Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Speed of Art

My artist mother, who went to art school for three years, once told me she read that Michelangelo didn't carve his sculptures into the stone, but rather waited until he "saw" what was inside and only then chipped away the stone until the image already fully born in his mind became a reality.

Likewise, it took him years to plan and execute such works as the Sistine Chapel ceiling because he so carefully planned all the details (as you can see in the above sketches for and the finished Libyan Sybil).

On the other hand, I remember watching a one hour TV show where an artist "speed painted" an entire picture in 60 minutes.  It was impressive, and yet an entirely different way of painting.
Does one technique negate the other?  Of course not!  These differences are apparent in all art forms.

Beethoven, for example, apparently agonized over notes, as his messy surviving manuscripts attest:
I don't think anyone would fault him for "making corrections" as he composed.

Mozart, on the other hand, often poured out an entire composition in a single sitting with NO corrections, as if the piece were fully formed in his mind and he merely "dictated" it:
This happens with authors, too.  I remember in my early days of writing sci fi I read that Isaac Asimov, who published almost 500 books, was so prolific he said he didn't have time to edit but would make sure what he wrote (on a typewriter) was "right the first time."
Does this mean if it takes ten drafts to "get a story right" there's something wrong?  Of course not!  An artist and his/her work are as individual as, well, the individual.  And that's a wonderful thing!

I've had poems appear fully formed in my mind and have had to write them down immediately before they were lost.  Once I was driving and dictated a poem to my husband because I was so afraid I'd "lose" it before we got home.  The first magazine I submitted it to bought it.  The same thing happened with another poem that woke me at 3:00 a.m.  (Not the same magazine, though.)

But a story I first tried to write 25 years ago didn't "work."  I laid it aside and came back to it a few years later.  Two more rewrites didn't make it work either.  I came back to it a third time with a drastic rewrite, cutting it in half.  Still didn't work.

Then not quite three years ago my father was diagnosed with lung cancer.  I needed something to distract me from the daily concern I had over his gradual decline as well as helping my mother with his care.  So I dug out the last rewrite of this story, kept the opening scene, and threw away the rest.  I decided, just for fun, just as an exercise in "listening" that I would let the characters tell me the story instead of me trying to force a plot on them.

That was more than 300,000 words ago.  I'm on Book Three of an epic fantasy that will probably take two more books to finish the entire story.  I don't even care if it ever gets published; it's been my "grief therapy" as well as a joy to write.

So which is true "art"?  The fully formed fun rhyming poetry that sold right away, or the hundreds of pages of prose pouring from a soul full of sadness over the space of almost three years?  I would say, "Both."

After all, art has no "speed," only a great need to be expressed by the one creating it.

(And in case you were wondering about the poems, here's the first one, written while I was driving):

by Katy Huth Jones

There's a napkin in my lapkin
for the chewing I am doing
on this crumbly, yumbly pastry
that my Momma shares with me.

It has sprizzles and some drizzles
and the ooey gooey filling
starts to dribble, drabble, plop and
so I have to lick it off.

Then when Momma sees me licking
all the cream that has been dripping
on my sticky, gluey fingers
she says, "What's that in your lap?"

So I answer, "It's a napkin,
but my fingers are too gummy
so I have to lick the stickies
'fore they turn to Elmer's Glue."

So my Momma smiles and leaves me
to my chewy, gooey pastry
and the napkin in my lapkin
is as clean as if brand new.


  1. I do some of my best thinking when I'm driving, washing dishes or in the shower. Must be the constant dull roar. Unfortunately, those are three situations in which it's hard to write anything down!

    I like your description of art. It's something which defies any judgement other than faithfulness to its source.

    1. Someone suggested to me once to get a digital recorder to "write" during those situations when writing is not practical, but usually those situations also preclude operating a digital recorder, especially in the shower! (I think it must have something to do with the dull roar that blocks out distractions....) :)