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June 25, 2013


Ah hah! "Structural quality" re. gardens. VR watches a TV programme called Gardener's World while I loll on a couch in the background. Like aviation, medicine, and crown-green bowling, gardening employs its own obscurantist jargon and I keep an ear open for definitions so that I can communicate with our gardener. It turns out he (our neighbour, in fact, a mad-keen man of the soil and a deacon of the Baptist church) didn't understand "structure" and for five seconds I enjoyed the hollowest of hollow victories. Knowing I would pay him twice as much as my present rate to avoid working in that oh-so-disappointing medium - earth. I am pleased to see you use the word so casually and therefore so expertly.

But that is bye the bye. A more interesting matter is this: you write and you paint. I am avoiding attaching an adverb for the sake of your modesty. Artists often talk of the pleasure the act of applying colour gives them, writers rarely speak enthusiastically about hammering out the words. You are in a unique position to mediate between these two creative worlds. Are you able?

Ah, Roderick, you always ask interesting questions. Hmm. I'm currently working on a manuscript that has to do with the creative process, among other things, and in it I've been writing about the pleasures and agony of making art. For me, it's both, in both mediums. I think I find writing more demanding, on the surface anyway; to write really well (and I'm not speaking about blog posts here) is extremely difficult, and often fills me with dread, so that I will procrastinate endlessly rather than get on with it. Writing blog posts, or letters, is more like talking, and comes more easily and naturally. Doing art is almost always pleasurable for me these days, but in the past I've felt more agony, even despair, about it than I ever did about writing. Sketching and drawing are fun and absorbing, and the past couple of years of renewed practice have given me the confidence that even if today's effort goes badly, tomorrow's is likely to be better. The results often seem to give other people pleasure, and that's always a bonus. But easel painting and serious printmaking are also very challenging; I've been in real despair over oil paintings. So the deep search, in art, is as difficult and demanding as in writing, though, but I think I am a little less hard on myself there than about my writing. I want to be able to write (literature, creative non-fiction, that is) very very well, and far more easily than I do, and my efforts more often than not fall short: such is the fate of a lifelong reader and fairly experienced editor of other people's work. If I ever manage to finish this current project, you will be able to judge for yourself!

Gosh, you packed a lot into that. I must be careful in future; so easy to ask the question, so much harder for you to to provide an honest, conscientious answer which you've just done. I could pick up on virtually every sentence (not least the one about editing other's work which is how I've whiled away a large percentage of forty-odd years earning a living) but I'll confine myself to those poignant words "real despair over oil paintings."

For this reason: as one with no pictorial skills I feel instinctively this is how it should be.

We're well served in the UK by BBC TV's analytical series on painting, notably and just recently "High art from the Low Countries". There've been many opportunities to dwell on what constitutes great paintings (mainly oils) and if I've come to one conclusion it is this: I would be extraordinarily disappointed if I found out that any of Auden's Old Masters (his "suffering", your "agony") had ended up with what might be described as a facility for what they did. Theoretically this could be said of any art form but there are differences: music requires a language most of us cannot speak, prose and poetry have the every-day accessibility of speech. Painting - lying somewhere in between these extremes - hints at the magnitude of the achievement even to someone who has never held a brush. Thus your despair is an indication that you're much further down the road than most of us who shrug and go on to something else. Despair is a sort of entry tricket, a privileged experience. An emotion to be envied.

Thank you for a fascinating response.

Yes, I too have felt that despair in the struggle to make art but it's not a constant companion as it was for those who took on the making of art like a religious vocation, sacrificing everything to it. Last week when I was drawing my friends' orchard in Wales I thought about Van Gogh sitting in the fields in Arles, consumed by a desperate exhilaration, the need to give form to what he was seeing, which meant creating order out of the beautiful chaos of nature. Cezanne too with his "petites sensations", despairing that he would never get it right...not right as in correct, but as the sort of rightness that his vision dictated.

Your middle sketch, when you stopped working on it, is the one I like best.

Thank you, Natalie, for your astute comment...since seeing the "Van Gogh Up Close" show last summer in Ottawa I've felt even closer to him, as well: the exhilaration and desperation were so evident in the paintings, as well as his immense achievement at conveying just what you say: the beauty and rhythm of nature as well as its immense variety. It would be a good idea for me to go look at the catalogue again!

Roderick, some painters do develop a facility, but I think it is often a detriment. In Brooklyn I had the privilege of seeing a big show of John Singer Sargeant watercolors; if anyone ever had a facility for watercolor it was him! (And for oil, too.) But in general, though I admire the technique more than I can say, the paintings fail to move me, while those of someone like Winslow Homer - also technically gifted and a very hard worker - often do. There was one in the Sargeant show that I'd never seen, of a young soldier he obviously desired, and that painting had more in it. And a few others. Anyway - more on this in subsequent posts!

As for music: a bit different, for me at least. I was still in my teens when it became absolutely clear to me that while I was very good I didn't have the drive or desire to be a professional instrumentalist (piano or flute. It took a bit longer for me to see that I didn't have the voice of a truly gifted solo singer, and that no amount of training or practice would get me there, though I never had any illusions about being a professional! I did take a lot of lessons as an adult both voice and piano, and sang solos in church for a while in my 40s, but my voice just wasn't reliable enough and I (wisely, I think!) stopped. I'm glad I realized these things, because everything that I've done later in music has been free of that burden; I know I am not going to reach that higher level; I cannot! With music, it's more like sports: anatomy comes into it, early desire, long practice at a young age, and the die is cast pretty soon -- but your musicianship and knowledge can continue to improve, and you can participate and enjoy it enormously at whatever level is appropriate. With art or with writing, the greatest work, insights, and breakthroughs can come late -- so if you are doing it out of an inner drive, because you must, and because you want to do more than make pretty pictures or sentimental poems, then you are stuck with a certain amount of struggle, doubt, even despair. It comes with the territory, and I think most of us who persist do so not because we want fame and fortune but because the inspiration of real life on the creative force is so strong, and because we've learned that there are highs as well as lows; that the struggle is necessary and survivable.

I was conscious when I used music as one of two "book-ends" about my observation on painting, that you were outside my qualifier: "(music) a language that most of cannot speak". We have exchanged views on this before and I concluded that I envied your status as gifted amateur far more than I did that of any professional musician. In any case you share a form of that role with some folk who have had an enormous influence on music's development over the centuries: the gifted amateur with money, so infinitely superior to that of mere patron.

I take heart from "insights, and breakthroughs can come late". Having resumed novel-writing seriously in my seventies I ask myself what - realistically - are my aims. Commercial publication is unlikely yet if I apply the severest form of judgment I am capable of and can see progress (even at a simple technical level) then that is reasonable justification for continuing. Besides, I enjoy it so; even the disciplines involved are a pleasure.

Which brings me full circle. You mentioned a book about, inter alia, the creative process. You seem well equipped to write about this and I, who have almost given up reading, am keen to read it. Perhaps I can adopt a role that has honourable historical precedents. The intermittent presence at your elbow, in fact the thief of procrastination where procrastination itself is stolen and is thus prevented from doing any stealing. Steering an awkward line that comes millimetre-close to being a nag. Appearing only at two-monthly intervals, but equipped with steely self-interest. Someone who gets a mention in the acknowledgements ending with "if only to get him off my back."

That said I think both your canoe and your paddle appear to be in perfect working order.

Roderick, it's a delight to begin my day by reading your comment, and to contemplate you filling the role of "intermittent presence at the elbow." I like that, and hereby encourage you to nag me at discreet intervals, and promise to give you an honored place in the acknowledgements, should such a page ever come into existence. I'm glad you continue to write, and hope that the results of that effort will also appear some day in a form that can be shared. The real point of this whole discussion seems to be summed up in your statement, "even the disciplines involved are a pleasure." When that's true, we seem to keep our hand in, and for me, all three of these arts have given me immense pleasure all my life, far more than the pain -- for which I don't blame the arts, it's the pain of the ego and the striving perfectionist, who continually needs to learn that lesson.

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