Because I do this process so often, make faces out the stuff I see while walking the dogs, I’m always ruminating over where “art” comes from? I make the faces quite fast, acting on impulse to see what will happen. Outside of the impulse, there are no premeditated ideas. The faces are so surprising to me. Even after all this time, they continue to be new and mysterious. I am convinced it’s because I am “drawing” with my animal senses and not with my intellect.
My intellect wants to convince me this is wrong, that what I am doing can’t possibly be intelligent (meaning good?) if she is not involved. She’s pretty convincing and I sort of believe her except the evidence supports a different conclusion. I am so used to thinking that intellect is intelligence. But there is a nonverbal intelligence at play here. I think that is really why I do this, to interact with this nonverbal form of intelligence. To see if I can get better at using it. To learn from it.
I don’t think I would want that form of intelligence to balance my check book but that’s not the point. I am not trying to get better at this so I can submit all our concerns over to sensory perception. But for art making, I can’t help but wonder if intellect can only use what intellect already knows. She’s good at analysis but not good as life force. She can’t make things come into being. She can only evaluate, categorize, critique, imitate and replicate. But she cannot make.
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The dogs and I walk by a demolition site and see a weathered board covered by a muddy tire tread. I need to make a face on this!
It’s really hard to make upright faces because gravity removes most of the items I like to work with. What could I use? Mud? Plenty in the vicinity. My first attempts are bit heavy handed. It’s not looking great. I keep adjusting as best I can. I scrap around the eyes and put a mouth line in. I’m still not feeling it.
When walking the dogs and making my faces, I give up a lot. Frequently the face does not come together. No character behind the features. No emotion. Sometimes I give up right away. Who cares?! And other times I struggle for a while. I wasn’t sure about this one. I wanted it to work but the constraints were so constraining. I was thinking that maybe I hated it.
I stepped back and looked hard. The nose, the problem is the lack of nose definition. I added a final smear and took a few photos. I wouldn’t know if I liked it until later. The dogs need to get on with it peeing and pooing.
My work is so imprecise and precarious. With more tools and more time, I would have more control, I could really craft the face. But to what end? I am not trying to call forth an image in my mind, I am trying very hard to see what is actually in front of me and react to it in the moment. I am not trying to wrestle with it, I am trying to coax it. Not control but respond. Not pontificate but listen. The reward is always a total surprise, something I never in a million years could have made if I “tried” to make it. Responding quickly forces unexpected solutions. I am really grateful to each face for “coming” to me.
Turns out I like this one. Very alert expression. They are looking back at me as intensely as I am looking at them.
While I was making this face, I saw someone down the street watching me. That doesn’t happen often. Most people in Los Angeles couldn’t care less what their fellow Angelinos are up to and hurrah to that, I hate being conspicuous. A few blocks later I run into this person and they ask me if I am Sidewalk Face! OMG! I am having my 15 minutes of fame. They are a fellow Instagrammer who could tell we live in the same neighborhood. I like meeting people and exchanging goodwill but most of the time I prefer to be in the shadows. What I’m doing looks odd and though the faces are obvious in my photos, they aren’t necessarily obvious while I’m making them. I always look around before I stick my hand in mud. It would be embarrassing for someone to see me playing in the dirt. There’s just no explaining it.
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When I started this project, I didn’t have a concept or a goal, just a vague urge to make some faces outside. Six and a half years later it’s quite deliberate. The first few years I picked up so much stuff. I was carrying around at least 5 pair of broken sunglasses. On every dog walk! I did have a lot of items I could use to construct a face but as I wrote about in the Bags of Crap series, I had so many I filled up one bag, stopped using it, and then filled up another. Eventually I organized it all thinking that would solve the problem, but it didn’t. The bag may have been super tidy buy it still weighed six pounds and I kept not taking it with me. I don’t like to be weighed down. Now, I don’t carry anything but a few seeds and sticks. I prefer to approach each face with whatever is around. Very minimal.
The reason, as I stated above, is I am not trying to achieve a specific outcome. It’s more like a game, what can I do with only what I have in front of me? That doesn’t mean I don’t want it to look good. But why would looking good only be an option of time and material? I am of the opinion that the best faces come together really quickly. When that happens, I bypass the anxious part of me that wants it to look like something I have already seen. I want it to look like something I have never seen. I also want it to look organic to the scene. Too much manipulation makes it look manipulated. I want it to look like it came on it’s on accord.
I find it liberating to have an art practice where so much is totally random including the medium itself. It’s a small comfort that art exists beyond consumerism, beyond a studio, beyond my intention, beyond my control. Something delightful can come from almost anything, including a muddy panel of badly degraded wood.
We encounter most creative endeavors when they are complete. It seems to be the default to imagine that they were conceived exactly as we see them but as an idea rather than a thing. For some reason people seem to think that thinking is how you get things done. You have an idea; you think about it and then you execute it. All the choices were made in the thinking. Thinking is the most important thing. Thinking is equivalent to intelligence. Thinking is the master.
But really, it’s nothing like this at all. Thinking is at best a tool in the hands of a mysterious master whose methods are almost magical.
To be clear, I do not believe in magic. I use the term in a poetic way. Magic conveys an ability to get results from a process that is not articulable. At least not at the beginning. Once it’s all done you can articulate or recite what happened, but you can’t make up that list in your head before you’ve started. You can try but it won’t work. Or it won’t work as anticipated. Something will go wrong. Wrong is too negative, something will just go different. And how the person or team responds to that is likely to be more influential on the outcome than the original vision.
Perhaps I think about this so often because I am a documentary editor. I am given something and told to make sense of it. It’s like doing a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle with no cover art to reference. It could seem that my profession flavors my other art, but I think, it’s the opposite, I came to it because I have an innate editing sensibility. I like to respond more than I like to construct. That’s what the face making is all about. I see something and respond to it. I have not made a single face that originated in my head first.
My abstracts are similar. I put a few marks on the page and everything else flows out of the choice. I usually try to make that choice as surprising to myself as possible so that I will be forced to really respond and not do an action that I have done before. I like art to be an adventure.
Some things, however, necessitate planning and careful execution, like building a house. What I am talking about doesn’t come into play during the construction of the building, planks do need to be measured and cut precisely. But what about the initial imagining of the house? You don’t measure your way into something novel, something never before seen, something special, precious, unique and surprising. You don’t tell your brain to just think it up. You have an impulse that you follow, like tracking an animal through the forest. You read the signs, you grow excited, you feel tense, you wonder if what you are hearing and sensing is real. Are you on a path or are you making a path with your constant trampling back and forth?
My brother texted me recently about a dream he had. He told me about it because he couldn’t believe his unconscious brain could author such a sophisticated story.
That’s not thinking but it is intelligence. It’s not consciously directed but it is available.