Artist Statement

Deborah Savage in her canoe with her dogs

I have had this website up a year and a half and have not yet written the requisite and ubiquitous "Artist Statement." Now I must write it. I am as uneasy about doing so as I apparently have been along.

After all, what on earth is an "artist's statement?" Isn't the work the artist creates and sends out into the world, by its very nature, the most authentic statement he or she can make? If I need to explain what I am trying to express in my work, what moves me, what concerns me, doesn't that suggest I am not communicating those elements clearly in the work itself?

Nevertheless, I have to write my statement, about myself as an artist.

So first, there must be two statements, or some way to describe the distinction between what I am doing as a writer and what I am doing as a visual artist. I have worked in both mediums since childhood. Sometimes I wrote stories. Sometimes I painted or drew pictures. I never had to consciously decide which to do. A story came to me in words, a picture in a visual image. I realize that this has never changed in my 60 years of life. Stories come in words, pictures in images. I may work exclusively in words, writing my novels, for many years. Then, for no apparent reason, I will start working in images. I may carve a series of woodcut relief prints. I may design and paint large murals. I may take photos and paint on them.

So to write an "Artist's Statement," I may have to become a scholar of my own work. But I feel diffident about defining my dominant themes or describing the principles and ideas that drive me to write a story or paint a picture. I am wary of attempting to define the relationship between what I create in words and what I create in images. I have rarely combined the two. I have not, for instance, illustrated my writing. It is as if the urges to express myself in each of the mediums rise from necessarily distinct places within me. My experience of writing and my experience of working visually is very different. Writing is difficult. It is unadulterated struggle. It is hard to find the right word. It is hard to know what I am trying to say. It is hard to say it the way I want to. Writing requires such a depth of engagement and commitment from me I do not often experience the act as anything but a kind of exquisite pain. Painting, on the other hand, or carving a woodcut, or drawing--that is frequently an uncomplicated experience of pleasure, a purely sensual pleasure coming from seeing colors and patterns and shapes appear before my eyes, from watching pale wood curling up from the precise maneuverings of a sharp blade in my hand.

Deborah Savage at age 16

When I write a novel, I am not straight-forwardly telling a story. I am, rather, striving to create just the right conditions for fictional characters to tell their stories. Like a scientist in a lab, trying to create in a Petri dish just the right combination of moisture, light, temperature and nutrients to grow a specific organism...but never knowing, exactly, what form that organism will take until it takes it. And then jumping in and interacting with it, and dealing with all the unexpected and unknown factors of any relationship. Writing a novel, for me, is to write novel after novel, sometimes as many as six or seven novels, each one growing out of the ones before it and heading toward the one not yet written. Characters, both major and minor, evolve, change, revealing themselves, or hiding, or dissembling, sometimes splitting like a single cell into two, sometimes shriveling up and disappearing from sight altogether, sometimes charging in from the far edge of the Petri dish to take over the action. It isn't that I, the writer, am not in control. It's that I, the writer, have jumped straight into the Petri dish myself.

When I paint, or make a print, I am not splashing and thrashing around with characters in the Petri dish eco-system I've created for them. I am, rather, completely engaged and engrossed in the physical sensations of the immediate moment--sensations of the eye, of muscle, of the feel of a tool in my hand, the movement and sound of that tool interacting with wood or paint or paper. There are scents, too--oil, acrylic, latex paint, pine wood, bass wood, graphite, ink. There are all the physical attributes of image: texture, form, space and anti-space, light and dark, line and mass, color, balance and movement, composition. Creating visual art is not the difficult, strenuous experience that writing is. Certainly there is struggle; it is hard work to get something to look just right on the paper. But it is hard work, which is different from just being hard. Working visually is pleasurable to me.

When I am writing, and writing well, I know absolutely what I was put here on this earth to do. When I am working visually, I am simply being here. Whatever drives me in my work in both mediums, its roots go far back in my childhood, perhaps as far back as the day I was born, and they are entwined inextricably with who I am. Whatever I create in words or images, in turn creates who I am. Every time I choose a particular word in a story or a specific color in a painting, I am at that precise moment creating a new momentum in my life, a new direction to go in, a new landscape for me to live in.