What’s in a Name?


How Artists Title Their Works


The painting, hanging in a trendy coastal art gallery off-Island, is called “Ocean 87237, Sapphire Sky.” I like the piece but the title stumps me. Did the artist create 87,236 other Ocean, Sapphire Sky paintings? It makes me wonder: How do Vineyard artists come up with names for their works? Are titles important to them? Do they struggle with the process, or is it enjoyable? The answers, as you might suspect, are as individual as the artists themselves.

Cindy Kane, an artist whose large-scale paintings of whales and other objects from the natural world adorn the walls of the Granary Gallery, becomes vehement on the subject of titles. “I get very aggravated when someone’s work is untitled,” she says. “I feel a title is a valuable window into an artist’s perspective and possibly into their process. I take titles very seriously.” 

“What am I Trying to Say?” by Cindy Kane 60 x 42 inches.

Although oil painter Stephanie Danforth agrees with Kane on the importance of titling, she says that the subject can sometimes leave her queasy. Admired as much for her luminous works, often from nature and highlighted with gold leaf, as for her philanthropic efforts on behalf of girls in Kenya, Danforth says her struggle for titles is real. “I’ve been known to let galleries name my paintings,” she admits, sounding sheepish. “Sometimes coming up with a title is a breeze, a fluid thought moving from the tip of my brush to the synapses of my brain, a woven ribbon connecting the energy of the two. A feeling of completion. I wish it was always that way. But it’s not.” Danforth’s work, with titles, will be shown this summer at the new Knowhere Art Gallery in Oak Bluffs. 

Realist painter Andrew Moore sees titling his paintings of Island subjects as the last critical step before hanging them for a show. Represented by the Granary Gallery, Moore explains that he creates names for each piece after they are framed and within a week of an opening. “I enjoy titling because, at that point, the hard physical process of painting and framing is complete. I can relax and really take a look at what I’ve made.”

Deborah Colter, a mixed-media artist represented on-Island by Louisa Gould Gallery, says that she, too, feels that titles are a vital part of the painter’s job. “‘Untitled’ is a cop-out on the work. It feels like you haven’t tried hard enough, or you haven’t completed the process.” Titling seemed uncomplicated when she first became a professional painter over 30 years ago, and, Colter says, she often settled for the first name that popped into her head. Now, however, she likes to make the names of her paintings “a doorway into my nonobjective work.”

The evocative night photography of Bob Avakian provides a haunting presence at the Granary Gallery. He, like Danforth, explains that coming up with the right title can be a struggle at times. “I enjoy the process,” he says. “It should come easily, but sometimes it doesn’t. I want my photographs to have names that mean something. But if I have to, I’ll just throw a name out, and then come back and change it.” 

Titling their works is just as much of a ritual for the artists to title their works as rinsing brushes and shooting multiple exposures. Danforth conjures names by turning her back on her paintings and pretending it’s the first time she’s seen them. “I hope for inspiration to be dropped from above.” But if that doesn’t occur, she’ll ask her two daughters for suggestions. “I like their ideas and, because of our DNA connection,” she says wryly, “it makes the naming more legitimate.” 

Kane also acknowledges that she seeks both divine intervention and aid from good friends: “A piece tells me what it’s called. That’s the best way. But sometimes I send an image to a friend with a good eye. It helps to have an extra voice in the studio.” 

Colter, too, looks for a suggestion from the work itself. “I have a feeling when I see the piece,” she says. “An emotion, a color, a song. I like words that don’t necessarily go together, but sound interesting.” A prolific painter, she’s careful not to repeat names from the past. “I keep an inventory of titles I’ve already used in my computer,” she says. 

“I ask myself, ‘What is this photo really about?’” Avakian says. “The name has to come to me.” He chooses titles that range from literal (“The Creek” for an image of Herring Creek, for instance) to more abstract (“A Long Day’s Night” for one of an illuminated Menemsha fishing shack). He credits music for offering inspiration in the form of song lyrics. “I think of song titles when trying to come up with the perfect title for a photo. ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ was playing on the radio while I was pondering the title for the Menemsha fishing shack. Another time, A Doors song, ‘Waiting for the Sun’ inspired another title.”

Moore relies on titles that are short and literal, believing that paintings should speak for themselves. “The viewer should be free in spirit to explore the work,” he explains. “I love words and language, but I guess I’m of the Ernest Hemingway school of titling.”

“The Dance” by Stephanie Danforth oil and gold leaf on panel, 36 x 48 inches.

In addition to soliciting the occasional suggestion from others, several of these artists turn to outside resources when stumped. Without hesitation, Kane rattles off tools she relies on: the thesaurus, music lyrics, audiobooks, newspaper articles, scientific articles, NPR stories. “Anything I can read,” she says. “And I keep a list of potential painting names. A big list. I tend to favor one-word titles. I’d love a complex title, but I have a one-word tendency.” 

Avakian says that Google is a big help, while Colter points out that there are online title generators. “But I’d worry that everyone would end up with the same names,” she says.

And, although Danforth bemoans her love-hate relationship with titles, her new body of work will contain words in the paintings themselves. “The next piece I’ll do will be called ‘My Worth Is Not a Cow,’” she says. It’s inspired by her many months spent in Kenya over the past two decades. 

Finally, Moore offers a unique suggestion for artists in search of just the right name: “Find a good poet and have them come visit.”

Leave a reply

Theme developed by TouchSize - Premium WordPress Themes and Websites