The hardest part of making art, to me, is answering the question why. Why make it? Why show it at a particular place and time? Why is my voice important? Why did I choose the technique, the colors, the medium, or the inspiration that I did? Why is my work better, worse, worthier or less valuable than anyone else’s? Why does my artwork, or any art or creative expression, matter?
Personally, I think there are as many questions to these whys as there are artists, curators, aficionados, critics and innocent bystanders.
The question of why can lead to some great insight, but also, for me, some terrible downward loops of despair and nihilism. When I ask myself why so many terrible things happen in the world, why so many go hungry, why inequity deepens, why hatred grows and pain spreads despite the best efforts of so many great people, I fear that humanity will never find long-lasting solutions and that any day might be our last. Many will say that the answer to why is fate, God’s will, or pure chaos, but I’m not sure those will ever be personally satisfying answers.
Perhaps one day I’ll find a way to translate my personal “why make art” into a concise written form as many experts have before, but in the meantime, to avoid paralyzing doubt and questioning, I’d like to ask why not. Why not put something imperfect into the world and hope that images might speak for themselves? Why not try something weird and strangely familiar? Why not make art that feels like the right thing for this moment in time and in my life and not worry so much?
My current body of work struggles less with the question of why. Since I started making subtractive work, removing small pieces of clay, paper or wood to create texture, pattern, and negative space, I always asked myself, after the fact, why I enjoyed it so much: why do I enjoy this process? Why do I like the result? Why should anyone come to see it or want it in their home? I haven’t figured out an answer, but I return to a simple tool and simple material and happily slice away. I’ve found that the question why disappears when working: it’s a coping mechanism, moderate obsession with #11M X-Acto blades and lasers, and a moving meditation.
At a recent talk I attended by a respected graphic designer, he emphasized that every artist, no matter how global their travels or multicultural their background, is inextricably tied to place, and that our most authentic art and design originates from that place. I’ve often asked myself why make work about Alaska: why not challenge myself to explore more, get outside the state and country, and look at the world from a broader perspective? Why narrow my focus to this specific location? The visiting designer did finally convince me that not only is Alaska a pretty spectacular place to live and explore, it’s my home, which will always provide depths to plumb and experiences to share through art.