Thursday, April 7, 2011

marks and symbols

I have for some time been trying to develop a graphic language of my own that I  -- and, I hope, others -- will recognize as mine.  This has been a sporadic effort, and I have given relatively little quality attention to it, partly because when I do address the issue, I am quickly frustrated.

Recently, thinking about the desire that my work reflect my Colorado Plateau surroundings, I wondered if petroglyph and pictograph art might provide the key to a language of my own.  I pulled out our books on the topic, and enthusiastically began marking paintings with Anasazi designs. Many of these are abstract symbols of the natural world -- sun, moon, earth -- that I thought might blend well with my work.  The example at left, from Jim Beard's website, gives the flavor of such designs.  After a few experiments, however, I decided that they don't work.  Or, rather, the designs do, but I am not comfortable with superficially pulling meaningful marks from a culture that is not my own.  Even though I intend no harm, and even try to honor the designs, it seems almost offensive to me, to simply lift  whole images into my work.  Also, it feels as I imagine it would feel to copy Chinese characters onto my paintings:  I don't understand fully their meaning, and they are not my voice.

So, my quest continues.  Georgia O'Keeffe famously quoted Arthur Wesley Dow's admonition to "fill space in a beautiful way" as she painted, and it is also one of my maxims.  This requires, however, a spiritual and/or philosophical integrity that goes beyond just the aesthetics of the painting, and I learned something about myself in my brief winter experiment with Native American symbolism.  Back to the hard bench: I have to develop my own marks, not borrow someone else's, no matter how powerful and beautiful they may be.


Rebecca Crowell said...

Great topic--! Some of my favorite graphic symbols are really universal, like the arc and the triangle, so it seems a little odd that I regard them as personal. But maybe that makes perfect sense. These simple forms can hold many meanings, different for each of us.

I've also found some of my abstract language through scribbling and doodling without much thought. It's interesting what the hand comes up with when the subconscious takes over.

But even though I have a decent vocabulary of marks and symbols, I still always sense that my language needs to grow, that there is more to say and some expressive image or mark that is just out of reach. Definitely keeps things interesting.

Nancy said...

My experience echoes yours, Rebecca. I found the draft of this post waiting in blog limbo from April, and actually posted it together with Alphabets (May 6) and Scribbles (May 8). I'm looking forward to some active focus on marks in the next few weeks.

May 8, 2011 7:36 AM

Carol Beth Icard said...

I've just read a recent blog post by Rebecca Crowell which referenced your blog about mark making. Like creating layers, I believe mark making is something that is essential to work that is basically non-objective. Mark making is essential to my own work anyway, and I'm discovering an evolution as I develop my voice. Where I used to rely on actual words, which I then obscured, I now tend to use shapes and what looks like symbolic language. My sense is that it deepens my work in both the physical sense and metaphorical sense.

Janice Mason Steeves said...

What an interesting topic and one I've been dealing with in my own work lately.

I tried on using marks in my work that were inspired by the Celts in their tombs in Ireland or the carvings on the Standing Stones made by the Picts in Scotland. But the marks didn't feel as though they were mine.

I tend to make marks on my work very quickly and without conscious thought. The marks seem to be so repetitive, yet somehow I like them. I feel so free when I'm making them, and although I end up covering over many of them in the final painting, I do know they are there.