These are the last two paintings of the 2010 phase of my ROC-ART project (the project will continue through much of 2011). Despite the contrasting subject matter, they share enough in technical approach and spirit for me to consider them a pair. And the way in which they wrap up the first year of the project while opening up a fresh sense of direction has prompted a relatively long reflection:
While all of my 2010 ROC-ART stops were both challenging and rewarding enough to make my local "tour" as valuable as anything I've done with my Itinerant Artist Project, my last stop of the year, in north Rochester, stood out as the most affecting.
No doubt that has something to do with my having felt at least a tentative sense of belonging in a setting – a depressed, racially mixed neighborhood with little sense of social mobility – that contrasts starkly with the world I grew up in. Yet it’s also part of my hometown, only a few miles from where I live. I knew, of course, that such contrasts exist in our community. But I know in a different way now, having been a guest there for a few days. (I’m also aware that the west Norton neighborhood is a place where someone with my artist’s earning power might more reasonably be expected to live).
At the same time, I gave my best while I was there. This may not mean anything tangible to anyone in the neighborhood other than my host. I can’t pretend that people walking home form work in the dark, in a blizzard were especially uplifted to see someone out there sketching the way a certain telephone pole slanted or how street lights clustered in the distance. But I know I was engaged in an energetic dialogue with the place, being as present and responsive as I could. The artist in me thinks that matters somehow.
And then there were the gifts (apart from my host’s much appreciated hospitality) that the place gave back to me. Most unexpectedly, I came home with a chunk of red rock from the Genesee gorge that I’ve been working into some of my paintings (see “Rock Art” post, two entries back). Second was the painting of houses on Norton Street, which I felt compelled to do even after I’d wrapped up my visit. The composition had caught my eye when I first arrived. And the morning light on the third day demanded to be documented, even if I felt too spent at the time to tackle another painting.
I was essentially heading home at the time and could only allow myself 45 minutes to work. The result was an exercise in reflex and instinct – and more fun than I usually have when painting. A few days later I tried to bring the same approach to different subject matter, in Mendon Ponds Park. I don’t know if it’s the resulting images that I enjoy so much or the spirit behind them, but both paintings feel like a special gift from north Rochester.
At any painting stop – whether on a US tour or here in Rochester – I have to come to terms with an unfamiliar setting, try to establish a sense of belonging through creative response. Finding subject matter that I respond to and then finding a way to paint it more or less effectively can transform my sense of dislocation into a bigger sense of connection with the world. And sharing this experience by showing my paintings extends the sense of connection – or communion – further.
These are some of the reasons why I paint, even though I usually find painting to be a very uncomfortable and difficult activity.
These are also some of the reasons why I like to embed my painting process in a dynamic social outreach context – such as the Itinerant Artist Project. Art is a deep medium in an age of shallow media. For both my own sake and art’s sake and (to the very small extent that I can contribute) for the public good, I want art to be all it can be, at least once in a while.
Art tends to be considered a personal act. Even humble artistic efforts, though, can have social value, too, because collective meaning is renewed through countless creative interactions. For me (and for most artists I know) the creative effort and the public good go hand in hand, at least ideally. In our culture, though, it’s hard to uphold that point, or even to allow oneself to take it seriously.
I do these outreach projects partly in order to take that ideal seriously, and amplify it. I also do these projects because I like how the outward risk, adventure, and reward reflect and highlight the inner risk, adventure, and reward inherent in any creative process. Plus, once in a while I like having nothing to do other than being an artist in residence.
My warmest thanks to all of my 2010 hosts – essential collaborators in the process, who were uniformly wonderful; to my project sponsors; to everyone else who has offered to host or otherwise helped the project along; and to anyone who has read this far…