The Spirit of the Work


“…whose woods these are I think I know…”
Acrylic on canvas
20 X 24
©2019, Molly Larson Cook
(Poetry and painting)

I thought it was perhaps because I’m so relatively new in the art world.  Or maybe I was overthinking the work and my art brain was rebelling.  Or maybe my quirks were taking over and nobody but me had this oddly vague idea that – well, that I don’t know what the hell I’m doing with the art.

I mean, I finish a painting and then a couple of days later, I stand back and ask myself a possibly existential question:  “Who painted this?” because I haven’t a clue about how it happened.  Okay, that might be stretching a point. I know, of course, that I used paint and maybe a brush, more likely some other tool, I know I gessoed the canvas, and used my spray bottle to keep the paint wet as I moved it around.  I know all that.  But there’s always something else that I don’t remember doing, or didn’t know it would work out the way it did, and I could no more replicate this painting than get Donald Trump to shut up about his border wall.

But when I pulled out my 120-page art bible, Bayles and Orland’s Art & Fear, there it was in print:

“Most of the myriad of steps that go into making a piece go on below the level of conscious thought, engaging unarticulated beliefs and assumptions about what artmaking is.”

I didn’t think I would change my work much when I arrived in Mexico and began working again in this different studio space (I didn’t have a studio before), with different tools, different art supplies and – most of all – a different environment around me every day.  People, languages, places to shop or visit or just allow into my psyche.

Things change more than we imagine.

The newest paintings, including the one above, were done in what, as I worked, seemed the same old way.  The layers of paint, the general layout, similar tools.  Someone asked me how I came up with the clearly different look – not that different, but not the same either.  I didn’t have the answer.  “Uhm, I’m really not sure,” is hardly reassuring to someone who might actually buy a painting.

It’s hard to talk about the spirit of a piece, and that’s what any serious piece of art is about.

Color is still the animal for me that wags its own tail.  I still stand up when I paint, and I have abandoned the easel in favor of my flat table.  I still use tools from the hardware store instead of brushes.

Bayles and Orland go on to say that most of the painting we do is to teach ourselves to be artists.  Not to sell it.  Not to hang it in galleries.  Not to wow the world with it – one or two pieces maybe (unless you’re one of the prolific art showpeople who do it for publicity, good or bad), but not your entire body of work.

So while I can’t say how I came to this new place with the painting, I can happily say that I’m learning every day.  Doing the work and learning to be an artist.  Still learning how to start and – more important perhaps – when to stop.

I have no simple answer to the question “How did you do that?” but Bayles and Orland have let me know that most other artists don’t have the answer either.  Oh, we can talk about values and light and complementary colors, but behind all the technical stuff, nobody else can really say how they did it either.

The spirit is a mystery.

And I feel so much better knowing the mystery is still a mystery.  If Michelangelo came back to earth and somebody asked him how he painted the Sistine Chapel, I’ll bet he’d say the same thing.  And if that’s good enough for Michelangelo, it’s good enough for me.



2 thoughts on “The Spirit of the Work

  1. Thank you! I was once advised to put my computer and my easel next to one another…”They’ll feed each other.” Happy to have them both in my life.

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