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Why Purple Cows?

| Amy Hutto

If you don’t know the answer to this and many other questions, (in regard to your art) it’s time to figure it out.  Are you trying to ignite a discussion, depict mores in today’s world, show reality in its raw beauty or shameful ugliness, make people smile, or reflect?

Art has many purposes, all of the above and so much more. Volumes in countless libraries and the collective knowledge of the universe throughout the noosphere have debated, discussed and noodled on this for centuries. My question, however, is not the purpose and meaning of art but rather what is the purpose and meaning of YOUR art?

Have you really thought about it? If not,  you should. I can assure you, people will ask. And then there’s that awkward moment when your brain will scramble to come up with something that sounds remotely intelligent and artsy, but may or may not leave you high and dry. How can I know this for certain? It’s happened to me. I have at times responded with confidence and oration that sound like I actually know what I’m talking about, and others that when I finished speaking both myself and the person whom I was speaking with just appear a bit confused and look around the room for someone we both immediately have to go see.  

As an artist, I’ve actually wrestled with this concept. What does my art mean? Why ARE my cows depicted like something from “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat?” And, in my more insecure moments, why doesn’t my art MEAN anything? We all struggle with questions like these, but it’s better not to go through that entire process in the split second after someone asks, “Hey, why purple cows?” 

Recently I was reading an article on better ways of looking at art. Terry Smith, an art academic from Australia, suggested four ways to do so, which boiled down to “what, when, how and why”. I began to think that perhaps we, as artists, should turn that lens on ourselves to better understand our own work. Go back to the old “who, what, when, where, why and how” we learned in school and apply it to yourself as an artist. Sit down with your laptop, tablet, desktop, phone or if you’re the old-fashioned sort, like me…pen and paper. When I really need to brainstorm I grab a stack of copy paper or a notebook and a few pencils and pens and sit down at the table, with a beverage of choice (a.m. or p.m. appropriate) and let my thoughts spill out across the pages. 

“Who”:  Of course you know the “Who”, it’s you…but also think about that a bit more. “Who” is not just your name, it’s your story. It doesn’t need to be chapters long, but you need to reflect on your own history and how it has formed you as an individual and an artist.  “Who” is you, but also who or what has influenced you. Your parents, siblings, teachers, friends, partners, other artists, etc… everyone (and everything) we encounter in our lives helps to form the person we are at this moment and who we will become in the future. Good, bad, helpful or hurtful it is all part of the story. Focus on the “who” and “what” that have been the most influential and think about why or how that has led to where you are today in your art. 

Amy's dad who influenced her art careerOne of the greatest influences on my life as an artist and a person is my dad. An accomplished artist in his own right he has always encouraged me and guided me even when he didn’t realize it. Thanks, Dad!

“What”: What refers to your medium of choice, which may be more than just one, but also refers to your subject matter, and on a deeper level the meaning of your art.  What do you depict, and why? Reflecting on these ideas will help you more easily answer questions from people; know the general so you can address the specific. In other words, knowing why I paint animals in a multitude of color, will help me to better answer someone when they ask me, ‘why is the cow purple?’. I won’t have to stop and think at that moment about this specific cow. What and why can be pretty hefty topics, or not…it all depends on you and your story. Some people use their art as a means to deal with events, some paint colorful cows. You just need to think about the what and why of your art, not someone else’s.

“When”: When did you decide to become an artist? Did you make a decision, or was it just always a part of your life? When do you create? How do you feel when you do create? These are just a few questions to jump-start your thought processes. This may or may not be something that comes up, but it’s a part of the reflective process that will help you formulate your overall approach to talking about your art with others.

“Where”: Where do you create your art? Do you have a designated space to create? (See my article, “A Space to Create” for more on this) Think about where you make your art and how you feel in that space. Hopefully, those feelings are positive, but if not I have some ideas for you in that aforementioned article. 

“How”: I interrupt these “W” questions, to throw in an “H”. How do you create your art? This is a black and white question, without much grey. It’s your technique, your application process, it’s the “first, next, finally” of your work. It’s nice to mentally coast a bit before tackling the final “W”.

“Why”: Such a small word to carry so much meaning when referring to your art. It is joined at the hip of all the others. It is ever changing, evolving and yet a continuous thread that runs our whole lives. Why. You are the only one that can answer that question and it’s one to ponder often. It is what drives your work. There may be many “whys” or just one. There is no wrong answer, only right. The “why” is often intertwined with a message or meaning. Your “why” may be powerful and cause a ripple in the human narrative, or simple and not complex at all. All the “whys” are equally valid. 

The five W’s and one H is not just something we learned in school to help us determine meaning in the written word. It is a road map to helping you better understand your own art and therefore be more confident when discussing it. Knowing all of this doesn’t mean you necessarily tell everyone else all of the details, unless of course, you want to, but rather that you know for yourself, which is critically important when answering why your cows are purple. Until next time-