April 15, 2013

“What is Art?” ~ Sheila Dunn

Sheila Dunn Art

Asking this question—much like its older, more intimidating sibling, “what is the meaning of life?”—feels akin to opening a big can of loud-mouthed worms in the loose ground of my mind, each wiggly one attempting to burrow its truth into my psyche.

I recently Googled “What is art?” and was bombarded with a cacophony of opinions from well-known artists throughout history. Some adamantly contend a true work of art must hold a deeper significance beyond its physical form, a glimpse into some ultimate truth. This is countered with other equally respected folks who believe a work of art should speak for itself, that its existence is enough and to assign some deeper meaning to it is unnecessary and excessive. After perusing various articles and quotes my brain felt winded. I hadn’t performed such mental calisthenics since art history class in college. So I logged off feeling exhausted and proceeded to stare into space for a few sweet catatonic moments.

Although I won’t offer my concise definition of “true art” (namely because I don’t have one) I do know there are many moments when I question whether or not I am a “true artist.” A few of these fears—some founded and some admittedly ridiculous—are as follows:

1) I am not a true artist because my work has hung on the walls of more coffee shops than esteemed galleries.

2) I am not a true artist because I have an Etsy account, which according to a curator I spoke to recently is a big no-no. I believe her exact words were to “avoid it like the plague”.

3) Real artists live in cultural metropolises like New York and throw lavish parties with guests who have exotic, hard-to-pronounce last names. They stay up all evening drinking vino from their Italian lover’s vineyard, discussing postmodern deconstructivism, reading Nabokov and Bukowski.

My last name is Dunn and I live in the Middle of Nowhere, Oregon. The only all-night guests in my painting studio (frigid garage) are four clucking lady hens whose coop shares an adjoining wall. And as of yet, I do not have an Italian lover who owns a vineyard—my wine of choice is generally whatever is cheapest at the Grocery Outlet AKA “The Gross Out.” Basically I’m screwed!

But here’s the thing: None of these silly fears (along with many other legitimate ones) have ever stopped me from creating.

Ever since high school, I have continued to paint despite various voices shouting their doubts in my mind. I have painted through inspired periods and those completely void of creativity. I have painted when I wasn’t sure what the hell I was trying to communicate or even if I was trying to communicate something. I have painted when I could barely afford groceries let alone oils and canvas. I have painted into the wee hours of the morning after working my day job and on countless sunny Saturdays when all I could imagine was friends sipping patio margaritas. And so at this point in my career the fact I have continued to consistently create art—despite the fears and distractions—feels vastly more important than how it is interpreted.

More than any natural inclination or formal training, the most successful artists I know are those who have, quite simply, kept going. Andy Warhol (a man who probably attended parties with Bukowski) once said, “Don’t think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide whether it’s good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art.”

Amen Andy.

Sheila Dunn Art

However, the cool thing about simply “getting it done” day after day is that eventually someone will genuinely love what you create. It will speak to them. They will enter into a sort of relationship with the work in which their perception may shift, sometimes momentarily and in those rarer cases, permanently. They will pause just long enough to cut through the minutiae of daily life and ponder the great enigma that surrounds us. By offering a glimpse into your human experience, you allow others the chance to reflect on theirs. I recently received the best, most unique compliment about my newest painting below. My friend Emily wrote:

“Sheila, this piece makes me breathe differently…it speaks.”

I loved her observation because it so perfectly describes my experience with art which speaks to me: it makes me breathe differently.

I am continually astounded by a painting or poem or song’s ability to make me acutely aware of my inner workings—breath, lungs, beating heart. There will always be stanzas that deepen my exhale, paintings which sharpen my inhale and song verses that rob my heart of a beat or two.

A few weeks ago my friend Andrew sent me a short video of the performance artist Marina Abramović (note the exotic last name). I read the brief introduction: Marina Abramović and Ulay started an intense love story in the 70s, performing art out of the van they lived in. When they felt the relationship had run its course, they decided to walk the Great Wall of China, each from one end, meeting for one last big hug in the middle and never seeing each other again. I then read Andrew’s warning to “Break out the tissues!” to which I thought, “Psht. I highly doubt I will need tissues for a three minute video.” I was wrong.


The video captures a portion of her 2010 MoMa show, ‘The Artist Is Present,” in which Marina shares one minute of silence with various strangers from the audience. The performance takes an interesting turn when her former lover Ulay sits in front of her unexpectedly. It is incredible to witness both of their reactions. Sixty little human seconds was all it took for tears to well in my eyes, for my lungs to expand, for my heart to makes its presence known. But that mere minute they share seems somehow representative of an entire lifetime. And though no one can know their exact story—all that was shared and promised and gained and lost—each of us has a story that in some way mirrors this human experience. There is someone out there who has shaped our life in an incalculable way, who we have not seen in years. And through Marina’s performance, we are able to imagine what it might feel like if that soul were to reenter our world, if only for a moment.

There are plenty who would question whether Marina’s performance can even be considered art. But to me, it is without a doubt a work of art—the most beautiful I’ve seen in a while. Most of us don’t have the time, resources, or desire to mark the end of every relationship with something as dramatic as walking 2500km from the Gobi Desert and Yellow Sea to hug our beloved goodbye, but our world is a much more interesting, wonder-filled place because there are two people who have. And I am forever grateful for individuals like Marina and Ulay who create their art, day after day, without worrying if people love it or hate it or just think it’s plain weird.

One of my very favorite artists, Josh Ritter, once described his writing process as ‘feeding the monster.’ It is by far one of the best descriptions I’ve ever heard about what drives any creative process:

The monster is the invisible force that decides what you write about. Some people call it “The Muse,” but I’ve never found that to be a particularly apt description for a creature so voracious. This is no gossamer-clad maiden…You have to feed the monster everything you come across, be it books, music or movies, your friends and enemies and any other shiny baubles you find strewn in your path…It never says “thank you,” and you don’t expect any gratitude, but once in a while the monster will taste something it really enjoys. When it does, you’ll notice a slight lift of its scaly brow and a narrowing of its keyhole pupils. It doesn’t give away much, but if you know your monster, that’s all you need to see.

There are many times when my need to create feels powered by some outside source. And though I’ve been known to paint many a gossamer-clad maiden, the inspiration driving these paintings is more closely related to some fierce creature with an insatiable appetite. This scaly beast is indeed a hard one to please, but pleasing it was never the point.

The point is to acknowledge its presence and to never let it go hungry.

And I will continue to feed mine what it needs—be it my weekends, evenings, and a bit of my sanity—for as long as my lungs breathe and my heart beats.

Artist Sheila Dunn was raised in the foothills of Colorado, an inquisitive child with a deep sense of wonder. Her early reverence for the beauty and mystery of this world was first expressed through spontaneous dance, then singing and eventually paint on canvas. Sheila currently lives in Bend, Oregon where she works as a painter, yoga instructor, aspiring writer and marketing coordinator at a non-profit health clinic. When she is not busy creating, she can be found exploring the wonders of the Northwest and searching for her lost keys. To see more of her work, check out Sheila Dunn Art, find her on facebook and Etsy.


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Assistant Editor: Lacy Ramunno/Kate Bartolotta

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