Have You Seen This Bird Before?

Posted by on May 24, 2012 in your brain on art | No Comments
Have You Seen This Bird Before?

My habit, these past few days, has been to crash on the couch about an hour or so before bed, put some British crime drama on the Netflix, then sit there and sort of watch tv while I do an outline sketch. The object of the sketching game is to draw something completely out of my head, with no external visual references. I started with an idea I had about a horse:

horse sketch 1 210x300 Have You Seen This Bird Before?

I had an idea in my head for a horse that was part greyhound, part ballet dancer. This was my first sketch.

That was fun, so the next day I did it again:

horse sketch 2 225x300 Have You Seen This Bird Before?

This one was a little rubbery, and gave me an opportunity to work on my fantasy horse hooves.

Yesterday, though, I was thinking about our new guinea fowl keets, who were rapidly outgrowing their starter box in the bathroom. So I did a quick keet impression:

keets sketch 225x168 Have You Seen This Bird Before?

I was going for a certain shape, just trying to catch a very minimalist form. I wasn't trying to draw a biologically accurate keet from memory. Obviously.


Which morphed into this:

bird sketch 208x300 Have You Seen This Bird Before?

Alien bird sketch.

There was something about this guy that I liked and that I wanted to try in enamel. But at the same time it bothered me — it seemed familiar somehow. Like I had seen it before, although I couldn’t figure out where or when.


Before I moved to Wisconsin I had a neighbor who was a lampwork glass artist. She told me once that she had stopped subscribing to magazines, reading books, and looking at other artists online, not because she didn’t want to be unduly influenced, but because it really didn’t matter what she did, someone, somewhere, had done it before her — or at least something very similar — and as long as she stayed ignorant of the details she didn’t have to struggle with the guilty feeling of being derivative. Or worse, out right plagiaristic.

This was the feeling I had with my primitive bird: it didn’t matter that I not only hadn’t copied it, I hadn’t even had my visual cortex stimulated by anything other than Chief Superintendent Dalgliesh sucking face with a maudlin drunk in an effort to get a clue out of her about some ex-Nazi concentration camp worker. (ew.) Despite this, I was afraid I might have subconsciously stolen it somehow, and that I was not, therefore, free to call it mine.

It is possible that I had seen a bird like this somewhere, sometime before and it was sitting there in my brain waiting to hatch (as it were) all innocent and unexpected, acting for all the world as though it had been my own idea. How could I ever know? If I was only deluding myself, and this bird was a diabolical echo of something seen once then forgotten, did my absolute obliviousness to this fact absolve me of any culpability, or was I still a lowly copycat?

blue bird enamel on firing planche 225x163 Have You Seen This Bird Before?

Enameling the sketch. The blue version waits on the planche.

I’m not a brand. I’m frustrated by the insistence on the part of art fairs that an artist’s work be consistent to the point of uniformity. One of the things I like about academics is they feel less obliged to permanently brand themselves and work forever and exclusively in a format that is instantly identifiable as theirs.  I like that about hobbyists too.

In a NY Times review of My Faraway One, the selected letters of O’Keeffe and Stieglitz, reviewer Deborah Solomon has this to say about the painter Georgia O’Keeffe:

She was, to this viewer, an original painter, but the distilled lushness of her early scenes of flowers and skies eventually ossified, and her work became formulaic, one of the first brands in American art.

Formulaic. Ossified. A brand. The first two are anathema to art. The third has become a prerequisite for the “successful” artist. And yet the third practically depends upon accomplishing the first two.

I don’t need to worry about that yet, because I can’t stay obsessed with any one thing long enough either to ossify or become branded. This makes displaying my work at art fairs a challenge, because as much as I don’t want to be pinned down, I don’t want my display to be chaotic either. So I tend to group similar things and leave it at that. But there’s one piece that I’ve been toting around to the last few shows that doesn’t quite fit anywhere:

not a rothko 225x150 Have You Seen This Bird Before?

Not a Rothko

I can’t tell you how many times people have seen this piece and babbled something about Rothko.

I only took one semester of art history and that was pre-twentieth century, so we never got to him. My ignorance on the subject of abstract expressionism is boundless. Unlike the people who walk into my booth, point at the above piece and say “Rothko,” I could not have assigned a name to his iconic style, which, I admit, makes me a moron. Clearly there is a resonance:

rothko 225x278 Have You Seen This Bird Before?

an actual Rothko

When I was explaining for the zillionth time that I hadn’t intended an homage, much less a knock-off, and that Rothko was nowhere in my mind when I made my piece, one kind woman said “These images permeate our lives and are in our brains. We can’t help it if they surface.”

blue panel 225x230 Have You Seen This Bird Before?

I was trying to write a letter without words.

What I was actually trying to do was paint a letter without words. If you click on the above closeup of the left panel of my piece, you can see that the top color block is scribbled through with lines meant to evoke script, while the bottom color block has glass beads just barely fused into black and white lines, meant to evoke abstracted printed font or braille.

But I don’t think the problem with my piece is that I copied Rothko. The problem is I infringed upon a brand. As the amazing boyfriend says, “I could probably name two painters. Picasso and Rothko. Everybody knows him.” Sticking with abstract expressionism, I could be as derivative as I want as long as I don’t derive from Rothko or Pollock. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that if I decided to riff on Barnett Newman people would walk into my booth and shout “Rothko!”


I can’t decide whether I feel sorry for wildlife and nature photographers or whether I envy them their freedom. Quick: name a wildlife or nature photographer. If you did not say Ansel Adams raise your hand. I’m not sure why nature photographers aren’t branded in the same way painters are. Maybe because we are absolutely saturated by nature photography that is never attached to a particular name. How many of these guys (and why are they all guys?) do you know?

So does that mean there’s no such thing as a derivative nature photographer, or does it mean that they all are? Are nature photographers held to the same standards demanding novelty and brand identity as other visual artists? Do they stay up nights wondering if they’ve seen a macro of a hummingbird on a pink flower somewhere else? Would such a picture represent a failure of their integrity were they to take it, print it, and try to sell it?


Before I started enameling, I made silver jewelry. My favorite thing to do was fuse silver scrap to sheet silver, oxidize, then tumble the piece. Time after time women would come into my booth and exclaim that they’d “never seen anything like it.”

cuffs reduced 225x188 Have You Seen This Bird Before?

fused silver cuffs unlike anything they'd ever seen

Clearly this was important to them. But odd to me. Oxidized textured silver jewelry is hardly earth-shaking in its novelty. But here again maybe we have a branding issue. Quick: name an oxidized textured silver jewelry artist. We see it all the time, but we don’t attach a name to it. I didn’t think my silver work was all that special. Enamelwork, on the other hand…that’s something you don’t see every day at an art fair. So imagine my surprise when, this past spring, I went to a craft show in Boston and was constantly being confused with another enamelist.

The artist in question is one Jenn Bell. The upside to all this is that now I know she’s out there. She does delightful work. She’s an elegant minimalist, working usually in monochrome or two-color design on clear enamel over bare copper. By contrast, I almost never enamel clear over bare copper, and I have never in my life made a monochrome design. I don’t think I’d know how.

Jenn’s themes are wistful-botanical, her style whimsical and almost achingly sweet. Her work is absolutely lovely but of a whole different mood than even my handful of botanicals are. So why were so many people at Boston insisting I was Jenn Bell? And why did it make me feel slimy and/or angry every time they did it?

jenn bell series 225x285 Have You Seen This Bird Before?

a selection of small enamel pieces by Jenn Bell

neighbor ladies 225x225 Have You Seen This Bird Before?

One of my botanicals, a diptych, box-formed and mounted on canvas covered board

I think if we were both painters, people would not have wandered into either of our booths and proclaimed our work indistinguishable. Likewise cloisonne jewelers would not have suffered this lumping-together. Or the aforementioned wildlife photographers. Or, come to think of it, potters. Why were we under an obligation to be several orders of magnitude more different from each other than those artists are?

I had pretty much given up my copper wire botanicals already, but after the Boston show I felt like it wasn’t really my choice anymore. I briefly studied horticulture as an undergrad. I’ve always drawn flowers of one sort or another and probably always will. When I first started enameling, I made lollipop flowers because they were relatively easy. Jenn Bell had absolutely nothing to do with it, or at least not any more to do with it than any of the other artists in the long history of graphical flowers.

And there are a lot of graphical flowers out there these days. The artists and designers whose work reflects this are legion. Logically, I shouldn’t have been any more like Jenn Bell than I was any of the many of those others.

Obviously, simple graphical circle-based flowers are everywhere. Who derives from whom? In fact, there’s an example on the tissue box behind my monitor even as I sit here typing. I’m much more likely to have gotten my botanical ideas from a box of Puffs than from another artist clear across the country whose work I’d never seen. But no one came into my booth waving a box of tissues and asking for my autograph.

tissue box 225x287 Have You Seen This Bird Before?

When my mom sees a cop on the road she reflexively jerks her foot off the accelerator. My mom, however, never speeds. She’s the little old lady you don’t want to be stuck behind if you hope to get where you’re going within your own lifetime. But such is irrational guilt in the presence of an enforcer. I felt the same irrational guilt every time somebody walked into my booth and mistook me for Jenn Bell.  (I should point out here that one of her designs was the graphic used on the ticket for the show, so everybody had it in their hands as they wandered the aisles.) It doesn’t matter how talented the artist you’re being compared to may be — the implication is, what you tried to fob off as your own work is actually theirs, not your own after all. That is a punishable offense. This is also an attitude of the current culture, which fetishizes novelty and originality but doesn’t have a clue what they are. (hence Apple sues Samsung for a tablet idea that clearly dates at least to Star Trek the Next Generation) Historically art and ego have not always been so entwined.

Irrational guilt is also a complete waste of time and emotional energy.  The fact is, as my lampworking friend long ago realized, truly original ideas, those that owe nothing to anyone or anything that came before, don’t exist. They can’t exist. And neither I nor Jenn nor anybody else has ever had one — not within the past ten thousand years or so anyway.

Still, we like to think we’re special. And hence my paranoia about my bird. I thought my enamel lollipop flowers were special until I was confused with someone else (and ironically didn’t think my jewelry was all that special even though people had exactly the opposite reaction.)

orange bird enamel 225x222 Have You Seen This Bird Before?

The first enameled version of my bird sketch. Who are people going to accuse me of being when they see this little guy?

I don’t want to be crippled by this; neither to work in fear that I’ll be unmasked as an artist without that all-important “unique vision” nor to fetishize a fantasy of originality that can’t possibly exist as long as we’re all operating under the same physical laws, products of the same historical and cultural forces, forging ahead with the same neuro-chemical soup in our heads. If I bring this little bird out into the world and everyone exclaims that they’ve never seen anything like it, that could be proof more of their ignorance than my originality. In the meantime, maybe it wouldn’t hurt to sign myself up for a course on the history of modern art.





To give them their props, here are the links to the lollipop artists from the gallery: