Contemplating Still Life, part 1

I was sitting here this morning contemplating my next project. Christmas took a lot out of me, all self-inflicted mind you, but I was working at a bit of a fevered pace trying to create this experience that would remain in the minds of my daughters for years to come.

It all kind of started with my refusal to do all the work making a turkey for just us 3 this year. (Oh, the irony given the excessive amount of work I ended up putting into this idea). I asked myself, but how could it be Christmas without something special for dinner? Given the pandemic situation, and inspired by the experience of Mary Pallattella ‘s (Mpossible) magical Christmas parties of the past, I wanted to make this year’s Christmas dinner a memorable and meaningful experience. That would feel more like Christmas.

I had initially started with this idea of a medieval banquet. But as I was doing research on it, I realized that I was not as much of a fan of the middle-ages art as I was from the baroque and the renaissance era. Did they still have feasts then, yes, of course? I took my inspiration from 17th century still life paintings for the look and atmosphere. And when my daughters expressed their less than enthusiastic response to my suggestion we all dress up for it, I thought I would create a portrait so we wouldn’t have to. And, I could also get some shots for my mother who we wouldn’t be seeing this year.

Shot with a Conon body and the Leica Summicron R 50mm lens for all you photo nerds.

I made two of the crowns in secret – turns out this event would be more inspired by, than a historical replication. Photoshopped the third by using images from the other two, and then photoshopped these on top of the portraits because we had not posed with them on. It’s not a perfect composite. I had spent a lot of time getting the color just right, and between that, the lighting, and the capture of the girls and creation of the mood, that is what I am most proud of, but it was all a mad rush to get it to the printers on time, so I see areas I wish I had got better (notably the shadows on my arm, I’m good with the evenness of the light between all three subjects)

Here are a couple of phone snaps form our dinner for context. I would have liked to have shot all this as well, but it took far too long to set up, and cook (all in secret – the kids didn’t even know about the cornish hens we were gifted from my sister). We would never have eaten had I gone down that path. It was not created for that. Life must be lived.

And then there is the post Christmas recovery. And like many artists after a flurry of intense creativity, wondered if that was it. I had been working at quite a pace since at least the summer, trying to make the most of this time, trying to move forward as quickly as I could. I felt emptied. All i wanted to do was watch TV. Hoping someone could clean up the mess and I could retreat into the winter nest.

Had I come to the end at whatever I was feverishly working toward. Was I done?

Here were echoes of my past here, back in the days were I was driven, but plagued with one creative block after another. Back then I was creating because I had to, I was driven to, my very identity was so wound up in it, I was nothing without it, and I was constantly torn from one extreme to the other. It’s a long boring story to describe how I have evolved to achieve balance and joy from then, but the whispers of the past still beckon.

I’ve spent so long searching without knowing what I was looking for, hiding without knowing I was hiding. Was my relatievly recent insights of 2020 just yet another phase?

The life of a creator, at least one who would like to make their living from being one, can be a difficult test of faith. Had I merely hit The Dip as articulated by Seth Godin? Was this in fact actually something to embrace? Or was it true, I am actually the fraud I’ve always worried about being?

You need to dismiss these thoughts for the devils they are. If anyone struggles with this, I recommend you pick up a copy of The War of Art. What I needed to do was get off social media, and reconnect with the deep parts of myself.

I wondered if my portrait was in fact a technical exercise I was determined to conquer. I had not felt I nailed the lighting the way I wanted to previously, I had done a lot of research to try and find out what was eluding me with it. It was the fall off of light, that gentle, gentle fall off that I wanted to capture. And the colour. Arrgh, the colour.

People look at photography and think it just happens. And for those that think that painting is a more legitimate art than photography, well hell, you could just paint that lighting. Just rough in the light to get it near what you want and then fix it with paint. You didn’t have to light it perfectly? You didn’t have to dissect the inverse square law and talk physics with your engineering-student daughter and do tests with eggs and flashlights, did you? (Sorry painters, I know it’s not easy for you, either).

It took two 6 foot diffusion panels with a large soft box behind one, and a white umbrella behind the other. Ridiculous. Really. But beautiful.

The colour. Well, maybe someday I’ll do a tutorial, but not today.

All the technical pursuit is important. It’s where the craft lies. I love that portrait, I feel satisfied with that portrait. I feel even if it weren’t my girls, I captured something that I would still love with the ethereal mood of one, the enigmatic timeless of the other, and the mature, fierce protectiveness of the mother. It was better than my original vision.

But craft is not (necessarily) where the art lies.

Craft is not Art. Or is it?

Were renaissance-like portraits what I saw myself doing for the rest of my life, or even the next 5 years? Depends on how much you pay me.

Let me rephrase that: Was this my life’s purpose?

The line between craft and art is a fine one if in fact there is a line at all. Sometimes they seem the same. Sometimes you just can’t tell by looking at something. Sometimes you find the art in the craft, and often there is an art to the craft, and the art of craft. And while art may not exist without craft (I’ll leave that to you to decide), sometimes the craft is not the art, I think. And it’s up to you as a creator or a consumer of art to decide whether it even matters.

But to me, craft is about skill, the execution of something. It is the merit of th execution. Art is a bit more difficult to nail down and it likely open to individual interpretation, but to me it is about something, it is much more about what happens in the mind, either of artist or viewer or both, or it is work that extends its border beyond typical representations, for example, or extends itself beyond the craft. I don’t know, it’s a discussion to be had with wine with curious explorers and not those who are sure they have the answers.

It’s easy to get lost as an artist: accolades if you are lucky to get them, money if you are even luckier, and always the hope of them. There is little point to creating if it doesn’t move someone in some way. What the needs and wants of your audience are important and honourable pursuits in business. Try not to think of yourself – you must create what the market wants.

But that is not what people want from an artist. Well, no, some people do want pretty pictures or technical prowess. Some people really, really want the craft. And some times we need evidence of that craft to prove to us the work is actually valuable. Like the times I’ve heard someone mention that Picasso was actually a good drawer / painter, meaning that he could paint a realistic representation with skill. Of course, the knowledge of that forces us to examine those works where we are not sure if the representation is evident. What does it represent?

But these days, others want an artist’s soul. People want to get to something about the human experience that they can’t get otherwise. And to me, it’s this intersection, this dissection to get at that is what art needs to do.

It’s tough because you may not have either the craft or the vision to make it worth anything except to your immediate family, and maybe not even then. Or maybe your personal struggle, or understanding of the world, your epiphanies and so on, maybe they are not actually representative of us all. Or any of us. maybe you are just a complete fish out of water. Or maybe you don’t know when you are just trying too damned hard. Or maybe you don’t really have a story to tell. Maybe you are woefully out of touch. And still you must proceed.

This is where the art, my art at least, must start with. What resonates inside. What is deeply personal? What is yearning to get out? What makes me vulnerable? What am I struggling with, what is my pain, what makes me human. What is real? It doesn’t mean that I depict this, but it does mean it should lead me.

As so, having out my journal down for a week, I start the process again of some of those deep discoveries, the poking of pain and other difficulties. A communion with the Universe.

In that communion I had a discussion with the Pears where I contemplate still life painting from this period in a deeper way.