February was a tough month for art and artists. At the Perez Art Museum in Miami, Maximo Caminero, a disillusioned artist from the local area, smashed one of 16 vases that make up an exhibit by Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei. The vases date from the Han dynasty, and Ai painted them in vibrant colors to foster thought about history, cultural heritage, and modern times. In statements to the police Caminero seemed confused, first stating that he did it to protest the fact that the museum only displayed international artists and then that he was acting in solidarity with the Chinese artist, who once similarly smashed one of his own vases as part of another creation. Whatever the reason, the result is one lost piece of art.
In a second incident, a cleaning woman in Italy threw away part of an installation that consisted of crumpled newspapers, bent cardboard, and cookie crumbs. She mistook the art, meant to make viewers think about environmental issues, for trash left behind by the set-up crew. Perhaps the piece did its job too well.
This is not the first time art has been “straightened up.” In 2001 cleaners at a London gallery tossed away an installation made up of an ashtray, used coffee cups, empty beer bottles, and crushed newspapers. In 1999 Tracey Emin’s piece “My Bed” caught the eye of the judges for the Turner Prize. It also caught the eye of a compulsive neat freak, who made the bed and picked up the area around it.
Of course these stories online were followed by comments about modern art, what constitutes art, and the value of these pieces. People also made jokes about never cleaning their houses again or how the floor of their car could be worth thousands of dollars. It’s funny because we all have clutter and never consider it art. But maybe that’s the point. Maybe we should.
Reading the articles made me think again about art. I love art and always have. And I’ve analyzed enough literature to know that a red hunting cap is never just a hat or a green light just a fancy light bulb at the end of a pier. So it is with conceptual art. Those cookie crumbs? Depending on the circumstances, crumbs can elicit nostalgia, anger, confusion, hunger, exasperation, longing, laughter. An unmade bed? Everyone from kids to adults have their own interpretation of that. If I had to pick one thing from my house to exhibit it would be my kitchen table. I will never refinish that nicked and scarred masterpiece created with wood and paint, glue and clay, crayons, markers, glitter, and cups of tea worked on every day for 18 years and counting.
I come from a family of artists and photographers, and I’ve always had friends who are artists. Whenever I visited one of my older cousins, I was fascinated by her carousel of pens, pencils, paint, and markers—so much color in the shadowy corner of her desk. Another cousin taught me how to look at life as if through the lens of a camera.
When I was in kindergarten my teacher told my mother I drew well and I started taking art lessons. I can still remember the dream I had the night before my first class: all the students were at tables just like in kindergarten and we drew these amazing things full of color and imagination. I also remember the first art class—the excitement. The disappointment.
I was put in front of an easel and told to copy a round vase that sat on a little table in front of me. I cried. And then I took my charcoal stick and drew a picture of different kinds of fish swimming in the ocean. No color, but plenty of imagination. When I was finished the teacher said it was pretty good. Then I was told to draw the bowl. I did. It pleased the teacher, and my perfect circle amazed the older students. To me it was just a circle.
I continued to take lessons, but I think I learned more about life than I did about how to make art. I called my class “drawing pots and pans” because every week we had to copy another kind of vessel. I get it now, learning perspective and line and shadowing, but at the age of five I didn’t want to be so constricted. I wanted to feel like this:
I still have some of the pictures and paintings I created at that art school all those years ago. Here are two:
I also have a portfolio filled with doodles and drawings I’ve done at home over the years. I hadn’t looked inside it for many years, so I pulled the heavy case out of the closet the other night and took a peek.
I had forgotten so much—of what the portfolio held, what I’ve done, and whom I’ve been. Over the years that case has become a catch-all for postcards from friends, comic strips worth keeping, souvenirs, prints I’ve hung on walls of dorm rooms and apartments, and my own work, both written and drawn.
Here’s just a sampling:
(A special note—It’s okay to laugh. I do it myself. I can see the problems—I just don’t know how to fix them.)
These three I copied from black and white photographs:
For those of you who might wonder why I didn’t pursue art more seriously, I offer Exhibit 1. Evidence that I have no natural affinity for perspective:
I still love creating things, but these days they look more like these guys:
And now I will leave you with my favorite portrait ever.
Whatever—there is definitely a story there. It’s Life. It’s Art.