“New Shadows V” 1996 Oil on canvas 63 x 63″. Per Kirkeby, Private collection.
A lovely gift took me and my youngest to the Per Kirkeby exhibit at the Phillips Collection. A massive show for that gallery, I found most of the work to be interesting–powerful–but with a few exceptions not in a color palate that resonated. Excepting the canvas above.
We stood though, and watched the latter part of a bio-video from 1996 that accompanied the exhibit. A wonderful film (whose title I can’t seem to source) that followed Kirkeby through the process of creating one canvas. And that’s where the resonance kicked in. Watching him build and rebuild, scaffold-squatting as he worked the top areas, bringing other canvases to visually enter a concept, and repeatedly sitting in an overstuffed chair to take in the place the painting had moved to before going at it again–all the while commenting on the process–my head began to nod in agreements. Especially with the solid understanding that building–layering strokes on strokes has nothing really to do with the current buzz-terms of “destroy,” and “deconstruction.” But rather the uppermost layers would never be possible without the under-structure work. Not that the previous is a framework, but a layer of concept that allows the exploration of change.
In this culture we are so trained to strive toward completion, ownership and the demonstration to ourselves and others of our skills that we seem to be losing the essential gift of impermanence. We see a wonderful sandcastle on the beach and are unable to grasp that one of the intrinsic beauties is that the next high tide will obliterate it. We are always a little shocked and dismayed to discover some masterwork contains evidence of reworking by the artist. The term pentimento is the Italian word for repentance or regret. As though the artist has “fixed” some earlier error.
Suppose though, we allow ourselves to think of this process as forward motion. An ongoing process of exploration combined with a joyful recognition of experiencing the present moment of any work. My earliest teachers taught me, respect for supplies aside, that no working at the art is ever wasted–but that no one piece is sacred. How freeing it is to work that way.
In my annual process of clearing out my email newsletters and feeds I came across this discussion opener from a linkedin arts group: “I believe families are terrible studio mates. I also believe women need to support one another by creating spaces and groups to support them when family fails them.”
This is such a recurrent theme of so much of what is written about and for women who choose to be artists, I had to respond.
I have been a working artist, artist/teacher for over 40 years. While there have been magical periods when I had formal studio space, much of my work has been done on the dining room table, or at the easel tucked onto the sun porch between bicycles and toys. I’ve had periods when I’ve been richly supported by fellow artists as part of a working group, and periods when the only artists I “communicated” with were masters hung on a museum wall. I’ve given over all kinds of my supplies to a school project, and certainly stopped work to shuttle kids or spouse, or make dinner. Through the years there has been an undercurrent of justified unhappiness with my not having a “real job”, and always no hesitation to interrupt my work with a “where are my socks” question.
But, there has always been a respect for my work, and my working at my art. Even when small, my children knew better than to touch my work. I keep a decades-old, almost symbolic watercolor brush that was never, ever “borrowed,” nor have I never heard a single grouse when I would (and often still) be up until the wee hours working.
The difference for me is that when I work–while I’m vaguely aware that I have responsibilities at some hour, I am in such a state of flow that minor interruptions, grousing, surroundings are unimportant, I am in that state of being with the work. When I am there, I am separate from opinions or responses from anyone else. This isn’t something I deliberately learned through the years, as I remember feeling this state of flow in a high school classroom–that state of just not being aware of anything but my work.
While unfortunate, it is historically documented that for a woman to be an artist there are additional demands, restrictions placed on her working. Many women through the centuries have made an active choice to withdraw from the norm and not marry or have children. Absolutely I have had moments when I wish I had taken that route, and everyone in my family has heard me mutter (or bellow) “a room of one’s own!” from Virginia Woolf”s “A Room of One’s Own.”.
But in the end, as I learned from one of my first teachers–mine is truly the only important voice. I know when I absolutely have to work–or explode. I know when a piece is working or needs to be reworked or trashed. And I know when (whatever it is) it is finished. If I believe anything it is that. Every artist has that voice inside. Learning to focus on that voice can make all the difference.
So I will empty the dishwasher, put a load of laundry in, clear off the dining room table–and get back to finishing the drawing above.
More and more often, I experience a powerful dichotomy of emotion in a single day. Yesterday it was all about art, the arts, and young people.
Throughout most of the day, I stood at a multiple college portfolio review, helping my youngest navigate the lines to interview. In the hours I stood I became more and more heartened.
The room was packed with young people toting French portfolios, carefully clutching sculptures or ceramics, wielding laptops–most accompanied by family members as they waited in lines to meet representatives of various college level arts programs. Most of the best known art programs were there, hosted by Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts. In each line, I was at some point close enough to overhear the reviewer’s approach and response to a young person’s work. Without exception I heard gentleness, enthusiasm and encouragement from the staff–even when the response could be easily understood to mean “Go home and keep working, you aren’t ready yet.”
Of course I am quite clear that tuition to these institutions is ridiculously prohibitive to many, and that of any thirty kids in line for The Arts Institute of Chicago, perhaps two had a chance of admission. I also considered all the wonderfully gifted students not present. Those without resources, guidance or even exposure to the arts in his or her public school.
But the artistic energy in the room was palpable. Yes, I saw the less talented, less skilled end of the spectrum–but I also saw outrageously exciting artwork. In every genre, every medium. Even more encouraging to see was the young people. I saw ownership, eagerness, and passion. Even those who would surely abandon the idea of an arts degree had a foundation. The urge to create was visibly embedded.
And then I came home and found the trailer for the “Landfill Harmonic” that is circling Facebook. After checking Snopes I watched the video again. The website for the film states, “Landfill Harmonic is an upcoming feature-length documentary about a remarkable orchestra from a remote village in Paraguay, where its young musicians play with instruments made from trash.” The “Recycled Orchestra” is just that–violins, cellos, flutes–created from trash. Trash from the landfill that is home to the young musicians. .
Watching the promo film for a third time I could see the same expressions of hope and creative passion that I had seen at the college fair earlier. “My life would be worthless without music.” This from a young girl in Cateura, Paraguay holding a violin crafted from scrap metal. “I live for my painting.” This from a young man in Richmond, VA displaying his work on a laptop worth several thousand dollars.
None of this is new, certainly not to me. As I watched the video, with the stack of promo material my daughter had collected piled next to me, a quiet thought became louder in my head. It is so very easy to see the disparity of benefits in this world. To become angry, to shed a tear, to post a comment or a video to some social network site. To cheer the efforts of others, to carp and snark about government budget cuts, to justify my own inaction with some statement of my inability to effect real change.
But sometimes, the easier path is to actually do something. To stand up, speak up, and get to work. To try and fail, and try again is always healthier. At least for me. So look out. I may not be able to be stopped this time.
There is a state of being that doesn’t quite fit the negative connotation of “procrastination,” but when carried too far becomes limiting at the minimal and crippling in the extreme. Preparation. Not that I fault the act of preparing. Mise-en-place was something I struggled to learn as not an additional chore, but a necessity in so many pursuits. It saves time, materials, and reduces frustration. When I teach I tell my students that there are three essential parts to any art-making, and the putting in order of materials and tools at the beginning and end are as important and the creation itself.
It happens often that the organization of materials, clearing of workspace, decision of image and placement takes on a life of its own. It becomes far too safe and satisfying to gather the goods, set-up the space, and then consider the act time as work well-done for the day. Or days. If not careful, this is when the inner critic catches a glimpse of an opening and blossoms with the niggles of self-doubt. Do I really want to work in graphite, or what about the alphabet series, the textile piece, the handmade book…until the real uglies step in. The “It’s already been done,” “What do I need with another stack of abstracts.” Read: “Not good enough.”
Fortunately I’m old enough to have traveled this miasmic snare before, and know, even in the depths of snarled impotence that there will be an emergence. There is the reward of working flow so very close. But as I age, I am also more and more aware of time as a factor. How many lethargies do I have to spend. How large a cache of ideas conceived, but not birthed am I willing to leave as legacy.
So I come again to moving from potential to action. A soul-centered place of remembering that abject failure is always, always preferable to annihilating torpor. It is that same state of being where from muscle-memory I know the steps to the water’s edge without looking. The place where I know that only by walking into the deeply clouded dawn will I have the chance to see light break through. To guide my way.
For some reason the word “autodidact” has repeatedly popped up in my reading recently. Enough that I’ve been thinking about the nature of being “self-taught.” The idea of achieving a skill or other knowledge on ones own is certainly something I’ve claimed. But really, I’m not sure it’s possible.
I’ve been on both sides of formal education and training; written resumes that documented degrees, and touted independent, self-taught skills. Yet looking at my collection of learned abilities, it seems to me that I could not have, no one could have learned all alone.
Yes, there is a wonderful human ability to gain skills by both arduous trial and error, and those incredible flashes of insight. At least for me though, I recognize that those sparks of insight are triggered by something that already exists. Something I’ve seen, heard, felt, even smelled moves into my brain–and then shifts into something new. That new idea then is a twist on something that exists. Certainly this has been documented throughout history. Newton’s apple, da Vinci’s translation of the dragonfly to a flying machine, Fibonacci’s sequence plainly visible in every sunflower–all notions that were progress from an observance.
Of course when we trace back to our origins, there was a hominid who first drew on the cave wall, transforming forever a stick into a drawing tool, and the stone wall into an art surface. Whoever he or she was, the designation of autodidact obviously applies. I would love to know, to understand and experience what spurred that first artistic action eons ago. I believe then, that since that first artwork, we’ve been learning from each other.
Perhaps this is something to celebrate and cherish. In a time when formal education is becoming more and more rigidly determined by rising costs, and tightened entrance acceptances, it might be a good time to find ways for each of us to share what we know. We all have a wealth of knowledge to share, we all have a vibrant curiosity for what we don’t know. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we all opened our brains, and our hearts and learned from each other.
My Dad wasn’t many things. Success wasn’t measured for him in scholarship, career, finance or athletic ability. He never imparted wisdoms, past the occasional “If you don’t make your mother mad, life will be easier.”
Yet he had an incredible gift–he possessed the ability to share unconditional love. He never discussed this with me, but throughout my life with him I would see him smile and say “hello” to someone on the street. If I asked who the person was he would just quietly say, “Oh, I don’t know him, but it looks like we could both use a smile.” And that was it. No “parent-lecture” on the responsibilities to love one’s fellow man, no pontifications whatsoever.
I think about my Dad often, but especially on Valentine’s Day. He told one February 14th when I was a teenager in the midst of some boyfriend angst that Valentine’s Day wasn’t just for romantic love. That it was a day when even crabby people could shake it off and smile at a stranger. And of course he loved heart-shaped boxes, deep red roses, and silly cards. His favorite I think were the message hearts. Because they were fun, because he could give them to everyone in the office, because, as he said–they are a smile in your mouth.
My Valentine’s Day wish for all (including me), is to experience a little of the love my Dad had every day. Smile at a stranger, share some message hearts, give the critical brain a rest for the day, and just enjoy being alive.
Happy Valentine’s Day, Daddy–Happy Valentine’s Day to you all!
In a recent post the wonderful Danielle LaPorte asked the question: How do you want it all to feel? One of those enduring questions that can shift consciousness to levels of bright hope, deep fear, and just flat-out confusion. But there are moments when the answer is right there–out loud, just before waking. A clear, absolute statement. Stronger than a message, a full synapse-snapping statement. It shakes you from whatever depth of ennui you’ve been treading like a climber’s hoist into breathable air. And there you are.
This is a place where movement is more than ambidexterity. It’s a full-on state of flow. A constant feel of everything, all at once–but enduring, rather than fleeting flashes. It’s a place for dancing a drawing into the sand. It’s taking the left turn against traffic, knowing even in the crappy car that there’s just enough time, and turning your head to see how close it was–still moving forward. It’s seeing the artwork fully formed, without having made a stroke–but knowing where the materials are, knowing the finished piece may have nothing to do with the flash of concept, knowing that the outcome has nothing to do with the concept.
This is the place where synchronicity occurs with breathing. It isn’t that some cosmic beneficence is popping old favorites on the radio or tinging the sunrise clouds with an especially brilliant hue. It’s that your ears and eyes are at one with the rest of you. All of you. This is a walking, breathing, fully aware state of flow. It can’t be shaken by the minutiae of functioning in the world. Minor irritants aren’t ignored–they are dealt with–with fluid movement and a little humor.
This is a pushed-up sleeves place–where muscle-memory is powered by backbone. It’s a place where intent cannot possibly be shaken by fear, where failure is a learning tool, and the Bandaid box is at least half-full.This is a place for bare toes in the sand, and where steel-toe boots stand next to 4″ red pumps–ready for whatever.
This is a place where fingertips grip the right place the first time, tools have a recognizable heft and balance in the hand with or without gloves–and there’s a constant if mutable rhythm that moves from the ankle, up the spine to the base of the neck no matter where the music is coming from.
This is the place I found in that nebulous place between child and woman. A place I’ve known in extraordinary clarity in childbirth, in painting, in bending torched steel, in loving. This is the place I found again in sobriety after eons of despair. This is the place I’d recently lost track of, but never really feared was lost.
This is the place where I am everything I was meant to be. This is a place of power without any need to challenge. This is the place where I am all I want to feel, and I’m not leaving.
There are many moments when I am reminded why I love to teach. It certainly isn’t the pay or the “prestige.” But rather the gifts I’m given–just for being there.
This afternoon I was with a child who is working with me rather than being in class due to some rather serious and difficult on-going medical protocols. The nausea and exhaustion–residuals from the most recent treatments meant homework hadn’t been touched. So we began to slowly work through the 5th grade assignments. Mostly tedious drills, far below this particular child’s intellectual level–but still assignments that must be completed, submitted, assessed and charted before the upcoming grading period. When I asked about an assigned “response” worksheet for a short story, I was told that it hadn’t been done, but would I like to hear a poem from the back of the text.
I will never forget this child reading the following poem.
I’m nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there’s a pair of us — don’t tell!
They’d banish us, you know.
How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!