Art & Words by P.E. Foster
By the Numbers began as sort of an “art-about-art” piece as I reflected on the wide degrees of creativity in the art world. However, I’m not really a fan of art about art, so I was happy when By the Numbers changed course as it developed—leaving a specific focus upon the subject of art-making—and broadened to a more inclusive message about celebrating individuality.
So, with an examination of creative individuality brewing in my head, I started doodling in my sketchbook, and the notion to begin with a paint-by-number backdrop came quite quickly. Paint-by-number pictures, of course, are suggestive of a creative void, with immediate references to conformity, of operating within established boundaries. However, just what that paint-by-number backdrop image itself should be was undecided and shifted each time I tried a different “lead actor” to juxtapose on top of my unfolding tableau. I can tell you that there were many auditions within my sketchbook for that lead role: a monkey, astronaut, cowboy, plein-air painter, mustang horse, and even a Jesus. With each change in that lead roll, of course, the art piece took on completely different meanings. So, early on, the direction of the piece was in flux, and it slowly found its way by many little trials. I think they call it art-making.
As you can see, a parrot auditioned best and got the role—as a familiar linguistic metaphor for mimicking (parroting), it seemed a good choice to resonate with the paint-by-number staging. Settling upon the parrot, my next compositional decision was to resolve what the host paint-by-number image should be. I can tell you that I wrangled long and hard on that one, torn between two choices: Rodin’s Thinker, or (as you can see) an echo of the parrot itself, which I thought implied a layer of a self-examination. As for that white parrot, it was a symbolic decision. I was hoping to suggest a pure/virginal state, whereby the parrot (due to parroting) is yet without color—no identifying plumage or distinctive voice.
As young artists, we study, gather technique, and often mimic influential artists. This is useful early training; I went to that school. However, to sing one’s own song and avoid repeating our predecessors, there is more to the recipe. Those early studies must be co-mixed with our own unique grit and percolated through the matrix of our time. This will distinguish our work from what has come before. “Finding one’s voice” seems a daunting goal amidst all the grand art traditions and stylistic modalities that have preceded us. Fortunately, it takes care of itself as a consequence of much dedicated “doing.” To quote my talented songwriter wife: “Just show up,” day after day. Let this be your repetition, and your song will find you.
Like many things in life, repetition is double-edged. On the one hand, it is vital to progressive refinement, “practice makes perfect” . . . all of that. Conversely, if we are not mindful of it, redundancy can stunt our growth, serving to clip our wings and entrench us firmly within a cage of our own creation. I always liked this old adage (attributed to Mark Twain): “If you always do what you always did, you will always get what you always got.” Repetition can beget repetition.
The tendency toward repetition is in us, from the first step out of bed in the morning. Whatever our activity in life (perhaps especially in the arts), the repetitive impulse should be a bit suspect, to be balanced with mindfulness. Patterns can serve us—or the other way around. It is always easier to follow the trail than to blaze one.
I personally quite like this advising quote from British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead:
“Art flourishes where there is a sense of adventure, a sense of nothing having been done before, of complete freedom to experiment; but when caution comes in you get repetition, and repetition is the death of art.”
Our best work will come amidst that adventure—young or old, our habits can add color to the wing and elevate us towards new potential. Or, there is always that familiar old road—wide, worn, and traveled—by the numbers.