Draw A Blank [on DR Thursday]

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A white canvas. Or is it a blank canvas? This could be a finished piece of art or a scary beginning. Having the 20th century of art firmly in the books, art historians weigh in, saying “yes,” it could be complete. It could also be inception. As confusing or clarifying as it might sound, the determining factor is the artist’s intention.

In 1918, the Russian artist Kazmir Malevich painted Suprematist Composition: White On White. White, he believed, was the color of infinity. It recently sold at auction for $15 million dollars.

In 1963, Ad Reinhardt painted his Abstract Painting, at first glance a black canvas that reveals itself as a symphony of shades and tones. He called his canvases “pure, timeless, ideal, transcendent.” His paintings sell at auction for millions.

Yasmina Reza wrote a play, Art, that explores the question “What is art? In it, friends debate and debase the $200,000.00 purchase of a completely white painting.

Does this sound crazy? The artist decides the reality? Beginning or end? Is it the artist’s intention or the eye of the beholder that gives meaning and value to art? Both?

It is breathtaking when you recognize that artists do not create from thin air. Artists reflect the society in which they live and work. 1918 was the end of a world war. It was the beginning of a global pandemic. Who could blame Kazmir Malevich for exploring infinity? Of wanting to reach beyond an external reality that was horrific?

I stare at my blank canvas. It is an invitation. A call.

I/We live in a time of absurdity – farcical abstraction from observable reality. Angry bubbles. Insulated information tribes. Data collection more valuable than gold. We are reducing ourselves to so many numbers. What’s your credit score? Your personality rating? Perhaps I should fill my canvas with zeros and ones? What would you see?

Mostly, we constantly weigh our interests against values and values lose every time. Weird calculations creating ludicrous reality. Yesterday, for instance, 3000 young people packed into a mega church during a pandemic – in a virus hotspot – to cheer a demagogue; they were told they were safe because there was a new and special corona virus killing air system.  The pile of farces grows higher and higher. The propaganda machine grows louder and louder. How rich a field for an artist to explore! The most individualistic nation on earth creating lemmings who will believe anything.

What should I paint? Do I want to comment on the ridiculous? The obscene?

I find myself understanding Kazmir Malevich and Ad Reinhardt as I never have before. Look beyond the angry horror story. I do not want to spend my precious few years on this earth meditating on the ugly abstractions, the made-up-in-the-moment divisions. The blank surface of my canvas calls me to look beyond the noise. There is so much to love in this passing moment. Change, real change, is always in this direction.

 

read Kerri’s blog post on BLANK CANVASES

 

 

 

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all my loves/the draw sunsets ©️ 2020/2017 david robinson

 

 

Give It Away [on Very Flawed Wednesday]

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There’s a yearly ritual in our home that I have come to dread. The arrival of the BMI statement. Broadcast Music, Inc., one of the performing rights organizations (royalty collectors) that track and collect royalties for the worldwide play of Kerri’s music. If I could hide the envelope and feel good about myself I would do it.

The BMI envelope evokes a dark cloud. Kerri clutches it and disappears into a corner of the house where she meticulously adds the numbers. With each number, her inner emotional rubber band winds tighter and tighter and tighter until it approaches the snapping point. I hear mutters and curses, “Listen to this,” she shouts to no one, “27,000 plays and I made a whopping 6 cents! 50,000 plays and get this! I made 6 bucks! Six whole bucks!!!”

I stand by, phone in hand, ready to dial the medical rescue squad. If her exclamation is ever followed by hysterical laughter, I’m dialing. I swear it.  “Are you alright?” I call out as part of the ritual. There is never a reply, just more clicking sounds from her phone calculator. Click, click, click…More mutters. More frustration. More anger. She is no longer adding numbers, she is adding abuses. Stacking her fury. She is consciously stoking her discontent.

I lose her for days in the black BMI cloud. Ritual anger. Hot fire.

In the old world, these numbers would add up to a very healthy living, a very successful career. In the new world, the numbers mean Apple Music and Spotify and Rhapsody and SoundCloud and YouTube…are making a healthy living on her music and the work of other independent artists. The artists are circumvented from realizing the profits of their work.

“You know it’s coming,” I tell her, “so why put yourself through this every time? You aren’t going to change it.” My ritual appeal.

She doesn’t acknowledge my question. She doesn’t acknowledge my presence. Click, click, click…”Oh Great!” she exclaims! “I’ve had a decrease! Last time it was .00079 and now it’s .00074! OF A CENT!”

I go to the far side of the house where DogDog is hiding from the dark and angry storm. We sit together, DogDog and me, phone at the ready.

The thing is, I agree with her. It is not fair. It is not right. It is a sign of the times that the organizations intended to protect her rights are active participants in selling her out. They make more money by ensuring that the artists makes less. Far less. “It costs them more per penny to send me the check than I’m getting per performance play!” she writhes. “Ten Times As Much!” She’s done the calculation; her indignation is numerically exact.

It is also not healthy to obsess on it. They’ve literally taken her livelihood. For several weeks each year she freely gives them her sanity. She drop-kicks her peace out the door. Her health suffers. Her heart breaks. And, for some reason, she waits with anticipation for the next letter to come so she can descend into darkness and rail again at the injustice. It’s as if the BMI letter is the only real, last remaining validation to her artistry. Over a million people enjoy her music each year.  The red hot anger is her only remaining thread to that deep rich pool of creativity.

In the meantime, she refuses to go into her studio and compose.”Why Bother!” she shouts to no one listening. Click, click, click…

She has, of course, given them far more than they have taken. During one of these rituals, the rubber band will snap as happens to all artists who turn against their artistry. After the snap, after I dial the phone and the good people come to take the pieces away, I will play her albums – all of them – and listen to the life-giving beauty that came from that deep creative pool before she could no longer see beyond the BMI betrayal, before she allowed the clicking numbers to parch her wild abundant artistry.

 

read Kerri’s blog post about BMI

 

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Doubt It [on DR Thursday]

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In our vast catalogue of projects-that-went-nowhere is a single panel cartoon proposal we called At The Door. A dog and a cat at the door. One wants to go out and explore the world. The other is content to stay forever inside in a known and predictable world. One dreams of adventure, the other dreams of lunch. The progressive instinct meets the conservative impulse.

Because it was largely existential and mostly not funny, we were certain that it would never gain traction. We developed it anyway. Why?

One of the great mysteries of an artist’s life is the Riddle Of Attraction. Why are some pieces popular and others are not? The crux of the riddle is this: what I consider my best work usually collects dust on the shelf while the pieces that I think inferior fly out the door. Kerri and I write everyday. We have a ritual call-and-response when we write something that we feel is meaningful or has real depth. I’ll say, “That’s a really good post.” She’ll reply, “That means no one will read it.” And, inevitably, it is true. The maddening moment comes when we post work that feels lacking and it is read widely across the globe.

There can be only one logical explanation: we must be the worst judges of our own artistic expression. We must have an inverted relationship with what has value and what does not when it comes to our own pieces. It must be true that artists are the last to objectively see their work. It’s a terrifying notion; if I think it is awful, it must be good. If I think it is good, it must be a delusion.

And so, we happily wrote and drew a cartoon with a dog and a cat at the door. Both critters looking out on the big world, one pulled to it while the other is repelled. It seemed like a bad idea so it just might have been good!

 

read Kerri’s blog post about AT THE DOOR

 

 

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Lose The Argument [on KS Friday]

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I’m losing the argument and it just became nearly impossible for me to make my case. My loss goes like this:

In the school of great ironies comes this latest and greatest entry: recently when Kerri posts her music to Facebook, the platform often pulls it down with a copyright claim.

Don’t yet see the irony? Let me unpack it. She composed the music. Recorded it. She formed a holding company to protect the rights of her music. No matter how you spin the legal rubik’s cube, she owns the rights to her artistry (as it should be). A social media platform is blocking her from using her music for copyright infringement on music that she holds the copyright. There is no customer service person to pick up the phone. All appeals go into the black hole of “email us and we’ll get back to you.” There is a bot with nary a mind in its matter or care in the world.

Wait. There’s more. We have, since we met, spent entire evenings surfing the web to find the millions of people who use her music (royalty free) to play beneath their home movies, their nature videos, their wedding collages, their graduation montages, the news stories, the documentary previews, moving baby albums. It seems anyone has been able to pull down and use her music without nod or consideration to copyright or royalty.

Over the course of her career, entities like Napster and Spotify and Pandora and Apple Music sprang fully grown from Zeus’ head. They play her music – paying her – dare I call it a royalty – of .000079 of penny for every play (that’s documented). She has well over a million listeners each year (that are documented). Had she any form of royalty and copyright protection -any at all – she’d be a very wealthy artist, indeed.

The argument that I lost? I’ve been nagging her incessantly to record the pieces that now grow yellow in her composition book. Some of her best work. Her generic answer is, “Why bother.” In the past year, my campaign was gaining ground! She was considering it. And then, in a split second, the last avenue where she could exercise a modicum of control over her artistry – locked her out from sharing her own music.

Irony. In a split second.

 

IN A SPLIT SECOND on the album AS SURE AS THE SUN  is available on iTunes or you can, like so many, get it almost anywhere you look (that’s facetious).

 

read Kerri’s blog post on IN A SPLIT SECOND

 

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in a split second/as sure as the sun ©️ (though you’d never know it) 2002 kerri sherwood

Learn It Again and Again [on DR Thursday]

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“I begin with an idea and then it becomes something else.” ~ Pablo Picasso

This trail of images, all on the same canvas, is an idea trying hard not to become something else. It is a series of fitful starts and dissatisfied restarts.  It is not uncommon, when I feel that my well is dry, to start a painting and shove it through many phases of discontent. I pull on it and push on it like so much taffy.

I’ve learned (or I am making it up at this very moment) that this exercise of discontent is important. It is a necessary skill to develop – not to get too attached to an idea or invested in how it “should” be. When my well is empty, I generally stumble into this old mistake: I try to force a result. I try to make it happen. I somehow forget that the best work is a relationship, a process that has very little to do with muscle and everything to do with heart. And so, I roll through a series of forced images.

And then, one day, I throw up my hands and all thoughts of my precious idea go out the window. I let go. And that is the exact moment that the idea becomes something else and the painting can finally begin.

 

read Kerri’s blog post about THE STORY OF A MISS

 

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See Anew [on Merely A Thought Monday]

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It seems that everything during the pandemic is a study of circumstance-driven-change. For instance, I am a painter of people. I’ve never been interested in still life studies. Even in school, I cringed at the bowls of fruit placed before us by the instructor. Shape, shade, blah-blah-blah. Give me figure drawing any day! Suddenly, to my great surprise, I am photographing big bowls of fruit. They are gorgeous. I’m thinking about a painting featuring fruit.  What’s happening to me?

The devil is in the pandemic detail. We used to go to the store everyday. We used to buy what we needed for the next 24-48 hours. There were no big piles of fruit, no explosions of color in the fruit bowl or waves of color rolling across the counter. Now, in the time of pandemic, we stock up. We are – like you – buying massive amounts of bananas and oranges and apples and pears. They are, to an artist’s eye, when assembled, simply beautiful. They are, I suspect to an accountant’s eye, also beautiful, but my thoughts stray beyond merely eating.

Beautiful.

We are also in a fit of food experimentation. To delay our need to go into the wild COVID world and shop, we comb the empty larder, asking “What do we have? What can we make with what we have?” We throw our random ingredient list into the Google pool and voila! Yummy options emerge. Bacon wrapped pears. Oh. My. God. It never would have occurred to my bear-brain to wrap a pear in bacon. I savored it. I moaned. My eyes rolled back in my head.

Beautiful. Delicious.

When you study change processes, you bumble across something akin to a rule. It goes like this: if you know where you are going, then it is not really change; it is controlled reordering of what already exists. It may look new but is really the same old wolf in new sheep’s clothing.

Change is what happens when you step into unknown and strange lands, when all of the old points-of-orientation are gone. Only then will you step into something new and surprising. Only then will you see without the old dulling filter. For me, apparently, change looks like a big bowl of beautiful fruit.

 

read Kerri’s blog post about BACON WRAPPED PEARS

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Look For The Manatee [on DR Thursday]

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This has never been Kerri’s favorite painting. When I chose it for this week’s melange I asked her why she didn’t like it. She said, “Because there’s a manatee in it.”

“A manatee?”

“Keep in mind,” she said, “that I’m inkblot challenged.”

Wait. What?

Responding to the blank look in my eyes, she added, “I could never see Jesus in the pancake. Stuff like that.”

“The pancake?” My synapse fell short of the hoop. She Googled inkblots to demonstrate her disability.

“See (she pointed to an inkblot on the screen)! There’s Florida and I’m supposed to see Jesus. Wait. Oh. There he is. Wait! There’s a lot of stuff in there!” she marveled, squinting at the blot.

Blink. Blink.

“Oh! Maybe it’s that I see too much stuff in the inkblot!

I pulled up the image of the painting. “It’s called Canopy,” I said. I enlarged the image.

She looked close. “Wait. That’s not a manatee!” she exclaimed. “That’s a person’s leg!” She looked closer. “Hmmm.”

It is, after all, what I love about art: It is never complete. It emerges anew with each new look, each new performance. What I intend has very little to do with what is perceived and in that space between artist and audience, a new creation, a new conversation arises. Imagination is like that. It opens worlds of surprising possibilities. It projects itself into the known, into the painting, and magically transforms it.

“So, you don’t like manatees?” I tease.

“I love manatees!” she huffs. “Just not in your paintings.”

 

read Kerri’s blog post on CANOPY

 

 

 

 

 

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canopy ©️ 2009 david robinson

Let It Spin [on Two Artists Tuesday]

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The answer to “Who Am I?” is mostly a matter of perspective [or concoction, depending upon your perspective ;-)]. As much as we might want it to be, who-am-I is not a fixed state of affairs. Thankfully, we are not as narrowly defined as we want to believe.

We constellate together some identity-fixed points (son, father, banker, artist, gardener…) that give general shape to the who-am-I inquiry.  Mix in a few subsets: competitive, passive, rich, poor, successful, homeless, handy, all-thumbs… and there’s some nice variation giving color to the primary fixed points.

For some real fun, factor in the changes of identity that happen over the course of a lifetime. Who did you understand yourself to be at 10? At 20? At 30? Dear friends just became grandparents; their entire universe is spinning. Who are they now?

I have had moments of triumph that turned to dust in my mouth. What looked like fulfillment was, in fact, an empty sack. Once, thinking I was looking good, I walked headlong into a glass door. Instant fool. Identity is much more fluid than fixed.

In the Buddhist tradition there is a “Big Dipper” exercise. From our perspective on the earth, there is a constellation of stars that form a big dipper in the sky. But, travel toward that constellation, the image of ‘big dipper’ starts to warp and then falls apart altogether. The position of the stars does not change. Our perspective does. The constellation is nothing more than an illusion. Mostly, my constellation of fixed identity points is nothing more than an illusion.

These days I’m thinking much about my illusion and attachment to my fixed points. My move to Wisconsin came with career death and I spent more than a few years grasping for the lost stars in my constellation. New stars appeared. I became a husband. I have two ‘given’ children. My beard has become grey. Yesterday, to my utter amusement, I found myself concerned with fallen leaves staining the patio and had thoughts of immediate raking. What has become of me? In the past week, I’ve awakened more than once with this thought: What if the painting on my easel is to be my last. It’s not finished and it’s an utter mess! I want to leave a better last impression! I have more work to do!

And then, I wondered, what if, as I travel out beyond the constellation, this image of myself, this part of me that I call ‘artist,’ matters not at all? Fluid, not fixed.

And so, my perspective spins, more anchor points fall away and the entire universe opens.

 

read Kerri’s blog post about PERSPECTIVE

 

 

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Hug The Pain [on Merely A Thought Monday]

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Put on your seat belt. I’m going to indiscriminately fling stereotypes at myself and my wife and that requires me to indiscriminately snag other fish in my broad net of oversimplification. To make you feel safe in reading further, please note that this a not so cleverly disguised survival guide for two people living together in this age of stay-at-home-orders.

We are both artists. I often wonder if the universe put Kerri and me in relationship as some kind of whacky psychological experiment. Imagine the laughter on Mount Olympus! If you are an artist or know any artists, please join me now in making a list of adjectives: volatile, hypersensitive, moody, procrastinating,.. Now, multiply that times two. Let’s just say that we do not cancel out each other. We are certain that our friends invite us to dinner for the sheer entertainment value of hearing about our latest train wreck. We are both good storytellers so we take comfort knowing that at least we make our mayhem amusing.

True story: yesterday I apologized to DogDog that neither Kerri or I was an engineer. “You have hard duty this time around,” I said, patting him on the head. He didn’t disagree.

Since we are already standing at the edge of chaos I can see no reason not to jump. It was too late in our developing relationship when we realized that, not only were we both artists but we are diametrically opposed in our approach . Kerri is so detail-oriented that it makes my head hurt. I am such a big-picture-generalist that she regularly has to run screaming from the the room so as not to get lost in my thought.

Kerri organizes through piles. I organize by eliminating piles. I seem incapable of learning the lesson that what-looks-like-a pile-to-me-looks-like-order to her. I’ve probably set her back a decade by imposing my idea of order to her system of filing. We’re still looking for the project notes she lost the day I moved in and decided to help out by cleaning up the piles. Last week I attempted to hang up her snow pants and her icy glare melted my good intention; I let them slip to the chair where they remain to this day.

She is easier in the world than I am. If I begin a project or a painting it is nearly impossible for me to stop thinking about it until it is complete. I dream about it. I ponder and muse. Okay, go ahead and think it: he is obsessive-compulsive. I cannot deny it. In my defense, by bride is incapable of holding on to a thought or completing a single task. She works in circles. Attention deficit. Now, imagine, if you can, the process we’ve developed in working together. If we were a band, our name would be Creative Tension.

DogDog walks in circles around the house. I used to think it was a trait of his breed but I’ve come to believe that circle-walking is what happens to an over-sensitive dog when one of his parents is obsessive and the other is ADD. He simply can never relax since we are such a danger to ourselves.

She’s a New Yorker.  I am from Colorado. I was taught that talking over someone else was rude. She was raised in a part of the world where it is essential. Our conversations are sometimes hysterical but mostly shattered language fragments and hesitations. If only I were a better playwright!

Now, flip all of this too-much-information over. Perceptive, deeply felt, intuitive, adventurous, improvisational. Sometimes mystic. We crawl out the window to drink our wine on the roof. Our life is never routine, never dull. We cultivate surprise whether we intend to or not. Her artistic eye makes mine better. She pulls me from my obsessive mind so that I might breathe and relax. I help her step back from the detail and see another perspective.

The moral: there is no better collaborator, no more treasured companion, than the pain-in-the-ass pushing back on your idea, the one talking over you, the one challenging your choices, the one that you love and trust with your most vulnerable life & artistic decisions because (you begrudgingly admit to yourself) they see things differently. This equal and opposing force that shares space with you is the very reason you are capable of expanding your mind, your perspective, and your heart.  They are what you mean when you utter this word: together.

 

read Kerri’s blog post about PAIN IN THE ASS

 

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Listen To Chicken [on DR Thursday]

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The original conceit behind Chicken Marsala came during a road trip. Kerri and I started talking about what life might have been like had we met when we were younger. Our conversation wandered into the question of mutual children and then became utterly hysterical when we started tossing possible names back and forth. Chicken Marsala, the imaginary child of two people who met late in life, was born.

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Chicken had friends. Chicken went to school. Chicken had a full blown imaginary life. Chicken terrified his parents, making them do and say things that they would not have otherwise done. Chicken became the inner and outer voice of two artists trying to make their way in a world where they do not necessarily fit.

All of my life people who have cut themselves off from their inner artist have asked me, “Where do I begin?” They build studios for themselves, buy supplies, and then sit, frozen. Tom McK used to tell me that there was only one answer to that question: a writer writes and a painter paints. There is no magic. The muse can’t help unless you pick up the clay and throw the pot. Write many, many bad pages and soon you will discover that you are following an impulse rather than grinding “it” out or making “it” up.

One day, someone asked Chicken’s mom a question about composing. “How do you do it? What’s your secret?” It was a question from someone desperate to uncover their long buried inner artist. What’s the secret charm, the divine key? Chicken leaned into his mom and whispered: Sometimes you just have to put your fingers on the keys and follow the music.

It is no mystery, after a few years banished in the drawer, that Chicken is suddenly pulling on my sleeve. I haven’t been active in the studio for months. ‘A dry spell,’ I tell myself. ‘All of my creative energy is going to other things.’ ‘I’m bored with my work!’ ‘I’m blank…’ Yada Yada. Chicken shakes his head. ‘Not again!’ He giggles.

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Put your fingers on the keys. Pick up your brush. Use that great imagination to play rather than plague yourself. Follow the music. It will always lead you home.

 

read Kerri’s blog post about FINGERS ON THE KEYS

 

 

 

 

 

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chicken marsala ©️ 2016 david robinson & kerri sherwood

play 2 play illustration ©️ godknowswhenprobablybeforeyouwereborn david robinson