"Have You Forgotten Their Wet, Sleepy Fragrance?" by Erik Hansen
By Judith A. Ross for Talking Writing
There are no shortcuts to well-executed art – be it painting, writing, music, or photography. The artist must be well-grounded in and attentive to every step of the process.
In their book, Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking, David Bayles and Ted Orlando write, “Even talent is rarely distinguishable, over the long run, from perseverance and lots of hard work.”
Knowing one’s craft and putting in the hours of work may not reap commercial benefits, but it can result in work that has both quality and depth. According to Bayles and Orlando:
“The function of the overwhelming majority of your artwork is simply to teach you how to make the small fraction of your artwork that soars. One of the basic and difficult lessons that every artist must learn is that even the failed pieces are essential. X-rays of famous paintings reveal that even master artists sometimes made basic mid-course corrections (or deleted really dumb mistakes) by overpainting the still-wet canvas.”In an environment where new media provides numerous opportunities for experimentation and self-promotion, it is especially crucial that artists and writers be well steeped in the basics of their craft.
The ability to first recognize mistakes and then edit and correct one's own work will make the difference between experiments that take others to new and exciting places and ones that leave them mired waist-deep in muck.
Nowhere is this tension more clearly illustrated than in the new online literary magazine, Electric Literature (EL). Some of EL’s experiments are more successful than others.
For example, EL recently delivered to its readers a short story by Rick Moody over Twitter. While the piece may never have made it into traditional print, it wasn’t meant to.
Instead, Moody crafted a story that fit into the new context. Two people meet online and then the ensuing May-December romance is described from each of their perspectives through a series of 140-character tweets sent out every ten minutes over three days.
While the format was difficult to follow, I continued to think about the story long after the final tweet. As one reviewer noted, these two could have been real people sending messages about a real encounter to anyone willing to read them.
Moody didn’t just dash this off, it was a carefully calculated experiment. In an interview with PBS Newshour, he explains how the story took shape, noting that it took as long to write as a traditional short story.
The EL blog, on the other hand, seems to feature writers who are trying to improvise complicated jazz riffs before they can successfully play a basic scale. These folks don’t yet know how to self-edit the way that Moody does. And this is where some outside editorial advice and shaping would help the writers and their readers.
The title of one blogged story, “Jeffrey, Vincent, Jeffrey and Vincent’s Father and the Woman in the Photograph” is a preview of run-on sentences and dense paragraphs that suffocate rather than enliven. The liberal use of the four-letter word for excrement was another turn-off.
This isn’t literature, electric or otherwise, but rather the kind of self-conscious, stream-of-conscious, navel-gazing more appropriate for a personal blog rather than an online magazine.
Other parts of EL’s site also strike me as work that should have been painted over while the canvas was still wet – starting with the artwork on the homepage.
Judgments about art and literature are subjective, of course. Even so, the more you develop your “chops” in any particular discipline, the better your work will be. Take the photograph now posted on this site.
Erik Hansen has been a commercial photographer for many years. Everything he learned during those years informs his art – as does his knowledge of history, politics, film, literature, and a whole bunch of other stuff.
I happened to be in his studio when he was developing the image at the top of this post. He builds a model and then with lighting and other techniques brings the small-scale scene to life. He does not digitally manipulate his images: The magic happens before he clicks the shutter.
There may have been one or two happy accidents in making this image, but only a skilled photographer would be able to create and then capture the elements that make it so evocative – such as the funnels of light, the shine on the water, and the textures of the land on either side.
And that’s just the technical portion of his work. The ideas behind his photographs inspire viewers to superimpose their own stories over these imaginary landscapes.
That intent wrapped up in photographic expertise is what transforms this shot into a work of art. Erik not only enjoys every step of his process, he has practiced each one many, many times. As a result, he can make images that soar.