My Visual Art is Somehow Literary
I’ve long had a history of straddling the two horses of writing and painting, and there have been a few times where I seriously thought I should ditch writing in favor of art. Yet what has always felt best is to say that I’m 80% a writer and 20% a visual artist.
I can allow those percentages to vary a bit as I try to keep one foot in each horse’s stirrup, hoping they head more or less in the same direction. But while painting is necessary, the writing horse must lead. This does not mean illustration, just that the energies involved in my visual art—and they do differ from writing energies—are literary.
I’m not sure I can really pin down how that works. But I’ve noticed that in all cases where I’ve flirted with abandoning writing in favor of art, I’ve been out of contact with myself, even if the surrounding energies have been high. Visual creation can take on too much importance, luring me with its physicality and immediacy. Three examples are:
- Walking back across the soccer fields from the Media Center one February morning my freshman year at Rice, I had the sudden certainty that I should chuck the difficult, lonely writing quest in favor of the power of painting. While my actual output of that time was mediocre, I was immersed in the studio, the materials, the other artists, the art community, and the high-energy experimentation. It was natural to respond to that energy.
- Spring-Summer 1986. During this time I was experiencing a renaissance of painting energy and a rededication to developing my visual style, not just trying to repeat older processes. Although at the same time I was connecting with some new writing energy, with two new science fiction novels that year, the visual energy was in ascendance, and I began to consider whether I should pursue art first.
- The Summer Art Career, 2006. After a period of several years of doing one-man shows and selling some art, I took early retirement from the library with the hope that visual art would lead to career and financial success. But this delusion didn’t last through the summer.
There have been other times when I’ve wondered which horse I should ride and which I should cut loose, but the above are the main ones that come to mind. But after each detour into visual supremacy, I’d return again to my primary writing urge.
My painting history itself seems to be a back and forth between a literary quest, often but not always realistic, and an unconscious devotion to unfocused but pyrotechnic visual energies, often but not always abstract. These abstract energies are strong. They are often contra-writing, but they are necessary.
My earliest painting impulse was to depict mythic scenes or an emotional reaction to a scene. In this sense they were literary, serving my writing quest. But in my first painting class at Rice I was enjoined to do large abstracts. Although the physical aspects of paint and size attracted me, I could not control the energy, could not master a large canvas, and wound up making easy, unknowing BS. Here I had that first sense of possibly abandoning writing in favor of visual art, yet within weeks I was rocked by my first art crisis, depressed at the nonsense I was putting out. In reaction to that class I reverted to my first urge towards mythic images:
In a second Rice painting class my last semester, I again lost my bearings in abstraction, creating several huge, bad, and depressing messes. At the same time, my writing energy was scattered. Yet, out of school, I persevered with abstraction, continuing to explore its psychological power, getting into the feel of paint and improvisation. During this period I became convinced that every canvas should be five feet by five feet. I think this has to do with the fact that my first Rice art instructor showed me one of his five by five foot canvases, and it became a challenge to master just that size.
But as I was working on the free-for-all of my 1,587 page rough draft novel Akard Drearstone, I began a series of personal myth paintings, abandoning abstraction entirely. The first of these were real breakthroughs, but by 1985 they had become a series of rules to be followed (including having to be five feet by five feet), and their fascinating energy was gone.
The four graphic novels I did during these years, including The Story of Lester Quartz’s Fantastic Journey, Volume 1, do show an odd marriage of the visual and the literary. I drew them on my own terms long before I had heard the phrase “graphic novel.” I just thought of them as messy, funny comic books, one drawing per page of a journal. My only problem was that I couldn’t draw fast enough to keep up with the unfolding story, but a solid benefit was the fact that, as I got near the end of a journal, I’d realize I needed to fully conclude the story in the remaining 28 panels, and this sparked some concentrated planning and discipline.
In 1986, understanding that the myth paintings had run their course, I added what I called “developmental energy” to the process and began to grow again as artist after some years of stasis. I alternated realistic images with abstraction, experimented with materials and techniques, at the same time as I was writing my novels Sortmind and CommWealth. For a while there was a good balance between writing and art.
By 1995 I had moved more confidently into large scale abstract work, and I started putting paintings in shows from 1997 on. I created sortmind.com in 1999 to showcase the visual work as well as the writing side, but by this time I was beginning to think in terms of a 50/50 split, and the website still reflects that division. One-man shows at various libraries and some sales convinced me that visual art would be my real path. This also involved the concept that a prospective buyer or gallery owner can assess a visual piece in a moment, whereas reading a manuscript is a days or weeks-long process. And that visual art pays more! Consider a thousand dollars for an afternoon abstract versus five years on a book yielding a dollar per hardback book sale …
After taking early retirement in 2006 I found myself chasing after galleries, trying to crank out saleable paintings, and getting depressed. I undertook the long July 2006 drive to the Irving Arts Center—vast, municipal, cold and daunting—in grim businesslike despair—yet in a far corridor were the Paul Zelinsky drawings, original illustrations for children’s books. Wondrous illustrations. I was alone in the sun-filled corridor, entranced by meaning art. Beyond my talents for sure. But I was obviously not looking at someone’s ego-trippy need to simply “express himself,” but the work of an artist who was saying something.
Seeing these beautiful drawings ended the Summer Art Career.
At the same time, The Forced March was beginning. I took a look at my past writings and saw that they were psychically off. No wonder I had not been eager to send these novels to publishers and follow up in serious ways! For, even as finished manuscripts, they were incomplete. My real sense of life was not in them. But now I began to know how to reenergize their characters and plots and bring them up to date. Over the past five years I’ve marched through revisions of Sortmind, The Martian Marauders, Jack Commer, Nonprofit Ladies, The University of Mars, CommWealth, Akard Drearstone, The Soul Institute, and The First Twenty Steps, and have been sending these manuscripts to publishers. And am now starting some new fiction.
During this period I’ve been doing smaller scale abstracts, retrenching, slowing down, finding my way back to a “meaning” style of abstract. There have been some excellent results through this time, including some new sculpture experiments. I’m now working on some unstretched, mural-sized canvases as an experiment in freeing up energy. And in trying to get to the bottom of what this visual side of me wants.
I don’t want to repeat what others are doing. I’ve seen some work on the Internet and in galleries that’s “like what I do,” some worse, some much better. It makes me realize I don’t want to compete with that stuff. Giving up the “art career” means giving up that competition, giving up the weird aristocracy of the gallery world, the endless physical preparations and effort to impress gallery directors, critics, and buyers, giving up the contests and the juried show applications and the discouraging attempt to decipher bizarre, meandering, meaningless artist statements. When I realized I didn’t have the heart for that, when I realized I didn’t want to be in a studio every day churning out the improvised abstracts or matting and framing a thousand drawings, I knew for certain that my visual art belongs in second place, in literary service to my writing.
I definitely need the visual: the paintings, loose drawings, the art journal, the studio–and a happy exhibiting of it, and hopefully a happy selling of it, in a relaxed, sane manner. I insist on calling my art literary. And while I believe I’m professional enough to put my work up against that of other artists, I now know that I’m not about to give it that final ambition push. The push to excel is going into my writing.
Painting is necessary but it does exhaust me. It’s enough for me to average ten paintings a year. I may speed up or slow down, I may push a lot of energy into exploring a certain method, but my painting serves a psychological need that doesn’t translate well into “art career.” It’s more than a hobby, though. It could even be a laid back business, but it’s not a career.
Whereas I literally can write every night, gaining energy each time. And my desire is to keep expanding the writing expression without limit. My real talents and love are in writing, and I wonder how I ever could have thought otherwise. Yes, when I was trying on “art career” I could still say 80% writing, 20% art, but that wasn’t what I was hoping. I was hoping that art could make me such a pile of money that I might be able to fiddle with a few Akard or Jack Commer sequels in peace … but they would be treated as afterthoughts.
The development I do wish for my visual art is to be its unique self. It will be fun to do things I’ve never done before. Some of my work may look like something others did, but I’m not imitating, trying to follow a trend, I’m simply developing something for myself first. I am off the art career path.
copyright 2011 by Michael D. Smith
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