Google Celebrates Alexander Calder’s Birthday

Lo and behold, Google created their own work of art. Today on the Google homepage, their doodle celebrates Alexander Calder’s birthday, who would have been 113 today were he still alive. In art school and beyond, I’ve always been inspired by his work — swiping around on the Google doodle with my mouse takes me back to those years of fascination.

Purple Squirt

I was several days into working on my current painting, a duplicate of a Claude Monet seascape, an exercise which was intended to provide hands-on experience with that artist’s application technique.

Professor Blackburn quietly slipped behind and observed me for several moments.  He broke the silence by talking to me about my recent work and some artists that would be great for me to know better.

Each of the names he rattled off were completely unfamiliar to me, and I admitted so.  Professor Blackburn iterated that if I cared to be a serious professional artist, I needed to know more about contemporary artists and their works.  His advice was to visit the library and devour as many art magazines I could.

Later that week, I took his advice and went to the Willis Library.  Downstairs, amongst the looming stacks of periodicals, I grabbed one issue at random: Art in America, from October 1995.  Just as randomly, I popped it ppen to a page near the end.  It was then I first learned of artist Keith Boadwee.

An excerpt from the article, which contains an opening sentence that’s better that anything in my own blog:

It’s difficult to imagine any situation in “polite company” where talk of anal secretions is appropriate. But for Keith Boadwee, his derriere is the realm of art, or, more accurately, it is the means of fabrication of his art.

My interest was piqued. Continuing:

Boadwee makes “butthole paintings”: using enema bags, he injects himself full of egg tempera paint. Then he aims his body so that the paint goes where he wants it. Sometimes he sits down alongside a horizontal canvas; at other times he stands the canvas, climbs a ladder and, perched atop the stretcher, allows the paint to run down.

Then accompanying the article was a shot of Kurt in the midst of composing the word “Untited (Purple Squirt)”.  I attempted to find an image of Purple Squirt online, but it appears that The Internets are far too good for such exposure (update: I found it!).  But this and a later work properly capture his essence.

The end of the article summed up my amusement:

Freud might have something to say about the artist’s good-natured butt love, but I don’t know what.

I finished the article, then read the rest of the issue from cover to cover.  But from that point on, I would have a hard time objectively judging any work of art without first wondering if it had a comparable measure of pretentiousness.

The Beginning of the Hardest and Best Year of my Life

Back in the day, I had grand dreams of becoming a comic-book artist. It started way back in the 6th grade, when my mother took me to Zak’s (long-time north Texas residents will remember that chain of art stores) and told me I could get whatever I wanted. Even before I knew I wanted to be an artist, my mother had sensed my potential and always encouraged it. I left the store with a sketchpad, handfuls of graphite, and a thirst to create.

Years and sketchbooks and comics and scraps of paper later, it was time to decide on college. Because I was a combination of apathetic, lazy, and aware of the better choice facing me, I applied to only one school, the University of North Texas. I easily got it. I quickly started my art career, and just as quickly discovered that this was not the best place to pursue my dream.

North Texas features a great art program, which by the time I was a freshman had spun off from the liberal arts college to form The School of Visual Arts. Many disciplines were taught, ranging from fibers to watercolor to sculpture to computer art. I chose drawing and painting, a program which was administered by a number of regionally-renowned artists. Names that I recall include Vernon Fisher, Vincent Falsetta, Annette Lawrence, John Pomara, Rob Erdle, and Ed Blackburn. If you’ve been lucky enough to visit the new Modern in Ft. Worth, you’ve also been equally fortunate to have been around the works of some of those artists. Some of their work can be found on this excellent database.

Wanting to be an illustrator in a program with a stronger emphasis on painting and pictoral objectivity was terribly difficult. I didn’t always fit in, but as long as I was creating art and being involved in the studio, it didn’t matter to me. Twice must a painting major pass a barrier review, once at the junior level and once right before one is allowed to graduate. I failed my junior review the first time I went through it, setting me back nearly a year. My teacher and advisor at the time was John Pomara, who I credit with taking my work in many new directions, especially in my use of materials. But it was these “many new directions” that made my portfolio seem chaotic and unthoughtful — basically, my work echoed his and the fact I didn’t see that coming irks me still.

To make a long story short, I worked my ass off and got through my second junior review under Vernon Fisher. After that, I had a full senior year to refine my work into a cohesive pattern, and was largely successful towards the end. My final teacher Annette Lawrence is herself primarily a draftsperson, and under her my drawings flourished in subject, scale, and craftmanship. Senior review came up all too quickly, and despite having a severe case of pneumonia that landed me in the hospital, I was able to round up a strong enough portfolio to graduate. I had passed my senior review and now had a month or so to ponder my future before walking across stage.

A couple of days after my review, I was making the long walk home from the Art Building to my College Inn apartment. It was a cool, clear night in March, just after Spring Break, and I had little on my mind. Then, while passing McConnell Hall, I was stopped cold by a thought that hit me like lightning.

“I don’t want to be an artist.”

And those words rang clear and made the most perfect sense. And I experienced the unburdening feeling one typically feels when they have an epiphany. And I never looked back — to this day, I have not done a painting since and have barely drawn.

The tricky part of this story is explaining not the what, but the how…how could I give up my dream of the past 12 years, especially just a month before I was to graduate? Well, gentle reader, it is unfortunately one of those things that has no explanation. Years would pass before I found someone who had a similar experience, although it was a character within a movie. In Adaptation, a movie that I am not completely fond of, there was a scene that kept me on the edge of my seat. Forced into this position by the empathy surging through me, I watched the scene where the reporter Susan Orlean was interviewing the orchid thief John Laroche and touched upon his habit of switching passions:

ORLEAN: So, did you ever miss the turtles? The only thing that made you ten year old life worth living?

LAROCHE: I’ll tell you a story. I once fell deeply, profoundly in love with tropical fish. I had sixty goddamn fish tanks in my house. I’d skin-dive to find just the right ones. Anisotremus virginicus, Holacanthus ciliaris, Chaetodon capistratus. You name it. Then one day I say, fuck fish. I renounce fish. I vow to never set foot in the ocean again, that’s how much fuck fish. That was seventeen years ago and I have never since stuck so much as a toe into that ocean. And I love the ocean!

ORLEAN: (beat) But why?

LAROCHE: (shrugs) Done with fish.

Done with fish. Done with art.

Simple as that. Perhaps one of these days, I’ll be able to explain it more. But for now, it makes perfect sense to me, which is all that matters.