Family diary of Florentine merchant Pepo d’Antonio di Lando degli Albizzi from the 14th century (Photo: The Newberry Library)

Memoirs have been around for a long time, but their occurrence increased significantly around 1990. Interest in that literary category has continued, growing 400 percent between 2004 and 2008 alone, which has led many to call our era the Age of Memoir. As way of explanation for that success, Marion Roach Smith, author of The Memoir Project, said, “It is simply so much easier and so much more acceptable to be one. Then there is the fact that it feels good. Why? That old truth about an examined life. It settles the mind. It makes us sure of things. Nothing quite like it.”

Three of my favorite reads right now are memoirs. Two come from a scientific point of view, written by scientists who approach their research with a personal passion. In reading about their deep connection with their work, I see so many similarities with the way artists connect with their creative explorations and meanderings.

Lab Girl, by Hope Jahren, is utterly engaging. Her invitation steps you in close to life. Her book has changed the way I view trees and the complexity of the ecosystem. The crossovers with art are frequent.

For example, this description of her lab rings familiar:

My lab is a place where my guilt over what I haven’t done is supplanted by all of the things that I am getting done. My uncalled parents, unpaid credit cards, unwashed dished, and unshaved legs pale in comparison to the noble breakthrough under pursuit. My lab is a place where I can be the child that I still am…

My laboratory is like a church because it is where I figure out what I believe…There are rituals that I follow, some I understand and some I don’t….My lab is a refuge and an asylum. It is my retreat from the professional battlefield; it is the place where I coolly examine my wounds and repair my armor. And, just like church, because I grew up in it, it is not something from which I can ever really walk away.

Lab or studio, scientist or artist, Jahren’s description captures how a space can hold what is so essential when the passionate core of a person is being tapped.

That close parallel is also evident in her one line description of science:

Science is an institution so singularly convinced of its own value that it cannot bear to throw anything away.

Janna Levin is the author of the memoir, How the Universe Got Its Spots: Diary of a Finite Time in a Finite Space. The book began with letters Levin wrote to her mother exploring and explaining this primal question at the core of her research: Is the universe infinite or is it just really big? A cosmologist by training, she is a masterful translator of complex, esoteric notions of space and time into comprehensible explanations. Her voice is poetic as well as clarifying:

No infinity has ever been observed in nature. Nor is infinity tolerated in a scientific theory—except we keep assuming the universe itself is infinite…

The fabric of the universe is just a coherent weave from the same threads that make our bodies. How much more absurd it becomes to believe that the universe, space, and time could possibly be infinite when all of us are finite.

The third in this stack is a book many of my artist friends have been raving about since it appeared last year: Hold Still, by Sally Mann. I read the reviews and heard the praises, but I was resistant. I didn’t think a photographer’s memoir sounded all that compelling, and I also wasn’t particularly interested in revisiting the controversy of Mann’s 1990 exhibit that featured images of her naked children. That controversy still dogs her and her work, and I had assumed this would be a rehashing of those issues.

Too many preconceptions and prejudices! What I didn’t know is that Sally Mann is a gifted writer as well as an accomplished photographer. She studied creative writing before she even began taking pictures, and her verbal skills are commanding.

Speaking of memory, for example:

Whatever my memories hadn’t crumbled into dust must surely by now have been altered by the passage of time. I tend to agree with the theory that if you want to keep a memory pristine, you must not call upon it too often, for each time it is revisited, you alter it irrevocably, remembering not the original impression left by experience but the last time you recalled it. With tiny differences creeping in at each cycle, the exercise of our memory does not bring us closer to the past but draws us farther away.

I had learned over time to meekly accept whatever betrayals memory pulled over on me, allowing my mind to polish its own beautiful lie. In distorting the information it’s supposed to be keeping safe, the brain, to its credit, will often bow to some instinctive aesthetic wisdom, imparting to our life’s events a coherence, logic, and symbolic elegance that’s not present or not so obvious in the improbable, disheveled sloppiness of what we’ve actually been through. Elegance and logic aside, though, in researching and writing this book, I knew that a tarted-up form of reminiscence wouldn’t do, no matter how aesthetically adroit or merciful. I needed the truth, or, as a friend once said, “something close to it.” That something would be memory’s truth, which is to scientific, objective truth as a pearl is to a piece of sand. But it was all I had.

What a great passage. And there are so many more.

The epigraph that begins Mann’s book parallels the passage above but it also speaks to the genre as a whole:

The steady eyes of the crow and the camera’s candid eye
See as honestly as they know how, but they lie.

–W. H. Auden

Truth or lies, a memoir done right is irresistible.

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The Starry Plough flag, at the Irish National Museum, Collins Barracks

We are going through a period in our history that feels like a Rubicon crossing. Decisions made now will have ramifications that will be long, deep and unperceived from our current viewing spot. Brexit was one of those ramifying decisions, and the U.S. presidential election is another.

Historians are good at naming those moments where a vortex is encountered, and certainly the Western world went through one following World War I. Having recently been in the Habsburg capital of Vienna, I was reminded of how quickly the topographic distribution of power can shift. How many anticipated how quickly one of Europe’s most powerful dynasties would come to an abrupt end?

(And of course Vienna played a crucial part in the events that led to a second World War. Adolph Hitler, a footloose and forlornly lost 17 year old, came to Vienna and decided he wanted to study at the prestigious Vienna Academy of Fine Arts. He sat for the two day exam and was completely dumbfounded when he was not accepted. He tried once more and was rejected again. How can we not wonder what might have happened had the outcome been different.)

The vortex of change at the end of World War I has a particularly important Irish version as well. This year is the Centenary celebration of the Easter Rising that began in Dublin, a rebellion that eventually led to the Irish Free State declared in 1922. While I was visiting friends in the southwest of Ireland last May, I heard many regional accounts of how the rebellion played out in that remote corner of the Emerald Isle. And as part of this year long commemoration, friend and artist Cormac Boydell created a gorgeous series of ceramic pieces heralding the rich Irish lineage of stories, icons and legends. (For more examples of his work, click here.)

The Abbey Theatre, Ireland’s premiere theater—founded by none other than W. B. Yeats and Lady Gregory in 1904—is currently in Boston to perform one of Ireland’s most seminal plays about the battle for Home Rule, The Plough and the Stars by Sean O’Casey. Named after the Starry Plough constellation that was used on the banner of the Irish Citizen Army, the play was met with controversy when it was first performed in 1926. O’Casey was no apologist for the rebellion, and his overtly political play questions many of the decisions that led to the bloody feud that continued to fester until very recently. But this is an essential narrative to all things Irish, a narrative that is captured so poignantly when visiting Dublin’s Glasnevin Cemetery as well as the National Museum of Ireland at the Collins Barracks.

The Abbey Theatre’s production preserves the historical events of 1916 as seen through the eyes of a group of Dubliners, but the play is staged in a brutally post-industrial, urban wasteland that brings the story into a contemporary context. The fate of these characters is harsh as is the landscape of their lives. O’Casey does not delve into his characters in depth—his approach suggests E. M. Forster‘s description of Charles Dickens‘ characters as “flat but vibrating furiously.” But O’Casey’s play still honors the redemptive qualities of Irish unflappability and indefatigableness. Those qualities, ones that have carried the Irish forward as a nation with a unique proclivity for expressiveness and artful storytelling, are evident even in this tragic account of rebellion and loss.

The Plough and the Stars runs at Am Rep in Cambridge through October 9.

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Sharing a few photos from the opening of the exhibit at Morpeth Contemporary in Hopewell New Jersey. Such a great night and turnout. My thanks to all who were able to stop by. The show is up through October 16.

Deborah Barlow
Ayami Aoyama
Morpeth Contemporary
43 West Broad Street
Hopewell New Jersey
609 333 9393

For more about the exhibit:
Morpeth Contemporary














Thanks to David Wilcox for photos of the opening.

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“Circasan 2″, 24 x 24” on wood panel

If you are going to be in the environs of Princeton, Trenton and Philadelphia next weekend, please stop by the opening reception for a new show at Morpeth Contemporary on Saturday, September 24, from 6-8pm. I will be there and would love to see my friends in southern New Jersey.

This upcoming show is my second exhibition with Ruth Morpeth. She has chosen some of my newest paintings for her light-filled gallery, on view with the evocative sculpture of Ayami Aoyama.

Here are the details:

Deborah Barlow
Ayami Aoyama
Morpeth Contemporary
September 25 – October 16, 2016
Reception: September 24, 6-8pm
43 West Broad Street
Hopewell NJ 08525
609 333 9393

For more about the exhibit:
Morpeth Contemporary

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A few shots from the opening at Dedee Shattuck Gallery in Westport on Saturday, September 3. Such a great gathering. Thanks to Dedee Shattuck and her terrific crew, curator Jodi Stevens, fellow artist Yizhak Elyashiv and to all who were there (with a special thanks to Rebecca Adams for documenting the night with many of these photos.)

Dedee Shattuck Gallery
Deborah Barlow
Yizhak Elyashiv
August 31 – September 25
1 Partners Lane
Westport MA 02790
508 636 4177














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Carl Belz

Carl Belz, 1937-2016 (Photo: Darryl Hughto)

So many artists have warm and heartening stories to share about Carl Belz. He was, after all, a larger than life figure in the Boston area. Some studied or worked with him at Brandeis University when he was the director of the Rose Museum. Others were championed by him in that solid, authentic way that he wrote about art he respected, art that he loved to look at and live with.

My friendship with Carl began in 2010. We struck up a writing exchange and discovered a slew of common interests. I have hundreds and hundreds of pages of our explorations in the visual arts, art criticism, contemporary culture, music, sports, our families. During that time we did a book proposal project and worked on getting all of his art writing digitized and catalogued. There were the intermittent visits to his aerie in New Hampshire, but our connection was primarily through written words.

He was an artist’s kind of writer, someone whose sensibilities were so tuned in to the interior experience of art making. He could listen rather than pronounce, soften into a work rather than bristle against it. I could always count on him to find the very words my artist sensibilities would have liked to have found but so often fell short of finding. He spoke eloquently for so many of us who were unwilling to give sway to the drift towards art that was cool, detached and ironic. His passing this week has left me bereft. There will never be a replacement for this man.

Paintings I really like I think about living with, like the paintings of Ronnie Landfield and Sandi Slone and Darryl Hughto. The worlds they take me to are generous and accommodating, pleasured by art that is meaningful in and of itself, art that is justified simply by being, like nature. I like to think there’s room in my own lived world—even in the lived world at large—for that kind of experience. I share Matisse’s dream of “an art filled with balance, purity and calmness…a spiritual remedy…for the businessman as well as the artist”—even though I’m no businessman or artist myself.

Carl Belz

To read my previous posts about Carl:
The Carl Belz Archive on Slow Muse

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Most of us have a list of artists, writers and musicians who have touched us so consistently that we are ever ready to reach out to each new work that emerges. Once ensconced in my personal hall of fame, my list of carefully chosen creatives are my personal canonicals. I show up for everything they do.

Anna Deavere Smith has been one of my canonicals for a long time. Seeing her perform Fires in the Mirror in the early 90s was a revelation. Smith’s extraordinary insight is that language changes when it is spoken, verbatim, by someone else. She exposes complex meta narratives that live below the surface of the words we choose to use. And when they are set apart, out of their native habitat, the multidimensionality is more easily deciphered.

Why this works still baffles me, but Smith has consistently demonstrated the scope of this discovery. By applying this approach to highly charged social issues, her performances are some of the most powerful contemporary examples of art engaging the political. She does this without getting tangled in the wonkiness of political action or dropping into the tiresome cliches of 24/7 news reportage.

Her latest work is Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education, now at American Rep in Cambridge. Once again she unpacks some of the most unpleasant realities of American life, ones we would rather not face—racism, inequality, educational failure, the school-to-prison pipeline, poverty, the tragic waste of human lives. In this extraordinary telling, these issues are exposed as a complex nest of interrelated problems. You can’t fix just one.

As painful and sorrow-filled as these topics are, Smith is not going to let anyone slip into passive detachment. Using her finely tuned vignettes, she brings a variety of viewpoints to bear on these topics: bureaucrats, law enforcement and prison professionals, educators, psychologists, students, policy experts, politicians, parents, cons and ex-cons. (Her performance of the pastor Jamal Bryant‘s eulogy for Freddie Gray will live on in my mind for the rest of my life.)

Wisdom abounds in the people Smith captures in her vignettes. Here’s a taste of the strong voice of Sherrilyn Ifill who heads up the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, from an interview with Smith in the Los Angeles Times:

“We’ve been spending enormous money on the back-end of the problem,” [Smith] said. “You know how much it costs to have a person incarcerated? Sherrilyn Ifill says it’s not that we’ve stopped investing in mental health resources, but that we’ve been doing it in prisons. The most eloquent people are saying these resources need to be put on the front end, so that interventions can be made in communities of poverty.

“It’s not going to be cheap, but why not spend some of the money earlier?” she asked. “Because, remember, for a long time before these people were in prison they were doing things that were not productive for society.”

Smith is a consummate performer with a highly developed sense of how theater moves us. The minimal yet sophisticated staging along with the presence and soundings of bassist Marcus Shelby speak to her pitch perfect professionalism. But the material is still tough. As Smith has said, “Because I’m a dramatist, I like moments when there’s something unsettled. I’m in this business of looking at conflict. Conflict is never absent.”

I was so moved by this work even though I do have an issue with the overall design of Doing Time. Smith’s passion is authentic and palpable, and I believe it is that verve in her that led her to make a bold decision: After the first half, the audience is broken into assigned discussion groups where theatergoers are encouraged to enter into conversation about these issues. Before we broke into groups, Smith told us she wants the audience to take an active role in these narratives. She also referenced the call and response format that is used so frequently in the collective African American culture.

The intention is honorable, but the implementation fell short. This approach might work in a less professional setting, like community theater. But Smith is so luminously spectacular at bringing these themes into form that the stark transition into awkward groups of strangers forced to interact with each other felt almost punitive. Unfortunately it also strangled the carefully crafted throughline that Smith established in the first half. While the audience was reassembled for a “coda” performance by Smith that included lynchpin vignettes from wise elders like James Baldwin and John Lewis inter alia, the essential energy of the night was concentrated unforgettably in the those first 90 minutes.

It is the raw power of that first half that has me telling everyone they must see this production. Even with a disrupted delivery format, this is Anna Deavere Smith at her most memorable. These are the social issues right in front of us, the ones we must solve now. This nest of issues, along with climate change, should be at the forefront of every debate and stump speech during an election season. That they are not speaks to the primacy of Smith’s project.

The Doing Time experience is available at the American Reperatory Theater through September 17.

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The opening reception for the show at Dedee Shattuck Gallery is two weeks from today. I hope you will stop by if you are anywhere nearby—Fall River, New Bedford, the Cape, Providence, Newport—over Labor Day weekend.




Reception: Saturday, September 3, 5 – 7pm

1 Partners Lane, Westport MA 02790
Wednesday – Saturday 10am – 5pm, Sunday 12 – 5pm
dedeeshattuckgallery.com | 508-636-4177

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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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