Thoughts on the death of old work, forging ahead & no looking back / by Samuel Allison

There’s a hackneyed joke among artists that what they really want is to make a bonfire-sized heap of their past work & light it all up. I don’t have stats to support this, but the feeling seems coincident with a higher than average rate of artists’ studios burning down. It’s not that creative people are prone to pyromania, but rather that something in their discontent attracts the flames of fate. 

It happened to my high school photography teacher, whose life’s work was accidentally incinerated one night. Without the weight of a thousand prints & ten thousand rolls of film, she was left with the coveted fresh start. She could lean into the future & become whatever sort of artist she chose to be. It made her a great teacher.

When they’re honest, even the most accomplished visionaries are rarely content with what they’ve made in the past. Just listen to Annie Dillard’s response on the New Yorker Radio Hour when asked how she feels about Pilgrim at Tinker Creek: “Oh, I have to admit that I wrote that… I never thought it was any great shakes… But if it was the most conventional, of course it would have the most readers, and I will not resent the poor thing for that.”

Artists, if they choose to stay in the game, have no choice but to believe in their potential to transcend & keep doing better. They live in a perpetual myth that the next project will eclipse all the past disasters, near misses & fractional achievements.  

On a practical level, creative obsessions exponentially gather mass & volume that can hold an artist back. Old work just keeps piling up. Anyone who’s ever cleaned out the barn of a painter or sculptor knows that it can end up accumulating enough to warp the space-time continuum. This is one of the reasons people need to buy art – to extract its gravity from the artist’s orbit.

The best book I’ve read on these aspects of the creative life is The Inspired Heart by Jerry Wennstrom. He writes of the spiritual crisis that led him to massacre his entire body of paintings in a single night around his 30th birthday. The work had gained acclaim & skyrocketing value, but he could no longer abide its existence. He describes that night as a one-shot choice between heaven & hell. For several years following, he lived as an exile from all exterior realms of creativity. He made nothing. He pared his existence down to the point that he was flat broke, gave away all his possessions & ate only when people offered him food. At some point, skinny & exuberant, knowing in his bones that art & life are inseparable, he started creating again. If you check out his work, I think you’ll agree that his subsequent paintings & sculptures veritably pulse with a strange holy light.

Well, nothing so dramatic led to scrapping my ramshackle old website & designing this new one. But it made for a cathartic barn burning of sorts. I lost track of how many dusty prints & drawings I’ve given away or consigned to the flames recently. I considered not migrating any of the old work into the new galleries, but in the end selected what felt like it still has life to live. The rest was sent off to oblivion, along with several obsolete versions of myself that made it. Free of all that weight, I feel a tremendous forward momentum.   

Skull tryptic, 2015