Monday, April 16, 2007

Monday with McKenna: Inside the Artist's Brain

Monday with McKenna today features a trip inside the mind of an artist, but first let's take a tour of the brain of neocon ignorance. The graphic here is the front page of this town's leading tabloid, a Rupert Murdoch property that lives to offend. And what can be more offensive than this cover insult to a man who's in the hospital, and was still listed in critical condition at the time this moronic Photoshop smut was created? And if Mr. Corzine was a good Bush Republican, do you think we'd have seen this? I think this crap makes Imus look like a choir boy by comparison. Kicking a man when he's down is one thing; kicking him when half the bones in his body have been broken and he's breathing through a's journalistic dementia.

And while I have you thinking about sick, psychotic institutions, check this out: the U.S. Army now has an insurance claims department. They examine claims arising from our military's incidental murders of innocent Iraqi civilians, and pay or deny based on the most randomly corrupt judgment imaginable. Read some of the examples from Greg Mitchell's column at E&P, and see whether your blood pressure hasn't gone up by a factor of two by the time you're done. Incidentally, it was the ACLU that got these files on military killings of civilians; so purchasing a membership would not be a waste of $35, if you ask me.

So this isn't just a troop surge, ladies and gentlemen; it's a bureaucracy surge. But according to Clueless from Crawford, the Dems are "handing victory to our enemies" because they refuse to fund this shit without a timeline for ending it all. Click the graphic for Stewart's roundup, which includes the "airing of the platitudes."

Ah, god, if there's anybody from Norway reading this: how's the job market there, and could I get a green card? Will it help me if I tell you that my kid's playing Grieg on the piano these days?

Never mind, let's all just escape from it for a few minutes, to go inside the mind of my artist co-blogger. So while I go onto my ISP's servers and delete a few thousand emails (for more on that, join us on Geek Wednesday), here's Monday with McKenna...

Wolfgang's Vault - Exclusive Beatles Memorabilia

Where does artistic inspiration come from? And I don’t mean this to be an abstract question. If we are to discover the poetry within ourselves, we’ll need to know how to muster the force of artistic inspiration.

This week I’ll review inspiration from the initial flicker to the finished work of art. In my example, I’ll use inspiration from this past week. The finished work is also mine, though from a long time ago. And by the way, if I haven’t made it clear in past essays, I am a trained fine artist; so, while I earn my living in business, I still paint from time to time.

Artistic inspiration varies a little bit with the specific art involved. The same flicker may tickle the painter or poet, and both may pick up a notebook to memorialize their ideas, but then their courses diverge. The visual artist works with line and tone. If words are included at all, they supplement a sketch. On the other hand, the poet works exclusively with words. And we include a musician, who would compose by setting down notes on a staff.

This week, my inspiration came from the return of Spring. And despite our being solidly into April, Spring did not seem all that present for those of us in the New York City area. Our weather was cold and blustery, and as of this writing, we await a Nor’easter and possibly snow. Still, it was Spring that aroused me from my drowsy train ride home. My daily commute starts in dank Penn Station; we spend the first 10 minutes in a dark tunnel. After we emerge into the light, we pass through the dreary salt marsh known as the Jersey Meadows. Newark is our first city. As we move past, the towns get progressively smaller, the lawns get larger and the people whiter. My ride ends more than an hour later in suburban Morris County.

On a typical day, I read and slumber. Last Tuesday, I suddenly noticed a flicker of bright colors and movement. In the middle distance, on a playing field, a group of girls were arrayed in a circle practicing wheeling motions with their arms. They were led by an adult (their coach?) stationed in the center. I guessed they were junior high school girls, and were practicing cheerleading.

As I said, I was dozing, but the late-afternoon raking sunlight and the bright colors on the girls clothes sparked my interest, so I opened up my notebook and scrawled the following scribble.

The scene vanished before I finished. On the same ride home, I made a few more sketches for later use. But as far as getting a second shot at drawing the scene again, I was never able to. I had my pad and pencil at the ready the rest of the week, but the girls and their teacher never reappeared. Still, I had my inspiration.

But how do I turn a brief notion into a finished painting?

In the days of the “academy,” artists went to great lengths to reassemble a scene. They would dress models in the correct garb, and sometimes recreate an entire battlefield or similar large scale backdrop. Contemporary artists by and large shun such practices. For myself, I will make lots of preparatory sketches, but that’s as far as I go.

Then it’s on to the grunt work of artistic composition. And as much as the several arts differ each from the other, there remain lots of similarities. Painters cover their canvas once and then re-paint again and again. So too, writers make a first draft and rewrite obsessively. From what I’ve heard, Ernest Hemingway’s first drafts were remarkably pedestrian. Each draft tries to push closer to the original spark. Countless re-paintings or redrafts eventually reach a conclusion (or a stalemate, when a work is abandoned). The key is to be unafraid to destroy (tear up – paint over) your previous hard work, even if a particular passage seems a great success. Finish occurs when the work clicks.

Works that fail may be picked up again after months or years.

And that’s it. An obsessive process of rewriting or repainting until the work is done.

So… how do you keep reaction fresh when you’ve had a work of art in front of you for months?

For painters, we can re-assess several times a day. After each break, your return to the studio gives you a brief moment for a fresh reaction. But for writers of novels, re-engagement comes slowly. Nonetheless, the artistic quest remains the same: did I get what I was after? If not, keep trying.

The what you are after is much less solid matter. Unvoiced, the artist tries to keep it alive in mind’s eye while continuing to prune and refine. But the specific “what” is never explicitly stated. Eventually, a work is finished. Even then, you may give yourself a time off, and one more look. Did you get what you wanted? If yes, then you are done.

So… what about my finished work. This one was finished some 34 Springs ago after a month of daily painting. I no longer have my original studies, but I can remember what I saw and what I was after. It was late March, and I was home from art school (I was sick for about eight days… a rare experience for me). I passed a local park and watched two boys take turns with a basketball. I can’t say what it was about the scene inspired me, and the work changed a lot as I painted. After a month of painting, I stopped with the following entitled the Rites of Spring.

By the way, if you pay for Showtime, you ought to watch the new series: This American Life. In an episode entitled ‘God’s Close-Up’ a young Mormon painter is shown selecting his models, posing them in an elaborate crucifixion scene, and photographing the scene to use are reference for a finished work. The links won’t allow you to see all that much, but if you have access to Showtime, watch this interesting episode. The art itself is relentlessly pedestrian. And no, I don’t know the artists name, nor do I have a link for him.

—T. McKenna

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