I've been thinking about family lately. I think it's because I'm going to see my daughter for the first time since the Christmas before the Covid pandemic. Almost a year-and-a-half to the date. The pandemic help me realize what's really important to me. Family. I miss both my daughters so much it hurts. But, just like me, when I'm supposed to feel joyous, I feel the opposite. When life bursts forth, I think about losing it.
When I make pieces like these, actually most of my pieces, I have to make pieces first to destroy them. These pieces are about decay (and memory, because what is memory but the shadow of something that is no longer here?) I make a piece, then think to myself that someone comes along and gets rid of it. Maybe it was painted on a wall, like graffiti, or many times I think that was made by someone held in a bedroom or an attic, a shut-in perhaps, with light coming in through one dirty window, with yellowed shades, and dead flies scattered on the window sash, and this person writes their musings on the wall, and whoever it is, their caretaker, comes in and sees it and thinks it's just more lunatic ravings, and they paint it out, but they can never paint it all out. That's what I'm thinking when I make these pieces.
For all who died last year...from Covid, Black Lives, war, from sadness...
We say that words have meaning, and we hold them in high regard. Words are precious, but they can lose their power, for example, when they are translated. Like a religion, which language is the “true” language that will get you to heaven?
Words have meaning. Paint has mood and feeling. When you take words out of their element—the printed page, on a stage—and put them on a piece of canvas mingled with paint, the words don’t so much lose some of the power they have on the printed page, but their power changes. The words are detached from their meanings and the painting becomes a different experience, as do the meanings of the words. And the painting changes. Words on canvas; words as paint strokes. The words become material, like the paint.
Art is no more precious than a word. A rip, a tear, a fray. A spatter of paint. It doesn't destroy the painting or make it lose value. It can only add.
Writing Poetry At Work In The Men’s Room Stall
With pants bunched around
shined black shoes and tie
tucked safely into an open shirt button
so as not to piss on it
he sits in the stall
while black oxfords pinstripes
pant legs swim around him.
He peers through cracks to see from whom he's hiding
like in a shark cage; safe
if he stays inside.
in the business whirlpool
just trying to get it down
on paper before he's
The Business Meeting
So seductively time seeps
out through your veins
pooling around your wingtips
or you, Ms. Corporate I'm Going Places
be careful of your patent-leather pumps
step carefully around the sticky puddles
collecting beneath the conference table
do not soil your white stockings.
Your smile will soon turn to a grimace
as lost opportunity twists your heart
like an old rag, unknowingly you’ll strangle
as the intoxicating sound of your own voice
replaces the importance of your life
with the irrelevance of your action items.
The Button-Down Man
Into his closet
every morning he reaches
and pulls out
a button-down shirt.
Cotton, maybe striped
if he's daring. And a tie
solid blue or red
or perhaps polka-dot.
Always a jacket.
He wouldn't think of going out
without a jacket.
He wouldn't feel complete or whole.
Every thing buttoned,
every thing knotted: collar,
a strand of lint in the mirror
from his lapel.
Now he is ready.
To work he drives. Parks
in the same spot. Engages
just to be sure.
It rained last night
so he picks his way around
in the parking lot.
Oh gallant hunter
Chasing bulls through the night.
Striding bold in spite of
Or is it because of
You have gained obvious strength since I last saw you
Carrying twins on your shoulders light
Faithful Sirius trots at your heel trusting
His Master's guidance on your heavenly journey
That will continue long after I've completed mine.
First of all--studio? What studio? My "studio" is the kitchen table that I commandeer for as many days as I can before the guilt sets in about making my wife eat dinner on the floor at a coffee table. (Sue, God bless her, is 100% supportive of all this.) And I've spread a canvas drop cloth in the middle room (give and inch, take a mile.) When it's nice out, and the winds not blowing, I work on a table on the porch. And I ask you: How many artists work like this, making due with whatever space or materials they have? I would gander the majority of artists work like this everywhere.
I'm reading The Death Of The Artist: How Creators Are Struggling To Survive In The Age Of Billionaires And Big Tech by William Deresiewicz. Every artist should read it, but they should also be prepared to be mortally bummed out. I mean, halfway through the book you'll be asking yourself, what's the point? Why should I even bother being an artist because the deck is so tragically stacked against you. But in the end, the answer is everything every artist knows: It's what you were born to do. You can't do anything else.
It's the artist's life in the 21st century in a capitalistic country. To make money, I write and photograph stories for magazines. It's not a great way to make a living, though it used to be. Interesting and most times rewarding work if you picked and chose carefully. But just like everything thanks to the Internet and the economy in general, a story that used to pay, oh say, $2,000 or more (you'd get at least $125 for pictures, and now you're lucky to get $25), now will bring in $500 for a story and pictures before expenses with a helluva lot more work. That's what I just went through. A story that should have been finished weeks ago just kept going on and on and on. And I'll come out and say it: The reason this happened was because main source for the article assigned by the editor didn't know anything about the topic she was suppose to know about, even though it was about her own company. Amazing I know, that someone who is suppose to know enough so from an interview with her I would be able to write 2,000 words didn't give me enough for 75. So I had to find more sources because if I didn't there would be no story and I had to turn in something or I wouldn't get paid. And I had to contact these new sources. And I had to wait for them to get back to me...or not. All this takes a lot of time. (One guy, I'll call him Parker because that was his name, told me on the phone four times that he was busy but he'd get back to me. Four ... fucking ... times, and he never did. I don't understand how people can lie like that; or treat another person with such arrogance. Parker, I was just trying to make a living, just like you are.)
And all this kept me from making art for almost two weeks. And I'll admit it: I get resentful. I'm getting paid and the money will be nice, I agreed to take on this project, I'm responsible for the situation I'm in, but I still get resentful of people who keep me from making art. Childish, I know. They have no idea the affect their ineptitude has on another person's life. They probably wouldn't understand. I used to say when I was in corporate America that my job description was to make wealthy men wealthier. So now, if I can use my same skills to help promote a small (or in this case minuscule) business, I actually feel good about it. But in this case, you could see the person didn't see it that way. She didn't see it that the story I professionally wrote and the gorgeous photographs I made after four years earning a BFA as helping her. She saw it as she, out of the goodness of her heart, was helping me. With my story.
This was my life for years...decades...and it's all in the book. Holy Christ, this was/is my life I kept mumbling to myself. To make a living in these here capitalistic United States, artists either a) teach; or b) use their artistic talents in the business world as copywriters, journalists, graphic designers, videographers, events people who the business world still needs to promote itself. The pay is really good, or at least it used to be. But you're not working as an artist. In your spare time you're making work piecemeal. There's never a consistent flow to your work, to your growth. And academia's the same way. You work nine months so you can make art for three. It's the contract artists have made with America.
Today when I was finally able to set up my easel and brushes and concentrate, I started with a burst of energy, but suddenly I was floundering. I didn't know where to go with the piece shown above. I forgot how to talk in the visual language I'm developing. I usually start with an idea in words. The underlying visual structure is usually made of lines, like above, that I immediately disregard. It's how I see the world: there's a structure but we're where we are today because we disregard any structure or order. Then... then... the resentment sets in again.
It will come back, it always does. But if you read The Death Of The Artist you'll learn what just about every artist in America who isn't Jeff Koons intuitively knows: You're never going to be rich. You're never going to be famous. But none of that will stop you from making art. The resentment is the proof. The resentment is a byproduct of the love you have for what you, and only you, can do.
John Greiner-Ferris is an artist in the Boston area. Sometimes he makes images. Sometimes he writes. Sometimes he does both.