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Eliciting an Emotional Response
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Published in the Columbia Daily Tribune 3 September 2006

Eliciting an Emotional Response

When I owned Legacy Art, I got to hear comments from all sorts of people in response to all kinds of art.  There were the usual "my child could do that" statements about abstract art, or the "that's so pretty" reactions to a nice pastoral landscape that was easy on the eyes even if it did't have a lot of artistic content.  But one of the curious questions I consistently heard was whether or not a certain artist was a child.

The artist was Jennifer Wiggs, and you can find her original work at the Columbia Art League, limited edition prints at Poppy, and her website here.  If you're not familiar with her name, but you ever came into Legacy, I'm sure you'll remember her work:  whimsical animals, painted with simple geometric shapes reminiscent of the style of Spanish artist Joan Miro.

Wiggs is anything but a child.  She has an MFA from Washington University in St. Louis, is an Honor Society member of Watercolor USA, a member of the Missouri Watercolor Society, has taught at the university level, and has shown her work extensively.  But at Legacy (and I'm sure at the Art League & Poppy), we would regularly hear from people that they thought her work looked like it was done by a child because of her style and images.

I think this was their way of trying to explain how they were reacting to Jennifer's work - finding joy and whimsy in it.  For people who are not educated in the arts, or are not artists themselves, there is often confusion between the emotional reaction that the artist elicits and the artist themselves.  If a work brings forth child-like feelings of wonder, then the artist must be a child, right?  Likewise, if artwork brings forth a sense of peace or awe through the use of religious tropes, then the artist must be a saint, right?

Er, no.  A good artist understands the language of color and line, just as a writer understands how to use words, to create a certain response from the viewer/reader, regardless of what that artist's or writer's own personality is.  Just think about this for a moment:  I bet you could sit down and write a hateful, insulting and ugly letter to someone, a letter which would elicit an angry response, even if you did not actually feel hate towards that person.  Likewise, I'm sure you could write a flowery, flattering letter to someone you really didn't much care for, and make them feel liked.  You can use the language to create a response because you understand what the words mean.  Further, you can use certain structures and phrases that everyone knows to convey shades of meaning beyond just the simple definitions of the words.  A phrase such as "Damn the torpedoes!," or "roll out the red carpet," or even a single word such as "SNAFU" carries with it a certain history, and can be used to connote a specific idea or emotion in the reader.

To let the cat out of the bag, this is what a talented artist does.  They know just how to use color, shading, line and perspective to create an image which will draw out a reaction.  There is a language of technique, so to speak, which all artists draw upon.  Brilliant, breakthrough artists will be able to do the same thing using unconventional materials, or techniques, or themes.  And in turn their work is then deconstructed by later artists and art scholars, and those lessons added in to the repertoire, the language, available to all artists.

I've already mentioned Joan Miro, who was just such a breakthrough artist during the middle of the last century.  He was generally considered to be a surrealist, but experimented widely with media and styles.  Two other artists who are important to know to understand the language of Jennifer Wiggs are Henri Rousseau and Paul Klee.  Rouseau was a painter in France in the latter part of the 19th century, whose work was considered childish and untutored during his life, but characterized as Naive or Primitive genius after his death.  Klee's life bridged perfectly from Rouseau to Miro, and to a certain extent so did his style.  Like the other two artists, his work now commands a price into the millions.  Each of these men were initially criticized as being childish in their style, but went on to help redefine and expand the language of art.  This is the repertoire that Wiggs draws upon, and with.

Bottom line, next time you see a work of art you don't entirely understand, don't make the mistake that the fault is the artist's.  Perhaps you just don't speak their language. If you find yourself attracted to the piece, ask about it, or burn a little midnight oil.  You may be surprised what you learn and live happily ever after.

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all work © James T. Downey, 1993-present
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