Legacying a Life

Conflagration, by Gordon Waters (Photo: Art collection of the University of Western Sydney)

After years of experience and a commitment to abstraction I am able to “forget myself” with greater ease. The pictures have begun to determine me instead of the other way around. In the process, a more cohesive body of work has evolved. So, what is my intent? If I knew the answer my journey would be complete. The brushes and the canvas and the paper could be stowed away because there would be no need to continue, no need to “find things out.”

–From a statement by Gordon Waters about a recent body of his work (Janet Clayton Gallery)

Many artists approach their art making with a focus and dedication similar to spiritual seekers on a wisdom path. For those who walk this way, the process requires patience and a daily practice of conscientious awareness, of an ongoing willingness to let go. Some believe the wisdom or The Way is already in us and just needs to be uncovered. However the path is found, it is not about a destination or an eventual arrival somewhere. After all, as Homer observed long ago, “The journey is the thing.”

An artist’s journey leaves a visual trail, but sometimes it comes with a written soundtrack as well. Well known artists including Wassily Kandinsky, Mark Rothko, Philip Guston and Agnes Martin broadened their work with words. But for most artists the proclivity is to visualize an idea, not language it.

Gordon Waters was a friend and visual artist living as an American expat in Sydney. Last February he passed away after a long battle with cancer, and his stateside friends and family gathered this weekend to remember his life and honor his work. As part of this remembrance, several of his paintings and prints were on view.

Gordon had his foot on several paths—a Buddhist as well as an artist, a painter as well as a writer. His life was a complex blend of passions, themes and beliefs. Piecing his multi-faceted story together from viewing the works on display would be nearly impossible.

But his visual body of work is not the only record we have. A few years before Gordon died, he took on a project of writing every day for one year about his life as a painter. That book, Unless Your Picture Goes Wrong It Will Be No Good: the Engaging, Mundane, Creative Year in the Life of a Painter, now stands as the most complete portrait of his life.

This record of one year is honest and unvarnished. Gordon talks about his discouragement over a show that didn’t do well, the frustrations of feeling stuck, the pique of envy when success comes to someone else. But it is also full of ecstasy: a celebration of the joy that looking, seeing, making and meditating brought to his life.

In response to an earlier Slow Muse post about the need for tenacity and grit, friend and reader Ann E. Michael wrote this:

I feel that the vast majority of the public has no understanding of the concept of a working artist. Of the novelists who write excellent, well-received books that don’t become best-sellers…of the poets who labor at their craft constantly in whatever hours they can set aside from their paying-the-bills jobs…of the working artists and sculptors and dancers and thespians who are not “geniuses” or celebrities but whose work enriches society and culture in many, many ways.

Art making is a universe of its own, and it often falls into the category of the ineffable. Gordon was uniquely ambidextrous, and how fortunate we are that he was. While his journey was tragically cut short, he has left a legacy that speaks to a fuller and more nuanced account.

When looking at a clear night sky
The stars set out like particles of sparkling sand
Across a great black sea
Please consider the word: firmament.

For no other galaxy of letters
So perfectly describes how
We are meant to be
At the disposal
Of the majesty of the universe.

–Gordon Waters

Memorial for Gordon Waters, October 26, 2013

Note: Gordon’s essay, We Are What We See, was published on Slow Muse in 2010.

11 Replies to “Legacying a Life”

  1. Beautifully expressed.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Thank you Maureen. I hope more people come to know who he was in this life. A kind and good man.

  2. How very beautiful. Thank you, Deborah.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Thank you Stephanie for acknowledging Gordon. It means a lot to me.

  3. Fascinating, thank you. I went back to read GW’s piece We are what we see, and so agree. I had just decided to limit my spurious Internet visual input for the same reasons. I must look up his book.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Thank you for your comments and for reading his piece, We are What We See again. He was a thoughtful and articulate person.

  4. Anna Blunt Waters says:

    Deborah. Thank you for so beautifully capturing the essence of my beloved soul mate and partner, Gordon. He touched many people’s lives and lived his own life in a powerful, humble and meaningful way. He was funny, compassionate and gentle. And although his life was far too short, Gordon lives on through his art, his writing and the many people who loved and admired him. I will hold him in my heart forever. Anna Blunt Waters, Sydney, Australia.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Thank you sweet Anna for your words. Gordon lives on in me and so many others who adored his wisdom, his giftedness, his gentleness. I will always consider him–and you–as cherished friends.

  5. A privilege to have know Gordan.
    We cherish the works he left us and which remind us of our lasting friendship with him
    Darryl @ Katherine Victoria and James

  6. Lovely to read and be reminded of the warmth, breadth and talent of a cherished friend.
    Thanks, Cath, Sydney

  7. Oh, this is lovely. Gordon Waters is exactly the sort of person about whom I made that comment (on the working artist and his or her legacy). His book sounds terrific.

    Thanks for the mention, too. 🙂

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