In the coming months I am going to write an article on Russell Wrankle, who is a friend and a sculptor. Russell proposed that in lieu of conducting a conventional interview that we have an exchange of e-mails. In his first, he asked me about comparisons that were made between his work, and that of Beth Cavendish Sticher, who works in the same medium with similar subject matter. My response follows here:
Given your chosen subject matter, I think the comparison between your work and the work of Beth Cavendar Sticher is inevitable. As you say, it is better to be compared to someone who is successful and known than to be compared to nobody. Of course, with that comes the implication that your work is somehow derivative of hers, or worse, imitative. Equally frustrating is that many viewers who are familiar with her work will be blinded by the comparison—they will be thinking about the similarities and differences too much to pay much attention to what you are doing. While we could elaborate on the similarities and differences between your bodies of work, I think it is more interesting to examine the assumptions that underly that discussion.
As you said in your note to me, nobody works in a vacuum. That is true, but your reaction to the person mentioning Beth Cavendar Sticher at Red Lodge Clay Center (I can feel you cringe), tells me that you might be in more of a vacuum than you think. I know for my own part that when I am actively making I find it difficult to look at the work of my contemporaries—I am in my own world. I see much the same situation in your studio. I do not see magazines on the table (save for clippings of animals), I only hear the roar of kilns, and the drone of NPR. I smell the clay, and, I see the way you are intimately engaged with the work you are creating—its form, its support, its varied degrees of wetness and dryness. You are in dialog with yourself, and the world at large (by way of the radio). If Beth Cavendar Sticher is “in” your studio it is a matter of paranoia, and perhaps of modifying something to not look like something you recollect (or so I would suspect). In my mind, if there is a comparison to be made with your work and hers, it would be with your work of today, and the work of hers that you might of seen when you were in graduate school, engaged in your own search for subject and meaning, in that crucible of heightened awareness. That is speculation on my part—that the influence, if any, is distant or subconscious.
It is natural, of course, for people to make comparisons. It seems that every contemporary painter of the landscape around Zion National Park who has a naturalistic style and uses hazy colors is doomed to comparisons with Jim Jones, even if their paintings are nothing like those of the late master. That territory, for the moment, has been ceded to Mr. Jones, and I feel for the painter treading the same trail. Of course, for the person making the comparison it is a matter of being helpful, or even flattering—it is a means to have something to say about the work. While many will say that the ‘younger’ artist should somehow distinguish themselves, I can’t adhere to that school of thought. Asking someone to do so enforces our cultural obsession with novelty and devalues any attempts at a sustained relationship with ones surroundings. It enforces a view of artwork as commodity in a marketplace (with everyone seeking a distinct niche) and ignores other underlying forces that might shape the work. I dare suspect that more people have avoided painting waterlilies for fear of being compared to Monet than have painted them in order to imitate the master. How feeble our minds are. Such is the source of senseless distinction and variation—quirks and idiosyncrasies doomed to the dustbin of history.
For all of the senseless variations that are created in the world—actions made only for distinction, there are as many inescapable fingerprints an artist leaves behind. As an example, I would use Royden Card’s work from the show we saw the other night. Many of his paintings maintain a sensibility of the printmaker: one can see the black outlines of a woodblock reiterated on the canvas, with fields of color filling in the lines. Even where the arrangement of the painting falls back into naturalistic space, one can still see planar, more or less single color forms that flip back and forth between being part of the illusion and part of a two dimensional page. Royden pointed out some of his smaller, more naturalistic paintings as a move in another direction. Even in the absence of black lines, with more subtle shadings, the tension between two dimensional space and the illusion of depth was apparent. More than that, I feel as though his own tendencies as a printmaker-painter have a particular resonance with the spaces and massive forms that define Zion National Park: the mountains themselves often exhibit the same tension between dimensional form and silhouette. That subtle dance between flat and dimensional space, in my mind, is a fingerprint that Royden would have to work to escape—it is quintessentially part of his work, even if within his explorations he is creating wide variation.
The position one takes on the issue of similarity and difference is telling of where one believes that creativity resides. To return to Beth Cavendish Sticher for the moment, I am struck by how definitive her artist statement is (the one I read is from 2003, and is posted on her website). Despite its clarity, I find much of it irrelevant. In it she mentions the psychological aspects of her work—removed from clay. In a separate and much longer section of her website, she discusses the materials and techniques she uses, and, in that section, I believe makes the most important statement on the site, that the clay is a recorder of her physical presence. It is interesting that the “artist statement”, the psychological (and in the writing the intellectual), is separated from the material, when so much of the essence of the work is in her touch—in the tooling of the clay, in the scarified surface that comes from her drawing a tool over the “skin”. That act moves the pieces beyond representation, into a realm where she herself is a participant in the drama she is inciting. When one engages with the piece, one not only sees the narrative, they see the presence of the artist. To me, the tooling, and this very apparent self inclusion in the narrative is one of her fingerprints—. Equally remarkable is the way in which she herself is so exposed upon her site, not in the artists statement (there is no insight into her there), but in the section on making, in which she deciphers all of her steps, and reveals a piece in multiple stages of making. Frankly, the piece she shows is beautiful in each of its incarnations (even to the point of being self conscious). All of it tells me that for Beth Cavendish Sticher that creativity resides in the eye, the nose, the fingertip, and a relationship with the clay itself. And, I know that as much as you might be tempted to think about the various iconographies you use in your work, the same is true for you. You will hopefully forgive me for pointing out another similarity (though I think it is obvious).
There is of course, plenty of work in which creativity is removed from the organs of sensation and subjugated to the intellectual mind—and it is from that place that most of the feeble minded comparison and criticism will come. It is the state of mind that haunts thousands of graduate students each year as they each try to make one esoteric distinction or another between works that while formally different are largely the same—in the DNA of their making. That is, they are all made by terrified graduate students who are searching for subject matter amidst a field of contemporaries that have just spent two years having a similar experiences and come from similar cultural backgrounds. It is a moment in time that might take years to recover from. Yet for those not engaged with making, who are not in dialogue with a material other than the thoughts in their head, there are few ways to enter a conversation with an artist. In the “decoding” of artwork we have shied away from the language and the exchange of makers, and replaced it with the language of criticism—that of intellectual positions made and defended, and, sadly, all to often established. The written understandings of Beth Cavendish Sticher might be full of praise and interesting thoughts, but, I would venture to say that they are as limiting as they are empowering for the artist.
In her work, and in yours, I find the indentations of our age: forms, icons, ideas—like a tide washing around the quay. That tide marks all of our work, it is the din of the discussion, trappings, suppositions, that come from the fact that we all share the insecurity of makers: that the language we speak is not easily defined in words. You might be able to cite precedents for the crab claws, the tortoise shell, and the hare–but I doubt you can fully explain the fascination of discovering them, or the sensation of their making. That the juxtapositions of hard and soft, protected and vulnerable create new meanings is equally certain–those That the text of the time washes about what we do is natural and expected. In the end, it is that discussion, noise, that I find least interesting. That you both have placed small animals in uncomfortable, and even sadistic situations is easily stated and repeated. That you both have observed the anatomy of a hare, and have similar construction techniques is equally obvious. To suggest that those statements define more than a point of entry to the work, however, would be unfortunate. Of all the similarities I find, the most interesting to me is the fact that both of you choose to work figuratively, by hand, without the aid of the digital technology that has fostered a spate of figurative works in recent times. You both, with your vastly different hands, and now at vastly different scales (given the size of Beth Cavendish Sticher’s latest works), press material that has been pressed for millennia. This stands, more than anything else, as the bulwark of the maker.
When I was a child, I could not wait to go to bed. I am sure my parents will remember plenty of times when I protested, but I distinctly remember being eager to go to bed so that I could dream. Dreams occupied a large part of my mind in the daytime and the night. Toys, sticks, forts, and all the trappings of youth were springboards for fantasies of all kinds, of what I might be or do. Rarely did those dreams have to do with heroics or greatness: most often it had to do with having the ability to do certain things, with being a good person. At times, I ventured into what I now know as lucid dreaming, where one gently directs the subconscious—a skill I might recover, if only I had the time to lay in bed that I once did.
My mind was clear, and, there was space to think of what I might become, while I played at learning (learning all the while) all the things I wanted to know. It seemed as if the world, and my life, was a vast buffet from which I might take a taste of everything, and still have the time to truly enjoy and savor every bite. I am fortunate, of course, to have had the chance to become many of the things I might have wished to be. Yet, being those things offers little solace when I put my head to the pillow. As an adult of nearly forty, the night is far less a friend. The responsibilities of the day, those things undone occupy far too much of my nighttime mind. Instead of wishing night to come, I chase the darkness with work and reading, filling my head with thoughts until exhaustion overcomes me, and I pass out. I prefer exhaustion to drink, but it catches up with me just the same—following me into the day. I am learning still, but unlike the studies of my youth, I am learning to escape.
I understand now why my leather jacketed nemesis, with his disgusting greasy hair and foul breath never went to bed, sleeping instead wherever he lay when he run out of steam. I understand why another beautiful blond chose to inhale vast amounts of powder so she could sleep by the dawn, avoiding the night. They are running, always running. They are running from a life that it catching up with them—from a life of potentials turned to actualities. For my own part, the actualities are far less disturbing then theirs, but, under it all is the sense that the future is not a limitless resource, but a precious length of thread that unravels a little more every day. There comes a point when we give up beginning, and choose to be; the desire to become, however, never leaves us.
I tend to shy away from commenting on the economy, but, having watched a few “disasters” unfold, it seemed appropriate to comment on the one that is about to happen.
A great deal has been written about the economic stimulus, and many people regularly express their doubts about what, if anything, it has accomplished. I can say for my own part it has accomplished a great deal, and has played a roll in my keeping several people employed for the past year.
True enough, we saw the train wreck coming before the fall of 2008. In my office we already had several meetings to discuss how we would confront the housing slow down. I assured my employees, who were beginning to get nervous about the economy, that I would keep them employed for a year, that we would continue to invest in the business, and that we would be the ones who would be left standing. That was, as I remember it, the better part of a year before Lehman Brothers and AIG made headlines and the credit market imploded. We were determined to make the company work and thrive; I believed that my vision of helping to create a more sustainable and efficient future was the best course, and still do.
As the market collapsed, and the housing market froze, I shifted an increasing proportion of the practice to commercial work. Our experience with energy efficiency helped;we completed a small hotel and a supermarket, each a market segment leader in its own way. Our residential clients had already been hesitating before the crash, and there was no chance they would come off the sidelines afterwards. Contractors would call us about one house or another, increasingly desperate, and all we could do is tell them that we are “on hold.” We were fortunate that as the dust settled and land prices plummeted that several “bargain hunters” entered the market. Our responsible approach to design appealed to them and we are pleased to be finishing several houses now. I don’t expect there to be too many more of those, however, as the supply of low priced lots was quickly exhausted. Those that can afford to sit on property are doing just that, and few people want to buy above the market.
While the commercial market provided a temporary respite from the saturated housing market, that came to a screeching halt when the dominoes started falling in 2008. Banks preferred to maintain their cash positions, and lending tightened to the point of a glacial freeze. Nobody disputes that credit was far too loose before the downturn, the correction, however, was so draconian as to prevent good loans from occurring. To this day, the unavailability of credit to small businesses, people who would otherwise expand and take advantage of lower costs in the market place, is a tragedy that is preventing sorely needed economic activity. Clients that would have built three buildings are choosing to build one, and those that might have built one have no choice but to wait—even if there business is forgoing potential revenue by not expanding. Much of the commercial market we are involved in, especially hotel work, has become a cash economy. Many people are fast to point out that lending was far too loose, and that this is a needed correction. On the larger point I agree, but, I would also point out that with few exceptions, our commercial clients are still in business, and the majority of those businesses are thriving.
If the time period between 2008 and 2009 was largely occupied by finishing commercial work, the time period between 2009 and today could largely be classified as work that was in part made possible by the fiscal stimulus. That the State of Utah wisely used money from the stimulus to free up money for Community Development Block Grants has played a large roll in many projects. One of our most significant projects today is funded through CDBG, which means at least part of the budget was made possible by the stimulus. Similarly, it is more than likely that housing work we undertook in Arizona would have never taken place had the Federal Government not provided economic relief to the states. In both cases, the stimulus funds have made up a small part of the overall budgets—that small part, however, has been significant in my continuing the employment of several people, in good paying jobs with health and retirement benefits. I suspect that there are countless small businesses very similar to mine that have, in one way or another, benefited from the stimulus spending. For me, it has meant keeping people employed—I doubt anyone in the small business sector has become rich, or taken a vacation: we just want to see people working. I still look out at an office full of people.
I do not expect to see another stimulus, and, with congress focusing on the budget deficit it is unlikely that there will be more aid to the states. That in itself is not a problem: if I had run a debt in my own business I would not be here today. That the credit markets are still largely frozen, and that capital is not flowing to the small business sector is, and will continue to be the most significant problem facing us all. I am not talking about borrowing money to make payroll, I am talking about my clients having access to capital so that they can hire my company to expand and renovate their businesses. As I see it, the most perilous crisis facing the economy at this moment is withdrawing the stimulus before credit is freely flowing. I agree with those who say that the private sector is best equipped to drive a recovery, but to do so, the private sector needs the basic tools of finance. Without them, we are all reduced to a cash economy—a contraction of epic proportions.