This is the last in a multi-part series in which naive, college student Heidi (ie Heidi from 2012) attempts to understand modern art. Join us for a wild ride. Check out part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4 here. In this installment, Heidi decides that she's going to take the plunge and try to create [modern] art.
Over the next few days, I imagine Roland threatening me with a wrinkly old man butt to get off my ass and do something (if you don't know who Roland is, check out the last installment here). I think about the countless engineering lab classes I’ve had that taught me how solar cells work by forcing me to make a solar cell, or taught me the concept of photonics by forcing me to make an opal. My only hope for understanding art may be by making it. After all, engineers and artists are both supposed to make shit.
It takes me about a week of wrinkly-assed nightmares to get over my fear of seeming incompetent and go to the art store. The art set my aunt gave me when I was ten needs some new colors and at least one new paintbrush before I can begin my work. I look the teenage store clerk in the eye and say hello as I walk in the front door, hoping my persona doesn’t scream engineer. She’s talking about her AP Art project to her co-worker as he sketches a dragon. I’m intimidated as hell.
I sneak over to the paints in the front corner and am discouraged by all the choices. I can only seem to find oil paints, but I need acrylic, because acrylic is water-soluble and I don’t want to have to deal with organic solvents like turpentine. After five minutes of stubborn refusal to ask for help, I finally stumble upon the acrylic section. I get excited when I remember that Zinc Oxide nanoparticles are used in a lot of white paints, so I check the backs of the paints to see what kinds of exciting ingredients I can find. There aren’t any nanoparticles, but I do find a deep violet paint that has quinacridone in it, which I remember is a pigment that can be used to make organic semiconductors. I definitely need this paint. It’s a gorgeous color, and I could make a solar cell out of it. Double score.
I rush home to begin painting. I change into my 'painting smock' – a new button-up shirt that fell victim to a tragic laundry accident. Because good ol’ Clyfford Still (see part 1) offered no helpful hints for How to Paint an Abstract Painting, I do a little bit of reading. I find an interview with Agnes Martin and watch it to see if she has any tips for me. Apparently, her trick is to completely empty her mind.
“Evolution,” she says. “I gave up the idea of evolution. I gave up all the theories, even the atomic theory. I don’t have any ideas myself, and I don’t believe any others, so it leaves me with an empty mind. So when something comes into it, you can see it.” I’m not sure that I want to clear my head, even temporarily, of concepts and ideas I have worked hard to understand, but it if will help me understand art, then so be it.
And so I lay on the brown and blue-checkered carpet of my apartment in my paint shirt, knees pointing up, eyes closed. I itch to turn on inspiring music, but am worried it would give me ideas so I opted for silence.
I think of nothing. I think of the word “Nothing” spelled out. N-O-T-H-I-N-G. Ts and Os and Ns and Gs….. Yellow, purple, red, squares, rectangles and checkers. Itchy. Tired. Silence. Something.
I can’t think of nothing. I sit up and begin fiddling with my painting station. I lay out paper towels under my odd assortment of cheap paintbrushes dumped from the plastic shopping bag. Cadmium Yellow Deep Pure, Quinacridone Violet, Sapphire, Metallic Pure Gold, True Red, Medium Yellow, White, Lamp (Ebony) Black, and Metallic Blue Topaz are the colors I have to work with. Because I have not yet been inspired, I decide to let fate do the work. I close my eyes and wave it over the colors, willing one to jump out at me. Violet. I then mix up my brushes and without looking grab a brush that is basically ruined by dried, stubborn crusty black paint. Violet paint squirts onto the white paper plate, the scratchy brush dips in, and strokes that are not my own appear on the painting. Long aggressive swipes originate from some invisible epicenter in the lower right corner. A star appears, or a flower with it’s petals floating upwards. Or maybe it’s a purple meteor shower. I love the sound of the brush scratching even more than watching the colors appear.
The next color chosen by fate is Sapphire, and the brush is soft and narrow. More strokes appear, covering the violet, smearing the violet, filling in white space. After each color, I get ideas. Yellow would pop against the blue and violet, and somehow fate allows me to pick yellow. Red would look amazing as the next color, but my hand grabs gold instead. As the pile of unused paintbrushes gets smaller and smaller, I wish more and more desperately that I my hand will close around the red bottle. I make it through the entire stack of brushes without touching red once. After all the white space is filled, I reach for the coveted red and paint the outside edge of the canvas the bold color. ‘Red’ is now complete. It symbolizes the freedom of giving up your strongest desire in order to make something bigger.
As the painting lays on the floor drying, I stare at it. I stare until my husband comes home, and we stare at it together. I ask him what the painting says to him, and he says it looks like the inside of the flower. I don’t correct him, because to him it is a flower.
The painting’s probably not that good, even for a flower. But at least we are staring. At something I made. And for the moment, I have forgotten about atoms.