You Are the Why

June 3, 2024
Remember I mentioned the other day that I’m going to be posting art that doesn’t necessarily relate to anything in the current post. This may be one of those instances. Or may not. Life is funny that way.


I was searching for something the other day in the rabbit warren of my digital files now under reconstruction. 

In a happy accident I found something I posted years ago. It’s something that’s in the non-public archive so I can’t give you a link. But I wanted to revisit the text. I was writing about a talk my friend Karen Engelbretson gave on composition at a meeting of GAIN (Gathering of Artists and Illustrators of Nature; now defunct). Karen taught at the Minnesota School of Botanical Art.

I wrote the following about her talk.

She [Karen] has talked to me about her series of courses [on composition] several times, mostly on the phone. I’ve always found what she has to say well thought out and coherent. It is theory run through the mind of a working graphic designer: someone who at the end of the day has to please the client while also educating his level of visual perception.

In front of a group of people with her Mac-prepared Powerpoint presentation and her electronic gismos to project, the talk comes off polished and seductively simple. There is no clutter to distract. But there were also moments when she went off script, as we all do, picking up the energy of the room, watching the faces of the audience as flickers of comprehension come and go.

It was one of these moments that she supplied for me a mantra I could carry forth in my own mind as I continue with my ever enlarging (both in number and in physical dimension) bird series. Karen was speaking of Subject, Form, and Content, and how they combine to create Organic Unity. Her circular chart described Subject as “the What,” Form as “the How,” and Content as “the Why.”

As she explained each in turn she came to Content and said, “You are always the Content. You are always the Why.”

It’s simple, it’s obvious, but Content is so often hemmed and hawed and theorized about. Many of us caught in the midst of a series or an artistic project can easily be caught in all these mental gymnastics. And once caught our internal critics may take the momentary pause to jump in and begin the dialogue which dissolves our direction and momentum.

I long ago worked out the reasons and rationales for why I do what I do. I long ago, with the help of several friends and mentors, standing a pace away and looking in, saw very clearly what I try over and over to do. So, typically I just charge forward. It is after all a compulsion and we don’t usually stop to question those once they have become established in our lives (just as I no longer question the compulsion to have a chocolate bar at 2:15 p.m.; just do it and move on). 

Editor’s note: currently it’s one of my handmade brownies, and it’s about 11:30 a.m. so the caffeine is out of my system by bed time. Aging!

(There is one time we have to address the compulsion, it’s the artistic intervention known as the artist’s statement, and it comes up every time we have a show. As artists, if we want to communicate in the world we have to make an effort at this time to do so, but in general we plow through.)

Karen’s comment, “You are always the Content. You are always the Why,” is particularly useful for those times when depending on the time of day, one’s blood sugar, and even the humidity and pressure (high or low) we might encounter a pause. I propose to keep this in a mental pocket, to pull out and stop the wandering of the theorizing mind when it wants to speak. I think it should be on T-shirts!

Editor’s note: I actually think pretty much everything needs to be on a t-shirt. Recently I suggested several T-shirt options to my dad for his bridge club. He thought they weren’t sartorially sound for his group. Sigh.

Think about it if you hit a pause sometime. Say it to yourself.

If you cared enough to devote your precious time to the project in front of you three days ago, that project is still worth finishing now. You can have confidence because you are “always the content.” Whether you later want to show that content to someone else is a whole other matter that should be decided after the creation is completed, and time and a whole lot of chocolate have been consumed.

    • Harriet Braun
    • June 5, 2024

    I love how you perfectly landed the ear in the gutter.

    1. Reply

      Harriet, SHHHHHH, hush, don’t let anyone know but that wasn’t perfectly planned!

      One does try and sometimes the brush pen zigs when we need it to zag. But we make it work.

      Thanks for enjoying where it did land! (I would have preferred at least a 1/4 inch of space to the gutter. Or for it to be well over at least 1/2 inch.)

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