ANY RISK, EVEN THE SMALLEST, IS THE PRACTICE OF COURAGE.

When artists talk of risk I tend to roll my eyes. My first thought is to minimize the risk an artist takes against that of a soldier, or a parent, or one of those guys on Deadliest Catch.

I’m learning not to focus on the scale of a risk. Risk keeps us alive and moving forward. Any risk, even the smallest, is the practice of courage. It isn’t the size of the risk taken but the practice of risk that is important.

Risk involves the possibility of loss with the aspiration that there is something better, more powerful, clearer, larger.

Risk involves choice, to choose to put yourself in a spot where you bear the consequences of your decisions.  It’s a choice to be more alive, more conscious, more respectful, and most likely more humble.

For me it started with giving up a stable job to pursue art as my career. That was a big one, but I’m realizing that it was just the first one, and maybe even the least significant. Now, that I’ve made the leap I’m seeing risk takers everywhere. I see it in the person who chooses to work for themselves, skateboarders, the Dad who will still act a fool for his kids, single moms, anyone who works to be articulate instead of loud, people who adopt, people with big vision. I see it in people who in the face of reason continue have faith. I see it in my wife who is living the phrase “get back on the horse” after a pretty serious fall.

Risk is required to make good art. Art kills fear and fear kills art, and the willingness to take risk lets us know that you’re not afraid.

My personal risk meter is the dance floor. In most situations, I’m just not going out there. In that resistance I recognize fear and a deep aversion to risk. I see the same barriers that pop up in other places in my life.

If you can get out on the dance floor and do your awkward dance then my bet is you’re still growing. If not then chances are that you’ve become, like me, a bit sedentary.

Maybe this will help.

Drawing Restraint

These brushes are my personal version of Matthew Barney’s Drawing Restraint. It was a college professor, Carl Blair, who was the first person I’d ever seen use them. As it turns out Wolf Kahn uses them as well.

I use them for two reasons. First of all, they are cheap. I tend to go through brushes quickly and wearing out a $1 brush is easier to stomach than wearing out a $10 brush.

The larger, more significant, reason is that they put restraints on my tendency to let my paintings get too precious, too bogged down in the details. It is a bit of self-awareness that I came too earlier on, thanks mostly to Blair. Unconstrained I will work a painting to death, I will let myself get closer and closer, hold the brush tighter and tighter, until there is simply no life in the thing any more.

By choosing brushes too large for the task I place a healthy restraint on myself. The tediousness that kills both my paintings and my enjoyment of painting just isn’t possible with these brushes.

The information age and found poems

jack burgess

As my paintings progress they tend to get more and more simple. I try to use the least information possible to convey the message, and in an age where we are inundated with information it seems an important thing to do. I’d like to pretend that it’s a philosophical decision, but in truth it’s just the way I like things.

The idea behind Annie Dillard’s Found Poems, and the poems themselves, feel very much in line with what I try to accomplish when I paint. I find something–a location, or time of day, or composition–and I start by putting too much information on the canvas. I over do it, and then I slowly whittle away until I get to something that feels complete. The natural byproduct of working like I do is simplicity. It’s not what I start out to accomplish, but it’s an indicator that a painting is done.

When I was a kid playing Little League Baseball, we lived in a small town in West Virginia. There was a group of old guys who would sit in lawn chairs down the first base line, watch the games, chew tobacco, and whittle. They didn’t make things–meaning they didn’t whittle out little figures or whistles–they would just carve away until the piece of wood they were carving on was gone. As a kid I was fascinated by them. They were interesting looking old backwoods guys. They were veterans, mechanics, machinist, farmers–all of them retired. It stuck with me, the idea that they weren’t making anything, just doing this repetitive action, enjoying a sharp knife and the grain of the wood. I thought it completely normal, women knit and men whittle–apologies for my early sexist separations of task. When I put myself in their place I can now see how making something would have been a drag, it would have required energy and thought that would have clouded their enjoyment of the tobacco, the baseball and good company.

I deeply love the work of Julie Mehretu and Matthew Ritchie. I can’t think of anyone at the moment whose work I like looking at better than Mehretu’s. I appreciate it more as a result of their process and their consideration of information and systems. My work seems to me to be a polar opposite, not about how much information can be incorporated into the work, but how much can be removed and still feel like something worth looking at.