Your Creative Work and Your Story

You are a story-teller. Even if you are not a writer, your life tells a story. It is your story. You get to tell it. If you start adding pieces of other people’s story, your plot line will suffer. If you start telling it to please others, and change your story for their approval, your story drifts and disconnects from you.

Poem1Today, while doing a demo of Monsoon Papers, someone asked me if the pieces of paper could be framed as is.

“Sure,” I said, “if that’s what you want. I see the pieces as colors and textures to use in collage or art journals.” The woman asked if I had any pieces of my artwork made with Monsoon Papers with me. I did. I showed her a piece (not the one shown here). She looked and asked what it meant. I invited her to explore what the image meant to her. She frowned slightly and said, “A good piece of art speaks for itself. And this one needs you to tell me what it means. So there is something incomplete about it.”

What a surprising statement. How can art speak for itself? A realistic drawing might be of something recognizable, but even that leaves a lot open for interpretation.

Good art and good stories do not always speak for themselves. They leave the door open for content (which the artist supplies) and context (which the viewer supplies). Together, the same image can mean something entirely different to several viewers.

I found a great poem by Billy Collins that explains this perfectly:

Introduction to Poetry

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to water-ski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all thy want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

Billy Collins, Sailing Alone Around the Room

–Quinn McDonald realizes how much she has to learn every time she asks someone else to speak and she listens to them.


44 thoughts on “Your Creative Work and Your Story

  1. Does an artist have to have an intention? In the sense of “a message”, I mean. And does a linguistic sort of message always have to take precedence? There are areas that language (like any formal system) is incapable of encompassing. Some parts of that might be feeling, but there’s more than feeling as well. Is some art trying on purpose to avoid linguistic “meaning”, to be in-explicable? After all, the tao that can be told is not the tao.

  2. I can’t help but respond to a piece of art and the response could be any number of thoughts and feelings from indifference to anger, to wonderment, to joy . . . anything. Maybe it’s what the artist intended, maybe not because I’m not asking what is being said: I’m just standing looking with an open mind and heart. I think that once the artist has released their work into the world it’s ours as much as theirs. Isn’t the meaning of your communication the response you get? . . . and art, any art, is a means of communication.

    Sometimes what I say might be a load of drivel and sometimes there might be a few pearls of wisdom in amongst it . . . take it or leave it.

    • Once the artist has made meaning in a piece of artwork, it’s ready for others to see. Naming it is part of setting the art into the world. After that, others react to it on their own. Some artists make art to shake up the world or to jangle nerves, others have different reasons. I believe the meaning of your communication is your intention. And that can easily be misunderstood or misinterpreted by others. Communication is the art of bringing intention and result together successfully.

      • Yes, perhaps until we communicate clearly enough for the audience to understand our intention remains hidden. One problem is that we don’t know what the audience is bringing to the experience so we can’t guarantee our intended meaning will be evident.

          • The feeling you have to a piece of art is yours to have (or choose). The artist makes meaning, has emotions, releases his painting (or any artwork) into the world. Your feeling is then yours. If you know a scrap of information (title, cutline next to painting at museum) that helps you to get there, even better. If that information helps you get to the same intensity of emotion that the artist felt, it’s called the objective correlative and everyone benefits from art.

          • I guess then, knowing the context, for example of Guernica, adds to my viewing however I don’t know that, for me anyway, more was needed. Certainly I was disturbed by Guernica when I saw it and thought how disturbing it was, I saw the visciousness, futility and pain there. Picasso showed it without spelling it out. With a painter like Rothko, I have no idea of what his intentions were . . . there I need to be told . . . I need it spelled out because although I have a response to colour, the meaning of his communication evades me. I thought in writing the objective correlative was (very simply to my laywoman’s thinking) more using events, descriptions, etc to show emotion rather than tell. I obviously need some art education!

          • We all need art education–that’s what these discussions do! T.S. Eliot actually WAS talking about writing. I simply moved it to include all artistic expression because it works that way, too. (Do I hear Thomas Stearns spinning in his grave? Possibly.) The objective correlative (which was quite complicated, so I’m simplifying it) said that the writer could make someone who had not experienced what the writer experienced could have the same powerful emotions through their own personal interpretation of metaphors, syntax, etc. That experience-sharing made a work successful.

          • But what about art that’s no longer contemporary? Doesn’t Guernica speak for itself, particularly since the artist no longer can?

          • When I first saw Guernica, I didn’t like it and didn’t understand it. I felt confusion and distance. When I understood the story behind it, I understood it better. I saw a Rothko abstract (“Untitled 2”) today and had no reaction. Had it been called “Window” I would have felt differently. I think it’s why people choose paintings that match the sofa instead of what they love.

  3. I love the poem. Thanks! As to the woman’s comment..after decades of being in leadership roles in work and volunteer positions, I learned and have had reinforced repeatedly the idea that many many people are not comfortable making decisions and typically have looked to me to make decisions for them. I don’t. Making decisions, having an opinion, is telling your own story and letting others decide for you must feel very unsettling.

    I believe there is a deeper cultural bias at work here. We are spoonfed through our schools, tv, politicians, etc to think a certain way or we are “wrong”. Individuality is not a trait that is highly valued in our culture any longer, yet art is highly individual. When someone who isn’t sure of their own authentic place in the world looks at open ended art, I believe they are uncomfortable with the need to make a decision. That woman needed you to decide for her what the piece of art meant. Otherwise she felt unsettled, or incomplete.

    I am an avid museum goer and some pieces of art cause me to stop and really study. Others have a neutral or even negative effect on me. I love interpreting art within the context of my experience because that’s all I have. Expanding that experience opens doors to interpreting things in a new way. Interpreting what I see and creating my own art is my story and I love how it makes me feel. I wouldn’t know how to tell someone else how to experience my art. I do enjoy reading artist statements because of the insights it gives me into the artist and their own experience in making that piece. But I have no way of feeling what they felt when they made it, only what I feel in viewing it. You are right; some pieces elicit no feeling whatsoever and that’s just fine.

  4. Nodding my head, remembering “objective correlative” and how your explanation and my understanding of that concept was life changing for me — not only expanded my understanding of how I looked at art, but my vision of being an artist. (And then I read you explaining it again in the comments – yes!)

    • The obligation of art is one often misunderstood. Art is unselfish–it calls others into meaning-making. Your photography is a good example of how meaning-making is available not only to you, Bo, but to your viewers.

  5. I enjoyed reading your post and all the discussion below, but as I have nothing new to add I just thank you for the post and the beautiful poem- and a poet I want to discover…

  6. It helps me to know what the artist was thinking or doing in his/her life at the time a piece was created. For instance, Pete mentioned Matisse…I’ve never been a big fan of Matisse but knowing more about him, his life, his story has helped me appreciate more of his work. While at one time I might have dismissed the work of Matisse with a “not for me” attitude I look at it with different eyes if I know more about the man and his life. It may be why his statement that an aritst “worth his salt” would not be appreciated for half a century is mostly true. When we know more about what is behind the art (the artist’s story) we understand not only the art but the artist better.
    I have seen art that has pulled me in immediately and that I loved from the moment I saw it. Some I have copied because there is no way I could own it myself. Some of these I love even more than the originals because I have “experienced” emotions in creating them I would not have had if I had gone out and purchased them.
    Art is just so personal, so intimate.

    • What I was thinking about was what Matisse said (well I think it was Matisse!) about some art being intended as decoration.

      That’s an interesting thing about experiencing emotions from creating copies. Some recent research says that we don’t feel, then act — it’s the reverse; we have emotions based on how we act, and patterns of muscle activity (at least in the face) stimulate or create emotions. Smile to get happy, that sort of thing.

    • Perhaps because of that intimacy of creation, the artist needs to tell a story about his art along as the one his art tells. It always makes me cranky when a piece is simply “Untitled.” Give me a scrap of story, and I’m happy. For example, Monet had cataracts, perhaps as early as age 65, and his paintings show a color shift, quite distinctly, at that age. Knowing his story makes that color shift make so much more sense to me.

  7. I wonder if it’s easier for a piece of art to speak for itself when its viewers all share similar backgrounds, beliefs and cultures? For example, the native peoples in the Northwest carved and painted abstracted animals, knowing that anyone looking at their art would know exactly what story or meaning was referenced. Today, (happily) we live in a diverse, globally connected world where much less shared meaning can be taken for granted. Take the color red, for example. In the West it’s associated with love. In the East, it can refer to death.

    • In my opinion (just my way of thinking) art cannot speak for itself, because each person has a private history as well as a cultural history that they filter their “objective viewing” through. Even people with similar backgrounds will experience the same piece of art differently. In fact, family members experience their memories differently. If you talk with your family about something from the past, someone will inevitably say, “That’s not how I remember it at all.” Art works the same way.

      • I am 100% with you on this Quinn! The family interpretation example is spot on. My sister and I always say we could both write a book and nobody reading them would know we are related. Everybody’s interpretation and experience of life and art is different. That doesn’t necessarily make it good or bad…just different.

  8. For me, the meaning is the way a piece of art speaks to me. There may not be any in-depth moment I feel from a particular piece of art but it might make me feel peaceful. Meaning for everyone is different. Personally, I prefer the word connection, which interprets (for me) to peace, calm, flow, connectivity, purpose and sometimes shock.

    I like to buy art that I enjoy looking at but I also go to movies and read books for escape, not necessarily to find “meaning” in them. Life can be difficult and I like to partake in the arts for the pure enjoyment of them.

    Quinn – I see your collage pieces as calm, peaceful and simple. That’s why I love them so much because they allow me to escape momentarily into another world. In the recent art workshop I attended, we had a wonderful group of ladies whose artwork was all very different. Nobody was looking for some great meaning from any particular piece, we all just enjoyed each other’s pieces for what they were…fun, calm, dark, uplifting, peaceful, etc. The same piece spoke to individuals differently. Just like you said, “Together, the same image can mean something entirely different to several viewers.”

    • You said it exactly the way I meant it–“the meaning is the way a piece of art speaks to me.” T.S. Eliot called this the “objective correlative”–the same piece of art can mean different things to different people. That’s what makes it powerful. Art cannot explain itself to everyone. A beautiful landscape might speak to some and others will think “Meh.” That doesn’t make the art good or bad, it simply speaks to different people in different ways. We bring our our individual experiences to art. What one might find playful, another will find threatening.

  9. I don’t understand this bit: “If you start adding pieces of other people’s story, your plot line will suffer.” There aren’t any stories that don’t include pieces of other people’s stories. Are there?

    I don’t know whether art speaks for itself or is supposed to, but I wish more of it did. This is probably a bad thing to admit in a place where everybody ELSE is an artist, most art seems to me devoid of meaning. Sometimes decorative (Matisse is at least in my corner here) and sometimes the craftsmanship itself is amazing, but for me that’s usually about it. This is what fascinates me about it; that people make it, and that sometimes meaning is supposed to be “in it”, so to speak, and from other perspectives any meaning is just brought to it by the viewer, in a “tea leaves” sort of way.

    • Pete – Sure, all stories include pieces of other people’s stories but what matters is our own interpretation of that story. We can’t change our interpretation just to please others or we’re not telling OUR story. Everyone interprets everything differently. If that wasn’t the case, we wouldn’t have so many different religions.

      • How do you know why your interpretation is what it is though?

        Thoughts and opinions change, often because of interactions with other people. And people adapt to those around them all the time — for instance, having a certain set of behaviors with colleagues, another set with friends, etc. There are loads of reasons, and pleasing others must be one of them at least sometimes. So your behavior adapts, and what you think is based, at least in part, on how you behave; if you smile you’ll start thinking and feeling differently.

        Trying to please other people to an excessive degree (whatever that is) probably isn’t a great idea, any more than following any other impulse to excess. Although sometimes that sort of formulation strikes me as kind of circular: “don’t do this to excess or you’ll be sorry” — “ok, how do I know what’s excess” — “it’s when you’re sorry”.

        Actually I’m more astonished at the degree of sameness in most interpretations than differences, when there are any.

        • Yes, thoughts change. Our experience changes, too, over time. Sometimes that leads to maturity or growth, sometimes to a closing in of our world. When we adopt others’ opinions, feeling, beliefs as our own without our own foundation, it often doesn’t last. The key is in being authentic–another difficult to define word.

    • What that quote meant: If you start changing the story of your life to please other people, to get their approval, you are losing track of what you want in life. If other people define success, love, joy, art, pleasure (add another million emotions here) for you, you will lose the ability to create these emotions and experience them on your own level. This happens a lot, in my experience as a coach, when people take jobs solely for the salary and then try to convince themselves they are successful and therefore happy. What that quote does *not* mean (although it can be literally interpreted that way), is that no one else is in your life. Lots of other people are in your life, influence you, even change your perspective. But that work (change) must come from inside you, not because you want to impress others or seem agreeable. Oh, and you are an artist. Maybe not a painter, but when you “drew” the explanation of how technology has changed over the last 20 years for me, I not only understood the concept, but was delighted at the clear image I got from your demo. That’s art.

  10. First of all I like to say that the poem is lovely. But I can also understand the woman’s comment. What if you look at a piece of art and you don’t get anything from it. You sometimes like to know what it is supposed to be/mean. Perhaps if you knew the answer you could also get something out of it and appreciate it.
    For me it is the same when I watch a movie or read a novel. At the end of it I don’t like to be left wondering what it was all about. Surely if it is a good movie, book or piece of art etc the meaning is clear, otherwise what is the point. I get it that different people get different things out of looking at a piece of art and that is a good thing.

    • Have you ever seen a movie or read a book that you didn’t like and someone else did? That book or movie spoke to your friend, but not to you. For you to have a reaction to the book, you have had to have some experience that resonates with what’s happening (or to whom) in the story. Not every piece of art will speak to you, and that’s just fine. “Meaning” is not an objective fact in art. Interpretation is the power.

  11. What a wonderful explanation, Quinn. I always tell my class, you go as far as want with your piece of art to put in what you want to say, but the viewer should see in it what they want to see… and that’s a good thing. Thank you.

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