski dwarf hamster. If you’re a connoisseur of cute like me, you’ll know that roborovski dwarf hamsters are just about the cutest thing in existence. I’ve already hammered out a basic shape to start with:
Wish me luck! I’ll be sure to post the finished product!
Last semester I took a Fibers 1 class, and I’m so happy that I did. It was there that I learned how to felt, and boy is it fun- and versatile! You can make pretty much anything out of the stuff. And what did I choose to make? Why, a Warrior Princess breastplate, as seen in the always awesomely campy Xena: Warrior Princess.
Making something that is supposed to be strong, smooth, and durable out of felt was an interesting exercise. It kind of reminded me of Meret Oppenheim’s Breakfast In Fur, in that sense; something unexpected made soft. I’m sure I could say something really deep about making armor out of fuzzy felt, but nah. I was just excited to make something really fun for my final project. Needle felting the “metal” pattern was especially fun.
The assignment was to create something that could cover a body part as part of an alter ego. As a kid, I saw an episode of Xena Warrior Princess and thought Lucy Lawless was just about the most bad-ass person I’d ever seen. And she was a girl! like me! And she actually looked like she could kick some ass. She wasn’t some waif that we had to be convinced was dangerous by heavy doses of suspension of disbelief (I’m looking at you, River Tam.)
So, naturally, I chose Xena as my alter ego, because well, in reality I’m more on the waify side. But I’m a busty, bad-ass warrior woman inside! I’m sure if I was really nerdy, I could totally LARP in this. But LARPing has always seemed to me to be a level of nerd that I’m just not willing to go. You have to be pretty damn secure in your nerdiness to shout LIGHTNING BOLT BLIGHTING BOLT in earnest.
Oh well, I guess I have a Halloween costume! I’ll leave you with Xena’s iconic warcry: