My Time in the Valley

The purpose of this blog is twofold: a personal exercise of writing - a journal or diary, the trials and tribulations of me in regards to the pursuit of artistic expression. The other purpose, at best a hope but by no means the impetus, is that it will give the reader insight into the realities of the creative process, or perhaps, if they are creatives themselves, reflect and confirm what they experience and know all too well. But any writing designed solely to attract an audience is hollow, as with all art - it must be personal at its core, and emanate outward. The effects, the ripples from that epicenter are beside the point, and ultimately not as important, as the genesis.
All that to say, I hope you get something useful out of it, but even if you do not, I am probably going to do it anyway!
As I am into my second year of fine art photography/conceptual/surrealism/call-it-what-you-will, I am realizing just how much of an undertaking this all has become. There is a vastness to these little art squares that, at times, defy efforts and shun my best intentions. It is not really photography that I am doing, and yet it is 100% photographic. It is not a matter of getting a model and putting said model in a vista and snapping the picture. I wish I had it that easy. It is creating the world they exist in, literally, from the ground up. I make it sound like the Matrix, and my scenics are not that involved so far, but there is a need to create the world of that scene, and do it as believably as possible. Every sky, every object, every rock or branch, all become decisions, and puzzles of how best to get them in, where to put them, why are they there, are they really needed, etc.
Year one, like any artists' first efforts, is replete with forward steps and some missteps, some brushes of great, and some mediocrity that you didn't see coming until hindsight sets in. The well seems endless, and everything seems new. You start to see a pattern emerge, an aesthetic coalesce, and it becomes whole, alive and breathing, almost real. It defines you, at least within. These are wonderful epochs, these fledgling steps, and I have been on their roads before, as a songwriter.
And then the road comes to some serious dead ends.
A style is attained, an aesthetic realized, and then…what? More of the same? Variations on a theme? The same melody? The same chords? The gravity increases, and each step forward is effortful and harder than before, and it is tempting to lay down by the road and look at the sky you created, look at the fields you've planted, and bask. But this is not a peak you are on, this is a valley. You should never arrive at a peak - that means everything following is downward, with no more heights to reach for. Valleys are constant, as are peaks, and walking into the valley, you start to long for the cool, fresh air of the high ground, and not this claustrophobic, dense redundancy.of life in the valley.
In other words, you are blocked, and you have run low on momentum.
For me, it is asking the questions: Why the sky? Why the field? Where are the houses? Where is the city? Where are the other people? Why are there so many solitary figures? What do all these keys represent? Why are they important to me? I am asking, because I want new experiences, but I also don't want to leave my world behind completely - I like my world, and would miss it. But maybe the question is, "what else can I add to my world?" Allegory and metaphor are not easy to come by, and if you populate a world to be more symbolic than realistic, you encounter a shortage of objects pretty quickly. Universal symbols, rooted in the collective subconscious, are not many. You have a host of Jungian archetypes, you have glyphs and runes from ages past that survive to this day, you have the world of mythology: swords, knives, tridents, wizards, monsters and supernatural. A butterfly has meaning, but only so many of them. A key has meaning, but only a few of them. Dust has profound symbolic implications, but not everything can be profound.
So the world closes in on itself, and resists change, and rejects organs, and begins to fight your desire for change. I try not to fight it - I try to be patient and learn from the failures, and find new things to offer at the altar of the Creator of Worlds. In the last two weeks, I felt I had reached the end, completely - I was laying on the side of my road, watching my beloved moody skies pass over me. I could not find any new meaning in my world of selected symbols, and it felt like death. Really though, I needed a break. I needed a recharge, and it is really hard for someone like me to not only admit that, but also honor it. But I did. All I can do is keep trying, and dedicate at least part of my mind to finding new "things" to bring to the world.
I write this on a Sunday, two days after a photo shoot, my first in two months. I had nothing but the vaguest notions going into it - this is not uncommon for me, but it really felt like working blind. I had no new objects going in, so it means I had to think on my feet, and hope I would find something after the fact, as I construct. I am close to finishing my first new one in a few weeks, and it was indeed walking through the valley, gravity doubled, but I walked, I pushed through, and made something I am happy with. It was beginning to feel like that euphoria of completion would never again be felt, but it continues. It has to. Did I reinvent the world? No, but I don't need to. I need to change it gradually, and subtly, not uproot everything planted and raze the field. And again, I like my world. But maybe the trick is to see the world a little differently from within, to change the way you look at it. It is a lesson I am sure would serve me well when choosing an object in my creations - to forget what it meant to me before, and ask, "what does it mean to me now?" The first new one, which I expect will be posted on the same day as this blog entry, is not a new world, but it feels new to me, because I approached it in a new way. It is more open-ended and less historically referential than most of my work. It is about everything and nothing. It is personal, but not only that. It is broad, but not so much that there is no evident focus. If I use the valley and hills metaphor, it is a small stirring of cool air, while still on the heavy road up and out.
This trial of world conjuring likely falls to everyone undergoing this endeavor - be it photo art, painting, songwriting, poetry…and honestly, I wish more artists recognized the telltale signs of redundancy in their own work. I wrote a blog entry last week blasting trends that have become cliche and rendered meaningless due to overuse and copycat thievery, but it struck me as crass, and I would likely anger or hurt some that came upon it, so I scrapped it. My purpose is not to inspire anyone, what a hubristic purpose that is, but at the same time, I would not want to be a harsh critic of other's work either. What purpose does that serve?  But I do see signs all around me, in my little world of Fine Art Photography, of redundancy, and though I am sure someone could build a case for it against me, I am trying, admittedly in baby steps, to sidestep it, and keep my art relevant, at least to myself! I would encourage others to do the same.
It's not as fun or rewarding as creating something and releasing it to the world, but then, few things are. Maybe a final metaphor to close: you need to occasionally buy new canvas, clean your brushes, and find new things to paint, and you can't do that while you are busy painting with the old ones.
I hope this served some purpose or was at least pleasing to read. For me, it was necessary, for you, the reader, it is not, but I am extremely grateful that you did!
Michael Bilotta
April 28, 2013