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Alexander Trauner, Street scene in Paris, 1930 (Photo: Trauner Estate)

The Surrealists were fascinated by chance, by the spontaneous event that might unlock the unconscious. They wandered the streets and let those chance encounters play out. André Breton‘s novel Nadja is based on just such a random encounter, and the character Nadja quickly comes to mean much more than a beautiful woman met by accident on a Parisian street.

The “inspiration by wandering around” approach advocated by the Surrealists has its own version online. The 21st century method is less aerobic but highly convenient: It is that five minute wait in line at FedEx that can also be a quick access portal to timely and compelling articles, blogs and websites. If you’ve done just a bit of vetting on your social media feed, you can sidestep a lot of the silly and stupid and get right to the relevant. And sometimes the timeliness of what you find is uncanny.

Here’s a fresh example. At a recent social gathering I ended up sitting next to another artist, someone whose work has achieved commercial success. My usual response is that any time an artist can make money (with the possible exception of Thomas Kinkade, R.I.P.), that’s reason to celebrate.

But I was unprepared for the arrogance and smug self-satisfaction, the self-promotional advertisement that came at me like a fire hose for most of the evening.

This encounter disturbed me on several levels. She’s borish at best but more at stake for me is a fundamental belief that art requires both confidence and humility. One without the other and it doesn’t work. It has been a long time since I ran into someone who had such an absence of the latter.

But here’s where that Surreal serendipitousness comes in. That night I came across the perfect blog post to put my discomfort with the evening aside. Ann Michael is a writer and a poet. Her blog post, Passion, art, doubt was just what I needed at that moment.

She starts with a quote from Henry James: “We work in the dark––we do what we can––we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.”

Azar Nafisi cites this James quote in Reading Lolita in Tehran. In her memoir-based ruminations on James, she identifies deeply with James’ ambiguity, a trait in James’ fiction that her Iranian students find complex and difficult. She spends a couple of pages examining the problematic aspects of James’ work that frustrate and puzzle her students even as the same aspects appeal to her. She likes the doubt.

This quote, with its passionate appeal to the task of art, and its uncertainty, likewise resonates for me. My encounters with the ambiguity inherent in art stem from a set of experiences very different from Nafisi’s, and from James’. But our passions are similar in intensity, although I would probably tone down James’ phrase “the madness of art.”

It strikes me, now, that doubt is one of our tasks; for it is through uncertainty, curiosity, mild skepticism, and a willingness to weather the problems and puzzles of ambiguity that we keep alive our passion for the task of art, to make new, to express, to challenge, and to celebrate.

Our doubt as passion, our doubt as a task. I embrace it as an essential ingredient in staying open, in courting a wild and unexpected relationship with the uncertainty that is art making. Thank you Anne, and thank you so many others whose wisdom has shown up just in time.


George Wingate viewing “Candara” at the show in Providence (photo by Robert Hanlon)

George Wingate, artist and life long friend made a trip down from Wenham to see the show at Rhode Island College, “Acquire/Inquire.” He sent me the photograph above with these simple words:

standing before the moon.

Oh that I could evoke that haunting landscape, that I might capture some of that earthiness that is not Earth, that landscape that does not carry a drop of our DNA in its dust.

The show comes down today. This was an important exhibit for me, the first public showing of a very new and different body of work. Thank you to the wizardry and resourcefulness of curator James Montford, the accompaniment of three extraordinary women—Marcia Goodwin, Doris Weiner and Denyse Wilhelm—and the universally welcoming faculty and staff at Rhode Island College.

Here are highlights from three reviews of the show:

Barlow’s paintings are sensual…she paints handsome, crusty, glistening abstractions like Golasule, which resembles frosty white-blue ice. Others look like lichen or, in the case of Gola, a turquoise and milky white tropical tide pool.
Greg Cook
The Boston Phoenix

The paintings of Deborah Barlow are ethereal and light, mixing multiple forms of paint and technique. While the other artists focused on a search and discovery form of style, Barlow is more scientific and alchemic.
Kyle Grant
The Anchor

Deborah Barlow is represented by a series of lushly luminous abstractions that look a bit like Minimalist cloudscapes. (Look long enough and you may feel like you’re floating inside the world’s most tasteful lava lamp.)
Bill Van Siclen
The Providence Journal

I am always grateful for fresh words that help describe a new body of work. “Standing before the moon” feels good, as do a few other words that came from these writers—“handsome,” “crusty,” “glistening,” “scientific,” “alchemic.” Even the lava lamp reference is growing on me after my very with it daughter gave it a thumbs up.

One wall of the “Acquire/Inquire” installation

To see more images from the show, click here.

Untitled (Seven Mountains) by Ursula von Rydingsvard (Photo by Ben Aqua)

In the introduction to David Levi Strauss‘ book From Head to Hand: Art and the Manual, he points out that “in an increasingly mediated world, one of the most radical things artists can do is to use their hands.” He goes on to quote Leo Steinberg: “The eye is a part of the mind.”

This point of view is right in line with my operative ethos for art as defined by Robert Smith in her review a few years back of what is missing in too many of the museum shows she was seeing: Art that seems made by one person out of intense personal necessity, often by hand. So the reference in Strauss’ title to the head and the hand is of elemental importance to my view of art making.

This small book has been on my nightstand for nearly a year. The writing has a compact denseness that I love. You only need to read a line or two at the end of the day to be dropped into that meditative state before sleeping. Strauss offers his wisdom and insights on a number of artists and writers who are among my personal favorites: Joseph Beuys, Martin Puryear, Ursula von Rydingsvard, Nancy Spero, Cecilia Vicuña. I’ll share a few passages from the book over the next few posts.

Here is a sampling from his chapter on Ursula von Rydingsvard, “Sculpture and Sanctuary”:

Rydingsvard’s relation to the symbolic is effected by her relation to nature. She has often spoken in interviews of her abhorrence of competing with or imitating nature. She eschews mimesis in favor of reciprocity, aiming to get the objects she makes “to echo things that nature might say but doesn’t.” Her organicism is always a mediated organicism, arising from the religious imagination as defined by W. S. Piero: “The religious imagination is a respondent, form-making act of consciousness, back toward and into that which it believes has shaped it—the force of otherness. It replies to the givenness of existence by reshaping the forms of nature into the forms of work.”

My review of Rydingsvard’s show at the de Cordova Museum last year inter alia can be read here.

Ursula von Rydingsvard, from her recent retrospective at the de Cordova Museum

The sand along the shore in Small Point, Maine: The water’s silky attention brought to bear

I’ve posted a few Jane Hirschfield poems on this blog previously (here and here) and continue to explore her body of work. In the meantime I have been savoring her volume of essays about poetry, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry. As is often the case, musings on poetic invention are usually very apropos for visual art making as well.

Hirschfield’s first essay is about concentration, a term she uses to describe a particular state of awareness: “penetrating, unified, and focused, yet also permeable and open.” She describes concentration that may be “quietly physical—a simple, unexpected sense of deep accord between yourself and everything. It may come as the harvest of long looking and leave us, as it did Wordsworth, amid thought ‘too deep for tears.'”

Here are a few more insights into this idea:

Violinists practicing scales and dancers repeating the same movements over decades are not simply warming up or mechanically training their muscles. they are learning how to attend unswervingly, moment by moment, to themselves and their art; learning to come into steady presence…Yet however it is brought into being, true concentration appears—paradoxically—at the moment willed effort drops away…At such moments, there may be some strong emotion present—a feeling of joy, or even grief—but as often, in deep concentration, the self disappears. We seem to fall utterly into the object of our attention, or else vanish into attentiveness itself. This may explain why the creative is so often descried as impersonal and beyond self, as if inspiration were literally what its etymology implies, something “breathed in”.

Great art, we might say, is thought that has been concentrated in just this way: honed and shaped by a silky attention brought to bear on the recalcitrant matter of earth and of life.

There is much more to share which I will over the next few weeks.

Something does happen in the body when you are truly out of digital reach. No cellphones, computers or televisions. And in that digital silence, life takes on a different texture. In the splendid isolation of the Maine coast, worries and concerns begin unpacking and gently floating off your bow. In the words of Yeats, peace does come dropping slow.

That setting is also the perfect backdrop to what turned out to be our ongoing discussion of decision fatigue. Prompted by John Tierney‘s New York Times Magazine excerpt from his soon-to-be-released book, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, written with Roy F. Baumeister, this was our conversational theme all week.

Tierney explores new research in the personal cost of making decisions, little ones as well as big ones. The results are sobering for all of us who live in the distraction-rich, small decision-ridden world of 21st century America. These findings scientize what many of us have observed in ourselves and others.

From Tierney’s piece:

The cumulative effect of these temptations and decisions isn’t intuitively obvious. Virtually no one has a gut-level sense of just how tiring it is to decide. Big decisions, small decisions, they all add up. Choosing what to have for breakfast, where to go on vacation, whom to hire, how much to spend — these all deplete willpower, and there’s no telltale symptom of when that willpower is low. It’s not like getting winded or hitting the wall during a marathon. Ego depletion manifests itself not as one feeling but rather as a propensity to experience everything more intensely. When the brain’s regulatory powers weaken, frustrations seem more irritating than usual. Impulses to eat, drink, spend and say stupid things feel more powerful (and alcohol causes self-control to decline further). Like those dogs in the experiment, ego-depleted humans become more likely to get into needless fights over turf. In making decisions, they take illogical shortcuts and tend to favor short-term gains and delayed costs. Like the depleted parole judges, they become inclined to take the safer, easier option even when that option hurts someone else.

There are many behaviors that we have adopted that are decision energy zappers. Spending time online. Weddings. (Tierney describes them as Decision Hell Week.) Shopping. The option-rich abundance that we have come to view as a sign of advanced culture. (What? That only comes in 8 colors?)

He also shares a valuable insight into the implications of these findings on the perpetual poor: “This sort of decision fatigue is a major — and hitherto ignored — factor in trapping people in poverty. Because their financial situation forces them to make so many trade-offs, they have less willpower to devote to school, work and other activities that might get them into the middle class.”

And what does the body need most to replenish itself from decision fatigue? Glucose. Those candy bars at the check out counter are there for a reason. Your resistance is low after shopping, and you need a glucose hit to continue on.

In his concluding comments, Tierney offers up a profile of the optimal decision maker:

“Good decision making is not a trait of the person, in the sense that it’s always there,” Baumeister says. “It’s a state that fluctuates.” His studies show that people with the best self-control are the ones who structure their lives so as to conserve willpower. They don’t schedule endless back-to-back meetings. They avoid temptations like all-you-can-eat buffets, and they establish habits that eliminate the mental effort of making choices. Instead of deciding every morning whether or not to force themselves to exercise, they set up regular appointments to work out with a friend. Instead of counting on willpower to remain robust all day, they conserve it so that it’s available for emergencies and important decisions.

“Even the wisest people won’t make good choices when they’re not rested and their glucose is low,” Baumeister points out. That’s why the truly wise don’t restructure the company at 4 p.m. They don’t make major commitments during the cocktail hour. And if a decision must be made late in the day, they know not to do it on an empty stomach. “The best decision makers,” Baumeister says, “are the ones who know when not to trust themselves.”

What are the implications of these findings on art making? Well, let’s start with how many decisions are involved in a single painting. The number exceeds what most non-artists would expect. (I am reminded of the line from a 90 year old Agnes Martin, delivered to a visiting reporter after her morning session in the studio: “Painting is hard work!”) Applying these findings to the life of an artist or maker, certain good work habits emerge as invaluable—a regular schedule for working, staying conscious of when the body and willpower are depleted, the importance of taking breaks. And perhaps I can now view my need for a bite of chocolate around 3pm as a righteous cry from the body for glucose reinforcements.

Great article. Available to New York Times subscribers here.

Cover of Gillian Welch’s last recording, The Harrow and the Harvest

Life has rhythms and frequencies. Lots of them. And as I get older I am increasingly sensitized to the need to pay attention to what those are. Time to consider biodynamic agriculture? I’d say we need to consider biodynamic living.

Plowing through to a goal with no regard for its particular demands of pacing and timing was elemental to the way I was raised. Being hard working, task-oriented, efficient, committed and tenacious were the qualities valued in my mid-century childhood home—values grounded in heady post war American exceptionalism and laced with a heady combination of Mormonism and the Harvard Business School.

Looking back I am convinced that a large part of my immediate attraction to art making was the need to dismantle that willful sense (or illusion) of control. Art, like nature, is rarely efficient. You learn by making mistakes, lots of them. You move forward by paying attention to the unexpected, not-so-logical, subterranean voices. Your M.O is usually subversive, playful, prankish and disruptive. Predictability, metrics and pro forma are not useful tools but creativity killers.

But after all these years I still have remnants of that vestigial stripe from my childhood running down my back. The proclivity to be productive, to strive for a sense of forward progress, to use every minute in my studio wisely and well—is still there. Talking myself down off that platform is a daily mantra.

One of my favorite passages in Anne Truitt‘s artist memoir, Daybook, is about the willingness to follow an urge even if you have no idea what it means or where it will take you. It’s like riding a horse that is galloping down a road in the dark, she said, and then you get to the end and there’s nothing there. You walk back and wonder what that was all about. I am drawn to that metaphor because it speaks to how we are constantly reminded to let go, to jump on the horse’s back with or without a saddle, with or without a bridle. That is the way you stay ready, porous, pliant.

So of course I was moved to hear Gillian Welch, musician extraordinaire, talk frankly and openly about times when her process just wasn’t working well. It’s a bit like a politician going public with an admission of depression for an artist to acknowledge that there are long, dry spells when nothing comes together. Her new release, aptly named The Harrow and the Harvest, was eight years coming.

Eight years. The thought of being in my studio, painting, and not feeling connected to my work for nearly a decade IS harrowing.

But Welch talks of this difficult phase of her life without drama. When asked why she felt stuck, she doesn’t have an answer. But she is forthcoming about her circumstances. “It wasn’t writer’s block. It was creative block. I was writing songs. I just didn’t like any of them.” She had to wait until she loved what she was writing again. The turning point came just last year. Something shifted and the songs just started to flow again.

“A creative dilemma is a spiritual dilemma,” says Welch.

Ah yes.

A vacant loft in Chelsea that we just happened upon recently. Ah, the provocation of empty space. It always excites my “if only!” energy.

Often discussed, but still a furtive topic: How does an artist finds his or her voice? An identifiable style, that creative stride that becomes signatory?

The search for that essence is part of what gets tracked by art historians in studying the trajectory of every canonical artist. When does it appear? How does it come to be? Who are the influences from which it is fashioned?

As I said, it is furtive.

David Orr begins his recent review of two books of poetry by Matthew Zapruder and Rachel Wetzsteon* with his take on this topic:

According to conventional wisdom, younger poets are engaged in “finding their voices” — a process often described in terms that make it seem like a cross between having an epiphany and having an aneurysm…

Many readers think of a poet’s distinctive style as being “found,” rather than, for example, “built.” They suppose it arrives as “an unstopping flood,” rather than in dribs and drabs and half measures. They believe it’s a matter of, yes, inspiration.

And in some ways, it is. But it also isn’t. The achievement of a style is like the achievement of an individual poem writ large: it’s a delicate balance of confidence and guesswork, as the writer simultaneously relies on what’s worked in the past, bets on what might work right now and tries to leave a little room for things that might work in the future. It’s like baking a pie with a recipe in one hand and a wish list in the other. Some poets manage the feat in their first books (Bishop), others take a couple of outings to get things right (Larkin) and still others pass through multiple styles over the courses of long careers (Yeats, Auden). The process is fascinatingly byzantine, but it’s not really a matter of “divine prompting”; rather, a poet arrives at a style through the same combination of staggering labor and jolts of luck that most complex activities depend on.

“Staggering labor and jolts of luck that most complex activities depend on.” In other words, the rag and bone shop plus a dose of good fortune. If only that was all any of us ever needed to achieve the convergence of our work and our imagination. Meanwhile, it’s chop wood and carry water.

* Rachel Wetzsteon is a poet I have written about a several times here:

Meanwhile’s Far From Nothing
One More From Rachel’s Hand
Throwing up a Curse That Comes Back a Blessing

Atesse, from a recent series of paintings

One aspect of having online access into every nook and cranny of the world (as well as the latest thoughts of millions of bloggers) is being able to see into the extraordinary range of human passions. I’m not referring to the largest engine of human cyber passion, pornography, but the myriad of quirky unexpected subgroups. Now every person whose is just crazy about 12th century Scottish coins or training small dogs to knit scarves while pushing a baby carriage can find each other and convene.

It does cause me to pause and wonder just what it is about a particular activity or field of study that captures the passion of a person. There are the large rivers that carry lots of us, like being a sports fan. Then there are the smaller streams that we might have believed were just rivulets only to discover lots of other people floating along that same waterway. I know a guy whose many eccentricities have included a life long passion for airlines. It didn’t stop at hanging around airports and tracking the serial numbers of American Airlines jets: he would force his wife and family to spend their vacations near the bone yards of retired jets so he could keep track of his favorite planes. One of the first things I discovered when the web became ubiquitous was that plane spotting is a huge passion all over the world and not as peculiar a passion as I would have supposed.

My passions are more familiar but they run deep. I have been painting since I was 17. I have never grown tired of making or looking. It is the first thing on my mind when I wake up and has been for most of my life. There’s just no logical explanation for how deep a passion can run.

I thought of the nature of passions reading David Kirby’s review of David Orr’s new book about poetry, Beautiful and Pointless. From the review:

In the end, poetry matters to the people it matters to for the same reason that anything appeals to anyone, which is that they love it. Orr uses the title of the poet Edward Hirsch’s book “How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love With Poetry” to suggest that people who fall for poetry fall hard. In a book filled with excellent quotations, he surprisingly doesn’t cite James Dickey’s line — “What you have to realize when you write poetry, or if you love poetry, is that poetry is just naturally the greatest god damn thing that ever was in the whole universe” — but essentially his book says just that.

This will come as no surprise to many. But what makes “Beautiful and Pointless” different from thousands of other defenses of poetry is that, according to its author, poetry differs from music and stamp collecting in that people’s love for poetry is measurably greater than their love for any other activity. Poetry fans don’t just love poetry a little; they really love it.

Which brings to mind a few lines from one of Mary Oliver’s most popular (but still memorable) poems.

From “Wild Geese”:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

A recent shot of my studio table

Some periods are creatively fecund, and some are not. After many years of being an artist, I have come to expect both the ups and the downs of a life in the studio. As I have observed many times on this blog, the nature of the work that happens there is the old Zen Buddhist adage, “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water; after enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.” Every day, the work of the work. The same before a painting comes together, and after.

Right now I am in a very rich vein. My sessions are starting very early and are lasting all day. Eight hours feels like two. My dreams at night are full of metaphors and images that address very specific technical and imaging issues that have surfaced during the day. It feels like every available channel is showing the same program.

This convergence is extraordinary, but it comes after several years of intense and painful struggle, the longest and most difficult period of my long life as an artist.

A good friend was surprised when I recently confessed to the extreme creative frustration I have been dealing with over the last three years. “I’m so surprised. You never let on that things weren’t going well.”

Which raises an important issue, one that concerns the private domain that is the creative process. Not every artist has difficulty sharing their day to day progress (or lack of it) as I do. But I recently had insight into another artist’s similar challenges in communicating that extremely inchoate and highly internal terrain. Joyce Carol Oates’ piece in the New Yorker, “A Widow’s Story”, is a memoir about the death of her long time husband Raymond Smith. In that account Oates makes an extraordinary comment:

Ray read little of my fiction. He did read my essays and my reviews—he was an excellent editor, sharp-eyed and informed, as countless writers who were published in “Ontario Review”, the journal he edited, said. But he did not read most of my novels and and short stories, and, in this sense, it might be argued that Ray didn’t know me entirely…

For writing is a solitary occupation, and one of its hazards is loneliness. But an advantage of loneliness is privacy, autonomy, freedom.

In our marriage, it was our practice not to share anything that was upsetting, demoralizing, or tedious, unless it was unavoidable. Because so much in a writer’s life can be distressing—negative reviews; rejections; difficulties with editors, publishers, book designers; disappointment with one’s own work, on a daily or hourly basis—it seemed to me a good idea to shield Ray from this side of my life as much as I could. For what is the purpose of sharing your misery with another person, except to make that person miserable, too?

It may be a personality proclivity that drives one person to seek comfort through intimate sharing and confessional conversation with others while another takes a completely different tack. I go silent when I’m stifled, frustrated or discouraged. One friend says I retreat into my private cave. Sounds like Oates is a bit like me in that respect. Another famous retreater type is Jonathan Franzen who went into hibernation from everyday life for nine years to write his spectacular novel, Freedom. Some of his quotes regarding that withdrawal are quite extreme, like “It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction”, and “Every good writer I know needs to go into some deep, quiet place to do work that is fully imagined. And what the Internet brings is lots of vulgar data. It is the antithesis of the imagination. It leaves nothing to the imagination.”

What a phrase: Every good [artist] needs to go into some deep, quiet place to do work that is fully imagined. I’m not saying much, just nodding my head yes.

Kathleen Kirk’s post, Persistence and Patience, is a thoughtful description of how she ended up, after several career explorations, being a poet. In her graceful telling, she describes her many forays into other creative fields—music, art, theater, teaching—but none of them evoked the necessary persistence and patience in her that is needed to keep the passion fed and fueled when the work is hard and the way is difficult. Once you find your métier, something shifts. When you are wired for sound, you just have to let go.

I found Kirk’s point of view resonant with my own experience:

I get rejected, accepted, and published all because I am patient and persistent. I have lived through various “trends” in writing, waiting patiently until the thing I do can be appreciated and accepted once again. Beauty has gone out of fashion, and come back. “Nature poems” have been despised, but now everyone is “going green.” Some people equate simplicity of language with simplistic thought, and thus ignore me, while I have always found that the most complex thinking usually requires the greatest clarity of statement. I am not a flashy poet, nor a trendy or political poet. I write about what goes on around me, and inside me.

Paul Auster has said, “Becoming a writer is not a ‘career decision’ like becoming a doctor or a policeman. You don’t choose it so much as get chosen, and once you accept the fact that you’re not fit for anything else, you have to be prepared to walk a long, hard road for the rest of your days.” I am committed to walking this long, hard road and have been on it, in my meandering way, for quite a lovely while.