Being an artist in our present culture is often extremely difficult. We can get a perspective on this by considering the long list of cultural myths surrounding artists that is familiar to artists and non- artists alike. For example, we expect:
- Artists are weird, eccentric individuals, by definition at war with society at large.
- Artists must suffer in order to achieve anything of significance.
- Artists are emotional, undisciplined and perpetually childish.
- Artists, on the other hand, have access to realms and ideas that non-artists (the "masses") are too dull or stupid to comprehend.
The total effect of these myths is to create an on- going hostility between those whose primary occupation is artistic, and those for whom such endeavor is not a central or even peripheral concern. The result is general cultural impoverishment: The artist has no grounding in the community and therefore no contextual basis for his or her creativity, and the community at large is cut off from access to and participation in the creative process – a necessary component of mental health and the birthright of all human beings.
This unfortunate state of affairs seems to me to be a microcosmic mirror of the global cultural upheaval we are presently experiencing. The contemporary dilemma of art is not different from the dilemmas confronting religion, economics, science or world politics. We are all struggling to find the ways to connect with a larger context. In this process, it is necessary to find the proper relationships and correspondences among these presently isolated elements so that the process of healing and re- creating may proceed. Artists have an important contribution to make in helping discover and develop the means to this end (or beginning) because of their experience with the processes of creativity.
The artist used to be a much more integrated part of his/her culture. In most earlier cultures, art-making, and therefore art-makers, were at the service simultaneously of the human community and the spirit- world, serving as a bridge to connect and unite the two realms. Likewise, art-making as a sole occupation seems to have been unknown up to the time of the Renaissance, when the concept of the "Great Artist" came into being.
From the perspective of our extremely specialized, fragmented era, there is much in this old pattern that is appealing. In particular, I am becoming more and more convinced that the spirit-nurturing aspect of art is of paramount importance. But these clues from the past are not enough to guide us in our present situation. To use them at all, ways need to be found to re-create and then re-relate them to a world that bears little resemblance to previous ages.
This is a challenge I have grown to find personally meaningful, but translating it into purposeful daily activity has not come easily. There are very few role models, and the ones available are unique to the point of seeming more like exceptions than rules. Perhaps the first step is to let go of the expectation of having a readymade culturally defined and supported slot to fit into. My own personal journey has taken me in unexpected, but fulfilling, directions. In what follows, I’d like to share some of that journey.
My earliest memories revolve around drawing and my fascination with making images appear on surfaces. This fascination has continued throughout my life and forms the basis of my self-image. Propelled by this interest, I received a fairly typical art education, including several art schools and a couple of degrees. During this education I absorbed most of the common attitudes and expectations that come with this type of training, including the cultural myths mentioned earlier. My formal schooling ceased when I was 25.
Since then I have been thinking about the nature of the life-role I chose: trying to sort out the real and the unreal, the useful and the useless, and trying to think of ways to work, live and be that are consistent with the values I’ve developed in the last several years. Questions occur and demand answers: What is art and what is it for? Why be an artist? Why am I doing this instead of pursuing a more financially rewarding and socially acceptable career in the city? What value do my attempts at creativity have beyond my personal growth? And what about my personal growth – is it real or an illusion? Is my chosen path actually an exercise in narcissism disguised by high-sounding rationalizations, or does it have real value for my community as well as myself? These are all perhaps unanswerable questions, but they have had to be faced.
Peter Plagens, the art historian, once said, "No great artist was ever the intended product of an art education system." This idea seemed, if not exactly cold comfort, at least meager in terms of advice when, in 1975, I stepped out into the world with a shiny new M.F.A. I had been trained to teach, and had been conditioned to expect an academic career without any training in how to make it happen. As with so many who were part of the graduate glut of the 70s, it didn’t happen. After a period of unemployment, I got a minimum-wage job in a small print shop. It seemed quite a come-down, but I compensated by showing a lot locally and hanging out with other artists in the same boat. At length I had an opportunity to learn paste-up and layout, and became part of the print shop’s art department. While this was hardly the occupational direction I had expected to go in, it felt surprisingly right. I felt I was beginning to spend my working hours in a way that had more relevance to my main calling than any other job I’d had before. I was never comfortable with situations that required that I spend the bulk of my waking time doing something strictly for income, and that I relegate my primary activity (art) to "spare" time. I was looking for a way to combine art-making and making a living, and graphics was starting to look like a good solution.
In a couple of years I had been in a lot of local and regional shows, and had reached a certain level of proficiency in graphic art. At this point I moved north and got a job in Seattle in a small design studio. The owner decided I needed to be completely retrained, and in doing so, moved me up to the next magnitude of what was becoming my chosen occupation. There was still a basic division between work time and art time, but my art-making skills were being called on more and more in my professional activities.
Yet after a year and a half, my life took another curve. I wanted to live full-time in Sequim, the small community outside of Seattle that my husband and I had moved to. I was feeling ready to strike out on my own, but how? Small communities don’t have a ready- made market for graphic designers the way that cities do. Could I find a way to maintain my artistic and professional growth in such a setting?
I decided to take the leap of opening my own graphic design/art studio. Even though I had a wonderful partner to open with, the enormity of this step was daunting. Learning how to run a business was (and still is) a real challenge. But because we were so small and our business required little start-up capital, we were able to take the time to feel our way slowly. Right off, we were very sure about wanting to emphasize the service aspect of our work. We wanted to make a contribution to our community by making high-quality art accessible to everyone, whether the art had a decorative, commercial or purely aesthetic purpose. We definitely did not want to present an ivory-tower attitude.
One of the concerns that I had at the outset was a holdover from school days. I had been conditioned to accept the view that "fine" art was somehow superior (morally as well as aesthetically), whereas "commercial" art was definitely low class and most commercial artists were prostituting their art. I have come full circle from that position and now believe what my experience has taught me: the difference of value is not between media or their application. The difference is the magnitude of effort and quality brought to the work. In Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig defined art as "high-quality endeavor." That makes sense to me. It means that a brick wall can become a work of art if enough care, thought, creativity – in short, high- quality effort – is brought to its making. This is a very freeing concept. It means that as an artist you can do anything you want to, as long as you try consistently to give your best to every project, whether it’s a plumber’s business card or a 6′ X 4′ oil painting. It has also meant, for me anyway, a growing appreciation for the quality and creativity in the work and lives of all kinds of people whom we would not normally consider as artists.
Being in a small town has forced us to deal with a wide range of people and projects. We have enjoyed developing our abilities to first discern the needs of clients, and then fulfill those needs with the highest possible quality at a fair price. Sometimes this isn’t easy, due to the client’s budget or taste, but we prefer to view limitations as design challenges rather than affronts to our creativity. The education I’ve received by exposure to so many kinds of people and businesses, and so many different kinds of assignments (some of them bordering on the strange) is tremendous.
We also have the satisfaction of being able to see the impact of our efforts in our community – in a small town, the feedback loops are really short. We have helped organic farmers and solar home builders with their graphic communications, thereby doing our small part to encourage these activities. We have also worked with groups like the local Chamber of Commerce, helping to shape their graphic self-image in directions that are more consistent with our common ground values. By being willing to respectfully see the best within each client, and then translate that into visible images, we feel we are helping to raise the tone of the whole community.
So I go to work at my studio every day, and sometimes I work on commercial (and volunteer) assignments, and sometimes I work on my own projects, depending on the demands of the time. I am finding that these two areas of work, instead of being mutually exclusive, actually complement and support each other. One requires that I extend out of myself to understand how I could best be of service to others. The other necessitates going into myself to discover what I’m about and how I want to express that in my personal work. Being able to do both keeps me feeling well-balanced. Through both, my needs and the needs of my community are being met.
I feel I now know from experience that artists can be happily integrated into their community. The essential condition for this seems to be an attitude of service. It is through a willingness to listen, understand, affirm, and then help give form to the visions of the others in his/her community that the artist is finally able to fulfill the role of cultural healer, and at the same time discover more profoundly who s/he is.
Laurel is part of the IN CONTEXT’s staff, contributing much in the way of design, production and illustrations.