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At some level, everything is of interest to the eye…a view of one corner of my studio space

How do artists work? In a recent posting on Real Clear Arts, Judith H. Dobrzynski makes the case that as mysterious as the creative process is, it is that which people most want to know. And that interest exists in spite of the fact that most artists don’t really even know what their process is.

Some may say they know and wax on about their creative process. But in my experience the best you can do is create a convenient narrative. Our mind (or part of it) wants to be able to sense a path or a plan, to grab on to some sense of order in even the inchoate zones like creativity. But whatever story you tell it is just one version of the journey that actually lives in a Rashomon of valid narratives, all of them incomplete.

For example, Dobrzynski includes a quote from Georgia O’Keefe about her process:

I have picked flowers where I found them, have picked up sea shells and rocks and pieces of wood where there were sea shells and rocks and pieces of wood that I liked. When I found the beautiful white bones on the desert I picked them up and took them home too. I have used these things to say what is to me the wideness and wonder of the world as I live in it.

(This appears in the catalog for an upcoming show in Santa Fe, O’Keeffiana: Art and Art Materials.)

Dobrzynski goes on to describe O’Keefe’s way of working:

O’Keeffe was very organized. She placed her drawings in named file folders, took photographs of her still subjects from many vantage points in different light, trimmed her brushed meticulously, and so on. Associate curator Carolyn Kastner, who organized the show, told the Associated Press that she looked hard for something “messy,” but could not find a thing.

There is value in seeing an artist’s work space. It is yet another clue in the back story but just that—only a clue. Over the years I’ve visited hundreds of studios, and each tends to speaks to the highly personal journey that is happening in that work space. Mondrian came to his studio every day in a suit and never spilled any paint on his attire, an approach I have always found resoundingly impossible to imagine. On the other end of the spectrum, some artists epitomize the old saying, “An artist is just someone looking for somewhere to store stuff” and have studios that might qualify as reality TV hoarding. My friend Nancy Natale has posted dramatic “studio before” and “studio after” photos right on the home page of her wonderful blog, Art in the Studio. She may have changed teams at some point.

And as for me, I don’t know for sure which team I am on either. My studio has two parts—one is ordered and relatively presentable, the other wildly chaotic, messy and (in my mind) chock full of possibility. I always seem to opt for the both/and.

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The Lawrence Tree, by Georgia O’Keefe. Photo: Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, and Georgia O’Keeffe Museum/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

We spent several days last week in western Massachusetts, seeing Shakespeare plays and looking at art. There’s lots of both (plus music and dance) to be had within an amazingly small radius. As my travel wizard and friend Lesli points out repeatedly, a place becomes popular for a reason. The Berkshires have earned their stripes as a great vacation spot over years of building on a set of cultural offerings that are unmatched. This long tradition was brought home when I stood in the Fox Hollow mansion (formerly owned by the Westinghouse family and now the headquarters for EnlightenNext) and was shown the spot on the lawn where Tanglewood first began. The rest is, of course, history.

Two interior visual experiences stood out for me. One was the Georgia O’Keefe and Arthur Dove exhibit at the Clark, Dove/O’Keefe: Circles of Influence. While neither artist has ever been one of my inner sanctum influences, this show provided a context for the evolution of their work that was memorable and compelling. Unlike the staid and yawn-ish tradition of presenting an artist’s work in a chronological manner, the curatorial approach for the show was more organic and, can we say, rhizomatic. It did not require a start here/end here linearity, and the focus on the relationship between these two artists who were lifelong producers was much more of a free flowing exploration. Their interests coincide and diverge, than come together again. And the selections for the show are a refreshing break from the overviewed, canonical works that are so commonly associated with each of these larger than life figures. Some of the earlier works feel so open-faced and raw, far from the cliché of what too many umbrellas and address book covers can do to any good artist’s body of work. This is curating that shifts the experience quite dramatically.

And I was so pleased to finally see the Stone Hill Center, Tadao Ando’s structure that sits on the hill just up from the Clark.

A second memorable viewing: The Williams College Museum of Art, one of the most substantial college collections in this country. (And how cool that it is also free of charge.) In the introduction to a show of work drawn from the museum’s collection, the curator took issue with 20th century taste maker Bernard Berenson’s assertion that museums have an obligation to present only masterpieces and to provide the standard of exemplary excellence. Instead this was a show that brought together a variety of works which were interesting in their own right. Not obligated to only present the finest work by any given artist, the show gave more freedom for the viewer to maneuver and navigate on his or her own. Once again, more rhizomatic than linear, more open ended than elitist and prescriptive.

As for the visual feast that happens outside of a sequestered gallery, that happens everywhere—from the hike to the mountain top in the Pleasant Valley Wildlife Refuge to the pond full of lilies next to the Clark Institute to the gardens at the River Bend Farm. Lush, and more lush, all of it bursting out with a chaotic but hard-wired drive to manifest.

A sobering and heartfelt reminder for my return to the labor of indoor studio work.

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Lily Pond at the Clark

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Stone Hill Center, Tadao Ando

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Wood staining at Stone Hill Center

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Garden at River Bend Farm

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Georgia O’Keefe’s version

The Red Poppy

The great thing
is not having
a mind. Feelings:
oh, I have those; they
govern me. I have
a lord in heaven
called the sun, and open
for him, showing him
the first of my own heart, fire
like his presence.
What could such glory be
if not a heart? Oh my brothers and sisters,
were you like me once, long ago,
before you were human? Did you
permit yourselves
to open once, who would never
open again? Because in truth
I am speaking now
the way you do. I speak
because I am shattered.

Louise Gluck

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