March 08, 2006
Lost Arts

What do artists do when their body of work is destroyed?

I have been wondering about this in the last week, after a conversation with my dad. In recent months, my parents have been occupied by renovating their house, which was damaged by Hurricane Wilma. They didn't lose a lot of belongings, but his watercolor paintings--an avocation taken up 10 years ago or so--suffered greatly in the aftermath's dampness and humidity. Last week he decided that most of them are now so bendy, moldy, smeary, and so on, that they can't be saved. Conserving each one, he says, takes hours and he doesn't feel like doing it. So most of his paintings--the work a decade--will be destroyed.

Certainly the destruction of an artistic body of work happens more than we realize. For most artists, professional or otherwise, I think it would be a huge loss. But in my dad's case, I think I felt worse than he did. In some ways the paintings of sights in my hometown had a pleasant familiarity and zing of recognition. And since he doesn't live there any more, they are sights he is not likely to paint again.

Thinking about those paintings, I feel like I have lost a friend. But at the same time, I wonder if in mourning this loss, I am too hung up on artifact. Perhaps it's liberating to walk away from the false starts and early, shaky beginnings. And maybe it's the process, not the paper, that matters.

At least it seems to be the case with my dad. He is forging on. Re-working his old subjects doesn't seem to appeal. He is painting what he sees now, even downed trees and hurricane-ravaged buildings. Surely others are doing the same.

Much has been written about the practical aspects of disaster recovery. But how does the artistic process recover? We are about to find out.

All the same, perhaps it's time to persuade Dad to invest in a digital camera.

Further reading:
Paintings destroyed by the Asian tsunami disaster, now on virtual exhibit.
Current exhibition of New Orleans artists, in exile.

Not directly related, but still interesting: musings on artistic journeys by artists here.

Posted at March 08, 2006 08:25 PM