Playing to an (almost) empty house

Theatre of Sarria [from Wikimedia Commons]

Theatre of Sarria [from Wikimedia Commons]

Every so often I take a look at Google Analytics, not so much to get a sense of who is looking at my site as to confirm whether anyone at all is looking at it. I get a lot of hits, but as near as I can tell most of them are bots, probably looking to send me tips on search engine optimization or else probing for unpatched WordPress vulnerabilities. When I filter out the bots I typically find a few sessions per month that look like legitimate traffic, a smaller fraction of which were interested enough in what they found to stick around and check out more than a couple of pages. Last month someone from Quebec looked at nine of them.

Or to go by another metric: in the three years I’ve been writing the blog I’ve had two legitimate comments (and 500 or so spam comments), and two or three legitimate messages sent via my contact form.

So one gets the sense that the course of world events would not be much altered if I decided to pack in the blog and do something more useful with my spare time like, say, watching old X-Files episodes on Netflix. But so far anyway I haven’t. Why is that?

It strikes me you could ask the same question about my painting, too. At this point in the game, the odds of me gaining any significant recognition as a painter are pretty close to zero. While one can console oneself with the thought that a number of one’s heroes also laboured in obscurity for most of their lives (cf. Cezanne, or Torres-Garcia), the sad truth is that the number of obscure painters whose works landed in the dumpster after they died far exceeds the number whose works now hang in the MoMA. If I was a betting man, I’d have to conclude the smart money would put me in the former group, not the latter. So why keep going?

The short answer, of course, is that I enjoy painting, and I enjoy thinking and writing about painting. While it would of course be great to have a bigger audience than I do, ultimately my enjoyment doesn’t depend on the number of other people who see my work. And to a certain extent, I suspect my enjoyment of both painting and writing is greater precisely because the stakes are so low. I’m not under any sort of pressure to produce. No deadlines for shows, no quotas to fill, apart from what I impose on myself.

Well okay, one might counter, but if it’s truly the case that my enjoyment doesn’t depend on public acclaim, why bother to make any of my work public at all? Why not leave the paintings in the garage, and the writings on the hard drive?

Truth be told, for a long time I mostly did just that. Like Emily Dickinson, I too believed that “Publication is not the business of poets.” But a few years ago I changed my mind. I came to believe I had it wrong; that showing your work is in fact a part of painting, as much a part of it as the preliminary sketch or the underpainting, except that it comes at the end, not the beginning. It represents the completion of the work: a painting isn’t finished until it has some sort of public existence.

I’m not entirely certain what triggered that shift in belief, but I think it might have been something I read on the blog of Stapleton Kearns, whose Advice to a Student included the following tip:

Start showing you art locally. If you were studying piano you would play recitals, if you are studying painting you should be showing your art. That is part of the process.

That was something I hadn’t really considered before; that showing your work might be intrinsic to the process of creating it, not something extrinsic that happens after the work is done. And not only intrinsic to painting, but also intrinsic to the process of becoming a better painter. It seems to me that even the possibility your work might be seen by another human is enough to invoke an extra layer of critical reflection, spurring one on to clarify and refine one’s statement and in so doing, clarify the thinking behind it.

Current events

Normally I don’t like to write about current events in this blog, preferring instead to focus on irrelevant stuff that happened 50 years ago. But I can’t resist giving a big thumbs up to today’s announcement that Alfred Pellan’s paintings Canada East and Canada West hang once more in the reception area of the Foreign Affairs building in Ottawa. Pellan’s colourful modernist landscapes had been there since 1973, but were removed in 2011 by the foreign affairs minister of the day. They were replaced with a remarkably dour painting of Queen Elizabeth, as if to say, “we’re a nation of joyless, antediluvian curmudgeons and we don’t care who knows it.”

Welcome back, Mr. Pellan!

Playing on the open strings

Back when I was a kid I played bass in a succession of bands that, thankfully, never made it out of the garage. I was not a particularly good bass player, and that’s putting it as kindly as possible. Still, during my garage band era there was a period lasting approximately three months where I actually thought I might get serious about the bass. It was during that period I took a few lessons from a guy named Art.

bass guitarArt taught me two things that I remember. First, that it was pointless taking lessons if you weren’t willing to practice on your own time. Second, that it was okay to play on the open strings. And it’s that last one I’d like to focus on here.

Somewhere I’d heard or read that real bass players never played on the open strings. Strings are open when they aren’t being pressed, so another way of expressing the rule is that you should always have one of your left fingers pressing on a string when you play it. As there are four strings on a bass there are four notes you can play open, typically E, A, D, and G in a standard tuning. Only one of those notes (the low E) is unavailable at all if you insist on the “no open strings” rule, the rest can be played in alternate positions.

During one of our lessons I noticed Art playing an open string and when he was done I said, “I thought there was a rule you shouldn’t play on the open strings.”

Art said, “Let me ask you something: why do you think that rule exists?”

Of course, I had no idea, so after a suitable pause, Art went on: “It exists because the open strings sound different than the closed strings. For certain kinds of music, it would be distracting for the bass to play notes with different textures. But for other kinds of music it’s just fine. Some bassists really love the open strings and will always play open notes if they can.”

And that was how I learned rules in art are only guidelines, and if you know the reason for a rule, you know when it’s OK to ignore it. So when I hear other painters say things like “You should never paint with black” or “You should never use paint straight out of the tube” I remember Art, and I think about the open strings.

Beginnings and Endings

When I was in high school I had the good fortune to take classes from a truly gifted art teacher, Dale Drever. He was one of those teachers who could really whip up enthusiasm for the subject he taught, probably because of his own level of engagement with art and ideas, not to mention the quirky sense of humour that he brought to it as well. He introduced us to all the stuff you normally get in the first couple of years of art school: gesture drawing, colour, composition, and art historical movements like impressionism, cubism, and surrealism. In my Edmonton high school in the 70s this was pretty heady stuff; you really had the sense that your mental universe had expanded by several increments after reading that Time/Life book on Dada. A group of us took to hanging out in the Art classroom at lunchtime and actually working on our projects, not just goofing off. This was my first and best experience of working independently yet collectively, as we bounced ideas off each other and worked out our own approaches to shared themes.

Sadly, not that long ago I discovered that Dale Drever passed away in 2010 at the age of 67. I don’t have a lot of regrets, but one of them is that I never looked him up while he was still alive. I’ve had a lot of art teachers over the years, a number of whom were excellent. He was the best, and I would have liked to tell him so.