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.”

May 24, 2011

Creativity and the Universe

Dan at work in the studio

Much has been written about the subject of creativity:  What is it?  Where does it come from?  How can it be controlled?  What makes a person creative?  Can it be learned?  And on, and on...and on.  To this vast topic, I’d like to add my own two cents worth, which (considering inflation) is now more like my own two hundred dollars worth. 

First of all, I strongly believe that creativity is inherent in every one of us.  It is a given aspect of being human.  Just look at the creativity of children to see the most blatant example.  If any distinction applies it is between those who regularly use their creative abilities and those who have the creative potential but do not apply it.  The primary difference between these two groups is not creativity but inspiration.  Those who create are inspired to do so.  It is what makes them feel fully alive.  It is how they make meaning of their life and the culture surrounding them. 

In the remainder of this blog and the one to follow, I’d like to explore my own thoughts on the creative force.

Creativity, the Universe, and Play

In any of my creative endeavors, whether it be writing, film-making, or sculpture, I’ve always had the sense that I was definitely not the one in control of the creative force.  As James Abbott McNeill Whistler (the painter of “Whistler’s Mother”) aptly put it, “Art happens—no hovel is safe from it, no prince can depend on it, the vastest intelligence cannot bring it about.”  Creativity is not something that one can control or force.  You cannot sit down and say to yourself, “In the next half hour I’m going to be creative.”  You have to allow the creative impulse to come to you.  It seems that creativity exists somewhere beyond our conscious mind.  Depending on your belief this might be in the subconscious, God, or in the cosmic consciousness of the universe.  But to whatever we attribute creativity, the most we can do is to allow ourselves be receptive, to act as a conduit for the creativity that flows through us.  This holds true even in the world of science.  A classic example comes with the discovery of the structure of the DNA molecule.  After years of research, the Nobel laureates Francis Crick and James Watson finally realized that DNA was composed of a double-helix.  But the answer to DNA’s design came not from the lab but from Watson’s dream of two intertwining snakes.

For me, the creative act is a matter of letting go of my conscious and controlling mind as much as possible.  To do so, allows me to be open to the creative essence.  As Peter Koestenbaum, the philosopher, said, “Creativity is harnessing universality and making it flow through your eyes.”  In fact, when working on a particular piece I often get “stuck.”  I know that what I have in front of me isn’t working, but I have no idea of what to do.  In times like these, I generally go out into my garden to get my hands dirty and immerse myself in mindless physical work.  Doing so will usually clear my mind and allow the creative “solution” to come to me.  The harder I try to intellectually envision a solution, the further I am from the solution.  Only by forgetting about the problem does the answer arise.

Play is also an essential element of creativity.  I strongly remember the feeling I had while creating my first abstract sculpture about six years ago.  The sculpture was composed of beautifully twisted and aged tree limbs that remained from an ancient apple tree that had finally died and fallen in my back yard.  I spent the day using heavy copper wire to tie several of these limbs together into a nest-like form.  And, as I did so, I was overcome with a feeling of childlike play.  I was immediately transported to memories of making small objects of twigs as a young boy.  This was pure ultimate objective, no sense of there being a right or a wrong way to assemble the limbs, no time lines, no need for outward approval...the joy was in the process of play, pure and simple.

According to Carl G. Jung, “The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct acting from inner necessity.  The creative mind plays with the objects it loves.”  The improvisational violinist Stephen Nachmanovitch agrees when he states, “Creative work is play.  It is free speculation using the materials of one’s chosen form.”

So, my first two criteria for creativity are a playful spirit and a clear and open mind.  And remember, these qualities are not unique to those who are considered “creative individuals.”  They are part of the heritage of everyone of us.  In my next blog posting, I’ll discuss “Creativity and Chance.”  I hope to see you then, and I welcome any thoughts you may have about creativity.

March 26, 2011

Fertility Figures

"Fertility Figure"  Dan Woodard, Bronze

In creating my own fertility figure, I was strongly influenced by paleolithic fertility figures that date to some 38,000 years ago.  These voluptuous and sensual forms have greatly affected my characterizations of the female form.

"Venus of Willendorf"  4.3" high, Limestone

Fertility figures have fascinated me ever since I first became aware of the Venus of Willendorf while taking an anthropology class at UCLA.  This sculpture, approximately 23,000 years old, was discovered in 1908 in the village of Willendorf in lower Austria.  She is made of limestone and tinted with a red ochre.  With her large breasts, abdomen, and a detailed vulva, scholars immediately thought of her as a fertility symbol and named her after the Roman goddess of love, which she predates by several millennia.  For many years she was considered to be the oldest example of sculpture known to man.

"Venus of Dolni Vestonice"  4.4" high, Low-fired clay

However, since her discovery, many similar, and even older, fertility figures have been found.  These include the Venus of Dolni Vestonice, which at around 29,000 years old is the oldest known example of the use of ceramic, even predating functional pottery.  And, in 2008, one hundred years after the discovery of the Venus of Willendorf, the oldest yet known Venus figure was discovered in Germany.  The Venus of Hohle Fels is approximately 38,000 years old and dates to the earliest presence of Homo sapiens (Cro-Magnon) in Europe.  This sculpture is not only the oldest known example of sculpture, it is also the oldest work of any art form yet discovered (the oldest cave paintings date to “only” 32,000 years ago).  

"Venus of Hohle Fels"  2.4" high, Wooly Mammoth tusk

While the majority of scholars view these and similar figures as fertility symbols, others have presented alternating theories of their meaning or purpose.  Some argue that the diversity of the figures represent differing segments of the Paleolithic population.  Others see them as self-portraits created by the women they represent or effigies of a mother goddess cult.  Some even theorize that they are a form of portable pornography due to their small size.

I had been creating abstract sculptures for about two years when I tackled my first figurative piece.  Without having any conscious image in mind, I automatically began sculpting a woman that quickly evolved into my own fertility figure.  I hadn’t seen the Venus of Willendorf for many years, but the memory of her immediately came to me as I continued my sculpture.  I was impressed by the size and voluptuousness of my own figure, but when I again looked up the original, I realized how my form was much more reserved than that of my prehistoric ancestors.  My own natural inclination to this form makes me believe that the prehistoric fertility figure is an archetypal and subconscious image.  To me there seems to be both a numinous and a sensual quality that draws one to these figures. 

Upon completion of my own fertility figure, I made a mold of her and cast her in bronze.  The final statuette has a rich patina with sections carved out to emulate natural erosion.  My bronze fertility figure is somewhat of a personal joke, although no one yet has gotten it on their own.  The joke:  the bronze age began some 20,000 years after these types of fertility figures were created.

"Fertility Figure #2"  Dan Woodard, Alabaster

Other female sculptures I’ve created (see “Ariadne” and “Ester” on my web site) have been strongly influenced by my own and prehistoric fertility figures.  It seemed only natural that, when I made my first stone carving, I return to my fascination with fertility figures.  Actually, it was a good subject matter for a beginning stone carver since the form is both stylized and not intricately detailed.  All-in-all it feels good to continue a tradition that began nearly 40 millennia ago.


January 29, 2011

Welcome...Marcel Duchamp and 'Choice'

'Falling Woman of Versailles' by Dan Woodard
Hello, and welcome to my first blog posting.  I’m a sculptor living in the San Francisco Bay Area and have created this blog to show samples of my works in progress as well as newly completed pieces.  I’ll also be talking about topics of interest to me in the world of sculpture and art in general.  Of course, this doesn’t preclude the fact that I may talk about other items as well.  We’ll just have to see what happens.

I also have a web site that highlights several pieces of both my figurative and abstract sculpture.  To visit the site, simply click on the link to the right.  And, of course, I’d love to hear from you as well.  Please feel free to send me comments on my work or any aspect of my postings.  Or, if you have any questions, I'll do what I can to answer them.  If you’d like to be informed of new postings that I publish, please click on one of the boxes to the right to receive either an email notification or an RSS or other reader feed.

Now, on to...

Marcel Duchamp and ‘Choice’

In this, my first posting, I’d like to talk about the ‘choices’ that an artist makes.  When creating any piece of art, the artist is faced by an infinite number of choices.  From large choices such as subject matter, size, materials, texture, and composition to seemingly minor choices such as the amount of roundness on the tip of a small toe.  The odd thing is;  none of these choices are really large or small.  They are all equally important and all give meaning and cohesion to the final piece.  To put it simply, the ‘art’ is primarily determined by the choices of the artist.  

In my own work, I’ve become more and more aware of this over the past several years.  Last December, while visiting the museums of Berlin, I became aware of Marcel Duchamp’s views on choice.  Duchamp, as you may well known, was a follower of Dadaism and was widely known for his ‘readymades.’  These were manufactured items such as a coat rack, a dog grooming comb, a snow shovel, and, perhaps, most famous of all a urinal, which Duchamp labeled “Fountain” and signed:  R. Mutt 1917.   Duchamp stated that these objects were elevated to the status of art by the simple fact that the artist ‘chose’ the item.  He further stated that, “...because the subconscious attends to the choice—in reality everything has happened before your decision.”  In creating his readymades, Duchamp effectively elevated the role of choice to the highest status of the artist’s repertoire.   And choice certainly was important to Duchamp.  He did not lightly grab any object and declare it a readymade.  In fact, over his entire lifetime, Duchamp limited his readymades to no more than twenty pieces of art.  These were the pieces that he, through his subconscious, found worthy enough to be considered art.
'Fountain,' Marcel Duchamp, signed, 'R. Mutt 1917'
 Naturally, you may or may not agree with Duchamp’s viewpoints or with his self-appointed status as an arbiter in determining what is or what is not art.  I know that even five years ago, I myself would have probably laughed at his views and would have considered them another art world example of the ‘Emperor’s New Clothes.’  Now, however, my position has changed.  As I become more and more aware of how critical choice is when creating my own art, I can fully accept that a readymade can be valued as an artistic work.   

These are my thoughts.  What are yours?
Marcel Duchamp as his alter ego, Rrose Selavy