Sunday, May 5, 2013

Pretty Paper Birds

Every now and then I stumble upon something that I just love. Something really pretty, that exists because it's really pretty and it's creator just wanted to make it, and keep on making things like it. I did this today (Johan Scherft's papercraft, more below), which has inspired this reflective post.

I completely understand this type of creativity and production. It really is my brand. When I was little I loved crafting because of the joy I got during the process, and then the joy I got from looking at the thing that I created. After a while I became aware of the concept of "purpose", and as such my craftings developed - my home-made dolls houses got furnished, and then played with, and my dolls and teddies got kitted out in the latest crochet fashions and miniature millinery. Things got used, although in looking back I realise that I soon moved my focus elsewhere once the creation process was over.

Studying art in high school made me aware of the message. Art didn't need to be used, but it did need to communicate something. Enter school projects riddled with teen angst... I have a couple of pieces that I really enjoyed from this - mostly sculptures - but it all seemed so, well, wanky.

Art was "my thing" as a high school student, and I really grew in my creativity and confidence when we got a new teacher. This one - Mr Cadell - wasn't teacher-trained but rather had made his living as an artist and as such bent the curriculum to fit our practice, not the other way around. He was filled too with "the artist's intention", but also really encouraged me to be aesthetically appreciative. I remember analysing John Duncan's Tristan and Isolde (1912), and being allowed to love it because of how it looked. Because of the pretty colours. Shape, composition, etceteras. How John Duncan seemed to catch the tail end of art as beauty before the world got wrapped up in Modern messages. How wonderful it was for artists to be able to create something so lovely. Just because.

Tristan and Isolde, John Duncan (1912)

In university I was enrolled for a year in a Bachelor of Creative Arts with a Contemporary Art major, and then for a very brief time in a Fine Arts degree. I just wanted to create lovely things, and look at lovely things, and discuss lovely things. My grades were average - apparently, I had no 'edge'. I was told to reach inside myself and communicate my darkest thoughts and desires. To look with a critical eye at the world and shout out my opinion and pain in mixed media. Ugh - I couldn't think of anything I'd like less. Don't get me wrong - I had a lot of stuff inside me that fit this category. But I really didn't want to 'explore' this with my art. Perhaps it was because I had experienced more than my fair share of grief and hardship. The world had been a horrible place on a daily basis for me in the past. Now, I just wanted to make lovely things.

My university art career ended very specifically after a lecture on Contemporary Feminist Art. My lecturer was raving about an exhibition that a female artist had put on in New York several years before. In order to create her installations and canvases the woman had collected her menstrual blood and used it as a medium.

Yes, dear reader. You read correctly.

According to my lecturer, the convener of my degree, the marker of my assignments and the judge of my art practice, this was tops. Awesome. Real art.

I remember exiting the lecture hall, walking straight to the admissions office and canceling my enrollment.

What had happened to studying the masters? To spending time refining the skills involved in art practice? Admiring the play of light in a Renaissance mural or in Monet's gardens? How did my love of prettiness, The Golden Age of Illustration, colour and form and happiness fit in to this dark and horrible world? How could I possibly be a professional artist if I didn't have anything 'valuable' to say?

From this time on I had difficulty identifying as an artist. I "liked to paint". I "was good with colours". My pictures of flowers were well-done, and pretty, but not 'art'. Similarly, the lovely things I made to decorate my house was 'craft', not sculpture. I investigated 'design' as an avenue, drawn here to the aesthetic value of things: the pretty decorations on crockery and stationery as an example. Such creativity still didn't seem to earn the title of 'art', however. There was a commercial push here, and connections to trends and target audiences.  Having someone buy my design was really an afterthought for me. I just wanted to make lovely things. But apparently, this wasn't enough.


Fast forward ten years, two more degrees, a stint of book illustration, then graphic design, chronic illness and an ink & whim endeavour, and I sit much more comfortably with my label of Artist. I wander around my gorgeous new city and see the amazing cornices and Nouveau railings encircling parks. Posters show me glimpses of Dutch Master exhibitions - Rembrandt, Vermeer. And all of the pretty, pretty flowers. I feel really happy that I contribute 'lovely' to the world. That friends delight in my giant painted butterfly on their wall, that I get to take beautiful pictures of beautiful people in beautiful places and beautiful dresses, etceteras.  I love making beautiful things just because. And it's enough.

So, this brings me (in a very long-winded way, sorry!) to the inspiration for this "art for arts sake" post. Today I stumbled upon the work of Dutch artist Johan Scherft. He creates beautiful paper craft sculptures of birds using water colour and 3D folding techniques. See his 'Goldfinch' below. Stunning!

Goldfinch, Johan Scherft

Today, I really enjoyed the little bit of lovely that Johan Scherft brings to the world. I was really thankful for his pretty paper birds, and for reminding me of the joy one gets from making things just because. See more on his Facebook page.

Postscript: I hope I'm not misunderstood here in that I dismiss art with a message. Definitely not - there is amazing power in art, and I too have been moved beyond words by art work that really means something. I understand and am fascinated by the connections between art, history and popular culture. I value art as true personal expression. However - a white, middle-class woman living in a first-world country making installations from menstrual blood? Not necessary. Maybe she can volunteer at a domestic violence centre if she wants to make a real difference to the world. 

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