Tag Archives: Gail Hersey

Artists and Scientists

Sometimes the rarer, the beautiful can only emerge or survive in isolation.  In a similar manner, some degree of withdrawal serves to nurture man’s creative powers.  The artist and scientist bring out of the dark void, like the mysterious universe itself, the unique, the strange, and unexpected.  – Loren Eiseley

I’m just back from a weekend on the coast of Maine with good friends.  What a wonderful weekend!  The weather and the ocean conspired to fill our senses with the glory of nature in her most peaceful and generous style.  We had sun and breeze and heat with cool temperatures at night so that we could snuggle under our quilts in comfort.

It was a quiet weekend even with the fireworks next door and gave me time to ruminate again on Eiseley’s quotation.  I teach a class in computer programming to high school students.  Most of my students are math and science geeks who love nothing more than playing games on the computer.  In truth, I don’t play games on the computer because it is too easy for me to get lost in the games; too easy for me to succumb to the challenge of solving the problem set in front of me quickly before I lose the game.

I’ve always felt this strange bifurcation of my attention.  In my personal life, I spend my time making things, cooking, printmaking, sewing.  I am a very creative person.  On the other hand, my job is very technical with computers and programming and problem solving.  This dichotomy bothered me for a long time until I finally figured it out.  For me, it’s all about the problem solving.  I love a good problem!

It could be the problem of how to create the image that I want from an inked plate.  It could be how to fix the leaking toilet or it could be how to make the computer succumb to my will and print that report the way I want it.  All of these things require a mind that is willing to nimbly step outside of the box and feel its way around until it finds the soft spots that allow it to grab hold and solve the problem.  It’s why scientists and artists have so much in common.

I try hard in my class to present open-ended problems with no single solution.  I want to teach them not only how to program but also how to open their minds and look at the world from all different directions. I want to pass along my love for the problem and give them, the ones who would be scientists, the gift of the artistic mind.

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Isolation and Creativity

My backyard

Sometimes the rarer, the beautiful can only emerge or survive in isolation.  In a similar manner, some degree of withdrawal serves to nurture man’s creative powers.  The artist and scientist bring out of the dark void, like the mysterious universe itself, the unique, the strange, and unexpected.  – Loren Eiseley

I came across this quote at another artists website.  It speaks to me in a couple of ways.  The first is the idea of creativity and isolation.  The second, that I will address in my next post is the juxtaposition of artist and scientist.

One of the fantasies that I have entertained throughout my life is that of retreating into the woods and living a life alone in a cabin; chopping my own wood, carrying water, reading by lantern and rising with the sun.  Some of this is fueled by my love of the outdoors and my fascination with self-sufficiency.  The other impetus is the idea of being alone for an extended period of time.

I grew up in a big family on a farm so there was always someone at home and some sort of noisy activity going on with haying or milking or a rousing game of tennis ball against the barn.  We couldn’t leave the farm for any extended period of time so friends and family came to us for visits.  There was always room around the kitchen table for another person and it was often filled.  Being the eldest of 5 girls, the only way to peace and quiet was to retreat into the woods where I could hide for a few hours; my solitude broken only by the knowledge that I would be missed at chore time.

I think that with all of that activity going on, isolation became a fascination for me.  What could I do with days and weeks of time to clear my head and let loose my creative energy?  What amazing things could I create without the critical eye of an audience?  What if I had the space and time to play and make mistakes and just let my curiosity have its way with me?

The fantasy is wonderful.  The reality looks more like this:

I wander around the house and the garden, a bit aimlessly.  This lasts at least a couple of days.  I think about turning on the computer or watching a movie to pass the time but am able to resist the urge.  I clean something.  I organize something.  I try not to read.  I stand in the studio and look at my supplies. Maybe I go into the kitchen and bake some bread.  That feels good.  I wander back into the studio.  I pick up a brayer and ink up a plate – maybe make a quick print – nothing too special but now I have an inked plate to play with and here is where the fun starts.

It takes me days of quiet to get through to the place where I feel like I can start to create.  I don’t often get to work from this quiet place because I have a family and a job that I go to five days a week.  But when I do, this is what it looks like; hours and days of quietness, the gathering of energy and emotional resources before the work.  I believe that quiet and even boredom can positively contribute to creativity.  It’s almost like the brain needs some empty space to create something new and exciting.

What do you think?  How does it work for you?

Monotype and Me

Or – How I started embracing the unexpected and learned to live without a plan.

From the time I was a child, it seemed that the universe was created with an ordered plan that could be counted on.  The sun rose in the morning and set at night with seasonal variations.  Dinner was cooked by my mother and the seven of us ate around the table when my father had finished the barn chores for the night.  We put up the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve and my mother took it down the first day of school after the New Year.  I went to Elementary School, Jr. High School, High School, and College in that order.  Everything had a blueprint, a plan that may not have been followed in minute detail, but a plan nonetheless that presented to me a path that I could follow.

Don’t assume that I followed the straight and narrow my whole life.  There were detours along the way and distractions to be investigated.  But for the most part, my assumption of how I would get from birth to death had a general outline.

I followed the same pattern when I made things.  I was taught to sew as a young girl and used patterns to make my clothing.  I took piano lessons and was drawn to classical music, translating the notes from paper to my fingers.  And so it went – cooking from cookbooks, knitting following the instructions, woodworking plans when I wanted to build.  It’s how my mother did it, it’s how she taught me and it worked for a bit.

As I continued to make things, I grew discontented with the patterns and formulas that were available.  My solution was to create my own patterns and then follow them.  I drafted my own sewing patterns and used them, wrote up knitting directions and followed them.  It was much more creative, much more mine; but it I was still on a path.

And then, I became a mother.

Suddenly, the world was a much different place.  No matter how hard I tried to create a path for my son, I could not make him walk it.  He is not a path walker.  I tried.  I really did.  I made paths all over the place – straight and narrow, wide and wandering, up mountains and through the desert.  But my son is not a path-walker nor a pattern follower and he is a fabulous cook but would rather not use a cookbook.  Instead of following a path, he stands in the middle of the world and takes a step at a time, evaluating where he is and then deciding where next to put his foot.

Monotype is an interesting way to make an image.  In some ways, it’s a lot like painting.  You take color and lay it out in a way that makes sense to you.  But it is still printmaking.  The image is created on a smooth, hard plate and then soft paper is shmooshed onto it, creating an image that not only is the reverse of what was painted on the plate but has been transformed by pressure as well.  Usually, there is ink left on the plate – a ghost of the first print that can be altered, added to and printed again.  As I work through a series of prints, I print an image, react to the results, and print again.  The results are unique and often unexpected.  I stand in the world and take a step at a time.

I still find it comforting to have a path to follow.  It gives me a feeling of safety to know my general direction.  What I have found by watching my son is the excitement of embracing the unexpected.   I am learning to pay attention to what is happening right now, right here.  I am able to let my senses and my feelings dictate what comes next.  By opening my heart and my arms to the experiences around me, I have become open to opportunities that I didn’t know existed.  One foot in front of the other, I am wandering off the path.

What is Your Gift?

The artist is nothing without the gift, but the gift is nothing without work.
Emile Zola

When I first read that quote, many years ago, it made me furious.  I took it to mean that to be an artist you had to have been given the gift of talent or vision or some such nonsense, and I make it a personal crusade in my life to tell everyone I know that yes, you too can learn to draw or paint or whatever it is you want.

Of course not being given “the gift” is a great excuse for not leaping into the next adventure.    I, for instance cannot sing.  I wasn’t given “the gift” and so I sing in the car, in the shower, in the woods, alone at home and anywhere else I am absolutely sure that I will not be heard.  I sing loudly and with great feeling.  In my head, I sound great!  I should be on stage!  If anyone overheard me I would be sure to be discovered!  A musical friend told me a while ago that anyone could be taught to sing.  Did I believe him?  Absolutely ….….well………let’s just say, I agreed with him and told him about my own crusade and continued to sing in private.

Do I believe I could learn to sing?  Sure – if I wanted to spend lots of time in front of a piano, doing scales or whatever you do when you have voice lessons, I could probably learn to sing.  Do I want to?  The part of me that belts out show tunes in the shower desperately wants to be on stage and have that audience loving me and asking for more.  It looks like so much fun.  So what is the problem here?

There is another part of me that loves making things more than singing (and heck, if I’m honest here, when I turn the radio up, I can sing while I make things!).   And what about that gift?  I don’t have a great gift for drawing.   I don’t have a great gift for painting or sculpting or even printmaking.  What I do have is a passion.  I can get up at 6:00 in the morning and have to leave the house for work at 7:15 and find 15 minutes to set up a plate or lay down a bit of color so that I will have something to come home to that afternoon.  I miss it when I am not making something.  I think about what I am going to make next.  I plan my ideas.  Sometimes I dream about what I am going to do next.  My ideas are often lined up behind the time I have to actually commit them to paper.

When I look at that quote again, I see that the “gift” – at least for me – is not the innate talent to do something easily or well, it is instead the passion for doing the thing and the pleasure that I derive from the making that is my gift.  And the work?  In this second half of my life, I am finding that I have a passion for the work that is new to me.  I am not so easily discouraged if something comes hard.  I find that if I push myself to practice, to do the hard work that it takes to be deliberate about my art, I am blessed with a different kind of gift, one that I have given myself.

Practice

Practice

Earlier this week, I had dinner with some of my art friends.  It was our monthly meeting of dinner, wine and show and tell.  One of us works at her art full time.  The rest of us juggle full time jobs and children along with the precious time that we carve out to make things.  As we were talking, my full time art friend said something that I knew was true but didn’t really understand in a visceral sort of way until recently.  Her comment was that no matter how many ideas we have, and how technically able we are, we can’t be our best at what we do unless we practice.

Duh….but you have to understand that in my world, things come easily.  I got good grades in school without studying, I was an average musician without practicing and I was good at my various jobs by being able to make quick decisions.  Doing things was easy.   Practicing was hard.  It meant doing something more than once.  It meant paying attention to the details of things and it meant being deliberate in the decisions that you made.

So why am I thinking about practice now?  I’m not quite sure.  I do know that I have started “practicing” my art.  This week, I made 3 prints using the same colors and the same design.  I tried hard to see them with new eyes.  What could be different?  How did I manage to make that mark that I really like on that one?  Why is this one more appealing than the first one?  What is it about the color that I love or hate?

It makes a difference.  It makes a big difference.

In printmaking, especially monotypes, I love the surprises or unexpected “gifts” that come as I lay the ink on my plate or pull the print.  But, as an artist, I am not just a receptacle for gifts that come by chance.  I have a responsibility to myself and my vision to work at my art, make deliberate decisions about what I am doing and after that, then, I can understand and accept the gifts that come through the practice of my work.