Hong Kong bird market. Photo by Leo Hsu.
Producing, playing and photographing
By Anne Endress Skove
Inspired by Mason Currey’s book, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, we have approached a number of artists to find out what makes them tick. Each month three individuals who paint, write, sing, dance or otherwise create share their habits with us. This month we feature artist and arts administrator Jan Brown Checco, playwright and actor Charlie Goetz and photographer and writer Leo Hsu.
Jan Brown Checco and the power of ‘baraka’
A25: You are not only an artist; you also manage art projects around town. What skills do the most successful artists whose projects you manage have?
“When invited to produce a project with a team of professional artists, my first task is to put out a wide-reaching ‘Request for Qualifications’ (RFQ). This is done by email and websites, giving artists a chance to show off their past experience and samples of best work.
“As an artistic director, my job is to sort through the many applications, to create a shortlist of artists who fit the specifications of the project, and then to set up interviews. Other colleagues join me for the interviews, because subtle impressions made during our discussions can help in deciding which artists will make up the best team. Essential abilities include excellent design and technical skills, as well as an understanding of the nature of the project.
“Delivery of assigned work on time, attendance at all review sessions with thoughtful participation are promised to the client when contracts or letters of agreement are signed. If harmonious teamwork is required, then artists must also possess fine social skills. For international projects, participants must be willing to be ‘ambassadorial,’ exercising exceptional flexibility and grace.
“So many great local artists and crafts persons devote themselves everyday to making useful and beautiful things. Probably there are fewer artist/organizers willing and able to create and manage projects and art events. So this has been something I can contribute to the working artist community. I like very much the community-building aspect of this work.
“However, I also love quiet, independent studio time as much as any artist does, so there always must be ‘making’ time reserved in my schedule! It is a question of balance to me.”
A25: Willem de Kooning, Currey writes, “had a hard time getting up in the morning. He generally rose around 10:00 or 11:00, drank several strong cups of coffee, and painted all day into the night, breaking only for dinner and the occasional visitor.” Are you a morning person or a night person, or something else? What effect, if any, does that have on your creative process?
“If left to my own devices, I am a late-evening person. But parenthood has modified my biorhythms over the past 35 years, so my studio and art management time typically falls into workday hours. Because I’m an incorrigible multi-tasker, I find that compartmentalizing time and tasks works best.
“When an irresistible opportunity arises, I move already-scheduled times around like a puzzle, fitting in the new pieces, so this first ‘conceptual’ period is very organic until each phase of the proposed work is plotted. This is the time I have to imagine how big the project is, what the materials will cost, how much time it will take to design and create the artwork, and if others will have to be hired to finish the job. This estimate of time and costs is the first form’ I mold.
“My favorite time for conceptual work is either while gardening or while sitting quietly at a table with paper, pencil, classical music and Google’s panoply of images. I make many sketches and models before I settle on what I’ll offer the client as a finished project with a fairly tight timeline and budget estimate. I am very careful to not show anything that I am not able to create with complete confidence, my best version of the idea we are trying to express.”
A25: Composer Richard Strauss spent time at a hotel in Egypt. It was for his health – he suffered from bronchitis – but one wonders whether the new climate and culture had an effect on his work as well. You’ve traveled to Morocco. How does travel inspire art?
“My college professor/bachelor uncle traveled worldwide. His slideshow travelogues after welcome-home family dinners completely captured my imagination. I vowed to travel and see arts treasures, too, when I grew up, and began saving my pennies. I have benefited tremendously from art history courses and trips to other countries, soaking up and loving the cultural differences.
“When I traveled to Morocco for the first time in 1998, it was a revelation. The making of intricate mosaics, pottery, rugs, trays and teapots in the souks was straightforward, natural and rhythmic for the skilled artisans. It was not fussy MFA (master of fine arts) stuff. Instead it was prayerful and meditative, harnessing hands and hearts to make beautiful and useful objects intended to bless the maker and the recipient, during the making and for generations to come.
“I learned about belief in the power of ‘baraka,’ a kind of spiritual presence and of God that flows through those closest to Him. For Moroccans, baraka can be found within physical objects, places and people as God chooses. Sometimes the artist wishes to attain baraka for himself through the making of an object, and for the object itself. This pursuit of excellence involves knowing when a level has been reached beyond which no further improvement is possible.
“Berbers and Arabs also speak of ‘blanc coeur’ (white heart) – the amount of love and labor they put into their work. If the creative act is full of positive power, then making fine art uplifts our own minds, purifies our hearts and brings personal well-being that also benefits our families and friends. It is a beautiful way to think of working hours.”
A25: What is something Strauss and de Kooning didn’t have? The Internet!
“The Internet brings positive change for all artists’ self-marketing. Use of the Internet to organize community projects or to show and market my own studio work has been revolutionary for me.
“The greatest challenge now seems to be keeping my website up to date. So I use my Facebook page and LinkedIn profile because posting is so immediate. The old battle of trying to attract the newspapers’ art critics’ attention is over – no more buying ads to get deserved coverage, paying for slides, mailing of press releases and praying for a line or two of positive coverage. Online, artists can tell their own stories, show photos of finished works, or – more fascinating to me – their works in progress.
“The Internet has also made producing art projects possible in a way that enables entrepreneurs to find more participants and sponsors. The only boundaries that exist now are the ones we, and time constraints, set for us. I find especially exciting the ability to connect with artists from other countries and cultures, which I’ve done since 2004 with drawing exchanges between Cincinnati and our Sister Cities in China and Germany.”
Jan Brown Checco is a studio artist and arts administrator who specializes in the design and direction of community-based projects. She is a designer, illustrator, painter and sculptor in ceramic. For her leadership of “Clay, Color and Fire” – a public mosaic installation created in 2003 at TM Berry International Friendship Park Pavilion – she was named Post Corbett “Individual in the Arts.” To see more of her work, visit www.brownchecco.com.
Charlie Goetz has ‘mostly all fun’
A25: Truman Capote wrote, “I am a completely horizontal author. I can’t think unless I’m lying down, either in bed or stretched out on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee handy.” Currey writes, “Even the typing was done in bed, with the typewriter balanced on his knees.” Victor Hugo wrote standing up. Most others, we assume, write while sitting. Do you sit, stand, or lie down while you write?
“I’m sitting at a keyboard (laptop) when I write.”
A25: Currey says of George Gershwin, “He was dismissive of inspiration, saying that if he waited for the muse he would compose at most three songs a year.” What works better – waiting for the muse, or hunting down the muse?
“For journalism, a deadline forcing ‘inspiration’ does it. For fiction and/or playwriting, I’m generally a ‘waiter’ – which is why ‘product’ is so long arriving.”
A25: Writer Joyce Carol Oates said, “Getting the first draft finished is like pushing a peanut with your nose across a very dirty floor.” When does the fun start, or is that considered fun?
“It’s mostly all fun. Because things are germinating in my head (like lice), once my fingers start to hit the keys, development is fairly rapid.”
Charlie Goetz was born in New York City on the same day the airship Hindenburg came down in Lakehurst, N.J., although he arrived somewhat earlier (6 a.m.) than the fiery descent of the dirigible.
For 16 years, Catholic schools were Charlie’s educational environment. Not until he earned a journalism fellowship to New York University grad school did he taste an academic outside world.
Because Charlie came of age during the years after World War II, when the United States had everything, and everyone else, nothing, he was able get his undergraduate degree (from St. John’s University), debt-free, despite the fact that his parents were graduating from the Great Depression with great difficulty.
Charlie never wanted for a job and was able to pursue triple careers involving teaching, acting and writing. He taught in a number of “schools for the over-privileged” on the east coast and here. He was faculty adviser to both the Mt. St. Michael and Montclair Academy student newspapers. Under his tutelage, the former received the Columbia Scholastic Press Association’s Medalist (highest) Award, and the latter garnered the National Scholastic Press Association’s All-American (highest) honors.
After “saving the world” with Passaic, New Jersey’s Urban Crisis Council – during which time he wrote a weekly column for the city’s daily – Charlie became English/drama chair at Cincinnati Country Day. (“There was a job here when I needed it.”)
By that time, he was married to the late, great Pam (Morris) Goetz and was in the process of fathering four boys and a girl. (Charlie is now married to the not-at-all late but emphatically great Blanchard Nash.)
Charlie’s acting in Multimedia’s nationally broadcast Young People’s Specials earned him two Emmys. He captured his first Emmy for performing in Joshua’s Confusion, a Peabody Award winner.
His first play, The Best Intentions, was judged Cincinnati Playwrights Initiative’s initial “Best of…” and given a full production in the Aronoff Center’s 5/3 Bank Theater in 2012. The same site saw a staged reading of his latest, Borrowing Spring, in February.
Charlie credits all of the above to diligent parents, his Catholic education (perhaps in some respects a “mixed blessing”), and the fortunate timing of his entrance onto the world’s stage. He calls himself “God’s Spoiled Child.”
Leo Hsu. Photo by Oliver Hsu.
Leo Hsu throws out the first paragraph
A25: Mason Currey writes: “In her autobiography, Agatha Christie admitted that even after she had written 10 books, she didn’t really consider herself a bona fide ‘author.’ When filling out forms that asked for her occupation, it never occurred to her to put down anything other than ‘married woman.’ You are one of the people who, when I approached you with this idea, responded that you didn’t consider yourself an artist. Yet, for the decades I’ve known you, I have considered you a photographer. I know you wouldn’t put down “married woman” on a form, but what would you put?
“You probably think of me as a photographer because when we met more than 25 years ago I was really excited about making pictures and soaking up a lot of photography. I think I had a camera with me all of the time. I continue to carry a camera with me most of the time, and I make pictures every day. Still, even though I have been engaged with photography through my entire adult life, as a writer, and sometimes as a teacher and curator, I have for many years kept my photography for myself. It’s only in recent years that this has changed. As I make pictures that I intend to send out into the world again, it makes the way that I work change, it makes it work, and so I’m happy to have the chance to reflect on this for Article25. This also gives me a chance to think about how writing and photography differ for me. Thank you!
“In my early twenties I was a newspaper photographer and I didn’t identify as an artist. For me photography was a tool of communication that was expressive, whereas I thought an artist would use the medium as an expressive tool that might be communicative. I’ve moved on from that position, but I continue to resist the term ‘artist’ as I’ve come to have more artists as friends. I feel that they have made a commitment to art-making that I have not. This includes a lasting commitment to continuous practice, a driving desire to put the work into the world and a professionalism in the way that they advance, promote and invest in their art. I’ve put the hours in, but perhaps not put myself on the line as much as they have.
“Photography for me always feels like play. It always feels like exploration, even when there are frustrations. But the follow-through, the more rigorous attempt to address whatever question brought me to the project at hand, can feel psychologically weighted in a way that play doesn’t. Photography can feel like both play and work, and the work part of it is the part that says you can’t just walk away because it isn’t working out, and that the questions that I choose to address with photography require an honest, rigorous response that doesn’t always come easily.
“I don’t have any rituals before I start working because I don’t really set out to work. Sometimes I go out to photograph specific things or specific ideas, but mostly it’s just about paying attention and having a camera on hand. When I photograph, the individual image really isn’t the ultimate goal, it’s more something that happens alongside a process.
“I try to observe my environment as I make my way through the day and pay attention to what gets my attention. We’re surrounded by patterns, but it’s the patterns that you notice that you need to pay attention to. And then I think about all of the patterns that I pay attention to over time. It could be a week, or months or years, and I photograph them, making notes, making the wrong pictures, and then thinking about what makes those pictures wrong and what would make them right. There are certain subjects that I’ve enjoyed thinking about and photographing for decades, like birds in built environments.
“Sometimes I think about very specific questions, and sometimes these questions are nested in broader questions and themes that in the end become descriptive more than interrogatory. But everything that I take in potentially flavors what I look for and what I find, so it’s important for me to be thoughtful about what I choose to read and think about, what music I listen to. I try to vary things a little. Sometimes it’s hard for me to get into a book and it feels necessary and like work, but sometimes that pays off, if there is a moving concept there. I look at a lot of photography, and clearly when I spend a lot of time with someone else’s photography, it influences me. It can be disheartening to feel so impressionable but I’m glad to be able to borrow from others.
“On the other hand, I usually write about photography for someone else, and I really enjoy the deadline, that I always work right up to, and the knowledge that the piece will have an audience and be a part of a larger conversation in the world. I’m more disciplined about writing, though it is sort of a controlled mess. Usually I will immerse myself in the photography that I’m writing about, and make notes about the ideas that I get, as I’m on the bus, walking the dog, or doing something else. Then I try to write something very free just to give all of those loose ideas some shape and process them a little bit, even as I know I’m probably not going to use much, if any, of it.
“When I finally get down to writing, I can usually throw away most of the stuff from those notes, and let some of the ideas work their way into the writing in a more subdued, useful way. I often throw out the first paragraph, or switch the first and second paragraph, and I let myself do that: the first paragraph I write is what I think the piece is going to be about, but it lets me write the second paragraph which is more about what the piece is really about. The trick, though, is writing the first paragraph as though it’s supposed to be the first paragraph, even as I know it’s not. I wish I could find a similar pattern in my photography; it would be really useful.
“Also, when I write, I often have a specific person in mind as the audience, and I’m really writing to them, speaking aloud in my head. It’s usually a friend, often a photographer, someone who I feel will find the piece interesting. I’ve rarely told anyone that I was writing to them. I wonder how the writing would change if I wrote to people who were farther away from photography. In this case, Anne, I’m definitely writing to you…”
Photography involves more technical processes than, say, writing. Do the technological demands of photography bog down the creative process, or do they provide useful structure?
“I’m pretty comfortable with my cameras so I don’t think about technical aspects that much, though I probably should. I feel very uncomfortable with unfamiliar cameras, when I have to think about the technical pieces and can’t just use it as a fluid tool. I don’t like carrying extra lenses so I do make certain decisions when I walk out the door about what camera and what lens I will take, and sometimes when I’m out I’ll wish I had something that I had left at home. Software does get in the way; it can be so powerful and useful but also requires a lot of attention and management.”
You recently shared your experience listening to vinyl, comparing back in the day to now. What music do you listen to while you work?
“I’ve come to really enjoy listening to records again, and getting back into CDs now, too. I find mp3s frustrating – all the music is at your fingertips but it’s too much choice. I like pulling a record, listening to a side, listening to those moments of amplified empty tone right after the needle comes down, and then hearing the music start. Even on the most thrown-together album, the songs have something to say to one another. And the familiarity of sequencing, where the album side has a personality, as you move through each track, is like having a familiar companion.
“But I can’t listen to music when I work. It’s too hard to focus on either, and it feels like an abuse of music that I already have a relationship with. So I’m often in the library looking for music that I haven’t heard before that I can play while I’m working, and not really pay attention to it, and if it stays with me or it keeps me from working then I save it to listen to it later. I prefer to write in silence anyways and I never wear headphones when I’m out because I like to pay attention to what’s happening around me.
“But this isn’t to say that music doesn’t influence my photography or writing – it does, in a big way. I’m often guided by the feeling of an artist, or an album or a certain song. It’s a great guide because it begins with feeling. In the post you refer to, I was listening to Anna Calvi, whose music I really enjoy getting lost in.”
Any other anecdotes about how you work, not covered in your answers above, are most welcome.
“My 12th-grade art teacher Dave Clark remains a big influence on me. He had several mantras that he would repeat again and again, that all of his former students will certainly remember, of which two stand out to me. The first is “Think, Plan, Act!” I’ve found that thinking is the hardest because of all the ideas I get, so many are red herrings. It’s in thinking that you lie to yourself or fool yourself. Planning is hard, too, because I don’t usually feel where things want to go until I start working on it, but planning is still important. The action is probably the easiest if the other two parts went well. But I’m always going back and forth: Think, plan, act, rethink, act, replan …, so, sorry Mr. Clark, but the mantra still remains a guidepost. The second mantra was “Folders Up!” which he usually said because class was over and he didn’t want us to run over, but I have found that the hardest and most important things to be disciplined about are starting and stopping, more so than anything in between.”
Bio: Leo Hsu lives in Toronto and Pittsburgh and writes a monthly review for Fraction Magazine. He is working on a project that draws influence from his family’s experience of moving to Toronto, the Talking Heads song Once in a Lifetime, the intersection at the end of the street and the Garrison Creek that runs beneath the neighborhood. See his photography and writings at leo-hsu.com