October 20, 2011

In the Studio: Once a Hedgehog, Now I'm a Fox

"the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing" is a fragment from the Greek lyric poet Archilocus that became the theme of a famous essay "The Hedgehog and the Fox" by the political philosopher Isaiah Berlin. Berlin uses the fox/hedgehog idea to divide writers and philosophers into two categories: those who expanded on a single idea and those whose thoughts ranged widely. He labeled as foxes Aristotle, Shakespeare, and Balzac, and as hedgehogs Plato, Dante, and Dostoevsky. My studio definitely looks like a fox's lair these days.

Paintings share the walls with textiles, salon style, all bumping up against each other, conversing, vying for attention.

Ten years ago, this studio did not look like this at all. At the time, I was painting large landscapes with strong foreground elements – farm implements – and there would have been a big painting on a big crank wooden easel; I completed only a few each year. For thirty years my focus was narrowly fixed on painting and some print making. My subject matter was architecture, then agricultural landscape, with a bit of still life thrown in during the 80s, and a little figure painting before that.

In 2006 I began making small hooked rugs, which allowed me to explore an entirely different aspect of my aesthetic sensibility: my deep interest in minimalist abstraction. And the textiles in turn influenced my paintings. In addition to these two mediums, I now write and photograph for this blog, which in the past two years has been a spur to thinking and become an important part of my creative life. (Thank you, readers!)

For me, this opening up of my artistic output has been nothing but positive; I love doing all the different things I am working on. But I sometimes wonder if out in the larger world a varied output makes it harder for people to understand what you're about; they find it hard to cross categories; or maybe it dilutes energy and focus. So...what do you think? Are you a fox or a hedgehog? do you feel that one or the other way of approaching work is best for you? for anyone else?


  1. I am a fox. I like to do different things. Actually I must do different things or I lose interest. I get stuck thinking I can't go any further with a project so I switch to something else. It somehow allows the knot to become losened and things seem to flow again. As to others. I don't worry too much about that. I am not a professional. Art is a way to exercise my creative side, a release for me.

  2. Always a Hedgehog
    Never a Fox.
    So it's One Big Thing.
    But Altoon,—
    When I poke around
    The One Big Thing...

  3. Altton, very interesting. it depends on the artist.
    Leonardo da Vinci never finished many paintings cause he did so many things, though I am thankful he spent time drawing his plans. Leonardo the fox!
    I do many things at once. constantly trying new techniques. i guess Vermeer was a hedgehog.

  4. you know, seeing the walls of your studio is just beautiful, gems in wonderful colors and shapes.

  5. thanks for the comments!
    Lisa, It sounds like the varied approach works really well for you.

    William, of Course the one big thing must have lots going on in it to keep delving.

    Alicia, thanks, I'm glad you like the work on the walls. And of course I agree that each artist approaches their work life differently; the thing that's been so interesting to me is how much I've changed as the years have gone by and I wonder if that's happened to anyone else.

    and of course I should add that there is no value judgment with one or the other; I think Berlin was just having some fun with his categories.

  6. I go in circles finding myself painting and photographing abstract and representational themes. I make picture frames for my paintings and do carpentry work on an old building and my new workshop. I suppose I am like a fox.

  7. I think many of us have multiple interests that we limit because the world gets confused. I have had a career of doing writing/illustrating/graphic design with the emphasis sometimes on one thing more than another, but always multiple disciplines happening at once. I was lucky enough to find jobs where these multiple interests were an asset.

    I remember a section in M.C. Richards' book, "Centering in Pottery, Poetry and the Person," where she talked about the value of "making." Making bread, making a baseball game, making art all had value and none should be denigrated at the expense of the others. She believed it was OK to jump from pottery to poetry etc. Helped me to get over the fact that I could not limit myself.

  8. Anon., you sound like me in working with both abstract and representational themes. I'm a lousy carpenter, but my gardening could fill in for your carpentry.

  9. Linda, that's so interesting about your multi-dimensional career path. I imagine it isn't very easy to find work that engages so many disciplines. And thanks so much for the comment from Richards on "making"; I love thinking that way.

  10. I think I have always been a Fox. Growing up, I thought of myself as a "Renaissance Man" (woman), but then I said to myself, "Jack of all trades, master of none", and decided to put my focus on art. I continue to get distracted with all of the other wonderful things there are to do in life. So maybe I am a "master of none"...

  11. no, Amy, not "master of none" but a person interested in many things. I think we're capable of bringing more than one endeavor to a high level of accomplishment; at least I hope so.

  12. The hedgehog reminds me of a character in Pogo -- did you grow up reading it, as I did? Miz Bug has a child, Lil Bug, and his answer to every question was "Jes fine!" She said of him, "He don't know much, but he knows it good." It's become a family saying of ours.
    I wonder...if you take the fox path, you'll find connections, patterns, things that happen over and over in different ways and places; if you do the hedgehog work, you'll find endless variety and complexity in something that might have looked simple on its surface. At least that's my experience. Its a fundamental character trait in herbivores and carnivores, but I'm happy that many humans can try out both.

  13. Susan, I didn't read Pogo as a child, but I love your illustration of Lil Bug's hedgehogness. As you write, it's good that humans approach things in these different ways because each has its benefits.

  14. What a treat to see all this work having a conversation with each other.


  15. I am definitely a fox - my main medium and focus is watercolor painting, but I feel like more of a chemist as I explore the myriad ways watercolor can be used, from large fluid washes to smaller marks layered on top of each other, barely there transparent patches to nearly opaque marks, and everything in between. For diversion in the studio I work in a totally dry medium, pastel, and sometimes use both pastel and watercolor in paintings. But then...I have an ongoing knitting project that is a red "scarf" that can be knit from both ends, and sections can be joined - one goal is to get it so long that it can be laid on a green mowed field or snow, and people have to walk miles to see the whole thing - it's a conceptual piece that has many possibilities. I also have some public sculptural projects in the wings, making bread is a new passion, and I am an avid cook, and reader of art books and essays. whew the days are just too short! I love your blog, it's just fabulous.

  16. thanks, Myrna.
    and thanks for your contribution to the discussion, Suzanne. It sounds as though you have a very interesting range of art and other activities going on. I'm glad you enjoy the blog.

  17. I think I am a fox who is constantly feeling guilty for not being a hedgehog...anyway, Altoon, your studio looks like an exciting place right now!

  18. oy vey, guilt! annoying thing, isn't it? we have to be happy in who we are, which isn't very easy. I'm glad you like the studio walls.