Must Reads For Beginning Artists

I’ve titled this post “Must Reads For Beginning Artists” but these are suggestions for artists and designers regardless of their level of experience. In fact, these are books that anyone with a curious mind should read.

The books are listed in no particular order:

1 • “Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees: A Life of Contemporary Artist Robert Irwin”  by Lawrence Weschler. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve recommended this book to one of my students but I can say that they have universally thanked me for the recommendation. This is more than a single artist’s biography. Rather, it’s a portrait of a way of thinking, of seeing and evolving. The book is based on continuing conversations between Irwin and the author. Very readable. There is a newer expanded addition available which I have not read yet.

2 • “Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder – Pronged Ants, Horned Humans, Mice on Toast, and other Marvels of Jurassic Technology” by Lawrence Weschler. Yes, another book by the same author – this man can write. This book chronicles the work of David Wilson and his Museum of Jurassic Technology, a storefront undertaking in Los Angeles that juxtaposes the genuine with the fantastic. Here is an excerpt from a review on Goodreads “It’s one of those great books where the line between fiction and non-fiction is blurred, both by auctorial intent and by the subject matter itself. This is a deliciously misleading book, full of subterfuge and teasings, a shadow play of fact and fiction mixing popular culture, philosophy, the history of science, and a touch of political intrigue. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what kind of writing this is. Is it journalism? Is it fiction? Is it creative non-fiction? Do I really care? This is unabashed writing; indulgent, with moments of brilliance.

Here is a link to the website for the Museum of Jurassic Technology.

3 • “Cosmic Comics” by Italo Calvino. I’ve recommended this series of short stories because it’s such a wonderful example of a creative mind at work. Calvino takes what many would see as dry and inaccessible information and crafts stories about the evolution of the universe, with characters that are manifestations of mathematical formulas and cellular structures. Next time you’re sitting in your studio staring at the wall and trying to come up with an idea remember this book – ideas are everywhere.

4 • “The Gift” by Lewis Hyde. What is the place and value of art in our contemporary market-based society? Hyde sees creative works as gifts rather than commodities and believes they have a vital role to play in the world. Here is an excerpt from a review by JoAnn Schwartz in the Southern Cross Review – “Lewis Hyde uses anthropology, economics, psychology, art and fairy tales to examine the role gifts have played and continue to play in our emotional and spiritual life. By gifts, Hyde means both material objects and immaterial talents and inspirations, such as ‘a gift for music’ or ‘a gift for mathematics…Above all, Hyde is interested in examining the effect our current immersion in the market economy and the myth of the free market has both on our view of gifts and on our ability to give and receive them.”

5 • “River Of Shadows, Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West” by Rebecca Solnit. In several blog posts I’ve discussed the importance of the photographic work of Eadward Muybridge. Here is Solnit’s portrait of the man and his influence on the world we now inhabit. I agree with Jim Lewis, who writes in the New York Times “‘River of Shadows’ is never less than deeply intelligent, and often very close to inspired. Shelve it where anyone can find it: photographers, historians, readers in the purest sense of the word. It belongs to that wondrous class of books — like William Gass’s ”On Being Blue” and Anne Carson’s ”Eros the Bittersweet” — in which an extraordinary mind seizes hold of an unexpected topic and renders it with such confidence, subtlety and grace that one finds it hard to remember what things looked like before the book appeared in the world.

I’d recommend anything written by Solnit. Although I haven’t had a chance yet to read another book by her called “A Field Guide to Getting Lost,” everything about it’s premise makes it seem essential reading. Isn’t this what creative thinkers need to do – to know how to be lost and unafraid, able to wander in areas they don’t know or understand.

6 • “On Photography” by Susan Sontag. This collection of essays was first published in the 1970s but in our age of ubiquitous cell phones and endless selfies it is more important than ever. Sontag investigates the moral and aesthetic life of photographs and how they affect society. What do we see and how do we see it? Is all experience now mediated? Are we voyeurs of our own life?

7 • “Ways of Seeing” by John Berger, published in the 1970s and based on a BBC television series. Here is an excerpt from the book “Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak…But there is also another sense in which seeing comes before words. It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world; we explain the world with words, but words can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it. The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled…The way we see things is affected by what we know or what we believe. In the Middle Ages when men believed in the physical existence of Hell the sight of fire must have meant something different from what it means today. Nevertheless their idea of Hell owed a lot to the sight of fire consuming and the ashes remaining – as well as to their experience of the pain of burns.

So get reading and let us know what you think of these books. Add a comment to this blog or post one to our Facebook page.

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