August 18, 2011

The Meaning of Art

"Silence" by Dan Woodard

I am often amazed and sometimes impressed by artists who can succinctly talk about why they create art and what their goals and intents are.  They can talk at length about what they had in mind when creating a particular piece, what message they wanted to convey, what they wanted the viewer to experience, or what their emotional or philosophical intent was.  For myself, I find that I usually begin the creative process as though my mind were a blank slate.  Naturally, I’m aware of what I am about to produce, but I’m generally not aware of what this piece means to me; let alone what it’s meaning will be.  Rather, I continue with the process, refining and defining the sculpture as I proceed.  Perhaps, the meaning comes to me during the course of creation.  However, usually it is only after I have completed a piece that I find personal meaning in it.  And sometimes it is only after I have finished several sculptures that I realize they are all representative of a single theme.  For me, the process is more intuitive than intellectual.  But by no means am I attributing a value of one way of working to another.  In fact, I admire and often envy those who have a definite message in mind when creating. 

Having created several bodies of both figurative and abstract work, I realize that my own work falls into two broad—and diametrically opposed—categories:  alienation and complete union.  I would have to say that the majority of my abstract pieces, such as “Golden Offering”, exhibit a sense of alienation.  My series, “Artifacts From a Former World,” to which this piece belongs, depicts the artifacts and ritualistic objects from an unknown and former world.  They represent the remnants of a society that has long since vanished.  About as alienated as one could get.

'Burnt Offering' by Dan Woodard is an abstract sculpture made of cement, copper, stone, wood, and copper leaf.
"Burnt Offering" by Dan Woodard

After completing several figurative pieces and standing back and looking at the series as a whole, I discovered that the majority of the men, such as “Silence” and “Anguished Man with a Broken Nose,” were on the alienation end of the spectrum.  While the women, “Ariadne’ and “Ester” for example, showed pregnant women.  The far end of the complete union category.  I further noticed that my males were generally titled with a description of their condition, while the women were given real names.  This is all incredibly interesting to me and has led me to explore the subconscious reasoning for my depictions of men versus women.  

"Ester" by Dan Woodard

So, on the one hand we have the intention of the artist and their message, whether it be conscious or subconscious.  But, on the other hand there is an equally powerful force, the perspective of the viewer.  And, since everyone’s perspective is different, the messages derived from a creative work are as varied as the number of viewers.  Each individual has their own sense of what a particular work of art “means” to them.  And each person adds their own background, personality, experiences, current mental state of mind and on, and on to arrive at this meaning.  And that’s good.  In fact, it’s one of the wonderful aspects of art...the viewer comes to her own relationship to the art sometimes totally independent of what the artist intended.  And all of the meanings or relationships that one has with a particular piece of art are valid—even if they are not what the artist intended.  Marcel Duchamp summed this view up when he said:  “The artist only has fifty percent of the responsibility.”

After hearing people’s reactions to my work I am often led to look at it in a new and different way.  And as a result of this process, I, myself, learn more about my art and about my subconscious creative impulses.  It’s an exciting and wonderful process.  A process that is very therapeutic and gives me a better understanding of myself.

July 21, 2011

Creativity and Chance

 Art loves chance and chance loves art.

"Marion 3.0" by Dan Woodard

In my last blog, I talked about what I believe are two important elements of creativity:  1)  creativity comes not from our conscious mind but from a source beyond it; and 2) creativity is deeply connected with a sense of play.  In this posting, I will discuss what I believe is the third element of creativity:  chance.

Most people would probably not consider chance to be an aspect of creativity since it definitely does not occur through any intent of the individual but rather from a mistake, an accident, or simply happenstance.  However, I believe it is what one does with the chance occurrence that makes it an aspect of creativity.  Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert stated:  “Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes.  Art is knowing which ones to keep.”  Whether it’s creating a work of art, working on a scientific research project, or designing a building, one is faced with a multitude of choices.  The conscious part of the creative act is selecting which of these choices one should follow.  As a sculptor, I must decide:  “Do I make the nose longer, wider, aquiline, straight, and on, and on.”  As I continue to make these choices, I often discover that some of my previous choices do not support ensuing choices.  I then must go back and take a different direction to make the piece work as a whole.  In the same way, a scientist will make certain choices as to the direction she should proceed.  Sometimes these choices will lead to the desired results, but more often they will not.  The scientist must then go back to make other choices that will hopefully lead to a solution to the problem.  During this creative process, both for the artist and the scientist, chance occurrences often present themselves.  And the opportunity presented by chance is yet another choice.  The choice being, “Do I accept this, reject it, or learn from it?”  Just because we ourselves have not participated in the element of chance does not mean that it is not a viable route to our desired end (even if we may not yet know what that end is). 

Alexander Fleming is generally given credit for the discovery of penicillin.  However, this ‘discovery’ was based on the ‘chance’ observation by several scientists who preceded him.  One of these was Louis Pasteur who studied the growth of the anthrax bacilli.  When his samples were accidentally contaminated with mold, the growth of the cultures was inhibited.  He correctly interpreted this chance event and surmised that the mold itself had a negative effect on the growth of the anthrax.  This lead to his famous quote:  “In the fields of observation chance favors only the prepared mind.”

I’d now like to look at a few examples of my own work to demonstrate how chance played a large role in their creation.  “Marion 3.0,” as shown at the top of this posting, was originally designed to be a solid bust of a woman.  However, the casting was faulty and a gaping hole was left in the piece.  I was just about to toss it away, when I realized that I really liked the effect.  The location of the hole was such that, for me, a great deal of originally non-intended meaning was added to the piece.  I considered my options and decided to finish the outside and inside of the casting with diametrically different finishes to arrive at the final sculpture.  She was thus born of chance.

"Gorgon" by Dan Woodard
 “Gorgon” is another of my pieces that was the result of chance.  The head of “Gorgon” was originally made for another sculpture.  But, after completing the sculpture, I felt the head, then without hair, was too small and cut it off.  This head lay in my studio for quite some time.  I still wanted to use it but wasn’t quite sure how.  Then one day, I held the head in my hand, turned it this way and that and wondered, “Now, what can I do with this?”  Suddenly, I realized, “Wow, I like the way the head fits my hand so comfortably.”  I then sculpted a hand to hold the head and created hair to flow around the hand.  It is now one of my favorite pieces.

Many of us believe that creativity does not arise from the conscious mind.  Some say it comes from a ‘muse,’ the creative impulse, the subconscious, a universal creative force, God...but wherever it comes from, couldn’t that force also be controlling the chance occurrences that present themselves to us?  As I’ve heard many people say, “There’s no such thing as an accident.”