Dan Sankowsky: from the inside
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Essays/Articles :: Art
An Informal Analysis Of The Creative Process In The Visual Arts (pdf)
Every artist/painter has a story of how he or she became one. Yet my Dad’s always seemed the quintessential one to me: he grew up fascinated by art and he revered the masters, both of his time and before. Especially Picasso. Dad told me that whenever he went to a museum, some of the art work “hit him in the stomach,” his visceral reaction so strong. He explained to me that he didn’t have a choice – he had to paint. He studied in Florence in 1926, for an all too brief year, one that he always proclaimed was the best of his life. He did return to the European art scene in 1956 for a 6 month stint in Paris, bringing along wife and son. When the concierge saw one of his paintings, she exclaimed, “Vous faites du Picasso!”; he beamed, just as he did in a gondola in Venice a month later when the gondolier took him for an Italian whose wife and son unfortunately were not paysans.
I imagined that was the only way to become a true artist. I had long since gotten off the track after showing promise as a child. Then, I was drawn to drawing. My father did not push me in that direction, but did encourage me, saying I demonstrated creativity. Of course, that meant little to me at the time; I felt his approval and yet I just wanted to draw, blissfully unfocused on what anyone else thought about it.
I really had little technical skill, rather having somewhat of a flair for composition. As I grew older, say 3rd grade age, I started to care about realism, along with the techniques to achieve it, and I also began to be socially aware. In particular, I now had a need for external approval and wanted to be the best at what I did. Enter Barbara Hoffman: she could outdraw me, certainly as far as skills went, any day of the week. I was too intimidated to continue and so I stopped – for about 20 years!
The instinct to draw/paint lay dormant until after I had my PhD and my first academic position. I stumbled onto it by the back door; there was no conscious decision-making. It all started when I felt compelled to copy some letters on a record album. Soon after that, I went with an a friend to an art supply store since she needed materials and I wanted to spend time with her. To alleviate my boredom while she pondered her selection of paints and brushes, I picked up some fancy looking markers and began doodling, in particular attempting to capture those letters from the album. The doodle pad happened to consist of cheap porous paper, hardly the typical artist’s choice. But something stirred within me. After fooling around with the markers in the store, I felt the potential to blend colors with them. So to my friend’s surprise, I bought a dozen of them in pastel shades, indulging myself in an uncharacteristic way.
This choice of media was a fortunate one for me. Once I got started, I scarcely realized that I was painting. For the combination of marker and cheap paper proved bountiful and forgiving. I could relax and not worry about mistakes: if I erred in a designated direction, another seemed to open up instantly.
I had the good fortune to let the media guide me. I was on the one hand a scientist exploring their properties and on the other, a viewer, letting my aesthetic sensibilities guide me further toward a finished product; I had a tacit feel for the balance needed between them.
I got lots of positive feedback, especially from my Dad. Although my motivation was largely intrinsic as it had been when I was a child, it wasn’t entirely so. So when my father disclosed that he wished he had the freedom to paint like that, I was moved. But then my artist friend made a similar remark, with an entirely different meaning (for me): “It’s a shame you’re not as free in the rest of your life as you are with these paintings.” Ouch!
And back in my professional life, I was teaching mathematics and discovering math anxiety to be a bona fide concern for a significant percentage of students. I devoted myself to finding ways to understand and then cope with the underlying fears and the associated restrictive self-imposed assumptions they made. These barriers to learning did not necessarily reflect lack of talent; they were typically concealed and undermined performance as well as students’ sense of self.
This provided me with a link between producing (or even appreciating) art and learning mathematics. Both disciplines can be provocative and intimidating: people fear they won’t “get it,” as both have a certain mystique attached to them. The real obstructions to learning/creating are largely self-generated and outside of awareness. The guiding principles and processes (that work) typically remain concealed as well.
This unexpected connection helped me formulate the stages to the kind of creative process I needed. Mathematical problem-solving involves a series of routine steps designed to put one in a position to work toward a solution to a complex problem even though one may not have a clue at the start. So too in my art work, I had the orientation of setting up a repertoire of routine actions even without a clear idea of where I was headed, designed to open me to new images I could then capture and embellish.