Saturday, June 06, 2009

A Report from the Phantom Zone

I don’t know a single artist who if you ask them why they make art will say that their primary goal is for people to say nice things about them and their work. Artists, of course, have a wide range of motivations for making work that usually change from day to day and project to project. Some typical motivations for making art that I have heard recently include self-expression, need to make political commentary, desire to contribute to culture, etc. As we all learned when we were children, the reasons for making art are virtually endless and are entirely based on the individual. Regardless of motivation, it appears that art making is a relatively safe venture and the worst thing that can happen is that someone might say something mean spirited about a piece or perhaps even write a nasty article that misrepresents the work or artist. Strangely though, I have noticed that many artists become disproportionately caught up in what other people say about them or their practice. One bad review or spiteful comment and an artist’s practice can be severely derailed, even though exterior validation was never a primary goal for making work in the first place. Well, things have been placed in perspective for me recently as two of my close friends have become sick from making art. Suddenly, caring if someone else makes an offhanded or malicious comment about a piece of art seems ridiculous. One of my friends may die and that’s not a joke.

I’m sure all artists have heard anecdotal stories about artists who have been injured while making art, like Karl Zerbe. Zerbe was an artist in the 1940’s who fled the Nazi’s, had his work destroyed as “degenerative” art, became the head of the Department of Painting at the SMFA, but then had to stop painting because the toxic fumes from his encaustic paintings were killing him. I also know many photographers who have developed severe reactions to darkroom chemistry and can no longer be around the chemistry, but I don’t know anyone who has died. It was shocking to me that one of my friends has developed cancer from paint fumes and another is permanently injured. One of my friends, artist Michael David, is bravely open about how toxic gases released while he was painting have destroyed 70% of the nerves in his feet and 30% of the nerves in his right hand. Painting nearly killed him. Do you think he cares what someone says about him or his work any more?

My other friend who has just had surgery to remove the cancer caused by paint fumes would prefer to remain anonymous, but not because she is afraid of what people will think. In fact, she has entered a phase of art making that I believe most artists would be jealous of. She truly does not care what other people think about her or her work. She continues to make artwork because it adds meaning to her own life and part of that meaning is allowing other people to share in her life by displaying the work. If someone else likes it or doesn’t like it, she doesn’t care. It’s not for them; it’s for her.

She is in the place where I want to be when I make work. Whether it’s artwork or writing or anything else in my life, I want to be in a place where people are welcome to say whatever they want because I don’t care. From now on, every time I make something that I allow other people to participate in, I will think of my friend and her unbelievably positive and wholly freeing attitude of not caring what anyone else thinks. Well, I guess that’s not quite true. I wrote this article in particular because I know my friend with cancer will read it and I hope she’ll know that I have nothing but love, respect and support for her. Anyone else can comment whatever they want about me, my writing, my artwork, whatever. Believe me, I don’t care. A snide comment is not the worst thing that can happen.

Michael David, “Atlantic”, 2001-2002, Oil and wax on wood, 30”x26”
Michael David’s work is available through Lowe Gallery

Karl Zerbe, “Portrait of the Artist’s Wife”, 1945, Encaustic on Canvas, 47”x36”
Karl Zerbe’s work is available at Mercury Galllery

There is an article on how to safely use encaustics here.


At 12:21 PM, Blogger Ani Rolen said...

Nice post, but Karl Zerbe did not stop painting. He DID stop using encaustics as his main medium, though he did use them later in his life once again. In 1949, he ended his preoccupation with encaustic; the last painting of the decade was Job, which depicts his anguish in regard to his encaustic-caused illness. After this, he started using acrylics and other plastic-based (fast drying, which was important to him) mediums.


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