A NEW QUESTION
Friends used to ask me how someone so non-outgoing (i.e., generally timid) as myself could just knock on strangers' doors and enter into their lives for a few days at a time something most of them wouldn't dream of. "I don't know; it's sort of fun," I'd say. This time it was not so easy. Walking up to the first unfamiliar front door, after a tiring drive, realizing that my main objective was essentially to get comfortable enough to make a painting good enough to give away before driving several more hours to another stranger's house... I had only one thought a question, really: "Why am I doing this?"
It didn't help that the weather had gone from beautifully sunny to threatening rain just as I reached my painting destination, or that the setting was not as quiet, open or picturesque as I'd imagined. I felt lost and discouraged before I'd even parked the car and turned off the ignition. Luckily, though, my hosts were friendly, interesting and soon had a lavish salad niçoise under way for dinner.
The basic questions, though, which had never surfaced in earlier tours, stayed with me for most of the trip: What was I doing? And why? Gradually, over the course of the trip, the doubts were replaced by degrees of comfort and confidence, as well as a renewed sense of gratitude for what I was able to see and do in my role as itinerant artist.
But it was only on the second to last day of the tour, on Fisher's Island, that my doubts disappeared completely. That day after sleeping in for once I took my paints to nearby Isabella Beach. It was a place my hosts liked, a place I liked, a place I probably never would have seen if I hadn't taken the tour. Being on a sunny October beach with just sand, surf and sky all around filled me with a rare delight. As clouds moved in, I battled to get as much painting as I could done before the weather became too cold and windy. I wanted to be able to show and share some of what being there meant to me. And in that one afternoon I somehow ended up with three of the best paintings I'd done all year seascapes, no less. I'd only painted the ocean a few times before and was glad to have had that time to get further acquainted.
Of course, while those three paintings emerged more or less at the last minute, they grew out of everything that preceded them, even the frustration of not being able to paint so well elsewhere and the mild torment of feeling out of place for much of the trip. In fact, I'd felt uncomfortably out of place on Fisher's Island the day before, except for a quick, happy half hour at the beach before sunset. Creativity often arises from uncomfortable challenges, or the challenge of discomfort and dislocation. That challenge is one of the main forces driving my productivity on tour. Another is the somewhat contrasting desire to share something unique, something good that I've found, with my hosts, in return for their participation in the adventure, their support, the welcome comfortableness of their hospitality.
Such considerations lead me to a tangent: my concern for what can happen to both creativity and substantive, enlivening social interaction when lives are increasingly buffered and mediated by electronic (non-material) media and virtual reality.
I, at least, often find myself feeling more essentially isolated by the technologies that promise easier modes of connection. The isolation entailed by reaching out to the world through a personal computer, for example, can be comfortable until it starts to feel hollow and empty. One danger is in not recognizing that the medium itself helps to foster the alienation by removing me from direct interactions and even making direct interactions harder to face. Another is in then trying to overcome the emptiness with more of the same. My concern is that, pervasively in our culture, virtual isolation will feed on itself by demanding more distraction, rather than pointing us toward creative, substantive engagement with material and social reality. If we become acculturated enough toward electronic interaction and away from direct, solid, challenging, tangible interaction, will we be gradually opting out of the collective pursuit of shared meaning?
I'm probably more technophobic than average; this may amplify my uneasiness. And yet I use email and the Internet; I have a website; my project wouldn't work very easily without these things. I try, though, to keep the electronic and digital technologies in their place as means and not ends; tools for encouraging and facilitating direct connections, not substitutes for the real thing. I admit to a temptation, sometimes, to do the opposite. And I wonder if their net effect is inevitably in that opposite direction.
Before I started my Itinerant Artist Project, I not only enjoyed being apart, being withdrawn from society most of the time; I figured it was the artist's right and privilege to be off in his or her own world. But as I started to see just about everyone tending that way, with computers and entertainment centers in anonymous homes in non-communities, I began to question my own entitlement to withdrawal at least to the degree that it made room for apathy and disconnection.
I still enjoyed being reclusive solitude is one way to find new meaning to share, so it's not necessarily anti-social. But I sensed that something else was called for. This was partly self-interest: being on the fringe of society would become frightening rather than fruitful if a functioning society could not be taken for granted. And it can't anymore. Society is disintegrating. It will take effort and outreach and neighborliness and civic involvement to keep it intact. In my own life, I'm not doing nearly enough; still, I hope my project does something to affirm the creative value, excitement and fulfillment that can come from getting out and interacting with real people, places and materials.
October Beach, oil on panel 6" x 9".
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The last of three paintings done at Isabella Beach on Fisher's Island. October Beach is also the latest Itinerant Artist image to be available as a limited edition print.
Click here to order a print.
From the Path to Isabella Beach,
oil on panel 9" x 6".
For most of my tour I had an unsettling sense of not being where I should be. There were intimations of belonging and wonderful stretches of time here and there, but the prevailing sense of dislocation only started to break on the evening I arrived at Fisher's Island, when I first caught a glimpse of late sunlight on sand and water. The next day I went back to commune with Isabella Beach and catch up with myself. Luckily it was sunny. Painting the first view of the beach I'd seen the day before, through the trees, helped me feel more connected and whole. After that I tackled a scene from the beach, making the most of the clouds before they blocked out the sun:
Beach: Vertical Composition, oil on panel 9" x 6".
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The view is southwest from Isabella Beach, and the water is Long Island Sound. Also available as a limited edition print. Click here to order a print.
For more images from the tour, click here.