The Question of How it’s Made

When I make an abstract painting I save and date the palette so I can look back and recall what it was like creating the piece.

Over time I have grown to love the music of Justin Vernon and, in particular, his work under the band name Bon Iver. However, I may have never taken the time to listen to his music if it wasn’t for the story behind the making of his album For Emma, Forever Ago. To create this album, he locked himself in a cabin in the woods of Wisconsin and, using only his acoustic guitar, cranked out all the songs over the course of a few months. Later, he took them to the studio to add the drums, etc.

I’ve thought a lot about why that story was so captivating to me and how it motivated me to become interested in a band I would have passed over. I’ve decided that its power comes from the fact that when I listen to the album, I can almost see the cabin nestled into the woods. I can imagine him sitting by a window, with the snow falling outside, crafting each song about loss and loneliness in a setting that mimics those sentiments. So, I find it to be a very fitting and satisfying story for how I imagine that type of music would get made. This has helped me to understand that, nine out of ten times, knowing how somethings is made will help a person appreciate the thing itself.

Knowing how important the “how it’s made” story can be, I look forward to talking to people as they look at my art because I am almost always asked two questions: “What inspired this piece?” and “How did you make this piece?”

Over the years, I have enjoyed answering both questions and sometimes I am able to learn as much about my art as the person I am talking to does. Discussing the artistic process with those outside of it can help me understand where I was mentally and creatively when I made the piece and, in turn, where I might go next.

Fast Food Cup One and Two by Mark Wilhelm (WIP when photo was taken)

For the very first abstract art series I did, I based the color palette as well as the feel of each piece on everyday objects that I found. Fast Food Cup, as you can probably tell, was based on (you guessed it) a fast food cup. In an impressive display of fast food knowledge, my friend Kate was able to guess which restaurant the cup came from just by looking at the painting.

The fast food cup that became my model

While the nuts and bolts of the artistic process are important, especially in pottery, I think that most important discussions for artist and viewer alike concern the inspirations for a piece and where that artist might go next. This brings to mind a Picasso quote that I read long ago. When he was asked how long it took him to produce one of his works, he responded, “My whole life.”

That response has always stuck with me and when analyzing the “how it’s made” of one of my series, it’s not unusual to find that a previous series is at the heart of the inspiration. So through reflection on that I can see ahead to my next step.

-Mark Wilhelm

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