On an index card stuck to my studio wall is a Maori proverb. “Where there is artistic excellence, there is human dignity.” Next to it is a more Methodist take on the theme from the writer Norman Maclean. “All good things come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy.” When two different worldviews come to the same idealistic conclusion, I draw a little mental smiley face alongside the ideal.
I draw pretty well, and from a year sketching in the anatomy labs at Baylor College of Medicine to years pushing anything that would make a mark around and around and around, I’ve really worked at it. Nevertheless, I’ve learned that it is more than possible for a slight gesture to make better art than a traditionally finished work. I used to think that the best art, or the best work of any kind, came from technical skill and that the more work you put into it, the better whatever it was would be. Well, yes, technique is the ground, but where is the sky?
Another index card quotes no less a smiley face than the Dalai Lama. “Learn the rules so you know how to break them properly.” In Zen calligraphic art, masters describe as “the practiced accident” the manner in which the best paintings occur spontaneously and fluidly, seemingly without thought or effort, but which emanate from years of preparing the head, the heart and the hands to just do it, and then to just stop.
Years ago, I took a Master Class in drawing with James Surls. I was so intimidated by this gruff giant who had edited all extraneous formality from his powerful art and did pretty much the same in his conversation. I was eight months pregnant and feeling a tad needy, which no doubt drove him up the wall. Still, he was a passionately considerate teacher, and I appreciated the subtlety with which he tailored each lesson to each student. I recall working on a very simple iteration of two hands reaching up in joyful supplication, gesturing back and forth over the finger shapes three times. I had stopped, and I was anxiously studying the image to find what I should do next. After all, we were making Real Drawings. Right in my ear, I heard a simple, “Stop.” Startled, I turned my head, and I received the only smile he offered me all weekend and, with that smile, he showed me my first best work.
Isn’t it just like a rule, though, to not hold up in the next iteration? Two and a half years later, I was pregnant with my second daughter Kyrie, and my toddler Larkin was drawing and making art that even stopped her jaded Montessori teachers in their tracks. I had done a drawing, based on the hands, for Larkin’s birth announcement. For Kyrie’s announcement, I thought it would be really lovely to let Larkin make the art.
I set a canvas board and all manner of paints and crayons on the table in front of her booster seat. Superficially, I was doing a good job of stepping back, but inside I was making the mistake of hoping that this piece would somehow look like what I thought would be “best” for our announcement, rather than what was simply Larkin’s best. She really got into it, but maybe because of the energy of old predispositions wafting off her momma all the way from the kitchen, she got a little too into it, moving really great color fields around and around and around until they made one big field of blue-brown mud.
I then made one decently good effort at redirection and one seriously bad play. Rather than suggest she “do more” on her piece, I grabbed a brown piece of paper and showed how, if she poured little quick blobs of paint onto the surface, she could make bright amorphous polka dots of clear pigment. She was delighted with the effect and on her own decided to apply the technique to the canvas.
Now it was truly starting to look cool, and then I made my truly uncool move. As she filled her work with ebullient rainbow blobs, I feared another mudbath, so in what I rationalized was my chirpiest momvoice, but was actually my most manipulative, I quickly slid the board out from under her hands while saying, “Oh, you did a GREAT job! Time to STOP!” (I always draw a mental frownie face here.)
This was not a Surlsian Stop, and she knew it, and she busted me for it. Larkin was a seriously angelic child, but “bloodcurdling” is not an adjectival overestimation of how she screamed incessantly while I put her art up on a shelf. Of course, her rage was completely justified and my machinations were not. Thank God I humbly put that painting back on the table. Larkin took one indignant deep breath and calmly re-entered her work. She studiously looked over the arrangement, selected one thick magenta pigment and carefully poured her last and very best mark. Then, with great dignity, and without looking me in the eye, she dipped her chin on each syllable as she slowly said, “O … K.”
The magenta really made the piece.