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“What Are You Doing?”

February 21, 2016



flow project

“What are you doing?”


That’s a typical question I get from bystanders when I am out in the woods trying to make my art. Today, an acquaintance asked about the long rope I had over my shoulder as I headed out to a favorite isolated creek. “I don’t know,” I told her. “Really?” she insisted. “really, no clue”.


I typically work alone so I can avoid questions like this. Making art is a rather private affair, and I feel stifled when I know someone is looking over my shoulder. It’s hard, in ten words or less, to explain my entire process.


The truth is, when I am being truly creative, I don’t want to know what I am doing. I want to be open the situation at hand, listen to the site and follow my gut. It’s almost the opposite of when I show up at a job site, where each stage of construction is carefully planned and the outcome is established long before we start. Sure, I’m going to bring some tools and materials- such as the last minute decision to grab that rope; the same rope that I salvaged from Nova Scotia while making art there; the rope, that when wet, as it would be by the end of the day, stinks like the bottom of the ocean. What I take is only a guess as to what I’ll use. Planning, while essential for some aspects of my practice, is the death knell of creative genesis.


When I was a kid, loner that I was, I’d sneak off and head to the creek behind our ten acres on the edge of town. There, I’d engage in all kinds of projects: making damns, diverting water, catching crayfish and taking an inventory of aquatic life. It was my world. Like most kids, my world was distinct from the world of my parents. My typical response to queries about what I had been doing: “nuthin”. It was not so much that I was trying to be secretive, I just knew that there was no way in hell they’d understand the importance of what I was doing. I guess that way of working, of exploring and playing in the woods and creeks, hasn’t really changed. For me, making art is all about getting back to that kid mind.


The interesting thing about my little exchange in the parking lot was, that I learned that the preserve was in the process of expanding it’s boundaries and that surveyors had just been there, flagging trees to mark the invisible boundaries. This ties into recent work I have doing which explores how boundary lines and the parceling of the landscape have helped define our relationship to the land.


The only difference between what I do now and what I did as kid, is that, now, I try to weave meaning into my actions. I take into account the history, geography and ecology of a place and try to make sense out of how human activity intersects with the natural. I come home and write about it and pour over my documentary photographs and try to make an exhibition. I try to figure out what the hell I really am doing. And then (and only then), I share it with the world.


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One Comment
  1. Love this!! I totally relate to it. I too grew up on the creek, and spent hours and hours, weeks, months, and years poking around in it – my private world. I was a good swimmer so I was allowed to go by myself. I try to make art out of my experiences in the world, and I too, have to work alone. Rob, your Blog puts into words so eloquently and in a way that makes perfect sense to me, something I never could have expressed, but that I feel with my heart. Thank you, Annie Campbell

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