Art Making

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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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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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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, 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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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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Mosel, the German valley most associated with Riesling wines (Photo: Friedrich Petersdorff)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that’s just from the preface.

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

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

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

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

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

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Kana'an 3
Kana’an 3, from a new series

Jane Hirschfield, poet and Buddhist, is my favorite guide to the overlapping territory shared by spirituality and creativity. In her books Nine Gates and most recently, Ten Windows, she moves back and forth between the artistic process and the interior life of the soul. In Ten Windows she writes, “The desire of monks and mystics is not unlike that of artists: to perceive the extraordinary within the ordinary by changing not the world but the eyes that look.”

She continues:

Within a summoned and hybrid awareness, the inner reaches out to transform the outer, and the outer reaches back to transform the one who sees. Catherine of Siena wrote, in the fourteenth century, “All the way to heaven is heaven”; Marcel Duchamp, in the third year of the First World War, submitted a porcelain urinal to an art show, titling it Fountain. Both say: to form the intention of new awareness is already to transform and be transformed.

But how aware are any of us are of that process in our own creative efforts? Reading what artists have to say about their work makes it clear that intentions are often very different from results. Art historians still argue about how aware Mark Rothko was of the profound spiritual transcendence his paintings elicited in viewers. Agnes Martin doggedly insisted that her work did not contain references to the landscape and nature.

As we all know, saying doesn’t make it so. Freud and others have made the case that everything is autobiographical, that everything we do is a portrait of us. What attracts us and draws us in is all part of that unique matrix that is us, a unique blend of personality, history, identity, experiences.

But there is nothing fixed about that process. It’s a current we enter into, one that allows us to constantly expand what we see and what we understand.

Hirschfield again:

What a writer or painter undertakes in each work of art is an experiment whose hoped-for outcome is an expanded knowing. Each gesture, each failed or less-than-failed attempt to create an experience by language or color and paper, is imagination reaching outward to sieve the world. To make a genuine work of art, or even to take in such a work fully, is to tie a further knot of that fisherman’s intricate fly.

Sieve the world. Hirschfield’s metaphor suggests that understanding can increase, bringing the idea of accretion into the daily practice of making. Perhaps that is a more dynamic way to think about studio work than my old standby, the Zen koan phrase that describes what you do to reach enlightenment as well as after you achieve it: “chop wood, carry water.”

Or maybe this is best greeted with my favorite response to just about everything: Can we have both/and?

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Agamya 2

“May your imagination know
The grace of perfect danger.”

Those are lines are from the poem, For the Artist at the Start of Day, by John O’Donohue, the warmhearted Irish poet and former priest who died in his sleep at just 52 seven years ago.

Writing this poem for anyone who spends their day making, O’Donohue begins with the essential invocation to slip clear of the “sticky web of the personal.” It comes with “its hurt and its hauntings,” he warns. Once past the perilous distractions of the quotidian, the possibility then opens up to find the “rhythm not yet heard,” that “calls space to/A different shape.”

But my favorite line in the poem is these five words: The grace of perfect danger. It is a phrase that is so concise but encapsulates an enormous idea. I have had that sense many times in my studio, where precariousness lives inside a canopy of exquisite, inviolate sureness. That essential tension was a feeling I knew in my body but could not describe in words. Until now.

Perfect danger, with grace. That’s it.

Thank you Linda Crawford to sending the O’Donohue poem my way.

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Of all the poets who delve into writing, creativity and the nature of art making, Jane Hirschfield is the closest to my way of seeing things. I go back to her books over and over again. Now another to add to my library: Hiddenness, Uncertainty, Surprise: Three Generative Energies of Poetry. These three essays were delivered as part of the Newcastle/Bookaxe Poetry Lecture series in 2007.

Those three words—hiddenness, uncertainty and surprise—are fundamental elements in my studio practice. As is usually the case, Hirschfield’s explorations are salient to poetry as well other creative efforts. Her strong interest in Eastern thought and meditation also spills over into the inner life as well.

The first chapter on hiddenness is full of relevance. That which contains the hidden—a poem, a painting, a musical score—is “inexhuastible to the imagination,” Hirschfield writes. “It is their inability to be known completely that infuses aliveness into good poems.” Poet Donald Hall has used the analogy of a house that has a secret room at its center. That’s the place where that which cannot be paraphrased or verbalized is stored. That room can never be used for ordinary habitation but its very presence changes the house. That unopenable room does not exist in the world or in the work of art itself: It resides in each of us. And yet the very existence of that secret room changes everything.

In the course of her contemplation of hiddenness, Hirschfield asks a biologist friend about her views of how it plays out in nature. I loved the answer she received: “For most of life on the planet, being hidden is the default condition…visibility is a luxury. Rarely are earth-colored tones the symbols of opulence and royal blood. We are most comfortable being hidden but we yearn to be seen.” (This is the biological version of the often quoted description of an artist from the writer and psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott: “Artists are people driven by the tension between the desire to communicate and the desire to hide.”)

A few more memorable passages from the first essay, “Poetry and Hiddenness:”

“Heard melodies are sweet,” wrote Keats, “but those unheard are sweeter.” A fidelity to the ungraspable lies at the very root of both biological existence and what we experience as beauty; the steepest pitches of the heart and mind make their own shade. Within that cool and dimness, emotions and thoughts small as new mosses and lichens begin the slow, green colonisations of incipient life.

Hiddenness, then, is a sheltering enclosure—though one we stand some times outside of, at others within. One of its homes is the Ryoan-ji rock garden in Kyoto: wherever in it a person stands, one of the fifteen rocks cannot be seen. The garden reminds that something unknonwable is always present in a life, just beyond what can be perceived or comprehended…it is our subjectivity of stance, not the world, that creates the unknown.

Hiddenness is the ballast in the ship’s keel, the great underwater portion of a life that steadies the rest. The thirteenth-century Zen teacher Eihei Dogen described its weight of presence thus: “…there are mountains hidden in treasures. There are mountains hidden in swamps. There are mountains hidden in the sky. There are mountains hidden in mountains. There are mountains hidden in hiddenness. This complete understanding.”

More about Jane Hirschfield on Slow Muse:

It’s the Honey

Silky Attention

A Truing of Vision

Safekeeping the Not Knowing

Your Own Way of Looking at Things

Necessary Wildness

A Silky Attention Brought to Bear

Spirit and Body

Roasted Chestnuts and Persimmons

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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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