Play as a creative strategy in the work of Sara Ogilvie

The following article, about play and the creative process, was written by Catherine M. Stewart, who graciously allowed me to include it in this blog. It originally appeared in Malaspina Printmakers‘ Chop Magazine in 2004.

Sara Ogilvie, Little Runaway, lithograph, 61 x 44 cm
Sara Ogilvie, Little Runaway, lithograph, 61 x 44 cm

Play is the exaltation of the possible. – Martin Buber, 20th century philosopher and theologian.

The word ‘play’ is often used in a pejorative way as being a frivolous activity that has little value or purpose. However, it is precisely the freedom from practical purpose associated with playful activity that allows creative people to open up their minds to new possibilities and relationships, to break the bonds of ‘the expected’, and to arrive at fresh ways of interpreting reality. Eighteenth century philosopher, Immanuel Kant, used the phrase “free play of the imagination” to describe this unfettered mindset that he considered to be an essential part of the creative process.

“Free play of the imagination” is very evident in the work of Scottish artist, Sara Ogilvie, who recently exhibited a series of original prints at the Malaspina Printmakers Gallery in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. The artist, who presently resides in Newcastle upon Tyne, UK, also spent a month at the Malaspina Print Studio as artist-in-residence. In a slide presentation on the work she had done since graduating from the Edinburgh College of Art in 1993, Sara explained her modus operandi. In the initial phase of her creative process, she collects fragments from her surroundings – images that she has either sketched or photographed, textures, signage, and peculiar or absurd things of interest that she has come across in thrift shops, city streets or the library. Nothing is too mundane or insignificant for her consideration. Her visual appetite is voracious and she perceives her surroundings in the greatest detail. From carpets to insects to superheroes, it is all ‘grist for the mill’. As her storehouse fills, Sara begins “playing” with seemingly random elements, exploring the potential meaning that comes from serendipitous combinations and then applying them to particular themes or projects.

Her exhibition at Malaspina, entitled Hither and Thither, focused on considerations about “getting from A to B and the pitfalls, non-starters and spaces we move through to get there”. The prints that Sara selected for this exhibition speak about entering spaces that are known and unknown, imaginary and real, personal and social. With the exception of one, these experiences are examined through the eyes of a variety of animals and toy figures. Besides being very playful in character, the images are thought provoking as well. They pose more questions than answers and are wide open to individual interpretation.

For example, in Husky’s Private Pattern, a dog sits in the driver’s seat (UK) of a parked truck. What is it thinking? If it could go anywhere, where would it go? Does the circular stream of sled dogs around the periphery of the image make reference to its genetic history and, in this sense, reflect this husky’s yearning? Or is the print a more general statement about the frustration of this breed’s present day role in society vis à vis its traditional one– the transportation of goods and people – a function that has been usurped by mechanical invention (i.e. the truck in which it is entrapped)?

Several other prints in the exhibition echo this sense of thwarted purpose. In Little Runaway, a caged hamster is pictured running on a circular wheel. In Midnight Mule, a toy mule with moveable joints is ‘clip-clopping’ in space and getting nowhere. Chuf Chuf Ch shows a humanoid toy figure, eyes wide with anticipation, approaching a break in a circular track. While these prints deal with interrupted or obstructed movement, others relate to unanticipated changes that come about when one enters unknown spaces. In her exhibition statement, Sara cited her time as visiting artist/lecturer at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design in 2002 as being the initial impetus for this body of work. The piece Yonder, which she links directly to this experience, is a metaphor for “venturing into unfamiliar territory and returning, initially seeming the same, but undoubtedly changed”.

To heighten the theme of coming and going, or being caught in between, the walls of the gallery were punctuated with black neoprene cutouts of people and animals attempting to move through portals in space and time. These added to the humorous and quirky character of the artist’s approach to the topic of personal transition and are further evidence of the artist’s willingness to try the unexpected.

The sense of enjoyment in the creative process conveyed through the work, as well as Sara Ogilvie’s mastery of silk screening and lithography, made Hither and Thither a pleasure to experience. Furthermore, the “free play of the imagination” that is so evident in the creation of the prints acts as an inducement for viewers to open their own minds to imaginative readings as they contemplate the images. One can’t help but wonder what new space Sara Ogilvie will occupy next and what intriguing things she will have to say about it.

The Pleasures of Art

In these difficult times, looking at and making art can help us get back in touch with the best things that humans are capable of–– a sense of play, a sense of excitement in the creative act.

The following excerpt,  from David Hockney’s book, That’s the Way I See It, reveals the artist’s philosophy on viewing and making art:

I have always believed that art should be a deep pleasure. I think there is a contradiction in an art of total despair, because the very fact that the art is made seems to contradict despair. It means at least that you are trying to communicate what you feel to somebody else and the very fact that you can communicate it takes away a little of the despair. Art has this contradiction built into it. All one has to do is look at its history.

A few years ago at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York there was a show of Fragonard. He is an artist who has been thought sometimes to be much too pleasurable, much too playful, much too sweet to be serious, and certainly in the early nineteenth century that’s how he was dismissed. It was only the Goncourt brothers who started looking seriously at his paintings and buying them.

Today we see him differently. To me Fragonard is a wonderful artist. I think you can’t have art without play; Picasso always understood that. I think you can’t have much human activity of any kind without a sense of playfulness. Someone once criticized my work, saying it was too playful. I said, That’s hardly a criticism at all, that’s a compliment. I do see it as a compliment because I believe that without a sense of play there’s not much curiosity either; even a scientist has a sense of play. And that allows for surprises, the unexpected, discoveries. Anybody who gets good at it knows that. You can use it. I use it. People tend to forget that play is serious, but I know that of course it is. Some people have got the idea that if it’s boring it’s art and if it’s not boring it’s not art. Well, I’ve always thought it was the other way round. If it’s boring, more than likely it’s not art, if it’s exciting, thrilling, more than likely it is. I don’t know of any good art that’s boring, in music, poetry or painting. Isn’t that why Shakespeare is so exciting?

You can find more information on David Hockney on the Artsy website.

Text excerpt from That’s the Way I See It, page 133 © David Hockney

It’s never too late to create

In the current climate of young, new, hip artists with fabulous conceptual savvy (and some of them truly deserve the attention), let’s not forget artists and writers who came to their best work later in life, through trial and error.

Philip Guston, 1972, Painting, Smoking, Eating. Oil on canvas 196.8 x 262.9 cm Collection Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam
Philip Guston, 1972, Painting, Smoking, Eating. Oil on canvas 77 1/2 x 103 1/2 ins, Collection Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam

Think: Louise Bourgeois today in her 90’s, Cezanne in his 60’s, Philip Guston in his  late 50’s,Virginia Woolf in her 40’s. Says Robert Frost, who wrote “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” when he was 57:

…it is later in the dark of life that you see forms, constellations. And it is the constellations that are philosophy.

Read more in this Los Angeles Times article by David Galenson and Joshua Kotin: It’s never too late too create