Tuesday, April 3, 2012

A Stream of Yiddish Fish

I am involved in many pursuits and often have people ask how I can keep them all straight.  I am convinced they all inform each other and thus are part of a cohesive whole even if not readily apparent to the outside eye.  Lately I have been reading the book Imagine, How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer .  I am finding that it validates much of my own observations with information on the brain science behind creativity.  The fundamental premise is that creativity involves the combination of disparate information in new ways.  Our ability to hold disparate information in our working memory increases "intelligence" by increasing the ability to make these connections.  The author writes about the creative process often involving having to face a barrier.  Achieving a relaxed state of mind is important to allow our brain to find the less obvious connections.  If we try to use our analytic selves we bring too much focus to it and miss those connections.  When we retell the story of our creative insight we often omit the struggle that preceded it and in doing so leave out the germ of the creative process.

I think a lot about those different approaches because I am such a blend of analytic and creative.  In the studio I often have to trick myself into letting go of my more analytic active brain.  You know that brain, the one  that doesn't want to shut down at 3am.   When I am struggling with a painting, I often will take a brush and smear the paint or add a light coating of white or gold paint.  Sometimes I use reflected images as source material.  The common thread behind these approaches is that they force me to see in a different way. They take me away from the precision of my left brain into a more suggestive right brain.  Even when I start with an idea, I need to distort it to allow the free associating to kick in.

Let me give you an example. I am working on artwork that captures the stories collected in an oral history project from Jewish elders, now in their 90s.  One woman told me about "those damn fish" in her father's butcher shop that she was scared to pick up for customers when she was a child.  She also told me about how all the records were kept in Yiddish and she spoke Yiddish to all the customers.  I started with the idea of "those damn fish" and Yiddish.  My analytic side went out on the Internet and pulled pictures of Jewish shops.  I started with imagery from a fish market with a young woman behind tins of fish and a scale hanging on which to weigh the fish.   Over a portion of it, I wrote out several names in Yiddish.  Up until now my analytic side was in the driver's seat.

But  I didn't like the strict lines of the tins so my right brain said "move over" and took the wheel.  It covered much of the painting with white paint, but left the young woman and the suggestion of the writing.  Around the writing I drew a much larger fish and in the foreground I draped a fish over a much larger scale.  Originally I had included the top of the scale that identifies the weight, but decided it became too much of a focal point.  Exercising my right brain's artistic license,  I decided to omit it.

I had struggled for some time with a not bad, but not quite right painting.  Now that I had destroyed the original structure, free association began to work.  When I think of a butcher shop I think of butcher paper that they might use to wrap the fish.  I hadn't liked the rigidity of the tins, so what if I unroll a sheet of figurative butcher block paper.  I added a swath of white sweeping around the now enlarged scale on which a flopping fish resides and up above to cover the form that had been the top of the scale. Rigidity was exchanged for fluidity.   And how do I know this fish is flopping?  I added an echo in white of fish tails in movement with color framing the actual tail.   The young woman is now quite small relative to the fish which seemed somehow appropriate as seen through her child's eye.  The butcher block paper reminds me of a stream and a stream would have fish in it, but Yiddish fish.  The word for fish in Yiddish reminds me of fish scales so I fill the stream with Yiddish fish by writing the word over and over.  Across the central fish, I write an excerpt of her comment in English about "those damn fish".    Some paintings survive in their more analytic form, others get reworked by my free associating right brain.  I'm not sure if this is done yet, but I am much more pleased with its direction.

As described in the book, I had to achieve a relaxed state of mind where I stopped forcing it.  For me, the swath of white paint frees me from the structure I had imposed.   Choosing fluidity over rigid lines allowed me to free associate from butcher block paper to a stream filled with Yiddish fish.  And by changing the proportions, I changed the emphasis to "those damn fish".  Now my right brain hands the wheel back to its more analytical brethren who makes sense of it all to explain it to you.

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