Wisdom

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abaloneshell
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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Times of Too Much

desert
Sometimes just the idea of empty is deeply soothing. (Mojave Desert)

Helpful thoughts when you’ve tipped into overload:

Now, everything gets dropped into our laps, and there are really only two responses…culling and surrender.

Culling is the choosing you do for yourself. It’s the sorting of what’s worth your time and what’s not worth your time…Surrender, on the other hand, is the realization that you do not have time for everything that would be worth the time you invested in it if you had the time, and that this fact doesn’t have to threaten your sense that you are well-read. Surrender is the moment when you say, “I bet every single one of those 1,000 books I’m supposed to read before I die is very, very good, but I cannot read them all, and they will have to go on the list of things I didn’t get to.”

It is the recognition that well-read is not a destination; there is nowhere to get to…If “well-read” means “not missing anything,” then nobody has a chance. If “well-read” means “making a genuine effort to explore thoughtfully,” then yes, we can all be well-read. But what we’ve seen is always going to be a very small cup dipped out of a very big ocean, and turning your back on the ocean to stare into the cup can’t change that.

From a previous post featuring Linda Holmes’s piece, The Sad, Beautiful Fact the We’re all Going to Miss Almost Everything.

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Sleep On It


Installation by Jan Baker, RISD

Kyna Leski is a teacher, architect and artist. Her book, The Storm of Creativity, is a thoughtful journey through the process of bringing something into form that does not yet exist.

Leski does not take an authoritative approach, gratefully, and she leaves lots of room for her “map” to speak to the highly personal nature of creativity. But her categories—which are each a chapter—make for a good list of guide posts:

Creativity as Storm
Unlearning
Problem Making
Gathering and Tracking
Propelling
Perceiving and Conceiving
Seeing Ahead
Connecting
Pausing
Continuing

Here is a sampling from Leski on the subject of pausing:

You can treat your pause as the opposite of other stages of the creative process…Instead of connecting, take a break. Not tracking, but being tracked by the exact idea, answer, insight that you were seeking and tracking. Rather than gathering, let go. Instead of paying attention, be distracted. No propelling, but stopping the current motion of the process. “Sleep on it.”

I see pausing as an opportunity to see external to the frame you have already established, to allow new stimuli to enter the creative process, to prompt another idea. It is a chance to step off the reiterative track of logical decisions. It frees you from the concrete and reintroduces abstraction. It can be the chance to transform what you are working on through connections not previously made. By stopping, for whatever length of time, you weaken your willful grip, and can become more open and more open minded.

That’s good material for my week away from the studio.

Thank you to my friend Jan Baker for sending me this book.

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Pergcolumns
Remains of the Traianeum (Temple of Trajan) on the Acropolis of Pergamon in Turkey.

This most recent trip to India, South Africa and Turkey brought me into even closer proximity to some of the most persistent, larger-than-life issues like belonging, tribalism, identity, belief. In looking at those enormous ideas more closely, it is impossible to not see just how fragile—and unavoidably subjective—our methods for assembling a sense-making narrative actually are. In addition to the horizontal axis of present day travel that makes moving from a predominantly Hindu culture to a predominantly Muslim one—as well as the doggedly bifurcated post-apartheid world of South Africa—so easy, I was also influenced on this trip by the additional vertical dimension of the past. Digging down into the history of ancient cities that once flourished along the Aegean coastline—Pergamon, Ephesus, Didyma, Miletus, Priene, Magnesia— those same questions take on another set of meanings.

My reading on this trip was also part of that questioning. The historical account of World War I, Lawrence in Arabia, written by Scott Anderson, is a compelling explanation for the complexity that is still being sorted through in the Middle East. Quite different in intention but thematically linked in an unexpected way is an exquisite novel by Lily King, Euphoria.

King’s book is a historical novel based in New Guinea in the early 1930s involving anthropologists Margaret Mead, her husband Reo Fortune and her future partner Gregory Bateson. As pioneering anthropologists they are eager to crack the code of how human society and culture are mapped. They felt they might “rip the stars from the sky and write the world anew.” The character Nell (based on Mead) craves that rare moment of euphoria when she first feels she truly understands a place. “We’re always, in everything we do in this world, limited by subjectivity,” she says. “But our perspective can have an enormous wingspan, if we give it the freedom to unfurl…The key is to disengage yourself from all your ideas about what is ‘natural.’ ” She observes that at about two months into a new environment, the culture begins to make sense. “It’s a delusion—you’ve only been there eight weeks—and it’s followed by the complete despair of ever understanding anything. But at that moment the place feels entirely yours. It’s the briefest, purest euphoria.”

This runs alongside a thoughtful passage from the writer George Saunders in his conversation with Jennifer Egan in the New York Times:

We are coming to believe that our minds are entirely sufficient to understand the universe in its entirety. This means a shrinking respect for mystery—religion vanishing as a meaningful part of our lives (or being used, in its fundamentalist forms, to beat back mystery, rather than engage it); an increasing acceptance that if something is ‘effective’ (profitable, stockholder-enhancing), then that answers all questions of its morality. This insistence on the literal and provable and data-based and pragmatic leaves us, I think, only partly human.

To round out this meditation on how hard it is to make sense of our world, present and past, I have just one more excerpt to share. This is from an extraordinary review by Irshad Manji of two books, Islam and the Future of Tolerance, by Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz, and Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence by Jonathan Sacks:

Enter Jonathan Sacks, a former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth. In his sobering yet soul-stirring new book, “Not in God’s Name,” Sacks confronts “politicized religious extremism” and diagnoses that cancer crisply: “The 21st ­century has left us with a maximum of choice and a minimum of meaning. Religion has returned because it is hard to live without meaning.” Given that “no society has survived for long without either a religion or a substitute for religion,” and given that believers are proliferating, Sacks predicts that the next 100 years will be more religious than the last. Bottom line: Any cure for violence in God’s name will have to work with religion as a fact of life.

That is where Sacks’s brilliance as a theologian radiates. He thinks two matters need tackling. There is “identity without universality,” or solidarity only with one’s group. Then there is “universality without identity,” the unbearable lightness of humans in a transactional but not transcendent world. Sacks wants to preserve the joy of participating in something bigger than the self while averting the hostility to strangers that goes with tribal ­membership…Meanwhile, back at liberal democracy’s ranch, we must “insist on the simplest moral principle of all…If you seek respect, you must give respect.” This does not mean always having to agree, but it does mean viewing one another as worthy of candid, constructive engagement.

God bless the don’t know mind. Which for me is code for “Keep talking, I am trying to understand.”

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deyoungkikia
So many points of light. (From a Kiki Smith installation at the DeYoung Museum, San Francisco)

Some people are more certain of everything than I am of anything.
–Robert Rubin

In the spirit of “everything is autobiographical,” this blog is a map of the ideas that matter most to me. A quick search here for “uncertainty” brought up hundreds of posts. Clearly it is a primal life theme. And that makes sense. My attraction to the Zen concept of the “don’t know mind” is a reaction to growing up in a culture that considers unwavering religious certainty the highest achievement.

From time to time I get too much of the “I’m right and here’s why” folks in my life. The antidote to that particularly toxin is to revisit the evidence that makes certainty absurd. (I have referenced many writers over the years who unmask that folly, but my most recent find is The Righteous Mind, by Jonathan Haidt. Highly recommended.)

Here are a few quotes that keep me sane, both in the studio and in my life.

Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof.
John K. Galbraith

The world is out there, but descriptions of the world are not.
Richard Rorty

The universe rearranges itself to accommodate your picture of reality.
–Anonymous

The quest for certainty blocks the search for meaning. Uncertainty is the very condition to impel man to unfold his powers.
Erich Fromm

The dangerous man is the one who has only one idea, because then he’ll fight and die for it. The way real science goes is that you come up with lots of ideas, and most of them will be wrong.
Francis Crick

Our tendency to narrate our “not knowing” in a way that confuses it with knowing. Our instinct is towards narrative in general.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb

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

I always work out of uncertainty but when a painting’s finished it becomes a fixed idea, apparently a final statement. In time though, uncertainty returns… your thought process goes on.
Georg Baselitz

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

Everyone is totally just winging it, all the time.
Oliver Burkeman

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Indian
In praise of the hand (found on a trip to India several years ago)

Laurie Fendrich (painter/writer partnered with painter/writer Peter Plagens,) has written thoughtfully about the concept of a “mature” or “signature” style. “All serious painters, no matter the quality of their work, inevitably end up with a mature style,” she wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

She continues:

More than one student has asked me why I don’t ever change my painting style—to which I respond, “It’s not so easy.” My artistic habits—the way I put on paint, construct compositions, and come up with colors—are deeply entrenched at this point, and are as big a part of my style as my temperament. To alter them is not impossible, but there’d have to be a reason beyond anything I can imagine.

What does signatory actually mean in an artistic sense? What is the power of the hand, our hand? Willem De Kooning famously suffered from Alzheimers but still produced over 300 paintings during that last period of his life. Those late works are, in spite of his compromised mental capacity, essentially De Kooningian. The way he put on paint, constructed his compositions, came up with colors—all those entrenched proclivities that Fendrich identifies as the fundamentals of a personal style—were operative regardless of his cognitive degeneration.

All painters, no matter their style, start off as whales going through plankton—soaking up as much as they can from their teachers and from the history of art and all the art going on around them, and playing around trying out this or that way of painting a picture. Gradually, however, they evolve into horses with blinders—painters trotting along at a rapid clip, mostly focused on their own art, but occasionally looking to the right or left and seeing something that affects their gait. In their mature years, painters turn pigheaded. It’s the time of their lives when they can’t help themselves from stubbornly pursuing their one painting idea, whatever it is.

I’d rather stay a whale than be a blinkered horse. But is it really a choice? It is a fine line we walk, that is for certain. To find our way between gestures that are elementally ours and embracing the new and foreign; between repeated deep dives into that secret self—a cenote of complexity we continue to plumb for hidden treasure—and those breathtaking opportunities to throw everything overboard and start fresh.

How quickly I find myself right back in the paradox, the territory of the both/and, a place that is multi-dimensional and uncharted. This is navigation without a map (which is code for “I don’t have a clue.”)

But mapless and pathless travel is not without its own rewards. 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…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.

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Multifariousness

image
News this week: Scientists have found the first evidence that briny water may flow on the surface of Mars during the planet’s summer months.
Photograph: Nasa/JPL-Caltech/ University of Arizona/Reuters

Perhaps it would be fair to say that I am on an analog mission. Much like NASA’s efforts of the same name (“conducted on earth, in remote locations that have physical similarities to extreme space environments”), I am always on the look out for similarities to the experiences I have as an artist in other disparate fields of study.

I have struck analogous gold many times.There are the poets who write about creativity, including Jane Hirschfield, William Stafford and W. S. Piero; Transcendentalists, mystics and seekers of spiritual wisdom including Zen Buddhists, Richard Rohr, Thomas Merton and Pema Chodron; and most recently, a rich vein was found in an unexpectedly lyrical book about wine by Terry Theise, Reading Between the Wines.

And now, evidence of water on Mars. That’s yet another turn on the concept of the analog mission—finding examples in space of our own planetary reality.

Here’s another analog mission deep dive, this one into the heart of philosophy. Simon Critchley teaches philosophy at The New School for Social Research and wrote a heartwarming piece in the New York Times about one of his teachers, Frank Cioffi (1928-2012). In addressing the lack of progress in philosophy, Critchley offers an explanation that closely mirrors a similar situation in the arts: In spite of the cult of the new and the “been there, done that” issue of repeatability, visual expression just keeps flowing out of us. There are more artists, more painters, more visual thinkers now on the planet than ever before.

People often wonder why there appears to be no progress in philosophy, unlike in natural science, and why it is that after some three millenniums of philosophical activity no dramatic changes seem to have been made to the questions philosophers ask. The reason is because people keep asking the same questions and perplexed by the same difficulties. Wittgenstein puts the point rather directly: “Philosophy hasn’t made any progress? If somebody scratches the spot where he has an itch, do we have to see some progress?” Philosophy scratches at the various itches we have, not in order that we might find some cure for what ails us, but in order to scratch in the right place and begin to understand why we engage in such apparently irritating activity. Philosophy is not Neosporin. It is not some healing balm. It is an irritant, which is why Socrates described himself as a gadfly.

This is one way of approaching the question of life’s meaning. Human beings have been asking the same kinds of questions for millenniums and this is not an error. It testifies to the fact that human being are rightly perplexed by their lives. The mistake is to believe that there is an answer to the question of life’s meaning…

The point, then, is not to seek an answer to the meaning of life, but to continue to ask the question. This is what Frank did in his life and teaching. David Ellis tells a story of when Frank was in hospital, and a friend came to visit him. When the friend could not find Frank’s room, he asked a nurse where he might find Professor Cioffi. “Oh,” the nurse replied, “you mean the patient that knows all the answers.” At which point, a voice was heard from under some nearby bedclothes, “No, I know all the questions.”

We don’t need an answer to the question of life’s meaning, just as we don’t need a theory of everything. What we need are multifarious descriptions of many things, further descriptions of phenomena that change the aspect under which they are seen, that light them up and let us see them anew…We might feel refreshed and illuminated, even slightly transformed, but it doesn’t mean we are going to stop scratching that itch. In 1948, Wittgenstein wrote, “When you are philosophizing you have to descend into primeval chaos and feel at home there.”

What we need are multifarious descriptions of many things, further descriptions of phenomena that change the aspect under which they are seen, that light them up and let us see them anew. That line captures how it is that I can spend hours and hours looking at art, both new and old, and never feel satiated. How I can spend a lifetime in the studio, making.

And with due respect to Wittgenstein, I will offer this variation on his statement:

“When you are making art you have to descend into primeval chaos and feel at home there.”

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LE10021F

LE10157F
Lori Ellison: Untitled, ink on paper, 8.5 x 11″, 2006 (Photo: McKenzie Fine Art)
Lori Ellison: Untitled, ink on paper, 8.5 x 11″, 2012 (Photo: McKenzie Fine Art)

Over the nine years of writing this blog, I have returned frequently to the theme of staying open, vulnerable and accessible in the art making process. The Zen tradition has an apt phrase, the “don’t-know mind.” There is also a quiet word for this particular kind of receptivity: modesty.

Artists and modesty, in the same sentence? Some would say that isn’t a likely pairing. And some would say it isn’t a desirable quality for an artist anyway.

But it is for me. And that is in spite of a long history of artists perceived as anything but modest. From an essay by Eric Gibson, Can Artists Ever Truly Be Modest? on In Character: A Journal of Everyday Virtues:

Among the virtues commonly attributed to artists, modesty, it can confidently be said, is not to be found. In their professional capacity, painters and sculptors may be described as “visionary,” “innovative,” and the like. As human beings, however, they are almost always spoken of in pejorative terms. As Rudolf and Margot Wittkower observe in their 1963 book, Born Under Saturn: The Character and Conduct of Artists, “There is an almost unanimous belief among [laymen] that artists are, and always have been, egocentric, temperamental, neurotic, rebellious, unreliable, licentious, extravagant, obsessed by their work, and altogether difficult to live with”…

A robust ego is necessary to a successful artist.

Gibson goes deeper into these stereotypical perceptions, and he gets to the heart of a dichotomy: “Artists lead two lives, one outside the studio, and one in it. And it is in the life within what one writer describes as ‘imagination’s chamber’—with the blank canvas, the bucket of cold clay, or the virgin block of stone—that ego falls away.”

That is an essential tension that most artists confront: Receptivity and vulnerability are needed in the studio. But outside that space, confidence and clarity are essential for navigating in the external world.

It is easy to spot those artists who are very good at one end of the spectrum but fall short at the other. We’ve all known “atelier” artists—the ones who only want to make their art and leave all the external demands to someone else. Then of course there are those high visibility strutters, the ones who are gifted at self promotion and treat art making as secondary (or as is often the case now, turn it over to others to do.)

Like most artists, I would like to be good at the making and the merchandising. It is a balancing act, and there are seasons when I have to focus on one at the expense of the other. Meanwhile modesty isn’t a quality that gets advocated all that much. It is often equated with size, as in small.

Mira Schor breaks that open with an essay she wrote 15 years ago, Modest Painting:

Enormous size certainly intends to call attention to itself, but modest paintings are not necessarily small, and small paintings are not necessarily modest…modesty is not synonymous with a lack of rigor or ambition for painting. In fact, modesty may emerge from an artist’s emphasis on rigor or ambition for painting itself rather than for his or her career.

Schor’s words bring to mind several artists I admire. One is Lori Ellison. A painter as well as a poet, Lori was well known for both her exceptionally compelling work as well as her consistent and thoughtful advocacy for the importance of staying humble. After her untimely death in September, I have been going back to reread her words.

She shares her wisdom in an interview with Ashley Garrett from 2014 on Figure/Ground: An open-source, para-academic, inter-disciplinary collaboration:

[Ashley Garrett:] A lot has been said by you and others about the concept of scale and the effect it has on the making of your work. Can you talk a little bit more about your attraction to what you’ve called the humble scale and how you discovered that a smaller intimate scale is right for your work?

[Lori Ellison:] To best answer this, I will share an essay I wrote on humility and making small work:

In Richmond, Virginia there once was a gallery named RAW for Richmond Artists Workshop that had an exhibition of many works entitled “Small Art Goes directly to the Brain.”

If one is lucky, Small Art goes directly to the heart. For this it must be humble and on a suitably modest scale – in this way some work can be crowned Great. (Golda Meir once said “don’t be humble, you aren’t that great.”) To work with humility, one must acquire some of the practical virtues artists need: diligence, temperance, modesty, bravery, ardor, devotion and economy.

To work with humility it is better to strive for the communal if not the downright tribal; for wisdom in choices rather than cleverness; good humor in practice; and practice as daily habit. Phillip Guston famously said he went to work in his studio every single day because what if he didn’t and “that day the angel came”? Henry James once said, “We work in the dark, we give what we have, our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task.” Doubt is humility after a long, long apprenticeship.

Small works dance a clumsy tango with one’s shadow. Huge works can ice skate over one’s nerves, file under fingernails on a chalkboard—I can just hear the screeching.

If our work is so small and reticent that one doesn’t enter the space of the painting, no mind—we just might be making work that enters straight into the viewer’s ribs. I am weary of art that tickles my forehead for an instant and is gone—I am looking for the kind that thrums in my chest and lodges there, in memory, like those souvenir phials of the air of Paris Duchamp proposed.

Proportion based on the lyric, not the epic—that is where the juice lives. Stirred, not shaken. Duchamp once said that art is the electricity that goes between the metal pole of the work of art and the viewer, and I don’t need shock treatment. Art that is the size and resonance of a haiku, quiet and solid as the ground beneath one’s feet—not art that wears a monocle and boxing gloves in hopes of knocking other art out of the room. A discrete art, valiantly purified of the whole hotchpotch of artist’s tricks and tics.

That, that is what I am looking for.

As am I, Lori. As am I.

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Skeepa
Skeepa, from a new series

The New Yorker‘s Joan Acocella recently reviewed Playing Scared: A History and Memoir of Stage Fright by Sara Solovitch.

Stagefright. Being a visual artist comes with plenty of baggage, but this isn’t one that is on my list of potential afflictions. Meanwhile this is a disabling condition that affects a surprisingly large number of famous performers including Laurence Olivier, Daniel Day-Lewis, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Barbra Streisand and Vladimir Horowitz. Described as “self-poisoning by adrenaline,” a feeling similar to a “snail having its shell ripped off,” stagefright doesn’t happen in my painting studio, working alone, without an audience.

And yet Acocella’s article has resonance for those of us who are not performing artists:

Sometimes, when performers speak of stagefright, one senses that they do not actually wish it gone—that, for them, it is almost a badge of honor, or, at least, proof that they’re serious about their work. As musicians, especially, will tell you, what they are doing up there is not meeting an agreed upon goal but, rather, creating something new. Horowitz insisted that the notes in the score did not tell you what the music was. The music was behind the notes, he said, and the performance was your search for it: “I play, so to speak, from the other side of the score, looking back.”

There’s poetry in Horowitz’s description. It also is reminiscent of a comment made at an exhibition of my paintings in Ireland some years ago by a young student. After spending a long time looking closely at my work, he came over to me and said, “I think I know what your work is about. You are painting the backside of everything.” That line—the back side of everything—has remained one of my favorite descriptors.

Creating something new IS daunting. Seen in that light, a performer struggling with making that happen in real time on a stage does share something with the solitary artist, alone in a studio, working to achieve a similar goal. Sometimes that very effort can result in a disabling self-consciousness, relentless struggle and/or a proclivity to self-sabotage. While those Romantic era notions don’t serve the process all that well (my practical-minded opinion), they are still real feelings and obstacles that need navigating.

Which takes me back to Acocella’s review:

The idea is that the performing artist is a sort of Prometheus: in order to bring us the fire, he has to agree to have his liver eaten. “A divine ailment, a sacred madness”: that’s what Charles Rosen called stagefright. He said that its physical manifestations were the same as those described in medieval medical treatises as the symptoms of the disease of being in love. Many performing artists would be embarrassed to go that far. “People tell you that you have to be nervous to do well,” Emmanuel Ax says. “I don’t believe that.”

I play, so to speak, from the other side of the score, looking back, Horowitz said. As different as painting is from performing a Schubert concerto, I know that feeling that Horowitz describes. Perhaps you too have been in that place where you feel yourself move in and then through a form, a gesture, an intention. And that experience resonates with Horowitz’s image, like looking down or back into what that thing is. I love when those moments happen. It is transcendence, whether in a studio or on a stage.

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1280px-080110_zell_mosel
Mosel, the German valley most associated with Riesling wines (Photo: Friedrich Petersdorff)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that’s just from the preface.

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

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

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

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

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

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