As a student I always loved to doodle. Spring semester of my senior year in high school, I took an art course. It was supposed to be easy. The sole assignment was to paint a large painting. A bit like Minerva, a completed vision of a painting burst forth from my head, I know not where from. The painting was in the style of hard-edged abstraction. On graduation day, all the work from the class was exhibited. The wife of the headmaster of the school asked to buy my painting as she intended to start a collection of student art. After I picked myself up off the floor, I said, “Yes”. Aimless youth that I was, I decided shortly thereafter to major in art at college.
In the first three semesters of my freshman year of undergraduate studies, I took many art courses, but I felt the professors weren’t paying attention to me. This was a fact, but so was the fact that I wasn’t paying attention to them: I only wanted to paint hard-edged abstractions.
For some unremembered reason, the second semester of my sophomore year I took a course in 19th Century Russian literature. This changed my life. I became obsessed with all things Russian and crafted an interdisciplinary major in Russian Studies. For graduate school, I came to Washington, DC, to attend Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, focusing on Soviet Affairs. After that, for ten years I worked as a Soviet Affairs specialist. My last “real” job was at the Pentagon working for HQ Air Force Intelligence as the current Intel expert on Soviet-Eastern European political, economic and ground forces developments.
During this whole period (in fact, ever since my sophomore year in college), I was spending a lot of my free time painting, and, while there was much I loved about my work at the Pentagon, I came to realize that my deepest passion in life was to paint. I quit my job. Essentially, as an autodidact with no connection to the Washington arts community and no real knowledge of what being a professional artist entailed, I had to teach myself how to become an artist. When I told people about my career move, the response was often: “You were so brave!” “In all honesty,” I would reply, “the line between bravery and stupidity is a thin one.” Nonetheless, I soldiered on. As I now look back, I can see that my life as an artist from that point forward was shaped by the way in which I resolved two issues I brought with me from my pre-artist life.
The first issue dates back to that big hard-edged abstraction I painted in high school. Ever since that unexpected and astonishing success, all the works I had created were executions of preconceived images. I was having some success with the work, but, in about my fourth year as a fledgling artist, an artist friend of mine--whose opinion I respected--said something to me to the effect of: “I like your work, but I don’t feel I know anything about you through your work.” It was for me an epiphany. I realized what a totally rational, non-emotional, non-spontaneous artist I was; I had preconceived visions of my paintings and then wrestled with my paint and canvas to render these visions. The approach I had been taking was contained and, as such, was limited and limiting. I realized I needed to somehow open up more in my work as an artist. I really didn’t know how to do this, but I decided to start by doing things in my studio in the least premeditated way I could.
This shift in focus had perhaps the single most-defining long-term impact on my subsequent artwork: I developed a passion and dedication to experimentation. But, as I came to realize, to experiment successfully, in whatever field, one must have skills. In a somewhat reductive dichotomy, to me skills can be associated with discipline and rationality, while experimentation can be associated with spontaneity and the non-rational. The more and better any type of professional learns the tools of the trade, the more effectively that professional can enter into a creative “zone” where her/his “tools” are at the service of the non- or less-rational. For decades now, more or less obviously, my work has reflected an attempt to impart what I call “dualities” to my creative process and its results: head and heart; spirit and flesh; order and chaos; representation and abstraction. So, the first major influence in regard to the type of artist I became was, in essence, a reaction to the way I was before, in my former life.
The second issue is, strangely enough, my having brought with me from my former professional life an aptitude and appetite for working as part of a team and being organized in regard to, let’s say, paperwork. That is generally a very un-artist way of being in the world. Within about a year of joining an artists’ cooperative gallery, I was asked if I’d consider becoming president of the gallery’s board of directors. Fast forward, over the 34-year span of my art career I have been on six boards of directors, founder and director of a Washington-area arts consortium, project director for a Washington-Central Asian artist’s exchange program, director of two arts centers and a co-founder of Artomatic, a huge Washington multidisciplinary month-long biennial art festival, now in its 20th year. As an independent curator I have staged 12 exhibitions regionally, nationally and internationally. What I have been most actively involved in over the past 18 years--as co-founder and project director—is Take Me To The River, an international arts’ collective which stages projects around the United States and the world.
All of this non-studio activity is both a positive and a negative for me as an artist. The positive is that it has been great for networking. I have a bit of a shy streak, and all the non-art activity has been a way to meet people in the visual art world with confidence and with no need to sell myself as an artist, which I hate doing. And, what I have discovered about myself through my non-studio work is that I like to help build or strengthen institutions and communities. The negative effect of all the non-arts activity on my life as an artist is that it seriously reduces the amount of time I can spend in my studio. But I’ve come to realize that the part of me who has done all this non-studio work is an essential part of who I am in totality and who I must and do accept. So, even as I still harbor lofty, most likely unrealistic, ambitions for my artwork, which can cause mental pain at times, I do not regret the path I have taken. I am happy to have found a balance.
To see more of my work, please go to www.rdanaartist.com
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