My art page introduces itself with a photomontage I made in high school, and this story:
I hate tomatoes. I don’t know why. It must just be the texture; I like tomato soup and ketchup, but I can’t put a tomato or a chunk of a tomato in my mouth without gagging.
I didn’t hate my high school art teacher; she and I got along very well. But I did get kind of annoyed with her when she kept nagging me to do artwork that had “meaning.” I disagreed, maintaining that art could fulfill its purpose merely by being pleasing to the eye, and I retaliated with a photomontage that had a meaning, namely, that I hated tomatoes.
At first it was going to be the outline of a tomato made out of clippings of things I hated, but she said I had to narrow my focus to one thing that I hated. I surveyed my list of hates, found that “women portrayed as sex objects” were the easiest to find in magazines, and made my tomato out of those. Only later did I realize that “tomato” is a slang term for a sexy woman.
When I think back to it, I remember I was vaguely aware of that meaning of “tomato” before I started that piece of art. But it certainly wasn’t in my conscious mind when I was creating it. Going by my original concept for the piece, the double meaning of “tomato” wouldn’t have been very relevant, and the fact that I switched to a concept where it was relevant was just an accident caused by the availability of certain images.
These days, my artworks often do have meanings. Sometimes I think that all the meanings originate subconsciously, because I never seem to notice them until after the piece is finished. But I think it’s more likely that I make up the meanings afterwards, and some of them just coincidentally happen to make a lot of sense.
That picture is from when John and I had a blue-fronted Amazon parrot. Typically, parrot owners clip the wing feathers to keep the bird from flying away. If a captive-raised parrot gets outside, it loses all sense of direction really fast, and might not even be able to find its way home from the top of the nearest tree. In Minnesota, you do not want to risk your parrot getting lost outside, especially when winter’s coming. A parrot with clipped wings is often safer, but sadly, it doesn’t get to experience any of the pleasure that comes with flying. Parrots usually get by okay without flight, though, because even in the wild they get around mostly by climbing.
Anyway, at the time I painted this, it had been a while since we clipped his wings, and he had shed a lot of his feathers, including his clipped wing feathers. I decided to paint a picture of them, because it seemed like a cool thing to try and paint.
The reason the feathers in the middle are painted so much more clearly is because I painted them first. I draped a sheet over my easel, pinned some feathers onto it, and copied what I saw onto canvas. But then I felt the painting looked dull and sad, so I added some more colorful feathers floating around the pinned ones. Since I didn’t attach them to the sheet, I couldn’t paint them as accurately as the other ones, but they looked okay.
What I didn’t think about was the fact that the bird’s most colorful feathers were his tail feathers, which, unlike his duller wing feathers, were complete and unclipped. Without even planning it, I had painted the clipped feathers trapped in place, and the unclipped feathers flying free. It looked as if I was actually making some kind of statement about freedom or something.
So I titled the painting “Freedom,” because hey, if I can’t come up with artistic meanings on my own, I might as well fake it.
Painting 3 of “Earth to Erika: An Interplanetary Eclipse” (1999)
In my college painting class, I made a triptych that was supposed to represent how I’ve become better acquainted with the planet Earth. The picture shown above is the last of the triptych’s three paintings.
The planet with the vague face in it represents me. Compared to the previous two paintings, this one shows me closer to the Earth and turned further toward it, representing how I understand the world better as I’ve grown up. It also has a few other differences from the other two paintings: it is larger, and it has a weird lumpy border down the middle.
The weird lumpy border is because I didn’t have a canvas in the size I wanted, and so I made one myself. I didn’t have a large enough piece of canvas to cover the small wooden stretcher I had, so I attached two pieces as best I could. It didn’t work very well.
But when my art professor saw it, he commented on how the division in the third painting was such an interesting illustration of one of the topics I had mentioned in describing the triptych: my sense of being torn between feeling human and feeling alien; my conflict between the side of me that wanted human contact and the side that found other humans stupid and incomprehensible.
Apparently, by making a visible border on the final painting, I was revealing the truth that I was still torn and divided, even when I had made so much progress toward knowing the world. In the previous images, my disconnection had been evident in the paint, the lines, the appearance I presented. In the third one, the paint itself all showed me fitting in, but my division was still there under the surface. I had learned how to look as if I fit in, but underneath I was still half alien.
That’s obviously not what I intended. I didn’t choose to be out of properly-sized canvas, or bad at gluing canvases together. But the interpretation worked so well and made so much sense, I decided to go with it.
Belief and Disbelief (2005)
This picture was intended to have a meaning right from the start. Or at least, it was intended to have a profound subject: it was about belief. Not sure what exactly it was saying about belief, but that was its subject matter. Two closed boxes, one labeled as empty and one labeled as containing a beautiful sculpture. The sculpture is the actual work of art here, and you admire it by having faith that it exists.
There is a sculpture in one of the boxes. It’s a blue flower I made out of paper. I’m not actually sure it’s beautiful, but who cares, it’s inside a box.
The unintended meaning here is that, when I made that paper sculpture, I had totally forgotten about the German Romantic ideal of a goal that cannot be reached. It’s called “die blaue Blume,” or “the blue flower.”
Really. I learned this in my German literature classes. In the Romantic era, some poet wrote something long and mournful about searching for a beautiful blue flower that he sees in his dreams but can never find in reality. It became the quintessential German metaphor for a beloved and unattainable goal.
In other words, a blue flower was the perfect thing for me to put in that box. And I was not consciously thinking about it at all. Either I’m the master of dumb luck, or my subconscious is a much more thoughtful artist than I am.
Maybe someday my subconscious will be revered as a great painter. Perhaps, years from now, the seemingly nonsensical system that decides which paintings are “great” will somehow latch onto my acrylic-on-canvas dabblings and the meanings that my subconscious inserted so insidiously into them.
Art critics will say, “Erika Hammerschmidt is one of the twenty great masters of the past century, but only one part of her psyche fits that description. Don’t read what Hammerschmidt’s conscious mind wrote about her paintings; it will weaken your faith in her work. Instead, learn the true artist’s intent by observing the work itself; only there will you see what the real artistic genius, her subconscious, had to say. Her conscious mind is useless; it said only cynical things like ‘who cares if it’s beautiful, it’s inside a box.’”