A quote from Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art
by Stephen Nachmanovitch(pages 25-26): The essence of style is this: We have something in us, about us; it can be called many things but for now let's call it our original nature. We are born with our original nature, but on top of that, as we grow up, we accommodate to the patterns and habits of our culture, our family, physical environment,and the daily business of the life we have taken on...when we are grown up..everything we do and are--our handwriting, the vibrato of our voice, the way we handle the bow or breathe into the instrument, our way of using language, the look in our eyes, the patterns of whorling finger prints on our hand--all these things are symptomatic of our original nature. They show the imprint of our deeper nature or character.
It is sometimes thought that in improvisation we can do just anything. But lack of a conscious plan does not mean that our work is random or arbitrary. Improvisation always has its rules, even if they are not a priori rules. When we are totally faithful to our own individuality, we are actually following a very intricate design...as living, patterned beings, we are incapable of producing anything random...As our playing, writing, speaking, drawing or dancing unfolds, the inner, unconscious logic of our being begins to show through and mold the material. This rich, deep patterning is the original nature that impresses itself like a seal upon everything we do or are...
This quote is an excerpt from a long passage about Nachmoanovitch's idea that even our most seemingly random expressions are highly individualized, the result of our unique lives and experiences. I find this very interesting in terms of painting. My own work is made up of many layers of colors and marks, which would appear quite random at least in the beginning stages of the work. Some of these are carefully considered as the right next move, but the majority are spontaneous and not consciously thought out. The most obvious spontaneous marks appear on the surface of my work though, as gestural lines, scribbles or doodles, and most are not as random as they might seem.
With the death of Cy Twombly
, that master of scribbles, last week, I have been thinking about my own mark-making--where my ideas come from and why I tend towards the kind of lines--scratched, dissolved or drawn--that activate the surface of my work.
Sometimes, the marks I make are very unconscious, perhaps akin to what the Surrealists called automatic drawing
. This is a close-up detail of a small painting called Stack
I find this type of line drawing difficult, actually--only rarely do I feel the marks coming together in a way that does not seem directed by thought. Even the Surrealists found that conscious mind is hard to avoid, and in other kinds of mark making, I can identify conscious source material.
Sometimes the marks are derived from my own handwriting, but obscured or scrambled so that there is no perceivable message:
(Recently when I explained to someone at an opening of my work that the "writing" lines do not actually say anything, she smiled and replied, "Oh, but they do!" I loved that.)
Other times I am aware of referencing the landscape (this detail shot is from a small painting called Field of Gold
; I was thinking of meadow grass when I scratched these lines.
In some of my recent paintings, there are images inspired by my brother, Dr. Aron Crowell
's archeological site drawings/diagrams. Aron is an archeologist and Director at the Arctic Studies center, a branch of the Smithsonian in Anchorage. When he was visiting me in April he remarked that some of my paintings reminded him of both the physical substances of earth and rock that he excavates, and the mark-making of some of the visual notes he takes on site. It is intriguing that we are both interested in what lies beneath the surface--he, of the actual earth, and me, of the layers of paint that I build up and then gouge and dissolve back into. Perhaps this interest leads back to Nachmanovitch's idea of original nature, since our childhood included rock and fossil-hunting (passions of our father) and other explorations of nature.
A detail of a recent painting called Site, with lines loosely based one of Aron's drawings:
I'm excited about the possibilities of developing this idea further.
PS: Two links for further investigation: Artist Nancy Green has written a series about mark-making
on her blog (there are several consecutive posts on this topic.) And I also found that Stephen Nachmanovitch has a website
with many links to writings and other sources for ideas about improvisation in the arts, that looks quite fascinating.