Book Review: The Creative Path: a view from the studio on the making of art

The Creative Path: A View from the Studio on the Making of Art, by Carolyn Schlam, published May 2018.

This book is a recounting by the author of her beginnings in the 1960’s as a painter and her experiences and insights with her mentor, painter Norman Rabinowitz, a “Mr. Miyagi” type instructor. The introduction describes the influence of Norman on the author’s work ethic and practice and Norman’s influence is stated throughout the book. The book is organized into chapters expressing different stages or thought processes within an artist’s potential career: Inspiration, Your Instrument, Intention, Ways and Means, Truth and Beauty, Commitment, Observer/Critic, An Artist’s Life, Voices, and finishing up with The Big Picture. The book is part recollection, part instruction, part art history, part exercise. At the end of each chapter are exercises or asana’s that draw on the topics and principles described in the chapter. And an appendix includes notes and texts written by Norman, a bibliography, and acknowledgemnts.

The book is easy to read and is written in a conversational style with a philosophy of art loosely following the Gestalt philosophy of visual perception and promoting Godly inspiration as the source of an individual’s art.

This is a “painter’s book” more so than an “artist’s book”, with emphasis on the author’s perception of paint on canvas and the associated colors and textures. In the chapter Truth and Beauty, the author states “Think about this. There is something about overly bright colors that rings false. The reason is that the real world is not candy-land. There is a reason that we dress our children in bright colors but we choose off-colors for ourselves. The atmosphere of the Earth has the effect of softening color. Soft, off-color has more reality. Things that are too smooth, too shiny, too bright, appear slick and false, a comic book reality.”

While the text is easy to read, there are descriptions and uses of terms, such as synesthesia, percept, and ekphrasis, that vary considerably from the commonly understood meanings. I’ve been doing some serious research over the years regarding the psychological and neurological underpinnings of art making and I have some disagreements with how this approach is handled by the author. The author makes some claims that are difficult to reconcile from a scientific perspective. For example, she gives an incomplete and generally incorrect description of synesthesia, which is the stimulation of a sense perception by an unrelated sensory stimulus, i.e. seeing letters in different colors or perceiving certain odors related to particular musical notes. The author implies that all artists have synesthesia but describes its influence with ordinary sensory responses: “our ears help us to create noisy patches in our work…our sense of taste helps the eye to select colors and textures that make the menu of the painting…our sense of smell helps us to make color choices that create a palette of complementary scents…our sense of touch leads us to make wet and dry and rough and smooth sensations to pleasure us.” Another term is “percept”, which in the science of perception is simply the thing that is perceived by our sensory apparatus (eyes, ears, nose, skin, tongue, etc.) according to the capabilities of those sensory organs. In this book, the author describes the percept as a kind of thing, a “pure feeling”, unemotional, neutral, unordered and uncategorized sensations “ready to be organized by the mind” that “does not play by any rules other than those we make up.” The percept, as described by the author, is influenced by our experiences, biases, education and skill and is how artists develop their unique style, which is described as “simply a set of formalized preferences. Artists do not choose a style; their preferences create one.”

While an individual’s own unique experiences, knowledge, biases, skills, etc. contribute to an artist’s style, it is not correct to say this is a percept, it is more correctly described as a person’s way of being, or as biologist Jakob von Uexkull termed it, umwelt. Later, in the chapter Ways and Means, the author then contradicts herself by saying “…the more you give up your likes and dislikes, your prejudices, biases, assumptions, conclusions, judgments, in other words, the more open you are, the more you you will be and the more individual your work will become. You will not make your art. Rather, you will arrive at it.” In truth, your prejudices, knowledge, skill, etc. are the foundations of your art. Your job as an artist is to be aware of their influence and inspiration and respond according to the type of art you’re making, not ignore everything in your life that drives your desire to make art. However, the author’s concept follows from her belief that “the work we make flows from God and when our art fails it’s because we’re “futzing” with what God created.” So, if God is the creator of our art, where is the artist? Later, in the Commitment chapter, the author reverts back, stating “Our choices are determined by what interests us, what we do well, our values, what we think and want to say…These predilections basically set our course in art and will limit our choices.”

This book contains many contradictory approaches to art making. The author describes and promotes one way of making art, then later describes a totally different way. This isn’t really new. As an artist myself, I encounter many contradictory situations. I change my mind all the time. But this book seems to be intended to be an artist’s guide despite the retrospective or autobiographical feel. The author’s goal or intention is unclear, the tidbits of artistic guidance are scattered. Perhaps, as an artist’s guide, it is eventually too personal. The descriptions of Norman and his method of teaching were interesting to read, sometimes funny, also sometimes contradictory, and his personal definitions of some terms informs the reader why the author has developed her own definitions, as described above. Reading the book frustrated me because I have read books with similar intent that were so much better.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.