There’s an odd quality to being a visual artist. You make a thing, a physical object, and it is at once a piece of a story that belongs to you and something that lives its own life in the world. You stumble across these things from time to time, and they are rarely what you expect them to be.
A couple of weeks ago, I was visiting a dear friend (who also happens to be a devoted collector) in Whistler. She has a piece I painted several years ago in a prominent spot, so I had a good look at it over the course of the evening. I often tell students that one shouldn’t be entirely happy with the work of five years ago or even of last year; that if you would still paint the same thing in the same way, it means you haven’t grown. I don’t generally form strong attachments to my pieces- I love them, I love making them, and then I love sending them away. To run into an old one is akin to running into a friend from high school. There’s a sense of someone I once knew well, and there’s an appraisal of the distance between that time and this and of the changes that have taken hold of us both. Anyway, this painting in Whistler is one that I look upon fondly. It’s certainly not what I would paint today, but I remember painting it. It was during the time that we lived in the bush, I didn’t have a studio, and I was in the habit of tying canvases to trees with baling twine and painting until I couldn’t feel my fingers or my paint froze or a kid needed me. The piece is a kind of odd perspective of birch trees, peeling bark, lichen. The foreground is more flattened than it ought to be; that was a problem I was working out then. The thing I find touching about the piece is its softness. All of the edges are fuzzy to the point of dissolving; it gives the painting a feeling of a memory, of something seen through sleepy eyes. I wondered for a moment when I changed that quality; I remember the struggle to sharpen my images up. And then I realized that what changed was that I stopped being absolutely broke all the time. I stopped buying the cheapest brushes and using them right up to the handle. I still buy cheap brushes, but when I wear out an edge I can replace it. I realized that my poverty had imbued my work with an effect that I actually really like, and I find myself now working back toward that softness. It’s nice to have the option.
I suppose I still think one should not be entirely happy with old work. But I also think it is important to recognize one’s own direction; to see the things of value that appear at every stage, to revisit, when appropriate, elements of the process. It’s not a straight road. It’s the work of a lifetime and that work, like living day to day, is not just today; it’s yesterday and tomorrow and before we were born and after we’re dead. I am glad of these reminders. I am happy about fuzzy edges.