A year ago I was working on a large and, as it turned out, very heavy wooden sculpture for ArtPrize in Grand Rapids. I had the privilege of displaying it at the Vandenberg Plaza best known for it's gigantic sculpture by Alexander Calder. There was a great deal of turmoil inside of me as I was working and preparing a work in a medium I had only minimally worked with in making visual art (I have worked with wood a lot as a carpenter). I almost withdrew from the event because it had become so overwhelming. The idea behind the piece titled "Galal" ("roll" in Hebrew) was intended to be a wave constructed of reclaimed lumber. I remember thinking about Mia Lin's work with wood in her "Systematic Landscapes" exhibit years ago in Seattle, and sought to provide something that would engage folks in a tangible way.
Much of the wood, in fact, was 3rd time "reclaimed." My friend, Todd, had purchased large beams from what was once the Eagle Ottawa leather tanning facility here in Grand Haven. You can read a bit about the history of that company here http://www.eagleottawa.com/about-us/eo-timeline/
Todd's company, which builds and remodels fine homes along Lake Michigan, had taken large beams and lumber from the old building and had it milled in Grand Rapids to be used as trim and decking and other finish surfaces for a home. I had the privilege of then using the "scrap" from his work. It brought satisfaction knowing some of the story of the wood I was using as I considered the history contained in those beams. Likewise, working with the theme of a wave and it's "rolling" along I sought to create something that was redemptive not just as a theme but also as it pertained to the actual material being used. I tried not to manipulate pieces too much, but I did have to cut some. Like much of my work, it was balancing act between spontaneity and manipulation. In other words it was a hard work that was also play at it's best.
"Galal" is a word from the Hebrew text of the Bible used in many places but specifically I had in mind the words of the prophet Amos in chapter 5:24, "But let justice roll down like waters, righteousness like an ever-flowing stream." So water and waves "rolling" (which have always been visual elements and themes for me since living in Michigan for over a decade now) and seemed once again the perfect way to provide a framework for the piece.
Then, however, all my idealism met reality.
On the level of "success" I would not have ranked the piece very high. One friend of mine kept thinking it was a dragon. Another friend said it looked like a llama. Talk about discouraging! I half-heartedly laughed as these friends said these things. I am open to various responses to imagery, particularly works that are abstract. However, when my intent was not to create an "inkblot" scenario, in which so much is dependent on the viewer, to hear that viewers saw things (creatures) I never intended to depict seemed antithetical my purpose. It seemed the only thing saving it from outright misinterpretation was the little bit I did write about it to help guide the viewer.
I believe artwork needs to be crafted enough to at least not look like something else. It is a standard of mine that somehow the piece not be so specific that the viewer isn't invited to wrestle with the content; but to have a wave be seen as a llama or dragon points to two things. One, it was a failure of the viewer to consider longer the piece, to allow it to interpret them first. But secondly, and more importantly, it was my failure in the execution of the work whose "concept" was bigger than the present capabilities of the artist. So I've struggled to this day with what it means to make "good" art and whether or not I'm a "good" artist.
It's a blessing and a curse for a visual artist to write some description or explanation of the themes in a work of art. After all, there are no "requirements" for written work to have visual pieces (as helpful as that might be most of the time). But we must have words to help someone "read" a painting or a sculpture, etc. I'm not crying "foul!" but instead pointing out the work an artist has to take part in. It's the work of interpretation. It's the art of guiding the viewer without over-simplifying the themes and ideas that can be exhausting as well as satisfying. I venture to say that most artists know what I'm talking about. [Sidebar: I also believe much of what is considered "realism," which most folks find more "accessible," has a great deal more abstraction than one thinks. I am a "scholar" of the work of Andrew Wyeth and can see abstraction in his realism. "Realism" is actually more challenging in some situations. This is a good thing, it is not a criticism.]
Reflecting further upon the wave-dragon-llama sculpture, I can remember other artists whom I knew who never really committed to their like or dislike of the piece. This is another difficult reality for me as an artist who, for better and often times worse, cares very much what others think. There exists the incessant push and pull between making something that folks "get" and expressing what it is that delights or challenges me as an artist. Ultimately I want what I do to be a gift to the world. "Galal" was a gift, but I don't believe it connected in a way that I had hoped.
Where I live here in West Michigan there do exist many artists and creatives. I want to say that right away. But wow do we have even more pragmatists! There were voices everywhere I went with whom I talked about it who made me want to quit. Now I know we artists need pragmatists. They are vital to our existence, absolutely; however it often seems those folks are somehow made the arbiters of what qualifies as successful. It's quite similar to the way science has been placed in a hierarchy above religious faith and intuition. [Another sidebar: I'm not saying science isn't important, it's vital; I'm critiquing the tendency to make it the sole arbiter of truth...and I fully expect some to still not read what I just wrote nor accept it. Oh well.] Whether it was how bulky and heavy and awkward "Galal" was or if it was the issue of "what it was," the voice of the pragmatist sang louder than all others.
Which then, made me nervous about delivering it to Calder Plaza.
That was the day (finally) when a bright light showed up, his name was Rich. I was to meet Richard App, the venue curator, there and he had a place for it. I just "knew" my work would be the laughing stock of the venue. As soon as I arrived, though, all I felt was the welcome of a like-minded brother. He knew, of course, that I almost quit and I remember him slapping me on the shoulder saying, "Glad you decided to hang with us!" It was in those few moments with Rich before and after the event that kept me in the game. I regret that life and work kept me from being present like I wanted to be to interact with people during the event, but I was assured I was "normal" in the best possible way. I wasn't, and my work was not either, what the pragmatists said I was. I was a guy with a gift to share; and, to use a phrase from Seth Godin, I "shipped." It wasn't my best work, but I shipped on time. And frankly, the sculpture wasn't as bad as I may have thought.
Another piece of the story is that the work was later on display at a church here in Grand Haven. It was up for a while, and then when the snow flew it quickly needed to be moved for snowplowing (pragmatic reasons). I remember the day I was moving the sculpture to another location at the church. It was cool out and I started taking as much of it apart as I could so that I could store it behind a garage on the property. I grew more and more contemptuous toward my work as it proved once again difficult to take apart and move. I cursed that I had ever actually risked such a lofty piece. I threw or heaved as best I could the sections into a U-Haul truck to move it basically a block away, sweating my tail off and praying I didn't gouge my hand with a screw or nail in the process.
An older gentleman who was at the church to help with their programming that night was in the parking lot and offered to help for a moment as I lifted one of the cumbersome sections. He, too, admitted in a slightly gruff way that I associate with older folks in the church (sorry to folks who fit that category, the guy just fit the stereotype) that, "I just don't get this at all. I don't understand in any way what this is. What's the point?" So what at first seemed like a kind gesture of help turned into yet another strike against my artwork. I wish I had had the time or the patience to engage him at that moment, but like everything else in the process of my ArtPrize experience I was in a rush and might have said some words I would later regret. So I thanked him for his help and he went back to shoveling the snow.
As one can tell from this story so far, my little sampling of responses to my work was downright depressing and frustrating. I knew people didn't "get it." Even with the meager attempt at writing briefly about it in the description seemed of little help. As far as I could see, "Galal" failed. The rotten cherry on top, then, was that what was a recycled material piece ended up once again in the garbage as this spring I took it apart further and some folks from the church hauled it away over a few weeks to the dump. Delusions of grandeur come to mind. The work seemed more of a burden than a blessing to anyone.
I know some will read this and argue that that was not true. Or that perhaps I'm being too hard on myself. But this is the truth from my perspective when I remember my sculpture. I console myself at times with the thought that I just happen to be around too many pragmatists, that there are others out there who might understand. However, I never heard an artist say to me anything positive about it. Responses were always non-committal. It was as if I got a participation award, that's it.
So I'm not sure what my real expectations were. Most likely I had hoped that it might sell or that it would lead to other commissions or works being sold. But alas, it did not.
The other thing I learned was that I need to have more fun. The work doesn't need to be so serious. I should have a good laugh and move on which may be the point of this post. I need a good laugh. I need to play again. And so my upcoming piece is titled "Play" and will be an attempt at different installation medium.