Should a Normal Person Read a Blog About Art?
Philip Koch, The Reach III, oil on linen, 40 x 60", 2011
Here's another of the big oils that will be debuting in the Maryland Institute College of Art's Sabbatical Exhibition Dec.1- 18th. It's an elaboration on a vision I explored earlier on two smaller oils. You might say it's an image I can't get out of my head. There's a good reason for that. It's a painting about how I learned to be an artist.
From the time I was eight until I reached twelve my father used to love to go sailing on Lake Ontario at night and he'd take me along. As a kid I confess I found nighttime a little scary so I was never as enthusiastic to go on these voyages as my father. Sometimes it was so dark what we were doing was probably foolhardy. Usually though, once your eyes adjusted, you realized there was surprising illumination. If the moon was out it bathed you in its quiet twilight tones. Sailboats are slow and unless it was blowing really hard there's often not much to do. So there was lots of time to look around. I discovered moonlight reflecting on clouds might be the most beautiful thing ever. Once we were out on the water I'd often find myself thinking "Gee, I'm glad I didn't miss this."
All of us get distracted by the pressing concerns of living, having a job (or not having one), health, relationships, and so on. Our public media pays attention to part of this, but only part, usually turning their gaze to the doings of the wealthy and powerful. Celebrities get praised for being famous. The art world isn't immune from this- witness the headlines about Sotheby's latest art auction bringing in several hundred million. But the real deal isn't any of this.
Why has every human society ever known had people who produced art? Sometimes I've wondered why they tolerate us at all- we artists can be self absorbed, egotistical, flaky, and far too often produce work of questionable quality. An awful lot of art is in fact confused or incoherent. Is there any member of the general public who hasn't wondered if artists are normal people? So why do they keep us around. Why should anyone care what an artist produces, or just as bad, what an artist writes about on an art blog (perhaps like this one)?
I like to joke with my students that artists have to become slow-witted. That we have to develop the habit of lingering on the edges of things longer than "normal" people. It's because we have a special job- to notice the stuff that everybody else overlooks. Most things aren't really very important of course, but almost everything deserves the second look to see if we've missed something. And humans miss things of value all the time. I remember reading about the painter Andrew Wyeth and his habit of looking at the ground as he walked. He told one interviewer that he liked to stop and pick up leaves to examine their color. "I see colors in some leaves I'll never be able to paint- it's maddening." Here was a guy who turned his awareness to the most subtle of qualities in fallen leaves, and he was able to turn what he learned there into some of the paintings that move millions of people.
My dad passed away shortly after those "night sails" as he liked to call them. My mother used to think he was nuts to go out on Lake Ontario in the dark. It wasn't the normal thing to do. And yet it taught me a terribly important lesson- that there is usually something unseen that we have yet to notice. And often it's something we need more of in our lives.