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Criticism/ Rejection: Some Thoughts

Dear Friends
     I have been following the thread on book arts criticism with
interest. I feel like one of the great things about being an independent
worker is that I can choose what elements of my field I want to pursue.
Criticism is not one of them, but I have enjoyed the conversation. I was
an English major in college and when I graduated I felt I had my fill of
criticism and analysis. After several years at a variety of jobs, I took
out the Speedball instruction book and pens I had saved from my high
school dabbling in calligraphy and I was hooked. I was fascinated by the
challenge of making letters that were beautiful and true, but even
better was the thrill of being able to respond emotionally to words that
I loved without having to analyze them. Itís been about twenty- two
years since that re-encounter with the pen and I have moved through
calligraphy to the book.
     Since then I have reveled in the joy of making while applying my
own very simple standards of criticism. I have a small output partly
because of the limited amount of time I spend on my own work and partly
because I recycle or destroy work that doesnít make the grade. My
criteria is that the piece has to have a sense of wholeness. I often
think of Baby Bearís ďjust rightĒ in Goldilocks as my goal. Itís not
beauty or grandeur that I am after but a piece in which every part is
harmony with every other and it is all ďjust right.Ē If I need to
verbalize whatís missing or off I usually can but I tend to make my
decisions instinctively. Not all pieces are equal. Some are better than
others. I think it has to do with the initial concept. Taken to
completion, some have more power at the end than others.
     In the past the books I have read that have been most influential
to me were The Art Spirit by Robert Henri, a New York artist and teacher
who wrote this book in the 20ís, and The Shape of Content by Ben Shahn,
which are a series of lectures he gave at Harvard in 1956-57.
     The other topic I want to add to is about rejection. Iíve had long
conversations on the topic recently with two writer friends and a
non-artist. Iíve often said that one of the first skills I would
recommend acquiring to a young artist was dealing with rejection. And
the only way I think you can do it successfully is through experience.
You can read all the inspirational books (there seem to be a lot more
for writers) and get your self a whole set of mantras and it will only
go so far. In an ideal world an artist would be able to be sensitive and
open to the world with every fiber of her being. In the real world this
can be a dangerous proposition. I have seen artists and writers let a
rejection stop them in their path, to not be able to work for days,
weeks, months, or years after. I think itís a question of toughening up
on the outside so that you can keep the inner core, the place where
inspiration and art comes from, open, sensitive, and creative. Just as
physical skin is toughened by exposure to the elements, psychic skin can
be toughened too.
     Through my experiences with art exhibitions as well as proposals to
publishers, I have learned that there are many reasons for rejection,
and many of them are not about quality. It never hurts to reexamine your
own work but good work is often rejected. Often the work is judged for
its place in the whole exhibit as well as on its individual merits. In
publishing the reasons for rejection are myriad and the perceived
salability of the book, or lack thereof, is the key.
     When I did calligraphy I took a workshop at a conference with Jaki
Svaren and had my first introduction to Zen Buddhism and the book Zen
Mind, Beginnerís Mind by Shunryu Suzuki. I found the book enormously
helpful in both art and life which was how Jaki presented it. The quote
that has always stuck in my mind is: ďOf course some encouragement is
necessary, but that encouragement is just encouragement. It is not the
true purpose of practice. It is just medicine. When we become
discouraged we want some medicine. When we are in good spirits we do not
need any medicine. You should not mistake medicine for food. Sometimes
medicine is necessary, but it should not become our food.Ē
     I expect to have some of the work from The Spirit Books Series up
on my website in the next few weeks. Iíll let you know when and would be
happy to have it be part of the critical dialog.

in good spirit

Susan Kapuscinski Gaylord
Newburyport, MA


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