In my late teenage years and twenties I began
keeping notebooks. They were then, and are now, a way to both
keep a record of my thoughts, and to assist my thinking, usually
about my life and my life as an artist. I found that these two
paths continually cross each other.
I think that these recorded thoughts and feelings
have helped me to understand the direction of my life and artwork.
When the notes fall short of achieving this, they have at least
helped me to process what is happening. While I believe viewers
can appreciate and relate to my artwork without much knowledge
about the artist, the notebooks can provide another dimension
to the experience. Excerpts from my notebooks are included here
for that purpose. I have chosen parts of that reflect the essence
of my thoughts during a particular period. I consider the editing
of notebooks an ongoing project. I find it helpful to refer to
this material and I hope it may serve a similar function for the
Each day when I awake, if there are not duties I'm scheduled
to perform at work or at home, I consider entering my studio.
Often the studio draws me in, or I wake up thinking about a particular
painting. Usually, there are several works in process and I wait
to see which, if any, will attract my attention. I need to sense
what the next step will be.
Sometimes I have no clear ideas or energy for working. Then
I am tempted to pass the studio and go on to another activity.
From past experience, I've learned that it is useful to work even
when I don't feel "creative." Uncertainty is the rule,
particularly when I attempt, as I usually do, more than the obvious.
I remember the start of my life as an artist. My aunt married
an "artist." This uncle served as a model and helped
me acquire my first box of paints. In school I found that I was
successful in the art class. My teacher encouraged me. I can still
remember some of my first paintings. A painting of a snow scene
at night is still clear in my mind.
The studio is not only a place for current work but a repository
of the past. In it are older paintings, folios of sketches, slides
and photos of paintings. There are files filled with responses
to exhibition inquiries. Most are form letters, which became more
prevalent in the last ten years as gallery dealers were inundated
by requests from artists hoping to interest a gallery in their
work. These are the small portion - most inquiries went unanswered.
There are many boxes of slides. These represent another way
to see ones work and to show it to others. Slides are very different
from paintings. I often think about how many decisions are based
on viewing slides rather than original work. This was not the
most annoying aspect of sending slides. It is quite common for
slides to be kept for several years before they are reviewed or
returned by a gallery. Often they are not returned, even when
they have been requested.
Suddenly, while in the studio, the left side of a painting,
completed several years ago, seems wrong; I feel the need to change
it. How could it be that I didn't notice this before? I put the
painting on the easel and start making changes. One change leads
to another. Finally, the painting seems right. I feel better for
having made the necessary adjustment.
My life is not unlike many artists, young or old. A "career,"
or at least a growing interest in art, in making images to express
ideas and feelings, develops. There is an attraction to the "fine
arts" rather than the so-called "commercial." At
first there is the adventure, discovering what I can do. And,
there is schooling, learning the craft and developing new ideas.
Early in my career my work started to gain some recognition.
Initially, friends supported my efforts as did my teachers. Then
some awards and acceptances in competitions helped to confirm
that I had made an appropriate choice. Artists whom I respected
encouraged my work and I felt that I was on the right track. But,
it soon became clear that I would have to do more to earn a living
- painting alone would not do it.
At first artists support each other's work. As the going gets
more difficult they tend to draw apart. Dealers who could once
be approached personally and offered intelligent comments on my
work also withdrew. They no longer wanted to spend time with artists
unless they were clearly producing work that they could sell.
There was a sense that art had become more a business and less
The studio setting evokes these thoughts and I question what
it has all been about. Luckily, I was able to both earn a livelihood
as a teacher of art and continue to pursue the kind of art I was
interested in. Not all artists could find a comparable solution.
Though it is quite clear that no two lives can traverse the
same route and that it may be impossible to teach anyone how to
create art, or how to be an artist, I believe that some things
I learned might either be of interest or useful to others. I've
benefitted by the help of many "teachers" and I'm very
grateful for their assistance.
19 January '87
I have a passion for making images - drawing and painting
in particular. I love the mental and manual activity. There is
a great pleasure in forming some- thing. It is akin to the experience
of planting and watching fruits and vegetables grow. But, making
a painting is more challenging. -- I left the library today, after
having spent several pleasant hours looking at art magazines,
again thinking that I very much like the activity - the craft?
- of making an image. I seem almost ill fitted to be a professional
artist. I am much more suited to either working for myself (avocation),
less so for doing something that is needed or required by someone
else. Many so called fine artists are not good at making things
that please the public - these are called "not very successful
artists", or, if they aren't trying to do that, "amateurs."
This situation is a luxury that few people in the world can entertain.
-- I am not attracted to the "crafts" per se, but I
can appreciate the pleasure in making something very well. What
I miss in most crafts is some dimension that is difficult to define.
I suppose an image - a painting - is an object and more than an
object - it is a "statement" - or attempt at a certain
kind of communication. -- If just making fine workmanlike images
were enough for me, I could be content in doing descriptive (realistic)
paintings of subjects that please people - that would satisfy
the need to make images.
When there is little response to my work, or communication,
the cycle is not complete. It feels good when I can reach people
via my images. That is not enitrely true for creating the image
does provide a great deal of intrinsic satisfaction -a feeling
of momentary completion, union with oneself or something larger.
I must assume that I need the "struggle" to create
images that are not so easily admired. By continuing to pursue
"difficult" images, I make the situation more problemmatical.
It is a stance that provides me with some protection, that is,
I have a convenient rational for my limited success.
21 January '87
John Cage, quoted in INQUIRING MIND, said he was told that
the traditional reason for making music in India was "to
quiet the mind and thus make it susceptible to divine influences."
I understand this, and perhaps this is my primary motivation and
reward - practising art can be a meditation, and it often feels
good and right. 5 July '87
Making paintings - even great ones - will not SAVE me. I really
believed, uncon- sciously, that it would. Although one often hears
talk of immortality in relation to art it is a figure of speech,
not the reality. -- However, on a primal level I expect that making
a great image (one widely honored) would be a great asset, like
hording money or power - the same futile attempt to deal with
our vulnerability. While it is true that money, power, and fame
might provide a small edge it doesn't take care of "the whole
thing." Death, illness, loss and taxes have their ways. --
I recognize my own self deceit in the process. Even awareness
does not fully eradicate the falsely held belief that one can
gain CERTAINTY AND PROTECTION. I suppose to some degree we all
need to believe and have faith in some thing and so we set up
and build comforting illusions. The point is not to take them
too seriously - since they are all probably seriously flawed.
-- I am aware as I start a new large painting and experience the
difficulty in gaining control of it how this mirrors the life
situation. I will work and struggle to achieve this limited objective
I've set for myself. At times I will feel confident and other
times defeated. Even if I bring the painting to a satisfactory
completion it will provide no guarantee - and, as noted above,
a part of me would like that very much. The more I can let go
of this notion the better off I'll feel. -- The social aspect
of achieving "success" in art crops up as a reminder
of how important this relationship is. I realize how ineffective
and disinterested I am in doing this. Yet, I have to admit the
conflict I experience too, because it is nice to receive recognition
and to have opportunities to exhibit and sell my work. Even though
one doesn't always get it based solely on the quality of one's
work - what an unrealistic idea! It still feels OK. -- At this
time I have plenty of work to exhibit and if I want to show it
I will need to go out and "socialize" to help this along;
networking is critical.
16 July '87
I wanted people to like me solely because of my work as an
artist. -- If the goal is to be liked, cared for, respected, loved,
then the emphasis should be on the person, not what they do. What
one does is always evaluated, based on many factors, including
how people feel about the "author" of the work.
4 August '87
It's amazing how tenacious the idea of earning money from
the sale of my art efforts is. Although, I realize that I have
always chosen - and continue to do so - work that meets my standards
and goals and not to pursue monetary ends. While it is true I'd
like my goals and monetary rewards to coincide - and this year
they have, modestly, it is foolish to expect a repeat of that.
Usually, the goal needs to be clear in order to hope to achieve
the end. Since my goal is not towards monetary ends, I'm not entitled
to hold out hope in this direction.
15 September '87
As I start to send out slides again - primarily because showing
at S_______ seems a dead end, and I have a lot of new work I'd
like to have seen - I hesitate, because I am not confident of
achieving my goal. Two factors seem clearly to stand in my way.
One is that I am not very good at promoting my work; I never have
been and I continue to lack the interest, energy, and social skills
to do this. Secondly, while I think I do work of very high quality,
I realize that it is not very exciting, trend setting, hip, newsworthy,
etc., nor is it easily salable or identified with. My work is
difficult although that is not its main limitation. These factors
mitigate against the possibility of gaining exposure in New York
or elsewhere. I don't feel that I can really change this situation.
Other forces will need to be the agent, if this is to be the case.
Even when I consider changing the imagery, I know beforehand that
it won't make a difference. For example, as I look at what I am
working on now, I find that some of my work has a tendency to
be geometrical and have fairly defined edges. Furthermore, while
the images allude to the human figure, at times they become very
abstract - this is particularly true of the paintstick/paper work.
Less so in working with oil paint because the medium is more fluid.
When this tendency develops in my work - geo/abstract - I step
back and wonder about my direction - not so much if it is exhibitable
as if "it is me?" Also, I feel it may become so abstract
that it will be impossible for the small audience for my work
to continue to relate to it. Then I think of artists whose work
I greatly admire -Van Gogh, Schiele, Soutine, Beckman, Freud,
Rothenberg, and think I need to pull back from abstraction, although
generally if I back off too far it does not feel right. Yet, no
doubt I will probably again explore working more directly from
life/nature but bring what I've learned from my recent work -
painting approach - to bear on more representational painting.
I don't know if this will be right, but I'll try it. Usually,
I become too dominated by what is before me (the model) and I'm
too "intimidated" to do what will satisfy me. At other
times what feels most right or appropriate for me is to create
images that include both abstract and representational elements
- combinations that suggest or create symbolic images, charged
with feeling, with the power to evoke memories. Louise Bourgeois
and Redon come to mind as artists with similar impulses. Perhaps
it is best to accept the various impulses I harbor and give each
some time and space as required. In the end though, I realize
there is no point in changing or trying to re- direct my work
in the hope of making it more acceptable, popular, marketable,
etc. because it is impossible to predict or control. If I am to
modify my images, I must do so to meet my artistic not career
goals. M______ just called me in to see a news spot on T.V. which
featured Mark Kostabi - a master of marketing.
12 October '87
I pursue fame and recognition. Maybe achieve it for a while,
loose it, possibly regain it, only to see its transient quality.
Not wise to put too much store in such a goal, nor to pursue it.
More sensible is the person who works to earn a livlihood, to
satisfy their own passions or interests, or for the sake of some
higher purpose. Then, when the time comes to leave all such working
behind there is no fame to abandon - it isn't an issue. Nor does
one need to earn a livlihood or satisfy more personal goals. And,
if one has met the needs of the moment there is no more to be
done - it is all accomplished.
22 October '87
Christopher Parkening says that his reason for making music
is for the glory of God. I think he is right.
28 October '87
One doesn't create for an unknown future, yet it is interesting
to remember with gratitude what has been left behind by others
and has served us well. There is no way to predict or plan for
such an outcome. All one can do is do one's best and not focus
on a possible future. We need to work in and for the present.
1 November '87
While I may feel a need to be, or do, something special in
order to assure my place in the world - a never ending compensation
for a childhood experience, the reality is that I need not do
this, and cannot. The real need is to work, because I enjoy the
challenge. Perhaps it will serve others and something that is
greater than us that we can only assume exists.
4 January '88
I am reminded of how powerful the works of Van Gogh are -
paintings based on observation of a landscape, a shoe, a person,
etc. plus his response to them. So much is told and expressed
in a very direct fashion. The same is accomplished by Redon; however,
he looks inward, as well as outward. Or, Kandinsky, who invents
the elements of his images and achieves similar ends. It seems
that any road will do; the quality of the journey matters.
16 January '88
My original need as a person was to astound others with my
artwork - for positive recognition. What a cross to bear! What
a relief to put it down, even for a while. Of course, as an artist
one is often involved in trying to make something that will affect
others. It is dangerous to try too hard - for the goal to become
too dear. Better to do ones best and let it go. And, if necessary
to accept the fact that one may not do astounding work or even
get the recognition if one does.
27 February '88
Reading B. Edward's book - THE ARTIST WITHIN. Her major thesis
is that learning how to see and therefore drawing better and being
more creative, is erroneous. There are numerous examples of artists
who drew what we might consider very well - or competently - who,
nevertheless are not very creative. If we accept the general notion
of creativity as being able to be fluent, flexible, inventive
- solving problems in unique ways that society values then the
merely competent artist is not very creative. The correlation
between drawing ability (seeing, and, I suppose the manual skill
to draw what one sees) and creativity cannot be established. While
Edwards talks about drawing in general, her emphasis is on observed
(realistic) rendering. ----I wonder if she realizes the weak correlation
between drawing and intelligence? -- She has also tried to draw
a parallel between writing and creativity, that is, those who
can write (as well as speak) are more likely to be creative and
8 June '88
Transition time. The sabbatical is complete, the report written.
Four large paintings and one portrait completed in addition to
monotypes and numerous smaller works. Also, work on my book idea
-- being an artist --was also developed. What next? Exhibition
at Greenville over. No clear message except that there were no
sales, no reviews. All in all a time to take stock before moving
on. --- I find my interest in painting, the work of other artists,
lessening. So much contemporary art seems frivolous. I suppose
this could be said for many of the other arts. I do find that
I am more interested in literature and drama since they seem to
be able to deal more directly with life issues. Most painting
seems irrelevant and self serving. And, when attempts are made
to make relevant art - social or political - it is often ineffective
as communication and as art. I conclude that painting is not generally
an effective way to deal with specific social issues. I tend to
believe that it is in the aesthetic dimension that painting seems
to function best - as in music. This is not to say that important
human issues are not dealt with - it is, however, not explicit
but implied. No doubt this is a modernist notion and no longer
in favor. I am not convinced that there is a better reason for
being than the artist's need to express ideas/feelings and the
potential for doing that, although the impact/affect will vary
from viewer to viewer. -- I see myself removed from the New York
(and even Philadelphia) art scene; there are no opportunities
for me to exhibit my work now, nor do I foresee any in the future.
Thus, I feel that I have, essentially, the choice to work primarily
to meet my own goals. This is at once attractive and isolating.
I'll need to see what emerges - what I will do and what happens.
I do not function well in the gallery environment, probably
because the work I do is not geared towards this setting and market.
There is no reason to expect this to change. I'd like to by-pass
or avoid having to present my work in a commercial gallery. Clearly,
the work I choose to do is not appropriate for street sales. It
is the non commercial spaces that are a possible option. Of course
there are also artist's studio sales. Another format - the book
- is an idea I've often thought of and noted. It requires a time
11 June '88
The so called "bottom line" for an artist must be
the affirmation of the inventive and creative capabilities of
humankind - the exercise of imagination, expression, communication,
and decoration. These are the reasons for people practicing art.
-- Usually, such activities (artistic) have not only been useful
to the originator of the work but to others. Art is related to
people's lives and their experi- ences.
In our time art forms, other than drawing, painting, sculpting,
etc. have taken over the exclusive domain of the latter. Today,
photography, film, illustration, and graphic design provide arts
related to peoples lives as well as the artists. They allow the
artist (photographer, film maker, etc.) to affirm artistic being
and meet the needs of others. This can be said to a lesser degree
for the "fine arts". These tend to serve very limited
groups (at least in their time) with a heavier emphasis on meeting
The model of the adult (parent) in relation to the child became
clear to me his morning. By visualizing or imagining my adult
self in relation to my Child (that may remain part of the psyche)
I found that it was possible to review this relationship. In a
healthy adult-child relationship the adult has a great deal of
knowledge and understanding, particularly about the child. They
know it's nature, strengths and weaknesses. And, they know a good
deal about the world. In this sort of situation, for example,
the adult would not recommend or encourage an action that was
not in accord with the child's nature or capabilities. Nor would
they be overly protective, discouraging where there is no need
to be. This later situation would only originate from the parent's
fears. By way of further example, it would be unwise, knowing
my limited sociability, or, put more positively, my need for more
quiet and solitude, to have encouraged me to accept more admisistrative
responsibilities in my employment. Not having had the parenting
I needed as a child, it is I who have had to provide this for
myself, and I still do. The choice is to be a wise parent when
I guide myself, that is, encourage realistic goals and means,
taking into consideration both my strengths and limitations.
16 May '94
There is only a momentary "reality." Each moment
is wonderful in its own way. Careers. How absurd it now seems.
Of course we need a way to earn a living - sometimes called a
"career." But to build and live (and die?) for such
an abstraction - an idea - seems incredibly false. A career is
a set of expectations, hopes for success and recognition, constantly
dependent on renewal from external sources. The idea goes against
reality and nature. It implies a fixed state. THERE ARE NO FIXED
STATES! This is the great illusion. Life is a constant state of
flux - moment to moment of unmeasurable time. We injure ourselves
trying to make it something otherwise. Life's flux is constantly
amazing - what we label "good" and "bad."
I am not sure how I will proceed as an artist. Maybe this
is the wrong term. Why limit my view to only being an artist,
or focus just on that. Let it unfold. If it happens to include
things like making paintings, that's fine, and if not, that's
OK too. I believe that I still feel right about expressing my
ideas and feelings - though I don't feel they are especially important
or absolutely right - they are just part of my way of being in
the world. I no longer feel the need to prove my value by making
things that will please others, or garner me special security
or status. At least this is not my primary motivation. Thus, exhibiting
or selling my work is not important in so far that I am not desperate
for the income or recognition. What is relatively important is
to do what I can that feels right. And, if possible and I am able,
to do something - whatever that might be -that enriches my life
and hopefully others. I think I have already done this in some
modest ways. Certainly, I do not plan to set it as a goal that
I must succeed at. Recently seeing the film on Chaplin's life,
and the television adaption of George Eliot's Middlemarch, reminded
me of the wonderful contributions these artists made to enriching
my life. I don't think Van Gogh, Chaplin or Eliot were thinking
about enriching peoples lives as they worked. More likely they
were trying to enrich their own lives and doing what they believed
they needed to do. That's fine. Sometimes it is only after a lifetime
- I think of Van Gogh and other artists whose work was not appreciated
during their lives, and so called ordinary people - that others
reap the rewards. Although many a daily act is both recognized
and appreciated immediately. Who is to know?
Previously my personal needs may have played an overriding
motivation and objective in my work. The important part in all
this for me is the realization that I am able to clearly let go
of the illusions related to careers and the chase that often entails.
It is all so ephemeral. I used to think how strange and dreamlike
life is. Now I realize it is exactly like that - not strange at
all. What is strange are the illusions we create and struggle
I wake myself up from my dreaming state. I don't want to continue
and it is starting to feel very warm. The time is about 3AM.
In the dream I am making several purchases in Bloomingdale's
department store. At the cash register, where I must pay for my
purchases, there is also a cage-like gate. If one hasn't paid
you can not leave.
It's not clear why I am having a problem, but somehow my method
of payment is unacceptable and there is an implication that I
have stolen the items I selected. I search my wallet for credit
cards. At on time I think I had a Bloominda- le's card but now
I cannot find it. I go through the wallet again, checking each
section and still find no card. It seems absurd to me. I demand
to see a supervisor.
A new person appears and he seems that he will be more reasonable.
He looks normal and I believe he will understand and allow me
to pay for my purchas- es and pass through the gate. I suggest
that we sit at a table so that I can review and discuss the situation
in an amicable way. He insists that I sit at a low table and he
goes to a higher place, like a high judges seat that looks like
a scene in a Kafka story, including the ominous lighting. I feel
so far removed and below him that I begin to think that I will
not be heard and that even if I am, my voice will be so feeble
that it will not be convincing. I see a street to the left that
is open and believe that I can just start walking in this direction
and escape because I see no way to convince this person of my
innocence. But then I think this will make me a fugitive and I
will be on the run the rest of my life. Then I realize that there
is no solution to this irrational punishment. And, I decide to
Why would I have this dream? Last night we watched a dramatization
of a Charles Dicken's story: Hard Times. In this, Steven the poor
mill worker is wrongly accused of robbing the bank. Oh, I think,
that's why I had this dream, and, in a sense this is true - it
laid the ground. Yet, I think why this issue and not others that
the drama could have suggested. What does this mean to me? Who
would have done this to me? My mother? I know so little about
her although I have some memory of her attempting to harm me,
physically. Could I have done something and she severely threatened
or actually punished me? I have no clear memory of such an event.
I think of others who might have treated me this way. It certainly
couldn't have been my father. He had his faults but there was
never any indication of something like this, except I knew I didn't
have his full love. He felt that I judged him (moral altitude)
and therefore he withheld a part of himself because I may have
unknowingly hurt him. Not my maternal or paternal grandmothers.
No possibility here. And, certainly not my maternal grandfather
who clearly loved me. Then it might have been my paternal grandfather
who resented the love and care my grandmother showed me and felt
himself a failure in an unhappy marriage and life.
The truth is, in the dream and in life I suppose, I was innocent.
The reality was that I was guilty; that's what others believed
to be the case.
There was no way out for me from an irrational situation except
escape. I could choose not to play by the RULES. By waking up
I took myself out of the game, because if I stayed in I would
always be guilty. I chose another road (the one less travelled).
This mirrors my life to some degree. Because I was poorly
enculturated, only at the edge of a family, I choose to be somewhat
different as a way to protect myself. If I said I didn't want
to belong then it wouldn't hurt as much if I wasn't asked to be
part of the regular family, group, faculty, art movement etc.
The other edge to such a decision is that by protecting myself,
perhaps too much and unnecessarily, I cut myself off in a way
and then experienced exactly what I wanted to avoid: isolation
and loneliness. By "belonging" one can enjoy the feeling
of comfort and being part of and supported by a larger unit. Although
probably it is in the nature of human experience to belong and
yet still feel alone.
In reality, I am not such an outsider or oddball. I relate
quite well to others, but I am always sensitive to my provisional
position. So long as I "behave" myself I can have a
small place. It is true in the world. You can not go too far afield
and not be abandoned.
In the fifty years I have practiced art I've mastered many
lessons. The sources varied. I've consulted teachers and books.
I learned much while doing the work. Trial and error are very
useful teachers. Oddly, learning the art and craft of being an
artist often relates to the lessons of living and there are surprising
cross- overs. With it all, there are always unanswered questions
and much remaining to be learned.
Often I wonder why I continue working. It seems that there
are more than enough works of art and surely enough artists doing
work. Clearly, there are multitudes of pressing life and death
issues calling out for attention in the world. Is it merely habit?
Is it totally self serving? I know that I don't have to continue.
No one will fault me for this. It is not necessary at this time
in my life, if it ever was, to provide a livelihood, at least
not directly. People will still care for me even if I don't paint
any more. I go to my studio because I am drawn to the work, and
I am ready to surrender when this magnet is no longer there.
It is clear by now that my professional "career"
as an artist will remain limited. The galleries where I have exhibited
and sold works are inactive. It's true the art market has taken
a slide, but my small hill was already in decline. It seems that
the world that I geared my efforts to is changing. Newer art forms
attract the attention of the public and whatever intelligent audience
that existed for the kind of work I am interested in is constantly
At first this all seemed like a great loss, the death of my
world and my goals. And I grieved over it. My investment was great.
If not the sole focus of my life, certainly a large part. I wonder
if these changes are just my perception, based on my age, but
find this difficult to accept. Anyhow it no longer seems so significant
I think of "officially" withdrawing from the art
world, removing the remaining work held by galleries, but this
seems irrelevant. I stop making or sending out slides and inquires.
There no longer seems any good reason to do this.
When I find myself in the studio in the morning I wonder what
brought me here. The only thing that seems to make any sense is
that this is part of my life. I enjoy the process itself: taking
my feelings and ideas, turning them over and finding a way to
represent them in some evocative way. I do this for myself and
anyone else that might find meaning and purpose in the work. While
I have this kind of energy I will continue..
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contact Norman Sasowsky at the following e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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