Learning From Roy Lichtenstein
August 31, 2015
A few weeks ago I went to Guild Hall in Easthampton to see its current show of works by Roy Lichtenstein, “Between Sea and Sky.” It was a dreary, rainy day, and the joyfulness of Lichtenstein’s work, its playfulness, its exuberance was just the thing I needed on such a day.
Accompanying the exhibit was a documentary in which Lichtenstein talked about his work and his process. I always find that documentaries about artists have something to teach me about the creative process, something that I can learn and use right away.
Lichtenstein said that when he got an idea, he went into the studio to see what he could do with it. I was struck by this statement because Lichtenstein didn’t say that he got an idea, then evaluated the idea he got, then tried to figure out whether it was worthwhile to pursue this idea.
No. He got an idea. And he went into his studio to see what he could do with it.
What would our creative process look like if we did the same thing? If we got an idea (a sentence, an image, a subject) and went to our desks to see what we could do with it. No self-censorship. No consideration about whether it was worthwhile to pursue this idea. No hemming and hawing. No deliberation. No second guessing.
We get an idea. We go to the desk to see what we could do with it.
After I heard Lichtenstein say this, I thought about how often ideas, sentences, images, memories come to me. And how often I don’t pursue them. I let them go. Or I consider them not worthwhile enough to take my time. Or I worry about whether there’s enough potential in the idea to make it worth my while to pursue it. Or I criticize it because it’s not a “big” idea.
Lichtenstein’s paintings in this show are, as its title indicates, about sky, sea, and horizons. That’s the idea he had; that’s the idea he went into his studio to work with; that’s the idea that propelled him to find new materials to work with (something like the material used on dashboards in cars; a motor to tip one of his paintings back and forth as the horizon tips when we’re on a boat); that’s the idea that he played with to produce the magnificent works in this exhibition. He didn’t say to himself, “Sea, sky, horizon, a million painters have done that; that’s not a very good idea.” He had the idea and he saw what he–and not anyone else–could do with it.
After I saw the show, I promised myself that I’d try to incorporate this way of behaving into my process. Get an idea. Go to the desk to see what I could do with it.
And the line that came to me was simple, “My house is filled with my sister’s pottery.” When I went to my desk to work from this line, I began to capture important moments that I hadn’t written about before—one, that my sister started making tiny pieces of pottery close to the time she died. I thought that they looked like votive offerings put into tombs to accompany the dead on their journeys. Another, that when my sister gave me a dinner set it took her a long time to make, she told me she wanted me to use it every day, to use it every day so that I would remember her. Remember her: I didn’t realize then that she might have been indicating her desire to kill herself a year before she did so.
Had I judged writing about my sister’s pottery to be unimportant, I never would have recalled those moments, the uncanny making of those tiny pieces, the words she said when she gave me a gift of dinnerware that she made the year before she died. I’ve been working with this since I saw Lichtenstein’s show and now I have another piece for the book I’m writing. It’s close to 1400 words long. More important, it helped me continue to unravel the conundrum of my sister’s death. And I have these words and these meanings now simply because, like Lichtenstein, I got an idea, and I went to my desk to see what I could do with it.