Source: Picasso made me do it….
Picasso made me do it…
A few months ago I took a professional development workshop for artists. On the sixth evening of the workshop our group got into a lively discussion on the topic of copyright for artists. It made me wonder if any artist can truly have an original idea? And in some unknown way, aren’t we all borrowing, stealing and taking ideas from the world around us? Is that not what artists do best? In the past, I have heard both sides of this debate argued out with great enthusiasm. Everything from the age old concept that no one has an original idea to the notion that it’s the artist’s responsibility to push the boundaries of society. Therefore, to do this, new and innovative ideas are needed. But as Picasso so boldly reminds us, “Good artists copy, great artists steal.” Even he acknowledges that no artist is without influence. Great artists know how to take what is not theirs and to manipulate it into what is perceived to be unique to them. If we believe this, then the argument stands that no one is truly original and thus success is based on something entirely outside of that. Perhaps this suggests that some artists are better thieves. They know the tricks of the trade and how to market an idea that once belonged to another.
The whole idea of copyright then comes under question. I wonder, in this era of digital media, can any artist truly protect their artwork? Sure there are copyright laws and regulations here in Canada for artists. However, the question remains how do they protect us when we are placing our work out into the broader context of the world wide web? We recently witnessed the scandal and outrage over the work of artist Richard Prince last spring. He brazenly took other people’s images from Instagram and manipulated them for his own purposes. More recently the Toronto restaurant Old School was accused of reproducing the work of artists Kelly Mark and Daniel A. Bruce (See below for link to Toronto Star article). Where is the line between flat out stealing and appropriation? In this digital world, how do decipher these subtle differences? After all, historically both Braque and Picasso used print material in several of their collages. If alive today, would they too, not utilize this new media as a source in their work?
As an artist, I may argue that using a portion of an image from a magazine or other print material for the purpose of creating a mixed media work or collage is valid. But how would I feel if one of my personal images was taken for that purpose? And then there is the issue or blatantly reproducing a work of art such as in the instances mentioned above. We are surrounded by social media, and just about everyone you know uses the internet in some form. Top social media sites such as Pinterest encourage us to search and pin images. Many artists now are even pushing their work onto this site to get it out there. So if artists are constantly self promoting and using social media to get recognition for their work, then are they just crying wolf when another artist reimagines, appropriates or reproduces their work?
Where an amateur artist once might have copied images from print media, a book or a photo taken at a gallery, they can now find everything at the click of a button. It is so much easier for us all to access the works of artists from around the world. From the comfort of my kitchen table, I can travel the world in search of new and interesting imagery in a matter of seconds. I don’t need to book a flight. I can find every resource I might need. It’s this grey area that makes the discussion amongst artists so interesting. You see, as an artist I may feel entitled or within my rights to borrow, steal or alter another person’s work without much thought or concern about the original creator of that photograph, artwork or graphic design. From the creator’s perspective it is infringing on their work and copyrights. So whose right in this battle of ownership? And we haven’t even touched on the issue of learning by imitating and/or copying. So, is there truly an argument for both sides? After all, how are new ideas and concepts to be born in a world so richly populated with Visual Media? The whole purpose of this blog entry is to engage artists in a very real dialogue. Most artists sit back with the “it can’t or won’t” happen to me attitude. But it does happen. It is a very real issue and what makes it so difficult is that it keeps shifting and evolving as the world wide web continues to morphs and transform. And it’s no longer a local or national discussion. The context has expanded beyond imaginable boundaries.
So it takes me back to the conundrum of this time? How do I as an artist protect my work in this digital era? How do I ensure that my work is visible on the various social media platforms, but also safeguard my rights as the original creator of my artwork? Sure, as I previously mentioned, there are copyright laws here in Canada to protect me, but what if an artist in another country or continent decides to steal my work? What then? It’s hard enough to make a substantial living from your art in Canada, without worrying about protecting your imagery from theft. And let’s be honest, putting a copyright logo, watermark or written claim on your work is not a foolproof guarantee that someone will not steal it, manipulate it or recreate it. And if we are so influenced in this shrinking world by the amount of material available to us, then how do we ensure that we aren’t guilty of stealing ourselves? I may think my idea is unique to me, but may have been influenced by any number of sources from print, internet, video, etc. After all, I don’t live in a cave isolated from society. I am constantly engaging with artists, writers, thinkers, creators, scientists and inventors. The world is rich with people and ideas everywhere.
So to further my plight, I might ask my artist friends, where do your ideas come from? How do we ensure that we are original? Is it even possible to exist completely devoid of influence and to develop an original thought or idea? As a practicing artist, I’m constantly going to art shows to see what others are creating. I love meeting with other artists for coffee to chat about ideas and the direction of our work. I watch what others take the time to post on social media and engage in all sorts of conversations around art and the world of creation in an effort to keep my ideas fresh and relevant. I don’t live in a bubble (as fun as that sounds). I am constantly gathering and assembling information to go out into a world that is already so rich with detail. I strongly believe that it’s not possible to be a practicing artist in today’s world without engaging in this give and take. Sure you can create, but being an artist is as much about the social ideas, communication, and relationships as it is about the production and creation of the work.
So where does this leave me? Shamelessly I fall under Picasso’s spell. I’m watching, gathering, stealing, learning, formulating, and reassembling all that I learned from the world around me. Let me be clear, I am not outright copying anyone’s work. I am producing and being as original as I can in this time and place. It’s only by sorting through all my experiences that I am able to produce work which is authentic to me. And if anyone asks where did I get my idea or what my work is about. Well, it’s years of studying about art and putting to practice my skills on a regular basis. It’s the ideas that excite me and the process of exploring them that makes my work what it is. And, if they push further about it, I’ll simply tell them, Picasso made me do it.
It’s 2 a.m. and my eyes open. The clock’s red glow starring back at me. Where am I? Right, I’m attempting to get some sleep. So why am I awake? Then like a distant friend, insomnia taps me on the shoulder and reminds me that it’s here to keep me company into the wee hours of the night. I fight it off and tell it to go away. I need to sleep. After all, the experts keep telling us this. It’s constantly in the media. But here I lie and my mind starts to spin through an array of thoughts… Dinner was good. I had fun with my friends tonight. The sunset was stunning. Why haven’t I used turquoise in my paintings? What should I wear tomorrow? Ooooh maybe I could paint on vellum. I need to draw more. I really do like charcoal. I wonder if anyone else is awake right now? Be quiet mind…I need to sleep. And so it goes, on and on.
I let out a deep breathe. Ok, it’s more of a deep sigh and I try to settle myself back into my pillow to fall asleep. But the thoughts keep creeping back in. My mind is spinning like a hamster with Attention Deficit Disorder on a running wheel. There’s no stopping the constant stream of thoughts. One thing flows to the next with no logical path or reasoning. My mind refuses to shut down and it’s not the first time.
What am I to do? Some experts recommend shutting down all social media connections and limiting the access to the blue light emitted from our various electronic devices. Done. Often I disconnect an hour or more before heading to bed. In fact. I don’t even keep any of these electronic distractions in my bedroom. So, that’s taken care of and off the list of steps towards getting sound sleep. Next recommendation is meditation. The act of sitting still and quieting the mind. Perfect! This is what I need. I settle myself into a comfy chair, cross my legs and intensely focus. Breathe in. Breathe out. If I am lucky I can keep this focus for at least 5 minutes. Then the chatter starts all over again and I begin to look around the room. Five minutes of sitting still feels like 3 hours and suddenly the walls inch closer to me. Panic takes over and I hop up out of the chair and think, well maybe I can meditate again tomorrow.
Through my yoga practice I have come to learn that lying on your back with your legs up the wall is a great technique for relaxing the body and helping with sleep. Fantastic. This seems easy enough to do. All that is required is a wall and 5 minutes of relaxation. So I get out of bed, walk into the hallway to find an empty wall. In the process of walking from point A to point B my mind wanders off again. By the time I get to the wall, I am wondering why haven’t I put a painting on this wall? Maybe the blue abstract would look great here. Is it the best place to view it? I won’t bump into it or knock it off this wall, will I? Suddenly instead of relaxing into the legs up the wall pose, I find myself sprinting down two flights of stairs to take the painting out for a late night viewing.
Am I alone in this world of insomnia? Clearly not. I see all your social media posts of paintings, sculptures and drawings worked on into the late hours of the night. The artist’s brain is a busy place. It’s constantly observing, analyzing. filtering and filing material away. Then it reassembles them into any number of ideas or artistic problems. Whether it’s an idea for a painting, sculpture, novel, play, dance or drawings, the artist is working away into the early hours of the next day. We pour ourselves into sketchbooks and notebooks. We reevaluate work that is completed. The reel of thoughts are constant. It’s exhausting. And yes, when a creative spurt or new breakthrough is on the horizon, it impedes our sleep.
I don’t have a solution for this problem. So artists please bear with me. Sleep is important, but I know you will agree that it’s not always easy for some of us. So when I tell you I’m tired, you’ll start to understand why I feel this way. It’s not boredom or lack of enthusiasm. It’s physical exhaustion caused by lack of sleep. My professional work life demands that I get to bed at a reasonable time as my day starts very early the next morning. But admittedly, I have toiled through many a work day with little to no sleep. I have learned how to function in this state. I’m not claiming it’s healthy. Please don’t mistake that. It’s not easy. I would give anything to be someone who sleeps the recommended 7-8 hours a night. However, the artist’s life is not a 9-5 job. It’s constant and it’s all encompassing. I am not just an artist when I step into my studio space. I am always observing the world around me, taking note of the bits that later become integral to my work. And it’s this gathering that keeps my mind active and spinning in all directions. So, next time you find yourself awake in the middle of the night, know that you are in good company. Because, I guarantee that somewhere out there is an artist or two quietly working away.
The early morning light was sunny and bright.
Each step to the top of the giant rock
was an exhilarating way to start the day.
All around the morning air was thick and humid
with the intense summer’s heat.
The walk was rugged over sand, rock and tree roots.
Steadily climbing to the peak of the giant cliff.
Jagged rock and ancient cedars.
Midway to break the steep climb,
rock face clad with an iron staircase.
All one hundred metal steps leading further up
to the spectacular vista that awaited.
Over hot stretches of flat rock
and narrow pathways we strode
to the lookouts hanging over Mazinaw Lake.
A deep breath in.
How far we have come.
A moment of quiet contemplation.
A sigh of appreciation for the view so high above the lake.
The only sound left are the birds above
and our feet on the ground,
as we turn to descend from this spectacular place.
During my days at art school we were encouraged to examine our work through the lens of an idea or big concept. It wasn’t enough “just” to paint an apple for the sake of painting it. There always had to be a greater meaning within the painting itself. A comparison had to be drawn in the form of a metaphor or an analogy. Often it was to one’s own life and the vast perplexing questions surrounding it at 20 years of age. All of our work was to be rooted in idea generation. The execution and the technical skills needed always followed. It was a new way to approach the creative process. So, as a result, so much of what we did as young artists centred around spinning tales about the work we were creating as much as it did the actual creating. To some, this way of making art may seem unfavourable to the creative process, but in time I have come to realize a few things from my experience.
First of all, the creative process to most people is a complete mystery. How and why artists create is some form of sacred act that is to be guarded and preserved. As the myth goes, the artist industriously works away in the studio and doesn’t return until there is a masterpiece to reveal to the world. Only here can the great idea be generated. It’s created with one part talent and one part magic. The truth of the matter is, the creative process doesn’t work this way. Artists don’t toll away alone until a masterpiece emerges. Well, at least not entirely. Yes there’s a time and a stage where they may be alone in their studio creatively working away. But for every masterpiece, there are hundreds maybe even thousands of experiments, trials, errors, and retrials to get what they are working towards. Sometimes artworks are destroyed entirely. Other times they are reworked or overpainted in an attempt to get that piece that brings a sense of satisfaction. But this is only one side to the creative process. Artists are social beings. They are gatherers of ideas, resources and materials. There are conversations, gallery visits, time spent idea generating, sketching, planning, experimenting, discussions, reading, learning, revising, questioning, rethinking, more sketching, re-sketching, and so on. It’s an elaborate process almost like a creative dance to get to the final product. Artists love to share their ideas and their work with others. So this becomes a theatrical or performance based production of sorts. Whether they share with other artists, post to social media or invite clients and/or curators into their studio space, the process is fluid and constantly evolving. There are no magic spells. To be frank about the matter, it’s really a lot of work and a dedicated time commitment to creating that final product.
So from this, I came to my second realization. As previously mentioned artists by nature are very social beings. They are not the aloof, eccentric souls who prance around their studios yelling at anyone who enters….well at least not the majority. And so, here is where art, the artist and the viewer cross paths. Everyone loves a good story. Show me any work of art and I can tell you a story about it. Sure we can look at a painting or a sculpture and appreciate it for it’s formal artistic qualities. But what really captures people is the story behind the artwork. Where was it made? What’s the story behind the creation? What scandalous or intriguing things were happening in the artist’s life at the time of the creation? Why did the artist create the work? What is its meaning? Think of any of the great painters or sculptors in the history of art – Caravaggio, Michelangelo, Van Gogh, Tom Thompson, Frida Kahlo, Ai Wei Wei, just to name a few…and it’s the stories behind their lives that really draw people in to look closer at the work. Now don’t get me wrong. All of these artist have created work of great merit, but once you start talking about them, it’s the stories of their lives in conjunction with the artwork that really captures people.
Need further proof to our desire for a good story? Over the past few months, I have been attending numerous art exhibits and gatherings with artists. I love listening to others speak about their art and what drives them. You might think this counter productive given that I too am an artist. But it’s not. In listening to others, I have repeatedly heard artists, curators and creative types talk about the importance of narrative in art. It’s how we present ourselves to the world. We all have a story and a narrative that we tell people. Spend 5 minutes with any one person, and I assure you that you will have a good idea of what drives that person. You will understand the lens by which they view the world around them and how that makes up their social story. So next time you go to an art exhibit, I encouraged to you ask an artist about their work. They will happily share stories about the piece, the creation of the work, their process, technical challenges faced creating it, a specific day in the studio or even the concept behind the work. It’s what we do. We tell people the stories of our creative process. It’s how we generate meaning and in turn get you as the viewer to come away with a greater understanding of our interests and passions. And, if we can’t be there to talk to you in person, then instinctually you look at the work for visual clues and create your own narrative to go along with it. Everyone has a story to tell when it comes to their own lives. Why should viewing art be any different?
The clear blue of the summer sky
quickly shaded over.
A slow low rumbling
came out of the western sky.
Dark clouds rolled through
and the rain started to dance lightly
off the surface of the lake.
Bright flashes streaked towards the mountain top,
lighting the sky and the lake below.
Another thunderous clap
and the rain travels in sheets
across the water.
Everyone takes cover.
The birds go silent.
Nothing but water falling from the sky,
teeming off the roof top
and filling the grass with deep puddles.
Splashing water everywhere.
The wind picks up.
The storm intensifies momentarily
before the skies let out a sigh.
A final thunderous roar
The rain slips away
and the skies begin to clear once more.
Dark grey clouds giving way
to sun beams.
The birds open up and
almost like stretching after an afternoon nap
let their songs fill the fresh air.
The summer storm has finally pass on by.
Each evening the sun slipped away
behind the mountain in the exact same spot
Sometimes surrounded by
dark blue grey clouds
Other times simply surrounded by
a clear night sky
No two sunsets are ever the same
Sometimes orange and bright
Other times as red as the embers of the camp fire
and a range of colours
Each night a spectacular show
as the sun slips into the night