June 2008

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Still under the spell of my friend Andrew’s message to me yesterday (see below), I’ve been thinking about the ecstatic poets, particularly the Sufi mystics—Rumi, Kabir, Omar Khayyam and my favorite, Hafiz.

Hafiz, a 14th century Sufi poet from Persia, writes about longing for union with the divine. His work explores the nature of spiritual ecstasy with a depth that few other poets have achieved. Known as the “Tongue of the Invisible,” even Ralph Waldo Emerson was a fan, describing him as “a poet for poets.”

Here’s a sample:

I Have Learned So Much

I
Have
Learned
So much from God
That I can no longer
Call
Myself

A Christian, a Hindu, a Muslim,
a Buddhist, a Jew.

The Truth has shared so much of Itself
With me

That I can no longer call myself
A man, a woman, an angel,
Or even a pure
Soul.

Love has
Befriended Hafiz so completely
It has turned to ash
And freed
Me

Of every concept and image
my mind has ever known

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The most profound shift I have had in weeks: Reading the weekly email message from my friend Andrew. Fresh from a journey to Peru under the tutelage of his shaman Don Diego, his message to me this morning transmutated some part of his “beyond language” experience into a form I could breathe into and recognize from my own spiritual strivings.

I have had my moments when I have glimpsed these truths. Sometimes this sense of things comes to me during extreme experiences like trekking through a high pass in Bhutan, painting in an altered state of consciousness, or during a particularly intense sexual high. But for me the struggle is about how to keep this big screen image in focus, in vibrant color with full Dolby surround sound. Reconnecting with that feeling is my homing pulse, a longing that drives so much of what I do.

Here is an excerpt from A’s email. I’m including a particularly strong endorsement that he uncovered for blogging and expressive writing, something many of us have come to figure out all on our own:

The vine is incendiary, burning out the knots and stumps of ego, exaggerating, intensifying, ultimately undermining the compulsive grinding thoughts with which the mind relentlessly parses meaning, dissecting the whole into parts, then fractions of parts, ever further from understanding. Chuang-tzu said: “Tao is obscured when the eye fixes on little segments of existence only.” Tao translates as God or Providence or Meaning. To me it translates as Awareness.

I have misunderstood mystical union as the extinction of individual awareness, a death of self. But it is the opposite. Not a single memory is lost. Every particle of knowledge is held without emotion or volition in a translucent awareness. It is not about becoming one with God but instead a remembering that you are and always were God. The illusion of separation reflects a temporary partition of awareness. When that wall comes down, there is accretion of vast knowledge that before was veiled. No a shred of self is lost; the vastly greatest part of self is restored. Although such ideas as written seem abstract and fanciful, they are compelling as experienced. “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience,” said Teilhard de Chardin; “we are spiritual beings having a human experience.”

Although I left for Peru uncommitted to continuing the weekly e-mails, I read in Scientific American that the act of sending these carrier pigeons is therapeutic, just what the doctor ordered.

“Besides serving as a stress-coping mechanism, expressive writing produces many physiological benefits. Research shows that it improves memory and sleep, boosts immune cell activity and reduces viral load in AIDS patients, and even speeds healing after surgery. A study in the February issue of the Oncologist reports that cancer patients who engaged in expressive writing just before treatment felt markedly better, mentally and physically, as compared with patients who did not. . . . Blogging might trigger dopamine release, similar to stimulants like music, running, and looking at art.”

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One of my favorite bloggers is G, the genius behind Writer Reading. A few days ago she posted an extremely thought-provoking piece called Are Writers Ever Really Loners? that I have been mulling over ever since. She probes the often disruptive relationship between the “solitary” act of writing and the role of interacting with the social network that is writers, publishers, literary influencers.

My experience is that the concept of community is very different for visual artists and writers. ALL my writer friends are in some kind of writer’s group, while very few of my visual artist friends participate in any formalized art critique group. But even so, I resonated with G’s frank admission about her low comfort level with the community offered to her in her profession as a writer: I’ve never met a social network of writers that I’ve liked.

There is an essential tension between the demands of working in solitude, that “rag and bone shop” that Yeats speaks of, and the cocktail partying, coterie development, personal promotion and politicking that is also part of every business ecosystem, creatively focused or otherwise. For a number of us, the obligation to “press the flesh” is the least appealing and most inauthentic aspect of the art making venture. The discomfort G addresses in her piece is a discomfort I have felt throughout my career as a visual artist.

Making contacts for no other reason than the possibility of future endorsements, fawning over the power brokers and monied players, strategizing about getting invited to the right parties and the biggest openings—it is part of the game I have the least inclination towards. Many artists seem to thrive in that milieu. It isn’t meant as a criticism of them that they can manage in that world; it is just a very clear demarcation point.

And as G points out in her posting, an unwillingness to participate in the appropriate art scene may operate to one’s detriment. I made the decision some time ago to be willing to live with those outcomes, whatever the cost. We veer towards and away from authenticity and meaningfulness in hundreds of small ways that end up defining the texture and quality of our lives. And those two values, authenticity and meaningfulness, are more important to me than what might be considered the pragmatic, realistic approach to the business of art promotion.

I have had to adopt the attitude that there are many ways for an artist to reach out, find an audience, and connect with people who care about the same set of issues. Art world schmoozing is just one.

The best part of my networking happens outside the visual arts. When I do an assessment of my closest associations and most inspiring friendships, very few of them are visual artists. My primary network consists of people who are operating in a variety of creative métiers—poetry, music, dance, theatre, business–and individuals who are compelled by those expressive pursuits. Talking across categories rather than within a category feels more vital and expansive to my own process.

There is a line to be drawn between isolation and communitarian exchange, between needing the reclusiveness of the studio and the celebration of completion that happens with an audience, be it one or many. It isn’t easily defined, but being conscious of that grey zone is probably a good start.

Here is the text of G’s post:

During my brief foray at an advanced post-doctorate age in a low-residency MFA program, I was struck not only by the greater youth of fellow students than I had expected, but also the extreme extroversion involved in nightly dance and beer parties; the constant day-time socializing at large chatty tables for all three meals; the jockeying for time alone with the published-writer-teachers who mostly hid from students during meals in the faculty dining room. As a reclusive individual I found the intensive undergraduate-type social scene overwhelming. It was nothing like the low-key intellectual social environment of “real” graduate school I’d experienced getting a Ph.D. So, I avoided the socializing whenever possible and as a result, made few friends, none lasting.

Now, I’m not so reclusive that I can’t hold a job. Or even a job that requires constant, in-depth human interaction. But that’s just the point. It’s “in-depth.” Partying is never an in-depth social interaction. Nor is sitting at a large table of loud laughter in an enormous college dining hall. Nor is flattering a teacher to get an A. Nor is socializing with people for the sole reason that they are the handful of others your age with whom you can gripe about “the youngsters”. No one ever mentions this aspect of low-residency MFA programs that differs from normal MFA programs, and normal graduate school in general. In that sense, I would have found writing correspondence school preferable, and easier on my bank account.

Anyway, I was having a debate with someone about whether reclusive writers have ever even been published, aside from the notoriously weird J.D. Salinger. I gave a few bogus examples to make my point, my opponent being too ignorant to know the difference, and I walked away feeling I had won the debate by lying. Sure, I’d said, plenty of reclusive writers have published and I named a ridiculous collection. A hollow victory. Because I believe that every single writer who has ever published was part of a network of writers however small. That if writing programs offer nothing else, they offer to fledgling writers that cohort of camaraderie. At least to those who are sociable enough to make those connections.

So are there any reclusive writers, outside of any social network of other writers who have made it? Is that why slush piles are so dreary, because writers whose work ends up there, particularly orphaned agent-less book manuscripts, have no other writers plugging for their work, encouraging them, critiquing them? Can you actually smell the musty odor of loneliness wafting off their manuscripts?

Unless you are a total genius like, say, Stephen Hawking, every other profession requires social networks to succeed. So why shouldn’t writing? Well, I don’t think it should, because original work is not created within a social network, except maybe in science. But I have a feeling that I am very, very wrong and I hate that, because I’ve never met a social network of writers that I’ve liked, which does not bode well for me and my writing. Which I already knew anyway.

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I read this posting on artist Jordan Wolfson’s blog, and I had to catch my breath. Oh my. Perhaps this one liner by the great Ad Reinhardt will move something in you too.

Sanctuary is invisible.

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I am devastated to learn that one of my favorite American theatre companies, Theatre de la Jeune Lune, is being forced to close.

The Minneapolis company headed by theatrical visionary Dominique Serrand has been coming to Cambridge to collaborate with the American Rep Theatre for years. Their style is highly physical, visually stunning, with a group of actors that are so blindingly gifted it leaves you shaking your head at the concentration of talent. They are professionally trained singers, they dance and move with effortlessness AND they can act.

The productions they have brought to Cambridge have left me in awe. A few years back they brought a stellar Molière’s The Miser. Two years ago they mounted a theatrical performance of Bizet’s Carmen. Last fall they went all out and with a pair of productions that combined Mozart with two of France’s greatest writers. “Don Juan Giovanni joins Don Giovanni with Molière’s Don Juan to form a cross-country road trip that skewers notions of love, sex, and hypocrisy; Figaro unites Mozart’s sublime Marriage of Figaro with Beaumarchais’ revolutionary comedy of intrigue and seduction.” (Am Rep program notes.) Both of these works were a fresh retelling of old, familiar tales. They found that perfect pitch between a hat-donning homage to the past and a new 21st century retelling.

When news like this surfaces, it is hard to not slink down into a blue mood. Or to have to ask, once again, what is wrong with this picture? How is it we live in a world that can’t keep Serrand’s company afloat but can keep producing bad reality TV shows and mindless movies?

Note: I’ve excerpted an excellent blog posting about Jeune Lune’s demise on Slow Painting from Chloe Veltman. If you want to know more about the details regarding the closing of this remarkable company, read it and weep.

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The work of Hiroshi Sugimoto cannot be comprehended without having been experienced in the flesh. Every artist believes this about their work, but in some circumstances it goes beyond optimal and moves into the imperative. So it is with Sugimoto’s photographs. (I have included this reproduction as an indicator but not the thing itself.)

The first time I saw one of Sugimoto’s photographs, I couldn’t move. I just stood there in front of that large scale seascape and basked. After 30 minutes of Sugimoto, there was nothing else in the museum that could penetrate my perceptions. He had filled up every receptive cell in my body with that one image, so I just had to sit down and be with a presence that was quiet and yet very powerful.

As described by David Ian Miller:

Sugimoto works on vast projects, each concerned with photographing the essence of time. He coined the phrase “Time Exposed” to describe his work. In his most famous project he photographs film theatres over the course of a movie, the screens turn brilliant white and illuminate the theatre. With his Seascape series he photographs the eternal sea, each frame bisected by the horizon.

His technique is also worthy of consideration, given the powerful results he is able to create (in the words of Blake Gopnik):

These pictures have been taken with a technical view camera that shoots huge 8-by-10-inch negatives. It’s the kind of camera that consists of a long bellows, with a tea-saucer lens attached at one end and a ground-glass viewing screen at the other — in use, it looks like an accordion perched on a tripod — and that asks the photographer to stoop under a black cloth to look through it. It produces an ultra-precise, highly resolved image of whatever has been set before the lens, as though the photographer’s dedication to truth-telling won’t tolerate the missing of a single hair or speck of lint. It’s the kind of camera that produces a stunning “reality effect” — an overwhelming sense, even in black and white, that the world must be just the way the picture makes it look.

The spiritual dimension to his work is elemental to its presence. In an interview with Miller, Sugimoto had a few modest comments:

Miller: You wrote that artistic endeavors are “mere approximations, efforts to render visible unseen realms.” What did you mean by that?

Sugimoto:Well, this is one of the purposes of art itself. Science tries to understand nature in a logical sense, but there are many, many natural phenomena that cannot be explained by logic and science.

Historically, religion served this purpose. But now, we are getting into the 21st century and the power of religion is fading. People still need another way to understand the world besides logic — and we’re turning to art and spirituality to help us understand our environment and the world.

M: Is there a spiritual dimension to your photography?

S: If so, it is whatever the viewer feels looking at my work. I’m not purposely trying to make it spiritually strong. I’m just practicing my art. If people see it as a spiritual, I’m glad to accept it. But I’m not particularly promoting a spirituality of any kind.

Spirituality is a particular characteristic of the human being that no other animals have. I’m just trying to investigate where this comes from. In that process I sometimes stir up ancient memories and spirits, and maybe people who see my art respond to that.

Yesterday I received an email from a new poet friend, Martin Dickinson. He has written a remarkable ekphrasic poem, “Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Sea of Japan,” which was published in California Quarterly in 2007. He sent it with me along with some insightful words about Sugimoto’s work. I share both with you here.

I find it so amazing that he takes these time lapse photos of films–and all that we see is an incredible burst of white light coming at us. It looks unreal—but of course, on another level that IS reality, we just don’t usually look that way or see that way. Similarly with Sugimoto’s ocean series: superficially every single one of those photos is the same—shot at the same exact angle to the surface of the water and same exact distance above the surface. We see no earth at all, but just the surface of the water. As you look more deeply into these photos you begin to see remarkable and engrossing detail. Every single photo is unique and very unusual.

Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Sea of Japan

Hiroshi, wave after wave after wave
of endless blue, or rather, endless
black—or is it endless gray?

This is your language.
Dusty parts of the planet are worthless
except as places to plant your tripod—
pedestal for the all-seeing eye,
vantage toward this world
that pulses like a beating heart,
image of the thing becoming the thing,
then ebbing back to its image again,
heard like the slap of water against a pier,
tongued like the taste of salt,
felt like a slosh in the gut.

This instant that’s entered your lens,
ray relating from your retina to mine,
our thoughts electrons, chemicals really.
Is all the world ocean
or silver dots on gelatin, or both?

Truth is beams of light,
and you’ve seen it, alright.
Everything that is is motionless
everything that is is flow
wave after wave after wave, Hiroshi.

–Martin Dickinson

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The World’s Columbian Exposition, 1893

This morning I excerpted from an article in the Chicago Tribune about Daniel Burnham on my Slow Painting blog. For those of you who have read The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, you will recognize his name. Burnham was the architect and visionary behind the magical Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, nicknamed the “White City” for its grand pavilions. Larson couples his tale of Burnham’s extraordinary feat with a ghoulish tale of Dr. H. H. Holmes, a serial killer who used the fair to lure victims to his World’s Fair Hotel. But it is Burnham’s story that fascinated me.

The fact that Burnham agreed to take on such a grandiose project with ungodly time and money constraints still astounds me. The obstacles he encountered came from every corner—people, politics as well as a seriously unstable construction site. His achievement wearies me just to remember reading of the complexities he faced over and over again.

He wasn’t a purist with a supremacist vision like his cohorts Louis Sullivan or Frank Lloyd Wright. In many ways he steered American popular architecture into a direction that outdistanced the more subtle aesthetic orientations of a Sullivan or a Wright. He’s certainly not my favorite architect by any means, but I am fascinated by his prowess in playing the game. He shares some of his skill sets with the likes of other still controversial master builders like New York’s Robert Moses or Baron Haussmann of 19th century Paris.

Here’s a sampling of his achievements from the Architect Gallery of Architectural Art :

In 1891, Burnham planned the enormous World’s Columbian Exposition on Chicago’s south lakefront. The largest world’s fair to that date, it celebrated the 400 year anniversary of Columbus’ voyage to the new world. In 1909, the Commercial Club sponsored the Plan of Chicago , again headed by Burnham who donated his services in hopes of achieving more of his own aims. Using some of his south lakefront plans and conceptual designs as a base, he envisioned a new Chicago as a “Paris on the Prairie” with French inspired public works constructions, fountains and boulevards radiating from a central, domed municipal palace.

Root’s [Burnham's former partner] death had altered Burnham’s aesthetic compass and he no longer felt constrained by the pragmatic utility of Chicago School construction. Greece and Rome became his models for the world’s newest empire. He even sent his sons to Paris’ Ecole des Beaux-Arts for their grounding in Classical technique. The fair had introduced middle America to a grandiose Beaux-Arts “salad” of colonnades, domes, arches and vistas. Bankers and corporate chieftains wanted just the same Olympian grandeur for their new edifices..

Louis Sullivan, considered the greatest architect of the Chicago School, never forgave Burnham for turning his back on pure structural expression in favor of the archaic classicism of the fair, calling it alternately “feudal” and “imperial.” Feeling that it would “…set back architecture fifty years,” he was nearly proved right as he watched his own career collapse after 1900 while corporate America and Daniel Burnham turned to Rome for inspiration. In his 1924 Autobiography of an Idea, Sullivan bitterly wrote: “(Burnham) was a colossal merchandiser whose megalomania concerning the largest, the tallest, the most costly and sensational, moved on in its sure orbit, as he painfully learned to use the jargon of big business.”

At his death in 1912, Daniel Burnham’s company was the world’s largest architectural firm and had become the model for countless later firms that utilized global business techniques instead of the traditional, near Medieval methods of earlier architects. He had become the head of the American Institute of Architects and been named by President Taft to be Chairman of the Committee on the Fine Arts…

Frank Lloyd Wright, in his 1912 eulogy in Architectural Record , wrote: “(Burnham) made masterful use of the methods and men of his time…(as) an enthusiastic promoter of great construction enterprises…his powerful personality was supreme.”

There are times when stories like Burnham’s make my much more human-scaled challenges seem less overwhelming. For those of us who do not commandeer a flock of employees and have no need to court political favor, life in the studio seems quite unburdened by comparison. Burnham’s life is a valuable shift in perspective when dealing with deadlines, self-imposed and otherwise, starts to pinch and chafe.

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This weekend was like the joyride down the mountain you spent a grueling morning pedaling up. For the first time in three months I had three halcyon days with no hint of that ambient grief that arrived uninvited, filled my front room with baggage and has blocked my view ever since.

Maybe it was the arrival of summer that triggered some sort of exit instinct in an otherwise stubborn presence. Or maybe it was spillover euphoria from a sacred hilltop summer solstice ceremony that friend and self-styled shaman Cindy organized for five of us in the last rays of daylight on Friday. Then again, it just may be my new unwillingness to set a place at my table for this unwelcome companion to loss. Loss is one thing. Grief is something else.

So this weekend was a string of pleasures that just kept unfolding, cascading one after another. Groups of friends kept coming together, sharing their stories of wisdom and insight. Anne, just back from an 11 day spiritual search in the Peruvian jungle, told about surviving on nothing but a daily bowl of rice and a boiled plantain. Others talked about sun gazing, the karmic treatment for writer’s block, the healing power of sex (that would be me.)

On Saturday afternoon we biked to a party in Belmont. Within minutes, I hit chance meeting jackpot. I sat down next to a woman and in no time our conversation went galactic. Kathleen Spivack is a well known poet, writer and teacher, but her gifts also spill over into a variety of other creative arenas. Her life is as fascinating as her work is brilliant. Here’s to a new friendship and another add to my “favorite poets” list.

This poem by Spivack was all the evidence I needed to sense how connected we are at the most primal valence. I am spellbound by this one.

Flowers

Regarding the insides of flowers:
this is something about which I have meant
to write you for a long time.

How awkwardly, but to a bee
fascinating it must seem, going in
to their sticky centers, half-

repellent, touching
their furry genitalia; horrible
to love and seek so, being dependent:

flowers’ perfectly formed
hemispheres, the pretend insistence
on privacy

like the hidden ladyslipper, modest,
shocking, sudden labia
blushing,

bifurcated, veined and
obvious: it is so soft,
slipping in,

is it not, and out?
I too am always
obsessed with the insides of flowers,
Yearning to plunge
a finger into them
or a metaphor:

the “hermaphroditic artist”
invading the subject;
shivering at anemones,

at their dark secret
centers, or the double wheel
within a poppy, spoked

mouth slit and laughing.
The “Language of Flowers,”
spoken, translates “Sex.”

If a daylily bends in the vase
it means: she is waiting.
If straight: trouble ahead.

If the flowers persist
in their drooping
throw them out

but refurbish
for it is good to have fresh
flowers beside one, breathing

their bodily secrets
by night, cleverly accessible
and bedded, moist.


Kathleen Spivack (photo by Ann Phillips)

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Summer arrives on Saturday, so say the calendar keepers. (Although the idea of a season having an official “opening day” seems rather absurd, doesn’t it?) I’m not waiting, I’m ready to celebrate the sensuousness of this warm swing through the solar system NOW.

This stanza is from another beguiling Fleur Adcock poem called Prelude, and the image is from my trip to Tasmania last year. Both bring me into a radiant celebration of the body, the earth, the comingling of life. Roll into it.

Is it the long dry grass that is so erotic,
waving about us with hair-fine fronds of straw,
with feathery flourishes of seed, inviting us
to cling together, fall, roll into it
blind and gasping, smothered by stalks and hair,
pollen and each other’s tongues on our hot faces?
Then imagine if the summer rain were to come,
heavy drops hissing through the warm air,
a sluice on our wet bodies, plastering us
with strands of delicious grass; a hum in our ears.

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In my studio yesterday, I felt some of the old familiar feelings of “flow”, a sense of things that invariably calls up an unforgettable line from Mary Oliver: “You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” It’s a quiet place, that soft animal of my body right now. But that doesn’t necessarily guarantee that it will result in a trove of brilliant paintings. The soft animal of the body is just the beginning of a long, long process.

Meanwhile the city of Boston is aflutter with Celtics pride, a gaggle of green shirted fans clogging the streets while duckboats full of extremely tall men bring on paroxysms of cheers. This morning the Boston Globe ran a piece called “Winner Takes All the Envy” countering the city’s euphoria with an article about how hated Boston fans have become. One New Yorker was quoted saying, “You used to think about lovable losers. Now they’re all out. They want to show off.” Probably true. After years of suffering, Boston sports fans are, well, a bit over the top. (I include myself in this.)

With so much euphoria so evident everywhere here, this is probably the perfect day to offer up a counterposition that comes at life from the other end. This poem by Fleur Adcock is more in the vein of the via negativa than most of her work, but its dark power is one I know.

Things

There are worse things than having behaved foolishly in public.
There are worse things than these miniature betrayals,
committed or endured or suspected; there are worse things
than not being able to sleep for thinking about them.
It is 5 a.m. All the worse things come stalking in
and stand icily about the bed looking worse and worse
and worse.

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