Art Making

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Making Space

studioat6am
Early morning light, South Boston

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She goes on:

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

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

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

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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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“Guardians of the Secret”, collage by Barry Swyers, an artist and friend who passed away earlier this year.

Artist Ben La Rocco in conversation with Craig Olson, on Hyperallergic:

There is some kind of confusion in my nature with regard to received methods of doing things. I’ve always had it. I’m left handed, mildly dyslexic as a kid, which I think are physical symptoms of doubt: do I really have to do things the way I’m being shown? I’m not sure I’ve jettisoned any principles in my work because I’ve always felt it was incumbent on me to go beyond whatever understanding I had of what I’ve been taught. So art is always transforming itself, which I guess doesn’t leave much room for formal considerations. And I’m not a formalist. I’ve always believed in the space where painting joins all the other arts—performance for example. To access this space we must always question all of our presuppositions, all of our training.

So the materials that I work with are always a means to this end. I want to know how to respect the nature of an object—to let it be itself—and at the same time allow imaginative transformation to act upon it. I want to see the intertwining of fantasy and reality as it takes place. My will is to remove my will from the situation! I’m glad you see a subversive quality in the work. From my perspective, seeing the work on display, it’s striking how much I’ve imposed myself on the material.

There is some kind of confusion in my nature with regard to received methods of doing things. This passage resonates with my rule bending/breaking, transgressively-inclined, “don’t tell me what to do” nature. Of course we all make choices about what to jettison and what to keep, in art making and in our lives. But La Rocco’s honesty is particularly refreshing and reassuring.

Barry Swyers* created work that hovers above that volatile border between the sacred and the profane. A monk who left the monastic life to live in San Francisco, his work explored that intersection with tenacity, intelligence and delight. His collages create images and symbols that invite viewers into an unexpectedly transcendent view. His pieces lift something in me.

My work has a transcendent intention as well, but I am using the language of nonrepresentationalism to explore the relationship between the material and the spiritual. I am interested in how matter transcends sheer physicality and crosses over into the transcendent, into the sacralized. While Barry and I work in very different styles and content, our work shares a kind of outsider sensibility, an interest in creating an alternative sense of this shared reality.

The refrain from a song on Servant of Love, the latest release from the genre-resistant Patty Griffin, keeps playing in my head:

There isn’t one way
There isn’t one way
There’s just your way for you
And that’s the right way.

Going back into the Slow Muse archive, I found a number of posts that touch into a similar theme: art that takes a counter position, works that stays true—stubbornly—to what feels “right” to the artist in the most personal sense. Here are a few additional Slow Muse links if this is a theme that speaks to you too:

Transgressive Women

In the End, You Can’t Tell Me What to Do

Keeping it Fresh

Bruce Conner: Authentic Tomfoolery

Aware, Aware, Aware

Tribeswoman

Phenomenal Presence: Robert Irwin

*Barry Swyers had a supportive circle of friends and admirers in his life, including my friends Kevin Simmers and Ed Carrigan. But he was not a self promoter. There are very few of his works that can be seen online. In addition to the piece above, I have two others in my collection, viewable here.

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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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Tezoom
“Tezoom”, from a new series that seems to have a mind of its own

In an interview with the artist Claerwen James, she was asked about what useful advice she received while she was a student:

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”…You need to paint to some extent with your guts rather than your head.

(More about James here.)

James’ words came back to me this morning when I saw the post below by Linn Myers on Facebook. (Her recent show at Sandra Gering Gallery in Manhattan was so fresh and inspiring.) I resonate deeply with her embrace of the mystery and the surprise that is part of the making:

Just finished this one – 41.5 x 34″. I like the puddle/lake/pool/whatever thing, where it opens up in the lower right quadrant.
I don’t think I’ll ever really understand my own work…

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To continue in this theme of being willing to not know, these final lines from a favorite song by Iris Dement are right in line:

But no one knows for certain and so it’s all the same to me
I think I’ll just let the mystery be.

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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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BWGCorner1
One corner in my new show, “The Light Within”, at Brooklyn Workshop Gallery (September 5 – October 11.) The combination of metallic surfaces on the series to the right (“Silma 1-4”) and the chalky intensity of “Kannakam” on the gorgeously textured wall on the left pleases my eye.

How to talk about the visual without short shrifting its power has been a question I have danced in and around for most of my life as an artist. Certainly that theme has played out in these nine years’ worth of posts on Slow Muse. How to successfully language the visual remains an ongoing mystery and challenge. I don’t know if I am any better at verbalizing a useful construct for my work than I was when I began so many years ago. I may just be better at bobbing and weaving.

Having been part of a large community of artists on Facebook for many years now, I have encountered artists who are in fact much better at this than I am. Read Altoon Sultan‘s posts about her own work and the work of others on her blog, Studio and Garden, and you will find a clear, informed but non-authoritarian voice.

I’m more in the mist than Altoon (although she is good at mist as well.) I get engaged and enchanted—perhaps too much so—by what can’t quite be described or what is just beyond my language skill set. But I have come to know that being in that unknown zone feels comfortable to me since that is a state of mind I am in when I am in the studio every day. The direction my work is taking, the way a piece comes to completion—every day is full of 90 degree turns and surprise appearances. The basket is found by my door, day after day, laden with alimentation.

Friend and artist Miriam Louisa Simons reposted a piece about Vija Celmins that provoked me to dig back into the Slow Muse archive for some related material.

Here’s one, featuring the ever engaging Dave Hickey:

Between Artists: Twelve Contemporary Artists, Interview Twelve Contemporary Artists is a simple idea but so valuable. Reading the conversations between artists (who are, in most cases, already good friends) is a bit like listening to really good mechanics talk shop with other really good mechanics—a lot of under the hood chatter, sharing quick tips and an undefended discussion of the practical as well as the intuitive.

A few lines from the introduction, written by the inveterate trickster king Dave Hickey:

“The speakers in these interviews are saddled with the tragi-comic injunction to talk about that which they cannot: their art—to discuss that practice, which, were it explicable, they should not be pursuing, to explain those objects which, had they known what they were making, they almost certainly should not have made. Thus, Isaiah Berlin’s distinction between the hedgehog and the fox is applicable here. “The fox knows many little things,” Berlin explains, “the hedgehog knows one big thing,” and artists, as artists, are almost always hedgehogs. They know one big thing, the thing that drives the engine, that perpetually eludes articulation. So what we have here, between these covers, is the conversation of hedgehogs playing at being foxes. We do not get that one big thing, nor could we expect it. But we do get the atmosphere, the filigree of little things, of accident and incident, of nuance and desire, that surrounds the enormous absence that the work of art must, necessarily, fill in our lived experience.”

And this memorable quote, from Vija Celmins in conversation with Ken Price:

I remember Brancusi said, “Art should be like a well planned crime.” Which is to say that you don’t discuss it before, and you don’t talk much about it afterwards either.

Literary variations of this theme also exist. Currently under the spell of the exquisite Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante (pen name for someone who wants a life rather than the fishbowl self consciousness of celebritism), I loved encountering this line in James Wood‘s New Yorker article about the books and their mysterious author:

Ferrante holds that “books, once they are written, have no need of their authors.”

In the end, the painting does stand alone.

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matchbook
Somewhere between what is hidden and what is seen: A matchbook found at the bottom of a box of paints from my days on the Lower East Side in the 1970s.

In Jane Hirschfield‘s slim but wisdom-packed book, Hiddenness, Uncertainty, Surprise: Three Generative Energies of Poetry, she includes a poem written in 1000 CE by the Japanese poet Izumi Shikibu:

It is true,
the wind blows terribly here—
but moonlight
also leaks between the roof planks
of this ruined house.

Shkikibu’s poem reminds its reader that beauty, and also the Buddhist awakening frequently signalled in Japanese poetry by the image of moonlight, will come to a person only if the full range of events and feelings are allowed into his or her life. Real permeability cannot be provisional. It is impossible to know what will enter if the house of the solidified and defended self is breached, and ruin is not a condition any person willingly seeks. Still, those gaps in the roof planks—not the assigned doors, the expected windows—are the opening through which the luminous arrives.

Permeability. It is a favorite both/and. Margins exist everywhere in our world for good reason—be they a roof or our skin—and yet “gaps in the roof” are essential for any creative undertaking, whether it is making a painting or making a life.

To feed the spirit of this paradox even further, here are a few more quotes garnered from previous postings on Slow Muse. Clearly this is an ongoing theme, and one that I never tire of pondering. So many leaky margins exist in our lives, and the nature of permeability continues to compel.

What Kafka had to be so clear and simple about was that nothing is clear and simple. On his death bed he said of a vase of flowers that they were like him: simultaneously alive and dead. All demarcations are shimmeringly blurred. Some powerful sets of opposites absolutely do not, as Heraclitus said, cooperate. They fight. They tip over the balance of every certainty. We can, Kafka said, easily believe any truth and its negative at the same time.

Guy Davenport

I do not know if it has ever been noted before that one of the main characteristics of life is discreteness. Unless a film of flesh envelopes us, we die. Man exists only insofar as he is separated from his surroundings. The cranium is a space-traveler’s helmet. Stay inside or you perish. Death is divestment, death is communion. It may be wonderful to mix with the landscape, but to do so is the end of the tender ego.

Vladimir Nabokov

And then the kicker is this: in passing from the real to the imagined, in following that trail, you learn that both sides have a little of the other in each, that there are elements of the imagined inside your experience of the “real” world – rock, bone, wood, ice – and elements of the real – not the metaphorical, but the actual thing itself – inside stories and tales and dreams.

Rick Bass

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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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WIP1
Detail from a work in process: Learning how to know my own terrain

Terry Theise‘s book, Reading Between the Wines (first introduced here), offers so many redolent parallels between winemaking and painting. And during a season when the land is in full expression, the analogies are particularly timely and apt.

Consider this response from one of Theise’s vintners/partners when asked what she likes best about her work:

For me, the best part is getting to know the vineyards, because you can’t rush it. You really have to spend time in them to see what makes then tick.

That’s what painting feels like: You can’t rush it. You have to give it time, and you have to let every piece find its own voicing. Artist as caretaker.

Another of Theise’s wine grower friends, Helmut Dönnhoff, has a similar story:

He’d obtained a parcel in a great site called Dellchen, and after about four years the quality of the wine took a big stride forward. I noticed it and remarked upon it, and he agreed; the new vintage had jumped ahead of all its predecessors. I asked, “Is it because the vines are older?”

“No—although they are,” he replied. “I’m not sure there is a reason, except that I’m getting to know the vineyard better. We’re more at home with each other.” I can just see my concrete-minded, linear-intellect friends groaning and rolling their eyes. What’s all this mysticism? What, indeed. Dönnhoff is about the most matter-of-fact guy I know, but he talks about this aspect of a vintner’s life quite explicitly: “I hope my wines convey a story,” he says. “Otherwise they’re just things, bottles of wine, good wine certainly, but I want them to tell the story of a man in his landscape.”

That’s such a simple line: Tell the story of a man(woman) in his(her) landscape. But I know what that means for me.

I often divide artwork into those that have a life force and those that feel cold and lifeless. (Brice Marden has referred to large paintings that “stiffen up, go dead, feel mechanical.”) It’s that quality of “story”—which for non-narrative artists and musicians might be more accurately described as the power of presence—that makes for art that is memorable and meaningful. (Bill Irwin refers to this quality as phenomenal presence.)

Theise continues this line of thinking in terms most of us can understand:

Anyone who has ever tended a garden experiences the same thing. You get to know your garden, and it responds to you. How can it do otherwise? It might respond with vigorous growth if you’re a skillful grower, or it might respond with weeds and blight if you’re careless or inattentive—but respond it must. Is it such a stretch to imagine that it responds in some way to the love you show it? If you like being in your garden, if you observe it with interest, curiosity, appreciation, should we really insist that it cannot respond? Why would we rather believe that?

And to take the art making/wine growing analogy for one more lap, here’s a great rule of thumb for all art makers:

Willi Bründlmayer, one of the great Austrian vintners, said, “I try to get each vintage into a spirit close to This is my first vintage or This is my last vintage, in order to draw as much joy and affection for the grapes as possible. Chase away all routine and find the singularity of each vintage and of each grape.”

I love this book.

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