All Art is a Self-Portrait

I think all art is a self-portrait. Regardless of whether it is intended to be a self-portrait.

I sometimes feel selfish when I make art purposely about myself. It feels selfish, almost narcissistic, to paint who I am, a direct self-portrait. To make art for myself, about myself. To make art that is about my emotions, my struggles, my thoughts.

When I look at art in a museum or gallery, I like to think about what it would have been like to be the artist. What were they thinking about during the creation process? How did they feel? How did their state of mind affect their work? Did making the art elicit happiness? positivity? or negativity? anger? frustration? Did they like their art?

The artist made every little brushstroke, every subtle shift in the surface, every line, carving, mark. A collection of ideas, thoughts, emotions. Is it possible to separate the artist from their work?

Jeff Koons/artists who have assistants helping with the painting – can their art be considered a self-portrait? Is the artist the idea or the creation? Does it even matter?

untitled (cope no.2), oil on canvas, 24″ x 18″, 2021

Art Rut – a reflection on the creative process

When I first started coming up with ideas for this piece, I struggled a lot. I hated everything I drew out and none of my scale models were appealing to me at all. I had been thinking about the project and brainstorming ideas for a week; I had talked over my ideas with many people, yet nothing inspired me to create.

After being given an extension, I decided I wouldn’t think about the project anymore, yet on Tuesday, I decided I wanted to start working. I had a small doodle-like sketch of a possible idea and no scale models, but I started cutting metal and decided I would stop thinking and just see what happens when I make something without a carefully thought out plan.

Before I started working, I wrote down the words “precarious, uncertain, spontaneous, and wobbly” and in a way, these words guided how I worked. I spent most of Tuesday working on my metal sculpture, welding on pieces to see how it would affect the structure, hoping that the requirements of horizontal and vertical would somehow fall in place (which they did). While working on the project, I was free to explore – I held each piece of metal in my hands and experimented with how different pieces looked connected to each other. It became a piece more about process and a way to stop thinking.

Sometimes I overthink things way too much and become lost in my head with too many ideas to just pick one – I am sometimes too hesitant to start until I have meticulously planned out every detail. Sometimes I know exactly what I want to do, yet sometimes I think too much about different ideas and become lost with too many thoughts. This piece is about letting go, losing control, and being spontaneous. Because sometimes I need to stop thinking in order to think.

Process Art

I think process-based art relates to mindfulness because with process-based art, you only focus on the present and make marks and see where the marks take you. Accepting all feelings and thoughts and emotions and surroundings and acknowledging them and placing them on a canvas.

I had a professor in college who encouraged me to make more process-based art because at the time, I was really tight and realism/detail oriented, and letting go and trusting the process was really freeing and fun, and pushed my art to new places. It was especially freeing to break the rules of art and add thick globs of oil paint, drip paint, scrape paint, turn the canvas around and switch the orientation of the artwork as I worked. And mixing gunk (dried paint, beads, yarn, string, fabric) into the paint. It’s really liberating to take a material as expensive and “high” art as oil paint and fuck it up. Especially because oil paint is primarily associated with the old masters and western, European art. I love taking a “precious” material and destroying it.

Quilts at the Museum

About a year ago now, I saw these beautiful quilts at the BMA. I don’t know why, but I much prefer crooked quilts to neat, perfect quilts. I appreciate the skill and patience that goes into perfectly straight quilts, but visually, I much prefer scrappy, imperfect ones. Maybe it relates to my preference for abstract, expressionistic art as opposed to realistic, “perfect”, “skilled” art. There’s so much more movement and gesture to the slanted lines and curved edges. It feels nostalgic and comforting.

Art Rut

I miss making art. Not making art makes me feel lost. I have lost my art soul and I don’t know how to find it again. Art used to make me feel something, I used to channel my feelings into my art. I used to spend every second of free time painting and sketching.

Now, I try to draw or paint, but it doesn’t feel right. I miss being an artist but I don’t know how to be an artist again. I want to make art that I care about again. I miss making art with people in an art studio, I miss being surrounded by art people, I miss myself. I miss feeling the art, I miss the creative flow state and I don’t know how to get it back.

I’m trying – I try to draw almost every day, but it doesn’t feel right. I made myself draw a self-portrait every night at 8pm for 2 months. I laid out all my art supplies on my desk so I can easily begin creating when the feeling arises. Yet I’m still stuck in the rut. I need to find my art to find myself and feel right. I don’t feel right without my art.

Normally when I’m uninspired, I go to museums or figure drawing sessions at my local art center (neither of which I am able to do right now), or I go on walks and photograph things that interest me. And I write. I have notebooks full of writing, I have photographs of trees and buildings, but I am still uninspired. Maybe I need to put less pressure on myself to make “good” art. Maybe I need to let go and stop trying to force myself to find my art right now. I suppose getting out of an art rut is a process. It really sucks being so artistically uninspired, but maybe it’s okay to let go of the idea of needing to make something “good” and focus simply on creating something.

And at least I am drawing, even though the drawings are sloppy and rushed, maybe that’s okay. I will make what I can and see what happens. I suppose most people go through ruts of some sort, whether it’s writer’s block or artist’s block or another obstacle. Maybe I need to stop fighting with the rut and just embrace my lack of ideas and just make bad, ugly art since that is all I can make right now.

I think I need to accept my art rut and commit to it, stay in it, see what happens, let go of any idea of who I am as an artist and simply make whatever I want to make.

My sketchbook:

Why do people make art?

I’ve been thinking about why people make art. Mostly because I am questioning why I make art. I stopped painting for about 10 months – the longest I’ve ever gone without painting. Before my hiatus from painting, I made art for different reasons. In elementary school, I liked to draw because it was fun. In middle and high school, I worked on my observational drawing skills and I began to make art that represented the world. Art became a way for me to observe a scene or object and translate it into a two-dimensional space. At the end of high school and throughout college, art became a way for me to express myself. I’ve always been introverted and quiet, and art became a way for me to put myself on a canvas, to display all the emotions, thoughts, and feelings I couldn’t express out loud. Creating art was a therapeutic release for me – when I was sad or lonely, I went to the painting studio where the familiar smell of oil paint made me feel at home. Painting was my home.

My freshman year of college I was very homesick and I began to paint the ocean. The ocean is peaceful, calming, cool colors which made me feel at ease. Then I began to paint memories and moments, things that reminded me of home and my childhood. Painting became a way to remember who I am. To paint things that were meaningful to me.

Left – a drawing from elementary school; Right – a painting from high school
Above – works in progress from my freshman year of college

In my college studio art classes, we were often encouraged to think conceptually about art and make art with a greater purpose and intention. But we also learned about process-based art – creating something with no clear product in mind and seeing what happens with the paint or sculpture or object. Letting go of thought and letting the brush guide your hand, experimenting with marks, gestures, lines. Not having a preconceived notion of the final product. Making art without an end product in mind was intimidating at first, but as I began to experiment more with abstraction and marks, I couldn’t stop painting like this. It was freeing to let go of realism.

Above – Some paintings I made without an end-product in mind (process-based art)

While my own artistic practices have crossed between varying levels of realism and abstraction, I’ve come to rely on artmaking as a way to feel free and to express myself. I think anyone who creates anything is showing aspects of themselves in their handiwork. Even the earliest known forms of art, such as cave paintings, were perhaps a way of communicating – relaying information about animals to other humans, or simply a mark telling others, “I was here”. Other early forms of art, including small votive figurines, could have been created as offerings to gods/goddesses, symbols of fertility, or as good luck charms, though the exact purposes of these artifacts is unknown. When art intersects with craft (weaving, textiles, pottery, etc.), art has a function – it holds water or lays on the ground protecting the floor.

Left – Ardabil Carpet at the V&A Museum; Right – Pottery at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

I suppose there are two avenues of artmaking – making art with a purpose and without a purpose. Art made with a purpose can be many things: communication, self-expression, commentary on the world/social issues. Art made without purpose may simply be a collection of marks, colors, experiments. And some art lies in between the purposeful and purposeless. Except even art made without a purpose, while not initially meant to have a purpose, may still be meaningful.

Does there need to be a reason? Can people make art just because they want to? Do people make art for themselves or for the world? Is it selfish to make art for yourself? Can art be created simply for the purpose of being created?

People Looking at Art

I always find it interesting to see how people look at art in museums. I feel like there’s 3 different types of museum-goers:

  1. The Caption Reader – spends more time reading the caption than looking at the artwork
  2. The Photographer – rushes through the entire museum, snapshotting as many works of art as possible; also the Instagram photographers, posing in front of famous works of art, ready to share it on their feed
  3. The Absorber – sits/stands in front of a work of art, staring at it for a long time
Van Gogh’s Starry Night at the MoMA
Henri Rousseau at the MoMA

I’ve fallen into all of these categories. I have so many photographs of artwork at museums, and I never look at them, I don’t know why it’s so important for me to photograph a work of art. I guess it’s just a memory, like any photograph.

And while captions are important, I realized that I was spending more time reading the caption than looking at the artwork. It’s comical how the caption almost becomes another work of art on the wall, ready to be taken in by museum visitors. Would the artist want people to read the caption, or would they prefer people look at the art? I suppose both are important, context is important when looking at art, but I wonder sometimes if reading too much into the context of the artwork takes away from what is on the canvas.

After learning in one of my art classes that the average person only spends a few seconds looking at each work of art in a museum, I decided I would challenge myself and sit in front of an artwork for at least five minutes. It’s peaceful and slow, like watching rain fall, taking note of swirls of brushstrokes, colors meshing together, thinking about who the artist was, how they felt when they created the artwork.

It makes me think about how long it takes me to create art, and how much time the artist must have spent creating their artwork. Although maybe it doesn’t matter how long people look at the art. Musicians spend hours, days, months, years crafting the perfect songs and lyrics. And when it’s finished, there’s only 3 minutes of a song that people listen to and move on with the rest of their day. Do you have to sit with something for a while to appreciate it, or can you still appreciate art after only seeing it for a short time?

Regardless of whether or not time spent consuming art relates to level of appreciation, my favorite artwork to sit and stare at is Jennifer Bartlett’s 24 Hours at the Met. I first saw Bartlett’s 3 large paintings my junior year of high school, when my art class took a five hour bus trip to New York City. The clocks in each painting piqued my curiosity. Later, in college, I went to the Met many times, and I would always skip past all the Renaissance works until I made it to the modern art section, where I would sit and stare at the 3 large Bartlett paintings on the wall. When I was homesick and alone, I went to these paintings to find comfort. They were familiar.

Maybe art is about portraying the human experience. Maybe art is about finding connection, communicating what can’t be said in words.

What do people think when they see artwork? I guess if I’ve learned anything from the countless art critiques I had in college, everyone looks at art differently and everyone gets something different out of artwork. And the artist’s intention when creating the artwork is not always evident to the viewer. Do artists make art for themselves, or with an audience in mind?

a man reads the caption of a painting (I don’t remember which museum this was at)
3 of Jennifer Bartlett’s 24 Hours at the Metropolitan Museum of Art