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Cassatt Continued: Letter to K

After reading my last blog post about the scandalous comparison of my artwork to that of Mary Cassatt, my Uncle Brian was compelled to write me a lengthy email; one that deserves to have a post all its own.

Illustration by Brian Hough for his unpublished book "Elk's Vision: A Fable"
Letter to K:
Dear Kirsten,
Firstly, I think you are doing wonderful work.
You are too sensitive about comparisons to Mary Cassatt. The comparison is superficial, of course, as you also paint children. It's yes, the first thing that comes to mind, but it is not a critique of your work. It's just a lazy, easy comparison. Most people do not know a thing about what you are trying to do. One gathers from your post that others have also made the comparison. Remember, it's not what others think, but what you think that is important. I also sense that your work is displeasing to yourself. Welcome to the nightmare of art. Steel yourself and overcome it. Do not seek; find.
Mary Cassatt was also a fine painter, was and is greatly admired. As someone who was primarily drawn to illustration, and "fine" art secondly, Mary stuck me as a designer (read here illustrator) a little ahead of her time. Design is the thing here that is most important; the subject matter is incidental. Maynard Dixon was also a great painter, but he was really at heart an illustrator. And he started out as one. Yet his vision of the western landscape is considered matchless.
As time has gone by, painterly work is not interesting to me when I now think of what I myself am trying to do. I want real things, not just a two-dimensional painting of them. My interests have turned towards design and sculpture, and away from the figurative and painterly. It's just not interesting to me anymore. When I think of most figurative painting, I am reminded of a Simpson's episode where Homer is listening to his pastor's sermon: "The word of the Lord is like a drill, boring, boring, boring..."
One must pursue what is interesting to one's own self; too often the pull of the commercial or the accolades of the common taste is corrupting. Only you know what is interesting to you; only you know what you are trying to accomplish. Listen to no one else. Pursue only that which pleases you. Even if it is only an idea. Even if it is only something found in a garbage can. Even if it is only a dream. I would rather my work be unknowable, or even ugly, than produce something that is pleasing and accessible for everybody, but it does not firstly please myself.
Remember the (paraphrased) words of Shakespeare: " The play that may please a whole theater, but if it grieves the one man who knows, the one man who knows the real quality of a thing, it could only grieve myself as well"...
That one man is ourselves.
The first photos are of a musical instrument that I am building; it will have strings and is played with a bow.
The suitcase is something that just is; you tell me the meaning of it. It's out-there sculpture for sure. Everyone is amused when it is opened and the the baffle-like sculpture inside is revealed. It means something, but what?
I guess that we come here to theory. There's no theory to a lot of great work. Take, for instance, Georgia O'Keefe; there's no theory evident in her work. She is admired for her sense of design and color and simplification. That's it. Not for her theories. I find nothing wrong with a concern for only design.
I remember something that Picasso said: "I do not like beauty or elegance." That shows in a lot of his work. Plus he only cared about what was interesting to himself, and he didn't give a damn what anyone else thought.
Love, Unk

This is my lovely Uncle Brian, who is constantly searching, learning and teaching. The fact that he has rejected paint disappoints me, but doesn't surprise me. At 67 years old, he teaches me that we always have a chance for change. As his thesis worthy "note" professes, he has moved from 2D illustration to 3D sculpture assemblage. He will never promote himself, so I will show you his recent work in his studio in Cedar City, Utah. His oil paintings are amazing but maybe for another day. He mentions the artist Maynard Dixon, but I think my uncle's paintings are much more interesting and accomplished.

In his email response to my post, he mentions that I was "sensitive" about comparisons to Cassatt, but that was the point of my blog; to call myself out for taking offense. I've owned it and realize that its not a bad thing. I'm glad he said it .

Perhaps I'm writing this blog to assure him that I need this banter. I'm posting this blog because I'm proud that I have other artists in my life who comment and care. I'm posting his email because his words are always eloquent and caring and need to be heard by others. He is my monk with no religion.

That being said, I might have to disagree with some of what he wrote: "Only you know what is interesting to you; only you know what you are trying to accomplish. Listen to no one else. Pursue only that which pleases you. Even if it is only an idea." . . . There is something freeing in what he says but every lesson I've learned since childhood has told me the opposite. Growing up in the church, we learned to always think of others first - it's ingrained in me. Pursue only what pleases me?? - might as well go back to Garden of Eden and grab that apple! Any act considered "selfish" is why the world is so crazy, right? Also, I've found that I've learned a lot or improved when I listen to a criticism of others. I have to care what others think because I'm creating it for others to view and hopefully buy, which helps me to keep creating.

I see what he means though. The only way a painter makes anything that anyone wants to look at is to (ironically) paint like no one is watching. However, we all know our paintings are going to have an audience and we need that audience to like or enjoy in some way. We are communal animals and paintings communicate in an important way beyond words- artwork (in any medium) bonds us and shows empathy.

So who is right here? Should I listen to my "monk" of an uncle (or as I've just coined "Munkle") or do we as artists need to consider others? Shouldn't we depend on others to form our artistic languages? Would I paint if I had no audience? Would I feel the need to create beautiful but dysfunctional objects if I lived in a vacuum or on a desert island? Hmmm, maybe he's right.

New challenge: make artwork as if I'm the last person on the planet.

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