Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Are You a Composer, or a Technician? Musings on Music and Art

Christ Episcopal Church
Yesterday was a spectacular day of music.  It started with stepping outside my front door and walking across the street to Christ Episcopal Church, the new home of Camerata San Antonio.  For the opening of their ninth season, the chamber music group played gypsy-themed music by Haydn, Kodaly, and Brahms.  The selections were stirring, melodic, energetic.  Then that evening my husband and I saw Carlos Santana live in concert.  (Wow!!)  On the drive home, I was humming and thinking.   The musicianship of Camerata SA, and of the Santana band, was phenomenal.  These were pros at the top of their craft.

Tom Hulce as Mozart
But the composers, now... Brahms, Mozart, Gershwin, Stravinsky... these men were Creators. The must-see 1984 film "Amadeus" showed us a frenzied Mozart plucking complex melodies seemingly out of thin air. 

This is a different level of artistry altogether.  The rest of us can practice Mozart's music faithfully and "with feeling", but we are mere technicians of music.  He is the creator, the "Artist".

Which got me thinking about my own artistic journey... and perhaps, yours.

Ed Harris as Jackson Pollock
When people hear that I'm an artist, I get a wide-eyed, "Cool!" reaction... and then they pause, eyes narrowed, thinking, "But you seem so normal!"  The Hollywood image of "the Artist" is a neurotic diva who puffs on a cigarette while dabbing at a canvas with a manic brush, given to fits of creativity (and a sizable ego), oblivious to the outside world and its pedestrian needs.  (No, I don't fit that image.)  Peel away the negative aspects of the stereotype and most of us still envision artists as right-brained "creative types" who conjure up masterpieces ex nihilo from the ever-changing slideshow in their minds.  This is especially true with abstract art... but I digress.

What of the technicians of art? 

This is how I've always seen myself.  Being more left-brained than right-brained (my first major in college was mechanical engineering), I've got an eye for detail and analysis.  With training, I'd have been a good forger:

Tiepolo, c. 1740-1750

My version, 2010

("Copying" is not easy, though.  On the left is my own reproduction of a Tiepolo masterpiece.  On the right is the original.  I had a devil of a time trying to capture Tiepolo's use of light.) 

After my stint in engineering courses - I did well but didn't see myself working in a cubicle all day - I segued into Fine Art.  I hoped to perfect my skills at the "craft" of art, but my new professors mostly urged us to tap into our creativity, to push the artistic envelope.  It was assumed the skills would follow.  Not seeing myself as a chain-smoking neurotic "Artist", I switched majors yet again... to Art History.  (This one stuck.)  Yet I wonder how many of us who truly loved painting and drawing as children ended up shelving those pursuits because we didn't fit the image and couldn't fling paint at a canvas with ease.

There's a parallel here between art and music.  The same continuum between right- and left-brained approaches applies.  On the "right-brained" side are the rare geniuses who can paint masterpieces or compose music, like Mozart, out of thin air.  Then on the "left-brained" side are the craftsmen and technicians who can duplicate art or perform music beautifully.  (In the middle lie the artists who do great work "in the style of...", or jazz musicians who improvise on the spot.  So brilliant.)

Spanish ceiling, 2008 Parade of Homes
In my profession as a faux finisher I can practice the craft of art and keep the left side of my brain humming along happily.  While my work is creative  - whether layering glazes of color or designing a scrollwork ceiling - I am not an artist who can generate a masterpiece overnight.  I cannot easily produce something out of nothing - I need a spark of an idea, a source of inspiration, a starting point.  
I think this is true for most of us.  Good art teachers know this, but too many kids experience the fear of the blank canvas.  We fear not being creative enough, in the "right-brained" sense.  As a working artist, I fear it too, but I've learned to explore the vast middle ground of that left- vs. right-brained continuum, to search out a photo or fabric swatch for inspiration and not force myself to create something out of nothing.  Much more fun that way!

Happy creating,



  1. So enjoying your blog, Lisa!

    (Hint- you need to link Follow my Blog somehow - you can't click anywhere on it.)

  2. Thank you, Ann! I checked on the "Follow" link - apparently it works sporadically (sigh). Please do try again! :)

    Just spent some happy time looking at the delicious pictures on your blog - absolutely gorgeous stuff!!