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Re: Teaching the merits of abstract art


From: Larry Seiler (lseiler_at_TeacherArtExchange)
Date: Sat Mar 10 2001 - 06:11:13 PST

This is long...but I hope of interest.

I have come a long way in my own personal life to be able to teach the
"merits" of abstract art. I have been a competition realist wildlife artist
for 20 years, having won some major state and regional
competitions...however in the anti-art era of the 70's I encountered some
pretty rough abusing moments with art professors. For many years it left me
bitter, wounded...scarred, however, eventually I saw the bigger picture and
kindredship among artists.

It was attending the Cornerstone Music and Arts festival in Illinois for the
past 18 years, where a marvelous art exhibition called, "Artrageous"
organized about 9 years ago. I have taught drawing and painting workshops
there for several years, with my own works hanging amongst the many. It was
seeing many abstract works, and hearing the hearts of the artists that made
a difference for me. Artists seeing medium as a vehicle to urge great inner
groanings out of their being in a tangible form to communicate their

I have such discussions with my high school students frequently. Who cares
if yellow and red make orange unless there is a cause to use it. Making a
pretty picture perhaps is not cause enough. I paint plein air landscapes
with a vengence and have a philosophy behind it, a purpose for which I
inform my kids. It energizes my reasons, and fuels my passions. Something
kids need to understand about artists, as to what makes them tick. What I
saw at Artrageous were artists making "statements"....sorta like spoken
parables, that make the viewer think as they walk away. Statements about
issues that concern them deeply.

One thing that helps is for students to see the teacher's own works...and
observe from time to time the pleasure the teacher gets out of
experimentation. Adults deriving pleasure legitimizes. Adults standing
around observing- "could be looking down upon a juvenile activity that is
beneath them" which students could infer by nonparticipation. Even if the
art teacher does not make art as a practice...participating in the activity
and modeling enjoyment of the exploration of medium helps to legitimize it.

Let's consider the "parable" in storytelling....look at how great orators
and teachers/speakers have used them over history. What is discovered is,
if you simply tell the masses a person not willing to invest in their future
by planning and putting money aside is in the end foolish...what happens?
It is a simple truth, but requires no mulling over to "get it." It requires
nothing of the hearer, and the seed of its meaning sits on shallow soil
going no deeper. People tend to remember only 15% of what they,
so what!

If you tell an interesting story, a that the interest of the
hearer is to follow along...but, instead of spelling out all of the truths
leave some of it out....the hearer walks away being required to work it
through. "What the heck was that all about....? What does it mean?"
He/she striving to make sense of it suddenly gets the "ah-HAH! I get it!"
experience, and such awareness becomes more an awakening. It is received at
a deeper conscious level. works that ask something of the viewer can have that same effect.
Painterly realistic works with- sound composition, using intriguing
brushwork, color that allows the viewers eye to mix it such that it is a
mess up close but pops into a living breathing image as you step back have a
sort of magic to them, and invite the viewer to participate. That parable
principle. Such paintings impact me, and such are the works I have been
striving to paint these past 5-6 years.

Some of you, like me...may be tiring of the extremely photographic realistic
tight rendering paintings of my peer wildlife artist friends......some
feeling like, "okay, why not just take a picture?" The reason? The artist
hopes we like his subject, such as wolves. He also hopes you'll be
impressed with his ability to paint realism, and thus buy.
verbally simply spilling and spelling it all out "as is" demands nothing of
the hearer, and the impact stays vulnerably at the surface. We people
getting bombarded with images all of our lives day in and day out are being
asked not at all to interact with this "spelled out" work; and asking
nothing of us but to stand and admire does not allow the image to root
deeply in us.

However....for view a realistic painting up close it that appears
the artist declared war with the canvas and made a mess, and step back and
see it "happen".... smacks me up side the head and I'm in awe. It demands
something of the viewer. It forces the eyes to interact. "How can those
brushstrokes and thick paint up close, translate to a waterfalls six paces
back? I can almost hear the water!"

I am rambling long....but, I believe this is useful and needful stuff for
you to share with students if they are to really grasp art appreciation with
expression. Why artists do what they do? Is it possible that artists have
intent....are intelligent....perhaps even clever?

Students need to understand that they may find one day their minds bursting
with an opinion or idea, and that sharing their thoughts with a friend may
not be enough. Writing to a congressman might not be enough. They may feel
so strongly...that compulsion would call them to stand on a rooftop and
shout it out at humanity! The urgings may be so great, the message so
intense....that an image that is passive and requires nothing of the viewer
simply is not going to get the idea of how the artist felt across.

My room has a good number of my paintings standing around amongst the
student's works. They are realistic painterly pieces. At the same
time...students watch me work with them, mixing...pushing,
pulling...blotting....experimenting. Laughing at myself one moment,
eyebrows furled and going, "Hhhmmmm!" the next, as in deep thought. This
legitimizes and supports my encouragement to be experiment, to see
what possibilities come. I will give you one such lesson I have online,
which I have shared perhaps months ago.

This is a tempera paint lesson whereby students first listen to a piece of
music....most of the way through doing nothing but listening.
Then...standing up, they have only black paint anda large and small brush.
Closing their eyes they imagine how the rythym, the melody line, the
soloing, etc., might be interpreted by line, movement of line, thickness,
flecks, etc; then, open their eyes and paint. The process is "reactive."
At first it seems foolish, but I explain the similarities between painting
and playing music. The students laugh at first...but, they quickly really
get into it.

They do two such paintings, listening to two different musical pieces.

The next day....they listen and I ask them if the song's lyrics...the
melody...the rythym, are warm...embracing...inviting...joyful....or- cold,
dark, and sad. We talk about the emotion of color as well as the psychology
of color, and then they are let go with color tempera to fill in the spaces
around their black lines. It is an easy lesson to plan and execute, and
much fun for the kids. Hope you'll try it, and afterward have a discussion
about how they felt. In what ways did making these works help them
interpret their feelings of the music, that a realistic painting might not
have? A good time to introduce also, Wassily Kandinsky. Good luck!

Larry Seiler