The Path 28, Bill Santelli, prismacolor on paper

The Path 28, Bill Santelli, prismacolor on paper

About a month ago, I spent a couple hours at our Barnes & Noble’s Starbucks here in Pittsford talking with Bill Santelli, a local artist about my age who is also represented at Oxford Gallery; he does some fantastic abstracts and sells more work than most artists I know, including me. We got onto the subject of being “an artist” as opposed to simply being a painter. I told him I’ve never wanted to be “an artist”; I just want to paint. The idea of being famous or having some recognized role in the “art world,” either as a painter or a writer, feels odd, maybe even a little uncomfortable. I like the feeling of producing satisfying work, but I feel at home in a sort of creative isolation, for some of the same reasons I avoided getting a degree in fine arts. I want to pick my influences. I still distrust much of what’s considered interesting now in the art world, as I was decades ago, and I belong to the school of thought that people become what they behold, or at least tend to go along to get along, and if you hang out with certain types you’re more likely to pick up their habits.

So instead of trying to be an artist, or figure out what that necessarily entails, I prefer to just focus on the act of painting and see if I can’t do it more effectively than I’ve done it in the past. I hope others notice, since who doesn’t want to do work that others want to buy or at least look at for a bit. But it’s a secondary motive. Finishing a painting properly is the main thing. Part of this aversion to being “an artist” in some social way, as opposed to just painting as best I can, is that it brings certain assumptions with it: that you have to be an outsider, a little weird, a hipster, or these days maybe just a shrewd marketer and/or social media presence. It’s assumed that you have to be something other than just an otherwise ordinary, boring person with a particular skill. There’s also an implicit assumption that being creative gives you license to do things others aren’t allowed to do. As George Clinton observed during an interview on his book tour this past week, musicians are expected to be a bit nuts. In Clinton’s view, his own madcap qualities expressed themselves through a proclivity for smoking cocaine. His talk-show host agreed that accountants or insurance agents can’t make good art: though one would have to figure out how to hammer square pegs like Wallace Stevens and Franz Kafka into that round hole of a definition. I don’t know whether or not Gauguin was a good stockbroker, but he started out as one. As was Jeff Koons, though maybe that works against my argument.

All the trappings of “being an artist” seem like a distraction to me. I’d rather just keep improving my skill and see where it leads, without having to dress or behave a certain way while I do it. Or even call myself an artist. I paint with a certain obsessive dedication, though never, it seems, quite enough. I write about it, as well, not to become a big art critic, but to see if I can make some sense of what I’m doing in words. I’d rather do my work, sell as much of it as I can–as a way of making it possible to do more of it and prove that it means something to others. Even so, I write and paint in my little cloudy cul-de-sac and go about my business without paying much attention to what’s considered important in the field of art. I know what’s important to me. I’m happy to put the work out there, in whatever way is possible, and let people like it or not, talk about it or ignore it, but I don’t feel the need to be a big part of that conversation, if there is one. On the other hand, Bill and I talked in some detail about strategies for getting work into a commercial NYC gallery and things we could do to help Jim Hall stir up more business for Oxford Gallery here, so I’m all for getting my work in view and making money from it. I think I would find it extremely odd to be interviewed about art or even have someone take my picture because of my art. I’d think, “How could I possibly be that interesting?” (As for why I’m writing this, see above.) I rarely even post my work on Facebook. I just don’t think most of my Facebook friends are interested, or necessarily should be. What matters to me is how it feels to overcome the resistance I feel every morning before I sit down to paint and how dramatically that changes when I actually make the first mark of the day on canvas, leading to a state of absorption where the hours flow, not too quickly and not too slow. Whatever that flow amounts to is, I think, at the heart of what people see when they like something in one of my paintings. In an earlier post, I quoted Iris Murdoch about how an appreciation of beauty is one step toward becoming less self-centered, because insofar as you’re captured by something beautiful, you aren’t aware of yourself. To me that’s the ideal, to reach a state where you are so carefully building a painting that you forget you’re there and maybe lose track of who you think you are. Even though who you actually are is precisely what you’re revealing in every detail of  your work.

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