Art Making and the Pandemic

“Religion and Art spring from the same root and are close kin. Economics and Art are strangers.” Willa Cather 

Sink Daisy © 2018 Michael Maurer Smith

There is much speculation about how the art world will survive the Covid 19 pandemic. Most of what I’ve read centers on the financial devastation that will be incurred. Many galleries and museums are closing, art events and exhibits are being cancelled indefinitely, many university art programs will cease to exist, and thousands of artists are losing income. When the pandemic ends the world economies will have little, if any, funding left for arts and culture

 But art and art making will survive. People made art long before money was conceived; long before the concepts of marketing, finance and economics were thought of; long before art was commodified and artists turned into production workers; long before art became a profession and universities offered Master of Fine Arts degrees. 

Art making will remain available as a form of meditation or prayer. It can be a therapeutic practice—a way of expressing feelings—a way for the individual, or a group, to express joy at being alive. It can offer respite or a means of protest. It can be bartered for goods and services. It can be done just for the fun of it. Moreover, one’s artwork need not be sold to be valid and meaningful. Art making is its own reward. Nonetheless, artists should expect and demand fair prices when their artwork is sold. And the serious artist must work with integrity and self respect.    

© 2020 Michael Maurer Smith

iPad Solace and Meditation

Greenpeace Red, digital painting © 2020 Michael Maurer Smith

One revelation I take from the Covid 19 pandemic is that solace, meditation and joy may be found in drawing and painting. But for most artists drawing and painting necessitates studio space, tools, materials and storage which can be impossible to acquire or secure in the challenging circumstances we are now experiencing.

Balboa Enso, digital photo/painting, © 2020 Michael Maurer Smith 

For the past few days I have been using the Procreate application on my iPad to make digital paintings and drawings. Until recently I had dismissed the iPad as a serious art tool and medium. But I came to realize it offers an efficient, forgiving, flexible, mobile, economic, and aesthetically pleasing way to work. The Procreate application, combined with the Apple Pencil and the iPad’s touch screen permits the immediate capture of nuanced and pressure sensitive marks and strokes. And there is no paper, charcoal, graphite or paint being consumed. Nor do the resulting jpegs (or Tiffs, PSDs) require a flat file for storage. Moreover, the final art can be shared online or printed out, singly or in editions. It can also be used to make books, presentations and animations. 

© 2020 Michael Maurer Smith

 

But Is it Art?

Red Leaf Circle, photomontage, © 2018 Michael Maurer Smith

Everyone has an opinion about what Art is or isn’t. When asked to explain their opinion they may say art is whatever the artist says it is. Or, I don’t know much about art but I know what I like. Neither response is satisfactory and each is a protestation of ignorance.    

But what then elevates something to the status of art with a capital A? In the Balinese language, for example, there is no word for art or artist, even though the Balinese people produce exquisite paintings, carvings, weavings, music, writing and dance. In their culture artistic expression is an inextricable part of their religion and rituals. 

And then there is the question of beauty. Many people, probably most, would aver that art must be beautiful. But what constitutes beauty? 

In his poem, Ode on a Grecian Urn, John Keats wrote, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” His words posit that the measure of art is how close it brings us to the truth‚ regardless of whether that truth is pleasant or disturbing. So a truthful painting, depicting the horror of war, may be a beautiful picture brilliantly executed by a skilled and passionate artist—a genuine work of art. But it will not be pretty or pleasant to behold.

The following are some of the many questions about what is art that defy definitive answers but are worth pondering:

  1. How broad and inclusive can the definition of art be before it becomes meaningless?
  2. For something to be a work of art, must its maker have intended it to be art?
  3. Marcel Duchamp said of his work, “It is Art if I say so.” In today’s art world this is an accepted dictum. But, is art really whatever the artist says it is?
  4. Can one become a legitimate artist just by proclaiming that they are? Am I a chef because I can scramble eggs and brew coffee?
  5. If everyone can be an artist, and art is whatever the artist says it is, what meaningful measures of artistic quality and excellence can there be?
  6. Is art always political? 
  7. When a work is fabricated by skilled craftspersons and technicians, following the artist’s specifications, are they all the artist? 

The Price of Art

“Night and Day” (detail) © 2017 Michael Maurer Smith

One of the most difficult decisions for an artist to make is what to charge for her or his work. Let’s consider the following example of a hypothetical painter. 

Janine is an experienced but not well-known artist. She has spent most of her adult life living in a small town in a “flyover” state. In the town there is a frame shop that sells the work of local artists, and a member supported cooperative gallery that limps along on membership fees and grants. Janine has a deep knowledge of art history and has honed her painting skills over a period of more than 20 years, but she lacks formal credentials—having not so much as an Associates degree. But she is not a Sunday dauber. And though she lacks formal art credentials and the recognition of the art world, she is, nonetheless, a real artist. When she can’t make art she suffers—like a mother torn away from her child. It is art and art making that gives her meaning and purpose. And though her art brings her joy it sometimes plunges her into despair and self doubt, causing her to question why she follows this path that demands so much sacrifice.

Janine’s paintings are not conventional, pretty, cute or clever. They are non-representational. She doesn’t paint pictures of adorable puppies or stunning sunsets. She does not study what sells and then conform her paintings to the demands and preferences of the market. She does not make a fetish of technique. She does not paint for an audience and acclaim. She is not an entertainer. Janine paints to express feelings from the core of her being. She finds solace in art making. She uses her art to express and share what is otherwise ineffable. For her painting is visual poetry and inquiry. It is a form of breathing; of being.  

So asking Janine, the artist, the price of any one of her paintings is to ask her to place a monetary value on part of her soul—something she (or any artist) should never undervalue.

© 2019 Michael Maurer Smith

More Than Megapixels

Written in the Sky © 2013 Michael Maurer Smith

I crossed to the northwest corner at Dewey and Grover streets where sits the house where the Mill’s family had lived in the nineteen fifties and sixties. It had been a beautiful place then.

Mr. Mills restored antique cars and he lavished that same care and attention on his home as he did his restorations. But on this day, more than forty five years later, the place stood vacant. The lawn was overgrown, several of the upper windows were broken and the exterior paint was faded and peeling. 

I’d come to Owosso this morning to take photographs of the neighborhood in which I’d grown up. My plan had been to roam about and photograph whatever caught my attention. As I looked at what had been the Mill’s home, I noticed the vintage television antenna on the roof. It was laying on its side and seemed to be reaching up to the tree above it, reminiscent of Michelangelo’s painting in the Sistine Chapel; the hand of God reaching down to Adam.

The tree’s branches were budding with spring’s promise. In contrast the antenna lay lifeless and cold—an anachronism. It was probably the very antenna that once brought into the Mill’s living room the Lone Ranger, Soupy Sales, Sky King, and Roy Rogers, in black and white, in those days of innocence and ignorance.

Looking through the viewfinder I composed to include the antenna, roofline and branches. I made 3 or 4 exposures and was satisfied. But then, I noticed in the distance, the contrail of high flying jet approaching from the east. I thought, if I could make the same photograph, but this time with the contrail included, it would enrich the meaning of the picture. I returned the camera to the tripod and composed for the same scene again. When the long white line came into the frame I made several exposures to be sure I got a good one. And I did.  

I made a photograph that day that contrasted the natural and the manufactured, the then and now. I had made a photograph that displayed a pleasing arrangement of shapes, tones and lines—a photograph of good geometry. It spoke to the history of the last century and the one we now live in. It is one of the most satisfying photographs I have ever made. And not once during that process, nor since, did I feel I needed more than the 12 megapixel capability of the Nikon D90 I used.

NOTE: This piece was originally written in 2013 and revised 5 November 2019.

I’m Looking

1950 Plymouth © 2007 Michael Maurer Smith

NOTE: The following quote, about the late photographer Robert Frank’s experience of looking in America is taken from, The Art of Looking Sideways, written by the renown graphic designer Alan Fletcher. Those of you with much experience photographing in public will likely have had similar experiences. I know I have. Moreover, in recent years it seems to have gotten worse.

Robert Frank spent 1955 criss-crossing the United States, photographing cafeterias, flophouses, shoe shiners, public lavatories, the abraded faces of retirees, assembly lines in Detroit. In the south a sheriff asked him what his business was. ‘I’m looking,’ he replied. He was given an hour to get out of town and in Arkansas spent three days in gaol for the same offense—observation. ‘To look’ was un-American.

Alan Fletcher
The Art of Looking Sideways, page 187

Overhead Costs

Overhead Costs, © 2019 Michael Maurer Smith

We often see people walking, riding, even driving, with their earbuds in and their heads down, staring into the glowing screen embedded in their palm while relying upon their peripheral vision to avoid the obstacles in their path. We see them thumb-tapping messages, checking and sending emails, setting appointments, swiping for dates, and ordering products as they go. But seldom do we see them look to the sky. If they did they might notice the intestines of our electronic age criss crossing and entangled above their heads and perhaps that might give them pause to think about the overhead costs. They might ask themselves why we humans so readily waste and scar the environment and accept the ugly in exchange for comfort, entertainment and convenience; why with all of our technological advances do we still rely upon poles and strung wires as we did in the earliest days of the telegraph? They might wonder, do I spend so much of my life engaged with glowing screens because it is too depressing to look at the reality that surrounds me? 

© 2019 Michael Maurer Smith

A Bestsellers Day

Bestseller Books, Mason, Michigan

The day was an LL Bean version of autumn—blue sky, the maple leaves turning yellow orange and crimson, the air crisp with a hint of the arctic temperatures on the way. 

I love October. It is a time of gathering in, assessment, and readying. Each passing day offers less daylight and the chill makes you bundle up. It is the time for fires in the fireplace. A time for summing up.

I’d come to Mason this Sunday morning to get away from my familiar routine and enjoy the genuine character and simplicity of this small town. My plan was to walk about, take photos and then retreat to Bestsellers, the independent book store and coffee shop, that sits across from the Ingham county courthouse. There I’d think, write, eat pastry and drink coffee. I’d be alone but with other people. Bestsellers, is fit into a late 19th century storefront with angled free parking at the curb. It is a relaxed, cozy and welcoming place. The selection of books is an eclectic mix with a little something for everyone. 

I support independent booksellers, so I’d given myself permission to buy a book. As I browsed I came across a slim volume by Joan Didion, titled South and West, From a Notebook. I sampled a couple of pages and was interested, but there were more books to consider so I set it back on the shelf and moved on. After looking at some other titles I went back to the Didion book for a second look. I still found it interesting, but did I really want to spend the money? Again I placed it back on the shelf. It was time to get something to eat. 

I ordered a regular size pour-over coffee and a triple fudge muffin and then found my way to a table in a quiet corner. From here I overheard the after church conversations of a family seated nearby. I gazed out the windows and saw dads and moms walking toddlers and two boys tossing a football on the the square. Except for the two young women at a front table who were working on laptop computers, it could have been 1919 instead of 2019. 

I took my writing notebook, pen and camera from my Manhattan bag, and began reviewing the photos I’d taken on my walk. After that I began writing some thoughts and plans. But I kept thinking about Didion’s book. I felt I needed it as much as I wanted it. I felt that I was receiving a message, perhaps from a divine source or from my subconscious. I knew that this would be a book of inspiration and a model; a teacher. There was no time to waste. I got up, leaving my camera, notebook, pen, jacket and hat, walked into the books area, retrieved South and West. I took it to the counter, and paid the clerk. It was the right decision.

© 2019 Michael Maurer Smith

More Than Meets the Eye

MMS_20120922_139I have not lived in Owosso for more than forty years now, but on the morning of 9 October 2012, I came for a visit. While here I walked around the old neighborhood I’d grown up in. As I approached the corner of Park and Comstock streets I saw beneath an American flag an A-frame sidewalk sign that read, Shane Thanks For Your Service—the words spelled out in upper case, unpunctuated, sans serif, plastic letters of mixed size—a humble and poignant scene. PFC Shane Cantu had been killed in Afghanistan six weeks earlier.

As a photographer I saw a pleasing composition—the curving yellow curb, Old Glory waving against an azure sky and the flag’s shadow framing the sign. But there was more in this picture.

The sign stood in front of 123 East Comstock street, the current location of Sunnyside Florist. But, in 1948 this was the building in which Clay Reeves began Reeve’s Wheel Alignment. As a Marine Clay had fought on Iwo Jima and was wounded three times. For his heroism he received the Silver Star, two Bronze Stars and three Purple Hearts. And just a few yards up the street, but not visible in the photograph, sits the Indian Trails Bus station from where hundreds of young men and women have left for service in: World War Two, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. In 1968, I was one of them—on my way to Marine Corps boot camp in San Diego. So it is fitting that Shane was remembered in this place.

When I look at this picture I remember how I felt that August morning in 1968 as the door closed and the bus lurched onto Comstock street. I remember those last glimpses through the window of the quiet town and life I was leaving behind and thinking I might never return.

For me this photograph is a reminder, warning, evocation and image of hallowed space.

© 2018 Michael Maurer Smith

The Enlightened Window

A little after 2:00 p.m., on 15 December 2005, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, I photographed the front window of Evangelo’s Cocktail Bar. It displayed a melange of images taped and painted on the pane, including: a partial events calendar, a cash only sign, an ice blue and yellow hand-painted welcome star or flower, a spindly yellow painting that appeared to be a Christmas decoration, and two Xeroxed copies of photographs originally taken by the renown photographer W. Eugene Smith, during the Second World War, of Angelo Klonis, the founder of the bar. Behind all this a table, or some other piece of furniture, leaned against the glass.

DSC_0066_web
Evangelo’s Window, Santa Fe, NM

This was not a window dressed by a professional. It was not conventionally beautiful, pretty or appropriate to the season. But it was an intriguing assemblage that called out to be photographed. And for me it was a pleasing find—a Christmas gift.

I find windows fascinating aesthetically and for what they reveal about the people who made them and those who live and work behind them. Windows are historical, cultural, social, political and artistic statements both in their form and by whatever appears on and behind the glass.

MMS_20141014_098_web
City Lights Bookstore window, San Francisco, CA
MMS_090523_339_web
“Storrer’s” (vacant storefront window), Owosso, MI
MMS_edit_060317_133_web
1947 Dodge Pickup, Davison, MI

The fundamental purpose of the window is to allow light in but some emit enlightenment. They are portals for vision and imagination. They can be promises, gifts or disappointments. They demarcate the here from there, the then from now. They show, tell and inspire.

© 2018 Michael Maurer Smith