by Fred Peretz Cohn
17-03-2021

Exploration and Accidents in the Visual Arts Studio

A good portion of my early experiments in poetry, theater, music, and the visual arts was about success. All things not being equal, success was a productive motivator and a waste of precious time. From my teens through my earlier thirties, I managed to write a couple hundred bad poems, compose twenty-five mediocre songs, create thirty or so “hit or miss” art pieces, and heroically complete a passable two-act play. But except for the songs and the visual art, where the process was inherently enjoyable and rewarding, my ulterior motive was always recognition. As a would-be writer, I resisted sitting down and writing and preferred “having written” –  the former a demanding, time-consuming, and tortuous ordeal and the latter an indulgence in the fantasy of acclaim and adoration.

Vortex 2020 [90 x 90 x 7cm]

While I continue to write poetry and plays, this journal is about time spent in the visual arts studio. The more I write and the more I make art, the more I see their divergent and complimentary aspects. The two practices are not identical, of course, but I engage in a similar conversation with both. 

Process

Perhaps the idea of “process” is most accessible for visual artists because of the physicality of working with materials which , to some degree, implies the “how to” of it. Visitors to my studio often ask how I create my pieces. Mostly, they want to know how it all holds together.  Among the various responses I offer, apparently, “glue” is the most satisfying. But I want to look a bit more creatively at this idea of “what holds it together.” Or, rather, “How it comes together.”

We like to think of ourselves as creators with a vision or an idea we hope to realize in an art object – and a sense of the materials, skill, or talent to paint or sculpt or build the thing we see in our head. And for the craftsperson or artisan who turns out nearly exact copies of an object – a wooden spoon or woven basket – the original idea for that object must have sprung from imagination. After all, someone invented the spoon.

For me, process is a wobbly, multi-dimensional, and accidental journey. As a Buddhist teacher once pointed out to me: accidents are indispensable in investigation. The key, she said, is to remain accident-prone. Another way of stating this may be “to not let control (knowledge) stand in the way of experience.”

How things come together (and how they fall apart) in the studio often comes down to the overly stated axiom, “Trust your process.”  I find it a useful reminder and a potential pitfall. I “trust my process” in a big tent sort of way and in a very focused moment-by-moment way. The Big Tent is a kind of flexible scaffolding that frames how I do things and allows for continual adjustment. The Moment-by-Moment process is about being accident-prone: to move through the fear of making a mess of things so as to indulge my curiosity.

I hope you will join me in this ongoing investigation and conversation.

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