Art Making

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Jake Berthot in 1995. Photo: John Berthot

I know several people who knew Jake Berthot personally. I was not so lucky. But a fan of his work I have been for a long time, and I was deeply saddened to read of his death on December 30. He was 75.

Over the years, reading or listening to an interview with Berthot invariably resonates with me. (Several are available online.) He has often spoken about his journey as an artist with a sincerity and candidness that is becoming increasingly rare. In the class of successful and admired artists, there are few who can steer clear of pandering, posing or playing to the art buying crowd.

It is that honesty that allows him to share his vulnerability which is, in my experience, at the very core of art making I care about most. He has been willing to acknowledge that private part of an artist’s life, the one that is happening constantly during the thousands and thousands of hours spent alone in a studio. Berthot always felt like my kinsman, and by describing his own struggles he was able to put a name on my own. He made me feel less alone, less solitary.

And his paintings. They are so thoughtful and yet not cerebral. Berthot blends intelligent painting and powerful feeling. Standing in front of one of his works I am invariably struck by the herculean intention to bring something deeply authentic into form. Like his hero Paul Cezanne, Berthot is incapable of being vapid or flip. He traveled by foot, simply and steadily. It was always about the work, about gaining access—which sometimes required him to claw his way—into the next valence, to move even closer to the essence of that mysterious and compelling process.

Many obituaries and articles about Berthot’s life and work have appeared over the last few weeks. One of my favorites is by Carl Belz, a tribute that appeared on Left Bank Art Blog. I hope this is just the harbinger of more to come about Berthot and his work.

From interviews and articles, here are a few of my favorite Berthotisms, ones chosen because of the commonality I share with his way of working and seeing the world. If you have a few others that speak to you, I hope you will share them too.

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I can’t do anything but paint. That’s a blessing and a curse, but this is all I can do.

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The paintings I’m doing now, I don’t have any idea about whether they’re good, or bad, or what they are. In many ways that’s a really good place to be. These are the hardest paintings I’ve ever done, and the ones I am least sure about. [He said this in 2012!]

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People want art to come to them and it never will. You have to want to go to art.

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Once you get it together you have a choice: you can work within your established parameters and make the paintings that people come to expect you to make, or you can follow the investigation you’re involved in and go where that investigation takes you.

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As a painter you can decide whether you’re going to have a system or a method. Artists like Chuck Close and oy Lichtenstein had a system—they know how to start it and what the end painting will look like.

What I prefer is more like Cezanne. He had a clear method of working but that method was not a closure, but an opening.

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I work from a place of intuited, felt geometry.

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A young painter has to make a connection; the connection that most make is to recent history—as an embrace, rejection, or reaction—then they start to work. One day, after painting for a number of years, this painter walks into his studio and discovers that he is involved with his own history. At that point, the connection he makes with the world changes. Up to that point, he’s trying to connect to the world; after it, the world either connects with him or rejects him, and there is very little he can do about that.

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I reached another point where the idea was closing in on itself, there was too much idea; the paintings started to feel too literal, too much like a figure in space. I wanted something more organic, more felt.

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Second Verse, for instance, was done with a kind of rage; there’s a certain amount of terror in it. That’s when I felt the painting started to dictate what it wanted to be, when the painting became the boss and I became more like a servant to it instead of the other way around.

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I’ve always wanted something given, something to observe, something I could watch and build on without having to find it—kind of like someone who paints a still life or a figure, but I was never satisfied painting subjects like that. I also wanted a form that would be known; if I say square, you know what a square is, and if I say oval, you know what an oval is—I felt I could build on that, make the painting something you experience rather than just see.

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I don’t feel very talented. I feel that I have to work really hard for what I get.

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If you have source, and you believe in that source, then the form will come.

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As Milton Resnick used to say, you have to become the servant to the painting. When you start you are the boss. At that point it is like a thought process, not about feeling. But at a certain point the painting takes over. There is no real “rationale” for what you do, you just have to do it.

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“Room” by Jake Berthot at the Museum of Modern Art’s “Against the Grain: Contemporary Art from the Edward R. Broida Collection” in 2006. Photo: Keith Bedford for The New York Times

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Engraving depicting Margaret Lucas Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, circa 1650. Photograph: Kean Collection/Getty Images. Margaret Cavendish (1623-1673) was an English aristocrat, poet, essayist, playwright and scientist. At a time when most women writers were publishing anonymously, Cavendish published under her own name. She wrote about gender, power, manners, scientific method, and philosophy. Her book, “The Blazing World,” is an utopian romance and one of the earliest examples of science fiction.

It’s a topic that has been discussed endlessly: The historical absence of women artists (as well as writers, musicians, philosophers and playwrights). In 1971 Linda Nochlin published her seminal essay, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” The conversation continues.

Siri Hustvedt‘s recent novel, The Blazing World, steps into that space with a fresh take on a theme that just doesn’t go away, and should not. The novel tells the story of Harriet Burden, an embittered middle-aged female artist whose experience of being dismissed and unseen becomes so unbearable that she stages three exhibits where she does the work and a man takes the credit.

Burden has the financial resources and art world connections to pull off a ruse of this scope since her recently deceased husband was a wealthy gallerist and collector. While Burden’s plan is to expose the hypocrisy and bias of the art world—Hustvedt has some exceptionally bitter passages to describe the banality of evil in that world that will make anyone familiar with that demi-monde smile in recognition—her plan backfires badly (as such schemes are inclined to do.)

The novel is constructed as a postmortem scholarly artefact consisting of various texts including Burden’s diaries, critical assessments of her work, interviews with friends and eyewitnesses. Assembled several years after Burden’s death, her work is finally being seen and applauded by the very world that dismissed her during her life. What emerges in the course of the novel is the portrait of a brilliant and creative powerhouse whose career and reputation were thwarted by the art world’s sexism and prejudices.

From Fernanda Eberstadt‘s review in the New York Times:

Whereas the homely, middle-aged Harriet had been dropped by galleries because her work was deemed “high-flown, sentimental and embarrassing,” not to mention painfully earnest, no sooner is her art signed by a 24-year-old “hunk” than it wins sold-out solo shows and critical raves. More damning still, even once Burden is outed as the true author, reviewers and gallery owners refuse to admit they’ve been had. As one journalist puts it, “A 50-ish woman who’s been hanging around the art world all her life can’t really be called a prodigy, can she?” Like so many inconvenient women before her, Burden is labeled a hysterical fantasist…

Despite her XXL personality and her formidable intellect, Burden, like many of the heroines in Hustvedt’s fiction, has spent her life fighting to win the approval of cool, remote men, subordinating her own ambitions to play perfect daughter, “wife and helpmeet.” Burden’s “burden,” we come to realize, is not simply that she is a woman but that she has chosen to marry a rich, much older art dealer. It’s no surprise if the artists she entertains in a Park Avenue apartment boasting a Paul Klee are more interested in whether her husband is going to buy their work than in asking after hers. Only when her husband, the aptly named Felix Lord, dies and the 60-something Burden has fled the “incestuous, moneyed, whirring globule composed of persons who buy and sell aesthetic objets” in Manhattan in favor of a grittier life in Brooklyn’s Red Hook does she feel emboldened to restart her own career, this time under assorted male personas.

Harriet Burden has her self destructive tendencies, so this is not a simple case of discrimination. Too tall and physically imposing, she does not possess the marketable physical presence and image that gallerists are looking to promote. She is also too smart for most of them, a quality that goes down differently from a woman than it does from a man. In Hustvedt’s hands, Burden’s brilliance is a way to play out many of the intellectual themes that Hustvedt touches on in her other books—the philosophical writings of Edmund Husserl, perception science, psychoanalysis, gender studies, the work of Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne (whose work is referenced in the book’s title.) Hustvedt’s writings tend to include a heady component, which I find enriching.

Hustvedt’s descriptions of Burden’s work and process are highly conceptual. She does not have an ear (or eye?) for the aesthetic concerns that most artists struggle through. As as result, that one aspect of the book feels slightly flat and vaguely inauthentic. But Hustvedt speaks masterfully to the peculiarities of the art world and its point of view. Here are a few passages that were particularly salient.

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From Burden’s diary:

I suspected that if I had come in another package my work might have been embraced or, at least, approached with greater seriousness. I didn’t believe that there had been a plot against me. Much of prejudice is unconscious. What appears on the surface is an unidentified aversion, which is then justified in some rational way. Perhaps being ignored is worse—that look of boredom in the yes of the other person, that assurance that nothing from me could be of any possible interest.

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From art world denizen Oswald Case:

She quoted Freud, big mistake—the colossal charlatan—and novelists and artist and scientists no one’s ever heard of. She dripped with earnestness. If there’s one thing that doesn’t fly in the art world, it’s an excess of sincerity. They like their geniuses coy, cool, or drunk and fighting in the Cedar Bar, depending on the era.

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From Burden’s daughter, discussing her gallerist father:

In order to sell art, you had to “create desire,” and “desire,” he said, “cannot be satisfied because then it’s no longer desire.” The thing that is truly wanted must always be missing. “Art dealers have to be magicians of hunger.”

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From Burden’s childhood friend, psychiatrist Rachel Briefman:

Without the aura of greatness, without the imprimatur of high culture, hipness, or celebrity, what remained? What was taste? Had there ever been a work of art that wasn’t laden with the expectations and prejudices of the viewer or reader or listener, however learned and refined?

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From Burden’s lover, Bruno Keinfeld:

After a while, the injustice of it all, the sick, sad misery of being ignored, cracked her heart in two and demented her with anger. I wanted her to fight on, but she decided to walk through the back door and send someone else around the front.

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From Rachel Breifman:

How do preposterous, even impossible ideas take hold of whole populations? The art world was Harry’s laboratory—her microcosm of human interaction—in which buzz and rumor literally alter the appearances of paintings and sculptures. But no one can prove that one work of art is truly superior to another or that the art market runs mostly on such blinkered notions. As Harry pointed out to me repeatedly, there is not even agreement on a definition of art.

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From Burden’s diary, on the 17th century intellectual (and of course misunderstood) Margaret Cavendish:

How to live? A life in the world or a world in the head? To be seen and recognized outside, or to hide and think inside? Actor or hermit? Which is it? She wanted both—to be inside and outside, to ponder and to leap.

That last question is one that every person as well as every artist must ask. This book is an extraordinary exploration into the complexities of that choice.

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Looking closely at a recent painting

Robert Hass begins his extraordinary collection, What Light Can Do: Essays on Art, Imagination, and the Natural World, talking about the photography of Ansel Adams and Robert Adams:

What the two artists have in common, besides a name, is a certain technical authority. The source of that authority is mysterious to me. But it is that thing in their images that, when you look at them, compels you to keep looking. I think it’s something to do with the formal imagination. I don’t know whether photographers find it in the world, or when they look through the viewfinder, or when they work in the darkroom, but the effect is a calling together of all the elements of an image so that the photograph feels like it is both prior to the act of seeing and the act of seeing. Attention, Simone Weil said, is prayer, and form in art is the way attention comes to life.

There is so much in this paragraph I find compelling. What actually is the “formal imagination”? And what is that distinction between what happens prior to seeing and the very act itself? Every maker, writer, artist straddles the essential tension of attention and how it comes through us, but it is difficult to describe.

That issue of attention correlates with a passage from Philippa Perry‘s book, How To Stay Sane:

Be careful which stories you expose yourself to…The meanings you find, and the stories you hear, will have an impact on how optimistic you are: it’s how we evolved…If you do not know how to draw positive meaning from what happens in life, the neural pathways you need to appreciate good news will never fire up. … The trouble is, if we do not have a mind that is used to hearing good news, we do not have the neural pathways to process such news.

After reading that quote, a friend added this insight from the Persian poet حافظ Hafiz: “What we speak (or listen to or believe without questioning) becomes the house we live in.”

The “house we live in” is a perpetual construction site. Our thoughts, attention and actions constellate a space that is our artistic/emotional/spiritual/ consciousness habitation. While Hafiz is being metaphorical, the power of the form around the form—the self inside its house—has been particularly visceral for me as we live through the chaos of renovating the back rooms of our IRL home.

Through it all, what matters is how to bring something substantial into existence. I am reminded of literary critic Christopher Ricks‘s litmus test for how to recognize value in art: “That which continues to repay attention.”


Simone Weil


Eva Hesse

The writer Simone Weil died in 1943 at the age of 34. In spite of her short life, her legacy is a rich one, spanning a variety of métiers including philosophy, Christianity, theology, social justice, mysticism. And even though her life’s work was from her point of view of a god-centered believer, the atheist icon Albert Camus described her as “the only great spirit of our times.”

Another young German woman, the artist Eva Hesse, also died at the age of 34. Like Weil, her short life had more than its fair share of difficulty and suffering. Also similar is the world’s steadily increasing interest in her body of work. With only a ten year career, Hesse was influential in the move from Minimalism to Postminimalism. Writing about a recent retrospective of her work, art historian Arthur Danto addressed “the discolorations, the slackness in the membrane-like latex, the palpable aging of the material…Yet, somehow the work does not feel tragic. Instead it is full of life, of eros, even of comedy…Each piece in the show vibrates with originality and mischief.”

I am amazed by the legacy of both of these women even though their work is not similar in nature or outlook. Each achieved extraordinary depth during lives that were improbably and tragically shortened. Spending time with either body of work is a sober reminder that suffering is perennial and life is short. That what you do each day is what matters most.

“It is necessary to have had a revelation of reality through joy in order to find reality through suffering,” Weil wrote.

Christian Wiman, also an admirer of Weil, responded to this statement in his essay Love Bade Me Welcome:

I don’t really think it’s possible for humans to be at the same time conscious and comfortable…I would qualify Weil’s statement somewhat, then, by saying that reality, be it of this world or another, is not something one finds and then retains for good. It must be newly discovered daily, and newly lost.

That last line is a Taoist-like insight: the need, every day, to break ourselves apart and start fresh. That is a concept that speaks to me deeply.

But is it true, as Wiman claims, that it is not possible to be conscious and comfortable? Maybe it is the word comfortable that leaves me looking for some wiggle room. What about being conscious and accepting, in the spirit of Wendell Berry‘s admonishment to “be joyful though we have considered all the facts.” Still finding my way through that one.

Note: This post first appeared on Slow Muse in 2012.

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View of the shoreline of the Great Salt Lake

One of my favorite stories was told by Laurie Anderson about an interview she conducted with John Cage for the Buddhist publication Tricycle many years ago. A great admirer of Cage, Anderson was desperate to ask him the really BIG question: Are things getting worse or are they getting better?

Cage, ever the sage, responded with a gentle assurance. “Of course things are getting better Laurie. It’s just that it is happening so slowly.”

I have thought of that response so many times over the years. There are small patterns and large ones, and our perceptive skills have difficulty with some of the larger arcs. It’s like the difference between weather and climate: We all know about weather, but we struggle to understand and truly perceive the concept of climate.

One friend refers to this as the “watching the tides” syndrome. As each set of waves comes to shore, big ones intermingle with smaller ones. But the larger pattern of the tides is also happening at the same time. That pattern requires patience and a knowledge of what to look for.

Many arcs of change are operating in our lives all the time. Some have patterns that make them difficult to discern until suddenly they seem to appear fully formed. My personal experience with this kind of surprise is what can happen in the studio. Your old reliable processes can hold you in a perceptual stupor until something emerges that shifts everything. Paying attention to what is a familiar way of working and what is in fact emergent is part of the practice.

This kind of vigilance resonated when I read a recent article in the Harvard Business Review called Understanding “New Power”, by Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms. It’s worth the read in its entirety but here is one passage that spoke particularly to me.

A much more interesting and complex transformation is just beginning, one driven by a growing tension between two distinct forces: old power and new power.

Old power works like a currency. It is held by few. Once gained, it is jealously guarded, and the powerful have a substantial store of it to spend. It is closed, inaccessible, and leader-driven. It downloads, and it captures.

New power operates differently, like a current. It is made by many. It is open, participatory, and peer-driven. It uploads, and it distributes. Like water or electricity, it’s most forceful when it surges. The goal with new power is not to hoard it but to channel it.

The old way of working becomes currency by default. All the more reason to lean into what is more a current, like water or electricity. And of course the idea of being a channel is right in line with my way of seeing and making.

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Stillness, wherever: In this instance, the sunset from Carmel Beach, California

Pico Iyer is a very known travel writer and observer of the world. His most recent book, The Art of Stillness, is an invitation to his readers to choose the best destination of all—Nowhere. Going nowhere, says Iyer, “just may be the grand adventure that makes sense of everywhere else.”

This may be surprising travel advice from a man who has indulged his oversized Wanderlust for most of his life. But in this slim book Iyer steps away from his adventurous observations of the outward bound life and turns his gaze on his own interior landscape of being a writer.

Writers…are obliged by our professions to spend much of our time going nowhere. Our creations come not when we’re out in the world, gathering impressions, but when we’re sitting still, turning those impressions into sentences. Our job, you could say, it to turn, through stillness, a life of movement into art. Sitting still is our workplace, sometimes our battlefield.

The battlefield of sitting still is even more complicated by a cultural milieu that increasingly mediates against any stillness in our lives, ever. And yet every maker—writers, visual artists, musicians—knows how essential it is to get there.

Unfortunately, once you do achieve a sitting stillness, that doesn’t mean you’ve arrived.

Nowhere can be scary, even if it’s a destination you’ve chosen: there’s nowhere to hide there…A life of stillness can sometimes lead not to art but to doubt or dereliction; anyone who longs to see the light is signing on for many nights alone in the dark.

One of my running themes on this blog has been the parallels between the creative life and the life of contemplation. Iyer turns to that path for clues as well. He spends time in monasteries and retreats. Drawing from anecdotes of several well known contemplatives such as Leonard Cohen, Annie Dillard, Thomas Merton, Emily Dickinson and Matthieu Ricard, Iyer learns by studying their patterns.

One of the first insights is that things are not as they appear. Iyer quotes Thomas Merton: “One of the strange laws of the contemplative life is that in it you do not sit down and solve problems: you bear with them until they somehow solve themselves.”

Nowhere has its own time zone and climate system, a place where the rules are a bit different. Near the end of the book Iyer shares his own wise advice, words that resonate with my experiences in the studio:

It’s only by taking myself away from clutter and distraction that I can begin to hear something out of earshot and recall that listening is much more invigorating than giving voice to all the thoughts and prejudices that anyway keep me company twenty-four hours a day. And it’s only by going nowhere—by sitting still or letting my mind relax—that I find that the thoughts that come to me unbidden are far fresher and more imaginative than the ones I consciously seek out.

Making space for the unbidden: That’s a worthwhile mantra for what studio time is all about.

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“When Pressure Exceeds Weight VI,” by Richard Tuttle (2012) (Photo: © Richard Tuttle/Universal Limited Art Editions)

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“In Praise of Historical Determinism I, II, III,” by Richard Tuttle (Photo: © Richard Tuttle/Brooke Alexander)

Richard Tuttle: A Print Retrospective at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art is a sophisticated, intelligent, inventive, provocative and exuberant exploration of over 40 years’ worth of printmaking by one of the great living artists of our time. Famously gifted in an ability to see around, under and behind a thing in a way that repeatedly surprises and delights those of us who follow his work closely, Richard Tuttle is the perfect candidate to playfully dismantle the tradition-bound world of printmaking. This show upends the orthodoxy of woodcuts, wood engravings, lithography, intaglio, colographs and monoprints, and the results reveal a great deal about Tuttle’s artistic practice and the way he thinks.

I have been a Tuttle fan most of my art making life. His show at the Whitney Museum in 1975 took place right after I arrived in New York City from California, and it was one of those life changing experiences for me. Controversial and bravely stated, that show cost curator Marcia Tucker her job. But it also gave many of us a paragon for how the visually playful and simple can express an Eastern philosophical sensibility—demonstrated simply by a nailed segment of white twine that took stewardship of an entire wall. Tuttle’s work has spoken to me directly and personally ever since. (A list of previous Slow Muse posts about Tuttle is included below.)

Since that show in 1975 there have been many other exhibits, most recently the massive retrospective mounted by the San Francisco Museum of Art in 2005 (which, in a sweet coming full circle, also made its way to the Whitney.) In many ways however this show at Bowdoin offers even more transparency into Tuttle’s work than the others. With over 100 pieces on display, you are able to track his tireless eye and perpetually investigative mind at work.

This exhibit exposes in meticulous detail how Tuttle breaks things down, the way he pulls something wide open and then allows another something quite exquisite to emerge from the most unexpected shards of that dismantling. An early woodcut was created using magic markers. A series of intaglio prints incorporates the ubiquitous tarlatan (the special cloth traditionally used to carefully wipe ink from a plate) as a tiny grid matrix that is brought into the composition as an unexpected flourish. Plates are cut into shapes and the edges become lines in the composition. Paper pulp and other elements go into the press along with the plate, sometimes squeezing out the sides and extending the shape outside the familiar rectilinear form. This isn’t a slackerish disregard for technique but an exuberant celebration of pressing and pressure, another way to extend the dimensions and capabilities of the printing press itself.

The curatorial text is very well done. Unlike the common proclivity to “explain” the art and to dumb things down to the lowest common demoninator, the wall words in this exhibit are respectful, informed and enhancing. Thank you for that curators Christina von Rotenhan and Joachim Homann.

Does a trip to Maine need additional incentives? I think not!

The show, at Bowdoin College in Brunswick Maine (about a 2.5 hour drive from Boston), is on view through October 19, 2014.

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More about Richard Tuttle on Slow Muse:

The Tuttle Bump

Martian Muse and Richard Tuttle

Vogel 50 x 50

Scale it Up, Scale it Down

Tuttle Therapy

Textilia

Go Broad, or Go Deep

Richard Tuttle at Sperone Westwater

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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

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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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