Monticello Road is a community arts project in Charlottesville, Virginia. Through photography and a series of public events and conversations, we explore how an art can be an essential, integral and everyday part of a healthy community.

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Sunday, January 31, 2010

Love and Cold Water

Plenty of cold water in my neighbor's yard. Actually, this photo is not germane to the post--I just included it because I like it.

A since-departed mentor of mine once told me, “All an artist needs is love and cold water.” That two-part prescription is problematic on both sides of the equation but lets take them in the order they come.

For an artist, appreciation and approbation can be powerful motivators but their pursuit can be ends unto themselves. I actually don’t know too many artists whose ambition is to be wealthy through their art (not much danger of that) but very many would like to be appreciated, influential, respected within their field, remembered after they’re gone. Reasonable enough but when you think about it, those are pretty big requests, beyond the reach of most who are not lucky enough to have a bridge or a park bench named for them.

One blessing artist enjoy is that if they work real hard and are lucky, they create living talismans that alter perspectives and perhaps carry their name into the future. That’s the goal but I am repulsed when someone pushes that agenda too hard—their ego, their need to be loved eclipses the work. That’s just me though: I am much more interested in real, impactful work than keeping track of who’s famous at this moment.

In order to be loved, an artist must love their work in a giving way and love does not carry a quid pro quo: I love thee that I may be loved. The artist needs love but he must give it out, not knowing whether it will redound.

What about the business with the cold water?

There has been a debate through the ages—and I’m not going to answer it on this blog—about whether artists need to suffer to find inspiration. Consuelo didn’t simply tell me that artists need the universal solvent for its life-giving, thirst-quenching properties. She wanted me stay out of my comfort zone, away from complacency. I think she was right: I work best when I’m challenging myself and taking that terrifying leap from bathtub to freezing waterfall.

There’s a second, more sinister interpretation that also holds some sway: that artists should not get paid; that suffering, privation, and tragedy are somehow good for the artist’s work.

Believe me when I say this: my work is not better after a poor night’s sleep. My work is not enhanced by shaking and baking out in the marketplace so the mortgage gets paid—I simply make less art during those periods. Spiritual hunger is good, and perhaps a little gnaw in the belly can get you off the couch but starvation does not yield up good art.

Basic respect and appreciation, subsistence, and the occasional splash on the face—that’s enough to keep most artists going. The good ones find a way to keep going even when those basics are not forthcoming.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Art is a Gift

My mother used to knit hats for the homeless, so I was delighted when I saw that someone is also looking after the cans where they forage and the trees under which they sleep.

UPDATE: Hear about the piece in this NPR report.

My friends Jen and Bill are organizing a series of events and happenings back in New York that explore many aspects of the relationship between art, artist, and society. One big question they are discussing is where art aught to sit on the continuum between gift and commodity. Clearly art can be either or both, but I really love when art is a gift that is freely given. I joined the conversation yesterday and I was very quickly treated to a very fine example.

When I got into the studio this morning, my neighbor Robin asked if I had seen the sleeve on a tree in the nearby park. I had no idea what she meant so I went and investigated. Turns out that someone had knitted or crocheted an arm-warmer for one of the wonderful trees in Lee Park and also a cozy sweater for a nearby trashcan.

None of us could figure out who made them but I'm sure glad they did!

They are scruffily beautiful and possess all kinds of critical merit, such as their commentary on the homeless who spend their days on the nearby benches. They are delightfully absurd and quite unexpected--and "out there" in every sense. They belong to everyone, without even the artist herself coming between the art and the viewer. There is no label, signature, website, artist statement, or gallery to contact.

They sit in a public space where all kinds of people walk, with no velvet rope to pass or white box to penetrate. It will be interesting to see how long they last--Robin says it's been a week so far and everyone I saw seemed to love them.

This is a successful and and unmediated gift, pure and bestowed without reservation, and transformative, like good art should always be. Like many handmade gifts, its greatest virtue is simplicity. If you would like one of your own, go ask your grandmother.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

It Starts with Photography

This tree is a strong candidate for my next big drawing. [See full gallery]

When I have a show or accomplish something big like a move or a change of scenery (all of which I've had) I am often beset with a period of artist's block. That's been the case for me during the past week or so. It's a good time to take walks and reflect and not put to much pressure on myself. Inspiration always follows.

This morning I woke up early and took care of my morning chores and a little business before the sun had completely risen and I felt full of life. It was a beautiful and unseasonably warm day following a long, cold and snowy period that will live in collective memory as one of the worst winter storms on record. In short, it was a beautiful day.

Instead of riding my bike to the studio as I usually would, I decided to walk there and take my time, really looking around and taking pictures.

It was a fruitful walk, both in terms of photography and inspiration. I love the place we live and the pedestrian culture is a big part of why we moved here. There is alot of interest to look at, much to photograph.

My camera keeps me grounded in the visual experience and that is where I get my fuel as an artist. One or two of the images I captured may become works of art but most are simply expressions of joy to be alive and visually alert.

View 24 photos from my morning walk.

Feeling the Welcome Vibe

My New Members exhibition at The McGuffey Art Center is beginning well. Many friends turned out for the opening with plenty of well wishes. We've already been reviewed in the Hook and the C-ville Weekly. The Hook review was especially great in fact, a few people have asked me when I met them for the first time, "I enjoyed seeing your work in the paper"

So that's wonderful. The opening started with the president of our association (Judy McLeod) welcoming me and placing a name tag on my chest; it felt like a medal. The evening ended with a band of clowns invading the exhibit and bringing all the mirth you would expect.

I feel like I fit right in.

The exhibit runs through January 31.