Peter J. Blackburn discusses the ongoing personal challenges some artists experience throughout the course of their career. This essay is part two of a continuing series. Your responses are appreciated!
Prolegomenon: prefatory remarks ; specif: a formal essay or critical discussion serving to introduce and interpret. Merriam Webster’s Dictionary
For the first time in my memory I did the improbable. I stopped printing. With the snap of a finger and two shakes of a lamb’s tail, I simply stopped printing. Gone went the gum and—poof—went the paper. That, my friend, was more than three months ago. There I stood washing a fairly large diptych in the sink—a monochrome pair, in fact, which is somewhat a rare occurrence in my mostly tricolor practice. As I watched the bits of unexposed black pigment detach from the paper and float down the drain, like I’ve witnessed thousands of times before, a sudden unexplainable feeling—more like a sweeping impulse, a kind of vertigo—overcame me within the course of a few moments. I simply couldn’t wait to finish the print and put it away—all away—far, far away. In a manner of speaking, I pitched all my images and materials back in the vault, swung the huge, heavy door closed, gave the combination tumbler a quick spin ‘round the dial, and walked away with a tremendous, quite audible sigh of relief.
Wait. Actually, if truth be told, the experience could more accurately be described as tossing all the stuff in the back of a car trunk, releasing the handbrake, and shoving the wretched behemoth over a dark abyss. There now. That’s the picture, all right.
Are you surprised? I was. Still am. Well, sort of.
My usual custom is to break from printing during the winter when cold weather and limited UV opportunity make sun exposures uninviting. But this most recent abandonment of my practice began in July, one of four prime printing months when I usually expect to produce dozens of tricolor images each week. I have always printed each and every summer without fail. To simply lock it all up—out of sight, out of mind and forget about it all—was highly irregular and quite baffling, indeed.
Our prolegomenon series began by asking the question why. Why do you create? Your responses were thoughtful, provocative, and very much appreciated. Now, I move further along to the questions of why and how do you continue to create? How do you respond to diminished energy levels, distractions, fatigue, jaded vision, lackluster performance, jumbled ideas, creative confusion—and burnout? Will you be just as thrilled and just as fulfilled when print number ten thousand is in the wash as when you rinsed that very first one way back when? Why do you keep going? And what happens when, like me, you hit the wall—when just the mere sight of a brush, a tube of pigment, even a camera, precipitates a bout of churning nausea.
Sometimes an artist will plod along in work and activity until a complete exhaustion forces an abrupt end. Others take a long trip to other lands in a concerted effort clear their palates. And there are those who renew their strength through conversation and interaction with fellow creative colleagues on a regular basis. I know one photographer who insists on scheduling moments of silence and isolation to keep his creative energy rejuvenated.
Having no time for a breakdown, and little funds for a trip abroad, I chose to deal with my rogue inclination to cease all printing at once and until further notice by simply using the rest of the summer to enjoy other areas of interest, reading being one of them. While at the library the very next day my eye caught a display book featuring a biography of Alfred Hitchcock. A long admirer of his films, I snatched the book off the shelf along with a few pertinent movies and spent some time exploring the creative mindset and methods of this most enigmatic phantom of cinema suspense.
From Blackmail and Sabotage to Rear Window and Family Plot, I devoured one masterful piece after another. Several were viewed more than once. As a color gum printer, I am drawn to early Technicolor and love the splendid hues in Rope, Dial M for Murder, and Vertigo. Still, I gained a new appreciation of black and white though Strangers on a Train and the original version of The Man Who Knew Too Much. It would take little effort to peel off several quick paragraphs relating to you how the delightful imagery and thought-provoking reading knocked around new ideas in my mind, how my vision was renewed and refreshed, and how the unexpected Saboteur of my summer printing agenda actually helped to create new goals and ignite fresh energy. Oh, that Bernard Hermann could have written a score for one of my gum series as he so aptly wrote for Mr. Hitchcock. I know—keep dreaming—but, boy, what a dream!
If you are just beginning your chosen alternative process or have been working at it for quite some time, I imagine seasons of lulls, detours, and crippling shutdowns will come your way. Perhaps one is just around the corner. Do you have a Lifeboat to uphold you though those times? Sustaining a long and consistent career is no Easy Virtue. Face it, printing in chrome, platinum, iron, and silver can, in the long haul, be Murder! —both when we get into a Frenzy over frustrating process issues, and when we find the will to go on with our work challenged, even short-circuited with a sudden case of Stage Fright.
Now it is your turn. Describe some of the circumstances which have driven you to become temporarily Psycho in your career. Have you experienced dry seasons, times when you felt like giving up, occasions where you questioned going on and considered throwing in the towel to pursue other interests? What are your sources of motivation, refreshment, and encouragement when the road gets bumpy and you find yourself at a dead end?