Seeing in All Directions

Back_to_the_future_

Movies about time travel are always fun. In Robert Zemeckis’ wonderful Back To the Future (starting Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd) we ponder the “what ifs” and get to experience the world from a completely different perspective  – by going back in time.

“When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.” — Lao Tzu

Looking in front, looking side to side, looking back – these are not just the perpetrations of a soldier or an athlete. Being artists we forget that we need to always try to see things in different ways, from different directions. If you’re an animator, this means that you have to look forwards and also backwards in time.

Unfortunately, life seldom affords this luxury.  When we trek forward, a lot of the time our minds are still obsessed with what’s already happened. Struggle and tragedy seem to confirm this reality — the more mistakes we make, the more we regret. Letting go, is not nearly as easily as one casually advises. Or, in the words of satirical cartoonist, Tim Kreider, author of the very funny book, We Learn Nothing:

“It’s easy to demonstrate how progressive and open-minded and loyal you are when it costs you nothing.”

When I lived and worked in Asia, I lived on a high apartment complex that overlooked another building’s rooftop. Each and every morning there was a man who walked backwards endlessly from one end of the rooftop to the other. In a city, like all big cities, where people are constantly charging and rushing forwards, this seemed fascinating to me. Was he trying to go back in time? Was he mentally ill? Or was he simply following a prescribed exercise regimen? Or perhaps, these are just the kind of stupid and silly mental meanderings of an artist who wakes up six o’clock in the morning.

PeppermintCandy

Korean director Lee Chang Dong’s 1999 masterpiece, Peppermint Candy, was a film shot going backwards in time, from the past to the very present. Profoundly executed with great dignity, human emotion and tragedy, it reveals explicitly how our past actions make up who we end being today. Without reflection, one can slide insidiously onto a path that is far from the dreams and ideals we had when we were young.

Although we must live presently in life (even when we plan for it), we can only learn and understand by looking back. It’s the only way we can see ourselves truthfully and objectively. We need perspective, and although feedback from others can be true and honest, we’re not always so receptive to hearing it at the time of struggle or conflict. This is commonly expressed by those who have struggled with addictions, whether those afflictions be psychological or chemical. We can only change when we’re ready and able. To see clearly, oftentimes there needs to be some distance. Sometimes, the most appropriate and effective distance is time.

Degas_14YearOldDancer

Degas’ wax and mixed media piece “Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer” shows that he was so much more than a painter of beautiful imagery. This now famous sculpture of a young ballerina, was viewed as “lecherous and disturbing” during its initial exhibition due to its non-conformity to the images of female beauty at the time. We must be cautious of judgement made without the benefit of perspective granted by the passage of time.

Art, because it reflects life, has this power to engage with the past. It can remind us of our history, through its recordings and creative re-interpretations, and can invite us (or sometimes just plain force us) to examine the total human experience from underneath our flesh and deep within our minds.

“I want people to know what it is they’re looking at. But at the same time, the closer they get to the painting, it’s like going back into childhood. And it’s like an abstract piece… it becomes the landscape of the brush marks rather than just sort of an intellectual landscape. — Jenny Saville

Saville_SelfPortrait

“Reverse.” Jenny Saville’s magnificent work is both large in size (this one measures 7 x 8 feet) and emotional impact. She captures the visceral effect of flesh like few others.

As artists, we often look back at our work and cringe. Whether you’re  Edgar Degas or Jenny Saville, we all struggle to look back into our past for some reason. (Degas was famous for stealing his paintings back to re-work them, while Saville on the other hand, admits to being unable to view her old work). We easily forget that those past choices helped us get better and to know ourselves better. The danger we have in our lives today (and in this industry in general) is our obsession with speed and productivity. If we don’t stop to think and don’t stop to look back, with no post-mortem so to speak, we’ll not only continue to repeat our errors, but we’ll never do anything truly new or exciting. In other words, we’ll stop doing anything that’s worth doing. This is common behavior today, both individually and in society as a whole.

“We are not here to do what has already been done.” — Robert Henri

yi-yi

Walking forward, you can only see what’s in front of you and not behind. In Yi-Yi, Edward Yang’s beautiful film about life in modern day Taiwan, a young boy photographs people unsuspectingly to help others see from a viewpoint they’re not often privy to. Yang’s film explores living with perspective, hardship and the curiosity of “what if” by telling a story with characters who get a chance to re-visit their past. Would we make the same decisions if we saw things differently – if we could’ve have seen what’s in front of us or what’s behind?

This is why feedback is important. And it has to come from all sources and not just those who work or live with us. But what actually matters most is our own perspective after the fact – only we can see, look back, and reflect on the correlation between the problems at the time, the decisions we’ve made, and why we might do things differently given our newfound objectivity and inspection of the results and outcomes.

Without studying our own work and thinking process, we can’t improve.

You can’t connect the dots looking forward you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.” — Steve Jobs.

Looking back into the past can be painful — personal traumas, bad relationships, the agonies of defeat or failure are hard, if not impossible things to erase. But only by looking back, can we learn from those trials. As artists, it’s the only way to get better and make our lives more enjoyable. If we don’t look back, study and learn from previous experiments, we’ll repeat those same mistakes over and over again. Habits form whether we like them to or not.

MiltKahl_Mowgli

Drawings like these only come from years of hard learned experience and hours of exploration. Milt Kahl didn’t become “MILT KAHL” overnight — it took decades of learning, practice and reflection. From Disney’s Jungle Book.

The paradox can be troubling — we must learn from the past, but at the same time let go of it. I suppose it’s not profound to say that life is hard. But at the end of the day, our art, and who we are, is determined by our actions at the moment. We can only do our best.

“Make good things happen and bring warmth, joy and inspiration to yourself and others.”  — Søren Kierkegaard

Art is Sharing

Ali

Muhammad Ali was arguably the greatest fighter of all time. He was brilliant, confident, intelligent, open and incredibly charismatic. He aroused and inspired people, and when he refused to be conscripted into the military to fight in the Vietnam War (and was imprisoned because of it) he demonstrated a will to defend a belief that we are all people from the same planet.

“What an artist is trying to do for people is bring them closer to something, because of course art is about sharing. You wouldn’t be an artist unless you wanted to share an experience, a thought.” — David Hockney

In this day and age of constant busyness, instant gratification, endless accumulation and obsessive self-image, it’s easy to forget about others and the world around us. For artists, this is unacceptable.

frau-mit-totem-kind-19490411_750

Woman with Dead Child. The work of Käthe Kollwitz was overt and openly sympathetic to a cause she believed in. Poverty and inequality were deep concerns of hers. Despite being historically condemned by art critics for exactly that reason, her art lives on because the significance and power of her work is simply undeniable.

The power we possess as artists might not seem obvious to us (especially when we’re alone), but we have to remember that our words, our images and our voice have a profound impact on society — both now and in the future. When used right, it opens up conversation, connects individuals of different backgrounds and inspires action. When carelessly employed and expressed with indifference, it’s at best noise and distraction, and at worst propaganda. Art is THAT influential. It’s no wonder that during every single reign of dictatorial and oppressive regimes, intelligent, free-thinking creatives were often imprisoned or executed. The oppressor fears the free-form, unpredictable power of art that is good — art that connects the best of us.

Nazi-FATCA-US

A Khmer Rouge soldier waves his pistol and orders store owners to abandon their shops in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on April 17, 1975 as the capital fell to the communist forces. A large portion of the city's population was reportedly forced to evacuate. Photo from West German television film. (AP Photo/Christoph Froehder)

The Nazis (above) and the Khmer Rouge (below), were evil regimes that used intelligent design and powerful slogans to rule their nations. Art used strictly for political and commercial advantage can often be covertly seductive and horribly destructive.

Artists must remain philosophers — we must think beyond just the quality and effectiveness of the craft. We must remember that by doing art, we’re sharing an idea. And it’s in that sharing, that expression, that we connect to other people. With our art we can demonstrate our empathy, share our loneliness, and help remind each other of the beautiful things of this world. We must be sure and careful of our message.

a-charlie-brown-christmas

Charles Schulz’s characters from his comic strip creation, Peanuts, was great not only because of his beautiful art, but because it connected with all of us. Charlie Brown’s struggles were often our own — self doubt, loneliness, and that of being misunderstood.

Understanding is ultimately greater than knowledge or the collection of facts. What we collect, we tend to protect, hide and forget. When we understand, we share because it enhances further our understanding. This goes on and on, from person to person, from one group of people to another, from one generation to the next. In creating art, we find ourselves and help inspire others to do the same. Sometimes the work itself doesn’t even have to be understood, it’s enough to pique interest or curiosity.

“People don’t understand these paintings. They haven’t understood that they’re about love and nothing else.” — David Hockney

HOckeyDog

David Hockney’s art is simple, beautiful and immediate — they are an expression of the private world that is his own, yet it’s universal enough that they invite us inside, so we can relate even if we don’t necessarily understand right away.

So if you’ve got ideas, or you’ve got something to say, say it. Write that book, paint that painting, animate those feelings that you have. Tell that story you think no one would want to read or listen to. Help one another when given the opportunity. Giving and sharing is the purpose and essence of art. If you’ve acquired knowledge, don’t hoard it. Instead, give because we are all in this together. It’s in this spirit that I spend many hours researching for and writing this blog. I hope you do the same, and share in one way or another.

“Me, we.” — Muhammad Ali

Making it Personal

Freud_self

Self-Portrait (after a bar fight). Many of Lucian Freud’s paintings can be so real as to be haunting or disturbing. But what all his paintings have in common is their vulnerability and attention to truth. It’s what makes him one of the greatest, most unique painters of our time.

“I would wish my portraits to be of the people, not like them. Not having the look of the sitter, being them.” — Lucian Freud

All art is personal.

It’s what differentiates the arts from the other, seemingly more noble studies, such as math or science. Numbers can’t connect like words, sounds or images can.

Only art can help us dive into the world outside ourselves, yet feel intimately connected to both.

self_portrait

Self-Portrait. The work of Francis Bacon is renowned for capturing the tortured psychological depths of human existence. His voice is so completely unique, with an interpretation of the world around him and his own tortured battles so intense, that they both entice and frighten the viewer.

In a conversation between creative giants Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon, it was noted that surrealism is a word that’s been misinterpreted or even hijacked by the likes of the “Surrealists” such as Salvador Dalí or René Magritte, fellow artistic giants whose heavy, dream-like distortions of reality came to claim the word for their own and likely forever. Surrealism has since come to define a modern art movement concerned with reuniting conscious and unconscious realms of experience. But originally, surreal actually meant something that is “even more real than real” like when someone reacts to something so unbelievably intense as to say “that’s surreal!” — it comes from expressing the most direct, most complete feelings through the artist’s interpretation of the subject.

Yet all great art does this. This by default places art, and creativity for that matter, as the only vehicle that comes so honestly close to matching or even surpassing nature in order, beauty and wonder.

the-embrace

The Embrace. An artist’s work often reveals his views and relations with other people. This painting, by Gustav Klimt protégé Egon Schiele,  expresses the artistic and marital problems confronted by the artist at that particular juncture in his life.

Now, one might be inclined to say that working in animation (or any other commercial art form) that artists today have very few occasions to personalize their work. But they’re wrong — there is far more opportunity out there than they think — they only need to keep their minds wide open. All too often, we think of the work we do in the industry as overwhelmingly commercial, and at times it is, especially with regards to story and intent.

LionKing

This fantastic Lion King logo, done for Disney’s musical based on the movie, is by Hans Bacher – a master of design and composition. When I met with Hans, who has been in the industry over 40 years, he was still as passionate and devoted to his craft as ever, always creating and always willing to share.

But there is a vast amount of art in the production of the behemoth that is animation — even if much of it remains unseen or misunderstood by the broader public. Each artist has the opportunity to find his say, to sneak in something that is true to himself and unique to his experiences. It can be found in the small crevices of a story sequence, or a beautiful play of color in the shadows observed and recollected from a morning walk. Animators have a bounty of opportunity to relay personal, social and emotional experience into an acting performance. After all, only work that is personal has any chance of really connecting with people. And all art, commercial or otherwise, is required to connect in order to make an impact. This justifies its existence (even if that audience is limited).

LeonardodaVinci_Last_Supper

Secret message or hoax? Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of The Last Supper is as famous for its artistry as it is for the controversial interpretation of its message.  Renaissance artists were “stuck” with painting regal or religious imagery — royalty and churches were often the paying client — but that didn’t always stop them from using their imaginations and telling their own stories.

Every writer knows it’s a battle to say what he sees and feels in words. Truth is inherently difficult to capture. The painter’s fight is with his brush and palette never quite capturing exactly that essence which drives the work in the first place. He simply does his best to give into it all. Completely committed. Completely vulnerable.

“In finding this one object, I find a world. I think a great painting is a painting that funnels itself in and then funnels out, spreads out. I enter in a very focused way and then I go through it and way beyond it.” — Andrew Wyeth

wyeth1

Rejected by the modernist movement at the time, Andrew Wyeth’s realism has a haunting and durable quality to them. His paintings of his neighbor, Helga Testorff, were done over a period of 15 years forming a visual diary of transience and personal connection.

Sometimes art is the only way we have of relating to things and to each other, and that’s why it continues to be the best bet in finding out more about our ourselves and the universe. Art forces us to act, to live via observation, exploration and ultimately, creation. Or to quote

“Art and literature are tried on. Reading a book, seeing a painting or a play or a film: Such encounters are fueled by affect as well as intelligence. Much “fleshing out” happens here: We invest the art with our own feelings, but the art comes to live inside us, adding to our own repertoire. Art obliges us to “first-personalize” the world. Our commerce with art makes us fellow travelers: to other cultures, other values, other selves.”

OrsonWelles_Othello

Few artists have had the impact Orson Welles has on the medium of film. The vocabulary of his adaptation of William Skakespeare’s  Othello, is both thematically and visually stunning. The film won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1952.

Numbers, calculations and graphs are imperatively objective – they need to be to have validity. They are meant to satisfy the logical left brain, to ensure a sense of security in the findings. The non-objective nature of art is chaotic and abstract, even nonsensical at times. It teases your emotions and puts the obsessive overthinking into a fit of confusion. The measurable attributes of science and math gives us stability and assurance, while the immeasurable qualities of art give us joy and grant us liberation. As a modern day human being, it’s a fine line getting the two to work well together so that we can have some sort of balance between order and freedom in our lives, and also find meaning to our existence. The choice of where that line meets is up to the artist himself. This is the beauty of art. One can draw inspiration from so many different places, and yet, only the individual can offer the final say and make that ultimate, all encompassing expression. This is the choice we make when we create.

So, don’t take “you” out of your work. The world needs your contribution even if it doesn’t know it yet.

“I have always said, or at least thought, that literary poetry in a painter is something special, and is neither illustration nor the translation of writing by form… sometimes people accuse me of being incomprehensible only because they look for an explicative side to my pictures which is not there.” — Paul Gauguin