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Mosel, the German valley most associated with Riesling wines (Photo: Friedrich Petersdorff)

I’ve been laboring to write about (mostly) art making and creativity on this blog for almost 10 years. One of the overarching themes has been the search for language that comes in close, authentically, to the experiences I have when I am in the studio.

Artists talking about making art are uneven at best although sometimes a Philip Guston or a Tom Nozkowski hits a sweet spot. So my most reliable source has been the prose of poets. The best soundtracks to narrate my personal creative journey have come from poets like Jane Hirschfield, William Stafford, Fanny Howe, W. S. Piero, Robert Hass, Christian Wiman, Mary Ruefle, Dean Young, Donald Hall, among others. Poetry and painting, the parallels are many. And the wordsmithing by poets about poetry is a remarkably useful overlay that maps onto the terrain of the visual arts very well. It’s like a cartographic graft.

But who knew that another exquisitely well matched overlay existed, and in the world of wine of all things?

It isn’t all writing about wine of course. More specifically it is the writing about wine by someone who approaches his topic with respect for what is ineffable, a someone who brings his language as poetically proximate as is possible to that impenetrable core. Call it beauty, joy, oneness. An extraordinary wine is a portal for him much the way an extraordinary work of art is for me.

Terry Theise‘s beautifully written book, Reading Between the Wines, has become my new touchstone. One of his first sentences captures the spirit of his approach and made it clear to me we were on the same wavelength in our respective métiers: “I have an abiding and evanescent concern about wines that show a strange force of gentleness that makes us grope for a language by which it may be described.” And from there the parallels between wine and art just continue to unfold.

Consider the distinction he makes between “noisy” wines and more quiet ones:

Many wines, even good wines, let you taste the noise. But only the very best wines let you taste the silence…silence isn’t merely the absence of noise. It is the presence of eternity. A wine that can offer such a thing to you is a wine that breaks bread with the angels.

He goes on to describe the experience of drinking these wines that allow you to “taste the silence”:

These introverted wines seem to draw some sheer curtain, and suddenly the world falls away. They banish preoccupation. They deliver repose. They embody a calmness, they channel the daydreams. And they do it with no perceptible effort. They combine a serene diffidence with a strangely numinous beauty in a poignant and haunting way. And such wines are full of flavor, often the most searching and complex wines we’ll ever know. But they hold you in their theta-dance, and some crust starts to dissolve in you, and you liquefy to your core, a place hardly anyone ever sees, and the wine seems to know you, like some strange angel…

If it moves you, and if you try to talk about it, you feel like a fool. You don’t have the language you need, and so you fumble, and people think you’ve been hitting the bong pipe. For you it is entirely definite as feeling and spiritual sense, but in language it is nebulous. How do we delineate between wines that enact and wines that reveal?

And that’s just from the preface.

My entire copy of Terry’s book is marked up with exclamation marks and underlines. It particularly touches into an issue I struggle with constantly: making the distinction between art that screams and art that whispers, between art that feels distanced and detached from the artist who made it and work that seems to still have its umbilical connection in tact. We live in an extremely noisy, extroverted culture. Advocating for what doesn’t scream to compete is hard work.

I also resonated with his description of a polarity that exists in the winemaking world:

Consider the schism between two groups of vintners and drinkers: those who feel wine is “made,” and those who feel it is grown. It is a fundamental split between two mutually exclusive approaches to both wine and life. If a grower believes from his everyday experience that flavors are inherent in his land, he will labor to preserve them. This means he does nothing to inhibit, obscure, or change them. He does not write his adorable agenda over his raw material. He respects the material. He is there to release it, to take this nascent being, slap it on the ass, and make it wail.

If, on the other hand, your work as a “winemaker” is all about the vision you have a priori, the wine you wish to “sculpt,” then your raw material is a challenge to surmount, almost an inconvenience. You learn to be expert at systems and procedures. You make wine as if you were piloting a plane, and there’s nothing wrong with being a good pilot. But terroir-driven vintners make wine as if they were riding on the back of a bird.

That’s a much more poetic portrait of a similar distinction I see in the art world than any efforts I have made to delineate how differently art making is being approached these days. As Terry points out, there’s nothing wrong with being a good pilot. But like his terroir-driven friends, I would much rather ride on the back of a bird.

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Kana'an 3
Kana’an 3, from a new series

Jane Hirschfield, poet and Buddhist, is my favorite guide to the overlapping territory shared by spirituality and creativity. In her books Nine Gates and most recently, Ten Windows, she moves back and forth between the artistic process and the interior life of the soul. In Ten Windows she writes, “The desire of monks and mystics is not unlike that of artists: to perceive the extraordinary within the ordinary by changing not the world but the eyes that look.”

She continues:

Within a summoned and hybrid awareness, the inner reaches out to transform the outer, and the outer reaches back to transform the one who sees. Catherine of Siena wrote, in the fourteenth century, “All the way to heaven is heaven”; Marcel Duchamp, in the third year of the First World War, submitted a porcelain urinal to an art show, titling it Fountain. Both say: to form the intention of new awareness is already to transform and be transformed.

But how aware are any of us are of that process in our own creative efforts? Reading what artists have to say about their work makes it clear that intentions are often very different from results. Art historians still argue about how aware Mark Rothko was of the profound spiritual transcendence his paintings elicited in viewers. Agnes Martin doggedly insisted that her work did not contain references to the landscape and nature.

As we all know, saying doesn’t make it so. Freud and others have made the case that everything is autobiographical, that everything we do is a portrait of us. What attracts us and draws us in is all part of that unique matrix that is us, a unique blend of personality, history, identity, experiences.

But there is nothing fixed about that process. It’s a current we enter into, one that allows us to constantly expand what we see and what we understand.

Hirschfield again:

What a writer or painter undertakes in each work of art is an experiment whose hoped-for outcome is an expanded knowing. Each gesture, each failed or less-than-failed attempt to create an experience by language or color and paper, is imagination reaching outward to sieve the world. To make a genuine work of art, or even to take in such a work fully, is to tie a further knot of that fisherman’s intricate fly.

Sieve the world. Hirschfield’s metaphor suggests that understanding can increase, bringing the idea of accretion into the daily practice of making. Perhaps that is a more dynamic way to think about studio work than my old standby, the Zen koan phrase that describes what you do to reach enlightenment as well as after you achieve it: “chop wood, carry water.”

Or maybe this is best greeted with my favorite response to just about everything: Can we have both/and?

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Recently completed: Himnae, 42 x 84″

We all have a favorite go to distraction we turn to when things aren’t flowing (or don’t seem to be, which is a common deception.) Books, especially really great ones, are my Balm of Gilead.

And right now, for whatever reason, I have a huge stack of new and “must read” books.* It is like someone brought a truck load of mangoes and emptied them in my front yard, all of them perfectly formed, fragrant and ripe.

Managing excess has never been my strong suit.

As deep and delicious as my book stack is right now, reading in that full immersion manner comes at a cost. Too much of it, even when it is so satisfying and insightful, precludes other things from happening that are important for creative practice. I’m a painter, not a writer. While books will always be an essential part of my creative life, they are not my métier. My work is turning ideas, impressions, hunches and evocations into a visual language.

I found some needed grounding from the poet Jane Hirschfield. In her new book (but of course!), Ten Windows, she articulated the work I need to do:

The mind does not remain rooted in any one statement; it, too, moves ceaselessly from one state to the next. One of the ways it does this is by musing—no accident, that word used to describe the ways in which thought’s more fluid transformations occur. “To muse” implies entering a condition of idleness, outside the responsibilities of the fully adult: a playfulness marks the self-amusing, musing mind. It lifts a thing, turns it over, licks it, sees if it moves; explores in a way that leaves behind both simple preconception and the directionality of strict purpose. Here, too, etymology reveals. “Muse” derives from the Latin mussare, meaning first “to carry in silence,” then “to brood over in silence and uncertainty,” and then only finally “to murmur or mutter, to speak in an undertone.” Musing, it seems, is a thing that happens best in the circumstances of quiet. Undogmatic and tactful before the object of its attention, musing does not impose, but bears witness. It quietly considers, and then, when it finally speaks, does so with the voice, respectful of other presences, that we use in a library, church, or museum—the voice used, that is, when we feel we are in the company of something more important than ourselves. The mind that muses is modest and un-insistent, permeable to what lies beyond comprehension, amenable to some sense of proportion and the comic. Arrogance reserves itself for the more self-involved.

To lift a thing, to turn it over, to take a lick. To sit in quiet, in modest un-insistency. That’s my job: engaging with the self-amusing, musing mind.

For those of you who are, like me, always on the look out for that next great read, here’s my current list:

Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art, by Nancy Princenthal (and another book about Martin written by Briony Fer is coming out in a few weeks)

Mark Rothko: Toward the Light in the Chapel, by Annie Cohen-Solal

Chatting with Henri Matisse: The Lost 1941 Interview (Thank you Kitty Bancroft for flagging this Getty Publication from last year)

The Contemporaries: Travels in the 21st Century Art World, by Roger White

The Artful Universe Expanded, by John Barrow

Ten Windows, by Jane Hirschfield (her earlier volume, Nine Gates, has been quoted from repeatedly here on Slow Muse)

On Elizabeth Bishop, by Colm Tóibín

No Other Gods, poems by Todd Hearon (and so honored to have one of my paintings on the cover)

My Struggle Book 1, by Karl Ove Knausgaard, just the first of what could be a double digit volume set of this unexpectedly hypnotic account of an ordinary life (thank you book lover and kinswoman Rebecca Ricks for encouraging me to jump in now)

What Would Lynne Tillman Do?, by Lynne Tillman

Open City by Teju Cole (thank you Tim Rice)

Euphoria, by Lily King (recommended by the reliable book scouting team of Michael and Mary Pat Robertson)

And my favorite indulgence: Games of Thrones, by George R. R. Martin. After getting completely seduced by the HBO series, I had to research how the storytelling could be so expertly crafted. Amazingly, Martin’s writing is really compelling. Who knew?

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Agnes Martin (Photo: Mildred Tolbert)

From the newly released Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art, by Nancy Princenthal:

Martin’s mature paintings (she destroyed most of her early work) are incontrovertibly right, in the sense that they convince us that not a single preliminary decision or incident of execution could have been changed without damage. Composed of the simplest elements, including ruled, penciled lines and a narrow range of forms—grids, stripes, and, very occasionally, circles, triangles and squares—and painted in a limited palette on canvases that are always square, they reveal an esthetic sense that is, as her friend Ann Wilson said, the visual equivalent of perfect pitch.

What a thing to say about a body of work: pitch perfect. Having just gone through the arduous task of culling through my archives and throwing out a lot of old work, that perfect pitchness looms as a specter. We all want to achieve that with every piece, but it is a rare state.

I am not a perfectionist (which would be a crippling quality for anyone who learns by doing), but my decision to keep a work or to give it a toss came down to which pieces could hold that essential tension, a version of Wilson’s perfect pitch. There has to be something in the intrinsic energetics of the work that holds the parts together in a precarious, “this almost doesn’t work but it does” delicate balancing. In its own way it is a kind of immutability: that a particular painting is just what it must be, and wouldn’t work in any other form.

Noguchi said, “For artists there is no such thing as progress. It’s only a deepening.” That’s definitely the direction.

And apropos to that, another passage from Princenthal’s wonderful book:

To be abstracted is to be at some distance from the material world. It is a form of local exaltation but also, sometimes, even disturbance…Agnes Martin, one of the most esteemed abstract painters of the second half of the twentieth century, expressed—and, at times, dwelled in—the most extreme forms of abstraction: pure, silencing, enveloping, and upending.

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The only way I can imagine discussing my time in China is from a few small side glances. The incomprehensible immensity of the country, the complexity of its 6,000 year history, the speed with which everything that cannot adapt to China’s streamlined, extraordinary collective vision of the future is being torn down, discarded and abandoned—I am not equipped to put all those vectors into a narrative that could make sense in a few paragraphs. For those who want something more substantial, a slew of well informed books are out there about the emergence of the new China. In many ways it is one of the most significant story lines unfolding on the planet right now. I think I kind of knew that before I went. But I now have a much better understanding of just how immense it actually is. I am still a bit speechless about what I saw and learned during those two and a half weeks.

Meanwhile China does not allow access to Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or email if you are a gmail user. “We have our own version of those platforms,” was the cheerful response we heard when we asked people about being shut out. “For us, things are so much better than they used to be!” Normal is a temperature setting, not an absolute.

In writing about Dante, Robert Pogue Harrison captured some of the conflicting complexity I experienced while in China:

For those of us who belong to a modern age where all is relative, where one hand always comes with the other, and where uncertainty is our only certainty, there is something captivating and liberating about the unconditional moral clarity of Dante’s vision.

So no, I cannot offer an unconditional moral clarity about anything I experienced. What I can share is my personal journey into particular aspects of the visual culture of China.

I was keenly aware of how my eye was shifting with repeated exposure to a new set of cultural idioms. After years of looking at Chinese painting with the uninformed curiosity of someone who never having studied Asian art with the same intensity with which Western art was plumbed, I began falling under the spell of Ming and Qing Dynasty ink landscapes on paper and silk. The aura of solitude, the monochromaticism, the quality of the mark making and brushstrokes, the way scale is achieved in these panoramic landscapes—it became increasingly familiar and exquisite. Much of the contemporary art in Shanghai and Beijing has its roots in that Chinese heritage, wonderfully so. It was those works that embodied aspects of that Asian tradition that spoke most forcefully to me rather than that ubiquitous, Western-influenced, International popular culture iconography that shows up everywhere these days.

Below are a few images that stood out for me. The first set is of contemporary art. Very few of these are identifiable since I don’t know Chinese. If there is something that catches your interest, please feel free to contact me. I can at least tell you where I saw it.

The images after those are more generic views. A new landscape feeds the artist’s eye in its own particular way, and sharing these feels imporant too.

Contemporary art in China:
























The Commune at the Great Wall, a collection of structures designed by contemporary Asian architects:





The Commune has its own private segment of the Great Wall:



From the Museums:






Favorite signs:




Street and monument views:













Last but not least, the beloved pandas in Chengdu:






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‘Ghost Dance Dress’; Southern Arapaho artist, Oklahoma, circa 1890
‘Ghost Dance Dress': Southern Arapaho artist, Oklahoma, circa 1890 (Photo: Joshua Ferdinand)

The best way I know of dealing with the scale and scope of the Metropolitan Museum is to walk through and let the objects find you. Art critic Michael Kimmelman did his own version of the “evocation stroll” in the company of numerous artists (experiences he wrote about in Portraits: Talking with Artists at the Met, the Modern, the Louvre and Elsewhere), and artist Altoon Sultan often shares her Met connects on her popular blog, Studio and Garden.

I can feel the difference when I shift the construct from “finding” to “being found.” When you turn that around, the unexpected appears.

During my recent visit to the Met, I was “found” by an unexpected array of objects: A Van Gogh landscape, the entire Koran handwritten on a scroll, 15th century Florentine storage chests (cassoni) with painted fronts, and the exhibit, Book for Architects, by Wolfgang Tillmans (written about here.)

But the most haunting evocation happened in the exhibition, The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky. Hanging in its own dark sepulcher built at the heart of the exhibit, the Ghost Dance dress pulled me in.

From Thomas Powersreview in the New York Review of Books:

The dress is made of hide colored brick red with rubbed-in pigment. The sleeve ends, side seams, and skirt are decorated with abundant fine green fringes. A bottom border is blue with many four-pointed stars. The body of the dress is decorated with drawings front and back including a left hand in yellow, a turtle, thunderbirds, a magpie, a buffalo, a large four-pointed star, and other symbols and images with powerful traditional meanings. Was this dress ever worn by a ghost dancer? Without a solid provenance it is impossible to say, but the images on the dress are eloquent evidence of the whole-souled yearning that was expressed in the ghost dance movement of 1890.

It appears that this object found Powers very much as it found me. “The Southern Arapaho ghost dance dress expresses the impossible dream of a people who have lost everything but memory.” Loaded with evocative power.

Can an object carry collective memory for a culture? I’m not sure how this works. I do know that I have looked at this image of the ghost dance dress every day since I first saw it. It has showed up in my dreams and while I am working in the studio. In the spirit of letting yourself be found, I’m signed up to go where it takes me.

Some background on the Ghost Dance:

The Ghost Dance became a religious movement centered around a visionary Indian named Wovoka, a Northern Paiute living in Nevada. The belief was that dancing in a particular way, singing sacred songs and wearing special clothing would bring back the old way of life on the Plains before the Europeans arrived. Some tribes, particularly the Lakota, believed that the ghost dance clothing was a form of protection, and that wearing it in battle would protect them from gunshot and death.

Through contact with Wovoka, the ghost dance spread from tribe to tribe. Not surprisingly the whites were frightened by this indigenous sense of power and destiny. That overreaction led to devastating consequences at Wounded Knee.

Clothing, especially in battle, was not part of the Plains Indian tradition. Some historians believe the concept of attire that possesses magical powers came from contact with early Mormon settlers. (Mormons wear undergarments, garnered with symbols, that are believed to protect the body.)

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“Book for Architects,” by Wolfgang Tillmans (Photo: Francesco Galli)

Over the past ten years, I have photographed buildings in ordinary and extraordinary contexts in thirty-seven countries on five continents. Displaying the complexity and the irrationality—sometimes madness—and at other times the beauty of architecture, these pictures in their totality seem to me a little daunting but have always been taken with a kind eye. I’m aware that architecture is an expression of desires, hopes, and ambitions as well as myriad practical needs and limitations that shape a structure’s design. I am fascinated by the infinite number of formal and structural solutions, seen en masse and the world over, that human logic found for similar problems.

Book for Architects is not a book design for a video installation, presented as a looped projection of still images on two walls. My interest is not a typological examination but to show a sequence and an arrangement of images that echo what examples of the built environment look and feel like to me. I don’t use wide-angle or shift lenses but a standard lens that most closely approximates the perspective of the human eye. The various elements of architecture appear here at times clearly and cleanly and at other times in a layered and convoluted way. As such, the installation represents, and emulates, the randomness, beauty and imperfection that characterizes the built realty, both past and present.

—Introduction to Book for Architects, by Wolfgang Tillmans

I’m a long time fan of the wide ranging talents of photographer Wolfgang Tillmans. His installation at the Met Museum, Book for Architects, is yet another Tillmansian dive into a particular topic that will permanently change the way you see and perceive that subject going forward.

Probably better known for his cultural documentation and stark portraits, Tillmans states that he has always had an interest in architecture, particularly stemming from his curiosity about the impact of individual decisions in shaping the overall design of a city. “That is my fascination with architecture,” he said. “All these uncoordinated activities that are not part of a master plan, each an expression of lived reality, each extracting itself from control, from design.”

Book for Architects is a curated assemblage of nearly 500 photographs that runs in an hour long loop on two screens. The content is focused on the built environment of our earth from every possible angle, and the images range from street scenes, aerial views, interiors, facades, landscaping, architectural details—every way in which humans have altered the world. Some images appear alone, others are grouped according to subtle themes of intention, texture, color, form. Very few people are captured in these images, just our extremely random and often infuriating footprint. And no soundtrack accompanies this survey, leaving us to sit in the dark silence with nothing but stark, large screen projections of the strange world we have created for ourselves.

And those images are, as Tillmans has stated, daunting. Our built environment is irrational, lacking in coherence and logic, and often horrifically ugly. But Book for Architects is no jeremiad to idiocy and bad design. It has a “here’s the facts” objectivity, whether the image is the tangle of pipes and wires exploding out from a wall or a nightmarish sea of high rise buildings warehousing human beings in a cold, treeless world. Tillmans’ assertion that he took these photographs with a “kind eye” is the essential baseline for viewing this unique cavalcade of images. Working from a detached neutrality, Tillmans invites each of us to see our world differently. In thinking about my upcoming trip to China in a few weeks, I can already feel how my experience of that landscape will be altered thanks to Tillmans’ eye.

Book for Architects is at the Met through July 5.



2009-F080-N15_3F_KOR dmage

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Of all the poets who delve into writing, creativity and the nature of art making, Jane Hirschfield is the closest to my way of seeing things. I go back to her books over and over again. Now another to add to my library: Hiddenness, Uncertainty, Surprise: Three Generative Energies of Poetry. These three essays were delivered as part of the Newcastle/Bookaxe Poetry Lecture series in 2007.

Those three words—hiddenness, uncertainty and surprise—are fundamental elements in my studio practice. As is usually the case, Hirschfield’s explorations are salient to poetry as well other creative efforts. Her strong interest in Eastern thought and meditation also spills over into the inner life as well.

The first chapter on hiddenness is full of relevance. That which contains the hidden—a poem, a painting, a musical score—is “inexhuastible to the imagination,” Hirschfield writes. “It is their inability to be known completely that infuses aliveness into good poems.” Poet Donald Hall has used the analogy of a house that has a secret room at its center. That’s the place where that which cannot be paraphrased or verbalized is stored. That room can never be used for ordinary habitation but its very presence changes the house. That unopenable room does not exist in the world or in the work of art itself: It resides in each of us. And yet the very existence of that secret room changes everything.

In the course of her contemplation of hiddenness, Hirschfield asks a biologist friend about her views of how it plays out in nature. I loved the answer she received: “For most of life on the planet, being hidden is the default condition…visibility is a luxury. Rarely are earth-colored tones the symbols of opulence and royal blood. We are most comfortable being hidden but we yearn to be seen.” (This is the biological version of the often quoted description of an artist from the writer and psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott: “Artists are people driven by the tension between the desire to communicate and the desire to hide.”)

A few more memorable passages from the first essay, “Poetry and Hiddenness:”

“Heard melodies are sweet,” wrote Keats, “but those unheard are sweeter.” A fidelity to the ungraspable lies at the very root of both biological existence and what we experience as beauty; the steepest pitches of the heart and mind make their own shade. Within that cool and dimness, emotions and thoughts small as new mosses and lichens begin the slow, green colonisations of incipient life.

Hiddenness, then, is a sheltering enclosure—though one we stand some times outside of, at others within. One of its homes is the Ryoan-ji rock garden in Kyoto: wherever in it a person stands, one of the fifteen rocks cannot be seen. The garden reminds that something unknonwable is always present in a life, just beyond what can be perceived or comprehended…it is our subjectivity of stance, not the world, that creates the unknown.

Hiddenness is the ballast in the ship’s keel, the great underwater portion of a life that steadies the rest. The thirteenth-century Zen teacher Eihei Dogen described its weight of presence thus: “…there are mountains hidden in treasures. There are mountains hidden in swamps. There are mountains hidden in the sky. There are mountains hidden in mountains. There are mountains hidden in hiddenness. This complete understanding.”

More about Jane Hirschfield on Slow Muse:

It’s the Honey

Silky Attention

A Truing of Vision

Safekeeping the Not Knowing

Your Own Way of Looking at Things

Necessary Wildness

A Silky Attention Brought to Bear

Spirit and Body

Roasted Chestnuts and Persimmons

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Imagined map of the word, Japanese

I am reading a book recommended by my daughter Kellin Nelson: The Art of Thinking Clearly, by Rolf Dobelli. It’s designed with the 21st century reader in mind—succinct, straight talking advice on rampantly human cognitive errors in 99 chapters, each only a few pages long.

Dobelli nails all of us right from the start by detailing those pesky proclivities that flaw our thinking and perceiving. The chapter heads capture much of the spirit of the book: If Fifty Million People Say Something Foolish, It Is Still Foolish; Why We Prefer a Wrong Map to None at All; Why You Systematically Overestimate Your Knowledge and Abilities; Never Judge a Decision By Its Outcome. You get the drift.

In talking about the “confirmation bias,” Dobelli writes:

If the word “exception” crops up, prick up your ears. Often it hides the presence of discomfirming evidence. It pays to listen to Charles Darwin: Since his youth, he set out to fight the confirmation bias systematically. Whenever observations contradicted his theory, he took them very seriously and noted them down immediately. He know that the brain actively “forgets” disconfirming evidence after a short time. The more correct he judged his theory to be, the more actively he looked for contradictions…

Literary critic Arthur Quiller-Couch had a memorable motto: “Murder your darlings.” This was his advice to writers who struggled with cutting cherished but redundant sentences. Quiller-Couch’s appeal is not just for hesitant hacks but for all of us who suffer from the deafening silence of assent. To fight against the confirmation bias, try writing down your beliefs—whether in terms of worldview, investments, marriage, health care, diet, career strategies—and set out to find disconfirming evidence. Axing beliefs that feel like old friends is hard work but imperative.

After several hours of Dobelli’s direct imperative to dismantle the cozy comfort zones we make with our ideas and beliefs, it is hard to not step back a bit and look more closely at your cherished beliefs, proclivities and tastes. We give ourselves permission to set standards and issue judgments, and we do it all day long. Reading Dobelli has reminded me that we each pave a road through the landscape, and all we see is what is on either side of that narrow travel lane.

So “murdering my darlings” plays out in so many aspects of my life. I know what I like after all, be it in art, literature, music, poetry, food. Dismantling those habitual proclivities takes some doing, but the exercise is not without its rewards.

A recent theatrical outing is a good example. American Rep has staged another production by the high energy, high octane theater company from Chicago, Hypocrites. Last year they brought their very popular production of the Pirates of Penzance (reviewed on Slow Muse here) to A.R.T., and this year they have brought another Gilbert & Sullivan classic, The Mikado.

They state their intentions openly:

Our mission – which is ever-evolving to adapt to the growth of our organization – is to make a Theater of Honesty. We define a Theater of Honesty chiefly through two elements of our work: performance and presentation…Through this balance of an unyielding emotional honesty and accepting a concept of “play,” we seek to strengthen the connection between artist and audience, enriching our audience’s imaginative experience…

We will make theater.
We will respect the audience.
We will create a unique theater experience for every production.
We will push our own limits in order to push the limits of theater.
We will honor the playwright’s intentions.
We will hold interest in entertainment and art.
We will change these rules.

Like Pirates, The Mikado is just plain fun. The “all singing and all dancing” cast carries out this wacky G&S storyline amid the audience members and engages everyone in the high jinks effortlessly. Yes, I do happen to love the deep dives into dramatic profundity and the magic of a parallel reality that great theater can create. But by making a concerted decision (thank you Dobelli) to just let all those proclivities go and enjoy a night of being entertained and delighted, I was. Wonderfully.

The Mikado (Photo: Gretjen Helene Photography)

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Claerwen James
Claerwen James (Photo: London Evening Standard)

Every artist has a personal story of how she ended up spending a lifetime doing this thing that is all-consuming. It’s a strange decision really, that willingness to give yourself over to a passion that takes hold as soon as you awake and stays resident, in background or foreground, all day long. Sometimes its ambient and seamless dominance feels comforting, like a familiar chair that has formed perfectly to the body. At other times its demand for bandwidth devours access to the practical concerns of life, like keeping track of when the chimney was last cleaned (we used ours so often this winter, maybe too much?) or where the title to the car is filed.

Claerwen James, daughter of the inimitable Clive James, answered the following two questions in a recent interview. I resonated with her answers to both of these questions, and I found her point of view very much in line with the sense of art making and life I have explored in Slow Muse: A longing and respect for the very act of making, an aversion to art-speak, learning from what doesn’t work, and painting with your guts rather than your head.

You trained as a zoologist and molecular biologist – why did you switch to art?

I had always drawn and painted, but felt I had no subject matter. I liked making things, but I didn’t know what to make. Then over the course of a couple of years I began to have ideas about things I wanted to make, and I stopped having ideas about biology – it just happened, it wasn’t a conscious decision and it became clear. I stopped being a scientist when I was 28, when I finished my PhD. I haven’t kept up with it—it’s not something you can do part-time. It has to be an all-consuming passion. But I think I retain the mind-set: I don’t like waffle and I’m allergic to art-speak, which is a bit of a handicap.

What’s the best advice anyone’s ever given you?

I got two good pieces of advice when I was training at the Slade. One was from Bernard Cohen who was director of the Slade at the time. During a lecture he said, ‘Don’t have an abstract idea or an agenda that you’re trying to communicate through a painting: make it because you want to make it, because you want to know what it will look like, and this is the only way to find out.’ That resonated with me – or rather, it felt like permission to work the way I wanted to work. The other piece of advice was actually given to someone in the studio space next to me during a tutorial on which I was unavoidably eavesdropping. It was to ‘paint more, a lot more, much faster, because you’ve got a lot of bad paintings in you and you’ve got to get them all out.’ It was by far the most useful practical advice I ever heard, because there is a tendency to agonize about the meaning or validity of what you are doing before you’ve even started that is not helpful… You need to paint to some extent with your guts rather than your head.

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