May the Series Be with You

I can’t wait.  As a Star Wars fan, I am eagerly anticipating the latest film (released 12/15/17) to see what adventures befall our Jedi heroes.  I’m not a dress in cosplay, read the books, collect-all-the-figures, make-your-own-lightsaber level of a fan, but I have seen all of the films, and enjoy losing myself in a realm that exists a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

Articles have been popping up in my newsfeed lately about the history of the franchise and how George Lucas (original Star Wars creator) was turned down by studio after studio in his quest to have the original film made, and it got me thinking – what if the original Star Wars (Episode IV: A New Hope) was both the beginning and the end of the Star Wars universe?  What if it had not gained a huge fan base and turned out to be a commercial failure?  Could the original film have stood on its own without the support of an entire saga?

I know, you’re thinking – wait a minute, this is Artists Only; are we going to geek out about Star Wars for an entire article?  The short answer is no – not the entire article, but I am using Star Wars and the incredible hype surrounding it to build a case for the power of building a body of work and creating art as a series. 

I would go out on a limb here (and the opinions of Star Wars fans are often teetering on very short limbs) and say that the original Star Wars movie would have been quickly forgotten if the rest of the films (and accompanying merchandise) had not been made.  Sure, it got a lot of attention and was THE blockbuster of 1977, but in my opinion, it is somewhat of an incomplete story sprinkled with some unforgettable characters and some great special effects, but without a continuation of the series it would be a rather puzzling standalone film.  Please keep reading even if you hate me now.

Since this is Artists Only, let me quickly turn this back around to the more traditional visual arts and say that there is a lot of power in creating works in a series.  By slowly evolving your ideas and fully exploring the nuances of your chosen path, you are able to gather a lot more momentum toward a body of work with a “vision” than if you were just tinkering around making unrelated, yet interesting one-off works of art. 

Quite often, particularly early on in our artist’s path, we like to think of ourselves as a jack-of-all-trades.  We want to show people that we can do it all. You want realistic portraiture?  Check!  Landscapes?  Check!  Abstraction? Check! Three-dimensional sculpture? Check!  Photography? Check! As someone with a short attention span, I often have to fight the impulse to explode and create everything that pops in my head.  If I were to follow my every idea, I would no doubt make some interesting art, but I would never gain a grasp of style.  Viewers of my work would never know what to expect, and while it is tempting to want to keep them guessing, it is more important to build a reputation and a particular “brand” of work.  Your audience needs to be able to walk into a room and be able to identify your work out of a crowd of others without having to read the exhibition label.

Picasso without a doubt was one of the most prolific artists in all of art history.  He did just about everything imaginable, yet was able to keep a firm sense of identity by working in series.  What if his “Blue Period” was just a one-off painting? Imagine if he had only done one cubist artwork or only made one found-object assemblage.  By thoroughly exploring these experimental “rabbit holes,” Picasso was able to not only grasp the context of what he was doing, but at the same time find new paths to travel once the ideas were exhausted from each series.  If you only saw one Picasso work from any of his different periods, you might be quite unimpressed.  But when you can follow the path that he explored to get to that one work, it becomes immensely more relevant.

So, back to George Lucas for just a moment.  Throughout his career, he has made a lot of films, but what we tend to remember are the ones that were part of a series:  Star Wars and Indiana Jones.  He also made some critically acclaimed standalone films, such as THX 1138 and American Graffiti (although a quick filmography search shows that American Graffiti has a poorly-received sequel that credits Lucas as Executive Producer), but they don’t have quite the impact that the serial works did.  We love the worlds and characters that he took the time to fully flesh out and invest himself in.

So, if you are new to creating art or have not tried working in a series, you may be asking, how do I begin a series?  The easiest way is to consider your works as a lineage.  Just like a family tree, each work passes on experience and information onto the next.  You simply take the last piece you made and make another one similar to it.  The similarities may be in the form of subject matter, materials, scale, style – any number of variables.  By evolving your work in a series rather making something wildly different every time, you begin to demonstrate not only a dedication to your craft, but a sense of personal value to your audience.  By seeing your repetition, the viewer begins to understand, “Wait a minute, this artist is onto something…”  By seeing variations on a theme, the viewer can more easily relate to your overall vision for your work.  The artist that perhaps best demonstrates this concept is Mark Rothko.  If you see one of his color-field works, it’s quite easy to dismiss as “just some rectangles,” but upon entering an exhibition filled with his work, you can sense that these paintings are something much more than you had originally thought.

The next time you start to make a new work, rather than consider what brave new direction you might venture into, take a look at what you’ve already done and see if there might be more depths to explore.