May 2013

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William Stafford (Photo by Kim Stafford)

Early Morning is a memoir of William Stafford written by his son Kim Stafford. This book is so singularly satisfying, so full of wisdom I can’t put it down. Is there another case of a larger-than-life writer whose story has been told by his or her child who just happens to also be a masterful writer? I don’t know of any. It was sagacity in Bill to identify Kim as his literary executor.

It is hard to know how to begin sharing what is so memorable and moving about this book. I have been a passionate fan of Stafford’s poetry for years, and learning more about his life is intoxicating. There is just so much to share! But maybe I will take a cue from Kim’s approach: His telling of his father’s story is neither chronological nor predictable. The chapters unfold on their own terms, without the imposition of forced structure or inhibiting lineage. It feels organic and intimate.

In the spirit of that kind of quiet listening, here is just one passage of many that I long to have others read with me:

He said at one point, “I don’t want to write good poems. I want to write inevitable poems—to write the things I will write, given who I am.” Again, I am reminded of the Tao Te Ching: “Seeing into darkness is clarity. / Knowing how to yield is strength. / Use your own light / and return to the source of light. / This is called practicing eternity…”

This way of acknowledging the quiet voice is in keeping with his practice as a writer—accepting the beginning line, the glimmer of an idea, the clumsy opening as a way of honoring “what the world is trying to be.” Someone asked him once what his favorite poem was, out of all he had written. “I love all my children,” he said, “but I would trade everything I have ever written for the next thing.”

As a writer, he was a mother to beginnings. The “next thing” may be a kind of latent epiphany ready to be born. A friend told me my father’s “imagination was tuned to the moment when epiphanies were just about to come into being.” At such a moment, ambition could be fatal to what we seek. Take a deep breath and wait. What seeks you may then appear.

This is in keeping with the way Stafford worked, his well known habit of getting up early to do his writing before the obligations of the day set in.

He said once the field of writing will never be crowded—not because people can’t do important work, but because they don’t think they can. This way of writing is available to anyone who wishes to rise and listen, to put words together without fear of either failure or achievement. You wake. You find a stove where you make something warm. You have a light that leaves much of the room dark. You settle in a place you have worn with the friendly shape of your body. You receive your own breath, recollection, the blessings of your casual gaze…”There’s a thread you follow,” my father wrote.

Apropos, it is this poem by his father that Kim chose as the book’s epigram.

The Way It Is

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

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My favorite library belongs to my friends Andrew and Kathryn: Color coded throughout the house.

This week I have been inundated with references to a piece by Ian Crouch, The Curse of Reading and Forgetting, on Facebook, Twitter and in my email. Bullseye. This is what perfect targeting looks like, exactly the kind of tailored fit hoped for by marketers who mistakenly fill the margins of my online life with ads for things I will never want, like ecards and glitzy handbags.

Crouch exposes the brutal truth about how much of what we read we forget. Erudite and articulate, he admits to the same deep forgetfulness about books that I have thought best to keep hidden, like a tragic family secret.

This is such a painful state of affairs, and my awareness of this sorry reality has been even more intense of late as I have been reading through the nearly 1300 posts that have appeared here on Slow Muse since it began in 2006. My claim of being a Nowist (a term I borrowed from the MIT Media Lab’s Joi Ito and written about here) may just be a default position rather than a choice.

From Crouch’s piece:

Looking at my bookshelves…the spines look familiar; the names and titles bring to mind perhaps a character name, a turn of plot, often just a mood or feeling—but for the most part, the assembled books, and the hundreds of others that I’ve read and discarded, given away, or returned to libraries, represent a vast catalogue of forgetting…

Reading has many facets, one of which might be the rather indescribable, and naturally fleeting, mix of thought and emotion and sensory manipulations that happen in the moment and then fade. How much of reading, then, is just a kind of narcissism—a marker of who you were and what you were thinking when you encountered a text? Perhaps thinking of that book later, a trace of whatever admixture moved you while reading it will spark out of the brain’s dark places.

Crouch asks himself if perhaps he doesn’t really like reading after all. Or even more frightening, he wonders whether he is actually quite bad at reading altogether.

But he ends his article with a proposed program of self improvement:

A simple remedy to forgetfulness is to read novels more than once…Part of my suspicion of rereading may come from a false sense of reading as conquest. As we polish off some classic text, we may pause a moment to think of ourselves, spear aloft, standing with one foot up on the flank of the slain beast. Another monster bagged. It would be somehow less heroic, as it were, to bend over and check the thing’s pulse. But that, of course, is the stuff of reading—the going back, the poring over, the act of committing something from the experience, whether it be mood or fact, to memory. It is in the postmortem where we learn how a book really works. Maybe, then, for a forgetful reader like me, the great task, and the greatest enjoyment, would be to read a single novel over and over again. At some point, then, I would truly and honestly know it.

While rereading is a good thing, like a high fiber diet, I had a slightly different take on the same data. Given how little I remember, I have to ask just why it is I love reading so completely. What is it that happens in that moment that feels like a opiate surge, the sure hit at the pleasure centers somewhere in my consciousness that produces a titillation, an enthrallment, a state of rapture unlike any other?

It just may be that reading is my drug of choice, and not remembering each adventure is less important than the rhapsody that happens in the moment. I am still pondering if that is true, and if it is, what that might mean.

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Penelope’s Heart, by Paula Overbay

When you are in the middle of a story it isn’t a story at all, but only a confusion; a dark roaring, a blindness, a wreckage of shattered glass and splintered wood; like a house in a whirlwind, or else a boat crushed by the icebergs or swept over the rapids, and all aboard powerless to stop it. It’s only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all. When you’re telling it, to yourself or to someone else.

–Margaret Atwood, Alias Grace

This is spoken as a voice-over at the beginning of Sarah Polley‘s new film, Stories We Tell. This part documentary/part artful exploration of how to tell a story is a stylistic tour de force. It is also one more example of Polley’s steely commitment to truth speaking, but a truth speaking that doesn’t flail or decimate as it burrows into our core. The deft hand of her film making, evidenced in her earlier projects including Away From Her and Take This Waltz, is becoming even more nuanced and sophisticated. Polley holds the delicate tension between what is authentic and the essential theatricity that is a film. She runs a grounding wire down deep and keeps her storytelling from losing its footing. I don’t know of another film that demonstrates this level of respect for the complexity and layered nature of a family secret. See the movie. I would love to hear what you think.

This quote by Margaret Atwood is also provocative on other levels. There is this now we are in and then there is the story that evolves about this moment that is constructed by our future selves. Similarly, visual art emerges from us in its own way, sourced and nurtured by who knows what. How differently we see a body of work when we look back on it years later, when its etymology and evolutionary lineage have been exposed and are easier for us to trace.

Yesterday my artist friend Paula Overbay showed me several works from her collection of art that she had purchased or traded for many years ago. Looking at many of those pieces now we both smiled to see the subtle suggestions and elements that ended up appearing in her own work many years later. They were there, in various stages of exposure and definition, presaged in pieces made by the hands of others. “I was drawn to these years ago, and I had no idea at the time that this was where my work would eventually end up,” she said. In the words of Margaret Atwood, “It’s only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all.”

Buzz, by Paula Overbay

(Both images courtesy of Paula Overbay)

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Rob McLean and Matt Kahler in the Hypocrites’ “Pirates of Penzance,” an update of the Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera (Photo: Matthew Gregory Hollis)

We know that consciousness has no boundaries. It is for that reason that the connectedness of everything running through us is utterly overwhelming. In an effort to manage our day to day experience we create divisions and categories, overlaying a logical structure to our thinking. But underneath that artifice a bottomless melange of impressions, insights, awarenesses and ideas are churning perpetually.

And yet creativity and innovation happen with the unexpected and serendipitous juxtaposition of unrelated elements. This is evident in the painting studio all the time. Permitting the ongoing mash up of concepts, forms, colors and methodology is what studio time is all about.

But then is the rest of life to be packaged up in discrete categories, neatly organized piles? Not mine.

At a recent conference held at UCSC to discuss the interdisciplinary/collaborative intentions of the university’s new Institute of Arts and Sciences, San Francisco Exploratorium curator Marina McDougall stated it succinctly: “The world arrives to us whole, and the best and new ideas grow at the interstises of disciplines.”

While it is popular to approach that interstitial space with the idea that you throw everyone into the mix and a new consciousness will erupt on its own (along the lines of “order for free” in chaos theory), I am a proponent of a more nuanced approach to that liminal world of cross disciplinarity. At the same UCSC conference David Meckel of California College of the Arts described the open space/no walled classrooms/no private studios building that is the school’s San Francisco campus. That approach to interstitial space would be a nightmare for “I like time alone” people like me.

Gratefully Walter Hood, landscape architect, designer and theorist, stepped in to advocate for creative introverts by pointing out how many ways there are to manage “the space between.” “Sometimes we don’t want to be together, and it is our devices that keep us connected,” Hood offered. He went on to point out the value of taking a hybrid approach, one that offers a little of everything—privacy, connection, physical proximity, isolation. “We need to make environments where people can find their familiars.”

The same is true of art. And this is especially true with theater, particularly with productions that advocate for the “audience as participant” approach. The Chicago-based theater company Hypocrites’ production of Pirates of Penzance at the American Repertory Theater is a great example of managing the space between. This high energy, completely engaging and playful variation on the Gilbert & Sullivan opera takes over the entire theater space, but each audience member can gauge how involved they want to be in this 360 production. Some choose to sit on the stage and move around with the cast. Some are up and milling around, stopping by the bar at stage right to buy a drink. Some are singing along with the familiar music. Some are just happy to watch the whole extravaganza unfold. The options are laid out effortlessly right at the beginning by a member of the cast. It was a perfect example of letting the space between be multi-dimensional.

And as for the Pirates: Utter fun. Hats off to Sean Graney and his high wattage troupe of performers. The production is theatrically creative, cleverly delivered, irresistibly adorable. And I loved just being able to watch.

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“Boxes in Terra Rose I,” oil and silver leaf on canvas, 2009 (courtesy of the artist)

Kenjilo Nanao, printmaker and painter, passed away on Monday. He was 83.

Born in Aomori, Japan, he came to San Francisco in 1960. He studied printmaking with Nathan Oliveira, married fellow artist Gail Chadell, and together they spent most of their lives in the Bay Area.

I became acquainted with Kenji’s work through my friend Kevin Simmers who studied printmaking with Nanao in the 70s. I have been a fan of his work ever since.

While I was in California two weeks ago we stopped by Kenji’s studio to see him. Frail and faltering, he spent time with us on the afternoon of April 29. Gail took him to the hospital that night. Two weeks later he was gone.

From the essay by art critic Charles Shere in the catalog for Kenji’s recent show at the Triton Museum in Santa Clara, “Pacific Paintings, 1986-2011”:

After nearly a lifetime of work these painting have attained a rare mastery. Thankfully, Kenjilo Nanao continues to paint, patiently following his muse, his eye, his hand, the evolving vision.

Their first element: transcendance. They are pacific paintings, serene yet energetic. Too often painters approaching these visions find the merely tranquil. There’s nothing soft or merely decorative about this work, though the surfaces are indeed beautiful, often even sumptuous. There’s much going on in and under those surfaces—gesture, memory, attentiveness, intelligence—revealing life, vitality, even power behind the beauty. Not behind it: informing it.

And from Preston Metcalf, curator at the Triton:

Seen in this sense we get a hint of Nanao’s exploration of the nature of humanity. We are not interruptions in the vast transcendent field beyond the physical, but we are all a part of it and so we are all connected and one.

Kenjilo Nano says he makes art to improve himself by the journey, rather than making art for art’s sake. Fortunately for us, by sharing the boon of his explorations, he improves us along the way.

Whether working on his prints or his paintings, Nanao had a master’s hand. The magisterial quietude of his work is undeniable. As Shere observed, “There is nothing more beautiful, in all its generous modesty than this mastery.”

This is the Irreplaceable: that which cannot be replicated or reproduced. Adieu Kenji. And thank you.

Photos from our last studio visit with Kenji:

Kevin Simmers and Kenji

Kevin and Kenji

Kenji sitting beneath one of his luscious red paintings

Ed Carrigan, Kevin and Gail Chadell Nanao

Ed and Kevin

Ed, Kevin and Kenji

Works in progress in Kenji’s studio

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Let’s face it: artists walk a pathless path where nothing is clear

The advice I like to give young artists, or really anybody who’ll listen to me, is not to wait around for inspiration. Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself. Things occur to you.

–Chuck Close

This is a well known quote from Chuck Close, but it is one that I appreciate revisiting. And it fits in with my usual list, one that I only share after being asked repeatedly (keeping the wise Buddhist admonition in mind that no one really wants to know what you think unless they ask you three times).

So only read on if you really really really want my practical advice.

1. Your work is the most important thing. This is so much more important than getting shows, good reviews and the accolades of others. Making the best art you can is your job. All the rest of it comes second.

2. If your work doesn’t delight and captivate you, then you are doing the wrong thing. You are the primary audience for what you make. Please yourself first and foremost.

3. Be “professionally persistent”: That means doing the research, following up, keeping at it.

4. Be ye thick skinned. Very thick skinned. Art is subjective and not everyone is going to understand what you do. You need to find those who do connect, but that can take time.

5. Do not compare your work with others. Do not walk into galleries in Chelsea and say, “My work is SO much better than this!” It has nothing to do with better or worse. You can learn by watching how other artists have achieved success, but that is different than comparing.

6. The art world is—for most of us—DIY (“do it yourself”.) No one else is going to do this job for you. You are an entrepreneur and responsible for the business of you: R&D, manufacturing, marketing, sales, public relations, accounting, customer service, community relations.

7. Fight the black beast of discouragement. When it slips in your back door, stab it dead.

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Close up of the surface of a painting from the Orbilinia series

I am honored—and really humbled—by a terrific post written about me and my work by Sloan Nota. We have been friends for about 20 years. While our orientation to many aspects of art and art making are very different, we share a mutual and deep respect.

Sloan is wicked clever, devilishly smart and so companionable. But what stood out for me in this post was how close she comes to the bone of how I work and think about art making. I feel seen. That is a very satisfying feeling.

Deborah Barlow: Blogger, Painter, Force of Nature

A few excerpts:

Barlow reads widely across disciplines and dives deeply. You can go to her blog assured that she has winnowed out the bloviators and winkled out the juicy bits from writers who are real. She also engages with the other arts — visual, musical, dramatic — at an intense pace that would fell me.

My sense with Barlow’s paintings is that I’m not looking at them, I’m looking into them. Falling into the same kind of space you dial through with a potent microscope. It’s not my space, me standing in the laboratory twiddling knobs, but a space caught in a drop of liquid on a slide or between a glassy painting surface and a canvas.

For us big plodding human meats these are invisible realms available only through a lens. The lens we look through here is our idea of paintings: they hang on a wall and we interact with an image — a face, a place, a maze. Except these imagesless paintings are here to tempt you deep into the paint. There are bubbles, flecks, drifts and no signpost for scale. As at the microscope, you have left your scale at the portal.

In a studio visit I was introduced to the painter’s technique. Colors get laid on the white canvas, texture builds up, bumps, crevices. Then texture is taken down — sanded maybe? So its Himalayas become eroded plains. I was granted permission to finger this surface, the pigments’ tooth. More layers then, lots of gel medium to retain visibility into the new world abuilding. Additions, erosions, and at the very end clear layers smoothed to a glassy optic. Your window and invitation into the no-image that paint can become. This is not mark-making.

Spend some time and check out Sloan’s work on Green as Sky: A gambol in the goodies. It is luminious, unexpected, inventive and engaging.

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Solitary boat man on the river in Hampi, India

When I Met My Muse

I glanced at her and took my glasses
off – they were still singing. They buzzed
like a locust on the coffee table and then
ceased. Her voice belled forth, and the
sunlight bent. I felt the ceiling arch, and
knew that nails up there took a new grip
on whatever they touched. “I am your own
way of looking at things,” she said. “When
you allow me to live with you, every
glance at the world around you will be
a sort of salvation.” And I took her hand.

–William Stafford

When a friend posted this short piece by William Stafford online, it came into my consciousness as a fully formed image of great power. Glasses that were still singing. A voice belling forth. Bent sunlight. A ceiling that arches and makes more space. Every glance a salvation. It’s all there, a tableau so clear and so powerful that I read it through ten more times.

I adore Stafford as a poet as well as an exemplar of living (I’ve listed my previous blog posts about him and his work at the bottom of this page.) Unpretentious with a quiet demeanor, he didn’t publish his poetry until he was in his late 40’s. His creative gait through life is epitomized by these words from an interview: “I keep following this sort of hidden river of my life, you know, whatever the topic or impulse which comes, I follow it along trustingly. And I don’t have any sense of its coming to a kind of crescendo, or of its petering out either. It is just going steadily along.” That description juxtaposed with his Muse encounter speaks to both the surrender and the salvation of his life’s poetic practice.

Two other writers offer an expansion to this Staffordian backdrop. One is David Esterly, author of a thoughtful book called The Lost Carving: A Journey to the Heart of Making. A former academic who quotes Yeats and Plotinus with ease, Esterly became a world class wood carver who was asked to repair the carvings destroyed by fire in Henry VIII’s palace at Hampton Court. (Because he is an American, this was a bit of a surprise request.) His prowess with language is evident in this book:

A carver begins as a god and ends as a slave. I concocted this aphorism long ago and couldn’t stop using it. It was born of experience. This trajectory repeated itself with each successive project. In all of them the balance of power progressively shifted from the maker to the made. The wood began as a submissive, put-upon thing, then gradually came to life, like Pygmalion’s statue. The carver’s ideas steadily lost their power, while the object grew imperious…You start as a godlike creator, imposing ideas on a passive medium, and you end up grounded in the life of this world, taking instructions from the thing in front of you.

The transmogrification that takes place in the act of making is a key theme in Esterly’s account. It correlates with a passage in the ever insightful Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry by Jane Hirschfield:

Violinists practicing scales and dancers repeating the same movements over decades are not simply warming up or mechanically training their muscles. They are learning how to attend unswervingly, moment by moment, to themselves and their art; learning to come into steady presence…Yet however it is brought into being, true concentration appears—paradoxically—at the moment willed effort drops away…At such moments, there may be some strong emotion present—a feeling of joy, or even grief—but as often, in deep concentration, the self disappears. We seem to fall utterly into the object of our attention, or else vanish into attentiveness itself. This may explain why the creative is so often descried as impersonal and beyond self, as if inspiration were literally what its etymology implies, something “breathed in”.

I’m not sure how to describe these experiences in terms that are linear, measured and easily understood. I sometimes get tired trying and give up, dropping into those easy catch alls of the mystical and/or the magical. But you just can’t throw concepts like those around willy nilly without getting yourself into some trouble, especially at cocktail parties and academic conferences.

Is there a middle ground, a way to express my own way of looking at things? I found some help by reworking a quote* from Frederick Buechner:

The act of making points to that area of human experience where in one way or another we come upon mystery as a summons to take a journey; where we sense meanings no less overwhelming because they can be only hinted at in myth and ritual; where we glimpse a destination that we can never know fully until we reach it. We are all of us more mystics than we believe or choose to believe.

That captures some of it.


*The original quote from Frederick Buechner: “Religion as a word points to that area of human experience where in one way or another man comes upon mystery as a summons to pilgrimage; where he senses meanings no less overwhelming because they can be only hinted at in myth and ritual; where he glimpses a destination that he can never know fully until he reaches it. We are all of us more mystics than we believe or choose to believe.”

Previous Slow Muse posts on William Stafford:

Being Awake
The Strange Notes of our Wildness
Sages of Silence and Fear
That Form in the Grass
Lean Out a Window
Wing, Fin, Flake
Turn to the Open Sea and Let Go
Stillness, in Color
This, Now

Note: Thanks to Desiree Fitzgibbon for introducing me to The Lost Carving—as well as many other great books—and to Jill Fineberg for the Buechner quote. Jill randomly includes quotes at the bottom of her emails, and the timing on this one was perfect.

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Still in tact: The view of the Pacific from UCSC’s Porter College (AKA to some of us as College Five)

“Material Ephemera” at UC Santa Cruz

Another view

Long time friend Alicia Falsetto at the artist reception on Saturday

Things, people, ideas—they operate with a certain kind of circularity. That coming round again has becomes even more apparent as I get older.

Last week I was at University of California at Santa Cruz for a show of my paintings at the college where I was an art student in the 70’s. The school has now grown to 17,000 students—there were just 4,000 when I was there—but the view from my favorite spot overlooking the Pacific is still unchanged, amazingly. And the decentralized campus of “clustered cloisters” still gives off a sense that this is a place that makes room for the introverts and the nomads in the population, those of us who can’t do groups and demand a peculiarly untethered approach to life and learning.

But most of all I was reminded of how things/people/ideas show up, disappear, come back again. In the words of Walter Hood, the brilliant UC Berkeley landscape architect and designer (and keynote speaker at a day long seminar about interdisciplinary exhibitions, architecture and community), it is not about erasing the past but about pushing at “palimpsesting.” He used another relevant phrase: “embrace the ephemeral.”

Talking with Walter Hood (right) at the “Making the Institute” reception at UCSC (Photo: Gene Felice)

My show, “Material Ephemera,” plays with both ideas. Painting has a materiality that compels many of us to lean into that physical reality even more passionately as trends have moved the art experience away from that focus. From an earlier post, Resolute Materiality, this defense of painting from Eric Crosby still rings true:

There’s also something about the resolute materiality of painting that continues to attract artists. These are objects that follow deeply subjective and individual ways of thinking, as expressed through specific materials…Painting offers a frame for contact with this very physical presence. It’s a vivid contrast with our daily routine, where we experience so many images by using a cursor, linking to them, altering them, navigating away from them. Painting resists this kind of experience. A lot of artists today embrace that notion to an extreme. They go where the materials take them, not where the history of painting tells them to go.

Two other experiences spoke to that material ephemerality. One was visiting Kenjilo Nanao, the extraordinary printmaker and painter who is now in his 80s. While frail of body, he was at work in his studio, a brush in hand between frequent lay downs on the mattress in the corner. Material and ephemeral. We are both.

Kenjilo Nanao in his studio

The second was being introduced to the Snail Painters. While a full moon illuminated the Pacific Ocean at 3AM, it also revealed the night time markings of a small gaggle of snails on the window glass where we were staying. Part Joan Mitchell, part Brice Marden and part Terry Winters, these moondanced masterpieces evaporate when the sun comes up. Luckily I awoke in time to catch the invertebrates in their own celebration of circularity before any trace of their magic was gone.

Portrait of the Artist
And again

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