Mountains of the Mind versions

I’d like to describe a collaborative experiment that started from recent attempts to use simple image manipulation to aid in discussing visual art, such as painting (see comment 6 here) or fiber art (comment 12 here). Quite a few artists these days work partly or wholly digitally, and I wondered whether some of the advantages (like Undo!) could be carried over to an otherwise non-digital workflow.

In one of the posts mentioned above, June Underwood described her huge, inspirational, and ongoing project at John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. I proposed to cast myself as her assistant:

“The idea would be to take any work you are interested in looking at variations of, whether in progress, part of an ongoing project like John Day (so that there might be future works on the same subject), or part of a completed project, as an exercise in learning and appreciation through an interactive engagement with the work. I’m imagining that ideas for variations to look at and discuss could come from either of us, though I give priority to envisioning changes that you, as artist, are actually considering making or that could affect your handling of a future piece.”

June, to my delight, agreed to the trial, and realized she had a candidate to work on, an older dyed and painted silk piece called “Mountains of the Mind,” which she wanted to revise. The name comes from a difficult, bleak, and compelling poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins.

I thought June’s piece was gorgeous, but the bit of blue sky seemed overpowered by the dominant warm tones. And despite the wonderful, chaotic churning in the lower part, which I associated with geological mountain building processes, I thought it seemed slightly static on a larger scale, with a squared-off look except for the strong diagonal in the upper left quadrant. Finally, perhaps because of the preponderance of warm and bright tones, the piece had more a positive than a negative emotional connotation for me. For what they’re worth, those were my initial reactions, and I was curious to see whether they could be altered with simple modifications of the artwork. Whether they actually made artistic or practical sense was a matter for June the Decider.

I wanted an easy way to compare versions and share them. This could be done many ways, but to simplify the process for June I built a frame-based page in HTML that can be used with any web browser and a set of images in the same folder (the file names have to be copied into the HTML). The one I used with June is here; feel free to copy the code. We also communicated using June’s test blog (subject to change) and a collaborative writing tool call a writeboard, the content of which (not the protected writeboard itself) is here.

To make a long story short, we went through several iterations over about a week, and perhaps we’re done with the experiment, at least for now. I think June has some good ideas and is anxious to proceed with the reworking as soon as she has time.

Steve’s perspective:
I had a great time getting to know the artwork much better than I would have just looking at it. I think the visualization helped convey ideas, but the written communication was also important. I think that just the effort of articulating can be productive of new ideas. If June ends up more satisfied with the work when it’s done, I’ll be thrilled to have played a small role, especially if she occasionally adopts our methods for herself in future work.

June’s perspective:
Steve’s query about collaborating with him pleased me. The particular piece, Mountains of the Mind, has been annoying me because it’s flawed, but I had reached an impasse about useful changes. I had played around with a few small emendations, but they didn’t begin to tackle the problem.

Collaborations, I think, can work really well, particularly when a fresh eye is applied to a problematic work. Steve was seeing Mountains of the Mind as it was, not as I had, through its many stages of progression and preconceptions. Moreover, he didn’t have to worry about the technical problems, which sometimes sidetrack me and can be unhelpful. And finally his HTML tool is a marvel: side-by-side comparisons is sometimes the only way to make decisions about changes. I do them clumsily in Photoshop; he did them elegantly with his coding.

Along the way, Karl and Birgit entered the conversation and provided further validation of Steve’s insights. I found the collaboration invaluable. Steve’s careful and serious work with the original and my intentions were the base which allowed me to accept and proceed with the revisions. I’m not sure I can succeed with the changes, but even if they don’t succeed, I have learned some important things. Working with Steve was a bit like working with a skilled teacher, one whose whole aim is to make your art better.

What do you think of this experiment? Can you see ways to do something similar (or different) in your own art or teaching? Do you have any other ideas for June?