In a special column for FRONTRUNNER, Dear Arts Instigator responds to questions about art-making, navigating the world as an artist, and finding a place for the artistic work from across the creative spectrum.
If you’d like to submit a question, send an email to email@example.com
Dear Arts Instigator:
I’m a painter and I have this one—it’s big—three feet by five feet and it’s an abstract landscape. The thing is that I’m stuck. I’m a little bored and I feel like it doesn’t pop. It’ just sort of dull. But, I’m not really up for painting over the whole thing. What do other painters do?
Stuck in my Landscape
Dear Stuck Painter:
I recently met an artist who has been painting over the same canvas for eighteen years. He gets out carving tools and pulls some of the dried paint away and then adds to it again. I admired his loop of paint-and-transform. But I could tell that his painting would never leave his studio. What he’s making is a process, not a product. It’s really hard to push past some stuck points. Painters have an especially tough dilemma: they can have courage and paint over parts of the canvas. But they can’t recover that old work. We poets have it easy: we just keep old drafts.
I asked one of the bravest artists and educators I know to offer some advice. Michael Swaine, a teacher of art and a core member of “Future Farmers,” an arts collective.
Here’s what Michael says:
I am trained as a ceramicist but I rarely make things out of clay anymore. I’m interested in the flexibility of materials and how objects can stand in for other objects. Right now, I am collecting old egg beaters.
I’d say first take the painting for a walk. Really! Get it off its normal wall. The longer the walk the better. Or pick a bus line and take your painting to the end of the line. Some people might ask you about it. Others might sit further away from you. A random bus will do. You can pick one that matches your age. You could also take the painting to the grocery store. Your painting could stand in the shopping cart while you buy vegetables. Of course, the painting would then be a painting in transit (haha) rather than one that feels more complete. But a dull painting, one that doesn’t interest the artist, is even less likely to transport the viewer. There’s some inner work to do. You are going to make lots of paintings and some will teach you what you need to know about courage and about breaking through old patterns. Why not start with this one?
Michael Swaine is an Assistant Professor of 3D/4M: Ceramics + Glass + Sculpture at the University of Washington (Seattle) and used to work as a guiding artist at the Exploratorium in San Francisco. Future Farmers has presented work at Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), Solomon R. Guggenheim, MAXXI Rome, the New York Hall of Sciences and the Walker Arts Center. His work involves a wide variety of assemblages and collaborations. His Free Mending Library received media attention on CBS Nightly News in May 2015, and he received a Jefferson Award for Public Service in San Francisco two months later.
About the Arts Instigator:
Frances McCue is a poet, essayist and arts instigator living in Seattle. From 1996 to 2006, she directed the Richard Hugo House, a literary center which she co-founded. In 1992, she published The Stenographer’s Breakfast, her first book of poems with Beacon Press. In 2010, her book, The Car That Brought You Here Still Runs, was released by the University of Washington Press. McCue has an M.F.A in Creative Writing from the University of Washington and a doctorate in education from Teachers College, Columbia University.