The Artist/Writer Conundrum
by Carol Diehl
The Art Section asked me to write about being both an artist and a writer. It’s something people often are curious about, and not so easy to address because I know of no other way to be; having two modes of expression is as natural for me as having two arms or two legs. And I don’t think it’s all that unusual. The artists I know vary widely, from those whose entire creative energy goes into their work to the point that they pay little attention to what they wear or what their house looks like, to John Kelly, who’s been called an “aesthetic octopus” because of his mastery of the performing arts (singing, dancing, choreography and acting) as well as drawing, painting, and writing. Some people need to concentrate, others are fed by diversity; both traits can make for good artists.
Carol Diehl's writing corner
I think about art all the time, and writing is my way of exploring those ideas and making them into something useful. For me, having thoughts and not applying them would be like living in a house stuffed floor-to-ceiling with balls of yarn and never knitting anything. Writing allows me to root around in my mind and surprise myself with what’s there. I find ideas I never knew I had, and following their thread takes me to places I never expected to be—to the point that I often crack myself up. If I didn’t write I wouldn’t know just how absurd, funny, and contradictory life really is.
Carol Diehl's studio
Writing also allows me to root around in the minds of other artists, ask them questions and try to find out what makes them tick—as part of my lifelong (if futile) attempt to discover how art comes about. It’s a privilege to be so affected by someone like, say, Robert Irwin, who was my biggest influence early on, and later to meet him, watch him work, and be able to sit down with him and ask him anything I wanted. That I then have to boil the information down and explain it to other people in the plainest possible terms gives me the push I need to truly metabolize what I’ve learned. It’s the same when I write reviews. On my own, I’d never take the time to analyze art so thoroughly—my attention span is short; writing keeps me on track. Even so, I could never be a full-time art critic because I just don’t see enough, on a regular basis, to inspire me. When I do find something to write about, I’m as excited as the artist who’s getting the review—because ultimately it’s about what I can learn to feed my own work.
Carol Diehl, Untitled, 2011, ink and pencil on paper, 7" x 10"
So if I write to discover the ideas in my head, I paint or draw to reveal the pictures that are tucked away in its wordless nooks and crannies. I love the process because it really is a “thoughtless” activity in the best sense of the word, where my only resource is my intuition and ability to visualize what might come next. It’s not a meditation because in meditation, while practicing to detach from thoughts, you’re still aware of their never-ending stream. When it’s working, making art is about being part of a beautiful flow, like dance or sex, where each action satisfies one possibility while suggesting another—and where any attempt at thinking, analyzing, or judging, just screws it up. Assessment has to be reserved for later, sometimes much later. While I’m writing, I have a clear sense of whether it’s good or not. With art, I could change my mind a million times; whether I think I’m the best or worst artist in the world has a lot to do with how much sleep I’ve gotten or what I had for breakfast.
Carol Diehl, All Even, 2011, ink and pencil on panel, 11" x 14"
The other question I’m asked is, “which is more difficult, writing or making art?” Quite definitely, it’s making art, because with writing, the language has already been created and comes with recognized objective standards. With visual art, especially abstract art, nothing is given; we must make up our own language and communicate on totally subjective terms—which is, of course, its beauty and challenge.
Carol Diehl, Untitled, 2011, pastel on board, 11" x 14"
Carol Diehl is a painter, art critic (Art in America), and former slam poet, who recently received a Creative Capital/Andy Warhol Foundation art writers’ grant for her blog, Art Vent.