Art Making

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My partner Dave having a moment with Richard Diebenkorn at the Cantor Center, Stanford University

When asked for advice about how to navigate the visual art space, I increasingly say that for most of us, it is just DIY. The old atelier model of “I make the art and someone else sells it” is gone for all but the .01% of us. As one friend—a full time artist who has been successful at exhibiting and selling her work through multiple channels—tells her art students, “I have 15 different jobs in addition to being an artist, from marketing manager to bookkeeper, from carpenter to project manager.”

It isn’t just visual arts marketing that has changed over the last 10 years. Many of my friends who write and compose also talk that way. The creative arts promotional support systems that were once de rigeur have morphed into something else or have disappeared altogether, like the once ubiquitous publisher-sponsored author book launch and media tour.

As a result, creatives have to learn new skills, many of them business-oriented. When younger artists ask me for career advice I encourage them to see themselves as an artist and an entrepreneur. You make art, that’s first and foremost. But you also run a business. It’s a start up. And like most start ups, it is probably underfunded.

Many books have appeared recently with a similar message. The advice now is plentiful about the practical aspects of art making, going well beyond just studio techniques or gallery representation.

What has also emerged from this increased blending of business and the arts is the other side of that same coin. Business practices increasingly incorporate art making skills to improve product development, increase corporate creativity and stimulate innovation strategies. Along that same trajectory, a number of business schools have partnered recently with art and design schools to increase creative thinking in MBA students.

Two books released this year speak to that “art informs business” side of the coin. Visual Intelligence: Sharpen Your Perception, Change Your Life is by Amy E. Herman. An art history graduate who went on to become an attorney, Herman returned to her primal love of visual art by creating a course that uses fine art to help first responders, doctors and other professionals increase their skills of perception. Offered through the Frick Museum in New York, her course became so successful that she captured her course content in a thoughtful and useful book.

It is sometimes easy for artists to forget that a visual orientation is similar to being born with musical talent: Some just have it, and others have to learn it from the beginning. Herman’s book brings those valuable artist-centric perceptual skills closer to people whose work lies outside the creative fields. She makes useful distinctions, like the difference between observation and perception. (Observation is the auditing of detail and is objective. Perception is how we interpret what we observe and therefore subjective. It is easy to confuse the two, and our observation skills improve when we know what alters our perceptions.) Her reliance on art to build visual acuity is a valuable aspect of her transformative work.

Another book is Art Thinking: How to Carve Out Creative Space in a World of Schedules, Budgets, and Bosses, by Amy Whitaker. Whitaker is an exceptionally credentialed go between. With an MBA as well as an MFA in painting, she speaks fluently in the languages of both business and art.

Whitaker’s book is essentially a business book, peppered with the business case studies that business book readers expect. But her ideas and approach are different from the many books on corporate innovation and creativity that I have read. Her aim is more personal, providing a set of constructs that can assist anyone—inside a corporate setting or on their own—as they embark on a new project. She advocates for many of the skills and approaches that artists will recognize. However as familiar as these approaches are to artists like me, I was inspired by how she codified her content into useful form. Her chapter titles give you a sense: From a Wide Angle; In the Weeds; To the Lighthouse; Make a Boat; To Be in the Fray; To Build a House; To See the Whole.

Here are a few samples of her ability to speak to both audiences.

To adapt a definition from Heidegger:
A work of art is something new in the world that changes the world to allow itself to exist.

Traditionally defined, art itself has a long history of scrambling the idea of efficiency. Ever since the invention of photography, making a painting at all is an act of willful inefficiency.

You need to develop habits of what I will call “studio time”—ways of setting aside empty space in the landscape of your life. Paradoxically, in order to fully access these advantages, you may need to relax your hold on goal completion and efficiency enough to even feel like you’re wasting time.

Creativity as a process only has traction with the present moment.

When I teach business to artists, I often tell them that they are asked to be generous, to put something out there before they get something back. Creative work in any field asks you to risk offering something first.

That moment of pause represents the act of being and not doing. It represents seeing and accepting things as they are, even if the reality isn’t great. That pause creates a stability and openness from which creative flexibility can develop, helping you to access your fuller capacity while not yet knowing exactly where you are going.

We create our lives, we build our workplaces, we design our society, we make our world. Art thinking is the process and business is the medium.

On a more personal level, I have seen a similar blending of business and art making when I look at my relationship with my partner Dave. He was a fresh MBA grad when I met him 37 years ago. We have spent those years teaching each other what we each know how to do, and his practices are now so much closer to mine in the studio than what they were all those years ago. I think we both do our work better for mixing things up, and Whitaker’s book is a good reminder of how valuable that cross pollination can be.

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Jamuna, pure pigment on canvas, by Natvar Bhavsar (Image: Asianart.com)

Political language is a tongue, one that is optimally designed to infiltrate both thinking and feeling at the same time. Sarah Hurwitz, speechwriter for Michelle Obama, is a master at getting words to work at all those levels at the same time. Oratory brilliance takes me straight to awe.

Writing about art is strangely similar. When done well it speaks to our cerebral consciousness as well as our emotions, those often inchoate feelings that reside somewhere in our bodies other than our brains. The best writers about art, like the best orators, know how to hit all those spots.

I wish I had those skills. I am a visualizer with a huge crush on verbal language done well, so I catalog more words than I create. This blog is a compendium of my favorite passages, the ones that have achieved that thinking/feeling connection.

Some artists can do both the visual and the verbal well. Here for example is a description of Natvar Bhavsar, an artist I admire, by the cultural cultural historian Marius Kwint:

To listen to him is to be struck by the poetic authority of his language. One is instantly brought into a world of absolute precision and infinite expanse…His speech is as much an art as his painting. His phrases are as original as the aggregations of color on his canvases, his verbal faculties no doubt honed by the fact that his art pretends to no linguistic sophistication but plays only to the foundations of our sensory-cognitive apparatuses. Bhavsar confesses to a “certain Romantic affliction with words.”

In his interview with Bhavsar, Kwint elicits this lovely passage from Bhavsar:

We have been given a very special place to understand things larger than ourselves, all the time, intuitively sometimes, and sometimes through exertion. Buddha, for example, went through all kinds of processes—hunger, torture, everything—to get knowledge, and finally decided that those were not the paths by which he could be enlightened. So he adopted the path of life, and concluded that wisdom and Enlightenment are not based on staying away from reality but on staying very close to reality and, at the same time, trying to understand it. The depths of knowledge and the depths of perseverance, and character-building—these are essential aspects of any creative process, where you submerge yourself to understand something, and not worry about the historical footnotes.

From the same monograph, Irving Sandler makes this point:

Bhavsar is attracted to pure pigment because of its physicality, and the way in which it makes color, or rather color/pigment, physical. But Bhavsar believes that the materiality can also be transmaterial or spiritual. In the West, matter and spirit are generally viewed as incompatible. But not in India.

As a way of bringing this discussion back to the political from where it began, Sandler ends his essay with this poignant claim:

Bhavsar has dealt with an issue summed up by Geeta Kapur. “The classical civilizations of the Asian region hold out a continuing lure for the transcendental. In the matrix of Asian cultures, the metaphysical is a vexed category on account of the more recent secular convictions; this is precisely a matter for an aesthetic avant-garde to tackle.” In a world wracked by national conflicts, racism, genocide, famine, pollution, ecological devastation and crime, Bhavsar’s painting is an oasis of contemplation in which alienation, desperation, despondency, rage, and other psychic wounds can be calmed, a state of repose necessary to human being.

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A solitary figure walking through an empty landscape. That feels like a good description of what this month has felt like to me.
(My daughter Kellin, walking the beach at Duxbury a few years ago)

Years of solitude had taught him that, in one’s memory, all days tend to be the same, but that there is not a day, not even in jail or in the hospital, which does not bring surprises, which is not a translucent network of minimal surprises.

Jorge Luis Borges

 

The invisible, although it keeps itself hidden, makes itself felt. I cannot see the people I love as I write this, but I can sense their pull, and I act as I do because of their existence. Taken literally, that is how the cosmos works. An invisible mass alters the orbit of a comet; dark energy affects the acceleration of a supernova; the earth’s magnetic field tugs on birds, butterflies, sea turtles, and the compasses of mariners. The whole realm of the visible is compelled by the invisible. Our planet, our solar system, our galaxy, our universe: all of it, all of us, are pushed, pulled, spun, shifted, set in motion, and held together by what we cannot see.

Kathryn Schulz

 

What we overlook is that underneath the ground of our beliefs, opinions, and concepts is a boundless sea of uncertainty. The concepts we cling to are like tiny boats tossed about in the middle of the vast ocean. We stand on our beliefs and ideas thinking they’re solid, but in fact, they (and we) are on shifting seas.

Steve Hagen

 

An image is a stop the mind makes between uncertainties.

Djuna Barnes

 

The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty; not knowing what comes next.

Ursula K. Le Guin

 

Art’s true power comes from its ability to surprise, to turn down unexpected paths, sometimes despite the protests of the artist creating the work. These moments of revelation, which can be charged with fear and exultation, are the lynchpins of all artistic experience and the source of its value. The only path I have found to these moments of inspiration is the hard work of putting the first mark down, then the next.

Stan Berning

 

I’m heads down in the studio this month. These quotes expose—and relish—the importance of surprise, the unknown and the power of uncertainty. Helpful reminders all to staying open and humble.

I hope to be more fluent with my own words next month. That’s the idea anyway!

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George Wingate is a life long friend and an artist whose explorations have always been engagingly 360. His work has a staggering range. Most recently he has been mastering the weekend only installation: transforming empty storefronts, exhibit spaces or even the homes of friends.

This past weekend George expanded that pop up skill set to bring the indoor and the outdoor closer together, and he chose to do it on his own turf in Wenham MA. Partnering with the husband/wife ceramic team of Daryl and David Townsley, this latest Wingate installation is a feast, from his wonderfully worn and evocative barn studio to the exquisite gardens that surround his home. For urbanites like me who are garden-denied, this is pretty much pure nirvana. And the husband/wife dynamic was also at play with George since he and his wife Penny Wingate are jointly responsible for the lush world you can see in the photos below.

Note: I have documented some earlier Wingate installations on Slow Muse. Those links are listed at the bottom of this post.

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Reception in the breezeway

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Helping out with sales, Emma

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Into the rafters

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Uppage. Another neologism, thank you George

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GW32Two friends joined me, Kerry Cudmore and Nancy Bleyer

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George, in joy

For more George:

In Water Opens
Up Stairs In Sight: George Wingate
Another Wingate Moment
Take Me Deep: The Dark Room

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Robert Irwin’s “Untitled” (1969), at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington DC. (Photo: Drew Angerer for The New York Times, Robert Irwin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

Robert Irwin holds a particular place in the California annals of contemporary art, and he holds a particular place for me personally. He figured larger than life during my formative years as an artist coming of age on the west coast. I watched as he worked his way through an intense exploration into painting and as he ended up being more interested in the nature of perception than in objects themselves. By the late 60’s he didn’t even want his work to be photographed: Art should only be accessed through direct experience. You have to see an Irwin to “see” it.

“Robert Irwin: All the Rules Will Change” is currently on view at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington DC. It is the first exhibit to focus on his evolution as an artist during that period of intensity “when, in full experimental mode, he was shifting the emphasis of his own art from psychic encounters to physical ones, from precious objects to environments, places of contemplation” (Holland Cotter, in the New York Times.) “Images, he soon realized, were a problem. They implied messages to be deciphered, narratives to be read, and he wanted to get away from all that. He wanted to stay abstract, but also to grow more expansive.”

In 1970, Irwin stopped making objects altogether. He closed his studio and engaged in site-specific installations only, ones that were perception-altering. In an interview recorded at LACMA in 1973 (it runs in a loop at the exhibit), Irwin talks about the new “beyond painting” projects that were compelling him at that point in time, from working with NASA to urban environmental design. Many know him for his iconic work in conceptualizing the Dia:Beacon facility and in developing the extraordinary gardens that encompass the Getty Center.

For example, this passage from Seeing Is Forgetting: The Name of the Thing One Sees, A Life of Contemporary Artist Robert Irwin, by Lawrence Weschler, speaks to that search for the essential:

“The big challenge for me,” he recalls, “starting around then, the ‘less is more’ challenge, was simply always to try to maximize the energy, the physicality of the painting, and to minimize the imagery. It could all be looked at essentially as turning the entire question upside down: moving away from the literate, conceptual rationale and really reestablishing the inquiry on the perceptual, tactile level. Nobody quite understood that at the time, because they were still thinking in image terms and in terms of literate connotations. When they talked about a painting, they translated it into subject matter, in a way, but it’s not only about that. It’s about presence, phenomenal presence. And it’s hard: if you don’t see it, you just don’t see it; it just ain’t there. You can talk yourself blue in the face to somebody, and if they don’t see it, they just don’t see it. But once you start seeing it, it has a level of reality exactly the same as the imagery—no more, no less. And basically, that’s what I’m still after today. All my work since then has been an exploration of phenomenal presence.

While my work takes a very different form and may not appear to be in alignment with Irwin’s aesthetic, I resonate deeply with his point of view and the way he languages his art making. His phrase, “phenomenal presence” is one I come back to again and again. (At the bottom of this post is a list of links to earlier Slow Muse posts that focused on Irwin’s writings and point of view.)

The Hirschhorn show is an extraordinary walk through Irwin’s intensely considered journey, one that brings the viewer closer to how he evolved his intention and his gifts. The show is well curated and memorable. It runs through September 5.

More from Cotter’s review:

In 1970 he did something ultra-discreet [at the Museum of Modern Art]: He changed the dimensions of a small gallery by partly lowering the ceiling with a stretch of white scrim. Other, far grander commissions followed over the next 45 years, for site-specific installations in museums, government buildings, airports and parks. When [curator] Ms. Hankins requested a new piece to conclude this show, which will not travel, he returned to the simplicity of the 1970 model. He left the last large gallery in the Hirshhorn’s circling sequence empty but for one element: a floor-to-ceiling white scrim that stretches the length of one wall and gives the illusion of straightening its curve.

The change is both so subtle and so fundamental that it can take even an observant eye time to see it, the way rules can be hard to recognize until long after they’re broken. We accept as a given that art — “great” art — is permanent, precious, the product of personal power, to which Mr. Irwin says: No. He proposes, instead, that art is mutable and conditional. Its materials are ordinary (fabrics, space, light). Its power lies neither in the hand of the maker nor in the eye of the perceiver, but in the meeting, on springy, shifting, flowering ground, between the two.

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My daughter-in-law and granddaughter walking through the scrim room

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Slow Muse and Robert Irwin:

Meaning and Presence

Reporting in on the Other Coast

Road Work

Pacific Standard Time: Light and Space

Willing Magic

Staying Curious

Phenomenal Presence: Robert Irwin

Robert Irwin at the MFA

Robert Irwin: Part 2

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The cosmos suggested in the etchings on an abalone shell

In writing about inspiration and meditation, musician and performer Amanda Palmer described the conundrum posed by those two concepts:

The songwriter in me struggles like mad when meditating. The rules of my conditioned art-mind say that nothing must stand in the way of a developing idea. When inspiration calls, follow. If I should be struggling with anything in my life, it should be taking that impossibly disciplined step from thought to pen to paper, from seed to full song.

I watch this mental boxing match take place with interest. In one corner sits a meditator, who calmly suggests that good ideas will linger if they are worthwhile. And so what if they don’t? The songs are not happening; only sitting is happening. In the other corner paces the crazed composer with the mind specifically cultivated to jump from image to word to melody in an effort to create a work of art that will move her fellow humans.

A perfect song, to me, is a captured moment of inspiration barely touched. When a good idea hits, it’s as if I’ve thrown a set of colored juggling balls in the air and taken a blurred (yet beautiful) photograph. If I develop that photo unaltered, I will have a perfect image. If I am convinced that I can get a better photo (just a little better) by juggling again before it gets dark and the light changes, I’m screwed. This is where sitting and art-making go hand in hand. Spending hour after hour laboring on finding the perfect line or the perfect arrangement of notes is about as productive as wandering the world seeking the perfect tree under which you’ll find enlightenment.

Her image speaks to so many aspects of creativity: the mind engaged versus the mind emptied, how to hold those moments when lightning strikes, how diddling can wear away at what has its own raw power, the illusion that there is a better tree or a better road.

She completes her exploration with this understanding: “Creativity isn’t necessarily an obstacle to meditation but, rather, its fruit…The moment of divine inspiration may strike at any time; the true meditation is to have the power and clarity to decide when, where, how, and even if I want to be struck.”

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Advertisement seen in China last year

A few ideas have been perennially circulating in my thinking lately. One is that consensus reality is overrated. I am increasingly interested in connecting with what might be termed the invisible elements of life.

The other is that the perpetual 24/7 news cycle that permeates our lives is more destructive on our consciousness than we might suppose.

So when my friend Megan Hustad shared a link to this excerpt, by artist Carol Bove, from the book, Akademie X: Lessons in Art + Life, I was heartened to find similar sentiments beautifully expressed.

Carol Bove on art making and the concept of “time and information management:”

I started to adjust my thinking about productivity so that it was no longer valued in and of itself. It strikes me as vulgar always to have to apply a cost/benefit analysis to days lived; it’s like understanding an exchange of gifts only as barter…

And there was more to it than that: I was able to begin the process of withdrawal from my culture’s ideology around the instrumentality of time, i.e. that you can use time. I think the ability to withdraw from consensus reality is one of the most important skills for an artist to learn because it helps her to recognize invisible forces.

Your time is not a separate thing from you; it’s not an instrument. Time is part of what you’re made from. Emerson said, “A man is what he thinks about all day long.” Everything that you do and think about is going to be in your artwork. The computer-science idea “garbage in, garbage out” applies to artists. This is something to consider when you’re choosing your habitual activities.

One question is, how do you create a way of being in the world that allows new things (ideas, information, people, places) into your life without letting everything in? I want to point out that your tolerance for media saturation might be lower than you realize. You need to conduct an open-ended search that doesn’t overwhelm you with information and at the same time doesn’t limit the search in a way that pre-determines your findings. That is a puzzle.

Like “chop wood, carry water,” Bove’s advice is about daily practice and an approach to living. And although this is stated simply, that doesn’t make it easy. Some codes are never completely cracked. We all just start from wherever we are.

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Mark Rylance plays Thomas Cromwell in “Wolf Hall,” brilliantly brought to life in the writing of Hilary Mantel (Photo: PBS)

I’m a passionate fan of Hilary Mantel‘s books, especially Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. In a profile of the author by Larissa Macfarquhar that appeared in the New Yorker in 2012, Mantel’s way of working rings familiar:

Difficult as it is for her to be loose, it is even more difficult for her to be lazy; but that, too, is something she has had to learn to become, because the best ideas come to her when her mind is idle…

Some days, she acts busy to convince herself, even though it is the days when she makes not a single mark on the paper which yield weeks and weeks of work. It is very hard to cede control. “I don’t think one ever quite learns to trust the process,” she says. “I feel, What if I wake up tomorrow and I can’t do it anymore? I know I’ll always be able to write, in the sense of having a robust style that’s sufficient to the occasion, and I know that books can be got onto the page by craft, but the thing that makes a phrase that fizzes on the paper—you always fear that may not be there any longer, because, after all, you did nothing to deserve it. You did nothing to contrive it. It’s just there. You don’t understand it, it’s out of your control, and it could desert you.”

Mantel cuts to the core fear of the process-driven creative life:

You did nothing to deserve it.
You did nothing to contrive it.
It’s just there.
You don’t understand it, it’s out of your control, and it could desert you.

Trusting the process—and the mind set it requires—is a longstanding theme for me, as it is for many artists. How refreshing to encounter a similar point of view from Mantel, someone so masterfully linear in her ability to blend historical accuracy with storytelling brilliance.

The “pocketed” fear she has encountered is often subtle and transparent, but it can inflict, influence, derail, detract. A few phrases have steadied me over the years:

Stay in a state of wonder.
Sit quietly and listen.
Disengage from the concepts of success and failure.
Surrender control.
Love uncertainty and the unknown.
It’s about the work, not about you.

And posted here earlier but always worth a reread, this list was found in the papers of Richard Diebenkorn after his death in 1993. (Spelling and capitalization are left untouched.)

Notes to myself on beginning a painting

1. attempt what is not certain. Certainty may or may not come later. It may then be a valuable delusion.
2. The pretty, initial position which falls short of completeness is not to be valued — except as a stimulus for further moves.
3. Do search. But in order to find other than what is searched for.
4. Use and respond to the initial fresh qualities but consider them absolutely expendable.
5. Dont “discover” a subject — of any kind.
6. Somehow don’t be bored — but if you must, use it in action. Use its destructive potential.
6. Mistakes can’t be erased but they move you from your present position.
7. Keep thinking about Polyanna.
8. Tolerate chaos.
9. Be careful only in a perverse way.

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Making Space

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Early morning light, South Boston

The ease of viewing contemporary work today is staggering. The steady flow of images on Facebook, Instagram and online art sites brings thousands of images from all over the globe into easy view every day. When I first started as an artist, new work came to me through two or three art publications, gallery visits or the occasional invitation to a friend’s studio. This change in exposure is exponential.

In all this art viewing, some work speaks to me and some does not. Often however I see new work that I admire, and at times my admiration can spill over into the personal, taking the form of comparing or self questioning: How does my work stack up? Is this better at doing what I am trying to do than my own?

For years I have been advocating the importance for an artist to possess a strong sense of self direction and clarity. It now seems that being connected to one’s essence is more important than ever. It is in that effort that I preserve my studio space as a barrage-free safe zone. Of course new ideas and approaches are constantly being explored, but bringing them into the process of my work is a delicate, alchemical thing. I have learned from experience that it must be done with care.

I thought about that as I read a short piece by Sarah Manguso, Green-Eyed Verbs, which recently appeared in the New York Times. (Her book, Ongoingness, knocked me out when I read it last year, written about here.). Her topic is the envy that writers (and by association, other creatives) harbor towards the work of others. As she did in Ongoingness, Manguso fearlessly turns us over for a ventral examination of those darker underbelly issues of life. In her hands that exposure isn’t harsh, hurtful or demeaning. It is more like a good scrub, a much needed grooming of that hidden side of us.

In her article she talks cuts through the admiration and envy to what really matters:

I can tell that I’m making the wrong type of effort when I start to lament my work isn’t turning out the way I’d wanted it to. This feeling depends on admitting to myself that I had an idea of how it should turn out, and that some part of me is trying to reverse-engineer the piece I admire. Some vocations demand this exact strategy: Builders, surgeons and chefs must do this. Writers, though, must not. Writers must labor from a vague feeling, usually some large, old emotion, and in so laboring, come to understand the qualities of that feeling, and the source of it, and the reason they still feel it. That effort is practiced in a place typically insulated from even the idea of publication, and it depends upon a combination of exerting and relaxing one’s will over the writing.

The purpose of being a serious writer is not to express oneself, and it is not to make something beautiful, though one might do those things anyway. Those things are beside the point. The purpose of being a serious writer is to keep people from despair. If you keep that in mind always, the wish to make something beautiful or smart looks slight and vain in comparison. If people read your work and, as a result, choose life, then you are doing your job.

It’s a simple test, and it brings me back around to my own grounded place.

Surrounded as we are by great works—languaged, visual, aural, all of it—we do need a tool or aid that can help us hold the balance between admiration of others and devotion to our own work. “The way to honor great work is to love it, then turn away from it as you write,” Manguso advises. “No imitation, no pastiche.”

She goes on:

All writers will envy other writers, other writing. No one who reads is immune. To write despite it I must implicate myself, to confess to myself, silently or on the page, that I am envious. The result of this admission is humility. And a humble person, faced with the superior product of another, does not try to match it or best it out of spite. A humble person, and only a humble person, is capable of praise, of allowing space in the world for the great work of others, and of working alongside it, trying to match it as an act of honor.

“Allowing space in the world for the great work of others, and of working alongside it, trying to match it as an act of honor.” A beautiful description of humility.

And humility is, as my regular readers know, a favorite theme. A search on that term produced a list of nearly 20 previously written posts. So here’s one more.

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Emily Nelligan (Photo: Alexandre Gallery)

Being a “retinalist”—one who has given the eye primary sovereignty—I live knowing that at any time or any place, something I see can airlift me instantly into some new unexplored territory.

An occasion for airlifting happened last weekend. Emily Nelligan‘s work was hanging on the wall right as you walked into the You Can’t Get There From Here: The 2015 Portland Museum of Art Biennial. I would not have expected a grouping of small (7 x 10″) charcoal drawings to have been the source of a powerful (and welcomed) disorientation. But it was.

Nelligan, 91, spent most of her summers on Great Cranberry Island in Maine with her husband, illustrator Marvin Bileck. She has said that she finds it hard to draw anywhere else, and most of her work over the last 50 years has centered on that evocative, foggy landscape.

The need for color disappears in Nelligan’s works. Originally drawn to charcoal and writing paper because they were less expensive than paints and canvas, Nelligan soon found herself at home with this simple medium. Using only charcoal, erasers, cotton swabs and her fingers, her drawings capture a quality about that coastline that I recognize. While her work comes directly from her encounter with the landscape of Great Cranberry Island, these drawings fall somewhere between representation and abstraction. They are full of evocation, depth, mystery, silence.

From an article about her work in the Free Press (Maine) from 2013:

While there are no direct precedents for Nelligan’s work, she speaks to traditions rising out of late 19th-century tonalism—Whistler’s gentle admonition that paint “…should be like breath on a pane of glass”—as well as the organic abstraction found in early 20th-century American modernism. For instance, Alfred Stieglitz’s photographs of clouds, the “Equivalence” series, or Arthur Dove’s glowing orbs in indeterminate space. Nearly dumbstruck, as have been other notable critics in front of Nelligan’s drawings, Maureen Mullarkey can only invoke liturgical metaphor: “If the ancient canonical hours could be observed by images instead of prayers, here they are.” Some drawings convey the impenetrable darkness of dense fog enveloping the island at night. In others, there is a quality of moisture-laden light, of breaking dawns and distant clearing. Littoral immanence. And we cannot help but wonder if the drawings in this exhibition, mostly created after the death in 2005 of her husband of nearly 50 years, aren’t in some measure prayers and homage to their long life together.

That Nelligan-induced altered state spilled over afterwards when I visited with two Portland-based artist friends, Munira Naqui and Rachael Eastman. Both are, like Nelligan, masters of dark effulgence. The emergent is present in their work as it is in Nelligan’s, and experiencing that on a daily basis is a reminder of why I am both an artist and a collector.

eastman2
“Moonwave 1”, Rachael Eastman, ink on paper, 2 x 2″

MuniraSilence
“Silence”, Munira Naqui, encaustic on wood, 12 x 16″

More about each:

Emily Nelligan
Rachael Eastman
Munira Naqui

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