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Essay of the Month: Why Do I Make Art?

Grand Canyon #4, Acrylic on Panel, 16" X 20", 2011, Mark W. McGinnis

After over 40 years seriously trying to make the stuff, it seems a rather strange time in my career to ask myself such a question. At different points in my life the answer would have been quite different. When I was young there was a great challenge involved in making art. As my proficiency grew there was the recognition gained. Sometimes I felt my art could inspire my students who wished to be artists. Several times in my career I was making art for the pure joy of creating color, texture, shape, and making new visual experiences for myself and the viewer. At times I felt I was trying to communicate things with my art that needed to be said on a social level. I used the process of making art as a self-education tool gaining knowledge in politics, economics, and religion. I used art to embellish and hopefully add new dimensions to literary works.

But the real question is why do I make art now? I am no longer teaching. I have a little trickle of retirement income that keeps me from starving (and my art never did sell and still doesn’t).  I have lost my youthful fervor and conviction that my art could change the way people think. So why continue to make it? I could read, or stream Netflix all day. I could go for long strolls in nature. I could go to the gym and have a leisurely swim, sit in the whirlpool and steam room. I could play cards with or go to the movies with Patricia. I could get lost in the endless amusements of the Internet. I could take up a hobby like woodworking or papermaking. There are many ways I could keep busy but I keep making art (and it keeps piling up).

Maybe I should look at each types of art I continue to make and think about why I make each variety — watercolor sketching first, because it is the easiest. It is simply fun. To sit out in nature, let your head go blank, and make a quick impression of some element of your surrounding is a therapeutic exercise. Next black ink painting – being in the continuum of this painting tradition has great appeal to me, although I am certainly no purist. To sit and grind your ink and then use a brush and paper as artists did 1500 years ago has great appeal to me. This being my most recent medium it is also still very challenging which takes me back to very early motivations for making art. My literary projects are done with acrylic on paper – they are small 8” X 8”. I have completed three books totaling over 300 paintings and am 36 paintings into a 72 paintings series based on passages from Walt Whitman. Many people think of illustration as being very confining, and if done within limitations it is. I have varied the amount that I limit myself depending on the project. In my Cloud Messenger book I was truly telling a story and my approach to the work tries to keep the paintings as an aid in that process. In my project based on the haiku of Kobayashi Issa I felt a need to maintain a stylistic approach to match the natural beauty of the short verses. When producing the 103 painting for my Gitanjali book, following the 103 poems by Rabindranath Tagore, I did not feel inclined to maintain one stylistic direction. Something about the freedom and diversity of the literature let me express myself in with a variety of approaches through the series. In my current series on Walt Whitman this freedom is without restraint. Whitman’s remarkable creativity, audacity, and energy give me the opportunity to try to show some of my own diversity. The reason I enjoy these projects so much is that, once again, they present such unpredictable challenges both technically and conceptually.

The final body of work I continue to work on is a series of acrylic on panel paintings titled, Sentient Landscapes. Or at least that is what they are called now. They began as a series called The Tree of Life and Death. Then I changed it to Metaphysical Landscapes – now Sentient Landscapes. Never have I messed around with a series title so much. Most are 16” X 20” and a few at 24” X 36”. After I had stuffed my daughter’s 4 stall garage ¾ full of my crated artwork, I swore to keep my work small for the rest of my career, but the urge to go big again is always there. When I ask myself why I do this series the answer is not so clear. To me this seems my most “serious” current body of work. When I recently needed to write something about the series I wrote, “This series attempts to produce images that go beyond our perceptual abilities and create visual experiences that make us think in new ways about our relationship to the natural world.”  Hmm, that sounds pretty good, but it doesn’t fully express what is happening in the work. Maybe what is totally happening cannot be put into words, which would be a good thing for a painting. When I think about art I love – the poetry of Tagore, Whitman and Mary Oliver, the paintings of Paul Klee, the ephemeral constructions of Andy Goldsworthy – the connection to the human condition and/or our relationship to the universe is always given not in explicit terms but in ways that have the capacity to change with each individual who interacts with it and expand their consciousness. I do not know if this series will ever reach that level, but I know that is why I do it.

The bottom line is that I make art because I have to. It is not an option. I don’t really need the praise anymore (but I never turn it down). I am confident that I will never reap any marked financial rewards from my work (maybe my daughter will from all that stuff in the garage when my ashes are mingling with the mud of some river). But, I will go on making it. With my later years hopefully will come the common sense to keep it small.

Copyright 2011 Mark W. McGinnis

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