What makes a series work? This is quite a long essay as I explore, as a kind of post-mortem for the Third Thoughts series, this question.
I was so fired up about Third Thoughts, but thirty-some small artworks later I have lost interest. Normally I would be happy with a series with more than 30 pieces, but these are quite small pieces AND I hoping to keep going until I had somewhere between 50-100 artworks. There are some great pieces among the Third Thoughts artwork. But when I was done, I was done. Why?
And what did I turn back to? The Boundary Waters series – still interested, still lots to say.
So what, for me, makes a series work?
Passion. I come to this passion in three ways.
Sometimes I am struck, almost in a physical sense, by a moment, a color, a movement, a sort of stop-time event that grips me and won’t let me go until I do something with it. Those are the glory moments of being an artist and so infrequent as to be a miracle and a blessing when they happen.
Sometimes the passion begins with a tiny idea (for example, maybe I should raise bees) and then I start reading and the next thing I know the whole topic is out of hand and ripe for a series. Although not blatantly apparent in my artwork, I am a very “think-y” artist (OK, person). I like to research a topic (some would say obsessively), to ponder what interests me about a subject, to write about it, to distill tons of information and feelings into a series of artwork that says,”Here is what I think AND feel about this topic.”
And lastly, sometimes passion comes from living a topic. My landscape gardening, my canoeing, my wilderness journeys. I experience these topics as part of who I am and the way I structure my days and years. My library has huge section on the environment, nature, and the wilderness. I’m interested in an ongoing and very profound way.
I know when a series needs to be started as I feel an actual physical stirring inside of me. I think of it as the sap rising, the ideas and images percolating, percolating, just waiting to come out. And it’s not always the happy-side-of-the-street passion. Passion often slides along the dark edges I choose not to acknowledge in my daily life.
If I have to beat myself up to start or continue a series, I am going in the wrong direction. If I find myself cutting up completed work, adding more layers, endlessly tinkering – all not good signs.
But I know from the very beginning when an artwork is going to be passionate. For example, when I painted the fabric for Boundary Water #19, there was power in the brush strokes. I can close my eyes and be once again in that moment, the passion flowing out my arm and hand and on to the fabric. I cut up the fabric, I sewed it back together, I stitched it. It was heart, hand, mind – done! Oh, the joy of making art when that happens.
Did it come out of the blue? No, I had a photo from the Boundary Waters in my notebook of a Mother Log with little green pine trees growing out of the fallen and decayed log. What a beautiful, concrete example of the reality of life – that from death comes life, that the organic matter in all things, including we humans, recycles endlessly. It’s a big theme in a simple piece.
This doesn’t mean there aren’t false starts. No matter how prepared I am intellectually, when hand meets material, then the fur really flies! Start, stop, cut up, discard, start again.
And then, finally, I make a piece about the Boundary Waters that says here is freedom, peace, adventure, the smallness and brevity of humans, the greatness of an eternal nature. And that first piece, combined with the fabric I have already dialogued with in its painting, will start the series off. I go forward exploring, explaining, experimenting, feeling, thinking, pushing, narrating, and summarizing.
I want to develop series that are not JUST about what you see before you in terms of shape and color and structure, but what is behind the physical structure: the figure behind the screen, the archetypes lurking in the shadows, the emotion I’m holding close to my heart, and the philosophical and personal meaning I have attached to certain colors and images which may attract, intrigue or hold the viewer for entirely different reasons than the ones I attached in the making. That is real power, that is real art.
Third Thoughts ran out of gas as a series because I couldn’t find the intellectual or emotional thread that could tie the pieces together, that made my investment in time and energy worthwhile. I started without considering what exactly I was trying to say, what would pull me along to make more, to try more, to HAVE to create. I was seduced by thinking that my thinking was already done in the paper collages.
A series works when I am passionate about the topic, when I have something to say that is both personal and profound, that stirs my emotions, that tickles my brain, that makes me wrestle with myself or my materials, but, in every case, drives me to be in the studio and to try. Perhaps not always to succeed, but to try.