If you look at the post from March 25 when I just started this painting, and here you can see the work I did on it yesterday.
Especially because of social media, most of us only want to present our world, our art as achievements. But the truth is, making art is easily one of the most frustrating endeavors you can imagine taking on in your life. And if you're like me, self-defined as a writer (of plays and short stories), a photographer, and an artist, a term I use to catch all the other things I do when writer or photographer doesn't suffice, you're really setting yourself up for some hefty frustration and rejection. The successes I've had as an artist--and there have been some really good ones--pale so much in comparison to getting up every day and trying to make a piece of art, whether it's a written piece, visual, or a combination in the face of not just rejection or frustration, but actual failure as determined by me. I'm never going to be on Broadway, in the MOMA, or even some major literary press magazine. I'm an artist who every day uses creativity to make art or plant and maintain a garden because I simply don't know how to live any other way. Right now, the only person who I try to please is me, and many times that doesn't happen.
But griping or moaning, "whoa is me" is not why I'm writing this.
The picture above is a mixed-media piece I started working on this afternoon. I had an idea and I thought it was pretty clear-cut but things got out of hand and what I see above is something I would call a red-hot mess. You have to see where the painting wants to go, but you have to exert some control over it, too.
Last night a couple of writer friends were kind enough to give me feedback on a play I've written, and they pointed out what I feel is a pretty major flaw.
Later that night I laid awake in bed and thought about the play, and thought about three scenes that I can actually see as vertical ribbons, and I wondered if the solution didn't lie there. I know what I want to say in the play, and that's really what's important. I've been writing for so long and feel so comfortable doing it that I skip over frustration and go right into rolling up the sleeves and digging into the script.
Believe it or not, I will use the same process to try to "fix" this picture. When you hear a multidisciplinary artist say that everything is connected, believe them. I "see" a script exactly as I see this painting. Did you notice that I said there are three scenes that I can actually see as vertical ribbons. Those ribbons actually move, too, as if blown by the wind. And the same process of looking at elements and figuring our their role and how I can get them there is the same process for writing or for visual work. Weird, huh? Unless you've been seeing reality like this all your life.
But the language is different. Visual language is different from written or spoken language. (And for that reason is why I use text in my visual work: To give different meaning to words.)
All I know is right now I have to keep away from that painting. What I'll do is set it somewhere where I can see it, near me, for example, when I'm watching a movie. And we'll just take each other in. And I think something will come out that way.
The Dancing Bear is the title of one of my plays. The Dancing Bear is a person dressed in a bear costume. She wears it like we wear our own bodies, our own personas. You should stand clear of The Dancing Bear, because if you don't, who knows what you'll find out about yourself. (The truth hurts, doesn't it.) But then again, maybe it won't be so bad.
Genesis (triptych), Acrylic paint and graphite on three 12"x 16" boards; 2021.
I survived. It was that simple. I was spit out of a spiraling vortex where there was no consciousness of this reality, where cause and effect had no meaning or nothing else had meaning. Nothing had meaning, nothing had value, nothing was named. All that existed…was nothing.
All I could do was stay alive. Breathe in and breathe out. Pump blood through my veins. Give nourishment to my vital organs. I learned to kill with my bare hands and I learned to like it. I could fashion weapons from anything around me. A rock. A stick. My tears.
I survived. I resorted to cannibalism and I ate myself. I focused all of my energy on devising ways to kill, and in doing so, I realized that the more life I snuffed out, the safer I became. No other life became more important than my own.
What can this possibly mean? Is it my commentary on the state of affairs in the United States? The world? The pandemic? Modernism? All of the above? And why all this pretentious French?
I want to raise questions. 'Cause you have to think and interact with the painting. (I just don't get modern art, you say? That's like saying you don't understand a chair. You sit in a chair and you look at a painting, and that's all you need to know.) Except...except...dear viewer, I think you need to do more than just look at a painting; you need to interact with the painting. You need to engage! Theater nor painting, despite what I just wrote above about just looking, are not spectator sports. You must interact with them. You don't just buy a ticket to a play, sit back in the seat, and say, Ok, entertain me. You respond, you give the actors your energy so they can do their jobs. Nor do you look at a painting and say, entertain me. Do you speak French? Non? Then pull out your phone and pull up Google Translate. There, you've begun engaging. You do speak French? C'est bon! And isn't my French terrible? What about that? I know people who speak French; why didn't I call on them. Maybe I wanted the French to be bad. And the red, white, and blue? U.S. colors. And French and Russian, too! If that's as far as you get in one of my pieces, well, fine, I guess. But if I've hooked you somehow, keep going. That's what I want.
When not on the page, it's not that a word's meaning diminishes, it's that it has to share its essence with other artistic elements, starting with the painting itself; with the thing that has been made. Words on a page have been put there by the writer, the typesetter, the publisher, in a way that makes the words stand out alone, emphasizing them and putting them on the page to show them with the intent to best communicate meaning that the order of the letters dictate. That changes when words are used to paint. In painting, even the reason for language has a different purpose.
To Be Human. Acrylic paint and colored pencil on board; 16" x 12". 2021
"There is a reason we have developed emotions such as empathy, kindness, compassion, and hope. We are a species capable of destroying ourselves. We developed these emotions out of survival. If we hadn’t, we probably would have destroyed ourselves long ago."
The quote comes from a much longer monologue from a play, Turtles, that I wrote. The monologue ends with that line, "...and that is what it means to be human."
Some might say, some might accuse, that artistically I like to obfuscate. That's not it at all. What it is, is that I don't like to give pat answers to questions, and I like to raise more questions than answers. I want the viewer or the reader to work. When they work, versus just sitting back a la Netflix and having information or opinions spoon-fed into their brains, as if the tops of the their heads were lifted up like so many lids off the slop bucket and the remnants of the dinner plates scraped in, people evaluate their own opinions and values. So, if the viewer works just a little bit, they'll get the gist of what I'm saying, and might come up with something on their own.
And by God I love color. It's really hard for me to pull back on color. Even when you think I'm painting black, I'm painting color. It's not black, but more than likely phthalo blue mixed with a little Mars black, not the other way around.
John Greiner-Ferris is an artist in the Boston area. Sometimes he makes images. Sometimes he writes. Sometimes he does both.