Monday, July 5, 2010


(for Ellie)

(Before I get started on today's entry, please remember to continue on down to the July 1 interview with Jill Badonsky, if you have not already read it. Jill has some truly interesting observations, and lots of useful information about where she herself is coming from in the work she does... Worth a read!)

So my wife Ellie raised an interesting question yesterday morning. She had awoken from a dream which she did not describe in detail, but which concerned the relationship between the Ellie she has chosen, in the course of her adult life, to become, and the “Ellen” she was called by her parents as a child. She was wondering how this relationship might be playing out in her studio, now that she faces the challenge of making paintings—a relatively new experience for her, since she has devoted her professional life, successively, to selling art works, advising corporate and private collectors, and advising artists. She came to the studio, then, just a couple of years ago, with a ton of knowledge of contemporary art and a finely honed eye, but with no actual, technical practice.

Ellie is much aware of that inner Ellen, and realizes that both are at work with her in the studio. Coming out of her dream yesterday, she was once again trying to sort out the relationship between the two. It was in this context—and on being asked for my opinion!—that I offered my own admittedly amateur “analysis.” I tend to see “Ellen” as the little child (don’t we all have one?) who felt lost and abandoned, very early in life by divorcing parents, and who very successfully devised the means she needed then to assure her safety: threatened by the chaos she observed around her, her young mind perceived the imperative to control her world and developed the strategies she needed to achieve that end. “Ellie” marched in much later, into her adult life, as a strong and independent woman, equipped with her own talents and vision.

The studio back-and-forth, then, as I see it, is between the Ellen who insists on organization and control, and the Ellie who is committed to the search for her inner truth and authenticity. The painting is the field in which this struggle is played out. The more she is able, as I see it, to allow the painting to emerge intuitively, from the inner core of being, the more successful it becomes. I have this notion that a painting—not unlike a piece of writing—has its own sense of what it wants to become, and that the task of painting it involves as much the ability to stand out of its way as the ability to control the way in which it happens.

In this view, “Ellen,” the controller, becomes the antagonist in the creative struggle. I don't see this as an exclusively negative role. Indeed, it’s a vital one. Ellen wants to be sure that Ellie doesn’t make a fool of herself, that she doesn’t reveal too many of her inner secrets, that she doesn’t go blubbering and otherwise emoting all over the canvas. The trick is to find the balance, to be able to persuade Ellen to take the back seat when she’s not needed—and to quite acting as the back seat driver! When this happens, in Ellie’s painting, she stands a far better chance of allowing the painting to become what it wants to be--and not incidentally to reveal some more to her about who she is.

And then, of course, having expounded all this great wisdom to my wife, I realize that I am really talking to myself. I have my own old battle with the one I knew for a long time as “the editor,” who would stand looking over my shoulder as I wrote, offering his “helpful” advice and criticism: that’s so ridiculous! Who would ever read such nonsense? And if anyone ever reads it, they’ll see right through you for the fraud you are. You’re just showing the world how ignorant you are! So I was talking not only about Ellie, not only about myself, but about every artist caught in that familiar struggle between “form” and “content,” between the drive for free, spontaneous expression from the depths of the soul and the technical skill and control that are needed to give voice to it. The mano-a-mano between Ellie and Ellen is the dilemma of creative people of all kinds, in all generations. And it’s certainly my own…

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