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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.

The new Poets House building in Lower Manhattan near the Hudson (Photo: Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times)

As the plethora (din?) of voices and venues in the online free for all continues to expand exponentially, it is so helpful to have your own trusted list of favorites. Judith H. Dobrzynski is one of mine. Her blog, Real Clear Arts, covers a wide expanse of topics that, strangely enough, consistently interest and compel me. She’s brilliant, with polyglot expertise in so many different fields. Is this a case of a mind meld in the cybersphere? It would be too self-serving to say so out loud, so maybe I’ll just whisper it.

Her latest post, You Don’t Have To Be A Poet To Love Poets House, is a good example of our passion overlap. In existence for 25 years and lodged in various locations around Manhattan, Poets House has now relocated to a deluxe new home in Battery Park City, on the corner of Murray Street. And the success of this venture is no small feat—Poets House raised $11 million for developing the interior, with funding from both public and private sources.

From an article in the New York Times:

“The goal of the place is to make everyone feel that poetry belongs to them,” said Lee Briccetti, who has been executive director for 20 years. “Anyone can come and experience poetry in a new way that will deepen their relationship to language…”

“There has been an upswing in the appetite for poetry,” said Kate D. Levin, New York City’s cultural affairs commissioner. With the advent of poetry slams and spoken-word events, she added, poetry has “moved away from an association with a rarefied crowd to a more populist world and the Poets House folks are tapped into that.”

Dobrzynski ends her posting with her report of a comment made to her about Poets House by Boston-based poet Robert Pinsky: “God bless the caretakers; Poets House is a caretaker.”

Caretaking. That’s something all the arts could use a lot more of.

Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University in Waltham MA (Photo, Boston Globe)

Thanks to the ever-resourceful blogger Judith H. Dobrzynski at Real Clear Arts for this update on the much-discussed issue of universities and the visual arts. As the title of her posting suggests, Take That, Brandeis! Dartmouth Gets $50 Million for a Visual Arts Center, Dartmouth is playing out a very different storyline from the one we have watched out in Waltham with the untimely demise of the Rose Art Museum.

Here’s an excerpt from Judith’s report:

Dartmouth College has just announced that it has received a $50 million gift, the largest in DartmouthVAC.jpgits history, to build a new visual arts center on campus.

What a contrast from Brandeis, in Waltham, MA, which has grown infamous for its announcement earlier this year that it planned to shut its Rose Art Museum. Brandeis lies only 135 miles from Dartmouth, in Hanover, N.H. Worse, in announcing the gift, which was made anonymously, Dartmouth President James Wright said:

Arts are at the heart of a liberal arts education, and have always been vital to the Dartmouth experience, empowering students to think creatively, challenge assumptions, and wrestle with demanding and often unfamiliar media.

Then Dartmouth’s Dean of Faculty Carol Folt chimed in:

Dartmouth faculty view the arts as a powerful way to understand human culture and history, and when practiced, to stimulate creativity, flexibility, and leadership. This gift will have an immediate impact on Dartmouth’s intellectual and cultural environment. It will galvanize the talented faculty we already have and attract others, create new opportunities for innovative teaching, and offer more students the chance to experience the creative process first-hand.

Click here to read the entire posting.

Gustave Flaubert

Thanks to top notch blogger Judith H. Dobrzynski (Real Clear Arts) for finding a fascinating article about Flaubert in Prospect Magazine.

I needed this, especially today. To read about how arduously Flaubert reworked Madame Bovary (and one would assume, everything he produced) helped eliminate some of the stress and discomfort with a very long and very slow moving project of completing work for my show next month.

Efficiency just isn’t part of my approach to creativity, and it clearly wasn’t for Flaubert either. I should be bold and proud enough to claim my membership in the “Rework, and rework again” tribe. It’s a big club, to be sure.

Now if only that came with a union card that guaranteed the bearer the ability to produce something as brilliant as Madame Bovary

Here’s some of Dobrzynski’s overview of the original article in Prospect:

For all its drawbacks for writers, the Internet has its pluses, too. Easier research, for one. And here’s another example: Two new websites in France are putting on display, for everyone to see, just how difficult writing novels (in particular) really is and how it was done by a master. Prospect Magazine has the story, and here’s the lede:

Flaubert, said Henry James, was “the novelist’s novelist.” And perhaps because he wanted to prove to his family of sceptical doctors that writing was hard work, or perhaps because he was incapable of throwing anything away, or maybe even because he was so in awe of the mystical powers of art, Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880) kept all his manuscript drafts.

A unique internet literary collaboration that began in Rouen, Flaubert’s Normandy birthplace, now lays bare the innermost secrets of his anguished creative process. The 4,561 pages he frantically wrote and rewrote to become his 400-or-so-page masterpiece, Madame Bovary, have been transcribed by 130 enthusiasts from 13 countries and put online.

Flaubert’s manuscripts have been digitized, posted alongside the transcriptions at two websites: and It’s in French, of course, but anyone can gawk at the revisions. The Prospect article reveals plenty, too, such as:

* Flaubert wrote 52 versions of Madame Bovary’s most famous scene, wherein Emma sneaks out of her house at dawn and runs to her lover;

* He often produced 20 versions of the same page;

* He excised metaphors (“they attack me like fleas”, he said);

* He thought as he wrote, rather than plan what he would say first.

There’s a convergence happening. When I read about the state of the art market, the economy, social change, politics, the financial sector or just how to survive personally in this brave new world of 2009, the solutions are starting to have a common theme. What used to be compartmentalized and fragmented (bankers caring only about banking, political activists focused only on their particular cause) is now showing up as increasingly more inclusive and whole system-oriented.

For example, Rachel Sklar on The Daily Beast has written about a phrase first coined in 2004 but particularly well suited for today’s state of things. Smart Power–“a subtle combination of brains and the wisdom to use them to get things done”–is a concept that has more meaning than just political clout.

From her article:

Smart Power applies across the board to the new realities of 2009. To put it bluntly, the old way of doing things doesn’t work anymore—for anything. Every reality from a year ago seems hopelessly out of date—a thriving auto industry, actually owning a home, wanting to date an investment banker. Thriving and surviving in this brave and weird new world takes more than just the raw brute power of, say, money—Lehman Brothers learned how quickly that can go—or feeling smug over a print byline (especially if the article can’t be found online). How can Smart Power apply to those of us who don’t have to negotiate trade treaties or appease mad dictators? The Daily Beast asked Suzanne Nossel, the former Clinton-era deputy to UN Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, who coined the phrase in a 2004 article in Foreign Affairs. Nossel, now the chief operating officer at Human Rights Watch, could see how the concept might apply beyond the foreign-policy world, recognizing that applying Smart Power required that special game-changing extra spark. “It’s not just about putting smart people in place—the Bush administration had many smart people, which didn’t always make for smart policies,” she said (cough, Iraq, Afghanistan, Katrina, cough). “We should exercise our power in ways that are sustainable instead of draining.” So how does that apply to, say, media companies, or a junior senator? Simple—by being practical instead of ideological; by looking ahead and planning accordingly; by convincing others to support you. All of these things make for Smart Power, says Nossel: “Who uses tools hard and soft, who combines them in a supple way, who does it in a way that proves sustainable, who mobilizes others behind their ideas, who has a longer view.”

On the same site, Judith H. Dobrzynski addresses the change in tenor of the current art market. In writing about the 21st Annual Art Show in New York:

This year, things are different…“We need to get away from the notion of art as solely a commodity, and back to the language of art,” says Roland Augustine, of Luhring Augustine Gallery, “and the way to do that is to have a carefully curated and qualitative approach.”

In other words, dealers want to make art precious again—not just pricey. Galleries that look like museums help do that and, when Wall Street woes have scared off buyers anyway, why not? “They are taking this approach now because they understand that this long-term approach is the sure-fire way to go,” Augustine says. Instead of encouraging people who speculate in art, treating it like a stock, these shows aim to develop true collectors, who buy and hold for years.

Whether viewed from the macro level or from our small personal outposts, retrenching and “making do” sound passive and strangely old school. Is there a catchy phrase for the Obama era mindset yet? As inferred by the now infamous statement by economist Paul Romer, “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste”, these are watershed times.