Several years ago, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art hosted a comprehensive exhibition of work by Vincent Van Gogh. The paintings brought to life images already culturally ubiquitous. I knew what we'd find because we've already seen his work reproduced on everything from notebooks to umbrellas. What I didn't expect was to be overwhelmed by emotion upon reaching "Starry Night." That scene, so familiar as to seem mundane, invoked a swelling of spirit, of soul -- a sort of fullness of heart that only happens when one is confronted with something pure in beauty, in meaning. The reproductions were nothing; the original beamed luminescent. (To describe the sensation is to chance reducing it to cliché, but such is the risk I must take in writing about art.) To plod through life without being stirred in such a way is akin to never tasting a sun-warmed, backyard tomato, to never witnessing the sun descend into a fire-lit ocean, to exist without music, sans love, devoid of sensuality. If the senses never awaken to fervor, can life be said to have been lived at all?
Whether Humboldt County contains the next Van Gogh isn't yet known, but along with a certain other crop, we certainly produce more than the "normal" number of artists. According to Humboldt State University's website, "The U.S. Census Bureau cites Humboldt County as home to more working artists per capita than any other county in California." For the next two weekends, over 100 of these artists will throw open their doors and welcome you into their studios -- in many cases, their homes.
Anyone with the barest knowledge of area art will recognize certain names: Alan Sanborn, Patricia Sennott, Stock Schlueter, for example. Arts Alive! and Arts! Arcata attendees will know even more: Peggy Loudon, Joyce Jonté, Paula Cunningham, Augustus Clark, Linda Parkinson, Claire Iris Schencke. The work of others will trigger recollection when seen -- such as John King's concrete countertops and Zachary Shea's wood sculptures. Some artists are old pros at the Open Studios game, hospitable and conversational with enough of themselves injected into the studio to provide a sense of intimacy, but without really giving anything away. Others might remain awkward (revealing insecurities invisible when one sees only their work) or aloof (wishing visitors would just purchase a damn piece, then leave them in peace to continue their now-funded mission).
Yes, the process of constructing something physical out of the realms of imagination takes more effort than we might realize or remember while tooling around downtown Eureka or Arcata, nevermind being distracted by the items in the storefront when we're allegedly there to look at the products on the wall. Hubert Selby, Jr., author of Last Exit to Brooklyn and Requiem for a Dream, said "Being an artist doesn't take much, just everything you got."
Less dramatically, in a nonetheless moving essay on art's inherent dichotomy (available through northcoastopenstudios.com), watercolorist Alan Sanborn writes "Without art, we are animals seeking comfort and food. When the inner light of one person ignites that same light in others, we are lifted from the physical." Where the artist's journey at first might seem self-centered, Sanborn continues, if the quest is successful, the results lift others toward transcendence, giving us "our very humanity."
StewART Studios artist Libby George, best known for her pastels, similarly addresses the connection between bringing a painting into existence and existence itself: "I do admit, I stand unmoved in front of some art, while other paintings make me want to be a better person. I may not relate to all art, but I always relate to the process of creating; how brush by brush the canvas is filled with color and hopefully a greater understanding of being alive."
George also notes some of the hazards of interacting with the public. "Artists are brushing up on their business skills," she writes, "sending post cards ... Along with this 'business talk' are conversations regarding acceptance and rejection; worries and fears most artists face at some point in their career. These conversations -- will the public like my work, how it will be received -- are at best mildly inconvenient and at worst creative suicide." (George's essay is also available in full at northcoastopenstudios.com.)
So on one hand, Open Studios serves to bridge the worlds between Kansas and Oz, between Limbo and Heaven, between being and transcending. On the other, a metaphorical tollbooth sits upon that bridge. Open Studios is a bit like having a yard sale. Sure, some reward lies in social interaction -- and touring studios for the sake of touring studios is acceptable -- but the hoped-for payoff is selling enough to feed the habit. Fortunately for both artists and collectors (and it's never to late to become a collector!), most artists both ask less when selling directly and offer more shopping options. Can't afford a $1,600 painting? How about a $400 print? Or a $50 sketch? Or maybe a notecard? A reclaimed redwood bench may be out of your price range, but the six-inch jewelry box would please you mightily.
At best, somewhere along the way, a moment will happen. A piece of work will catch your attention. You'll cease thinking about where you've been and where you're supposed to go next and what time is it anyway. Instead you'll just be where you are, immersed in beauty, the artist's light reflecting upon you.
And then you'll write a check and take that feeling home with you.
One more thing: The folks outside the Arcata-Eureka circuit, the ones out in Blue Lake, Glendale, Manila, Willow Creek, Fieldbrook -- they're likely to get less traffic by fact of geography. Make a point of exploring further than you might normally go. Isn't that the point?
North Coast Open Studios takes place this Saturday and Sunday and the following weekend, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Not all participating artists are open both weekends, so plan accordingly. You should have found the guide inserted in this week's Journal, otherwise, complete listings are available through northcoastopenstudios.com. More information at (707) 834-6460.