Short Pieces About Making

Talking about Making: What are the rules?

Rules (1 of 2).jpg

Often I refer in posts to one or the other of my few rules, so I'm posting them here together for reference. 

  • Nothing's precious ... When I privilege one scrap of paper over another, organizing the composition around it, the whole tends to go awry. For this reason, I tend not to use materials that have sentimental value for me. Note I am not claiming to believe that there is nothing in the world too precious to tear to pieces for the sake of art.
  • Go fast ... I have a higher rate of success producing interesting work when I move fast rather than deliberate over how best to use this or that bit. This means I take pieces apart occasionally to reuse materials, or rearrange them.
  • Don't think ... William Carlos Williams said, "No ideas but in things." In context, this dictum refers to ideology trumping imagery in poetry, but it's stood me pretty well as a rule of thumb in my art, too. When I leave deliberate intention out of it, and work in the most focused manner I can manage, engaging with the materials themselves, I consistently get better results. 
  • No reproductions ... Many companies reproduce vintage materials. I don't use them. All of my collages are made from original source material. 
  • No tricks ... The digital aspect of my process is confined to making the scan look as much like the original, and as much like paper, as possible. I don't digitally enhance any of my collages, and I don't add elements or delete them. If a collage isn't working as a scan, I may take it apart and rescan it, but I don't digitally reassemble them.

Talking About Making: What takes so long?

I posted six new pieces on this site last week. It’s been 18 months since the last set.

What takes so long? 

Of the dozen or so originals I typically generate in a week, most are clearly not printable. I can count on five or six contenders in an ordinary month. Of those, about two thirds seem as if they’ll make good prints. What's good? Good is subjective at this point. Often others believe a piece has possibilities I don't see ("Fires of loss" exists in the world because David loves it. I probably would not have printed it.). I have a print of "Black Rising" tacked to my studio wall and if I can’t imagine the new piece hanging beside it, the new work probably won't make the cut. I leave the best candidates laying around for a week, two, considering them intentionally and incidentally as I make other prints. If my attention is drawn to the same few over and over, those make it into the queue. 

Black Rising

Black Rising

And that's when the process becomes a little less predictable. "Tiny blue flowers" is one that made it through the initial culling stages, and ultimately did not work. I first posted images of it in a blog post in the summer of 2016. A proof at 24”x36” leaned against the wall in the studio all winter. Many nights, I went to sleep looking at it. When I thought I understood what needed to happen next to make it a good print, I resumed work.  

Here are some photos I took when I decided it wasn't going to work as a print:

Twenty-seven proofs and seven digital versions. I only keep the numbered proofs; many interim proofs were discarded. Still, I couldn't make it work.

I have a couple of stories like that from the last year. Most of what I've learned is still hard to articulate precisely. But I can say a few things. I'm sometimes uncertain how to think about what I'm seeing, and rather than sitting with that uncertainty until it clarifies, I hurry, make a guess, then blast ahead in what may turn out to be a wrong direction. Tenacity does not always serve.

One of my rules with originals is: go fast. Another: do not overthink. A third: move on. Making an original is a process of choosing individual scraps of paper, putting them together and then waiting. One day, when I look at it, I see a whole rather than elements. I try to apply these principle to printing, but it's thornier, partly because the prints are what I share, and it’s urgent they be worth the viewer's attention. 

The paradox is that when I summon the patience to just look until I see, my output is steady. So, that’s my project these days: thoughtful, patient viewing of my own work in progress.

Talking About Making: You Can't Suck if You Don't Try

At a conference I attended a few years ago, a speaker recounted a dark period in her professional life, one she attributed to a few habits of thought and patterns of behavior that felt uncomfortably familiar, including:

  • A reluctance to attempt tasks she didn’t already know how to do.
  • An inability to complete projects because it meant neglecting other, equally important ones.
  • Compulsively “raising the bar,” such that no effort she made was ever satisfactory.

For more than twenty-five years I’ve had a thriving art practice, but prior to 2012, I rarely shared my work with editors, collectors, or even close friends. The speaker gathered her challenges under the rubric of “perfectionism.” While the self-congratulation implicit in that term trips me up, I began to pay a different, more generous kind of attention to my thoughts as I approached the business aspect of my work. Here’s a list of the most typical, and stymieing thoughts I discovered, along with alternatives I've been working with:

  • I don’t know what I’m doing / Maybe I won't know what I’m doing until I do it
  • I hate making mistakes / If I make the mistake once, maybe I won't make it again
  • I’ll have to redo it / There is always a next draft
  • Timing’s not right / Timing’s never perfect
  • My ideas stink / My ideas are good enough for a first draft
  • I’ll be embarrassed if I fail / I’ll hate my life if I don’t try

I remain unconvinced, honestly, by the alternatives to “I don’t know what I’m doing,” and “I hate making mistakes,” because often I don't, and I always do, respectively. But I push ahead as often as I can, in the hopes that iterating enough on them will create a shift in time.

Leveraging the idea of drafting, however, has been very useful. Drafting is essential to making art, obviously, but it can be a useful approach to support tasks as well. This week, I applied the idea of drafts to a newly shelved closet in my studio. As I returned items, I was aware that I also ought to purge, and I stalled out. We’ve just moved, and I don’t have the decision making resources to purge right now. I remembered that purging was not part of the original plan: draft one of a usable studio closet did not include purging. Reminded of this, I finished the task as initially defined, and moved on.

My alternatives help in other situations, too. If I have a list of phone calls to make, I choose the lowest stakes call first. By the time I’m working on those that matter most, I’ve warmed up. I question my inclination not to make mistakes by asking myself what the stakes are in any given situation. Occasionally, I may apply the whole list at once. For instance, if I have to interact with a professional I respect. My ego insists I present as infallible, my work as flawless. It serves me to run through the alternatives, then remember I’m human, as is the person I’m about to approach.

“Raising the bar” is the most insidious, I think because it calls itself ambition. There are days when I know, from morning coffee, that regardless how I spend my day, I'm going to feel I ought to have done something -- anything -- else. Days like that are compromised before they've begun. I’ve come to see this not as ambition, but abscessed self-protection. When I capitulate to this indecision, the result is chaos.  Hence the title of this post. I created the silly, but effective tool pictured at the top of this post, my chaos box. It's remarkably useful -- when I remember to use it.

Last year I came upon this definition of professional in Alyson Stanfield's online course Art Biz Liftoff:

Professional artists are committed to a regular schedule of studio practice, which might include earning money from art sales, teaching and other such art-related income. They are interested in setting up their business so that it's legal and financially sustainable. They have a healthy respect for their artists' community and do not copy other artists' work. They don't complain about that hard work because they know it is part of owning any business and they are no exception.

I'll speak for myself, but not much about being an artist and writer has prepared me to think of myself as a professional given that I've mostly done it in the cracks of my other life, and I seem to be routinely ashamed by my inability to cure something or be otherwise truly useful, so this, too, is a practice. It helps to consider any aspect of my work that I find challenging part of the "hard work" associated with conducting myself as such.

A last, significant shift has been to gauge my success by my level of ease and satisfaction. If I’m anxious, I correct. While success on the world’s terms is, of course, desirable, I don’t believe there is any shame in not achieving any external recognition or audience. And it’s largely out of my control. If I truly want an audience, I owe it to my work to step aside and let it be seen.

Routinely I fall short of this aspiration, so it’s critical for me to think in terms of continual, deepening practice. An all or nothing approach results in a whole lot of nothing.

Talking about Books: The Grace of Great Things

That inscription in my copy of The Grace of Great Things by Robert Grudin is in my own handwriting; perhaps I gave it as a gift to myself. I'd have turned twenty-six that month, the fall before I earned my bachelor’s degree (seven years, part-time). I was freshly divorced and living in a room rented from my parents, waiting tables grave shift Thursday through Sunday and taking classes Monday through Thursday. It’s a toss-up whether I had less time or less money: buying the book was an indulgence, as was reading it.

Twenty-three years later, the pages are soft from rereading, the spine taped. I come across phrases I’ve long had memorized. The passage of time is evident, too, in the evolution of my handwriting and the nature of my marginalia. I cherished this book for its beauty and for its message, completely novel to me at the time, that an “ethos of inspiration” can be cultivated. That what appeared to me on the biographical surface of the lives of my heroines to be genius, was in fact a compilation of characteristics held in common. And, most encouragingly, that ...

many of these characteristics are less inborn virtues … than plain habits, difficult to cultivate perhaps, but nonetheless far from superhuman.


Talking About the New Series: Indifferent Garden

Working on Grey Pansy. On my monitor is a detail from the scan, and on my desk is the original in my notebook. Underneath it is a 13x19 proof.

I love a moody floral. With a couple of exceptions, the flowers in the current series, "Indifferent Gardens," I've harvested from old greeting cards. In addition to the gorgeous colors, liberal use of this delicious almost matte gold, and half-tone dots, the flowers are embossed, which presents a particular set of challenges -- first, capturing the extremely subtle depth and shadow in the scans, then rendering those critical characteristics in the prints.

Here are a couple of details. "Grey Pansy" is on the left, a detail from "If the Tiny Blue Flower" is on the right: 

Typically a lacquer coats the cards that is either cracked, or cracks the instant I start working with the paper. Terrifically pleasing to me in the original, though very difficult to see, I was curious how the cracking would scan and print. I'm thrilled to say, though I'm very early in the process, the cracks are coming up remarkably well, both in the scan, and printed at scale. 

The series title connects in my mind to Louise Gluck’s book The Wild Iris, but the connection may be pure association, I haven’t gone back through the book (both copies we own are still packed) to suss it out. The book is one of those lodged in my fundament, the poems are full of literally moody flowers and lines from them recite themselves in my mind — I tell you I could speak again: whatever / returns from oblivion returns / to find a voice. That's the titular Wild Iris speaking, by the way. And I happen to think Gluck's spareness and punctuation are exquisite. For instance, say that's not a beautiful colon — 

I tell you I could speak again: whatever

And the confluence of idea, language, and arrangement in the next line —

returns from oblivion returns

is poetry.

Gluck's lines as she made them, and as they exist in my life, and the phenomenon of intuitive, mostly unconscious connection over decades, speaks to me of the essential mystery to making: how, if anything interesting happens at all, it results from collaboration rather than control. It results from the independent life of the made thing reaching back to the vehicle of its making, and out into the world, and back again, to assemble itself. 

Which is to say, were I to go back to Wild Iris, I may not find the literal thread. But I'll insist it's there nonetheless.

The full scan, in process, working title Grey Pansy. Candidate for my new series, Indifferent Garden. Obviously, all rights reserved by me, Kimberly McClintock.

Sneak preview ... not mentioned elsewhere, this is an uncorrected scan of "onli" (working title), also a candidate for the Indifferent Garden series. In it, too, the embossing is visible. "onli" (or whatever its title ends up being) is a bridge piece between Indifferent Garden and the next series, Strange Maps. Again, all rights reserved by me, Kimberly McClintock.

Talking About Art: What's the Story?

Recently, I read an article on Artsy that mentioned "Whistler’s Mother." I didn't know until a few years ago that this was not Whistler's title for his painting. James Abbot McNeill Whistler spent a lot of time objecting to "meaning" in art, and he famously objected to the insistence that a painting be about more than what its surface indicated. Though he was a crank, his title, “Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1,” supports his claim that composition and color, not subject matter, were the impetus for the piece. Knowing this, I have nonetheless persisted in thinking of the painting by the popular title, rather than the artist's. 

When I got my BA in literature in the early 90's, the "New Critics" were at the end of their influence. A class called “Approaches to Literature” taught us to read from Freudian, Feminist and a few other perspectives, but the most respected professors still insisted a "text" be encountered independent of any biographical, cultural or historical context. That the most beloved story be Read as if you found it lying open on a table in an empty room. That image left an impression, though I believed then as I do now that the reduction of reading (and writing) this way is an understandable, but ultimately wrong-headed, attempt to get control of a made, so essentially wild, thing.

These days “reading like a writer” classes abound, the antithesis of New Criticism. I was reading like a writer then, because I wanted to be a writer, more curious as to why the writer made certain choices of emphasis and proportion than what her system of symbols might connote. The latter conversation, in the absence of biographical, cultural and other information, struck me as pointlessly subjective — exactly contrary to the intent of New Criticism. Think of Picasso’s use of blue. Or the tidbit I picked up recently that whatever his aesthetics, Picasso’s Cubism was also a convenient way to disguise portraits of his mistresses from his wife. That’s fascinating, plausible, human. The artist’s decisions are more objectively verifiable, too, because the artist may have stated his or her intention, as in the case of Whistler. 

It's true that makers are sometimes least aware of what they’re truly up to. That doesn't disqualify the story they tell themselves or others about their work, but it does argue for viewing the artist’s account as one resource among many. Before we assume Whistler’s tempestuous relationship with his mother influenced the palette in which he rendered her, we should consider that the fact that his model failed to show up that day. (But his mother did live with him, insinuate herself into his artistic life, was perhaps a bit overbearing ... coincidence?)

The point is, human beings obviously not only enjoy, but need story. If we don't know the story behind a thing, we'll guess at it. If the story we are told doesn't fit -- as with Whistler's title -- we won't remember it and we'll put another in its place, like a name that doesn't suit an acquaintance. You can bet I have a clearer sense of Cubism after that anecdote about Picasso. The human informs the critical. Whistler claims to have made one thing; and while we may see that clearly, our wiring may dictate that we also see another. 

I don’t think what I have to say about my own work is any more or less relevant than what Whistler said about his. All I can ever report is which decisions were conscious, and, for me, that is deliberately not many. All art is abstraction, the rendering of worldly things into "simpler, more evocative and organically final terms,” to quote John Graham. From three dimensions down to two; Whistler’s mother as an arrangement of white, grey and black blobs. This simplification has to do with clarity, not wishful thinking. This is where the meaning lies. 

And, here’s something else worth saying — more often than not, the answer the artist gives is disappointing. Read Jackson Pollack's interviews. The spectacle of what he made is so much more engaging than most of what he said about it. "Don't expect writers to be interesting people," Stephen Dunn told us, his students. I think this is exactly what he meant. The most eloquent version of what the maker has to say may well be what they struggled to say with paint, on the page, or with torn up postage stamps.


Talking About Making: Layers

I think beauty in made things results from layering because layering creates complexity, complexity creates interest and the illusion of depth--literal, metaphysical and metaphorical. Satisfying meals layer flavors, successful relationships layer selves. A good haircut requires layers, at least for me. Seems I've had this thought before, and probably read it, too, though I can't think where just now. Interestingness definitely accrues in the visual art I make as a result of layering. 

I’ve been listening to myself answer questions lately about this work--variations on the question "what are they": how and why and what were you thinking; and "what do they mean." I’m amazed at the range of conversations I'm having as a result.  

With my friends in technology, and with photographers, the conversation tends toward the quality of the scans, the scanner, the printer, the depth and texture in the reproduced images; the illusion of dimension in the prints is so strong, viewers invariably reach out to touch them. Painters and gallerists mention Lichtenstein’s painted half-tone dots. The many writers and designers in my life often cue in on pieces of words, or the paper itself, want to see and play with the typewriters, talk about typeface. A friend’s former husband and I, he a veteran of multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, talked about maps; contemporary and ancient maps, Tolkien's maps, those of his own invention. 

Do you make your own maps? Do you think in those terms? That's what poetry is, for me, has always been: shows me where to go, and where I am. These are definitely maps. A series I hope to work on printing soon is called "Strange Maps."

My friend the Tarot reading mystic "read" piece after piece, telling stories until she found her own. Stories are a theme that comes up again and again. What's the story is a common question, and one I'm working to answer in other essays as its own question. I'll say for the moment that they are that, too. Meaning, they are fill-in-the-blank; clouds passing overhead. A therapist at the Atlanta show said they are lovely Rorshach tests.

Not least of all though, these pieces are very simply the sum of my engagement with the materials. They are layer upon layer of paper. Paper foxed, and burned paper, paper stained with cherry juice, and the bodily fluids of bugs; fibers of its definitely-not-lignin-or-acid-free materials; handmade papers from around the world. Typography from gone eras, ghostly handwriting; illustration, ink. Paper removed from context, rearranged, juxtaposed. As a reader, paper and type were my first loves. 

Removed from context, then reassembled and rendered overlarge. An object like a Japanese postage stamp, its Kanji lettering inches high, cannot escape notice. 

What are they? A stage set or plinth for pieces of antique printing that would otherwise go utterly unnoticed.

What are they? Pure product of a curious human interacting with adored materials. Materials made and, more importantly, handled and loved, or not, maybe just used, doodled on, for very different reasons, by other humans.

So, the layering began long before the materials piled here on my table. Before they became, for me, a way to make contact with the present, with the day, with myself and something tactile; a way for a busy person to inhabit silence and solitude. What are they? Letters, prayers, meditations. Guardrails, too. And ransom notes! 

Complexity is a station on the way to mess, and artfulness is partly just in knowing when to stop.

Have I just described life?

"On New Ground" -- Exhibition Opening April 15

Seven of my prints -- including "XK" at 44 in x 56 in !! -- will be on view (and on sale!) indefinitely at Marietta West Cobb Counseling Center in Marietta, GA beginning the week of April 15.

I've traveled once already on behalf of this project, to meet and work with the framer, the charming, erudite Shae Avery at Avery Gallery. Terri Abraham, my good friend (and premier east coast dealer!), and I had a rather magical Valentine weekend. We encountered the astonishing Ilia Varcev making pictures on the street. (He photographed us, though I see that work has yet to make it onto his site.) I was introduced to the concept of a "pop up" store. Don't laugh; there's always more to learn. 200 Mill, run by Terri's friend and neighbor, Dana Poor, said store, is a studio that opens one weekend a month to sell items made and discovered the previous month. I smuggled home a few treasures that I'd picture here, except they're Christmas presents. For more on 200 Mill, and the pop-up concept, here's Dana explaining it. After a spectacularly good meal at The Butcher The Baker, Terri and I attended the opening of dk Gallery's "Romance of the Nude and Figure," where we met glass artist Lori Schinelli. Full couple of days!

But the weekend wasn't all play -- beginning April 15 at 3:30 -- my work, gorgeously framed, hangs on the walls in Marietta West Cobb Counseling Center's lovely new space. Come celebrate!