Friday, December 31, 2010


Good news for the resolute?

New Year's Eve finds me once again considering that thorny old business of resolutions. In the Life of Johnson (p.409), Boswell quotes Samuel Johnson's Prayers and Meditations (p.101) concerning the efficacy of the making of resolutions. I'm afraid Johnson didn't hold much stock in the idea:

"Every man naturally persuades himself that he can keep his resolutions, nor is he convinced of his imbecility but by length of time and frequency of experiment.... They...whom frequent failures have made desperate, cease to form resolutions; and they who are become cunning, do not tell them.... He who may live as he will, seldom lives long in the observation of his own rules."

After taking a break from the Life to read Boswell's London Journal 1762-1763 this week (McGraw-Hill 1950), and finding that, like Pepys, Boswell carried around a little notebook in which he jotted reminders to himself to be good and moral, amidst the events of the day, and then observing Boswell's own riotously scandalous behavior almost immediately afterward, I tend to agree with Johnson. Don't make resolutions. They won't change your life; in fact, they may only serve to convince you of your own imbecility. Instead, be good, and do some gentle sinning too, year-round. Read more racy books. Eat more pie. Be a human being. Whoever makes the rules around here, if there is such a one, will surely assist us in sorting it all out at some point.

But this all sounds so pedantic - ugh! All I really wanted to say was Be good, have fun, and have a Happy New Year!

Monday, December 27, 2010


Thoughts ephemeral

As the blizzard rages this morning, I will make quick mention of a lovely new site about those charming bits of ephemera we love to collect: Bookseller Labels. The fine folks at Bay Leaf Used & Rare Books in Michigan are the responsible parties. I particularly like their reviews on the books and resources page.

Friday, December 24, 2010


December 25, 1753

A very Happy Christmas and Boxing Day, to everyone this weekend. Cold and sunny here, and I am home listening to public radio and preparing to make gingerbread to bring to our family lunch tomorrow. I'm also browsing in a facsimile reprint of the 1750s periodical The Adventurer (Garland 1978), to which Samuel Johnson contributed many essays, only signing them "T" - I discovered this while reading Boswell's Life of Johnson, Boswell saying, "...Johnson's energy of thought and and richness of language, are still more decisive marks than any signature." (p.167)

The Adventurer dated Tuesday, December 25, 1753 contains a sermon of sorts on the pursuit of happiness and its relation, or rather lack thereof, to possession of things. Its argument is persuasive, particularly viewed from a twenty-first century month known for its consumption and excess. The last page of this particular issue, signed with Johnson's "T":

The last two sentences read:

"There are few things which can much conduce to HAPPINESS, and, therefore, few things to be ardently desired. He that looks upon the business and bustle of the world, with the philosophy with which Socrates surveyed the fair at Athens, will turn away at last with his exclamation, 'How many things are here which I do not want!'" (p.294)

From spurning unnecessary possessions, to the fabulous accumulation of them: I also send along a Christmas greeting from the premier collectors of Johnson and Boswell. My copy of Donald and Mary Hyde's two-volume set Four Oaks Library and Four Oaks Farm (self-published in 1967) is a loving chronicle of their superlative book collection, formed over twenty-five years, and the beautiful home in which it was housed. My copy of this slipcased set has the following card laid in:

Would Johnson have approved? Boswell saw Johnson's own library, full of dusty unkempt books, with manuscripts and letters all over the floor, willy-nilly. So who can say. But, we approve. The Hydes collected for their own pleasure, and also for the sake of future scholarship and research, and their collection now resides at the Houghton Library at Harvard. The Hydes said, about their collection, that scholarship was their primary concern, but: "Emotionally, what the library means to us is a record of friendships..." (Four Oaks Library p. xxi); we know Johnson and Boswell would have approved of that.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010


News flash: the great books are... great

I don't know why I'm so shocked whenever I discover that a great book, A Famous Work of Literature, is actually readable. Compulsively readable, even. In fact, justly famous! Not difficult to understand, or hard to navigate, or impenetrably intellectual! Just plain old good reading and a lot of it! Boswell's Life of Johnson is proving to be just such a book, full of witty, intelligent, easily flowing prose that reminds me of Jane Austen's, albeit a bit more robustly presented. 225 pages in and I am happy to say that I am eagerly anticipating the next 1100 (give or take) with great pleasure. The Oxford Illustrated Literary Guide to Great Britain and Ireland (1981) sits at my elbow, as a steadying anchor to windward. In the entry about London, I find a photograph of the house Samuel Johnson lived in from 1749 to 1759, the prime Dictionary years. The house still stands today. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Off to read and watch the snow flurries out of the corner of my eye.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010


Notwithstanding their defects

After looking long and hard at my very own bookshelves, I finally decided what this year's winter reading project shall be. Proust will have to wait - upon reflection I concluded that after consuming the Diary of Pepys last winter, I truly crave a substantial follow-up banquet (and French pastry will not do, if I may extend the metaphor, without any insult intended). I had my eye on a group of books that have accumulated around me like a windrow and remain unread. Until now. So I think I will take up residence in the eighteenth century for a time, in the bookish presence of two literary lions who have been lounging around my library for quite some time.

To dip a toe in, as it were, I begin with an attractive old Oxford hardcover. Which caught me right away, hook, line, and sinker. R.W. Chapman, in his introduction to Johnson's Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland and Boswell's Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, LL.D. (Oxford 1924), describes his work on this seminal edition during the summer of 1918 in Macedonia. It reads in part:

", in the long hot afternoons, when 'courage was useless, and enterprise impracticable', a temporary gunner, in a khaki shirt and shorts, might have been found collating the three editions of the Tour to the Hebrides, or re-reading A Journey to the Western Islands in the hope of finding a corruption in the text. Ever and again, tiring of collation and emendation, of tepid tea and endless cigarettes, I would go outside to look at the stricken landscape - the parched yellow hills and ravines, the brown coils of the big snaky river at my feet, the mountains in the blue distance; until the scorching wind, which always blew down that valley, sent me back to the Hebrides. These particulars are doubtless irrelevant; but I like to think that the scene would have pleased James Boswell." (pp. vii-viii)

Chapman, in the finest tradition of the soldier-scholar, endures a terrible situation and wills his mind to turn to the solaces of literature, in the face of current events that defy understanding. This fine book is the result and I honor him for it.

In the illustrations which precede page 1, we see the title page of Samuel Johnson's copy of A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland (London 1703), with a long inscription written by James Boswell regarding the author, one M. Martin, Gent. The last sentence of Boswell's inscription reads, "I cannot but have a kindness for him, notwithstanding his defects." I feel just the same way about Boswell himself, and about the hero of Boswell's tale and life, Samuel Johnson. This is why I decided to spend some time in their congenial company.

I wasn't sure who to start with, but I realized that as the elder man and as Boswell's hero, Samuel Johnson it had to be. So, I've just completed the volume mentioned above, the two-for-one special Oxford edition, which begins with Johnson's account and continues with Boswell's diary of the same journey. Now I find myself well into Boswell's masterpiece The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. (Oxford 1904). I hope to find a facsimile copy of Johnson's Dictionary of 1755; the copy I possess is only a contemporary abridged reprint. I have much other miscellaneous Johnsoniana and Boswelliana. Book reports to follow, over the next weeks (and possibly months). Until then, since I never stray far from painting these days, here is Gilbert Stuart's oil sketch of Samuel Johnson, which the Houghton Library at Harvard tells us was possibly made from life but also certainly copied from Joshua Reynolds's earlier portrait of his good friend. I love this unfinished painterly sketch because it shows Johnson's avidity for reading, and highlights Gilbert Stuart's robust-yet-delicate style:

In Johnson's own words, over the winter I hope to be "...entertained with all the elegance of lettered hospitality." (Johnson's Journey &c. p.5) May I also entertain you in turn.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010


N.C Wyeth's self-portrait

In November almost the only reading I did was a total immersion into the massive collection The Wyeths: The Letters of N.C. Wyeth, 1901-1945, edited by Betsy James Wyeth (Gambit 1971). At over eight hundred pages, it contains hundreds of letters in chronological order from the time he left home as a teenager, to study painting with Howard Pyle, to just before his death. The collection is everything I had hoped for, namely, a fully-realized self-portrait. Just what I wanted to know, after revisiting some of his transcendent paintings at the local Wyeth repository again this fall. Not only are the letters a near-complete record of his painterly education and deep concerns in art and life, but in them N.C. also repeatedly acknowledges his personal heroes:

"I have nourished a thought or have experienced a sensation. I want to convey it to you. I must do it by hook or by crook. Stevenson did it with enchanting rhythm, perfect euphony, gliding sentences; Whitman fired great chaotic chunks! great gobs of thought - fairly hurled his ideas in heavy masses, so that your brain reels with the power of his meanings. And along comes Thoreau, the master of them all..." (p.486)

He idolizes Thoreau. Calls Robert Frost's book North of Boston " greatest discovery since Thoreau, in the realm of wonderful expression." (p.538) And discovers via Emily Dickinson something he hadn't quite believed before, that a woman is capable of creating fine art based on her own experience:

"Creative work of such magnificent stature is infinitely more than a means, or vehicle, of temporary escape, but rather becomes luminous radiation which makes a course to steer by. It has been a growing revelation to me to gradually awaken to the dynamic power of this frail girl's art.... This woman's creation is pure gold. (p.823)

Anyone who has pigeonholed N.C. Wyeth as an illustrator, albeit one of the most famous of the twentieth century, should read these letters to see how much he struggled with that path in life. He desperately wanted to be a painter of things of his own choosing, particularly of the transcendent nature of the American scene. And instead, he was bound to Scribner's for decades, and fit his own work in around the edges. It's heartbreaking, and I must quote his own description of Thoreau's Familiar Letters, so closely does this passage describe how I feel about his own letters:

"The letters are full of genuine pathos, not because they are pathetic, but because they are so tender, and so sincere." (p.339)

N.C. Wyeth's are that and much more. Unselfconscious, passionate, full of romantic fervor for the divine in nature and for the making of art. I don't know if I've ever read a more complete first-person record of one artist's internal life, charted over an entire lifetime. (Van Gogh's Letters, perhaps?) Riveting. I could only put it down long enough to take notes, and then, just barely. The end is particularly poignant. As World War II rages, N.C. Wyeth rails against it and prays for more time to do what he considers his real work. But we, the readers, know what lies ahead for him, on the train tracks near his home at Chadds Ford. We know he has run out of time. What a masterful self-portrait. In truth, larger than life.

Friday, December 03, 2010


A love letter to Maine

This fall I've been attempting to write a new version of my artist statement. The artist statement is a short piece of expository writing usually found alongside the bio and résumé or c.v., and is supposed to state succinctly why the artist does what she or he does. Or what the artist does and why. Or something like that. Sounds easy, right? Weeell. Try it and see.

At last I have my final version. It's only three sentences long and it took me three weeks to write. However, in the meantime I ended up with all kinds of stuff about why I love Maine so much and I thought I'd post some of that here. Because when I talk about why I love to paint, it almost always comes back to the love I have for this great state. I don't mean to say that all kinds of places aren't wonderful, because they are, but for me Maine is where it's at and I'm so grateful to be from here and to still live here. So, here goes, not my artist statement, but some of the flotsam and jetsam behind it:

I'm painting love letters to Maine, love letters full of all the stuff they are usually full of - adoration, distress, description, openness, difficulty. I revel in the particulars of the beloved - all the fine things - while tenderly accepting the faults that make up character and history.

Maine is an old heirloom apple tree. The fruit may be scarred but is still as sweet as ever. Get it while you can, the tree may not bear much longer.

Maine is the best! It's rugged, homely, elegant, strong, radiant, proud, orderly, foggy, beautiful, dark, natural, eternal, changeable, humbling, sublime!

Maine takes your identity away, who you thought you were, and gives you back something better, something more yourself.

Maine contains so many apparent dualities: hard, soft; overbuilt, barren; peace, mayhem; summer, winter; foggy, clear; city, country; purity, deviltry; shacks, mansions. Yet Maine still manages to be one place and one state of mind.

Maine has an impersonal beauty that pulls me outside of my self. Maine has radiance and spaciousness, integrity, a sense of eternal concerns, a fortitude that knows how to weather anything that arises. Once you participate in Maine's radiance, you can't not participate in it.

Maine is real, raw, where I live, what I think of as beautiful. Maine is vivid and alive. Maine is hard-earned.

Maine teaches bleak acceptance of what is, and joy in what is, simultaneously.

Maine is ancient, but never gets old.

Maine is the old-time band I dance to, the movie I most want to watch, the radio station that plays the best music, the art museum that's always open and shows my favorite paintings, the library full of books that mean the most, a photo album of beloved friends and family, the channel with all the good shows, a warm woodstove on a cold evening, the most comfortable old clothes, the satisfying food at the church supper. It is all these things; it is itself. Maine is home.

Dear me. Reading this over, I see that Mainers can be terribly place-proud and I am no exception (there is Maine, and then there is not-Maine). But I mean no disrespect and sincerely hope your own special place is all these things to you and much more, dear reader.

Here's a recent painting I made of a Maine island hillside on a blustery fall afternoon. Maine is:

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