Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Marcel DuChamp and the Art of Coaching

A rock pile ceases to be a rock pile the moment a single man contemplates it, bearing within him the image of a cathedral.
Antoine de Saint-Exupery, author and aviator (29 Jun 1900-1944)

Convergence, ©Adriana Díaz, 1998
10" x 10", packing tape, tea bag paper, dryer lint, and bones

            Where does art begin? What makes a thing a work of art?
            Where does success begin?  What defines success?
            These art questions may seem esoteric fodder for art historians or critics, but in the statement above, posed by Antoine de Saint-Exupery (a WWI aviation hero and author of The Little Prince),  art and life are rooted together in the moment of contemplation. It was Marcel DuChamp, the godfather of Conceptual Art who pushed against the art world when he rejected paint (which he considered an industrially produced medium) in favor of presenting existing objects in extra-ordinary ways. DuChamp preached through his art, his philosophy that the act of creation in the human mind, conceptualization, was in itself valid as art. He would have been in complete agreement with St. Exupery in his statement that a pile of rocks ceases to be a rock pile as soon as someone sees in it, its potential transformation into a cathedral.
            So determined was DuChamp to spread his creed, that he exhibited objects, what he called ready mades, in many major exhibition venues (when they were accepted by broad-minded jurors). Consequently, he famously exhibited a urinal under the title “Fountain”. (That is just one of his better-known pieces.)
It’s important to recognize that Conceptual Art grew out of two post WWI art movements: Dada and Surrealism. Dada had a particularly bitter, ironical wit that grew from young European artists raising their heads in the wake of that horrific war to find everything in ruins. It's important to remember that mustard gas had been used in WWI, so men returning from battle were commonly neurologically changed for life. Along with lost limbs and physical scars, they had trouble walking, talking, thinking, and working. Artists saw this level of annihilation and created an anti-art art movement, one that recognized destruction, chaos, and brutality. Surrealism then, turned toward the underground territory of the subconscious, away from the tattered real world into the dream world and into a life of metaphor, where even common sense had a new definition.
            The uneducated may still scoff at DuChamp from time to time, but in the intellectual world, he is seen as a great standard bearer, a colossus marking the gateway to modern and post-modern art. Today, when I saw this quote from St. Exupery I thought of DuChamp, but I also thought about the whole Human Potential Movement. I thought about Oprah Winfrey and Tony Robbins, and every self-help teacher that populates the contemporary stage of human endeavor. It is an accepted belief, that each of our future accomplishments begins in our mind. We conceptualize our future. So every success we achieve begins, just like St Exupery’s pile of rocks or DuChamp’s art, the moment we create the vision of our potential future.
Just as in art, the craft of creating the future happens in the day to day manner in which we work, by the choices we make, and the attitude we put into that work. This is where my work as a coach becomes so important. Sometimes I am needed to support the conceptualizing process, but I am always helpful in the craft of making things happen. That, to me, is the art of coaching.

Sunday, June 21, 2015


 "Talk of Change"       Mixed Media         36" x 36"

         Before East Bay Open Studios 2015, I posted a short essay in LinkedIn about the preparation that goes into those events. So now, I thought I should try to give another glimpse at what happens after Open Studios.
The thing is, while the aftermath has some commonalities, variations are far greater. For example, a person who sold well, might have a sense of self-esteem, and even euphoria. Putting everything away, reorganizing work and materials is an opportunity to remember the events with pleasure. However, a person who sold nothing is fraught with questions. What could I have done better? Marketing? Location? Better image in the catalog? Not enough people reached? Then there are the deeper questions about the work itself. That is a deeply personal odyssey that leads an artist to the mirror, if only symbolically speaking.
            We have to be honest about the variety of art forms available during Open Studio Events. There are decorative arts, utilitarian arts, and then that thing that is called “fine art”. Fine Art exists for itself, and may intend to stir the soul and/or intellect. That type of art is difficult to sell; harder to sell than a bar of chocolate, though the two can sometimes deliver the same experience. My work is in that bracket.
            So from my perspective, Open Studios is always a financial gamble. But it is also a mental, even a spiritual, gamble. Once a lady who’d been standing silently looking at one of my paintings with her husband, came right up to it. I wondered if she was going to ask me to explain a certain section, or comment on the emotion it had stirred. Instead, she opened her purse and pulled out a piece of fabric and held it next to the painting. “Whaddaya think?” she asked her husband. He squinted his eyes and opened his mouth (as if both gestures helped him to see better). “Gnah,” he said slowly, “I don’t think it’s gonna do.” She shrugged, put the fabric back into her purse, and joined him on his way to the next exhibitor.
            I’ve often asked myself what I’d have done if the painting had matched the sofa. Would I have sold it to them? I still don’t know the answer for sure, but I’d like to think I would not. If I were to do such a thing, I imagine myself laying awake at night like a parent who has sent their child off to military school. What was I thinking? How could I have done that? How can I get him back?
            Since the fabric-in-the-purse lady I have toughened up a lot. I’m ready for anything and nothing, and I get both. Before caring about whether or not someone is going to buy my work, honestly, I hope that there is some unspoken or ineffable transmission of humanness. I know that it may not be what I intended, if I intended something, but I do hope for communication of a meta-message, or some type of transcendent experience; something beyond thought, maybe even beyond chocolate.
            When I came home after two weekends sitting in a beautiful garage waiting to engage with strangers in front of pieces of my work for seven hours a day, feeling pretty tired. I hadn’t sold anything, so I could have felt depressed. But as I said, I’m tougher than that now, so I felt philosophical. I am certain about my work, certain that it is genuine and provocative and mysterious. I reflected on the interactions I’d had, and a number of them had been delightful and interesting. I was pleased to have younger artists ask about materials, and I was moved by adults who looked deeply at the work and walked away nodding their head. “Nice work,” is all I had to hear from them. 
            But this week the Open Studios experience continued to evolve when I got a phone call from a young woman who’d seen a photo of a piece in one of my portfolios, and expressed an interest in seeing the real thing. “Sure,” I said, “give me a call and you can come to the studio.” Honestly, I didn’t count on hearing from her again (people say a lot of things they don’t mean). So when she called, I was very impressed. And today, as I swept the studio floor in preparation for her visit, I told myself not to get my hopes up because though the presence of a piece usually delivers more than its photo, it’s possible the piece will look completely different from the image she went away with. She may not get the same feeling she got from the photo.
            So the hour came, and she walked in. The piece was on the easel, and I watched her face. Big, beautiful smile. “Oh,” she said, “it’s even better than the photo.” I took a deep breath, and allowed myself to enjoy watching a person receive that transcendent je ne sais quoi. She described a bit about the feeling it gave her, and why it was so significant at this moment in her life. It was the thing one hopes for: a meeting of the art, the artist, and the viewer at a deeply conscious oasis of being.
            Now this might surprise you: what made the sale sweeter was that she didn’t have a job, and she didn’t have the money. But the piece was so important to her that she hoped she could buy it in payments. When a person stretches financially to own your work, you know you’ve found it a good home. Fifty dollars a month may not make a big addition to my income, but I know I will sleep very well.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The key to finding happiness

 The ability to forgive oneself is the key to making art, 
and is possibly the key to finding any semblance of happiness in life. 
                                                                                Ann Patchett

The first time I read these words, tears welled up in my eyes. How brave and brilliant of Ann Patchett to name the connection between forgiveness and art making.
Art is about daring. Consequently, it is a road strewn with the rubble of mistakes. Whether big or small, our errors empower our insights. Thomas Edison, at the time when he was working on the invention of the electric light bulb, was challenged by someone criticizing him, saying he should admit that he’d failed to accomplish what he set out to do. Edison famously answered, “ I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.”
            Ten thousand attempts! Not only did he forgive himself for guessing wrong and using up precious time, rent money, the salary of his assistant, and the cost of materials, he understood that each failure was an increase in his knowledge. That single insight was ultimately what led to his success. Not only did he forgive himself for not succeeding each time, he made each failure an integral part of success.
In art, there is more destruction than construction. Most people don’t understand that. Whether you are learning to draw the human figure, or sculpt a piece of wood without cracking it, you are going to make some really ugly things. In learning to draw the human figure, for example, we cannot even count the number of errors made on the way to learning how to do it successfully. Your subject is a structure of bones and organs covered with muscles, tendons, ligaments, fat and flesh. And it’s your aim to make a drawing that looks like a person whose presence neatly defies the blood driven complexity of its being. In order to do that, you have to make at least a thousand bad drawings. You have to get it wrong over and over again, in order to get it right. The same is true in writing, music, dance, musicianship, and all creative endeavors, including technical and industrial design (as per the genius of Edison).
            Knowing the requirements of art or life does not, however, remove the emotions, the psychological nagging, or the haunting voices of teachers or relatives who derided you for your vision and desire to be “an artist” or “a person”. That’s when Anne Patchett’s words are so important. Forgive yourself for every crumpled piece of paper, for every deleted sentence, for every off note. And don’t forget that the word life is interchangeable with the word art in the quotation. Remember Edison, and realize that every failure is part of success. You may lose a job, or a lover. When you are committed to a vision, there will be times when you feel alienated from others, and sometimes even alienated from the easy life you think others are living. You may have days when you question the ambitions that drive you, but those are the days when you must remember the words of Anne Patchett. Forgive yourself. Take yourself out for a treat or give yourself a day off.        
           In my experience, even if I try to push myself away from the frustration of the creative process, before I realize it, my mind is on it again. A new insight about the story I’m writing comes to me just before I go to sleep, or I see in my mind’s eye a shift in the painting waiting on the easel. Then, I’m back at it, forgiving the process, and forgetting the last disappointment. You are not alone. Life is a creative process, so even people who do not name their art form are going through the cycles of trial, error, frustration and forgiveness. You are surrounded by fellow travelers.

* The painting above is titled "In Your Love I Find My Home" 12" x 12", 2014