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Feb 2, 2016

Why I did it, or, where the bodies lie...

A few days ago I posted some photos on my Facebook page of my older work. That in itself wasn't unusual because I upload new and old paintings all the time. But the work I shared comes from a trip I took to the dump – or the local recycling station, to be more precise.

The reaction on Facebook was immediate and interesting. Not one person was neutral about what I did. The responses ranged from 'Atta boy!' to 'Good for you!' to "How brave you are!" to abject horror and expressions of loss, seasoned with perhaps a little judgement about the waste. So, in light of those comments I thought I'd share more about why I did what I did.

Like most good murder mysteries there has to be a satisfying motive for such an atrocious act, and in that way I am no different. I believe the truth of the matter is usually found in the Why, not so much the Who, How, or When. 
The Why...

So here is the Why: 

The work I dumped last Saturday spanned thirty years of my life. What I threw off the trailer and into the pile wasn't everything I have produced over that time – not by any margin. It was work that didn't make the grade. Paintings that didn't succeed. Experimental efforts that lead to better things. Or work that in no way relates to the voodoo I want to pursue now.

Speaking of work that isn't related, most artist go through a number of changes throughout their career. It is to be expected, if not encouraged. There are time when an artist's direction can change abruptly and times when the change is slow and grinding. In either case, the end result is that throughout an artist's oeuvre, the middle or end is often quite different from the start. Sometime the biggest difference lies in a more developed mastery, and sometimes it is simply due to a change in focus. (Oh look! Squirrel!)

A few FB friends told me I was a nut job for culling the stacks. I can appreciate their point because at my core I am a little bit crazy. But then, those folks haven't seen my stacks. As I joked in the post, I tossed three hundred pounds of paintings out of the back of my trailer and I mean it straight up. The recycling center weighed my vehicle on the way in and on the way out and it cost me $39.75 to leave 345 pounds of art behind. So it must be said: When your old work becomes a burden you have to do something about it or it becomes a physical and psychological albatross hanging around your neck.

Some of my FB 'Besties' thought I should have donated the work to a charity or worthy cause. Sure, there are times when I am happy to donate my work to an agency I feel is doing the right thing. But more often than not I prefer to show my support by writing a check. I have learned that fund-raising art auctions are fraught with difficulty and confusion. Sadly, the few times I have handed over a painting it wasn't fully appreciated or valued by the end buyer. Besides, placing too many painting in such venues is inconsiderate to the collectors who have been supporting you over the years.

And speaking of collectors, there is this idea or belief that once an artist dies, collectors and museums will swoop down on the studio to buy up what is left behind. Or, a husband, wife, or the children will set up a trust to curate and hold the leftovers in perpetuity until it becomes evident to a large cultural institution it is time to elevate the artist to his or her place in history. Well, that may be a lovely thought, but really, how many painters has that happened to? And besides – not to be overly cavalier about my line of reasoning – once I am gone I am not sure I will be all that concerned with how history assesses my efforts. I don't say this to be flippant, I just think the paintings I can sell while I am alive are the ones which are most important because they help me (and my family) in the here and now.

But let's return to an earlier point. The artists I most admire and respect, the ones who have mentored me in the past and still do so now, have all chimed in with unabashed approval. They understand how the weight of it all can build up over the years and make a point of periodically culling work out themselves.

And for those who are concerned about people picking through the rag piles... I didn't want to create a burn pile. Not that I am being judgmental about any artist who goes that far to destroy unwanted work. I just don't want to vaporize the heavy metals I know are in the paint film. Nobody needs that. Yes, those metals are going into a landfill – there is no arguing that – but at least they aren't being blown about in the atmosphere or spread across a wider ecosystem. (Again, I am not trying to be preachy here. If there is a better way to dispose of this work in the future I may pursue it.)

Then there were the friends who suggested I recycle or reuse the surfaces instead of dumping it all into a landfill. A good point and fairly shared. I did hold back some supports to repurpose them if they were in fact salvageable. I scrape a lot of canvases and panels you never see while the paint is wet and I rake old paintings smooth with a sharpened palette knife if they are dry. So yes, I pulled aside perhaps half again as many paintings as you see here and plan to re-gesso them with an oil ground before painting something new on top. (Partly because I am cheap and partly because, landfill.) But because I paint with a lot of lead, cadmium, and cobalt I am loathe to sand or grind any of the old work down for obvious reasons. Of course, if I were truly concerned about longevity (and truthfully, I am), then perhaps pentimenti two hundred years from now should give me pause. Well perhaps. I have always been fascinated with the idea of planned pentimenti and intentional palimpsests because I think exploring how an image can degrade over time is a fascinating theme.

For those gift-conscious people, I do give work to my close friends and family members, on occasion. But not the dregs. Who would want that? Besides, if I am to offer my work with love then I want it to be received as a gift and not as a problem. I remember an old PBS FreshAir interview that aired back in the '90s. I consider it a cautionary tale. Terry Gross was interviewing David Hockney and she asked if he ever gave away art to family or friends. His reply was short and clearly tinged with a touch of sadness: "Yes, I used to do that but not anymore". When Terry asked why David said he had grown tired of visiting the homes of his family and friends and seeing an empty spot on the wall where his gift once hung. Hockney would realized at that point the recipient either didn't like his painting, or had stopped liking it, or began to see the money it represented, and well, I get that. In fact, now when I offer a painting I usually present three or four at a time for the recipient to choose from. I do it more for me than them because I don't want to feel like I am foisting off an unwanted canvas.

So here is the Big Reveal: I have lived long enough to appreciate how divesting myself of excess crap becomes artistically liberating. This was not the first time. It opens up the spigots and increases the flow. Even when these paintings were squirreled away in deep storage they were still in my head. Now they are gone. To you they might have been art. To me they were personal experiences and intense memories in sore need of self-curating.

Besides, you can trust me when I tell you there is a lot more where this came from...!


6 reader comments:

Tim Young said...

Yea Thomas. A little less weight on the shoulders is a good thing. Fyi the painted canvas does make a good christmas gift wrap. :)

Thomas Jefferson Kitts said...

Oh Tim. What an awesome idea! Old paintings as Xmas paper. I can't wait until next year. The look on the recipients' faces will be priceless. You always crack me up.

Judy P. said...

Funny I barely started painting in 2008, yet I'm hitting these same issues- older work haunting me in the corner, the sheer buildup of 'inventory'. It's called that because others look at the work and effort in each painting, and figure it's worth keeping and 'fixing up a bit more'. I've also been saddened by giving gifts that have never been seen again, to people who once gushed at it. I learned fast that painting is a tough game, and you grow a thick skin quick!
I will say though, looking at your discard pile, how many of the images leap off the canvas- something I want my work to do! But I know, trash or treasure, it's all relative.
But I figure, if you can toss, I can toss!

Jan F. said...

Well said/written, Thomas! I'm in the process of culling old works and am building a discard pile. I was going to do the oil ground thing, too, but I'm not sure how that process will affect any future paint film (and there's always that possible pentimenti issue). Also, I'd really like to spend that time painting and not prepping old/used panels - life is short! Right now, I'm trying to figure out if I need to somehow obliterate the signatures - would hate to have some of these pulled from the trash at one point :)

Jan Feyzi

Marsha Hamby Savage said...

Thank you, Thomas... I enjoyed your post and it makes so much sense, but I know how hard it is to destroy or rid oneself of those older pieces. I have downloaded the book on Sargent you have above, and just finished reading it. I also posted your blog link on Facebook, because I believe in what you said, and also for the link to the book. Thanks again! Marsha

Jim Gorman said...

Another artist whose work I generally admire, has taken the option of divesting her stuff on dailypaintworks for $60 or so. I bought one and now I see it, unframed, in my studio and it is anything but inspiring. Well, inspiring in a reverse sort of way. We all have crap to unload, but your way of doing it makes great sense. Lori Putnam has also posted something similar. She burned them with all the caveats you note.