The latest artist showcase comes from Ted Silar, a writer (of music and literature), inventor and artist. In this piece, Ted talks about his ‘Rabbit Dreams’ series – which started as a doodle, but has become an experiment about line and colour.
When did your interest in art/creating begin?
When I was a boy, I enjoyed reading comic books. (Rue the day my mother threw my collection out.) Not exactly an unconventional pastime. But it inspired me to want to be a cartoonist. Which is a little more unconventional. I mean, comic-book reading didn’t inspire my buddies likewise. Why, I’m not sure, but I guess it was because I was never satisfied—I was always editing the cartoon—just like I was always editing the book I was reading, or the movie I was watching—in my head, the better to make it align with my own predilections.
But I never really got around to cartooning. The fact that I got glasses at 8 may have subconsciously re-directed my interests from the visual to the verbal and the aural. I seem to remember considering high art, too. But, while I liked high art of the traditional kind, high art in the time of my youth meant nothing if not Abstract Expressionism, which I did not like. Yes, I was one of those Philistines who thought, “A monkey could do that.” Funny how it turned out it was all a CIA plot, rendering all us clueless Philistines right by default! Indeed, it is funny what a grip modernism had on all of us. I wrote reams and reams of incomprehensible stream-of-consciousness poetry for years and years until I got wise, because incomprehensible stream-of-consciousness poetry was the thing one did. I write highly formal poetry nowadays.
Many years later, in San Francisco, I ran across this great book called The Zen of Seeing. It showed me a way out of the over-academic, over-intellectualized, fad-mad mentality, a way I could draw things realistically without “studying” how to draw. My college notebooks are full of rather faithful cartoon renditions of teachers and fellow students drawn with the Zen method. I also kept having these ideas, these concepts for works of art, and I was always trying to induce friends of mine who were trained artists to realize my concepts. No cigar of course. They wanted to do what they wanted to do.
Finally, with the advent of the 21st century, I said to hell with this. Do or die. I had this concept in mind—a picture so complex that it would have “scale”—that it would look different from different distances and perspectives. My original dream was to stand on a ladder next to a huge canvas, like Georges Seurat, only doodling away instead of dabbing away. I also imagined my huge canvas up on blocks and me rolling around doodling away beneath it on an old-fashioned, wooden mechanic’s creeper like a supine Michaelangelo splashing on the Sistine ceiling.
I soon discovered that a regular old sheet of 18 x 24 coldpress and a sagging barcalounger was more than sufficient. Do you realize how long it takes to fill up just one sheet with doodles? I don’t know about you, but it took me years.Yes, I didn’t work on it every day. But even if I had, I am sure it would have eaten up the days like gangbusters.
I found working on it almost therapeutic. Whenever I couldn’t concentrate on anything else, I could always take up my pad and doodle. It seemed to use a different part of my brain, a part of my brain where there was no pain, where everything was just jigsaw puzzles or motorcycle maintenance or something. Even the more difficult sections, sections that, unlike strictly-defined doodling, required care and pre-planning, like drawing Celtic knots or leprechauns, didn’t seem to cause me the kind of anxiety everything else could.
I used to think things like art therapy were just a bunch of psychobabble. Personal experience has re-vamped my view wholesale.
What is your starting point for each piece?
My inspiration for Rabbit Dreams was totally conceptual. Long ago, I read James Gleick’s book, Chaos: Making a New Science, and, instead of inspiring me to make new science, it inspired me to make new art. While most of the book is about science and math, it does discuss art at a certain point. Gleick suggests that older art has more going for it than strict modernist art:
“A Beaux-Arts paragon like the Paris Opera has no scale because it has every scale. An observer seeing the building from any distance finds some detail that draws the eye. The composition changes as one approaches and new elements of the structure come into play.”
He compares the Paris Opera House to a New York skyscraper. The skyscraper, he contends, has no “scale.” It is so simple that it looks the same whether you look at it from near, far, or yonder. “Simple shapes are inhuman,” asserts Gleick. “They fail to resonate with the way nature organizes itself or with the way human perception sees the world.”
Such passages inspired me to create a “fractal,” “scalar” artwork, a work inspired by natural organization and human perception, a work of such complexity that it would look different on different scales.
That was my starting point—simple complexity. Later on, my doodling in my college notebooks gave me a way to work—I would simply pile little doodle upon little doodle until the whole, fortuitously, without malice aforethought, generated its own overall structures, structures you can only see if you step back.
It started out as just that and nothing more—a fractal/scalar doodle. But gradually, it became madness. I started in the lower left hand corner and worked up and right. As you can see, the lower left is the most abstract, formless, inchoate, doodlish. But at some point, as I worked my way to the right, the idea of the Rabbit came to me. The idea of all of this warped chaos emerging out of the dreams of a Rabbit. I thought of how the innocent little bunny-rabbit had plagued, almost destroyed Australia. All that mindless generation and creation and multiplication. Which reminded me of all that mindless human generation and creation and multiplication that has brought us to the present sorry state. At some point in the process, Fukushima blew up. And thus was the right third of the painting decided for me, fortuitously. The right third of the doodle had to become representational. I discovered I had worked my way backwards through time, first drawing the horrible, monstrous nightmare, and then, at the end of my process, drawing that which had first engendered it. The Rabbit. The mindless people. The nuclear generators. Fukushima. Kilroy.
After I had finished my 18 x 24 drawing, I had it scanned and printed out 8 1/2 by 11 prints on some nice, thick, but tragically absorbent paper. Step two. Coloring. Trying to figure out how to color the thing made me envy those cartoonists who have their own colorists. “You do it!” I would cry in my sleep. But, once again, I found this work therapeutic, choosing the pens, testing them out, choosing the colors, trying to keep in between the lines. In my first version, Rabbit Dreams I, I had two rules for coloring: Don’t put two areas of the same color next to each other and color things the color they should be (i.e., rabbit=brown, sky=blue). It wound up chaotic. The eye has trouble making sense of so many random colors all mixed promiscuously together. Rabbit Dreams II ended up with a preponderance of redness, and that seems easier on the eye. In Rabbit Dreams III and IV, I tried to limit the palette, in III to black and grey and white, and in IV to shades of purple that ended up looking mostly pink. Now I understood why movie directors use “color palette.”
Unfortunately, these versions only exist in digital form now. When I came back to my folder of inked-in prints after a few months, what did I find but the colored ink had all faded away into the paper. Thank goodness for scanning. Oh, well. Live and learn. I now know what kind of paper not to use.
In my recent, wholly digital versions, Rabbit Dreams V and VI, I went back to my first two rules, which should have resulted in a rainbow kaleidoscope of color, and yet somehow they came out predominantly orange-ish and blue-ish. Beats me why.
Who/what influences your work?
Chaos theory, of course, as I have already adumbrated. Also, I like pure, traditional designs, Islamic and East Indian carved latticework screens, Minoan pottery and fresco, Neolithic cave painting, Anasazi and Mimbres pottery, American Indian drawing, painting and design. There is a “who” behind this kind of art, but her name has always been “Anonymous.”
What do you hope the viewer gets from your work?
There must be 200 eyes in Rabbit Dreams. I am not sure why. It reminds me of La Maesta, which I actually saw one time in person in Siena. All those figures’ eyes have these rich brown pupils staring out at you. It’s hypnotic. I think they are made of blobs of brown paint that stick out from the canvas kind of like what Van Gogh does with his flower petals. (I saw a show of Van Gogh flower paintings at the Met a long time ago, and, if you look at them from the side, they look like molded, three-dimensional relief maps of mountain ranges.) It is probably not an accident that theMaesta came to my mind, because it is a very complex painting, full from one end to the other with figures and decoration and illumination. Someday I would like to illuminate Rabbit Dreams with gold in classic Sienese fashion. I am joking, of course, although I did use gold- and silver-colored paint-pens on some of the versions, trying to get that illuminated effect.
I want all those eyes to hypnotize my viewers. I want the variety of colors and shapes to overwhelm them, inundate them, terrorize them, in a way reminiscent of Schiller’s concept of the sublime.
I also want them to appreciate the visual jokes. For the record, I would like to state that, although I did take the images of the rabbit and the leprechaun and the Celtic knots and the Aztec hieroglyphs off of the internet, I drew them freehand, Zen of Seeing–style, I did not trace them or copy and paste them.
Much as the work is obviously ridiculous, ludicrous, patently absurd, goofy, laughable, nevertheless, I hope that viewers at the same time see the deadly serious point.
I think Fukushima is the most horrible thing that has ever happened to the world. Ever. And the laughter that I express in the work is the insane laughter of utter despair and utter futility.
What do you think about the term outsider art? Is there a term that you think works better?
Well, on the one hand, I am more than happy to fit into any category at all, as one of my biggest problems has always been that people don’t know how to categorize me—and you need people to categorize you, or they just don‘t know what to make of you, and if they don’t know what to make of you, they end up standing there staring at you with glazed eyes like they just saw a hippogriff without a clue as to what a hippogriff is. I don’t blame them, I guess. My resume is somewhat diverse. I make outsider art; I write and play rock and roll, garage band, reggae, blues, soul, country, jazz, classical (among other genres); I write poetry, short stories, novels, literary criticism, history, essays (among other genres). I am a college professor, but I know the low-life, the working-man’s life, just as intimately. I have been a cab driver, a bricklayer, an auto-worker, a typist, a data enterer, a janitor, an accountant, a ticket-taker, a dishwasher, a chauffeur, a ditch-digger (among a raft of other bottom-of-the-feeding-chain jobs).
Such a polymorphous gallimaufry, it must be conceded, does not readily lend itself to abbreviation. (Another category I probably fit in is “People Who Use Phrases Like ‘Polymorphous Gallimaufry’ Too Much.”) So if people want to see me as “Outsider,” and suddenly that makes me (and more importantly, my work) clear and graspable and sensible and accessible to them, then “Outsider” I gladly shall be, and I am commissioning t-shirts to the effect as we speak.
On the other hand, “Outsider Art” is somebody else’s concept. (I would never have called it that. If it was up to me, I’d change the name every week: “Rebel Art,” “Whoozit Art,” “Art for Regular People” “Mxyzptlk Art,” “”Anti-anti-art,” “Art Linkletter.”)
Which reminds me of something. How I hate how my life, in this, the latter day, revolves ever more relentlessly around trying to resign myself to aligning myself with rules, standards, formats, concepts, made up by somebody else—with constantly struggling to fit my round self into somebody else’s square holes. Take computers, for instance. (I’d rather not. I am one of those Luddites who is always on a computer, trying to make a mark, cut a shape on the air, find an audience, for god’s sake, on the only outlet available under the current dispensation.) I just spent the whole last year desperately funneling the free-floating, unbridled, untamed, rampant panoply of my art, my music, and my writing into the bone-crushing and merciless whalebone corsets, er, I mean “formats,” demanded by whoever it is who makes the confounded official internet rules thou shalt not break on pain of low hit-counts or worse. See me as I am, sitting there bleary-eyed in the wee-est of hours, shaking my head to clear it, trying to make sense of some egregiously counter-intuitive software no person in his or her right mind would ever have written that way were they not a reclusive, robotic Silicon Valley software hack laboring under a hard deadline. Unfortunately, the better I get at thinking and doing things this engineer’s way instead of my own way, the better I get at squeezing myself kicking and screaming into some faceless engineer’s grotesque, trackless, feckless, clueless Grand Guignol of a mindscape. In other words, the better I get at operating the stupid software, the more my own unique personality rots into little dripping pools of palpitating deracinated sludge.
On the third hand, there is the vexing question of whether you can be an outsider artist when you are a college professor with a Ph.D.
I think that, when most people try to envision “outsider artist,” something involving the Ozarks and learning disabilities often comes to the fore. While I like the kind of art that comes out of Ozarks and learning disabilities a lot, I do think that maybe mine could stand rightfully beside it, if given a chance.
I am, in my defense, though, an English professor, not an art professor. More to the point, I am an adjunct professor, which is an outsider if there ever was one. A form of madness.
And I’m 64 and only starting now. And I have no connections in the art biz whatsoever. And I never took a drawing or painting or any kind of art class. Although I did take art history courses. So I can talk the art history talk a bit.
I feel like an outsider, that’s for sure. That ought to be enough, I should think.
What are you working on at the moment?
I have been working with Paint.net, sucking the color out of all my drawings, tracing out all the outlines in black, and making a coloring book. That way I don’t have to do the coloring!
I am also creating digital versions of my work. Rabbit Dreams V and VI are digital coloring book versions colored in using Paint.
Digital painting is a mixed blessing. On the bright side, you can fix mistakes easily, clean everything and sharpen everything up, keep earlier drafts, etc. Also, you can get an almost infinite series of “color gradients,” or subtle variations in color. You can also sample the color of any picture you can find. I have been enjoying looking up a photo of a green lizard or a red robin or a lapis lazuli necklace or a chestnut Rembrandt background, sampling the color, and pouring it into a “puzzle-piece” segment of my coloring book.
On the dark side, Paint.net is very absolute. When you fill in an area with color, it is utterly and completely that color. No variation from one end to the other. None of the infinite gradations you can effect with pigment within an area of basically the same tint.
Likewise, you can’t get physical texture: everything is flat. And some of my favorite colors are impossible. Silver and gold come out dull grey and greenish-yellow. Whereas, in the snail world, you can buy shiny, glittering gold and silver paint at Walmart and illuminate your real-life painting—like a Sienese master!—if you so desire.
One other really annoying thing about Paint.net.
As I have said, I start out with coloring-book style, jigsaw-puzzle-style outlines, black outlines. But when I accidentally touch a black outline or area with that paint-bucket tool, I have to wait for half an hour while that little “Computer-At-Work” circle churns away, slowly re-coloring every single black line and area in the composition. Watch out for the black! I have to keep reminding myself. And then I always forget. And then I have to go out for a sandwich while it churns. Oh, well.
Where do you see your work taking you in the future?
First of all, I’d like to paint in the large 18 x 24 drawing of Rabbit Dreams, using oil paint or acrylic on paper, something substantial. But, as usual, I can’t decide on the color scheme. When I just put any color anywhere, as in Rabbit Dreams I, it’s just chaos, the barrage of different colors makes no sense to the eye. It’s a visual nightmare. Which is kind of what it was supposed to be I guess. But then I can’t make up my mind on how to limit the color palette, either, as inRD II, III, and IV (and to some extent, V and VI), none of which I find entirely satisfactory.
Things like Rabbit Dreams take so long. Intricate designs like that just seem to take forever. I would like to find a way to speed up the process. The thing is, the next thing I want to do is to start drawing human figures, using Zen of Seeing techniques. I can draw anything if I have enough time. But I can’t draw representational figures facilely. And so, there goes huge blocks of time again. When you are my age, time being, as they say, of the essence, you don’t want to devote too much of it to hopeless causes or endless projects.
In particular, I am thinking of making a big doodle 18 x 24 drawing along the same lines as Rabbit Dreams, but all of faces taken from real life. I imagine sitting by the side of a well-traveled street and doing one quick drawing of a face after another. I will probably have to scale back my aspirations, as usual, when push comes to shove. But something along that line is my plan, at any rate.
I would also like to do some realistic oil paintings, using classic techniques, of unconventional subjects. I have two ideas right now. There is a trailer in a trailer park I like, and would like to immortalize. And I would like to paint a bunch of very old people visiting a very very old person in an old folk’s home and call it “Mother’s Day.”