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Columns : Art Life - Susan Mackay Last Updated: Feb 6, 2017 - 2:32:04 PM

By Susan Mackay
Nov 25, 2006 - 6:33:15 PM

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While at Art College, to pass our degree, it was necessary to complete a lengthy dissertation.   We seemed to spend all of our third year in terrified discussions as to how on earth we could actually complete such a monster in our fourth and final year.   A large percentage of our overall mark was accredited to our dissertation so we were rightly frightened. It took me a long time to settle on a topic that deeply interested me.   I don’t remember the title now, but it was suitably impressive!!! It was while writing my dissertation that I discovered the work of artist Richard Long.  


Long’s first pivotal piece is a photograph of ‘A Line Made by Walking’.   In uncut grass Long walked a narrow line that imprinted the grass – he then photographed the evidence of his walk.


Following this piece Long’s work stretched out over the years to include large concentric rings, marked on a map that he walked over moors.   Two large rings and lines created in the environment made from the indigenous materials.   For example, “Walking a Circle in Mist”   Scotland 1986, and “Circle in the Andes” 1972. The photographs of the giant sculptures made of snow or wood or hills are stunning.   They often look like fairy rings or prehistoric remnants.


My interest in his work was primarily as an example of Carl Jung’s theories of the circle as an archetype.   However by studying his work I discovered an ideology in art that I had never previously seen. The bulk and substance of Long’s work is about his experience of creating.   We the gallery visitor can see the evidence, but the moment, the truth, belongs absolutely to Long.   His work also re-emphasises this point by being so transient in the environment.   Often he made marks out of mud that would inevitably be washed away in the rain.   He also documented throwing water into the air.   An act of creation that is truly ephemeral.


Long documents the process of creation and instead of then creating a product that would have a marketable value; he claims the essence of the experience as his own.   Looking at his work in the gallery space, one is painfully aware that we are witnessing an almost spiritual act that is non quantifiable.


What I find fascinating about this focusing on the process as a new realm of art, is that process has been going on for years, but more often hidden in sketch books than shared in a gallery.   Ironically Long’s process to create IS his creation, however in the past, the act of creation was typically for a painting or sculpture, and the process would include sketches, notes, observations, maquettes, etc. Contrary to the image of artists working like devils, mad in the moment of inspiration, creating masterpieces, the truth was more accurately a lot of time spent in the process.


While helping at my children’s school with arts and crafts I was fascinated and excited to see that they are taught exactly the same method of process as I was at Art College.   The idea is discussed.   Then sketches and ideas are jotted on paper. The sketches were then reviewed.   Which was the best?   Most successful?   Once a ‘design’ was chosen the children would work out a larger template.   Again, discussions and appraisals.   Finally the ‘piece’ was created.   A final review was made regarding challenges, happy accidents, and which pieces of their colleagues they liked and why.


Of course Richard Long’s work is a far cry from what I have just described, yet the intention behind this focused and thoughtful procedure is the same.


In my experience, it is process that gives potency to so much art.   It is through drawing sketches, discussing ideas, reviewing composition, light, shade, content, relevance, comprehension etc, that truly magnificent and meaningful work is created. In other words it is successful because of thorough considered observation and background work.   This background work is the place where not just the aesthetics are worked out, but the ideas are worked through - often taking the artist on an unexpected journey.



I often forget to express the process in my own work, feeling somewhat like Yves Klein, believing the interpretation should belong to the audience. Recently I was asked about my work by a little 6 year old girl who had been told by her mother that I painted in my blood.   I took some time out to explain to 2 young children, why I had painted with my own blood.   I showed them some sketches I had done, I told them about going to the doctor to have the blood taken. I explained my ideas about what blood meant to me.   I asked them what their blood meant to them.   We discussed DNA and genes.   At the end, they said “Cool”, a kids’ word, but I could see it was no platitude. They got it, and required no further explanation.


I think it is exciting and wonderful that we now have the opportunity to break through old ideas of “product” that can so often strangle creativity, to witness the moments of inspiration as they happen.   By sharing the process of creation, artists break down the wall of incomprehension that can separate art and artist from the rest of the community.   When the process is explained there is usually relief and absolute comprehension.



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Art Life - Susan Mackay
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