Have you, or are you currently obsessed with something that you have repeatedly returned to in your artwork? Do you feel slightly guilty about it – like you should be moving on and doing something different? Or perhaps you have the opposite problem, you are stuck on one thing and don’t seem to be able to move on or evolve. When I was a young art student I was often confused about what it is to be an artist; the pressure to understand was intense. Many ideas about who or what we should be and how we should act as a so-called artists conflicted with how I felt and what I saw around me.
One such idea was that as an artist you should always do something different; that you are only as good as your last piece. This idea suggests that one must be perfect all the time and constantly be looking for new things, new subjects, or to be innovative and unique. However, this idea doesn’t allow for a longer exploration of one subject and further, suggests that to be focused on one or a few things, as opposed to many, is somehow wrong. A few things challenged my thinking around this idea.
The first challenge to the idea was something I heard about Picasso and Matisse– to paraphrase -the idea is that you have permission to return to earlier content. Picasso observed Matisse working in an obsessive way with his drawings – continually repeating and reworking, refining – but in the end Picasso believed the first drawing to be the best. Which is not to say one should only do one drawing or work at a time – like Matisse you can go at it obsessively too. The key is to keep working at it- hard. What becomes the obsession will lead you to new ways of seeing and innovation in your work. Check out this site or the Met for interesting details about Picasso and his thoughts about art and artists. A quick Google image search reveals the consistent content and interests of Picasso thorughout his almost 80 year career. He can be defined linearly perhaps, and broken down by periods, but it is pretty clear his had some ongoing obsessions!
The second challenge to this idea came from looking at the Helga pictures of Andrew Whyeth. The beauty of these works almost made me want to give up completely – I was awe inspired by the depth of focus on Helga (yes, there is some controversy about it) which is not only obvious because of the volume of works (over 200), but in the details and clarity of expression about this one person as the subject are still beyond words for me. I will never be bored with these images. No wonder Wyeth was obsessed with capturing the essence of Helga and he was relentless (and secretive) about it.
A third challenge to this idea I found in the work of Emily Carr. I was mostly raised on the west coast of British Columbia, Canada and lived in Haida Gwaii in the north for several years. I now live in Victoria, BC for the past 20 years, so I am in her environment, although much changed now. Carr’s work has such consistency in focus/interest and prescence of mind and inspiration that she is a great role model for anyone under the pressure to constantly create something different! Here are strong reminders that in the end we really need to get to know a subject instead of lurching from thing to thing, looking for what’s trendy.
There is also something here about attachment and deep looking and seeing – perhaps what Berger talked and wrote about….
In any case, I am reconcilled to being obsessed – about many things – all of which are stimulated by seeing and materials. By returning to primary forms I am reunited with early impulses to draw or paint, to record or explore and thereby be refueled. The materials I use will always create something new or new ways of seeing.
One of my obsessions is with the landforms at Dinosaur Provincial Park in Alberta, the largest Cretaceous area in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage site. In following posts I will share my journals from 2 weeks spent there in the summer of 2017 as well as a gallery of works that have prompted various responses to this very special place.
Let me know what you think about your own artistic obsessions!