Art Making

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Nigrassa
Nigrassa, one of the pieces included in the show at Chautauqua Institution this summer, “On the Surface: Outward Appearances,” that has been sold and taken up residence elsewhere.

Ann Lauterbach, poet and educator, is the author of The Night Sky: Writings on the Poetics of Experience. As is usually the case, her insights about poetry and poetry writing apply to other forms of expression as well. (I regularly rely on poets to articulate what I find so hard to verbalize.)

I don’t know if this is a technique that works for you, but the right book somehow rises to the top of my stack or falls off the shelf at an opportune moment. Open it up, and there is something that speaks to life at that particular moment. My erudite and book loving niece Rebecca Ricks recommended Night Sky to me several years ago, so I read the collection and left my markings on its pages before putting it on the shelf. This morning I was thinking about the show at Chautauqua that came down this week and about the paintings that have found new homes, and there was Lauterbach’s book sitting there ready to be re-engaged. A few phrases immediately jumped out at me, like the difference between seeing from the periphery rather than the center, and how the whole fragment (what a great term!) can be embraced.

These were the passages that spoke to me this morning which I hope find resonance with you too.

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To write poetry in America is in itself a subversive act, a refutation of, and resistance to, certain assumptions about what constitutes “the public” and its interests.

Poetry protects language from serving any master.

One can see better from the periphery than from the center.

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My fear is that my fragments of knowledge are just bits and pieces with too many unbridgeable gaps between them.

And so, in defense, I have come to celebrate the whole fragment.

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Linear argument, where one thing leads ineluctably to another, is of profound practical and rhetorical value, but necessarily it discourages vicissitude and ephemera, ambivalence and dead ends, ruminations that suggest a different mental economy, one that could affect conclusions beyond the restraint of reasoning logic.

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The crucial job of artists is to find a way to release materials into the animated middle ground between subjects, and so to initiate the difficult but joyful process of human connection.

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Art serves no practical purpose, but to engage with it fully is to acknowledge the (pleasurable, if often difficult) consequences of choice at the crux of human agency.
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Dolice 1, 12 x 12″ on wood panel

Nigrassa
Nigrassa, 40 x 40″ on canvas

Both paintings are from the upcoming show, “On the Surface: Outward Appearances”, at Chautauqua Institution, June 16 – August 19, 2014

For us, honey is a gift; for the bee, it is labor.
–Jane Hirschfield

The poet Jane Hirschfield is a constant source of wisdom about making in all its many forms, and this line speaks clearly to what every writer/painter/musician/dancer/performer knows intimately. There’s honey to be had, but it comes after hours and hours of work.

In the same essay, The Circular Path, from the collection, A God in the House: Poets Talk about Faith, Hirschfield includes a few more resonant insights:

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Writing is an act that generates and expands attention. And if I’m lucky, I may write something that helps expand the life and attention of others as well.

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Whatever people find in my poems of radiance or grace comes out of the struggle to turn away from disappearance and toward presence.

The hope—and the quiet sense of surrender—in these words is aligned with my own thoughts as I head out to Chautauqua for the opening of my show this week: On the Surface: Outward Appearances.

I’ll be back to Slow Muse next week.

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Louise Nevelson (Photo: Nancy R. Schiff—Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

I long ago took the position that giving advice is a fool’s errand, especially with artists. My personal MO is right in line with the lyrics from Willie Nelson‘s recently released song, Band of Brothers:

We are a band of brothers and sisters and whatever,
On a mission to break all the rules.
I know you love me cause I love you too,
but you can’t tell me what to do.

Not believing in advice doesn’t mean I’m not curious about how others go about fulfilling their mission of breaking all the rules however. I am actually quite fascinated by how many ways there are to be a transgressive which, at our core, most artists are.

Two books, one by a poet and one by a sculptor, crossed my path this week. Both are memoirs that offer the expected reflective, confessional and personal accounting of a life. But that’s where the similarities end.

What Poets are Like: Up and Down With the Writing Life, by Gary Soto, is a beguiling, funny, self-mocking account of life as a not Name Brand poet.

From a review in the Chicago Tribune:

Soto, the child of working-class Mexican-Americans, has not had an undistinguished poetic career. He has won awards and fellowships, been nominated for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. (He’s also the author of several successful books for children and young adults.) But “What Poets Are Like: Up and Down With the Writing Life,” a loose collection of mostly autobiographical vignettes and anecdotes, is full of genial self-mockery. He tallies his rejection letters, jokes about not getting grants, laments his sales figures, gets depressed when he sees his books (inscribed by him, no less) in used bookstores, writes that he doesn’t translate more often “for I possess only talent enough to bungle my own poems.” He describes reading at a Barnes & Noble to an audience consisting of a single member who listened to a single stanza before waving his hand and saying “Stop, stop, I’ll buy the book.” This is endearing but overfamiliar. If you’ve heard anything about poets in America, it’s probably that they are unknown and unread, except by other poets and perhaps a few freaks on the fringes.

With his easy in/easy out short fiction form, Soto talks with candor about the ignominy of being overlooked, under appreciated, unrewarded and feeling just plain left out and left behind. Which are all feelings with which every artist I know—be they poets or musicians or visual artists—is intimately familiar. Soto is dogged by the specter of being rejected by yet another obscure Midwest journal, being invited to read and no one showing up, or being asked the dreaded question, “Where do you get your ideas?” (We all have our list of those painful occupational rites of passage that don’t deliver on the passage, just the pain.) Soto has found a sweet spot between the gentle insouciance and lightheartedness that are his nature and the intense desire he also possesses to have his work read, appreciated and admired. The humor and self-mockery are his survival skills.

Soto’s little book is about a 1/4th the size of another artist’s memoir: Louise Nevelson‘s Dawns + Dusks: Conversations with Diana MacKown. Famously self-confident, supremely brash and direct, Nevelson was born with a sense that it was her destiny to be famous and very successful, both of which she was.

John Canaday shares this anecdote in his introduction:

One woman asked Louise if she would have felt that her life had been well spent—if she would have felt sufficiently rewarded for a life in art—if the recognition had never come…”if it had turned out that after all you weren’t first-rate.” Louise paused for a moment, puzzled (not typical of her). Other artists of the kind called “dedicated” would have answered, “It would still have been worthwhile,” which I suspect is what the questioner wanted to hear. But Louise finally said, “It never occurred to me to be anything else.”

The transcripts that form the text of this book are full of Nevelsonisms: “I was very sure of what I was doing. I believed in myself and I was utterly satisfied with what I believed in. I wasn’t going to let a soul on earth judge my life.” “I don’t want the safe way. The safe way limits you.” “I wanted one thing that I thought belonged to me. I wanted the whole show.” “I believed in my work and the joy of it. You have to be with the work and the work has to be with you.” Her sense of herself and her work is staggeringly clear.

No one can parse the formula behind Nevelson’s bravado and extraordinary career. Surely it is a blend of genius, guts, hard work, timing, and the secret ingredient in any successful venture, luck. But the mantra still stands, no matter who you are: Nobody can tell you what to do.

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“Desert Breath,” land art in the Eastern Sahara Desert in Egypt. Two spirals emanate from a circular depression 100 feet in diameter. The installation occupies over a million square feet of desert and can be viewed from the air. Artist Danae Stratou, designer and architect Alexandra Stratou, and architect Stella Constantinides created the project between 1995 and 1997. It has since been left to slowly disintegrate. (Photos: Laughing Squid)

Those who know me well know of my passion for Fanny Howe—her poetry and her prose speak to me deeply. One of my favorite Howe essays, “Bewilderment” (included in her book, The Wedding Dress: Meditations on Word and Life) is a particular favorite, and one that I go back to again and again.

In this passage she turns to dreams and how they engage with us. Her descriptions are so closely aligned with how art comes into being in my studio. There is a dialogue and a dance happening every time I encounter a surface that is asking to be engaged in the process of becoming something else.

As we all know, a dream hesitates. it doesn’t grasp, it stands back, it jokes, it makes itself scared, it circles, and it fizzles.

A dream often undermines the narratives of power and winning…

A dream breaks into parts and contradicts its own will, even as it travels around and around.

For me, bewilderment is like a dream: one continually returning pause on a gyre and in both my stories and my poems it could be the shape of the spiral that imprints itself in my interior before anything else emerges on paper.

For the spiral-walked there is no plain path, no up and down, no inside or outside. But there are strange returns and recognitions and never a conclusion.

Spiral walking! I love that phrase. Howe then combines the concept of the spiral with the mystic tradition of the maze, another invitation to be in bewilderment:

The construction of high-hedged mazes is a concession to bewilderment, just as Robert Smithson’s spiral jetty rises and sinks under the weight of Utah’s salt water—both site and non-site—a shape that must turn back or drop off—that can climb and wind down—that has noetic as well as poetic attributes, miming infinity in its uncertain end.

The maze and the spiral have aesthetic value since they are constructed for others—places to learn about perplexity and loss of bearing.

And even if it is associated with childhood, madness, stupidity, and failure, even if it shows not only how to get lost but also how it feels not to return, bewilderment has a high status in several mystical traditions.

The definition of bewilder is “to cause to lose one’s sense of where one is.” It is a collapse of the referential and an invitation to sustain tetherlessness. Bewilderment “breaks open the lock of dualism (it’s this or that) and peers out into space (not this, not that.)

Mystics get this. I think many artists do too.

[Note: You can view Desert Breath from Google Earth here.]

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Songwriter Bob Russell ( “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother”, among many others) wrote these lyrics for Billie Holiday back in the 1940s:

The difficult I’ll do right now
The impossible will take a little while.

The second line was the inspiration for the title of one of my favorite books, The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen’s Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear, a selection of essays compiled by Paul Rogat Loeb and published in 2004. He draws wisdom on impossible things—or so they may have seemed at the time—from many 20th century greats including Martin Luther King Jr, Nelson Mandela, Diane Ackerman, Seamus Heaney, Václav Havel, Howard Zinn.

In Daniel Barenboim‘s Norton Lecture series (collected in his book, Music Quickens Time), he brings music into this sphere of the impossible:

I firmly believe that it is impossible to speak about music. There have been many definitions of music which have, in fact, merely described a subjective reaction to it. The only really precise and objective definition for me is by Ferruccio Busoni…who said that music is sonorous air. It says everything and nothing at the same time. Schopenhauer, on the other hand, saw in music an idea of the world. In music, as in life, it is really only possible to speak about our own reactions and perceptions. If I attempt to speak about music, it is because the impossible has always attracted me more than the difficult. If there is some sense behind this, to attempt the impossible is, by definition, an adventure…It has the added advantage that failure is not only tolerated but expected.

My artist friend Gordon Waters (who sadly passed away in 2013) wrote a memoir that he coyly titled, Unless Your Picture Goes Wrong It Will Be No Good. Any writer/composer/artist knows how important the broken parts are as a work evolves.

But the difficult is different than the impossible. Art making is so full of difficult things, and there may be something emergent about just moving into the zone of the impossible as Barenboim suggests. It is a way of welcoming adventure rather than staying tethered to life-draining reparations and adjustments. It is a welcoming of failure rather than the constant vigilance to protect against it.

Sometimes the extreme is the exit out. Or in, depending on your point of view.

[Note: This post is from the Slow Muse archives. It first appeared in 2013.]

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Rebecca Solnit
Rebecca Solnit (Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian)

My respect and admiration for the writer Rebecca Solnit is long standing. The author of many extraordinary books, she posted a short essay online a few years ago that went viral immediately. No wonder, since the title captures in one phrase an experience that every woman I know has had, and continues to encounter in spite of everything that has happened over the last 50 years: Men Explain Things to Me.

In a new collection of seven essays that takes the first as its title, Solnit has allowed gender to be a leitmotif that strings these insightful explorations together. As much as I enjoyed the title essay in Men Explain Things to Me, my favorite in the collection is Woolf’s Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable, a rich blend of the fearless probing that characterizes the minds and writings of Solnit, Virginia Woolf and Susan Sontag. And because the inexplicable has been a leitmotif for me these eight years of Slow Muse posting, exploring the realm of the inchoate in company with these three is pure pleasure.

Solnit begins with a Woolf quote: “The future is dark, which is the best thing the future can be, I think.” The future is an unknown and should be just that, a radical idea in a culture that longs for control, prognostication and predictability. Solnit then quotes wilderness survivalist Laurence Gonzalez: “The plan, a memory of the future, tries on reality to see if it fits.” It is our nature to be fearful of the unknown ahead, and often it feels easier to choose to be oblivious. When a plan (or a belief, or a relgion) becomes your safety net, you see what you want to see. It is the job of artists and explorers, says Solnit, to let go of preconceptions and to walk into the unknown with eyes open. Relentlessly.

When it comes to the work we do and the positions we take, we cannot see the larger arc of these actions. Solnit shares a conversation she had with Sontag about taking a political position:

I had just begun trying to make the case for hope in writing, and I argued that you don’t know if your actions are futile: that you don’t have the memory of the future, that the future is indeed dark, which is the best thing it could be: and that, in the end, we always act in the dark. The effects of your actions may unfold in ways you cannot foresee or even imagine. They may unfold long after your death. That is when the words of so many writers often resonate most.

Every artist who is digging deep in the work they do comes up against that unknowingness with every gesture, with every word. Solnit’s insights resonate for me as an artist, but they also speak to anyone struggling for truth, justice and equality. You know who you are.

To me, the grounds for hope are simply that we don’t know what will happen next, and that the unlikely and the unimaginable transpire quite regularly. And that the unofficial history of the world shows that dedicated individuals and popular movements can shape history and have, though how and when we might win and how long it takes is not predictable.

Despair is a form of certainty, certainty that the future will be a lot like the present or will decline from it; despair is a confident memory of the future, in Gonzalez’s resonant phrase. Optimism is similarly confident about what will happen. Both are grounds for not acting. Hope can be the knowledge that we don’t have that memory and that reality doesn’t necessarily match our plans; hope like creative ability can come from what the Romantic poet John Keats called Negative Capability.

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Door into my zone of privacy, my studio

I am not the only artist out there voicing advocacy for the way of solitude. There are many of us who spend most of our days working alone and know that is the only way we can do what we do. But Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, has brought the topic to a larger audience.

From her article, The Rise of the New Groupthink:

Solitude is out of fashion. Our companies, our schools and our culture are in thrall to an idea I call the New Groupthink, which holds that creativity and achievement come from an oddly gregarious place. Most of us now work in teams, in offices without walls, for managers who prize people skills above all. Lone geniuses are out. Collaboration is in.

But there’s a problem with this view. Research strongly suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption. And the most spectacularly creative people in many fields are often introverted, according to studies by the psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Gregory Feist. They’re extroverted enough to exchange and advance ideas, but see themselves as independent and individualistic. They’re not joiners by nature.

In her article, Cain highlights the necessary introverted approach of Apple’s cofounder Steve Wozniak:

The story of Apple’s origin speaks to the power of collaboration. Mr. Wozniak wouldn’t have been catalyzed by the Altair but for the kindred spirits of Homebrew. And he’d never have started Apple without Mr. Jobs.

But it’s also a story of solo spirit. If you look at how Mr. Wozniak got the work done — the sheer hard work of creating something from nothing — he did it alone. Late at night, all by himself.

Intentionally so. In his memoir, Mr. Wozniak offers this guidance to aspiring inventors:

“Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me … they live in their heads. They’re almost like artists. In fact, the very best of them are artists. And artists work best alone …. I’m going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone… Not on a committee. Not on a team.”

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Note: Today’s post is based on an earlier one from the Slow Muse archive.

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“Veriddyi 2″, a recent painting (and one that speaks to my ongoing longing to envision that first day of creation)

One of my favorite quotes comes by way of W. S. Piero from his book of essays, Out of Eden: “Certain artists give up the making of representational images so that they can see through traditional iconography to the world as it could have been seen only on the first day of creation.”

The longing for this primeval envisioning speaks to many of the aspects of art making that resemble a monastic practice (which I wrote about here). For those of us who are in search for that primordial sense of things, that usually means that voyaging there alone.

By pronouncing his credo as “truth is a pathless land,” Krishnamurti disavowed his alliance with the Theosophists (who were grooming him carefully) as well as with any religion, nationality or philosophy. That essential tension between going it alone and doing it with a group has been a recurring theme in my life. I was raised in a very structured religious setting where rules, obedience and participation in the community are core values. Whether in the domain of spiritual practice or of art making, I’m very clear about one thing: I am not designed for joining.

From the poet Kazim Ali:

You can search alongside others, but I don’t think others can help you understand your own nature…I’ve always been on my own, a single person in the field of physical matter, on his back looking up into oblivion…

To join with others in a gesture of similitude—I can’t draw anything from that, or at least at the moment have not been able to do so. I’d rather be wandering in a trance through the streets of a busy city, peeling an orange and whispering to the universe than sitting in a pew listening to a sermon or kneeling on a rug reciting chapters.

In the introduction to their book, A God in the House: Poets Talk About Faith, Ilya Kaminsky and Katherine Towler give poetry (or more broadly art making) a memorable positioning:

In the end, what poetry and faith share, perhaps more than anything else, is a sense of awe. In awe is the beginning of a life of wonder. Or, as the poet Jack Spicer put it, in an American idiom: “Poets think they are pitchers, when they are actually catchers.”

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Cast drawing

Rumi‘s famous poem advises that “There are thousands of ways to kneel and kiss the ground,” a line which follows directly upon another wise admonishment: “Let the beauty we love be what we do.”

And how many ways there are for those of us who are called to plumb the visual! On a recent visit to see two friends who are studying classical painting, I was suddenly pulled back into the world of a 19th century atelier—still life set ups with fruit and flowers, shelves of plaster casts, carefully modulated northern exposure, students working painstakingly on each detail with a master teacher. The passion is evidenced everywhere among these cotravelers, all of them having chosen a path that requires commitment, patience, a understated asceticism and comfort with the counterposition in the 21st century universe of art and art making.

I operate from a counterposition too, but I am perched at a very different end of the vast landscape that is visual expression. I also honor the beauty of what I love, but the tools are different as is the outcome.

I resonate with the words of Christian Wiman, a poet I quote frequently:

I am a poet. To be a poet in contemporary America is to be accustomed to, let us say, muted reactions to one’s work. It is also—and this, I suspect, is not limited to America—to learn to write without much concern for audeince, not because you don’t want your poems to be read, but because in order for poems to honor the voice that creates them, a voice that, as even the most secular poets acknowledge, seems to come from “somewhere else”—in order, that is for the poems to be poems—you have to acquire a monkish devotion to their source, and to the silence within you that enables that source to speak.

While I am not a Julian Schnabel fan, I did like what he said in a recent interview that dovetails with Wiman’s words as well:

Q: Are you in a way proud of all these different careers?

Schnabel: I don’t have a career as a photographer and I don’t want a career as a movie director, and I don’t have a career as a painter.

Q: You don’t have a career?

Schnabel: No, I never thought of art as a career. I thought it was more like a monastic practice. It is something that you do – you can’t not do it. If I made money doing it, I would do it; if I didn’t make any money, I would do it.

The monastic practice of art, regardless of what accoutrements are employed, is what binds me to other artists, poets, musicians. That meme has little traction in our fast paced world, but I come back to that metaphor continually during my day in the studio. There are a thousand ways to be silent, a thousand ways to connect with your source.

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Agam Nieman’s studio in Manchester New Hampshire

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Tiruchchirappalli, India

This year we celebrated Easter with friends from Athens. While a whole lamb turned slowly on a spit, the table was loaded up with fresh bread, olives from the family vineyards back home, and copious bowls of salads and vegetables. It was sumptuous and unforgettable, rendered with the mastery that comes with having been repeated over and over for years.

I have consciously shed most of the rituals that were part of my upbringing, but I am moved and drawn to the rituals of others. During a month long visit to Southern India a few years ago, we spent much of our time at ancient Hindu sites. Most temples welcome non-Hindus, so we were able to watch and sometimes participate in the ablutions, the music and the blessings that have been carried out in just that way for hundreds of years. The meaning for me as an outsider will always be different than it is for a believer, but it is still meaning, it is still a connection with something powerful and moving.

Some consider interest in other religious traditions to be a kind of spiritual consumerism, a superficial supermarket approach to seeking and meaning. But that isn’t the way I see it. When we walk through a museum, objects call to us. Regardless of their origin or history, they draw us to them. They are still speaking, with or without the context that produced them. No one tradition owns them.

The poet Carolyn Forché spent a good deal of time in her life exploring many religious traditions. In her essay, “Infinite Obligation to the Other”, (in A God in the House: Poets Talk about Faith, edited by Ilya Kaminsky and Katherine Towler) she describes herself as a syncretist, someone who “does not attempt to resolve contradictions between spheres of faith and belief.”

There is a difference, I hope, between syncretism and dilettantism. I would just play around; I would splash and play in the fields of spiritual thought—read the Zen sutras, and then jump off a cliff into the arms of something about the Dharma, and then go back to reading the Bible, and then have a certain dalliance with Judaic thought. I was always enchanted. I was always in awe of these texts. If I did this as a practice of lectio divina, I could experience these different fruits of human experience of God, without feeling there was a contradiction between them. We all get to be many people, because everything is very protean. Spiritual life is protean, too. That’s why you can’t ever really feel accomplished spiritually, because in a second, you know–you’re not. Everything is changing so rapidly.

In our culture, says Forché, spirituality is as misunderstood as poetry. “It goes unrecognized.” But the connection between the two is real for her. Forché speaks to how that connection happens in poetry (and for many of us who are in artistic endeavors as well):

The thing about writing poetry is that the more you’re there working, the more you’re there writing, the more you realize you are not writing it. The little threads and weavings that come into the poem—one is not consciously aware of these things, because something larger is working in you. This is an experience close to revelation, to the realm of prophetic language.

At the end of her essay, Forché quotes Emanuel Levinas: “Artistic activity makes the artist aware that he is not the author of his works.” Which is, in my view, an exquisite truth.

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