IAM Encounter: The better poem, or painting, or sculpture . . .

Nicholas Wolterstorff, former professor of philosophical theology at Yale, spoke during the first plenary of Encounter 09. He also worked out of a keen interest in the arts, and it was his book Art in Action which served as the theme for this year’s conference. Wolterstorff is the type of man that I would love to sit down with for a few hours.

One part of his lecture stood out to me in particular. He relayed a story about visiting a poetry reading some years back. Following the reading, the poet took questions from the audience; one of the questions probed why the poet changed one word in the poem.

His answer, “Because it made it a better poem.”

Wolterstorff was impressed by this answer. The response didn’t try and justify the change, it didn’t give a long explanation of why he changed that particular word. Just that “it made it a better poem.”

Wolterstorff’s point here was that artists don’t always need to be able to verbalize exactly what makes a good painting, sculpture or poem. Artists, arguably, possess a certain intuition that helps them know which negatives to develop, which paragraphs to cut and which pots to just throw away. It takes time, perhaps a lifetime, to observe and thus articulate certain things.

Of course, there are basic tenets to every craft which serve as a jumping off point for an artist. Hopefully the artist will be able to make note of the importance of proportion, line weight and color theory when talking about a work or body of work. But there is more to art than formality.


For me, it boils down to a somewhat ethereal choice between my unfinished or even finished sculptures. The small thunderhead above was definitely a go, but two other larger works I finished in the Fall — and put just as much time into — I’m not happy with. Now, I may be able to modify them in such a way that I’m willing to exhibit and sell them (you can only do so much with wood and clay; poets have it easy if they want to make changes later), but if I so decide that they just don’t have it that is part of my own process and artistic intuition.

About pcNielsen
Paul Nielsen founded The Aesthetic Elevator late in 2005. He owns a piece of paper, located somewhere in his house (not on the wall), stating that he earned a B.F.A. from the University of Nebraska around about 2001. While there, he studied studied architecture, graphic design and ceramics, graduating with a degree in studio art. Paul presently serves as communications manager for a small non-profit doing their print design and marketing. He spends as much time sculpting in his studio as possible — which is not nearly enough. Visit his website at pcNielsen.com.

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