Periodically, we pose questions to artists about issues they face in their work and lives.
We were curious about ruts, pitfalls, or other counter-productive things from which artists make a conscious effort to steer clear. So we asked, What do you work hardest at trying to avoid in your work?
The answers range from technical or material concerns, issues of art history, creative decisions, and (in one case) become a poetic expression all their own.
Mara Superior, ceramicist
My material is porcelain, and there are so many technical issues and things that could go wrong all along the way before a piece is completed. As I’m making, I’m always trying to avoid mishandling the materials.
Porcelain is a high-risk material because it shrinks about 15 percent. Working with it is all about timing, moisture content, construction, drying slowly then bisque firing. I am interested in the beauty of the final product. I bear with the process.
To add a little more excitement into the mix, I work with an atmospheric kiln which means the results are not consistent each time as it might be in an electric kiln. As I work I am imagining the ideal outcome. There is always an adjustment and surprise when the kiln is opened.
Esthetically speaking I try to avoid being too decorative, although I love ornament. I try to balance beauty and content. I believe that some difficult content delivered in a beautiful package is intriguing and alluring.
Scott Challener, poet
Marky Kauffmann, photographer
It is really important to me to make photographs that have an originality of expression. Of course, I understand that being original is impossible. We all stand on the shoulders of the artists who have come before us. Perhaps what I’m calling originality is really creativity – having a strong creative element in my work, something no one else has thought to try. By combining darkroom techniques and digital technologies in a unique manner, I try hard to avoid having my work look like someone else’s. If someone says to me, “Your work looks like so and so’s,” I know I have failed to accomplish what I set out to do.
At the same time, whatever technical devices I use, I want them to make sense in my work. I want to avoid cheap tricks at all costs. This can be a delicate balancing act, but I strive to speak forcefully, purposefully, and skillfully with all the tools in my toolbox.
Shubha Sunder, writer
Thomas Mann put it this way in The Magic Mountain: “There are so many different kinds of stupidity, and cleverness is one of the worst.” As a writer of fiction, I work hard to avoid cleverness in my work. This means being on the lookout for things like heavy-handed metaphors, striking images that fail to resonate with the themes of the story, or sentences that twist themselves into pretzels to convey, in the end, what could be said in a few simple words. Cleverness is not the same as complexity, when the world on the page reflects and illuminates the messiness of real life. That sort of effect comes not from clever technique but from a deep exploration of characters and situations. I used to delight in showing off my pyrotechnics as a writer; now, I’m obsessed with doing everything possible to immerse a reader into the world of the story – to make the words disappear, rather then stand out.
Evan Morse, sculptor
My earliest sculptural works were so close to historical precedents that what I thought was a commentary on the past seemed to most people to be merely copying the past. Most people can’t not think Greek, Roman, Renaissance, or Rodin when they see a marble nude. This has been my struggle throughout the youth of my sculptural career and is the thing that I am continually seeking to avoid in my work. How do I make art that speaks for itself first, and its historical counterparts second? How do I make figurative sculpture that builds upon history rather than repeats it? Not to mention that all the aforementioned acts are tough ones to follow…
After some searching and experimentation, I realized that the traditional methods and materials are important to me. Taking part in the millennia-long visual conversation in the representation of the human figure is important to me. This means that the content of my work has to be strong enough on its own to both embrace its historical allusions and seem original at the same time. It’s a fine line to walk, and I’m working to avoid the pitfalls all the time.
Scott Challener is a doctoral candidate in Rutgers University. His most recent poems appear in the online publication Pangyrus (out of Cambridge) and Lana Turner Journal.
Marky Kauffmann is a photographer who curated Outspoken, an exhibition of seven female photographers that recently closed at the de Menil Gallery at Groton School. The show will travel to the Hess Gallery at Pine Manor College in Chestnut Hill next fall.
Evan Morse‘s sculpture has been exhibited at Boston City Hall, Danforth Art in Framingham, and Heritage Museums & Gardens in Sandwich, among many other venues.
Shubha Sunder‘s fiction has been appeared in Crazyhorse magazine, where it won the 2015 Crazyhorse Fiction Prize; Narrative Magazine, where it was a winner of “30 Below, Michigan Quarterly Review, and The Bangalore Review. She teaches at GrubStreet and recently completed her first novel, Boomtown Girl.
Mara Superior has received five awards from the Artist Fellowships Program since 1986. Her ceramic work is currently on exhibit in A Sense of Place, the 73rd Scripps Ceramic Annual exhibition at the Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery in Claremont, CA.
Images: Mara Superior, AMERICANA (2016), porcelain, salt glazed white stoneware, 14.5x18x2 in; Marky Kauffmann, MAGGIE” DISINTEGRATION, from the LOST BEAUTY series; Evan Morse, SEB AND CLAIRE ILLEGALLY STREAM A MOVIE (2016), hydrocal, pigment 9x18x15 in.