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Op-Ed: Your Ads Are Not Art. Just As Your Shoes Are Not Gumbo

Houston-based freelance creative Chuck Hipsher, who you may remember from his ode to Chevy last month, is back with another column. This time, our scribe’s intent is to “challenge ad creatives to make certain that they are channeling their creative energy into the space they truly love. It can’t just be a paycheck.” We’ll let him take the floor from here. Read on and if you’d like, you can check out his blog here

Having come from a painter’s background  – and I don’t mean the painting of walls or ceilings – although I performed those jobs to make ends meet – I always viewed my ad work as very intimate and somewhat self-expressive. Nearly precious. Mostly because it eventually replaced my artwork, so I had to rationalize that decision.

Advertising became my passion. My obsession. My dedication. My joy.

To my old artiste friends, I sold out when I put down my brushes and picked up my magnifying glass. When I decided that advertising was far more interesting and sexy than sitting in a cold, lonely studio, staring at a canvas and wondering if it was worthwhile, reasonable, or even sane to want to try and top de Kooning or Pollock.

Early in my ad career, I developed a tendency to disagree. And while it was annoying to some, it was a healthy habit, carried over from my days of painting. The habit saw me questioning every step of the way in the creation of an advertisement for any of the clients I worked on. It became somewhat routine. It was the same argument I had with myself when contemplating a nearly finished painting and wondering, “Is it right? Is it done? Is it worthwhile? Will people like it – or even get it?”

I practiced what was called a forward-retreat style of abstract gestural painting. This meant I would load any and every thought through physical gesture into the painting. Then I would subtract areas of decisions made with shapes, colors and gestures or strokes – and sometimes the entire canvas – only to plow forward again.

I allowed the painting to tell me where we should go. When I got precious about an area or shape or color, I scraped it off or painted it over. My attitude was, “Nothing is precious.” Because in the type of paintings I made, once I allowed that to happen, I would’ve hit a dead end. The whole of the painting had to come together at the same moment in time. It couldn’t be cobbled together with better and lesser moments.

I would free-associatively select colors and brushes and paint densities – then throw myself headlong into that statement on canvas, or whatever material I had strapped over those stretcher bars that day. Most of my paintings were in the neighborhood of 8 X 10 feet, so I felt diminished by their scale. Which was a good thing. That scale afforded me a physical theater or stage upon which I could act. Plus, things were less likely to become precious within those parameters.

The process saw my paintings go through tremendous life cycles. When they were eventually done with me, I stepped back, looked at them for hours on end, and then left the studio for even more hours – to avoid their stare and the possibility that they might have sucked. And then I finally resigned myself to the fact that they either indeed, sucked and needed more time. Or they were done.

So I eventually said, “You can do no more with it. Let it go.”

I know my contrarian demeanor in my early ad days pissed a few people off. But I also know it inspired a few others. I think this behavior took place because early on I was still hanging onto painting. I had live/work lofts in Long Island City, DUMBO and Tribeca. I had gallery shows in Chicago and New York City. Hell, I had a two-man show with the greatest painter alive today in one Wesley Kimler. Google him.

That was a surreal period – working on KitchenAid and AT&T ads during the day and then taking the F Train to York Avenue and my DUMBO loft on Pearl and Water Street at night – staying up and staring at an increasingly fragmented and lifeless body of work.

Truth is, by the time I had arrived in Tribeca, the only paintings in my loft were on my walls. They were constant reminders of another time and path I had diverged from. They haunted me with their silent, nagging questions like, “Well, was it worth it?” and “Are you sure?”

I find it interesting that before I got started in advertising, I met a guy who was retiring from the ad biz and when he heard I was trying to break in and that I had already spent a good deal of time pursuing painting, he said to me – “Don’t confuse art with commerce. They are night and day.”

So it becomes a question of passion versus passion after all. What ignites and drives the fire within you more? The ability to make and sell meaningful advertising? Or the ability to make and sell art – whether it be in the form of dance, song, painting, design, photography, writing, acting – or whatever your creative poison might be.

When I first read about the great copywriter, Jim Riswold’s decision to become an artist full-time, I was taken aback. This guy had worked and lived on the top of the mountain and had filled us lowly wannabe’s with tremendous inspiration and dread for years.

And then I read about his personal struggle with cancer and it all began to make sense. He wanted to leave something more. Or at least feel as though he had answered something within himself that had not yet been answered through his many years of kicking our asses in advertising.

I’ve never met Jim Riswold. But I’ve also never met Brian Wilson, Thom Yorke, Cormac McCarthy and some other great souls whom I admire and respect to no end.

But If I could meet Jim and/or any of those other guys, I’d ask them the same two questions my art continues to ask of me: “Well, was it worth it?” and “Are you sure?”

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