“Art is a creation that aptly describes its time and place.”
— Sid Webb
Sid Webb is a Lexington native who studied journalism at the University of Kentucky and attended the Atlanta School of Art. He came back to Kentucky to be the first art director at the Kentucky Educational Television network (KET), where he was an early advocate of using the digital canvas to create art and to make gicleé prints. He created a 13-part show for public television called Sid Webb’s Digital Studio, in which he demonstrated several ways to create art and paintings on a computer. After many years at KET, Webb turned to travel and editorial photography.
When did you first think you would be an artist?
I was convinced at a very early age that I would be an artist…maybe 10 or 12 years old. I had done some freelance work for the new IBM plant in high school and local TV stations plus some other work in high school. Sometimes clinging adamantly to such an idea can lead one astray, as it did me. I joined the Air Force after my freshman year in college. At that time the military was very sensitive to the criticism that they were assigning recruits to the wrong jobs and they had developed an elaborate test to discover one’s potential military vocation. I insisted that I wanted to be a graphic artist and passed the test with a near 100 percent score. No portfolio was required. Just several hours of reading questions and guessing at answers to questions like “Which Speedball pin tip would you use to letter a diploma?” Even though I had passed the test, there were few graphic artists needed in the Air Force. No openings were available. There were plenty of openings for cooks and cops, however, and those occupations were in the same category as graphic artists for some reason. I opted for cop.
If you could do anything else but make art, what would it be?
Fortunately, during my career I found several creativity roles that were very fulfilling. After college and art school, I came back to Kentucky to work for KET just as it was going on the air. During those early years I did set designs and construction, make-up, newsletters, ads, photography…you name it. Later, I became director of production, and then created and headed a department that sold and distributed KET programs to stations in other states. Surprisingly, that time was perhaps the most fun and productive. We were distributing GED and adult literacy programs and I tried to break new ground in reaching those who could benefit from KET’s creations. I had workbooks translated to Spanish and programs subtitled. I looked for ways to make the content work on computers and audiotapes. I looked for ways to help adult education centers. Perhaps most importantly, I explored ways to get the message of “help” to those who needed it. In the process I met some very talented and wonderful people and felt gratified.
You were an early practitioner of digital art and the use of computers for reproductions. What do see as the future of digital art?
I had one of those "ah-ha" moments sometime ago. I was thinking about the artwork and photography I have done over the last few years.
Early on, I became enamored with the possibilities for digital printmaking and the computer as an art-making tool. I also knew that inkjet prints would face stiff opposition from galleries and buyers. I thought the process needed to be elevated and legitimized, so I invented a new term for it: "digitography".
I pat myself on the back for seeing the need, and kick myself for not being outrageously inventive.
For my intended purpose, any word that too easily revealed its derivation like digitography did was destined for the scrape heap, where it soon found itself. The word that emerged and quickly claimed proper respect among the art community was "gicleé". It was a flash of brilliance.
It didn't matter that the true definition could be easily discovered, which is "to spit," or "to sputter". What mattered was that it had a nice ring to it. The beauty of the choice was that it is a French word, always nice sounding; and it helped that France was the birthplace of modern, avant-garde art. Also, it helped that the definition of gicleé, even when discovered, did not immediately reveal its connection to the mechanical and digital aspects of computers.
That leads me to the "ah-ha" about what I have been doing.
I have been doggedly creating "paintings" on the computer that looked as though they were created with traditional media. Again, I wanted to legitimize the computer as an art tool, and I have been trying to do it by demonstrating that my approach worked as well as other tools by inviting comparisons.
The epiphany was the realization that every new medium first gained legitimacy in this way. For instance, early films and radio productions "translated" books and theater before it found firm artistic footing of its own.
Even though I am someone who adopted the computer early on as an art tool, others have moved beyond "translations". I decided I would, too.
What advice would you give a young artist just out of college?
The challenge is how to pay off the student loan, pay the rent, and have enough money left over to create art the way you want to do it. Facing this reality is often shocking and overwhelming . . . and defeating. I have a lawyer friend who told me that in law school he learned the law but left school with no idea how to practice it or run a business. That’s so very true of young artists just finishing their degrees. How to sell art is the very first thing a graduate needs to learn. I suggest an internship with a successful artist or photographer. Working in a craft shop or gallery is also a great option.
Tell us about an important moment of transition for you as an artist?
Retiring from my day job freed me to explore the world around me . . . libraries, museums, friends, travel. I was usually free to spend as much as I wished on my art projects. I had no deadlines, self imposed or otherwise as a rule.
What's your favorite place to visit?
Tough question. I love France because I have an insatiable appetite for great food, and it is hard to find mediocre or bad food in France. France, like so many other places I have visited, is candy to the eye and fresh air to the inner spirit. I am able to see and feel that which has become too familiar to local people. I do love my home but there lives within me a need to see beyond the next horizon.
What's the most challenging part when starting on a piece of work of art?
How to create the next piece and push beyond my “style”. My style is like my shadow. It is glued to me and I have little control over it. I can walk around a room with a single light source in the center of it and my shadow will mutate, but I still own it. I can’t shake it. But I try.
How long do you usually spend on a specific piece of art?
It depends. I may spend less than an hour to several days. Sometimes the pieces that take less than an hour to create have taken shape in my head over days.
Does art have a purpose? If so what is it?
It defines us, our place in time. Our culture. Our beliefs. None of this is too obvious until we travel and become aware of what surrounds us.
A few decades ago, André Malraux wrote a little book titled “Museum Without Walls” and I used it to make a compelling case that art is dead. Malraux thesis was that the industrial age had made it possible to exactly duplicate fine works of art so that people no longer had to flock to the museums of the world to see and appreciate them.
In his view we needed to disconnect the ideas of “original,” and “art”. In other words the fact that a piece is an original or part of a limited edition may make it costly, but its cost doesn’t make it art.
This of course leads back to the question of “what is art?” To be candid, the answer is a moving target with philosophical overtones. The layman’s answer often is “I don’t know what art is, but I know what I like.” That usually puts an end to the discussion as the remark is often intended to do. But there is a measure of truth in it.
The German word “gestault” describes that measure of truth. But the best way to think about it may be by using music as an analogy. Most people know when a singer or an instrumentalist hits a sour note or is off key. The ability to detect harmonic sounds is built into our physical make up, at least in most of us. We are painfully aware of singers who are off key or hit a bad note and we know when the rhythm is not quite right. But being aware of the correctness of those essentials of music doesn’t determine the kind of music we enjoy or make us good critics.
In a general way, what most of us think of as good music has to do with lots of other things. If we play an instrument or sing in a group we are certain to pay closer attention to music than others who don’t. The music we grew up listening to affects our appreciation of it and how we feel about music outside of that genre, too.
As with music there are physical attributes we humans have that determine our feelings about art. Perhaps surprisingly, one is in our inner ears that keep us balanced and on our feet. Gravity and that liquid in our inner ears keeps us keenly attuned to weight and what’s up and what's down.
The physical mechanics of the way most of us see color is another factor. Some people are color blind or “tone deaf” to color, but most of us know when colors clash. It takes only a little experimentation to sharpen ones sensitivity to the harmonies of color, but as with music, our taste in color has much to do with our cultural background and where we live.
So in both music and art we humans share common tools for creating and appreciating them. From there, defining what is good or bad, great or worthless becomes a stroll in the wilderness of philosophical thought that leads to questions like these:
— Is craftsmanship important or necessary?
— Can utilitarian objects like knifes and forks, pottery, etc., be considered art?
— What’s the difference between arts and crafts?
— Is folk art really art?
— Is performance art, art?
— Should commercial art be considered as worthy?
— Does museum ownership make it art?
— Must an artist know art history to create “real” art?
— Should photography be considered art?
— If a sculptor creates a model that someone else casts into bronze, should the piece be considered art?
— What if the sculptor intends that only one piece be cast but two are actually made. Is the second piece art?
— Must a work have lasting value to be considered art?
— Are movies to be considered as art?
Twenty-four images a second pass the shutter of a movie projector. Should we select only a few of the frames to consider as art or are each of the frames to be considered art?
I could go on, but you get the idea.
Music is also exposed to these same sorts of questions when trying to separate “great” music from the commonplace, but the answers are usually less vague and troubling. We all know what music is; because, it seems, we trust our ears more than our eyes, and because the word “music” never took on a double meaning as the word “art” has. It makes the discussion about great music easier. Music is also less complicated in other ways. Utilitarian items crafted by a master can be considered art, but elevator music remains merely utilitarian.
Art critics will say that you cannot know what “art” is until you have immersed yourself in it. On the other hand I suspect many artists would tell you the process is more important to them than the product.
In Kurt Vonnegut’s book, “Man without a Country,” Vonnegut, in his usual direct and pithy style, cuts to the chase on the subject. An artist friend told him the way to recognize great art is to look closely at a million pictures. Then he would know what art is. He told his daughter this and she agreed. She told him that after working as an artist for years she could roller skate through the Louvre going “yes, no, yes, no, no, yes,” confidently assessing the value of the works as art.
I have my own definition of what “art” is that’s fairly encompassing but leaves a few corners uncovered. I choose to think of it as a creation that aptly describes its time and place and sometimes foreshadows its successor.
I fill in the blanks from the gut.
Name: Sid Webb
Hometown: Lexington, KY
Education: Majored in journalism and political science, University of Kentucky; Atlanta School of Art (High Museum)
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