On being an artist: “I studied, worked hard, and often failed again and again to get at what I was looking for,” says Nancy Depew. “But mistakes are invaluable teachers…”
BY NANCY DEPEW
A friend sent me a quote from Gustav Mahler that I can’t seem to shake:
“Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire.”
Looking back on a lifetime of work is sobering business. As I sit down to write this, it occurs to me that I’ve been a working artist for more years than I care to count. Now, when I decide to paint, I walk into my studio where I have everything I need and I go to work. It wasn’t anything like that when I started out. No studio, few supplies, no support system, and no clear idea of how to get there from here, those were the rules of the day. I remember every step of the way was difficult and uncertain. I operated on blind faith in something I didn’t fully comprehend and in spite of much self-doubt and the doubt of others, I had an incurable desire to make art. I studied, worked hard, and often failed again and again to get at what I was looking for. But mistakes are invaluable teachers and though I learned the hard way, I did learn.
Early on in my studies, long before the internet, hungry for the technical skills I lacked, I took some private lessons with a painter who tried to tell me specifically how to paint. I was told how to stand, how to hold a brush, what colors to use … when I failed to do exactly as I was told and came up with some less than stunning results, the painter told me I’d never be any good at this and that I should find something else to do. I stopped the lessons. I have to say, I was pretty young and unsure of my abilities and the experience really shook me. I actually did give up painting for awhile, until the need to paint grabbed me again. I still carry the scars of the experience, but I figured out that rather than allow them to be a burden, I can use the memory of it all as a lesson on who best to pay attention to. Eventually I found better places to learn.
In our massively complex society, there are as many ways to be an artist as there are artists. The form the work takes, whether it is representational, abstract, or non-objective, is of little import. From my perspective, the work of an artist is to dig into their own heart and mind and all that they’ve experienced to build their work. Every experience adds to the outcome. Every detail is of consequence. The colors you choose, the way you hold a brush, along with the myriad of other choices you make when you paint, are not insignificant decisions. They have an impact on your technique, and your choices reveal your priorities and your inner most thoughts and feelings. They build the most precious aspect of an artist’s work, their voice.
As I see it, in the end, it is extremely important for an artist to focus on their own specific needs and intentions and to build on them regardless of the ideas of others. Easier said than done. It’s thrilling to see all the talented young painters who are working now, adding their voices to the collective conversation, continuing the tradition of painting, preserving fire.
My own approach has evolved over the years. When I want to start a new work, I look for a subject that I connect with deeply. I focus on the intuitive aspects of the subject, looking for a visual, rather than a verbal idea. I find the words that eventually become titles during the process of painting. In my most recent work, I combine traditional layered painting techniques with more contemporary approaches to create a highly realized, three-dimensionally believable image, but I am not interested in documenting reality. I take many liberties with my subject matter. I use it as a vehicle, whether still life, landscape, or the figure, for a highly orchestrated exploration of a metaphysical terrain. I dig into the nature of experience.
Over the years I’ve continued to challenge myself and so I’ve made successful work and unsuccessful work. I’ve taken risks, so I’ve spent as much time stumbling as I have moving forward. The good news for me is that I have learned from all of it. I try to respond to the artwork as it forms, choosing options that will lead me to learning the most I can from and about the work. This is often not the fastest way to make a painting, but it is the best way I’ve found for making art I’m happy with. There are thousands of options every time you pick up a brush. What will guide the decisions you make and what priorities will be revealed by those decisions? Those are the questions that fascinate me. My paintings are done only after I’ve resolved every question, in hopes that they will add my voice to the conversation that is the tradition of painting.
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