Art, Stuffed Shirts, Bossy People and Doing It Right

sworn enemy of the stuffed shirt”
copyright 2023, Molly Larson Cook
28″ x 22″ Acrylic on canvas
$600

Sometimes a person has to backtrack a bit to go forward again. Over the past few weeks I’ve had a feeling of having lost my way with the paintings. Not that I didn’t like the work I was doing, but it didn’t feel as if it were part of anything. It felt random and uncentered.

The nature of this painting and the title for it told me something was amiss.

The title here is not from a poem, but from a piece of information about myself that I’ve carried for many years. It was in one of those often silly daily horoscopes that we sometimes read in newspapers – or now, more likely, online.

“You are the sworn enemy of the stuffed shirt.”

On this particular day, I was smack in the middle of a job where I was surrounded by “stuffed shirts” and struggling to make my way. But the minute I read those words, I knew something about myself that I’d glimpsed, but never really seen.

I was (and still am!), indeed, the sworn enemy of the stuffed shirt. I had, and still have, little tolerance or patience for the mundane, the ordinary, the stuffiness of so much around me. Especially shirts. This has nothing to do with age or gender or position. It has everything to do with attitude. I’m reminded of a great cartoon: “There are two classes of people – the righteous and the unrighteous. The classifying is done by the righteous.”

The righteous, of course, are also known as stuffed shirts.

And when it came to art, I was not satisfied with the ordinary or the stuffiness either. Not in some other artist’s work and certainly not in my own. I began my art life with drawing. I enjoyed it and sometimes surprised myself with the work. I have sketchbooks with flowers, my hand (most artists have many drawings of their own hands!), stacks of books, the view from a window, nude models in life drawing classes — the usual things.

But when I wanted to look at art, I was drawn to the abstract – to the colors and shapes. And when I began my own painting, I wanted to go the same direction. It was not by accident that I linked my first collection to jazz, feeling more or less intuitively the connection between the two, the improvisational aspect.

About the same time, I discovered Dutch painter, Jan Van Oort. Jan Van Oort is not only a painter, he’s a jazz musician. How great is that?!

Van Oort and I don’t paint the same things, but his thoughts about abstract painting inspired me, and his words and work led me to my own decision to use all kinds of tools for mine. I gave up brushes for my trusty palette knife, putty knives, roller, spray bottle, and my favorite tool, a 24″ paint shield which is a great scraper.

So, a few days ago as I was casting about for answers, I looked him up again and found the video I’d watched those years before including the one in which he lays out his 5 Tips for Acrylic Abstract Painting.

As I sat and watched and listened, it was as if I had opened a great book about the work, my work, and how to get back to it. Van Oort may not be a sworn enemy of the stuffed shirt, but his words lead me to believe he very likely is.

So here is my synopsis of the basics of his 5 Tips. You can meet this charming fellow and hear them in his own delightful words at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W8SR0goXlR8

Van Oort numbers them in reverse:

5. Tools – Choose what suits you. Brushes can work, but so can all kinds of other tools – formal and casual. (Ed. note: I buy my painting tools at the hardware store.)

4. Complementary Colors – Basic color information and how it works in the abstract.

3. Using the Whole Surface – The painting tells a story, so make sure the different parts of the canvas work together to tell that story.

2. Space – Use layers of color to develop the story. Each layer deepens the painting and tells more of the story.

And last, Tip Number One, a mental tip:

Paint in the moment. Don’t be busy worrying about results. Let the colors choose you. Paint with no expectations. Just play!

Watching him at work as an artist, an instructor, a jazz saxophone player makes it clear that he believes strongly in Tip Number One. And seeing his success makes it clear that his Tips are excellent advice.

Watching him again and hearing the Tips shook me out of my artist’s doldrums and back to what I want to do and how and why.

Too much advice out there about making art is “bossy.” Critics are bossy. My sculpture instructor in Oregon who ragged on me for being an older student was bossy (and shut me down for years). Some gallery owners are bossy. Even some art patrons and fellow artists are bossy.

For the sworn enemy of the stuffed shirt, Jan Van Oort and Tip Number One are just what I need.

For my money, creative work is a lot like sex. If you’re not having fun, you’re not doing it right. Even hard work can be fun if you love the work!

5 thoughts on “Art, Stuffed Shirts, Bossy People and Doing It Right

  1. I love that Van Oort numbered his tips in reverse order! There is a traditional Scottish ‘prayer’ that goes: “From ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggety beasties and things that go bump in the night, may the good Lord deliver us! ” I think we should add stuffed shirts somewhere in among that lot. Stuffed shirted meanies? : )

  2. Right on, Mollly, and yes, if you’re not having fun, don’t go with it…

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