The older I get and the more I master the medium, the more I return to my earliest experiences. I think that at the end of my life I will recover all the force of my childhood.
Gayleen Aiken (my last post) has made me think about how one begins to make art. How does it start – this need to make something beautiful, or if not beautiful, then significant? And when it persists into old age, how does it change, if it does?
Does the impulse to create evolve from the impulse to play? I imagine how it happens varies from one person to the next, but there can be no doubt that they’re related.
Some of us, I guess, must just keep on playing.
Of course, the word “play,” like the word “old,” has been given negative connotations in our culture. Play around. Playing along. The ant works; the grasshopper plays. Play is thought of as the opposite of work. It’s not serious.
But to the playing child it’s very serious. To the artist playing, it’s even more so. Toynbee wrote: The supreme accomplishment is to blur the line between work and play. I found that comment on an interesting website called “Art and Play,” where six artists whose childhood activities clearly influenced their later art, are examined: Marcel Duchamp, Alexander Calder, Jean Tinguely, Claes Oldenburg, Elizabeth Murray and Joseph Cornell. (The site is based on a book written by Caroline Armijo, a mixed media artist and student at North Carolina State University.) Since Cornell is one of my favorites, I want to look briefly at him.
In Cornell’s childhood, it seems, his favorite activity books suggested making shadow boxes to demonstrate different educational theories. Much later, shadow boxes became an integral part of much of his art. But that’s only a small part of the story. The boxes in his grownup art didn’t really happen until Cornell was well into his thirties. He’d made many collages by then, and after he’d begun experimenting more and more with three-dimensional objects, including glass bells, shadow boxes and coups d’oeil, and he continued to be absorbed in table exhibits, other kinds of collage, and film.
Anyone who’s enjoyed looking at Cornell’s creations, knows that his work is always playful, even when it’s at its most somber. It’s way too complex for this short post, but let me quote the introduction to Lynda Roscoe Hartigan’s essay in the magnificent book that accompanied the exhibit she curated, Joseph Cornell, Navigating the Imagination:
[Cornell] was an American artist with a singular style of seeing. His transformation of found materials, distillation of far-flung ideas and traditions, and mingling of the vernacular and the erudite resonate with the spirit of synthetic innovation associated with American art and culture.
Of course, there may be sweeter, simpler ways of saying it. According to Ms. Armijo, his last exhibit was for children only. He answered their questions about the toys he’d collected and created while everyone enjoyed cherry Cokes and brownies.