Personal Art History — Suffering for Art

The first time I heard the word “patina” was in a high school art class. We’d just done clay sculptures and fired them. The next step was to paint them, but we didn’t call it painting them. We called it putting on a patina. The goal was to make the clay look like bronze.

My teacher did not like me or my work and made no bones about it. He often asked me what I was doing in the art room since I had no talent and I just bothered people.

I don’t know what he saw when he saw me. I don’t know what my behavior was like, but probably very obnoxious. No idea. I wanted attention from my teacher, but all I got was negative attention. “You have no talent,” he said. “I don’t know why you hang around here.”

We had open scheduling so we could just GO to the art room at any time there was no class in session. I did that, but I also went to class. I had a lot of projects in my mind. I did all the assignments — but probably NOT like he wanted me to. He was very, very nurturing and helpful to those he believed had talent, but he hated my work and disliked me.

His own work? In my opinion (even then) everything he painted looked the same. He was of the Western Impressionist school and the colors he used were out of nature’s paintbox for the most part. Yellow ochre figured prominently Yellow ochre is a GREAT color, but not the only one… He, naturally, used large brush strokes, painted directly, and so on, but he encouraged my brother and his friends who were cartoonists. Clearly the man was NOT invested in teaching everyone to paint just like he did.

So…I soon donned the patina of the high school graduate and went to college. I was determined to major in art. I wanted to be a sculptor.

My sculpture teacher told me I had no talent for sculpture, and he said I should stick to drawing which (he said) I was good at. He was explaining this to me as we talked about a drawing I’d done that was taped to the wall in the hallway of the art building next to the soda machine.

“Professor,” said one of my classmates who HAD talent, “I’m so sorry, but I tried to buy a soda and the machine exploded all over some chick’s picture that’s taped to the wall in the hallway.”

The picture was drawn in pencil which isn’t all that water soluble, and was actually improved by the patina of Pepsi.

My drawing teacher, on the other hand, was a real teacher. She watched me drawing one  afternoon in class and assessed the problem instantly. Fear. I’d been brow-beaten into a kind of secret artistic existence. This emerged when I attempted to make art. Our work says a lot and our working process maybe says even more. I was going at a piece of paper with a #3 pencil from 9 inches away. Way too close, way too light, way to tentative. I was a conundrum. I wanted to draw, I wanted to be an artist, but…

“Put that down,” she said of my pencil. “Wait here.”

She returned with a small can of black tempera and a small can of white tempera and a 2 inch brush. “Draw,” she said. “Stand back here where you can see something. And you need to get some better paper.”

She set me free.

Over the years I’ve confronted this over and over. Other artists sometimes have strong feelings about my work. I don’t know why. First, whether a person has talent or not they should make art if they want to. There’s no law that says a piece of work anyone does — even Leonardo — is going to be any good. Second, there are a lot of artists out there whose work I absolutely hate. Yet, they are considered to be great artists (Frida Kahlo tops that list). Is my opinion important in any way? There are other artist whose work moved me at one point in my life and now I think it’s “Meh” (Georgia O’Keefe for example).

This weekend my friend L painted rocks with me. She was trepidatious. She might get it wrong. I got a rock ready and sketched the reindeer, just an outline, with the nose. She sat down and grabbed an acrylic pen. I’ve learned they don’t work that well on rocks. “Use this,” I said, handing her a brush and some tan paint. The paint flowed perfectly into the shape on the rock in seconds. Then she wanted darker brown for the antlers and was going to mix black with the tan. “I’ll mix you some darker brown,” I said. “That black is a higher quality paint than that tan and will just be black.” So I mixed some brown. She painted and began to relax, finally putting an evergreen wreath on his head. 🙂

Then she wanted to do a wreath, but she just had a white rock. “I think you can handle that,” I said. “It’s just a wreath.”

“Yeah, I think I can draw a circle.” She picked up my drawing pencil and drew a circle, very tentatively. I pointed out that the rock was a long oval so maybe she wanted to leave room at the bottom for a bow.

She went at it and was suddenly INTO it. “I’m going to make a peace wreath,” she said — and did! Then she wanted to put leaves on the wreath. She dipped the brush in green and started to “draw” leaves. It wasn’t working.

“Here, let the brush do the work,” and I showed her how to use the side of the brush to make leaf-like blobs.

Then I thought about all that is involved in learning to paint.

How to mix colors, how to use colors, what a brush can and cannot do, what things ACTUALLY look like vs how you KNOW them to be (a tree doesn’t look like myriad leaves attached to branches. It looks like a blob of colors). There’s so much more, and it all takes time and practice.

I’ve had a hell of a time in my life selling a story. My life as a writer (everyone has always said, “Martha Ann, you’re a writer not an artist”) has never “taken off” but I’ve sold a lot of paintings. As I told my friend this weekend, “Just have fun. It is the least important thing in the world.”

Except to the person who loves it and we never know who that is, who that will be.

My friend’s rocks were found by a little girl during the Christmas parade… I think my friend is now a VERY successful artist!!!

Lois Rocks 1

Lois Rocks 2

6 thoughts on “Personal Art History — Suffering for Art

  1. scraping off the patina of other’s judgement. Sticky stuff, in my experience. I got it from the music teacher–sit down, you can’t sing. I certainly can’t if I’m not allowed to learn.

  2. I so agree with you. Art (or what one person perceives as art) is in the eye of the beholder. Everyone perceives “life” around them differently. Same with art. I loved your friend’s work too. It spoke to me, can’t explain to anyone else what that means, but it did. I think writing is the same, sometimes the way someone says something, looks at something, explains something, strikes us right in the heart or soul and we’re hooked, we’re in love. We feel simpatico. It’s the same with any art or entertainment. If it makes us laugh, cry, gives us extreme joy, it becomes beautiful. People are the same. Just a thought! I happen to enjoy very much, your art, what I’ve seen and definitely your writing.

  3. Amen. I was teaching Monday night and it was our first night ‘workshopping’ student writing. It was so scary for some of them because they’d never shown their writing to anyone and let them evaluate it (in public no less). I tried VERY hard to remind them that all our thoughts, opinions, likes, dislikes are subjective. Take what is helpful and leave the rest. I was incedibly aware of the impact of that moment for many of them – it almost felt sacred. There’s so much you can teach, but there’s also so much they have to discover and learn from themselves. I think our job is to point the way and then get out of the way.

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