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Imagined map of the word, Japanese

I am reading a book recommended by my daughter Kellin Nelson: The Art of Thinking Clearly, by Rolf Dobelli. It’s designed with the 21st century reader in mind—succinct, straight talking advice on rampantly human cognitive errors in 99 chapters, each only a few pages long.

Dobelli nails all of us right from the start by detailing those pesky proclivities that flaw our thinking and perceiving. The chapter heads capture much of the spirit of the book: If Fifty Million People Say Something Foolish, It Is Still Foolish; Why We Prefer a Wrong Map to None at All; Why You Systematically Overestimate Your Knowledge and Abilities; Never Judge a Decision By Its Outcome. You get the drift.

In talking about the “confirmation bias,” Dobelli writes:

If the word “exception” crops up, prick up your ears. Often it hides the presence of discomfirming evidence. It pays to listen to Charles Darwin: Since his youth, he set out to fight the confirmation bias systematically. Whenever observations contradicted his theory, he took them very seriously and noted them down immediately. He know that the brain actively “forgets” disconfirming evidence after a short time. The more correct he judged his theory to be, the more actively he looked for contradictions…

Literary critic Arthur Quiller-Couch had a memorable motto: “Murder your darlings.” This was his advice to writers who struggled with cutting cherished but redundant sentences. Quiller-Couch’s appeal is not just for hesitant hacks but for all of us who suffer from the deafening silence of assent. To fight against the confirmation bias, try writing down your beliefs—whether in terms of worldview, investments, marriage, health care, diet, career strategies—and set out to find disconfirming evidence. Axing beliefs that feel like old friends is hard work but imperative.

After several hours of Dobelli’s direct imperative to dismantle the cozy comfort zones we make with our ideas and beliefs, it is hard to not step back a bit and look more closely at your cherished beliefs, proclivities and tastes. We give ourselves permission to set standards and issue judgments, and we do it all day long. Reading Dobelli has reminded me that we each pave a road through the landscape, and all we see is what is on either side of that narrow travel lane.

So “murdering my darlings” plays out in so many aspects of my life. I know what I like after all, be it in art, literature, music, poetry, food. Dismantling those habitual proclivities takes some doing, but the exercise is not without its rewards.

A recent theatrical outing is a good example. American Rep has staged another production by the high energy, high octane theater company from Chicago, Hypocrites. Last year they brought their very popular production of the Pirates of Penzance (reviewed on Slow Muse here) to A.R.T., and this year they have brought another Gilbert & Sullivan classic, The Mikado.

They state their intentions openly:

Our mission – which is ever-evolving to adapt to the growth of our organization – is to make a Theater of Honesty. We define a Theater of Honesty chiefly through two elements of our work: performance and presentation…Through this balance of an unyielding emotional honesty and accepting a concept of “play,” we seek to strengthen the connection between artist and audience, enriching our audience’s imaginative experience…

We will make theater.
We will respect the audience.
We will create a unique theater experience for every production.
We will push our own limits in order to push the limits of theater.
We will honor the playwright’s intentions.
We will hold interest in entertainment and art.
We will change these rules.

Like Pirates, The Mikado is just plain fun. The “all singing and all dancing” cast carries out this wacky G&S storyline amid the audience members and engages everyone in the high jinks effortlessly. Yes, I do happen to love the deep dives into dramatic profundity and the magic of a parallel reality that great theater can create. But by making a concerted decision (thank you Dobelli) to just let all those proclivities go and enjoy a night of being entertained and delighted, I was. Wonderfully.

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The Mikado (Photo: Gretjen Helene Photography)

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DeborahBarlowCOVER

My new exhibit, Behind, Beyond, Beneath: Scaling the Continuum will open April 25 at the Morris Graves Museum of Art in Eureka California. The show features paintings from a variety of series that I have worked on over the last five years but held together by an ongoing exploration into the “micro to macro” span of the physical world. As I stated in my introduction to the show, “What I am continuously drawn to is the rich continuum that is materiality, from images of microscopic particles and single cell organisms to NASA’s hyperspectral radiographs of the multiverse.”

Just in the way of background, Morris Graves (1910-2001) was an American artist whose interests in Eastern philosophy and the careful observation of the physical world greatly informed his work. I have long felt alignment with Graves’ sensibilities, captured succinctly in words he wrote to a friend: “In painting, one must convey the feeling of the subject, rather than the imperfect physical truth.” There is a sense of coming full circle to return to California and to have an exhibit of my work in a museum space that bears his name.

I will be at the museum for the opening and hope to see some of you there that night.

DEBORAH BARLOW
Behind, Beyond, Beneath
Scaling the Continuum

Morris Graves Museum of Art
636 F Street
Eureka CA 95501
707 442 0278

April 25 – June 7, 2015
Opening Reception: May 2, 6-9PM

A beautiful catalog has been produced for the exhibit and includes essays by Linda Jones Gibbs and Kathryn Kimball, 26 color plates and a number of detailed close ups. If you are interested in purchasing a copy, you can do so here.

Last but by no means least: One of the paintings from the show, Nigralle, is featured on the cover of poet Todd Hearon’s most recent volume of poems, No Other Gods, published by Salmon Poetry. I love Todd’s work and am so excited to be part of his wonderful new collection.

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Claerwen James
Claerwen James (Photo: London Evening Standard)

Every artist has a personal story of how she ended up spending a lifetime doing this thing that is all-consuming. It’s a strange decision really, that willingness to give yourself over to a passion that takes hold as soon as you awake and stays resident, in background or foreground, all day long. Sometimes its ambient and seamless dominance feels comforting, like a familiar chair that has formed perfectly to the body. At other times its demand for bandwidth devours access to the practical concerns of life, like keeping track of when the chimney was last cleaned (we used ours so often this winter, maybe too much?) or where the title to the car is filed.

Claerwen James, daughter of the inimitable Clive James, answered the following two questions in a recent interview. I resonated with her answers to both of these questions, and I found her point of view very much in line with the sense of art making and life I have explored in Slow Muse: A longing and respect for the very act of making, an aversion to art-speak, learning from what doesn’t work, and painting with your guts rather than your head.

You trained as a zoologist and molecular biologist – why did you switch to art?

I had always drawn and painted, but felt I had no subject matter. I liked making things, but I didn’t know what to make. Then over the course of a couple of years I began to have ideas about things I wanted to make, and I stopped having ideas about biology – it just happened, it wasn’t a conscious decision and it became clear. I stopped being a scientist when I was 28, when I finished my PhD. I haven’t kept up with it—it’s not something you can do part-time. It has to be an all-consuming passion. But I think I retain the mind-set: I don’t like waffle and I’m allergic to art-speak, which is a bit of a handicap.

What’s the best advice anyone’s ever given you?

I got two good pieces of advice when I was training at the Slade. One was from Bernard Cohen who was director of the Slade at the time. During a lecture he said, ‘Don’t have an abstract idea or an agenda that you’re trying to communicate through a painting: make it because you want to make it, because you want to know what it will look like, and this is the only way to find out.’ That resonated with me – or rather, it felt like permission to work the way I wanted to work. The other piece of advice was actually given to someone in the studio space next to me during a tutorial on which I was unavoidably eavesdropping. It was to ‘paint more, a lot more, much faster, because you’ve got a lot of bad paintings in you and you’ve got to get them all out.’ It was by far the most useful practical advice I ever heard, because there is a tendency to agonize about the meaning or validity of what you are doing before you’ve even started that is not helpful… You need to paint to some extent with your guts rather than your head.

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Richard Tuttle (Photo: PBS)

The most reliable speaker about art and art making from where I sit: Richard Tuttle. In this interview with Ross Simonini in Art in America, he touches on many of the themes that are all over my writings on Slow Muse. Here are a few that are particularly important to me right now.

***
The object is important for looking. The eye, seeing the totality, is physical and spiritual—a lifelong development. I have a collection of glass objects. The eye is invited to go through, if it wants, or to stop. These are superb training devices. Objects can be made with embodied hands or disembodied hands. I like making things with disembodied hands.

Our culture is anti-hand; it thinks it’s better to work with your head. Everybody aspires to go to college, so they don’t have to work with their hands, yet hands are a source of intelligence. You divorce yourself from a part of your intelligence without them. To work with disembodied hands is perfect; you have all the intelligence, but don’t submit to the sentimentality that says handmade is more valuable. The “maker’s movement” is not sentimental.

***
Jacob Boehme, an early-Renaissance German mystic, wrote The Signature of All Things. It’s nice to pass that book on; it’s always been a kind of secret, generation after generation. His chief idea is that mystical presence exists as a signature. Every time you see something, part of what you see is the signature, which is the beauty of man.

***
One can distinguish between scale and size. Usually, we are happy with the issue of size—if it’s small, it’s small; if it’s big, it’s big. But scale is a question of the individual. Each person, everyone ever born, has a unique scale. They have it like a unique fingerprint. You can decide to find your scale. The day you find it is a day you remember. It changes your life. Your parents may determine your size, but you determine your scale. Your creative dimension allows you to create yourself in a more significant way than how you are created by your parents. Life offers each of us that possibility. It’s sad how few take it up.

***
Human experience is a constant struggle between the real and the unreal. Every moment you are faced with trying to work out an acceptable relationship between the two. Art is almost by definition a working out of real and unreal; that is its value. The world is a place where size issues need to be worked out, and this involves all kinds of quantitative issues, which can be expressed emotionally or physically, in relationships with other people, etc. But the relations between the real and the unreal are negotiated internally, where issues of scale come in.

***
Art is unreal; color is real. That’s why painting is so fascinating. Color is real when you paint, but paint is not real. Paint is one of the great inventions. It can transport you from this world to the next. It’s a major thing.

***
The first day of kindergarten, my drawing was rejected by the teacher. Now I’ve studied a bit of child development, and I see that my drawing was at genius level, which the teacher wasn’t able to grasp. Not only did I not receive praise for a drawing that was important to me, but I was marginalized, punished. I have never trusted a teacher the rest of my life. That’s good. One of my lines is, “If Aristotle can’t be your teacher, you have to teach yourself.” When I speak at art schools, I say, “I’m not here to teach how to be an artist but to say, as best I can, what it’s like to be an artist.” They are eager to hear.

More about Richard Tuttle on Slow Muse:

Richard Tuttle in Maine

The Tuttle Bump

Martian Muse and Richard Tuttle

Scale it Up, Scale it Down

Tuttle Therapy

Textilia

Go Broad, or Go Deep

Richard Tuttle at Sperone Westwater

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Fish
Meditation garden, Osmosis Sanctuary

Weather ran the curriculum in Boston this winter. The coursework included deep dives into acceptance, patience, stoic detachment and mastery in moving to Plan B (or C or D) quickly. And not getting angry or taking any of it personally. I learned a lot, but it is that course you hope you don’t have to repeat.

I just returned from a week in Northern California where spring is in full swing and the sun was bright and warm. California is weeks ahead of us here in Boston, but that’s exactly what is getting set up now, invisibly, below the snow cover that remains. It will emerge, almost overnight, and then overwhelm us with its grandeur.

Lots of us are fascinated by the parts that are hard to see, by what is in the “not quite visible” range. That liminality—one I have referred to for years as “somewhere between what is hidden and what is seen”—is at the border, in every direction. I felt that inflection while watching the pond life in the Osmosis meditation garden in Sonoma County, just as I did a few days later walking along the snowy edge of Pleasure Bay in South Boston. There’s something there, with me, that I can’t describe.

What are these circumstances, places, things that call us to an inchoate attention? I’m not sure how to answer that, but I do think those experiences have correlations with other ways in which humans sense something unseen. A recent Guardian article, The strange world of felt presences, offers some background:

In cases of hearing voices (sometimes called auditory verbal hallucinations), people sometimes struggle to describe the nature of the “voice” they hear. Because we tend to use the term ‘hearing voices’ to describe this experience, researchers and clinicians often focus on auditory characteristics (Did the voice sound like it was coming from inside your head, or outside of your head? How loud was the voice?). But sometimes, feelings of presence might accompany the voice-hearing experience, and some people who hear voices describe their “voice” being there even when it is not speaking; a voice that seems to have a presence of its own. In these cases, hearing a voice may be much more like sensing a person or being visited by an entity, rather than experiencing sound.

The article is linked to the multidisciplinary research being conducted through a group in the U.K. affiliated with Durham University, Hearing the Voice. The site has a lot of material for anyone interested in the many aspects of this topic.

In The Wasteland, TS Eliot poses this question:

Who is the third who walks always beside you? When I count, there are only you and I together. But when I look ahead up the white road, there is always another one walking beside you.

Please, walk my way.

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Osmosis Sanctuary, Sonoma County

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Life in the pond, Osmosis

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South Boston beach

BlueTim
Pleasure Bay, South Boston

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Irwin
Robert Irwin

The one and only Robert Irwin, saying it in his inimitable plain speak:

***
Some people call it “the inner life of the painting,” all that romantic stuff, and I guess that’s a way of talking about it. But shapes on a painting are just shapes on a canvas unless they start acting on each other and really, in a sense, multiplying. A good painting has a gathering, interactive build-up in it. It’s a psychic build-up, but it’s also a pure energy build-up. And the good artists knew it, too. That’s what a good Vermeer has, or a raku cup, or a Stonehenge. And when they’ve got it, they just jump off the goddamn wall. They just, bam!

***
It’s about presence, phenomenal presence. And it’s hard: if you don’t see it, you just don’t see it; it just ain’t there. You can talk yourself blue in the face to somebody, and if they don’t see it, they just don’t see it. But once you start seeing it, it has a level of reality exactly the same as the imagery—no more, no less. And basically, that’s what I’m still after today. All my work since then has been an exploration of phenomenal presence.

I come back to these favorite quotes constantly, holding them as a talismanic reminder of what really matters in a creative practice. Those of us who are about that work make assessments every day, repeatedly. Is this coming together? Is this moving? Is it taking on a life of its own? Maybe you get some feedback, a review or a useful critique. But in the end the process is personal, private and subjective.

The same thing happens out in the world. Some work “jumps off the goddamn wall” at me, and some does not. Walking through a museum with a friend, we each assemble our list of those that speak to us. Sometimes we overlap, but I am often surprised by the variety. What’s more, my list changes a lot over time, depending on where my attention has been pulling me.

I know this proclivity to the subjective puts me on a slippery slope. The canonical approach—works that are chosen and blessed by those in power—serves as a steadying force in the world, providing standards and guidance in all the flux and chaos. Sometimes I am in alignment with that authoritative vetting process, and sometimes I am not.

Always in the back of my mind are the artists who slipped between the cracks completely but had, in the end, undeniable wall jumping genius: Van Gogh. Henry Darger. Francesca Woodman. Vivian Maier. Ken Price. Each of us could easily add a few more names to that “Overlooked but Great” list since there are so many.

Market forces come and go. So do fads and trends. What remains steady for me through it all is the commitment to just stay curious. It is the mindset I need in my studio and in the world. That one concept is the most powerful antidote I know to tendencies we all struggle with: narrowing categories, drifting into discouragement, thinking we have it all figured out. Staying curious keeps me looking, asking, learning and considering. Better at navigating than the straight up canonical, curiosity is my most valuable tool.

Satha
Staying curious with my own work: My latest painting, “Satha,” 66 x 72,” mixed media on linen

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aerial

The weather has held New Englanders in its thrall for weeks now, dominating conversations in real life as well as updates on Twitter and Facebook. Weather has become a persona, one that willfully went rogue and is keeping the whole neighborhood up with an endless rant and rave. Please, just go home and go to bed. Enough already.

Metaphors aside, an editorial appeared in the New York Times on February 20 by E. J. Graff that provides a sobering assessment of what has been happening over these last few weeks:

By now you’ve seen the starkly beautiful shots of Boston buried under snow: the panoramic city under a white blanket; snowbanks so high they crest over parked cars; piercing icicles glinting for two full stories from gutters dammed with ice; coat-muffled people dwarfed by snow-walled corridors that once were sidewalks…

But for those of us living here, it’s not a pretty picture. We are being devastated by a slow-motion natural disaster of historic proportions. The disaster is eerily quiet. There are no floating bodies or vistas of destroyed homes. But there’s no denying that this is a catastrophe.

In just three weeks, between Jan. 27 and Feb. 15, we have had four epic blizzards — seven feet of precipitation over three weeks — which crushed roofs, burst gutters, destroyed roads and sidewalks, closed schools and businesses, shut down highways, crippled public transit and trapped people in their homes. The infamous Blizzard of 1978 brought around 27 inches of snow and shut down the region for a week. In less than a month, we’ve seen more than three times as much snow. The temperature has hovered between 5 and 25 degrees, so the snow and ice haven’t melted.

Decades of underinvestment and alleged mismanagement of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, known as the T, have meant that the nation’s oldest subway system has been partly or entirely halted for nearly a month…

Sure, it’s not the same as an earthquake: The snow will melt, eventually. But that will bring more woes. The flooding will hurt the T, ruin roofs and basements and clog roads still more.

That happens often in life: Events we cannot predict or manage. An understory that isn’t obvious. Long term implications that we cannot comprehend clearly. Decisions made with inaccurate data sets that have long term ramifications far beyond what is expected.

Jonathan Franzen begins his novel Freedom with the random access concerns of the story’s protagonist Patty. She is worried about cloth vs disposable diapers, how to find a reliable roofer, when to ground coffee beans, whether it is best to give a panhandler money, and if there really a high lead content in Fiestaware, inter alia. In the novel Franzen explores the many ways decisions are made and their unexpected consequences. He also makes the case that is complicated and difficult to be a thoughtful, careful, cautious, “do no harm” citizen of the planet. Franzen does not preach or offer answers. He is, like us, not sure how to do life right. Achieving moral intelligence is an ongoing project for all of us.

Staying present with the circumstances of life is exhausting right now. So it was a welcomed stepping away to spend four hours engrossed in Edgar Reitz‘s astounding Die Andere Heimat (Home From Home), a prequel to his extraordinary Heimat series—a 32 episode masterpiece that offers a portrait of Germany as seen through the lineage of a family in the Rhineland.

In Home From Home, Reitz brings us up close and personal with a small village in the Hunsrück region in the 1840s. Family relations, poverty, work, dreams, aspirations—and yes weather—all play out in this absorbing exploration of the large frame idea of Home. Fighting droughts, bad crops, devastating epidemics and oppressive overlords, each character must make a decision to stay or leave, and many of the villagers will emigrate for a better life in Brazil. Of course the trajectory in a life completely shifts as a result of that one choice, whether made by volition or default.

It is a rare individual who can see choices in their full context. Like Franzen’s Patty and the villagers in Home From Home, finding the best way forward is not obvious. Once again weather instructs, teaching us about acceptance, patience, surrender and living with what cannot be predicted. It is not easy, looking for answers. Approximations will have to do.

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Jan Dieter Schneider as Jakob Simon in “Home From Home,” directed by Edgar Reitz

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Hunkering Down

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My street in Brookline

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Parking lot at my studio in South Boston

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South Boston icicle fest

Just about everyone I know in New England has been pushed to the edge of the weather tolerance spectrum. We’re already in the red zone and now another blizzard with a foot of snow is heading at us this weekend. As has been demonstrated repeatedly, coping requires managed expectations. Had I chosen to live my life in Antarctica, I know I would feel differently. But we have become used to reasonable winters—the ones where a snowfall every once in a while is beautiful and the disruption is short lived.

Here are three quotes that my existential self—the part of me that is better at detaching and has fewer expectations—is finding comforting in a wry sort of way. Maybe these will speak to you too, even if you are basking on a beach somewhere.

There is no other world. Nor even this one.

Emil Cioran

There is another world, and it is in this one.

Paul Éluard

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

Wallace Stevens, final lines from The Snowman

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The Longing to Work

VincentVanGogh-Self-Portrait-II-1887

I have been house bound more days this winter than any I can remember. For the second day in a row the trains and busses in Boston are not running. With six feet of snow in 30 days and more coming (along with a bitter blast of Arctic cold), traveling the five miles from my home to my studio has become a daily challenge. Walk? Drive? They both are problematic.

How easy it is to take the essentials for granted—a place to work, the needed supplies, sufficient heat. I don’t have the easy portability of my writer friends—I NEED my tools and studio to do my work. My yearning can’t be satiated with just a sketchbook.

During this winter of being sojourned by the fire more days than is normal, I have thought about my longing to work through a different lens. Van Gogh’s life has been the theme of my book reading for several days, both in the form of a new novel, The Season of Migration, by Nellie Hermann, and the much-lauded short biography by artist and writer Julian Bell, A Power Seething.

Van Gogh is one of the artists whose works never grow old for me. All these years I have studied his paintings and drawings, and a million date books, tote bags, fridge magnets and umbrellas cannot kill off the unique relationship he crafted with nature. His work feels embodied, a way of bringing us to that ineffable connection we have all felt with the awesome and sublime sense of our world. Getting that sensation to reside inside a drawing or a painting however is incredibly rare. That was his gift, a deep empathy with the spirit of things, with the world. And it still moves me deeply to see what his hand brought forth during those very few years he was at work.

These two books are a well suited pair. Both authors conjure fresh views into that famous life story—the one that has been so endlessly mythologized—and bring Van Gogh into sharper focus. Neither author attempts to compete with the enormous scope of Van Gogh: The Life, by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith. But both books are gentle in their balanced presentation of his failings and his gifts.

As often as Van Gogh is portrayed as the misunderstood genius, he wasn’t an easy person. As Jonathan Lopez wrote in his review in the Wall Street Journal:

Mr. Bell’s fundamental vision of Van Gogh’s identity is heavily indebted to the work of Messrs. Naifeh and Smith, whose demystified presentation of the artist did away with the popular notion of Van Gogh as a hypersensitive innocent too pure for this world. To a considerable degree, that image was derived from Irving Stone’s widely read, fictionalized Van Gogh biography, “Lust for Life” (1934), which invented dramatic situations and dialogue loosely based on Van Gogh’s correspondence…Messrs. Naifeh and Smith revealed instead a stubborn, argumentative and often rude individual. In this they drew upon the profoundly authoritative and resoundingly boring academic biography of Van Gogh by the eminent Dutch art historian Jan Hulsker, published in 1985. There is a great deal of truth to the characterization—Van Gogh tested the patience of virtually everyone he ever met—but the underlying poignancy of the artist’s social ineptitude is not really explored sufficiently in any of the existing biographies.

For all his social awkwardness, penchant for self destruction and proclivities to drama, Van Gogh had a longing in him that was profound. During his early struggles to find his way, Van Gogh’s life was a string of failures. It took repeated disappointments and ejections for him to finally see what it was he was truly designed to do.

In one of his over 600 letters to his younger brother and eventual patron Theo (the complete set now available online here), Van Gogh said he felt obliged to express his most authentic moments of insight with drawings and paintings as a form of gratitude for the privilege of being alive. While it took him until the age of 30 to claim the position of artist for himself, both Hermann and Bell respect the complexity and struggle of the journey he had to make to find his rightful place. From Bell’s book: “The painter may be in hell, but painting is still heaven.”

A version of that gauntlet must be run by anyone who has chosen to be an artist, and those of us who have all own a version of this story. Van Gogh’s arduous life and his stunning work still hold their resonance all these years later.

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Still Watching

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Father Comes Home From The Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3) (Production Photos: A.R.T.)

Suzan-Lori Parks, playwright, Pulitzer prize winner, MacArthur genius fellow, talks about her writing in a manner that resonates deeply with me. She openly speaks about how she lets the spirit inspire her. (A Sanskrit tattoo on her arm reminds her to “follow god.”) “I have a daily practice of writing, yoga and parenting” she proclaimed in a recent interview.

That centeredness spills over into an undeniable sense of self confidence. Parks possesses an artistic sovereignty that enables her to function as her own creative nation state. That is what every imagination-rich artist works for.

From a recent article about Parks by Patrick Healy in New York Times:

But here’s the thing about Ms. Parks: When she thinks she’s right, she’s certain of it. No doubts, no fretting about self-sabotage. While some have knocked her work as self-indulgent or annoying at times, she has an exceptionally vivid sense of herself as a writer who exists on another plane from dramaturgical nit-pickers.

That passage couples nicely with this Parks quote about process from a remarkable interview/conversation with playwright Han Ong in Bomb magazine:

Well, that’s it. It takes a suspension of ego. In the old days, it was, “willingly suspend your disbelief” But now it’s, for me, “get out of the way.” It’s Zen. Suspend your ego long enough to ask the question, who am I, really? I write for me.

These twin concepts—artistic sovereignty and the Zen-like trusting of the process—are extremely well developed in Parks and so admirable. But Parks also commands my respect with her passion for writing stories about and for African Americans. Parks shares her raison d’être quite succinctly in her conversation with Ong: “I write plays because I love black people. I just figured it out fairly recently. Not that I had any other reason before that, but I realized why I want black people on stage—because I love them. And it probably sounds very vague, but it’s true.”

Taking that concept further, John Heilpern quotes Parks in his piece Voices from the Edge:

“Because of a shameful past,” she points out, “there’s an equation from both whites and blacks that automatically goes: Black people are oppressed. There are some wonderful plays about the black struggle—but is that all we get to write about? There’s another equation, I think. And that’s what I’m interested in. How about black people, period? What if you remove the racial tension for a moment? What, then, is the drama and what kind of theater does it make? Maybe really weird theater! But I’m trying to remove the straitjacket.”

Aligning with Parks’ intentions and approach doesn’t necessarily guarantee a connection with her work however. Parks’ recent play, Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3), is on a run at A.R.T. in Cambridge after its premiere at the Public Theater in New York City last fall. (In his review in the New York Times, Christopher Isherwood heralded these first three plays as Parks’ best work so far.) As much as I wanted to connect deeply with this latest work, I found it difficult.

Taking place in the Civil War, these three one-hour plays offer a fresh deconstruction of Homer’s Odyssey. The protagonist is a slave named Hero (later called Ulysses,) his wife Penny, a dog named “Odd-See,” fellow slave Homer and a small “chorus” of other slaves. Part 1 is the set up for Hero’s decision to go to war on the Confederate side with his “boss-master.” Part 2 takes place during the war, and Part 3 is Hero/Ulysses’s return home after the Emancipation Proclamation.

As a story line, this is rich with possibility. But that sense of possibility was thwarted early on for me. Perhaps it was pacing. Parks often talks about how language is music (“There are aspects of music that I borrow and use in my work: repetition and revision. A big part of jazz is repeat and revise, and repeat and revise,” she told Ong.) The rhythm of the whole evening was colored by a tedious beginning. The cadence of the dialogue felt slow and labored, more irritating than enchanting. There were individual moments when language and character did come together—the fierce monologue by the white Colonel/boss-master about how grateful he is that he is white, Hero’s meditation on his worth (as a slave or as a free man), the oddly out of place but engaging soliloquy by the talking dog Odd-See. But I struggled to find the thread that could hold all these pieces together in a meaningful arc, and it escaped me.

It could just be a quirk in me, so I have spent a lot of time thinking about why these plays missed the mark. It may be that I just happened to see them on one of those nights when that mystical theatrical magic—the alchemy that transforms words, actors, music, sets into another reality—just wasn’t happening. I did speak with three other people who also saw the play, two of them on a different night. They also had issues although their list was different than my own. It wasn’t stitching together as a whole for any of us, but each of us had our own explanations for why that is. I would love to have someone who adored this play tell me why they did.

Parks has announced that there are nine parts to this work, a long term project that ambitiously takes on the 100 years subsequent to the Civil War. The remaining six parts will follow the progeny of these characters as they navigate an America that we all know too well as crippled by a legacy of race discrimination. Parks is so formidable an artist that my dissatisfaction with this first installment does not preclude me from telling people to see the play and to sign up to sail with Parks on this ambitious voyage. I am, in spite of my reservations, very curious to see where she will take this narrative in its larger arc.

Yes, I’m still watching.

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