Art Vent

Letting the Fresh Air In

Vermont Studio Center

Art Vent Letting the Fresh Air In

January 25, 2011

It’s curious how many people (like Mario Naves) interpreted my case against Plan B, below, as meaning that I have a conflict with artists working outside their studio. Not so! I’m a big advocate of the Work Ethic (I wasn’t born Carol Dickinson—how WASPy can you get?—for nothing).  I simply would not advise college students who want to be artists to study another profession they’re not completely committed to as a backup in case of failure—such as those whose "Plan B" is a Master of Arts in Teaching. The artists Naves and I know in New York are the ones who were resourceful, who survived. The people I'm thinking about are those I meet at places like the Vermont Studio Center or the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, who now are struggling to get back the thread of their art after doing something else, such as teaching in grammar or high school, for years—challenged by being just too long out of the conversation.

And why is the conversation important? Because it keeps you sharp and current, and your work alive. I seem to be arguing for art school these days when I didn’t think I believed in it, but this is one of the main reasons to go, to get critical feedback and create significant life-long relationships with other artists (years ago you could have gotten the same experience less expensively, by hanging out at that long-lost institution, the art bar).

As long as you stay in this very important loop, you can do almost anything outside of it. Henri Rousseau, famously, was a customs inspector. Color field artist Gene Davis, was a sportswriter and White House correspondent. Robert Irwin played the horses. I have a friend, Tom Kovachevich, who’s a doctor with a full-fledged art career, another who has a government job as a therapist and lives in Vermont (yes, he travels to New York a lot). Further, there’s no question that Stella’s outside job as a house painter, Rosenquist's as a sign painter, and Warhol’s as an illustrator changed the course of art history.

As for having to work, I’ve often done my best art when squeezed for time. In fact I started painting seriously when I was the suburban mother of two toddlers who were in nursery school for half a day. I was also, however, deeply involved in the Chicago art scene, sharing a studio with three other committed artists, writing reviews for The New Art Examiner, and going to openings every Friday.

In fact, looking back on it, the biggest turning points in my development as a painter were born directly out of the frustration of having neither the physical ability nor the time to work.  The first time I used writing in my paintings (which I no longer do, BTW, having seen too much of it) was in 1976 after a back injury from an automobile accident kept me from sitting down to work and my boy friend had just broken up with me. I couldn’t think of any images I wanted to make so I just poured out my thoughts, scrawling all over the paper with oil pastel, and then afraid that someone might actually read them, obliterating the words with asphyxiating amounts of turpentine.

Carol Diehl, It seems silly..., Oil pastel on paper, 1976

Later, in the 90s, I was working as an assistant to a literary agent, writing for Art & Antiques (under editor Isolde Motley, when it was a great magazine), art consulting for TIME—occupations for which I had no formal training—and coping with an unnamed illness I now know to be Lyme disease. Yet I had a studio and the urge to paint, even if I could only eke out 15 minutes at a time. There was no possibility of buying a stretcher and preparing a canvas, so I took an old painting, ruled it off with colored pencil into forty 2” horizontal stripes and chronicled the events of my life in one painted strip each day—a format that later became the “journal paintings” that were eventually shown at Hirschl & Adler.

Carol Diehl, January,1997,Oil on canvas, 36" x 36"

Another thing I hear when talking with frustrated artists is, “You don’t understand; I live in Cleveland.” What they are really saying is that they’ve made other choices that have taken them off their path—but these things didn’t “just happen.” If living in Cleveland is a problem, then don’t live in Cleveland. Or accept that you live in Cleveland, find other people like you, and start something up there. The problem isn’t, and has never been, Cleveland.

But it could have been “Plan B.”


Note:  I just now received a notice from the Vermont Studio Center regarding their fellowship applications, closing February 15. More info here.
February 1, 2008

Visiting with 25 or so artists last week at the Vermont Studio Center, I found that part of my job there--besides eating as much bread, butter, and dessert as possible--was to poke holes in some closely-held art world tenets:

Artworks must be consistent for a final review, to show a dealer, or for an exhibition. “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” said Ralph Waldo Emerson. I’m not sure where this reverence for sameness came from. Even though its usefulness has been flagrantly disproven by two of the most famous artists of our time, Louise Bourgeois and Gerhard Richter, it persists among young artists who are afraid to experiment because their job, as they see it, is to produce a “body of work” with a singular character. Sometimes I have to remind them that what looks like a big difference to the artist is negligible to the viewer, and that their work is unified simply by being theirs. But even if the leaps were huge, so what? While I’ve never been to an exhibition where observers complained that the work was too diverse, I’ve been to plenty where it was criticized for being too similar.

You have to have a concept in mind—and be able to articulate it—before you can start working. This belief stops many people from making art before they even begin. Ideas come from the process, not the other way around. It’s about starting somewhere, anywhere, and seeing where it leads. The starting point can be a concept, but as such it’s just another tool, a means to the end. If you know the outcome before you do the work, why bother?

After it’s finished, the artist should be able to explain what the work is about and why he/she did it. I have to admit that I had no idea what my work meant or could mean—to me or anyone—until I read the reviews. And while other people have contributed many interpretations, all of which feel valid, if you ask me what my current work is about I really have no clue. Where did it come from? I don’t know; it just happened. In his New York Times obituary Roy Lichtenstein was quoted as saying “I don’t think artists like myself have the faintest idea what we’re doing…”

When I’m king, along with regulating how early in the season stores can start flogging for Christmas and changing the term “ice pellets” back to “sleet,” I’m going to outlaw artist’s statements.
January 28, 2008
One poet to another: "It's as if Mary Oliver has an epiphany every time she walks out the door...."
January 25, 2008
How do I love my iPod? Let me count the ways. And I’m grateful for my GPS, too. Even though its performance is uneven, I cannot forget that it has extracted me more than once from driving hell (otherwise known as Boston). But yesterday they both let me down. At the same time. It was a long drive through the frozen tundra of upper Vermont to the Vermont Studio Center (VSC) in Johnson, which is even north of Burlington, if that’s possible, when my iPod began playing music from a band I swear I’ve never heard (lyrics: “Shut your mouth. Shut your mouth. Put your head back in the clouds and shut your mouth”—sound familiar to anyone?), while the readout said something else entirely. It was supposedly on shuffle and it would say it was playing, say, Air or Kasabian, when it was really just this one band, and not a great one at that. I might have written before about the time my iPod insisted on playing nothing but Oasis, the entire repertoire, until it got a grip on itself and went back to normal, but to think that a machine could share one of my obsessions only made me feel more affectionately toward it. This new quirk, however, just seemed perverse. Especially since, at the same time, my GPS, which had successfully gotten me through the twists and turns of Rutland, was now telling me in no uncertain terms to STAY RIGHT, TURN RIGHT!!! on Route 109 when I thought I should keep going on Route 100. Really, having a GPS is like being married (“I SAID TURN RIGHT, DAMMIT!”) except it doesn’t get upset if I stop at a red light I could have gotten through on the yellow, or choose a parking spot that’s not the absolute closest one to where we’re going. Anyway, I was 99% certain I was headed in the right direction—the analog technology I consulted (a map) confirmed it, plus my car has a built-in compass, plus I’d been there before—but nagging doubt stayed with me as I put fifty plus miles between me and Route 109, fifty plus miles of winding mountain roads, icy uninhabited flats and signs that said things like, “Moose crossing next 8 miles.” I went through the town of “Irasville” (surely I’d remember that name if I’d been there before, wouldn’t I?), and past The Church of the Crucified One (now there’s a place that could use a corporate sponsored name-change). Not to speak of a chocolate shop that turned out to be an outlet for “seconds” and “over-runs”—I’m addicted to chocolate, but not that addicted. It was only when I went through Stowe, and Route 100 met Route 15 at a restaurant called “Wok ‘n Roll,” (which I did remember), that I knew I was home free. Meanwhile my iPod…well, I haven’t turned it on yet this morning but I’m hoping it’s come to its senses.

Sculptor Judith Shea, who I know from when we were Senior Critics at Penn together, gave the lecture here at VSC last night and I give mine tonight. The temperature on this sunny morning is –5 degrees, and since the kitchen is out of herbal tea, I’m drinking simply hot water, the way the Chinese do, and it’s an extremely effective warmer-upper. Tomorrow I begin five days of studio visits, every half hour or so, from 8:30 to noon.

Judith Shea, Icon, 2003-4, wood and bronze, 62 x 16 x 13". Photo by ruy sanchez blanco.