The Art of Down-Sizing
In anticipation of moving sometime within a year, I have been preoccupied, like many middle-aged people, with the familiar lament of how to winnow out possessions. Artists’ studios tend to fill up with not only finished and in-process artworks and art supplies of all types, but random inspirational objects and detritus that “may” come of use someday. With the current mania for minimalist lifestyles and Marie Kondo-style organizing in the zeitgeist, one can feel inclined to get rid of it all and return to the purity of the blank canvas. The hard part comes in finding new homes for objects and avoiding adding to the waste stream.
Last year a friend told me about a Seattle organization called The Art of Saving Humanity that collects donated art supplies for the use of local immigrant and refugee artists. They have also mounted exhibits of the artists’ works. I was able to pass on to them many art supplies, used and unused, including a large set of pastels that had belonged to my grandmother. They also took a big batch of canvas-stretcher bars, frames, a folding easel and other items. I used to exhibit prints and other works on paper that had frames with sheets of glass, some quite large. I dismantled them and was thrilled to find a frame shop that took the glass, as it can’t go in the recycling bin. I posted a notice on Kelly’s Art List and gave away an antique French easel that had also belonged to my grandmother—feeling sad to do so, but glad someone else would use it, as I wasn’t.
Even though I work slowly and have never been prolific, I find I have quite a few paintings in storage. I have been going through them with a critical eye and discarding those that don’t come up to my current standards. I keep representative drawings from different life stages, or those that have some special quality that makes me hesitate. It is still difficult to destroy a failed piece after spending an inordinate amount of time laboring on it. I remember being horrified as a freshman in college when an instructor described destroying an unsatisfactory drawing he had just spent eight hours working on (that seemed an awful lot of effort to me, then) and another telling the story of burning an entire year’s worth of work. To my younger self trying to build up a body of work, this was hard to imagine. Nowadays qualitative evaluation is easier, at least a few years after creation. If a large work on canvas is worth keeping, it can be taken off the stretcher bars and rolled for more compact storage. But some I have cut up and discarded, maybe keeping a few square inches of a well-executed portion as a memento. A few have found new life as backgrounds in my shadow-box assemblage pieces.
I do have plenty of paintings in inventory that I am proud of, that didn’t sell when exhibited for whatever reason. Some are finding an enthusiastic audience and buyer at fund-raising auctions for art organizations and other worthy causes. A few others are finding homes after being offered for purchase to acquaintances in a targeted manner. I am not much good at business and marketing, having left sales to art galleries most of my career, but it is satisfying to match an artwork with an individual. (If anyone who happens to read this has been harboring a desire for a painting they saw in years past and wonders if it is still available, let me know!)
The concept of having too much stuff brings up a painful issue—the dilemma of creating more unnecessary stuff (for art may be essential to an evolved society but not to sustain life) in a world that seems to have too much of everything and is running out of space to put it. I am a creative person and by nature feel compelled to make objects with my hands. Artists are advised to make lots of art, both to perfect their craft and to have plenty to bring to market. I have not gone overboard with this advice, but still sometimes fear I am contributing to an environmental crisis, and I worry that making more stuff is unethical. A few months ago, I brought up this doubt while attending a panel discussion on the habits of successful artists. Perhaps I didn’t phrase my question gracefully (I believe I used the word “crap” to refer to surplus art) but the artists sitting on the panel responded with something akin to outrage, as if even the topic was taboo, and quickly moved on. I guess as driven, self-confident artists this had never occurred to them. But at least one audience member came up to me afterward and told me of having the same concerns. Her solution had been to stop painting altogether and put her creative energies into writing. Many other artists are making art out of consumer discards, and exhibits devoted to recycling are becoming frequent. Then there are well-known artists like Andy Goldsworthy and John Grade whose sculptures are composed of, and degrade back into, the natural environment.
It takes creativity to repurpose and to dispose of things in a thoughtful manner. Going forward I intend to be as mindful of avoiding waste in my studio as in my home, and try to make every mark on that blank canvas count.
Sarah Britton Williams
1/27/2019 03:25:19 pm
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