THIS BURNT ORANGE TREE grows on my most recent Once Upon O'Clock, completed a couple of months ago. The Rootpond Clock I called it... there at the roots of this autumnal tree is a circular clock-pond, and by it stands a woman. She is animal-tender, earth-mother, and she replenishes the time-pool from her jug. Gathered at the water's edge and in-between the hours are four animals who have come to drink: badger, owl, cat and fox.
It is painted in the umbers of this leaf-browning time of year and on a thick slice of oak.
Now, I have not shown you this work straight away, for by it lies a tale, and a sorry one at that.
But it has thrown up interesting questions and made me think of things I'd like to discuss, and so that is what I shall do. But first, I'll tell you how it happened:
A lady commissioned this clock some time ago, and as with all of you who have asked for a Once Upon O'Clock, I added her name, details and imagery requests to my ever-growing Clock List. She asked for an earth mother, but as a young woman, with long flowing hair. This young earth mother was to be a sort of female Francis of Assisi figure with animals about her - tabby cat, badger and fox in particular - and it was all to be painted in the muted colours of autumn.
Time went by, as it does, and this clock's turn came. I painted it, as I do all the others you've seen: an interpretation of the ideas given to me by the commissioner. The imagery I paint comes from my internal world. I am given suggestions of visuals and things-to-be-included, but then I sieve it all through my eyes and heart and it comes out looking like a Rima-painting. This, I think, is why those who ask me to paint things for them ask me. This may seem to some of you like a strange and obvious thing to say, but my idea of this fundamental basis of commissioning artwork has been unseated somewhat by this lady's reaction to my work.
You see, she was not happy with it. After some time of not hearing whether or not the clock had arrived with her safely, I received a short email from her informing me that she was disappointed with the clock, that the figure did not look enough like an earth-mother (too much like a maid, she said), that the bark was coming away slightly from the edge of the clock, and could she have a refund.
Being far more an artist with my heart in my belly and belly in my heart than a cool, rational, businesswoman, I felt quite devastated to hear these words. This is the first time someone has been unhappy with a work I've created for them, and I took it utterly to heart. My tentatively held glass-vase of an idea that I was perhaps good at what I do tumbled to the floor and shattered to smithereens. Not being able to see this from a safe distance, I read these few email-words as a judgement not only upon every painting I had ever made, but on the fundamental quality of my own self. Foreseeing an ending of my clockmaking, I retreated and sat with my thoughts for a spell.
These charged emotions and somewhat irrational reactions slithered back to their dark cobwebby corners as they eventually do. And with the encouragement and wise council of those whose opinions I value most, I found that I emerged from my panic a little wobbly-legged, but more clear-sighted. So I wrote a reply.
I decided that it was important to be honest about all the thoughts that this threw up in me, and to stress the importance which I place in all my dealings with people, artistic or otherwise, on good feeling between those involved.
Most important of all the questions here, it seems to me, is that concerning the subjectivity of artistic interpretation. I had assumed (perhaps naively) that everyone who commissions a work of art from an artist is aware that the final piece is an unknown entity to both the artist and the commissioner, until it is finished. The commissioner may give suggestions for imagery, inspiration, feel, colour etc, but ultimately it will be a piece of art in that artist's style, unmistakably their sort of work. The commissioner takes a risk in requesting an original piece of art to be made: they may not like it, they may love it, but it will certainly always be a surprise. I always dread the moment of handing over a piece of artwork, because there's inevitably a pause while the recipient absorbs what's in front of them, and a fragile artistic self esteem can read all sorts of horrors in that silence!
All this said, I feel that I did paint what was asked for. The painting is in keeping with all the other clocks I have made thus far, and so cannot have shocked my customer by being different. I was, and still am, baffled at her quibble. As for the mention of bark coming away from the clock a little.. this I'd have been more than happy to fix if she'd asked, and is something that may crop up from time to time, these being rustic clocks painted on chunks of wood that I find.
What I found most galling, though, was the use of the word refund. It calls to mind department stores and returns counters where people queue with their receipts. I am an individual making work to custom order, by hand. These are utterly different worlds, and I think that the wonderful people who do commission art directly from artists, or buy from etsy sellers appreciate this and indeed prefer it to the effluent of mass-produced, generic and soulless goods that line the shelves of the shops that line our streets.
Now I'm aware that many artists and craftspeople operate sound businesses online. In this sphere there are those who have well organised "refunds/returns policies", but I am not one of them. My clocks take time to make, I paint slowly, and these weeks cannot ever be "refunded". There was no acknowledgement of this in the complaint I received from my commissioner, which is why her short request for a refund was difficult to take.
Now to the question of money: Though I happily make my living from my artwork, I teeter on the poverty line mostly, and this has always been normality for me. So, after spending some weeks in all making The Rootpond Clock alongside other pieces of work and life, I was quite pleased to be paid the £250 clock price - it cushioned the echoing bottom of my bank account.
But you see my dilemma - even if I was willing to offer a "refund", I could not, for the clock money was all my wealth until the next job was done. And so I considered another possible option which would resolve the situation as best as possible and end with us both feeling good. I thought I could offer the clock for sale again to somebody out there, one of you, who might love it more than the person I painted it for. And then I could give the money received in its resale back to the lady in question. But the tale remains unresolved I'm sad to say. I received a confusing and retaliatory reply to my letter, and no answer in respect of my suggestion. So the clock remains with her, and the confusion remains with me.
In fact I am mostly sad to think that a thing I made with care and attention is in the hands of someone who does not like or want it, and that there has been any bad feeling, because that is always the last thing I want. I intend only good dealings with folk and good outcomes. But, I suppose there is a misunderstanding here which leaves us at an impasse where we cannot move forward, or at least this is what I assume by her silence.
This whole turn of events has made me consider what I might need to rethink in the way I do business and art. Where I had assumed it known that the interpretation of an idea will be left in the hands of the artist to make her own, I feel now that I should write a preemptive warning explaining this, and highlighting the element of subjectivity and leaping into the unknown.
Rough sketches could be sent to the customer before I load my paintbrushes with paint, but this is not really how I like to work. Too much control in the hands of the commissioner kills the spark for me - readjustments sent back and forth weigh a project heavier into the ground and leave me wondering who is making the artwork. In general I do not spend a great deal of time making preliminary sketches because I like that explosion of creative fire that happens when a drawing starts to work to occur during the actual piece rather than the rough sketch, because otherwise the final work would just be a copy of something that worked, but without the fire. My sketches are very rough - just notes telling me where things will be placed in the frame.
Something I often ponder and marvel at is the wonder of this online world we inhabit. Blogging has become a brilliant, inspiring and encouraging part of my work. I owe the fact that I can work alone where and when I want, making the work I love, and be financially supported doing so, to the internet, and ultimately to all of you many wonderful people whom I have never met. At times I find this web-world overwhelming and mad, and I do try to keep a certain distance from the ever-present information stream. But all of your many wonderful comments touch me deeply, and I thank you for them. It constantly amazes me that there are people out there reading the things I write and looking at and buying the things I paint. But it seems to continue, and I am immensely grateful for it.
This odd world where we are all connected and aware of a layer of each other is a strange sort of conversation, and I am very interested in the purpose it serves amongst all the other elements of our lives, particularly where this intersects with the making of art, which is itself a sort of conversation. Those of us who make visual art offer our work as a saying, as an expression of something, not in the language of words, but in the language of eye and heart and hand. Mostly this is one half of a conversation, and the people who are touched by the work speak the answer in their own language of eye and heart and hand when the art rings a bell in them. This is a profoundly human experience and vital, I think, to the wellbeing of humanity.
So isn't it wonderful how we have stretched this conversation like a fisherman's net over the whole world, placing between the participants in these artistic conversations great distance, and time in some cases, and incredible pieces of technology. But the humanity remains, and that is what touches me about this conversation that you and I have here. It is real and heart-opening for us all.
I delight in seeing visitors on that counter down there on the sidebar from countries I've never heard of! How did you reach me? What kind of lives do you have? What are your days, your houses, your dreams like? And those of you who place orders in my shop with delightfully outlandish addresses! - Hello! How excellent is this artistic conversation! How perfectly true and inspiring!
I welcome your words here and your thoughts on these matters. What do you think about my clock dilemma? Have you had a similar experience? Or do you have wise advice to share? Here amongst my ramblings are pictures of The Rootpond Clock, which now after a little time of consideration I am proud of again.
Apologies for this screed, but I wanted to show you an honest corner of myself and give you a glimpse of the work derailing, as it does from time to time. And I wanted too to express how valuable this place is, this stopping place in the forest, this Hermitage, to me, because of all of you who come here and throw your own herbs onto the fire. I think it's a subversive magic we can make by creating from our hearts in word and paint and passing along our creations under the school desks of our manufactured and ill-governed societies, to inspire a remembering of ourselves in songs sung in our true language.