I lift the title of this blog entry straight from the title of a book I happen to be poring over at the moment. I've never tried to read this book cover to cover, it doesn't lend itself to that approach very well. The book is titled, as you can glean from this intro, "The Art Spirit" by american painter and teacher Robert Henri (1865-1929)
The book is a collection of writings, notes, notes from students, all bringing together practical advice, philosophy, and inspirational material culled from Henri's teachings. He not only taught the nuts and bolts of painting, but he sought to cultivate a very accesible attitude applicable to any creative work, as well as towards an appreciation of art and the "art spirit" which any dedicated and caring tradesman can bring to their craft.
What has this book meant to me lately? I've owned it for many years, appreciated a passage here and there, but, sadly, usually during a fallow time, creatively speaking. At the moment I am enjoying a welcome spell of artistic clarity of purpose and productivity. Everything I get from the book is immediately applicable to the body of work which engages me at the moment. Not only that, but, as is often the case when engaging in a deeply satisfying and enriching experience, there are resonances in life away from the canvas. It's these positive side effects I find interesting at the moment.
In a nutshell, the overriding principle at play here is learning to trust your instincts. The way to do that is to be fully engaged in what you are doing, immersed as fully as possible, so that what your instincts compel you to do is not a formulaic response, but a considered reaction to whatever matter is before you.
When beginning a new piece of artwork I rarely have a fully realized internal vision that simply needs to be translated into actuality. A lot of it just gets made up as I go along. Issues arrive however, when, for lack of a certain kind of creative courage, coupled with the desire not to "mess something up," I start drawing on a predictable bag of tricks, rehashing a past successful bit of formula.
I wish I could successfully impress on you the sinking feeling of literally painting yourself into a corner, of landing in a sticky trap of your own creation, of taking the supposed safe route to success and finding yourself surrounded on all sides by generic ideas and half-assed solutions. What do you do at that point? See it through to the bittersweet end, creating a monument to hours and hours spent doing something that fails to satisfy? I would imagine everyone at some point in their lives has realized they've spent a lot of time on something they ultimately had to walk away from, as it did not bring the satisfaction needed or fulfill the promise we imagined it would.
So I turn again to the title of this entry. The Art Spirit. Let me define that for the moment to mean applying the intuitive creative forces to the business of going about one's business. I set out on the professional leg of my career with no plan. After years of missteps, mistakes, and mismanagement, and little creative career satisfaction to show for it, it would be easy to surmise having some kind of plan in place would have helped immensely. But what of an individual that sets out with a good plan, follows it to the letter, and still ends up in the wrong place, lacking satisfaction and fulfillment?
The commonality that could apply to both these cases is possibly a lack of flexibility in recognizing an opportunity, either by being too focused on one particular course, or not engaged in the process enough to see where the effort needs to be applied. The same issues can easily crop up during the painting process: too many preconceived notions, not enough will to recognize a fault and invent a solution. Result? At best a passable but uninspired piece, at worst an ill-considered mess.
Painting, Life. Life, Painting. The same creative principles could be said to apply to both. I spent years disengaged from both my artwork and many facets of my life. They are both getting sorely deserved attention right now, simultaneously. I am convinced that this is not a coincidence. What a difference it makes when giving your best effort doesn't feel like effort. It feels like living.