Thursday, February 21, 2013


art and soul

A busy week around here.  Last weekend I read a few books that helped me overcome a recent painting malaise.  They were so good that I felt buoyed up, and that rising tide lifted me right into the studio and left me standing high and dry at the easel.  There I was, so I worked for three days on a painting I've seen in my mind's eye for the past five years, but was fearful about attempting.  I have many such paintings stored away in memory, and thank god they wait around for me for so long.  I get busy painting other things, both in the studio and outside, and I also get involved with the world and its obligations, and I think I will get to it (whatever that is, waiting so patiently to be made) during some future quiet moment.  Well, I don't know of any better quiet moments to be found than those that occur on a daily basis in mid-February in rural Maine.  The upshot of this is, that I finished the painting yesterday.  It isn't what I intended, of course - what I see in my head is so much better, always, than what I am able to do - but you know, it still is something.  It has form and life and energy and shows that I paid close attention to a particular moment in time, and it retains something of that moment, which meant a lot to me when it happened, and continues to resonate today.  So I'm having a quiet celebration, this morning.  (And already thinking about the next painting - being creative often feels relentless.)

Among the books that helped me over the impasse were two which I'm glad to have read back-to-back.  The first is the memoir Just Kids by Patti Smith (Ecco 2010) about her life in art and music and her relationship with the artist Robert Mapplethorpe.  What a book.  It has everything - sex, drugs, and rock and roll not least among them - even wonderful glimpses into all the New York bookshops she clerked at as a young and literally starving artist - but at the heart of the book, and the reason for its being, is the story of her own development as an artist alongside that of her soul mate (what a term, I know, but read this book and then tell me another that could better describe the two of them and their closeness throughout their journey together).  She deserved to win the National Book Award for it, and lo she did.

I copied some of her writing into my journal.  This first (p.65):

"In my low periods, I wondered what was the point of creating art.  For whom?  Are we animating God? Are we talking to ourselves?  And what was the ultimate goal?  To have one's work caged in art's great zoos - the Modern, the Met, the Louvre?

I craved honesty, yet found dishonesty in myself.  Why commit to art?  For self-realization, or for itself?  It seemed indulgent to add to the glut unless one offered illumination."

Later, quoting Mapplethorpe, she gives us what she calls "his manifesto as an artist" (p.75):

"'I stand naked when I draw.  God holds my hand and we sing together.'"

So beautiful.  What got me standing at my easel again was this (p.170):

"I was both scattered and stymied, surrounded by unfinished songs and abandoned poems.  I would go as far as I could and hit a wall, my own imagined limitations.  And then I met a fellow who gave me his secret, and it was pretty simple.  When you hit a wall, just kick it in."

And this (p.256):

"It's the artist's responsibility to balance mystical communication and the labor of creation."

The second book I read was Art and Soul: Notes on Creating by painter Audrey Flack (Penguin 1986).  I read this a few years ago but after all the Emily Carr books last month, and then Patti Smith, and also seeing a wonderful exhibit by a painter who happens to be female (and a hero of mine - Lois Dodd), I wanted to read more books written by women about their experiences with their art, in whatever form it takes. They help me set aside the fear I have in my heart, what I sometimes call the why-bothers, and just get back to work already.  Flack's book is a series of short titled vignettes - each about an event, opinion, thought, conversation, artist - organized loosely by topic.  They are wonderful and in their totality reveal much about her inner life.  She has thoughts similar to Smith's, about what art is and where it comes from (p.10):

"The act of painting is a spiritual covenant between the maker and the higher powers.  The intent of the artist flows through the work of art, no matter what the technique or style."

She speaks elsewhere of being moved to tears by great art (p.76):

"...then it happened, the pulse-pounding experience that occurs when one comes into contact with a masterpiece of superhuman energy, a transcendent work of art....Tears flowed from my eyes....Time stood still; art once again cut through unreality and presented bare energy, truth, and joy."

Certain songs or pieces of music bring us to tears.  Of course I have cried over many books throughout my life, and I hope to be so moved for years to come.  And a few times I have stood before certain paintings in museums and felt that overwhelming welling-up of emotion.  In response to what?  What Flack calls the "bare energy" of them.  What the artist was able to see and communicate.  That "illumination" that Smith hints is the reason for art in the first place.  Her book has it - the truth - in spades.  I finished reading it late at night, with tears in my eyes.     

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