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Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Emotions and Storytelling Within Art and The Decaying Man series

"Home to Some"

How we deal with emotional subjects in our art says a lot about who we are. 

I am reminded of a white artist a few years back who painted an image of black 14 year old Emmett Till mutilated and lying in an open coffin. There were massive protests about that piece of art being displayed in the Whitney because it was a white artist who did the painting. 

Whether you agree or disagree with the artists choice of subjects is not what this article is about. This is about emotions. The one thing that I never saw brought up was how the art personally affected the artist. I don't mean how the artist was affected by the protests, but how they were affected by the creating the painting in the first place.

What did they go through? How was their mental state affected during the creation of the piece? Did they mourn Emmett's loss as they painted his features? Did they take time to get to know the subject of the painting first? 

How we look at the emotions of the artist is as important as the skills and techniques they bring to a creation. There are a lot of subjects that take very little psychology to create. If you are painting a moon lit seashore, the subject may bring you joy, but there is very little psychology or emotion applied to the painting. It is what it is, a beach at night. 

Many artists steer clear of controversial subject matter. But "why" do they steer clear of it? Is it because they do not want to get into trouble with the content? Is it because it brings them too much personal pain? The question of why we create a piece of art or not create a piece of art says a whole lot about us. 

I've tackled some very troubled pieces of art during my career as an artist. Some are planned, others are spontaneous. But after every piece of art I have to take a moment to reflect on my own emotions. What made me want to create this piece of art? Was I making a statement? Was I doing it to be an art activist or was there a deeper reasoning behind it? 

Early in my career I would purposely choose specific controversial subjects because I felt I had something to say about the subject. But I've found over the years that it is the pieces that I approach fully unprepared, that often become my best work. 

The piece at the top of the article is called "Home to Some". The base photo was taken in the middle of the night near an abandoned factory. It was one of several hundred photos taken that night on the subject of urban decay. When I went through the images, this one jumped out and spoke to me immediately. I realized looking at those old abandoned mattresses laying on a dead end street, that even here there were people who might have no other place to lay their heads. It hurt me. As I worked on the details and brought out the more surreal aspects of the image I imagined myself homeless and looking for a place to lay my head for just a few precious hours. I had taken the image to a much more personal level. It was now much more a part of me than any other piece of art that came from that night of shooting. 

And this is the key to making art that people remember. If you can place your own emotions within it, no matter whether its photography, painting or any other medium. The goal should not just be great art techniques but should be dynamic emotions. And when you can place yourself personally into the situation, it can only enhance that emotion. 

But a statement on homelessness is emotional but it is not necessarily controversial. What if we are creating something like what the Emmett Till artist created? A subject matter that we would not usually reflect our own personal lives on? 

A few years ago I was working with creating urban sculptures made from styrofoam. I would create the sculptures and then stage them in city settings in an overgrown backyard. I would then photograph them in various types of light. 

Like the homeless piece above, I'd had no intentions of creating an emotional piece of art. My goal in fact was about cities decaying and merging with nature. It was sculpture, it was still life, it was photography. But it was not emotionally involved. 

One of the settings used tiny skulls piled around the various settings to punctuate that man was gone from the setting. You have to keep in mind that this was an incredibly detailed setting and it included an abandoned railway station. I'd taken the tiny skulls and had them cascading out of one of the rail cars.

"Last Train to Dachau"

As I was going through the images, I stopped at this one image. I got a cold chill as I stared at it and I thought to myself, "this is the last train to Dachau." A whole sequence of events flooded my mind. I couldn't deny it. This was a German rail car, probably the last train that was headed to the dreaded concentration camp but had never made it. Those within left to die in that car in the last days of World War II. 

Why in the hell had my subconscious even created this scene? Did I do it on purpose? Did I lay those skulls the way I had, with that dark maw of the railroad tunnel so close? 

My first thought was to strike the title from my mind. Forget about it and either move on to other images or call this piece something else. Do not use that title. You have no right to that. You are not Jewish, this is not your place. 

Yet, I could not deny that there was a greater message here about the atrocities of the Holocaust. If I was so affected by it, others would be also. Was there not an argument to be made for creating the piece just as my subconscious had laid out for me? 

This is a moral dilemma that I hope all artists have to face at some point in their careers because I think it makes us face our own fears and our own humanity. I'd like to think it makes us better people. 

In the end, I kept the name of the piece but I decided not to place it in any of my series. It didn't fit anywhere. But it was somehow important and it should not be destroyed.

While I never forgot the piece and it still haunts me in many ways, In fact, I'd buried it so deeply on my hard drive that it took me a half hour to locate it again just so I could post it in this article. Funny thing our subconscious can be. Our actions as artists are more impacted by that little voice in our heads than we realize. 

There is another way our emotions can impact our art. It happens when we are struggling with a particular problem or stress in life and it emerges in our. I think this happens to a lot more artists than we realize. We can't help but translate our emotions, both good and bad, into the work we create. It was exactly this that prompted this article in the first place. 

When I am having a bad day, I don't usually let it stop me from creating. In fact I think it forces me to work harder and with more emotion. Working through a particularly bad week, I was creating art for a new series using body painting and models. Without even realizing it how emotional I was, the following image emerged.

"Sacrificial Lamb"

It was upon completing the image that I realized I needed to stop and place my thoughts in the proper context and examine more closely what I had been doing and why. And that led to the article you are now reading. 

So for what its worth, take time to look at the emotions behind your creations. Don't ignore them, or place them on a shelf. Take them down, look at them closely. Because in the end it doesn't matter how talented we are as artists. What matters the most is the emotions we place into our work with our talents and how those emotions impact those who see our work. Its part of our development as artists and should not be forgotten.

There is another element that is crucial to the emotions of the piece. Storytelling.

We as artists project the picture in our mind of what we want our art to look like. But we sometimes forget the smaller elements that make up a good story in the viewers mind. Look at the image immediately above. Now dissect the image into its individual parts which can make up a story. 

First we have the person. Is the person dead or alive? Is the person male or female? These are both elements of the person that will be made up in the eye of the beholder of the image. If it is a woman looking at it, she may see herself as the person in the image. If it is a man, he may project himself as becoming the hero who rescues the person. If it is a transgender person, they may think about the many transgender people who have been murdered for being who they need to be. Its very subjective. Each viewer will cast their own ideas into the story you've created. 

Now ask yourself other questions about the person in the image. Is that a knife sticking out of them? Why are they wounded? Are they laying in a bed? On the ground? What do the symbols on the wall mean? Is it graffiti? A code used by the killer? Something else entirely? What about the shadows? What can they tell us about the scene? Is that a hand print on the wall behind the person? 

All these elements and more are the tiny details that allow the viewer to build the story in their mind. If the artist does it right, the viewer will not pass by the art but will stop and create a lasting impression within their mind regarding what they think the story might be, while at the same time experiencing the emotions that come with it. 

A viewer may experiencing revulsion, sadness, compassion or may even sympathize with the victim or even the killer. 

For you, as the artist, have laid out the clues in a way that lets them experience the full emotions within the art and to build on the basic story you've given them.

Art is subjective. You can never look at any piece of art without creating your own subjective story around it. But you must provide them the individual elements that will guide them. 

Look at the image below. The first is simply an empty room. Now there are elements within the room that may allow the viewer to craft a story, but the elements are very limited. The light coming in from the half open door, the garbage on the floor allow for a story to be created. 

A good artist will know how to take an image to the next level without cluttering it up with too many details. By itself it is an interesting image. But where can the artist take it next? 


Now look at both images and ask yourself which is the more powerful story? This is what emotion and storytelling have the ability to create. 

Never just create a pretty picture when you can turn it into a story also. And never forget that the title you give a piece of art is what guides the viewer into the story. Without a good title, the art is like a story without a plot. It directs the viewer in a particular direction and makes the story and the emotions complete. 


DECAYING MAN was created about a year after the above article. It reflects the subject matter well and issues of homelessness, decay and abuse. 

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