Welcome to part 2 of this rambling diatribe. I appreciate you sticking around.

Last time we covered a few tricks for making art: How myth can bootstrap your intent and the dangers of holding on too tightly to that intent. Then we hinted at the role which intuition plays in making things. Then we made it personal by hinting at the fear I have to finish something.

In this installment we'll focus on those last two, where they rub up against each other and the shapes of the shadows they make on the wall.

2.1: Frank takes us outside.

David Lynch may not be everyone’s cup of black coffee and pie, but there’s a story about the TV show Twin Peaks from his book “Catching the Big Fish” which illustrates my point about "the conversation" an artist should have with their work. I’m putting his quote in bold italics so that your brain will be compelled to read it in his amazing cornflower-blue and ear-splitting voice…

“Ideas come along in the strangest way when you just pay attention. And sometimes things happen on the set that make you start dreaming. When we were shooting the pilot for Twin Peaks, we had a set dresser named Frank Silva. Frank was never destined to be in Twin Peaks, never in a million years. But we were shooting in Laura Palmer’s home […] and a woman said, “Frank, don’t move that dresser in front of the door like that. Don't lock yourself in the room”.

And this picture came to me of Frank in the room. I went running in and I asked Frank, “Are you an actor?” And he said, “Well, yes, I happen to be”, because everyone in L.A. is an actor. And maybe everyone in the world. So I said, “Frank, you're going to be in this scene”. We did a pan shot of the room, twice without Frank and then one time with Frank frozen at the base of the bed. But I didn't know what it was for or what it meant. That evening, we went downstairs and we were shooting Laura Palmer’s mother on the couch. […] Suddenly she sees something in her mind’s eye and bolts upright, screaming. […] I said, “Cut – perfect, beautiful!” And Sean [the camera operator] said, “No, no, no. It’s not.” “What is it?” “There was someone reflected in the mirror.” “Who was reflected in the mirror?” “Frank was reflected in the mirror.”

So things like this happen and make you start dreaming.”

After this, Frank Silva is cast as Bob, the celestial and true villain in Twin PeaksAnd from this story we learn an amazing thing; that David Lynch (and Co-creator Mark Frost) were able to talk a TV studio into giving them money, without the thing ever having a concrete antagonist or an ending.

It had an imaginative set of characters and fascinating interactions, but instead of an answer, it was all hung on a question. They gave Lynch and Frost a sack of gold and said “Go figure it out. Come back and tell us what you’ve seen.” And the real answer wasn’t there until they started.

The big part of Twin Peaks; the possession, the importance of the one-armed man, the inhabitants of the Black Lodge fighting over our sweet-tasting misery in the only shape that we humans can comprehend it (creamed corn), the part that is SO Twin Peaks wasn't part of the original outline.

Some or all of that may have been laying there in parts on the floor; a collection of oddities that Lynch and Frost had amassed based on intuition. But all those parts snapped together like strong magnets on that day when a set dresser accidentally moved a piece of furniture in front of a door and outside, a director was working AND listening at the same time. He took a few minutes to chase something down without a premeditated attachment to the result. And it became the lynch pin (pun) that made this show inspired.

2.2: Steve explains it all.

Now maybe I swim in a tidepool of artmaking, maybe I'm a freshwater fish and all you saltwater fish think I'm ridiculous for asserting that any good art which the world has made came from happy accidents and collusion-after-the-fact.

Maybe this kind of story excites me, but doesn't fit your idea of an artistic process. Maybe you consider it just throwing things together until the work seems deep or inexplicable, maybe it seems like cheating. You are also right. I can only say that in my own work, it is undeniable that something else is doing some of my heavy lifting. To be honest, it makes me feel a bit guilty that the process can sometimes be so easy.

That's why I was really happy to hear that Steve Jobs agrees:

I may disagree with Steve about how those things got in front of the artist to begin with, and how much of the process is really better described as fumbling through; trying to tape together things to make new shapes. But I think we would both agree that the process of artmaking is much simpler than we are given credit for.

So consider the horse flogged. Me and Steve Jobs and David Lynch are cheaters. And you can be a cheater too.

Now, I figure the best way to continue on this journey (tying these red threads together) is to give you an account of the process I've been though with Leda and the Swan.

2.3: My diary of disappointment.

When we left off it was 3 years ago. I had a fanciful notion and intuition stepped in and said "Hey dummy, we might have something worthwhile here. Go explore it a little more and see what comes up. Bring it back to me and I'll let you know if you're full of it"  (Apparently my intuition sounds less like the exec in charge of handing sacks of money to David Lynch and more like a 1950's New York cabbie chomping a cigar.)

A year or so after the sketch, I finally acted on it. If I was going to treat the chair like it was a character, I figured I'd better treat it like a model. (This was sketching in the first mode, as we discussed last time.) I knew I'd probably end up decoupaging this drawing to my final painting surface, because there is no sense in doing something twice.

I also did this drawing in order to step gingerly on the floorboards of the old house I was thinking of moving into. To see what kind of weight they would hold. I hung it on the wall when I was done and it sat for a couple years. It was there through some tough times. I like to think it was waiting for me to come around.

I pondered the idea pretty often, enjoying the bright light in it's potential but also trying to puzzle it out. If things came across my path; materials, ideas, I'd do what Steve Jobs said and attempt to connect them. I once thought I'd found the person who was should be Leda and almost started it for real. That didn't work out. I thought I was following intuition, and that floorboard unfortunately fell through.

Fast forward to a couple months ago, when I finally get up the courage to tackle this thing.

I mount the chair drawing on a board that I saved and go over it all with some pastels to make it more cohesive.

The figure goes in with some modification: I switched the stance, and dropped the angle of the shoulders a bit to correct the mistakes in the initial sketch. This in itself creates a new host of problems with the figure so out comes the anatomy books. Refining, sparring with it (and to borrow a passage from the last installment) keeping my hands up to shield myself from the raining blows of fear, thrown out by reaching the extents of my ability, and by being miles from my intention.

Three years of thinking comes down to an hour of drawing. It's a miserable ratio, really. I get it close enough to start in with some paint.

2.4: A brief sidebar on the difficulty of premature perfection.

A couple hours into painting and THIS happened.

Some of you may recognize this as one of the biggest traps you can lay for yourself.

In about 2 minutes, without my intention, I nailed one of the most important parts of the painting. Those shoes are done. A few hours into this thing and they already say everything that I thought I wanted them to.

You might think that sounds great, but it is instantly depressing because now there is 4 inches of canvas that I'm scared to touch for fear of ruining them. So much work still needs doing: I haven't settled the background, I'm struggling with the anatomy. Just a couple minutes before, I had the freedom to use a big brush and be ruthless in hammering this thing together but now whatever I do, I'll have to dance around those shoes. Instead of having the latitude to work the image from corner to corner, I'll have to contend with a no-mans land in my war with the thing.

Ultimately when something like that happens, you have to be prepared to ruin it. As a matter of fact I think it's best to ruin them purposefully, the second they seem like a liability. Push them in a sack and a tie a rock around it and throw them in a lake because the more they sit, the more precious they will become to you.

2.5: The Germans no doubt have a word for it.

After a while, I realize that the whole thing has taken some turns I wasn't expecting. The figure ended up less feminine than I was intending. More angular, almost boyish.

While I stop for a while to think, I realize I'm now fighting a couple of fronts: the figure is taking on it's own personality, the background isn't really coming together. The swan-shadow is losing it's interest. And then there's those stupid shoes.

And on top of all that, another thing is buzzing in the background. After consideration, I realize that it's not an isolated part of the work; it's not a bunk move or an unnatural color or poorly-chosen shape. It's not a single note, it's the chorus of all these sour notes together.

Each thing that needs resolving is singing, and together they're making a chord that is putting me on edge. It's making me want to push it over and walk away. I've heard this chord before. I always hear this chord actually, and I realize that it seems to swell at this point of the process in almost everything that I do.

This buzzing is the thing that makes me walk away from good ideas. It didn't begin in this key, though. Before I started it sang one word: Potential. Now it sings another: Definition. Or maybe not definition, maybe Confinement.

As each of these elements (the collection of which is the statement I intend to honor) comes out, it's becoming defined. And I think this is what drives me crazy.

Lets go back to the moment that I knew this whole thing was worth working on. From last newsletter (and read it in David Lynch's voice, please):

At this point, I had a sketch and a notion tying it to a myth. The relationship was visual and emotional. I researched previous works in this mode and found that nothing looked like mine, so I had a contribution to the collective of work around the myth, and also a growing personal expression.

I've now learned something about myself: I hate endings. I've vowed never to watch the last episode of any show. My favorite stories are open ended. To me, endings are limits.

And this piece of art, this expression, was pregnant (forgive the past pun) with potential all the way up to the moment I mounted that drawing of the chair on the board. When I struggled with getting a figure down on the board which conveyed everything that I felt it could say and my ears were boxed by the limits of my talent and skill. It died when those damned shoes showed up.

The potential expression was WAY more interesting to me than what it was becoming, probably more interesting than it ever will be, and that is depressing.

You see, I had a great idea a few years ago, something sublime and gorgeous and overflowing with potential. And now with some effort, I had this piece of shit:

2.6: Wherein I insult you.

It's very common for artists to have a fear of success or failure. It keeps them from accomplishing their goals. You know the fear, it's attached to your self esteem, your ego. It's the thing in your head that whispers you'll never be good enough to make a living, to be famous, to be thought of as great, to be remembered. So why try?

I have to say that, after careful consideration, I don't care about your opinion of my work much at all (no offense, of course.) I know that my struggle isn't with whether you like me or not. I'm no longer concerned with making a living on art, and there are no gatekeepers that I need to impress. I've never found myself overly hurt if someone didn't get my stuff.

The struggle I think I have is internal, and I'd describe it this way:

It is disappointment and frustration caused by an expectation of the potential of an idea congealing into the reality of it's expression.

Like a tumultuous heavenly explosion of matter and gasses cooling; slowing and collecting into the dull reflective wafer we call the moon. No longer generating it's own heat and light, just being there to reflect it. It is the dissonance created by definition.

If there is indeed a fear that keeps me from completing things, it's not whether or not the world will think it's good. It is that I won't be able to properly honor the relationship I have with a universe that gives me inspiration. I judge my success or failure by whether I can live up to the potential I saw when it was alive and fresh and it's wings were still wet.

2.7: The only conclusion this comes to.

So the easy fix here is to just enjoy the ideas.

But how do I live with myself by taking these things and preserving them on a shelf in a basement that only I have a key for?

Or how do I pick up that tin-can telephone that connects me to a world of expression, and then pinch the string to staunch the flow, like a kinked garden hose?

It's foolish, I don't think I can.

have to make these imperfect golems. And I have to do so with the knowledge that I am currently a fumbling and poor midwife. I must acknowledge that the gulf between intent and my hand is worlds-wide and crumbling all the time, and each move I try to make towards a goal is in reality an opportunity for me to excel at fucking it all up. And I will.

We will never properly express the divine. We can't see well enough. Our fingers are too big and we can't make brushes small enough to paint it's details. We don't hear enough frequencies, we are limited by gravity and our muscles are weak. Our hearts can't beat fast enough. We are powerless to do justice to the inspirations that we are handed.

I bubble over like shaken champagne sometimes, at the enormity of the things that I see. I race through traffic at rush-hour and rubberneck at the way the afternoon light glints off the edges of people's joy and I giggle like a madman at how each of us fails so expertly at expressing our connections to the universe. I've been given an outlet: a way of seeing things and the foolhardy notion that I might be capable of representing this somehow. I've spent years learning about the tools of that representation and how to use them. And yet, I'm still so goddamned bad at it. And I can't stop.

Maybe that's what makes an artist. Not a god-given talent, or even years of practice. Maybe it's an attitude or a desperation, to continue to fumble around and describe the elephant of internal world, knowing how blindfolded we are. To see in your mind's eye the enormity of it all and still have the temerity to get one small chip of that diamond down on paper, knowing it wont live up to the real beauty.

And maybe you can go about that process in one of two ways: You're either Leda or the Swan.

In fact, this myth can also be about two different ways to overcome the anxiety of creation. You can use your pride as fuel and push yourself onto the world. Cut through the middle of it, knocking over glasses and tipping chairs, frenetic with the living matter and gasses of a uncooled world, and just as caring.

Or you can be humble about being a conduit. Empty and clean, prepared by the bank of a river and ready to reflect the glory that will come to you.

And maybe it's about being both, knowing when to switch roles. Jump tracks when you are mastered by the brute blood of the air.

I'll have to finish this painting now, I can't walk away from it after I've taken all this time, written over 5000 words about the process and the revelations it's given me. I'll attempt to quiet the buzzing and bring it all to some satisfactory conclusion, hoping for it to show some of the potential I think is in there, before its indifferent beak will let me drop. 


Whew, that was a doozy! Thanks for reading and indulging this two-part meditation/navel-gaze. I promise that the next time I write it will be airy and simple and float into your inbox like a striped hot air balloon, the basket filled with cheery waving victorians giddy with flight and smiling down at you as they descend.

As always there is an archive for this newsletter at  nealvonflue.com/newsletter/newsletter-archive. And if you know someone who might enjoy these, please forward it along to them.

And I'm always interested in hearing your perspective, especially after these two. I think you just hit "reply" up there somewhere...