the wretched WHY / by jessica kirkpatrick

art practice as inquiry

The human mind demands certainty; panic strikes when we don't know where we are--the first thing we ask a new acquaintance is what they 'do'.    We classify and name  everything, and when there are no words our brains go numb.   Artist statements, bio's and gallery talks--art college and the art market demand that an artist communicate with focus and clarity; and granted, conviction puts you on a creative straight and narrow.   But just for the sake of this blog...I want to honor that state of not knowing what the fuck you are doing, why or for what purpose, with no prospect of discovering such any time soon.    Because I believe uncertainty is the life blood of the creative act. Questions compel your research and nourish your innate curiosity,  so maybe the asking is more important than the answer.  This combination of simple questioning and allowing the answer to evolve as you do assists you in verbalizing your work, keeps you on track artistically,  all while nourishing a vibrant creative circulatory system. 

  • your why develops over the course of your career 
  • creativity is contingent upon uncertainty
  • your line of inquiry is your mission

At the retrospective of one of my favorite British Painters, Paul Nash, at Laing Gallery in New Castle, it was fascinating to see his work change during his lifetime.   As an official WWII artist, the young Nash depicted vast battle scenes in blasted landscapes, forecasting his sensibility for the surreal,  his use of  blocky shape and chalky color.  After the war, recovering from PTSD he settled into the Dorset countryside,  creating psychologically intense images, inserting what he called "imaginative events" into sparse scenes of fields or seashores. By the end of his life he made romantic and beckoning dreamscapes.  As I strolled the exhibit, I loved witnessing his expression move from political outrage, to psychic angst, to longing. Though his work always remained recognizable as his own, Nash's ideas and imagery changed as he did.  Artist's who's work show evolution and growth are the artist's our culture cherishes.  Living inside of inquiry is the key to that growth.  

Making great work lies within the limitations of transforming thought into materiality.  You  learn to direct  the chaotic forces of imperfect tools, imperfect studios and imperfect moods--frayed brushes, cheap paints, dull blades and hangovers  then work towards your artistic intentions.  The art making process is somatic; our emotion and thought packed bodies act upon elements and objects.    But this is the magic of art making; within the surrender of our minds to the circumstances and perimeters of stuff and life, our work reveals us to ourselves.  Once we are clear on a certain process, creativity craves new unknowns.  Being an artist is equally about receptivity and trust, as it is control and power.

I've realized that if I fully apprehended my motives and purpose, I would probably walk out of the studio and shut the door forever.  Its the pondering, and ever deepening mystery of creating art objects that keeps me engaged. When I  take my idea into form, maybe only 100% of the time is my project different from its original conception.  Detaching from a specific outcome delimits possibility, which when used towards a larger question, funnels creativity into a coherent project without it becoming predictable or conceptually one dimensional.   By continuing to ask why you make the work you do and asking what is the next step? what now? Your work will tell you.  You just need to know what follows what, and the ultimate answer is your North Star.