On Being an Artist

From the Archives: September 2009 Shoot, Summerville SC

The image you see above was photographed Sep 12 2007. It was worked up as a preliminary to a series I was embarking on in 2009, which is the year I wrote the first version of this blog, which now has been edited and expanded in 2019. In early 2011 at Glorieta Pass, New Mexico, this image experienced a lateral pass into it’s present form, where it’s become settled, and rests more often than not in being just a simple composition.


Most of my creative life I’ve thought of myself as an artist not in the broader sense of being an art maker, but of the specific media in which I worked. In all the years of therefore being a “painter,” I noticed that artists have a tendency to refer to themselves more as a practitioner of their medium rather than an interpreter of what is surrounding them. It is as though to refer to one’s self as an artist is to somehow break the magical bubble of having that mantle bestowed upon them from without.

But—Art comes from within. Artistry resides within all of us; we just choose to avoid its application to us as a generic term. I’ve often heard the phrase “One must give one’s self permission to be an artist.” That seems to be true, as there is a transition of acceptance one must experience in order to find comfort in referring to yourself as an artist. It really is just a tiny little step, made much of by those who proclaim artists and critique them, which deludes us artists into imagining that someone must come along to anoint us.

Nothing is really further from the truth.

To look about us, to record what we see, what we perceive in a manner which speaks to others simply, directly through vision, sound, movement or word—is enough. And there will come the point where we then see ourselves as what we are. We are artists, and the media we grapple with is necessary to communicate our message. It is neither magical, mystical, nor religious in purpose or nature. It’s evolution.

A drawer and a painter is how I described myself for 25 years of practicing my craft. It was not proclaiming too much. I did those things: I drew. I painted. I wielded pastels, inks, carved wood, created artist-pulled prints from plates made of wood, metal and collaged items. Plates etched, engraved, distressed, inverted, and experimented with, often resulting in failure. Which is a good experience for we see things as they can no longer be envisioned, ever again. My printmaking teacher would at times scratch her head and question why I had to experiment with extra works than those required in different ways, but the more I got to know her she always said that was fun to watch me “fiddling around” outside the parameters of the conventional way to prepare plates. At times, this effort worked. At times. In the early 1990’s, I called Martha to touch based with her. She mentioned she still had the relief etching I pulled of Harry Houdini’s chained arms, in a dark magenta color. “That one worked,” she said, and I smiled as I recalled her making sure I paid for all the plates I used for those side trips through the press. “Experimenting is expensive” seemed to me Martha’s mantra, for she would often toss that three word statement at me each time I went on a tangent. Tangents were good maneuvers, for they always led somewhere, even if to the collage scrap bin.

Failure is a medium we as artists should use more often, for it teaches us far more than the complacency of myriad successes. It demands a different perspective, and we then see the World about us in a very different way than even a just-prior yesterday. Our perceptions are honed through failure; and perhaps dulled by success. We are stymied often by too much success, especially if it leads to excess, which seems to have become the canon of how the public has perceived artists since 1904 and the advent of a certain guy named Pablo Ruiz Picasso. This isn’t to say that success is to be feared or avoided, but rather entered into with an open mind, and eyes.

This painter also worked in clay, then with chemicals in a darkroom struggling to coax a silvered image from a bath that was beyond my language of utility as a creator. The darkroom flummoxed me, but the camera promised a window with a very unique and demanding view. Still, it was to emerge decades later as a primary partnership with both composition and aesthetics. I taught many a photographer in my drawing classes, always trying to infect them with the idea that by learning the art of mere knowing, or the cognition that stems from drawing, that one will be made a better photographer. I did receive a large quantity of blank stares from photographers. And then I tried to persuade drawers of the efficacy of the moment which photography could teach them. This is what art is—the process of discovery, and the discovery of process.

In 1996-97 I began shooting with a little Canon A5 camera, a digital point and shoot which offered little manual control and limited technical prowess as an instrument. It was defining my parameters as a creative in a way that painting did not. I began to install further limitations to the process. I would compose only in the viewfinder. I would never crop, except within the confines of the viewfinder. The Zen saying, “First thought, best thought” morphed in my mind to “First shot, best shot.”

This is how I entered digital photography. In a traditional mindset of framing the composition, avoiding afterthought crops, anticipating the best shot, then if necessary, fine tuning the composition with my mind and feet and eyes. This is how I’ve come to shoot as a man in my sixties. Looking around me, limiting my technology, nursing my limitations, providing a petri dish of agar for an image to come. And this is how I began to become separated as a painter from that personality which was rising from photography.

Now, I see as a painter still, when I shoot. I see as a photographer when I paint. One discipline informs the other, and when using digital imaging as a process, I experiment a lot. Which again often results in failure, and I am back in the studio with my old friend and instructor who is long gone, but I can still hear her words and still understand her logic. Digital is a less time-consuming failure than is painting however, so one can expedite their extremity-curve of failure and compact it into two years rather than ten.

As an artist I have learned that you must pick the media which best serves your intent in that moment. I’ve learned that the eye of the artist is always the same, but the focus shifts based on need, our intent, and what is competing for our attention. Our attention is often brief, it seems, for we as artists process visual feedback very quickly. We are often labeled, from decades back, daydreamers. Inattentive. Today, the label is far simpler and far more of a weight, that label being ADD. I have come to realize what we share as artists is a gift to see, to process quickly that visual stimuli that we all are immersed within at all times, but at a sheer volume the majority of our species relentlessly avoid. For it is far too easy to become overwhelmed and overtaxed. Even to the point of medicating our perceptions into submission. I am not a fan of meds that alter our natures, or our perspectives. I don’t care for impedance. I prefer the rapid processing of stimuli, as most artists of my generation do.

I am not one for settling on a single practice and following it to my grave. Catering to the same nature as offered above, to expand one’s mind and techniques is an asset to the artist. To concentrate too much on a single mode of working may, in the end, stymie us, and can lead us into frustration of both purpose and skill.

I am for looking at all that surrounds us and engaging it whether it leads to fruition or fallow ground. It seems to me akin to the blues, but not blues for the shallow sake of experiencing loss. Instead, by engaging we allow ourselves to anneal, to shape and form a sense of purpose and being which, in the end, empowers our brasher natures from youth into quiescence of being that allows for a broader span of reason, understanding, and even measured brashness.

In this evolution, no one names us into being.

Tom

Almost born on the hospital steps of Camden in a rush to be on time...