A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 24: The Creative Process


So often, works of art come to us as fully formed creations. Whether it’s a song we hear on the radio, a play performed, a painting on a wall or a movie on the big screen, art is usually experienced by most when it has reached that nebulous moment of “completion” and has gone public. Of course, we have more access than ever before to the creative process behind so much art on display. In some ways, it may remove some of the magic. But I believe getting an inside glimpse can also help you see all those mysterious bits and angles, those unexpected and unplanned moments, that creep into any artistic endeavor. It’s not so much seeing the “man behind the curtain” as seeing the muse behind the creation.

Part of the joy of creating is going through the serendipitous happenings and the “oops” that become a key part of what you’re making. That is certainly the case for me, though I don’t always take note of it the way that I should. Or, perhaps, there are so many little moments that add up that it is hard to keep track. However, for my latest artwork, I decided to pay closer attention to the stages it went through and how I responded to those stages. Below is the finished product, which I posted here last week Friday:


“Divisible” Mixed Media on Poster/Canvas 2017

I’ll now take you through the process, beginning with…

The Angst – I know, I know- “Angst” is a horribly over-used word when it comes to creating art. It has been so over-used and over-done that it has become cliche. But I use it here in good faith and with the meaning of the word fully intact: A feeling of anxiety, apprehension, or insecurity (Webster’s Dictionary definition). I don’t believe every work of art begins here but the artwork above most definitely did.

Though Canada has been my home for over sixteen years, I am an American, born and bred. I don’t need to rehash all the news from the past year that was hashed to death, suffice to say that I am no fan of Donald Trump. In fact, in his campaign and demeanor, in is words and actions, I was appalled that he got so far as to be a candidate for the presidency. I am not a fan of Hillary Clinton, either, but the prospect of her being president did not fill me with dread. As I considered the concept of a “President Trump” I could only see the various divisions in my home country getting wider and wider; I could only see the hatred and extreme rhetoric growing and growing; I could only see families turned against each other, neighbors fearing neighbors, and the weak and vulnerable suffering. My heart was so full of this angst that the slogan “Make America Great Again” attached to such a person and his political agenda seemed a sick joke. Would the healing flow unhindered in the wake of a Hillary Clinton presidency? Of course not. The damage in the U.S. is too dire for one person, administration or political party to fix. But at least there would be some semblance of decency and attempts at unity. In Trump, I saw the total opposite. Like so many millions and perhaps billions of people all over the world, when America cast their vote and it became clear who the winner would be, it felt as if someone had died. I was angry and I grieved.

I do not state the above to get into a political argument with anyone. I simply state it as the reality of where my heart was at as we approached Inauguration Day. My heart was with people, people I love and people who I believe in and still believe in: the Americans I know in the America I still love. That is the “soil” that was prepared in me.

The Inspiration – There are those who would think this is the beginning of the creative process but I would argue that is not the case. The soil needs to be there before seeds are planted. An artist tends to be an open soul, that is, someone who wears their heart on their sleeve; someone who is very sensitive to emotions, happenings in their world, and to how things are effecting them and those around them. Inspiration grows from the soil of empathy.

In the case of my artwork “Divisible”, the inspiration I received came from an unexpected source. For the last few years, I have worked at a day program for adults with developmental disabilities. It is an environment where we provide skill building and employment opportunities to give people purpose and meaning in their lives. We have a number of small businesses including a woodworking shop, a jewelry making business and a pottery studio. I work in an art studio at the day program. There we give people the chance to express themselves individually, on paper or canvas, and then make their work available to the public through art shows and markets.

It was in the context of this studio that I received my inspiration. One young man we support wanted to make a painting a couple of weeks ago. He asked specifically to paint a picture of an American flag. Now, understand, I don’t believe this request was at all politically motivated. I know this individual well and have never heard him talk this way at all. Perhaps he heard staff talking about the coming Inauguration Day or about Donald Trump, or perhaps he just caught a sense of the general zeitgeist of the moment. Whatever it was, he wanted to paint the U.S. flag. So I got him a canvas and some appropriate paints, printed up a picture of the flag for him to see, and the below is what he created:


I found this work to be amazing. His choice to make the Stripes of the Stars and Stripes veer upward, the expressionistic energy of the brush strokes and stark simplicity was quite profound. It is one of the best things he’s ever painted. And as he was doing it, I began to draw. I drew my own expressionistic, stylized American flags. I ended up drawing four of them, all in oil pastels, all on the motif of the flag. Here are those drawings:

At first I just drew because I felt like drawing. But as I drew an idea started to form: Take these drawings and turn them into one, big expressionist American flag. In doing so, maybe I could recreate some of that angst I was feeling, maybe exorcise some demons, maybe work through the anger and grief and get on with life. I wanted to convey the division I felt ripping through my home country and the pain that rift is causing so many people who really do love America. As so many artists have felt over so many thousands of years, I just had to get this out.

The Pre-Creation – In so many cases with artwork, the real job is in the pre-creation: that time of preparing and planning for what you hope the final product will look like. For the first step, I decided to tear my drawings apart and reassemble them on a canvas surface, preferably with a background of color and texture. With that thought, I set out to find that background. I decided to search my usual haunts: the second-hand stores where you can often find large canvases for little money. I searched through a couple of stores without finding anything suitable. On my way out the door at my local Salvation Army store, I saw the pseudo-artwork below, just sitting on the floor, leaning against the glass of the entryway to the store:


I am not trying to be mean in labeling this “pseudo-artwork”. But the truth is that it is a pre-packaged item of moody colors and fake textures on a poster stretched over a canvas frame. It’s not a painting, it just looks like it from far away. It is “art” for those looking for something to match their decor and maybe lend a faux-hip vibe to their home. It is Wal-Mart Art. But for my purposes, it was just about perfect. It’s shape was flag-shaped. It was fairly large. And it had a dark background that would make a great contrast to my bright oil pastel drawings. It even had a slight hint of the same lines of an American flag already in it. This was an incredibly serendipitous moment and I knew instantly when I saw it that this artwork of mine was meant to happen.

I set about finding a time that I could complete this piece, knowing I’d need a couple of hours to paste my drawings scraps to this poster/canvas I had discovered. While I was biding my time, I was using my woodless colored pencils at work. When I sharpened them, I noticed how much color was in the shavings. I decided to save the shavings, not really knowing what I was going to do with them, but feeling that they might just come in handy.


The Creation – The time came free for me to get to work and make this idea a reality. Armed with my scraps of paper, my background, my pencil shavings and my glue, I got busy…


In the end, I slathered the glue over the top of all the bits of paper I had assembled and stuck on the background, then I took those pencil shavings and literally let them rain down on the artwork; wherever they landed is where I let them stick. Through the whole process I tried to act on instinct and keep a sense of motion and emotion. I didn’t think too much about where the paper scraps were laid down (only to keep a motif of the American flag somewhat in mind) and wanted to leave room for the unexpected to happen. Here is the finished product one more time:


“Divisible” Mixed Media on Poster/Canvas 2017

The Aftermath – This is a bit of a misnomer, as I didn’t just have thoughts about this piece when it was done; things were occurring to me all during the creation of it. But the pondering of what you’ve done brings to mind all the stuff you didn’t plan; at best, maybe you allowed for the unexpected but it still brings amazement when things happen you didn’t intend.

First of all, I was struck by how the human mind works. This artwork looks nothing at all like an American flag. But our brains reassemble it for us so that when we look at it, we see that iconic image we know so well, regardless of the colors being off and the lines of the original going helter-skelter all over the place. What the viewers’ brain will do is the secret weapon of the artist.

Secondly, I thought about the four original drawings and how they were all different in character. It made me think of how there are so many Americas in the perspectives of so many people, both inside and outside the country itself. We all think we know what the U.S.A. is but, really, we don’t. It is so many different things to so many different people. It seemed fitting that I used those original drawings to craft something that hung loosely together.

Thirdly, despite the title “Divisible” – a title I chose as a direct contradiction to the “indivisible” line of the Pledge of Allegiance – there is still a unity that holds the piece together. It is chaotic and messy, jumbled and frustrating, especially to the orderly-minded, but there is still things that hold it together, despite all of that. There are still things held in common; still things that are shared and valued together.

Fourthly, the colorful pencil shavings I spread all around the piece reminded me that the tapestry of people, cultures, traditions, beliefs, etc. of American people are the highlight of the nation. Often, these things are hidden, sometimes on purpose, sometimes not, in the quest for a unified vision as a country. But diversity doesn’t have to mean division. An understanding and empathy of those different from you gives strength, not weakness. That is a fine quality of the U.S.A. that should not be forgotten.

Fifthly, an “oops” was a large pile of shavings landing on the bottom right portion of the artwork. As I look at it the now, however, the shape seems almost human; more so, it looks like someone walking down a path, maybe moving on; maybe moving forward.

Overall, I realized that what was intended at first to express angst ended up expressing a lot of hope. It ended up being about love, not anger or fear.

That is my interpretation, anyway. Perhaps you see something entirely different or you don’t see anything at all. That is okay. Art is meant to be laid out for public viewing and public scrutiny; it will speak to some, scream to others, and be completely silent to others still. That is both the joy and agony of creating for the artist.

There you have it. I don’t believe this to be any kind of masterpiece. But it is worthy because I offer it to you.


America, Greatness and Appealing to the Better Angels


I’ve been reading “The Sketch Book” by Washington Irving, the author who gave life to the Headless Horseman and Rip Van Winkle. “The Sketch Book” contains both of these classics of early-American literature. It was published in the late 1820’s when the United States of America was an infant nation taking its first solid steps into maturity. I picked up the book out of a longing to read some great writing that really challenged me in a way modern writers cannot. I expected that kind of experience reading something written almost two hundred years ago. What I didn’t expect was to read passages that seemed to speak directly to the political and moral climate of the United States in 2016.

In a chapter about the animosity that existed between English and Americans in the 1820’s (not a big surprise on the heels of two wars fought between the nations!), I felt like Irving’s ghost was addressing issues that are popping up all over the place today.

The first quote that struck me was this one: “Governed, as we are, entirely by public opinion, the utmost care should be taken to preserve the purity of the public mind. Knowledge is power, and truth is knowledge; whoever, therefore, knowingly propagates a prejudice willfully saps the foundation of his country’s strength.”

Like so many others I have been angered and frustrated by the things said and issues promoted by Donald Trump in his bid for the candidacy of the Republican party. The broad generalizations, mockery, bombast and overall asine-ness of his ridiculous campaign is reason enough to be disgusted. But what has really discouraged me is the lack of responsibility shown by someone in a position of power and influence in what he will say and represent in the public sphere. It is not a stretch to say that Trump has “knowingly propagated prejudices”. Reading Irving’s quote I realized what else has me fuming: In the mindless quest to “Make America Great Again”, he is actually sapping the great strength of America. He will not make America great by this strategy but drag it down somewhere far below mediocrity, to a place that is base and petty and self-serving.

Washington Irving reminded me that people in positions of influence, especially in a democratic land where the voice of the people give it power, have a responsibility to use their words with care, to promote justice and peace and truth, and to give meaning not to ignoble but to noble purpose. By this you promote the “purity of the public mind”. I have been witnessing so much of the opposite lately that I have felt the greatness slipping away from the U.S.

What is the greatness of America? The next quote I came upon in Irving’s book reminded me of that. But it also brought discouragement as I considered the debate in my homeland over the refugee crisis and how some states were refusing to give asylum to people desperately in need of it. Here is Washington Irving again: “Opening, too, as we do, an asylum for strangers from every portion of the earth, we should receive all with impartiality. It should be our pride to exhibit an example of one nation, at least, destitute of national antipathies, and exercising not merely the overt acts of hospitality but those more rare and noble courtesies which spring from liberality of opinion.”

I have lived in Canada for the last fifteen years but I was born and raised in the United States. Growing up, you learn about the make-up of your nation; you learn the pride in being a land of free people who came from every corner of the globe; you learn to believe that your nation, above all others, will do the right thing when confronted with the choice to do or not do what is right. Now, as an adult, I know a lot of what I was taught growing up was a form of American Mythology that helps to promote the idea that the U.S. is the greatest nation ever. You grow up singing lots of spangly songs of patriotism, believe me! Yet there is a deep truth in the fact that America has been a light and a hope for millions of people over more than two centuries. Those famous words at the Statue of Liberty, penned by Emma Lazarus, and taught and quoted over and over cannot be ignored: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” 

Emma Lazarus in her poem called the Statue the “Mother of Exiles” but I don’t thinks she was just talking about the Statue. The United States has been the Mother of Exiles for so many. In fact, many Americans can trace their roots to a time when their grandfathers and fathers were exiles; people yearning to be free from religious persecution, ethnic cleansing, poverty, prejudice and the like. How can it be, then, that a group such as the Syrian refugees – a group that certainly could be described as tired, poor, huddled masses yearning for freedom – be confronted with proverbial closed doors and barred gates?

The answer, of course, is fear. Fear specifically of ISIL but fear more generally of a big, bad outside world that will destroy your way of life. Yet what is that way of life but freedom? And who is free who can abide anyone being denied freedom themselves? Who can let fear give voice to their opinions who know that ultimately what has always been true, in the words of JFK, is that the only thing America has to fear is fear itself? Fear strips away freedom; it takes away your freedom as it takes away a freedom others so desperately crave.

America doesn’t need to be made great again. America is already great. But America needs to be reminded of its greatness. It is being forgotten. Worse, it is being replaced by something lower than mediocrity: Spite, vitriol, a shallowness that threatens to swallow up everything like a Black Hole.

The fear needs to be named. And then the fear needs to be rejected in favor of the boldness that has always marked the United States as the home of the brave and free. That’s the America I still love. I suspect that the vast majority of Americans agree.

I appeal, as one of my favorite Americans once did, to the “better angels of our nature”. Abraham Lincoln was attempting during that first inaugural address to avert a coming horrific conflict. Unfortunately, America slipped into the bloodiest era of its history. My hope and prayer is that by appealing again to those angels in us, this time around, instead of horror there will be peace.

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.” – Abraham Lincoln