Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Two Months, Two Weeks: An Art Education

Andy Warhol Calista

Cities and Empires are built on Science, Engineering and Commerce, but civilisations and culture are defined by art. If you consider all the great human works throughout history, the ones that stand out and define historical cultures such as the Greek,the Roman and the Egyptian empires are the architecture and art.  The Renaissance is remembered for the revival of the sciences and intellectual explorations, but it is the art of Leonardo, Michelangelo, Titian or Caravaggio that we recognise and relate to (you may not know them, but you would recognise most of their works at first glance as Renaissance art). Many of our religious beliefs are tinted by the visions of artists rather than any biblical passages. We even tend to name periods of European history based on the predominant art movement of the time; the art and architecture of the named period are considered reflections of the culture and civilisation of those times.  If you doubt this, contemplate how our current popular media, fashions, architecture and art are molded by and reflect our times.

Calista always was excited by art. I have already described her "art appreciation hour" when she would sit as a two year old each evening in her high chair in front of a western print I still own, jabbering away in baby talk. I can only assume she was commenting on the quality of the composition, the colour combinations, the drawing, or perhaps just the framing job with it's engraved scroll work and double matt. She certainly was always visually oriented. Thank goodness since her singing was atrocious, her writing was suspect and she never mastered any musical instrument besides the electronic mock-ups that accompanied one of our computer games ("Rock Star"?).  On the other hand, I don't want to suggest that she was some sort of ingenue; colouring between the lines was always a challenge (and later she considered it a  direct personal challenge if you asked her to stay between the lines) and her drawing skills remained rudimentary her entire life.  Photography was a perfect fit for her; she had an instinctive feel for composition and the ability to manipulate the digital photos allowed her freedom to completely explore her artistic side....with no drawing involved. On the same token, her skill with her camera came from excellent instruction, hard work and hours of training to attain mastery.

The program at North Island College filled a huge gap in Calista's skills.  Her own experience and eighteen months of Jack Cowin's guidance had given her a superb sense of tasteful composition, but she she was sorely lacking in the technical knowledge of "how" to photograph her world.  Over the years I had purchased all sorts of photography primers as I struggled through my own efforts at photography (I might as well have spent the money on comic books for all the good those books did me), but Calista refused to even read the instruction manual on her camera. In fact, when her Canon 40D was giving her some grief, she was hard-pressed to even remember where she had stored the instruction booklet for it.  I guess she missed chapter one of my best photography book (the KISS Manual of Photography; excellent for photographic morons like me) which said that a photographer should never leave home without their trusty camera manual. To this day I get the feeling that Calista thought that actual technical knowledge of art somehow sullied the creative process.  She also had a purist's attitude that any digital manipulation of the image beyond simple cropping was cheating. Her time at NIC changed all that; she realised that without technical skill, the artist is just dabbling. In this day and age where anyone with a healthy credit card can buy an expensive camera, it is knowledge that separates the true photographer from a simple pretender. ( I have met many amateur photographers over the last few months; sorry to tell you guys, but owning a digital camera does not make you the modern day Ansel Adams).

In art there has always been three basic camps: the true artist, the technically gifted artisan, and the technically challenged pretender. We can see examples of this throughout history.  Look at Leonardo da Vinci: a gifted scholar who literally defined the high Renaissance. Leonardo could draw, had a superb sense of composition and knew how to use his tools with unsurpassed skill.  Leonardo also had the one most important element of a great artist: he had his own vision of the world and he wanted to share it. On the other hand we have the artisan; a good example of this would be a forger of art. The forger usually has complete mastery of his tools, he can copy a work by Leonardo with ease, but he absolutely lacks  his own unique vision.  It may be a bit harsh, but I kind of lump many modern commercial artists in this category; they produce work that is pleasing to the eye and looks good on the wall, but is hardly original or thought provoking. The final group pretty much covers the rest of us dabblers; people that can throw paint on a canvass (or press the button on a camera) but our few successes represent good luck rather than high skill.

Calista shared with me one joke she found on the Internet. It goes something like this: A professional photographer is invited over to her friends house for dinner and brings her portfolio over to show her newest works off. Her friend looks at all the superb photographs and says "Wow, you must have some really expensive photography equipment, these pictures are just great!!". The photographer keeps her mouth shut and sits down for dinner, which turns out to be an excellent Italian dish with an outstanding Greek desert, all home made by the friend.  After dinner the photographer turns to her good friend who is obviously a talented cook and says to her: "Wow, that dinner and desert was just amazing, you must have some pretty expensive pots and pans".  Certainly the irony of the comment would appeal to Calista's sense of humour, but there is a lot of truth in that statement. These days everyone seems to consider themselves a photographer simply because their iPhone has a pretty decent built-in camera.  Things have not changed all that much from the days when European royalty got to host concerts and art exhibitions filled with their own works simply because they had the money and time to tinkle the ivory on a piano or slap a little paint on canvass.  Its telling that none of those blue-bloods are remembered as maestros or masters; money can't buy talent.

Then there is the issue of somewhat talented artists that are basically just phoning in the effort.  I attend galleries everywhere I visit, and while I'm no art critic, I see a lot of artists and photographers that are just cashing in on whatever craze is popular today and calling it fine art.  Las Vegas is a prime example of a place that just screams commercial art cash-in.  Some galleries sell pointillist art along the line of Seurat and call it "original and unique" while the gallery next door sells large canvasses billed as "revolutionary" when they are clearly inspired by Hieronymus Bosch of the early Renaissance. Photographers in Las Vegas are a dime a dozen; if they are not selling cheesy wedding pictures then they are selling mass produced landscapes that are so similar from gallery to gallery that you could be forgiven for thinking they are all created by the same person with different pushy sales staff. Of course they all claim to be unique and original, despite the fact they are merely applying HDR technology with large format cameras and then tweaking the hell out of the pictures with their computer. The term for this is "derivative" and it is a form of crass laziness.  Certainly a student should copy the works of the masters to learn the techniques, but once they have attained those skills, they need to break the mold and find their own groove.

I was always badgering my Calista to find her own vision without re-inventing the wheel as it were.  Study the works of the great artists and photographers, play with their established techniques and, once you have found their secret, find new ways of using those secrets to establish your own vision.  I frequently told her that failure while exploring new techniques was just another form of success. The very attempt to leave the beaten path was a success in and of itself. I frequently used my old friend George as an example. George is independently wealthy and retired at fifty simply because he always dared to fail and considered every failure a valuable lesson rather than a costly mistake.  George was always somewhat of a mythic hero around our house: my old friend who made good and proved all the high-school bullies wrong.  I like to believe that Calista's success in photography came from hearing stories of the stories of George and understanding that stepping outside the box and trying new things is the key to success.  I only wish she had the opportunity to fully develop her skills and find her own niche in this world.

Art is hard to define. I think the best definition of art came from Jack Cowin. Jack told me a piece is really good if it makes you look at it and contemplate its message longer than you feel comfortable. If you go back to a piece repeatedly and ask yourself what it is telling you, then it is good art. Evenif you don't actually like that work.  With regards to photography, I personally believe that the goal of a good photographer is not to just record what he is seeing, it is to make his audience see the same thing and feel similar emotions as they look at the image. Sometimes creating that emotional reaction means subtly altering the photo digitally; the feel of the photograph is more important than the accuracy.  I like to believe that Calista listened to what Jack and I were trying to teach her. Certainly most of her later photographs, even the product marketing photos (or maybe especially the marketing photos) have a feeling to them rather than just a simple image. Jack said it best last time I spoke to him: Calista had a photographer's eye with the soul of an artist.

I searched our house last night for a copy of a book we used to read to our Calista when she was a diaper-clad illiterate. It was a wonderfully illustrated short read called "Waiting for the Whales". The story is about an old lonely man who's only joy in life is watching for the return of a pod of Orca whales each spring from a promontory somewhere on the coast of Northern BC.  One year his daughter returns to the isolated family home with a child and the old man finds a new meaning to his life. The child grows up learning stories of her family from the old man and sitting with him as he watches for his pod of whales. Finally one winter the old man fails and the grand-child is left waiting for the whales by herself.  When the whales finally return, there is a new addition to the pod in the form of a newborn calf.  I always assumed that the author was suggesting the grandfather was re-incarnated as a whale, letting his soul enter the creature the old man loved to watch for all those years.

I never found that book; I found instead a small photo album made by Calista when she was still in grade school. The pictures were of Calista and all her friends just fooling around as "tweens"  often do. Old crushes that passed with the changing of the grade and old friends left behind with the change of schools, with each of them one young girl I will always miss.  I broke down and cried harder than I have in a couple of weeks.  Roni tells me that we have cried ourselves dry over the young woman we lost, but we still have lots of tears left for the baby, the toddler and the young girl of years past.  Working our way through the family albums is going to really hurt.

I might just start watching for the whales though; perhaps one of these years there will be a newborn calf with a radiant smile and an obvious sense of style.

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