Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Reconstructive Criticism

I was having breakfast the other morning at a local Missoula haunt called the Catalyst.  On the walls were silk screened canvases of the images from the opening credits of the ever classic "The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly".
I posted this image on FaceBook and had a number of responses from students regarding the theme song and the "OoooOooooOooooOooooOooooo Wa wa wa" we all know and love.  Well those folks who have ever taken a class from me know that this is no ordinary song.  This is the song I always play at the end of class to indicate that it's time to drop what you're doing because a class critique is about to get underway.
Here's a photo my friend KD took at ArtFest...Nail Fetish Bowling Pins Critique:
She also took this photo from our critique in Oaxaca during Day of the Dead a few years back.
I gather the class around and look and talk about all the work.  I go through every single piece of art, finished or not.  I make sure every single student is involved in this process.  Now I know the term "critique" sends shivers down some peoples' spines but my critiques are a bit different.  In this forum I focus on the things that "work".  It's about encouragement.  It's about letting folks grow by learning how others resolved their artistic "issues".  Of course I mention things that might help the student grow, but I believe that most things can be approached from a positive more effectively than a negative.  My goal is to encourage people to embrace and create art...whether professionally or otherwise.  I truly believe if everyone did some sort of art form, the world would be a better place.  A good many of my students are trying to find their creative side again after years of career or familial duties, thus, my goal is to try and welcome people back into the art world.  There is plenty of room for everyone.

Now contrast my critique sessions to those in Art School; truth be known though I loved critique day.  It was fun....sort of...sure it could be painful but I would say that it was the thing that I truly gained the most from my college years.   Thinking critically about work...what works...what doesn't...why it doesn't and who are you to say that about my art you !%@#%&#@!!!!!   Ahhh those were the days.  Yes it is true there were times when feelings could get hurt.  Of course, back then me and my fellow students were a bunch of twenty somethings that were totally convinced that we would be the next Picasso or Van Gogh.  New York galleries would line up for us...limos would await....rose petals would shower our every endeavor...bubble gum on the bottom of my shoe?  My new series of work! Brilliant!  Genius!  It's no wonder the Profs were so harsh on us.  They needed to rattle our cages a bit, if for know other reason than to prepare us for a bleak reality that awaited us after graduation...a tiny percentage of artist make a living off there skills.  Ouch!

It is a sad fact but true...I struggled for 15 years before I became fortunate enough to earn a living doing what I was trained to do.  I'm not the bajillionaire that I expected to be, but, hell, it's a big deal to make any sort of living doing art.  Back then, the years were spent bar-tending at night and creating art in the day.  Galleries, and exhibits when I could get them, but mostly work and struggle. It was hard but it was not without reward.   I grew...I learned...I honed my skills...I blended Margaritas.
I'll tell you an interesting story...about  or 7 years ago I was getting home from an evening of mixing Martinis and Manhattans.  I walked across my yard to my studio.  This evening I was feeling a bit melancholy, a bit low.  I had been in an internal struggle about whether to give up on the art thing.  I had struggled and struggled but nothing ever seemed to click.  I was tired of the fight, I was tired of being poor.  I was considering going back to school for something...though I had no idea what.  Above me a starry sky glowed bright bright bright.  I just stared upward.  I remember how amazing the sky looked.  I could see more stars than I could ever remember ever seeing.
 At that point I knew I had to make a decision to make: either I needed to go down a different path other than Art or I needed to be okay with my struggle.  I either had to reinvent myself or I needed to say: "I'm going to follow this artistic path wherever it leads. If I'm ninety and still struggling then that is what I must do, but I must be okay with it"  In other words, no regrets.    I recall thinking this and deciding that I would ride out the artistic life.  I decided that mostly because I knew that if I chose the other road I would always wonder "what would have happened if....".  I knew the "what if" would have driven me crazy.  I knew I would have been haunted by it until the day I died.  The interesting epilogue to the story is that within a year I was sustaining myself as an artist.  I recall getting home from my first year of teaching ArtFest.  I broke down into tears to my then wife Cindy.  I had finally found something that eluded me for so long.  I had finally arrived. I can't help but think about what would have happened if I chose the other path.  Now it is true someday I may be faced with more crossroads like I did on that starry night.  No one knows where this life will take us, but I know that I am blessed that I have experienced what I have experienced so far.

Art is an amazing force.  It is the closest thing to magic I know, and perhaps the reason that I am so determined to run those critiques in every single class is because I want more magic in the world not less.   I want more folks to find the value of their creative thoughts.  So the question, is since my goal in the crit is to focus on the "Good".....why the theme song "the Good, the Bad and the Ugly"?  Well the long and the short of it is...sometimes you have to do something simply because its cool...and that theme song is pretty darn cool.  Plus it's pretty hilarious to watch the last minute panic with that song playing in the background.  So with that I leave you with an inspiring bit of amusement, The Ukelele Ochrestra of Great Britain and there rendition of "the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly".


Bianca said...

I always find it funny when I hear artists talking about critiques they went through in school--I came up through music conservatories as a classical musician and had teachers that would throw you out of the room for being unprepared. I once saw a teacher throw a student's music through a window during a masterclass and our conductors thought nothing of making you get up and play all by your lonesome in front of a 100 piece orchestra to see if you're in contrast my art critiques are relaxing. I welcome the opportunity to grow that doesn't involve things being thrown at or near me.

Teresa said...

Well, I'm glad you took the path you did Michael. The art world at least, is a better place for it.

Maria Ontiveros said...

thank you for an inspiring, encouraging and uplifting post!
Maria O.

Pam McKnight said...

thanks for the link, I found it relaxing after a stressful day. I am trying to make my living as an artist after a career as a public school art teacher. I am currently in a store and a gallery and have had positive feedback, some even from you:) Today I approached a store with my found object assemblage and she said "oh it's crafts" no thank you. I know its not so I just left without creating a scene. I too am glad you took the path you did! and this blog gives me encouragement to keep trying.

hipandclavicle said...

Regarding making a living at art...

I didn't go to school for art, but it seems like a lot of the people who did so get hung up on the traditional ways of exhibiting work and making a living, the "proper" way to be an artist. There's still a stigma to craft vs art, but thankfully the internet blurs those boundaries and clever artists are finding ways to make a living doing what they love, regardless of whether it's "proper".

I've always been creative, interested in art and music, dabbled with things here and there, but I never thought it could be a reality because I wasn't trained and even trained artists find it difficult to make a living. I never even had a highschool drawing class.

A year ago I read your first book. It clicked with me like almost nothing else on this planet has clicked, and I knew I could start making art.

Around the same time, a local art store was going out of business and supplies were marked down 50-80%. I bought crap-tons of material, paints, papers, apoxie, etc, started stashing found items, and just started experimenting and reading books. I'm still exploring and have about a million undeveloped ideas sitting in a text capture app, but I'm already selling things online. It's so gratifying to be able to do something I love and connect with strangers who are interested in what I'm doing.

So thanks for sticking with it, finding your niche and inspiring people like me to do the same!

Lee said...

What a pertinent post! I am at a point in my life where I am trying to become more artistic, trying to find a voice and medium for the stuff that floats around in my head. I'm trying to do things on my farm (art retreats, barn sales)- and this was great affirmation that lots of us have these moments and we can GO forward!

marcella said...

good post and love the ukes!

eb said...

so good,
so BAD
and so un-ugly
did we hear this tune in VT?
curious minds
want to know...

oh yes!

rusty ceiling tiles are singing
the september song,

are SO re-constructive...

xox - eb.

Possible Impossibilities Studio said...

Wow.... Thanks for the great post! I always loved crits in class as well, they were an amazing opportunity to gain insights into other folks minds and eyes, then expand upon my own.
The music was magic... and I can see the students rushing about now! lol

~ Deb

Sue said...

I for one am glad your night under the stars sent you in our direction....and thanks for the ukelele rendition it was cool, especially when the guy could not whistle for laughing!! Great fun!

Linda Starr said...

Thanks, and loved the ukes.

RunninL8 said...

WOW! I didn't realize you live in Missoula! I've been enjoying and inspired by your work since I discovered it on Gary Reef's NING site a few months ago. I used to live in Missoula (5 Years) and just loved it there. I've been wanting to come back and visit friends, see how things have changed...THEY TOOK THE PEACE SIGN DOWN!?!?!?!!?
I look forward to perusing your site!


rebeca trevino said...


Susan said...

I absolutely agree with the way you run "the critique" at the end of your workshops. I found the experience to be completely different from my 1970s college art classes; encouraging and thoughtful-YES! Thank you!

Harnett-Hargrove said...

Art in indeed alchemy. I like your description of dynamic change, positive and definite.
I too love Serge movies.-J

michelle ward said...

Great post Michael. I love that you do critiques. It winds up a class nicely, and brings it to another level. Bravo for offering that. I think that even though there were moments from our school critiques that made us cringe, they were the most validating moments, as well as being the teetering point where some slanted toward learning from it and some shut down.

The fact that you include everyone in the GB&U is awesome....teachable moments of real value. I have been watching Project Runway for years and have observed that many of the designers crave the feedback, whether good or bad. They don't even care if they are called back for the bad review....they simply appreciate hearing another perspective. If we are curious to learn, and push ourselves, it can be best discovered 'how' only after the work has begun or is in process.

Love your claim of wanting more magic. And that there is room for everyone. Utterly refreshing. And positive. Bravo for that kind of energy you emit....and share so generously.

Loved hearing about your emotional release following your Artfest teaching gig. (I still get that way)

Parabolic Muse said...

I loved reading this. The teaching process is so interesting to me. And so many of us are just this side of losing the dreams we have, and many others have given them up. It is a life of danger, but there's no security this side of the grave. I would hazard to guess that the most wonderful life is when you don't mean to be brave, you just can't help yourself. I'm glad you broke through!

Jen Crossley said...

Very inspiring Michael to follow your dream,so glad you followed yours,the art world is the better for it.

madelynb said...

I was talking to Jane at Random Arts yesterday about your classes. We agree that you are the most amazing teacher and inspiration. I have taken many, many classes in all sorts of media and you are the very best at what you do. How do you do it? How do you pull the creativity out of your students? How do you get us to create these amazing things? Inquiring minds want to know.
In the first class I took from you I almost bolted when you said there would be a critique at the end but it turned out to be the best part of the class. It was such a positive experience for all of us. I loved seeing what everyone had made and I learned so much from your comments which were always positive. That positive approach is so powerful and affirming. A friend calls you are her muse. She says that her well of creativity is filled for at least six months after one of your classes. I am so glad that you chose to walk the path you are on and that you light the way for so many of us. Thank you.

Pattee said...

Wow Michael you took some of the words right out of my mouth with this post...

I too have these artistic/creative crossroads and they seem to come quicker as I get older... but I always choose the path of magic...

We need to create more magic...

BTW do you live in Missoula Montana?

I grew up in Great Falls and pass through Missoula every year...if I wasn't living in the Pacific NW I'd be in Missoula!

Thank for believing~

sue said...

Many thanks Michael. Sometimes it is hard to have faith in ones own art but you make it easier to believe.

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