Still life with Mounir's ceramic donkey, wedgewood pot, and Turkish tiles.
Eid Mubarak to all my Muslim friends.
I find myself thinking a lot about what to paint or draw these days. With Gaza and our chaotic world so much on my mind, it's hard to focus on simple beauty: it somehow seems trivial, oblivious to reality, self-indulgent. And yet simple beauty and simple pleasure are what nearly every human being desires, and deserves.
The little ceramic donkey in this drawing belonged to my father-in-law, so it's precious to us. I think it came from his native Syria, though I'm not sure; to him it was a reminder of the donkeys that used to bring fresh cool water from the mountains into Damascus. In the later years of his life, he had a whole menagerie of small animal figures: birds, monkeys, camels, an elephant, snakes: a veritable Noah's ark. None of them were to scale, which gave the arrangement an even quirkier air. When he still lived in a house, they were arranged around, and in, a large houseplant. After he moved to a retirement home, they were on a wooden stand, and he sometimes liked to rearrange them for his own amusement. His favorite was a tiny mouse made of ivory. One day it disappeared and he was disconsolate. We searched everywhere but never found it. He blamed the housekeeper, saying she must have knocked it onto the floor and vacuumed it up. After he died I hoped it would turn up as the apartment was emptied, but it never did: I like to think it scampered away to live behind the bookshelves, exactly as long as he did.
Last night I began reading Elias Khoury's Gate of the Sun ("Bab al-Shams"). It's been on our shelf ever since we heard Khoury read at the Blue Met literary festival in Montreal some years ago, when he was interviewed and spoke about his close friend Mahmoud Darwish. Afterward we went up and met him, and he inscribed this copy to J., whose grandmother's maiden name was also Khoury. The novel is a story of relationships that contain Palestinian and personal histories; it is woven together rather clumsily - as the NYT reviewer notes - from snatches of stories, but this was a deliberate device by the author, who tried to write in a way that mirrors Palestinian reality: the history of the nation and each person seeming torn and patched together.
The novel is written in the voice of a surrogate son sitting at the bedside of his "father," an elderly freedom fighter who has had a stroke and lies in a coma. The son, a medic in a hospital in a refugee camp, spends most of his days bathing and caring for the dying man, refusing to believe he won't regain consciousness, and then at night, like Scheherazade, tells him stories, hoping that the words are still penetrating. I've been afraid of reading it, and now, even though I've started, I still am.
In addition to the tragic and horrifying events it recalls, the book of course also reminds me of my own dialogue with my very alert, very aged father-in-law, and of the last few months when he slipped in and out of present time and space as we sat by his bed, talking to him and listening to his own stories. When he died, at 99, a door into our family's life and history closed forever; now we too must patch it together out of fragments. Last night, when the narrator began reciting bits of verse by al-Mutanabi, perhaps the greatest of all classical Arab poets, I felt myself back in the familiar room with its blue and yellow silk carpet, the books lining the walls, the statue of Socrates on the stand in front of the old shortwave radio, and my father-in-law, leaning back in his chair, eyes shut, smiling at the ceiling as he recited poetry.
Terrible times can paralyze us, or we can use them, turning their negative energy into something better. Perhaps the time has finally come for me to pull out those dialogues that were collected here under the title The Fig and the Orchid, and see what can be done with them. As sad as my father-in-law -- a former UN administrator of a refugee camp in Gaza, among his many positions through a long life of teaching and ministry -- would be over the events today, he always believed in the power of education, beauty, literature, noble ideals, and -- most especially -- reason and truth. He often spoke about their remarkable ability to endure across the millenia, lifting people above the worst.
"The desert knows me well, the night and the mounted men.
The battle and the sword, the paper and the pen.
Al-Mutanabi, I have just learned, was the son of a humble water-carrier.
It's been a long, hard week, full of dismaying world news and, here at home, a lot of work and looming deadlines. I've had my nose to the grindstone for much of it. I used to have a lot of resistance to doing my professional work; I thought that all I wanted to do was have more free time to paint or write. When I did get some free time, I often made excuses instead of actually using it well. Somewhere along the line I saw this pattern and my attitude changed. I'm really glad it did, because resisting what you need to do, and have to do, makes it ten times harder to get it done, and to do a good job besides.
Then, there are a lot of reasons why we resist what we say we want to do the most, or manage to make it into agony rather than pleasure.
Dave Bonta recently pointed me to a terrific essay by writer/philosopher Will Buckingham, "The Pleasure and Difficulty of Writing." In it, Buckingham takes exception to Hemingway's famous quote about writing being nothing but "sitting down at a typewriter and bleeding." He writes:
"But difficulty is not something in itself that we should shun, and neither is difficulty something that people in general do tend to shun. The world is full of people doing difficult things. It’s astonishing. The prevailing orthodoxy that people are, at root, lazy — as if human beings are little Aristotelian universes, and need some kind of outside prompting, some primum mobile, to get things going — is simply nonsense. Sometimes, to be sure, people are doing difficult things out of necessity; but very often, people are doing difficult things because difficulty can be fun."
Learning to persevere in any creative pursuit is really the key, I think. In painting and writing I may get started fine, with enthusiasm and inspiration, but eventually I often find myself in a thicket -- some sort of difficulty, maybe like the middle game in chess -- and have to find my way out. I've come not to dread this, but to expect it. Sometimes it means putting the work aside for a bit, sometimes not -- but working through that sense of being lost and uncertain is actually the most satisfying part of the whole endeavor.
It can be hard to learn this on your own, and it seems to me it's where a lot of talented and enthusiastic people eventually lose their enthusiasm and may even quit. It helps a lot if students are exposed to an older mentor at some point. You can't teach patience and determination and self-motivation, but a mentor can encourage and share her experience, and model his way of working -- and maybe offer a few key words that will be remembered down the road. A focus on the "tragically struggling artist" may be romantic, or have entertainment value, or be part of someone's attempt to build an artistic identity, but as Will says, it's a pretty destructive image for talented young writers or artists of any kind, who need the tools to shape and live a whole long life, enduring the inevitable ups and downs in as healthy a way as possible.
I live with someone whose ability to keep at it, without drama or complaint, has taught me a lot. When I asked J. what taught him to persevere toward his goals in the face of difficulty, he immediately answered "sports." My dad would no doubt say the same thing: he's still playing competitive table tennis and working on his golf game at age 89, and often tells me about the subtle things he discovers and then practices in order to improve -- in spite of the aches and pains of his aging body. J.'s father, who lived to 99, was still reading and reciting Arabic poetry and discovering new insights and pleasures in it at the very end of his life. My painting mentor went to the studio every day, well into his late 80s, and told me he felt he was "just learning to paint."
For me, as a young person, it was several things: learning to play instruments; a summer course at a college when I was 16 where we had to show up and paint for four hours every single day regardless of how we were feeling; and studying ancient Greek in university -- something that was hard and demanding for three long years; I wasn't even particularly good at it but I thought it was a magical, fantastic thing to do. Forty years later I find that same passion and joy of learning in many areas of my life. Mistakes and failures are inevitable, but the more you persevere, the more you see that they're an intrinsic part of the learning process, and so you actually begin to appreciate your failures too. In Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, Shunryu Suzuki suggested that the difficulties in contemplative practice are like weeds, and that we can grow to love them as much as the flowers: he wrote "a weed is a treasure." It shifted my perspective a lot when I was able to see that.
Do you agree that difficulty can be fun? What helped you learn that, and how do you encourage yourself to keep going when you run into difficulties in a project? Do you continue to have mentors/friends, or belong to a writers' group or other collective gathering of like-minded people? Do your online friendships figure into this equation? They (including you readers!) are certainly important for me.
What a devastating week it's been. I just wanted to post this snapshot I took a few days ago, from the upper floor of a medical clinic. These two waiting mothers had been smiling and interacting happily, drawn together by their children, who just wanted to play with each other. It's not as though Montreal is a city rife with ethnic or racial tension -- it's not, though there is a certain amount of separation, perhaps to be expected in a place where there are so many immigrants. This scene simply made me feel a little better: a reminder both of what's possible, and of the happy naiveté of children who haven't learned hate or fear. Honestly, if the world were run by women, who bear the responsibility for life's continuation in their very bodies, I don't think it would be the way it is.
A recent piece by Oliver Burkeman in The Guardian, titled "How to Think about Writing," caught my attention (thanks to Martine Page for the link) because he seemed to be describing how I've always felt about blogging -- at least the sort of blogging I do, and like to read -- but it also applies generally to much of the writing I admire.
"When you write," Pinker says, "you should pretend that you, the writer, see something in the world that's interesting, and that you're directing the attention of your reader to that thing."
Perhaps this seems stupidly obvious. How else could anyone write? Yet much bad writing happens when people abandon this approach. Academics can be more concerned with showcasing their knowledge; bureaucrats can be more concerned with covering their backsides; journalists can be more concerned with breaking the news first, or making their readers angry. All interfere with "joint attention", making writing less transparent.
Couldn't agree more, though I never thought of it quite so simply. As Burkeman points out, many writers start with this as a goal, but somehow abandon or forget it along the way. As a meditator, I'd venture to guess that what gets in the way is our ego: the writing becomes about us: our emotions, desires, problems, needs, the particular ax we want to grind. In other words, we forget that the reader is standing beside us, or sitting across from us, waiting for something to unfold; waiting to be delighted, surprised, enlightened; waiting to ponder; waiting for her world to open and shift ever so slightly, waiting to be changed. That can happen through a little quirk of human behavior shown through dialogue, or through a single sentence of luminous descriptive prose, a line of poetry that reveals the familiar through an entirely new lens -- and of course, I think it can also happen through drawing and painting and all the other arts. Burkeman concludes with this advice, worth printing out and putting on my studio wall:
The reader wants to see; your job is to do the pointing.
Of course, it really isn't that simple. First we have to train ourselves to be people who actually see something: people who are able to quiet down enough that we become an eye, an ear, a sensitive skin, but not so sensitive that we cannot bear it. Then we have to learn how to express what we have learned through our senses, intelligence, and experience. Finally, we have to learn how to give it away - how to point our effort toward the invisible reader rather than back at ourselves; how to become a vessel that fills and empties over and over again.
Not a bad way to spend a life.
We took a quick trip across the border recently, for business, and drove through some of the small towns at the very top of New York State. In comparison to the well-kept Quebec farms, these areas look hard-hit by the economic downturn, just as it does in central New York where I grew up. The original downtown of Champlain, New York, is pretty much abandoned, the fine old brick and stone structures empty, boarded-up, windowless. Rouse's Point, on Lake Champlain itself, has a large marina and some restaurants on the main street, but all the shopping has moved to new little malls with a grocery store, post office, drugstore, liquor store and laundry on the outskirts. For bigger shopping trips, the residents probably drive down to Plattsburgh, 20 miles south.
We stopped for lunch at a diner, The Squirrel's Nest, in Rouse's Point. The diner was one half of two connected storefronts; the other was a bar with a few tables and a heavily-varnished massive wooden bar with curved ends made of glass blocks; it looked like it had been there a long time. We sat at a booth in the diner and ordered the soup and half-sandwich special. The soup was hamburg-macaroni -- what my mom used to call hamburg chowder - and it was just as delicious as hers. The turkey salad sandwich came as a piece of roast turkey in bread with mayonnaise - not exactly turkey salad, and without a tomato slice or lettuce leaf in sight -- but good anyway. The placemats and the walls were decorated with black and white historical photographs of the town: fine old homes and hotels, sleighs and snowstorms, factory workers, women in white shirtwaists, carriages, old signs. A few old artifacts and antiques also hung on the walls. As in central New York, a lot of people look to the past for their identity; why wouldn't they?
A stuffed squirrel presided over the restaurant's old soda fountain, with its stainless steel fixtures. "Wow," J. said, "I wonder if they can make a milk shake."
I shrugged. "Why don't you ask?"
But the waitress - a teenage girl -- looked confused at the term "milkshake" and said she'd "have to ask the kitchen."
"Don't worry," J. said. "I was just looking at the old soda fountain and wondered if everything was still working."
"Oh, no," she said, "that stuff is just there for show -- it's, like, from the fifties."
"Yep," I said to J. after she walked away. "And so are we!"
Lemon Lily and Lupine, approx 6"x 9", acrylic on paper.
I've been staring at a vase of flowers for several days - it had the aforementioned two types of flowers in it but also some ornamental clover on thin red stalks, and some bright green peony leaves. I couldn't take my eyes off the combination of that intense red and green, for which the lemon-yellow lily and purple lupine seemed like perfect foils. I wasn't sure what to do with it, but yesterday I picked a similar bouquet at the garden and took it up to the studio. The light there was very different, much more diffuse and softer, and the colors didn't have the same jolt, but when I viewed the bouquet from above, I saw more possibilities. So I decided to try to simplify it within a fairly abstract setting, and this was the result. I started with the "chair" on which the flowers were resting - my original intention was for it to be dark, with this reddish-brown underpainting, but I liked the color and everything else sort of evolved from there.
The reason I mentioned "via negativa" is that the process seemed so subtractive. During the painting I simplified the leaves a great deal and painted the lupines with a sort of shorthand. That was only possible because of the previous, detailed drawings I had done, during which the forms had become kind of imprinted in my head. It fascinates me how "line" becomes "form;" there's some sort of subtle shift in the brain that allows all that detail to be distilled and reduced to its essence.
By the same token, while I'm still far from feeling really comfortable with acrylics, all the paintings over the past few weeks helped me in this one. It's very different for me to work with opaque media (except for oils, whose unique challenges and advantages do not include working quickly in layers) -- and I'm finding that it opens up a lot of possibilities.
Anyway, I hope to be able to build on what happened here.
Cornfields, Paris Hill, New York. 5" x 12", acrylic on paper
Speaking of landscapes, as I was a few posts back -- this is what it looks like where I grew up. While living all those years in Vermont, I could never get used to the field of vision being entirely taken up with mountains covered with trees, and very little sky. I liked that too, but I always missed the pastoral landscape of central New York, broken up into a living quilt of fields and hedgerows, streams and winding roads.
I'm always interested in matters of art and culture: what's happening, and how and why we interact with it as a society and as individuals. Clothing is one particularly fascinating aspect of that; visual art another. In the past couple of days I've come across several good articles on these subjects and wanted to share the links with you.
@Berfrois, here's a thought-provoking interview about art, style, clothing, and the consumerization of non-conformity. In it, the Russian artist Margarita Tupitsyn talks about the evolution of her own personal style, and the liberation she felt when first discovering the non-gender-specific clothing of Japense designers. The Art of Style: An Interview Between Margarita and Masha Tupitsyn.
"For Japanese designers, clothing was about expressing who you are through clothing, not simply signaling cues of desirability...Today, everyone, artists included, aspire to be part of the mainstream. There is no alternative culture anymore. --Margarita Tupitsyn
Archaeology meets life in this essay by Elizabeth Mosier that moves from putting together pieces of colonial china to sorting a fabric stash left by her deceased mother-in-law.
"Memories are my material; writing is the way I keep myself from shattering...
My point is that we value objects (or not) according to the personal meaning that we bestow. Perhaps it’s sacrilegious to say it, but in the months since the sauceboat’s discovery, I’ve often wondered if the pristine Bonnin and Morris pickle stand on exhibit at the art museum escaped the privy pit not because it was treasured, but because it is absurd. In life as in memory, what we don’t use is preserved intact. But the archaeological record is often created in crisis, with emotion guiding what we take with us and what we leave behind." -- Elizabeth Mosier
Having just come back from my family home, which always leaves me full of thoughts about objects and places, time and attachments, this piece resonated -- but so did a quote from Martin Buber sent to me by my friend V., with whom I had discussed my emotional reaction to that recent trip. I recognized myself in the writing of much-younger Mosier, but realize I am heading much more now -- sometimes reluctantly, sometimes gratefully -- into the territory Buber describes:
"Insofar as a human being makes do with the things that [he/she] experiences and uses, [he/she] lives in the past, and [his/her] moment has no presence. [He/She] has nothing but objects, but objects consist in having been.
"Presence is not what is evanescent and passes, but what confront us, waiting and enduring. And the object is not duration but standing still, ceasing, breaking off, becoming rigid, standing out, the lack of relation, the lack of presence."
-- Martin Buber, I and Thou
Finally, I've long been fascinated by the work of performance artist Marina Abramovic, whose most recent piece is "512 hours" at the Serpentine Gallery in London. Unlike her celebrated and controversial "residence" at MoMa, where, for eight hours a day for three months, Abramovic sat silently across a table from visitors who queued for the privilege, in London 160 visitors at a time are allowed into a bare gallery after leaving all their electronic devices in lockers. Abramovic "places" them in the space and tells them what to do, which forms yet another comment on our participation with art and the role of the artist in controlling not only herself but her public, and thus confronting both "normal" society and its tendency toward conformity. This review in the London Telegraph deals with those issues head-on (the first part is descriptive; you'll need to read to the end to get the full commentary by this reviewer.)
In appearance Abramovic looks like a cross between Clytemnestra and an Earth Mother. Her beauty is inseparable from a personality so powerful that she can silence a room just by entering it...
Everyone in the gallery seemed blissfully happy but what I was seeing is what I imagine the open ward of a mental hospital in which the inmates have been heavily sedated must be like. The combination of the long wait in the queue and the atmosphere of soporific peace and quiet presided over by the commanding mother figure, had reduced everyone I saw to happy zombies.
Except me. It took me exactly 30 seconds to realise that I live in a parallel universe to all the people around me. Whenever I’m on a train or aeroplane and the captain tells us all to sit back and relax I long to reply that I’ve spent my entire life trying not to relax and I’m not about to start now. I hated every second I spent in this show. I longed to escape and can’t tell you what relief I felt on emerging from it into a world of light and air where people walked and talked normally, where they checked their iPhone, raced for the bus and had deadlines to meet.
Yet even as my mind raced with all these thoughts I was perfectly aware that of all the people who visited that show I was the one who most needed to be there. The important thing about Abramovic’s work is not what your reaction to it is, but that you react to it at all. -- Richard Dorment
I'd love to hear from any readers who actually attended one of Abramovic's performances in London and/or New York. Even more specifically, what do you think about the provocative statement in the first article, "Today, everyone, artists included, aspire to be part of the mainstream. There is no alternative culture anymore." ?
An unarranged snapshot of a piece of my studio, May 26, 2014. Big Iceland drawings on the wall; Montmorency Falls (Quebec) print at bottom left, two New Zealand acrylic paintings on the drawing table, an oil of Lake Willoughby (Vermont) on the top of the cabinet at right.
When I'm working on a piece of artwork I'm not consciously thinking about much except whatever's going on between my eyes, my hands, the particular medium, and my emotions. Subconsciously, though, I'm entering deeply into the subject, looking at it as if I've never seen it before - which, to be honest, it feels like I haven't, such is the intensity of that concentration. Over the past two weeks, as I've worked on the Ruahines paintings -- the most focussed period of attention to art that I've had since doing the Iceland drawings -- I've stepped back after a long session and looked around at the studio. There are some still lives here, and some portraits, but the overarching theme is landscape. And it's made me think about why I do this: why I keep returning to the landscape as a primary subject.
Artists paint what they love. I guess that's the simple answer. Still, it seems like there must be clues to a deeper dialogue going on. (I like cats, but I don't spend my life painting them!) My friend and fellow artist Natalie d'Arbeloff spoke once about my "deep feeling for the landscape," and although no one had ever put it that way before, I knew she had touched on an essential fact. The land speaks to me, and resonates within me, not just when I first encounter it, but for days and even years afterward: the California coast, the pastoral hills and dales of England, the raw elemental quality of Iceland, the flat plains of Quebec and the St. Lawrence estuary in the Charlevoix, the rocky Maine coast, the agricultural hills of central New York where I grew up -- and so many other places. I love the vibrancy of cities, but I'm not drawn to paint them. There's something about the wildness and solitude of open nature that speaks directly to my spirit, and I think I'm always trying to capture that feeling of being a single eye surrounded by something powerful that quiets me, amazes me, moves me, and somehow mirrors me.
I'd like to say "powerful and eternal," because there has always been that element in the landscape - that it was here before us and will continue after us, changing perhaps but continuous in a way that human beings are not. However, the word brings up another reason to paint, which is to try to say, "Look. Look at the beauty and preciousness of this earth." I am not of the school that believes people will ever change their behavior by being bludgeoned, but I do think people need to be made aware of what's in front of their eyes, and that a relationship with it is not only possible, but somethat that is meant to be. Not only is the natural world endangered, but so are we, by our increasingly fragmentary, individualistic, self-centered lifestyle, driven by consumerism, technology and speed. Most people are more afraid of the natural world than drawn to it; fewer and fewer are at home in solitude, or able to be in natural places without being somehow "entertained" or tethered to their cellphone lifelines, or the screens on which they capture their experiences. It's no wonder we are at a point of environmental no-return.
I am horribly upset about the Artic glaciers and Antarctic ice sheets, but nearly powerless against the economic forces and political-corporate alliances that drive climate change; we do what we can politically and individually but obviously even collective efforts by citizens are not enough. Some of that feeling definitely goes into my art: not as rage, but as witness to what has moved me and mattered to me all my life.
Bean Fields, Paris Hill, NY. 14" x 10", oil on canvas. 1990.
And there is another kind of witness, that of recorder -- in a different way from photography. I did the painting above a long time ago: it's a view across the fields of a very small hilltop town in central New York that I've always loved. I remember standing there that day - the way the heart-shaped bean leaves ruffled in the wind, the call of hawks overhead, the smell of the mown hay. This view no longer exists; the NYS Department of Transportation saw fit to build a highway that bisects this field and cuts to the left of the hill in the distance; the reason I'm sure was that a wide road would be easier and faster for truck traffic and snowplows - this is a place notorious for blowing and drifting lake-effect snow in the winter -- thus avoiding the little town center with its right-angle turn. It's not a change on a big level, and perhaps only a few of us care, but to me it's an example of so much that's wrong with modern society. Painting the vanishing or endangered landscape carries a different kind of weight from photography; it seems less overtly political but perhaps it can speak just as powerfully.
We're shaped by experience, by people, and by memory, as well as by our own particular talents and passions. This past week I've been thinking a lot about my mother, on the anniversary of her death, and how she loved the landscape too. She was a ceramic artist and painter who didn't do much artwork after her twenties, but she continued to see with the same eyes, and to help me see. I owe a great deal of my emotional response to the land to her way of relating to it, as well as her encouragement to me in my own art. I don't paint for her, but she's always there: quietly joyful and fiercely protective of art, landscape, nature, and whoever and whatever she loved.