Art, TEGWAR, and Sweet Songs in the Halls of Creation

“These Women in My Life”
Mixed media collage
24″ x 24,” Molly Larson Cook, 2015

“I don’t follow any system. All the laws you can lay down are only so many props to be cast aside when the hour of creation arrives.”  —Raoul Dufy

“Do what suits you…try to paint in the moment…
forget everything you have learned…”
–Jan van Oort

The words of these two painters are near and dear to my creative heart.

Dufy was a French Fauve painter who lived and worked at the end of the 19th century and through the first half of the 20th century.   In addition to being a painter, Dufy was a draftsman, printmaker, book illustrator, scenic designer, furniture designer and public planner.

van Oort is a contemporary Dutch abstract expressionist painter as well as an architect, composer,  jazz saxophone player, writer and advertising concept designer.

In other words, neither of these artists put all their creative eggs in one basket – or even two.   The word polymath comes to mind.

As I look at their short biographies, I begin to detect the great appeal both these artists have to me and why their advice which is essentially advice to break the rules resonates so strongly.

One of my favorite novels and without question my favorite movie is Bang the Drum Slowly. This is a story of baseball, rain and human understanding.  On off days or when it’s raining, the players sometimes engage in a game called TEGWAR – The Exciting Game Without Any Rules.

I’m not proposing a full monty game of TEGWAR for artists and neither were Dufy or van Oort.

But they, and so many others who came before us, know the value of learning the rules and then tossing them aside in pursuit of our own voices, our styles, our artistic ventures into new territory.  As Joseph Campbell once said (and I paraphrase), if you’re following a path, it’s somebody else’s path.

I know this from another side as well.  I’ve taught creative writing for several years and my goal is to teach the writers the basics and – yes – the “rules” of whatever genre we’re working on – poetry, fiction, nonfiction.  They sometimes ask to see samples of my own work and I show them.  But I don’t want them to write like me.  I don’t want them to write like any of the writers they read.  And I don’t want them to be slaves to the rules.  I want them to use the rules as a foundation and the writers they read, including me, as samples, but I want them to write like themselves. 

When we look at the art of those who’ve come before us, when we browse the magazines with the newest art, when we walk the galleries and museums, we get ideas and appreciate the art that interests us.  But we don’t want to paint like those artists – we want to be inspired by them to paint like ourselves!

There’s a kind of poem called a “nonce” poem in which the poet creates a one-off poetry form just for that poem.

I’m all for nonce art.  One-off paintings that will please the artist and won’t be repeated.  The artist will make the rules and the result will be the artist’s voice sweetly singing in the halls of creation.




Passport Photos of the Art World

“Mr. P.C.,” ©2018, Molly Larson Cook
24 x 36, Acrylic on canvas

Over the years as an arts writer, a steadfast museum and gallery visitor, a buyer, a student of art history and now an artist, one thing remains uppermost in my personal Arts Appreciation endeavors – the photos never look as good as the actual work.

It doesn’t matter whether it’s a professional doing the photography or an amateur with a pretty good digital camera, it just doesn’t happen.  And quite likely can’t happen.

I know I’m not alone in this.  More than one gallery owner has let me know that the work received based on photos for juried shows was too often a disappointment.  Or, for gallery goers, the work in person is sometimes a gorgeous surprise after just seeing the photos in the big expensive books.  Photos of paintings are kind of the passport photos of the art world.

The problem is more than changing colors and lighting. It’s also about perception.

On one occasion at a Georgia O’Keeffe show at the Boston Fine Arts Museum, I – a faithful lover of O’Keeffe’s work – came around a corner and face to face with O’Keeffe’s  “City Night.” I had seen this painting countless times in books, but nothing prepared me for the three-dimensional quality of the work.  I started to fall and a kind fellow next to me put his arm out to stop the fall, then smiled and said, “It does that to you.”

Indeed it did.

Although I post the photos here of my newest work, taken with my super duper digital camera for which I’m wildly grateful, I know, too, that what you see is never quite what you’ll get in person.  And I’ve been to enough galleries and museums to know that I rarely get the images I’ve seen.  Nearly always, the real thing is more vibrant and dimensional and that’s not an exaggeration.

Photographs flatten everything, including the rich textures of a painting as well as the highlights of paint colors in reflected light.

The push is so often on now to get our work online.  The new media is the thing.  The new marketing is the thing online.  Aside from my posts, I haven’t made the jump yet.  I’ve started more than once, but when I look from the paintings to the photographs and back again, I know I’m losing something in the translation.

I much prefer to show my work in person or have it in a gallery where potential buyers or appreciators can see it up close and personal.

That said, I’ve included here a photo of the last piece for the upcoming solo show, “The Colors of Jazz: Celebrating poetry, jazz, and visual art.”  The show opens on March 25 at the Inkspot Gallery (San Diego Writers, Ink.) in Liberty Station, San Diego, and the reception will be Friday evening, April 6 from 5:00 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. followed by live poetry.

If you’re in the area, I’d love to see you there.  Like the rest of us, the paintings always look better than our photos.


Downtime – Good for the Artist’s Soul

“Straight, No Chaser,” ©2018, Molly Larson Cook
Acrylic on canvas, 24″ x 36″

An artist’s life is a busy life.  And conventional wisdom has it that any creative life should be a busy life.  After all, what with the many things to think about, there’s no time to dawdle.  The White Rabbit’s lament from Alice in Wonderland is quite apt — “I’m late! I’m late!”

Friends and relations of artists are quite used to hearing, “Sorry, I need to spend time in the studio this week.”  If we work at home and they’re so bold as to drop in without a call first, they expect to see us at the easel or table, brush or some other tool in hand, working like demons on the latest project.

What they don’t expect is to see us sitting around doing what looks like nothing or folding the laundry or puttering with our plants.  If we work in a studio, they don’t expect to find it closed when they arrive with a sign on the door that reads, “Gone fishing.”

“I thought you were busy with your painting this week.”  And we are.  Busy thinking, day dreaming, relaxing our brains enough to allow new ideas to come in.  Busy doing anything but painting.

The old saw that good ideas come while we’re in the shower is true because standing in the shower is as good a place as any to do absolutely nothing except let the water pour over us.  The perfect environment for inspiration.

In his delightful little book Steal Like an Artist, writer and artist Austin Kleon says this:

“Take time to be bored…Creative people need time to just sit around and do nothing. I get some of my best ideas when I’m bored, which is why I never take my shirts to the cleaners. I love ironing my shirts–it’s so boring, I almost always get good ideas. If you’re out of ideas, wash the dishes. Take a really long walk. Stare at a spot on the wall for as long as you can…Take time to mess around. Get lost. Wander. You never know where it’s going to lead you.”

If you’re an artist/introvert like me, you know about coming up with reasons why we can’t be available for a full-scale social life.  And you know that we run the risk of being crossed off the social lists after saying “no, thank you” too many times.  But still…

Poet Naomi Shihab Nye wrote a beautiful message for us all on this very subject.  Bill Moyers said this poem changed his life.  Maybe it will change yours.  I know for sure, it will help you explain your downtime as a creative soul.

The Art Of Disappearing

When they say Don’t I know you?
say no.

When they invite you to the party
remember what parties are like
before answering.
Someone telling you in a loud voice
they once wrote a poem.
Greasy sausage balls on a paper plate.
Then reply.

If they say We should get together
say why?

It’s not that you don’t love them anymore.
You’re trying to remember something
too important to forget.
Trees. The monastery bell at twilight.
Tell them you have a new project.
It will never be finished.

When someone recognizes you in a grocery store
nod briefly and become a cabbage.
When someone you haven’t seen in ten years
appears at the door,
don’t start singing him all your new songs.
You will never catch up.

Walk around feeling like a leaf.
Know you could tumble any second.
Then decide what to do with your time.

–Naomi Shihab Nye

Time runs only one way.  Decide for yourself what to do with the time you have, especially the time you need to be bored and quiet while inspiration comes.  Wash the dishes. Go fishing. Stare at the sea.  It matters.



The Poetry and Jazz of Painting

“Birdland,”  © 2018, Molly Larson Cook
22″ x 28,” acrylic

“An artist’s warehouse, full of experience, is not a store of successful phrases ready for use, but is a store of raw material. The successful phrases are there, but they have been broken down to be made over into new form. Those who have the will to create do not care to use old phrases. There is a great pleasure in the effort to invent the exact thing which is needed. Use it. Break it down. Begin again.”    –Robert Henri, The Art Spirit

“Man, sometimes it takes you a long time to sound like yourself.”  —Miles Davis

These days I wear three hats.  I mean that both metaphorically and literally.  I love hats and have several along with a hot pink hat rack to hold them.  I particularly rely on my hats on bad hair days which happen often when the Santa Ana winds churn themselves up.

Metaphorically, I wear my artist hat (beret?), my jazz hat, and my poetry hat.  I’m so attuned to these three that I’m billing my upcoming solo show as “The Colors of Jazz,” celebrating the connections among poetry, jazz and visual art.

I  work in abstract expressionism because it combines pieces of both jazz and writing along with my love of color.  Abstract expressionism is improvisational – like jazz – and lyrical – like poetry.  This may not be anyone else’s definition of abstract expressionism, but it’s mine.

And it’s actually not far from the truth for many of the abstract expressionists  who made the scene just as modern jazz, cool bop, wildly improvisational music were also making the scene. It’s no coincidence.

In Listen, the jazz novel I wrote a few years back, one of the musicians says, “You play the first note, baby, and see what happens. Then you play the next note.  If you know all the notes before you start, that might be something. That might be music. But it ain’t jazz.”

Henri’s words resonate whether they’re describing a work of art (or the process), a jazz improvisation or a new piece of writing:   Those who have the will to create do not care to use old phrases. There is a great pleasure in the effort to invent the exact thing which is needed. Use it. Break it down. Begin again.”   

If I know how a poem or a painting will turn out before I start – well, they might be something. They might even be music (or words that rhyme or a picture).  But they will definitely not be jazz.  Or poetry. Or abstract expressionism.

Miles spoke wise words, indeed, about learning to sound like yourself (or paint or compose).  These things happen only when a writer or musician or artist is willing to let go of the need to know the outcome until the process has ended.  Risk and a certain bravery will be required for the ride.

For my money, it’s the only trip worth taking.


New Work and Words on the Subject of Fear


“East of the Sun,” 22″x28,” acrylic,
copyright 2018, Molly Larson Cook

I subscribe to several art websites and find each of them fascinating and informative.  Now and then, I’d go so far as to say I find one of them thought-provoking and downright challenging.

This happened today when I opened one of those sites to find this big question for readers (artists)…”What are you afraid of?”

I could respond with a list of things I’m afraid of ranging from spiders and snakes to falling down a flight of stairs and breaking a hip to things that go bump in the night like the stranger pounding on my front door at 3:00 a.m. and trying to get in a couple of weeks ago.

But I don’t think this is what the author of the post about fear meant.  He was asking his question in relation to those of us who do art, and there were several good answers to the question ranging from fear of poverty (always on the artist’s big board of important things) to fear of not being good enough to fear of success.

We do our work, we get brave enough to show it around, maybe even land a gallery show and then that old bug-a-boo, fear of success rears its ugly head.

Fear of success for someone in the arts is rather like the fear of being outed as a fraud in the business world.  This is actually a phenomenon known as “imposter syndrome.”  It’s been reported in business and psychology journals for years now.

I think fear of success in the arts is different.  For one thing, much of business success is based on knowledge – or lack of it – in which case those who struggle with imposter syndrome are concerned that maybe they just don’t know enough but have been able to fake it, baffling the world with BS, whether it’s true or not.

While I grant that some arts endeavors can seem a little like BS this is mostly a matter of taste. The truth is it’s hard to fake art.  A pianist can’t fake playing the piano, a dancer can’t fake the dancing, a sculptor can either do it or not and a potter’s ability is immediately clear – something beautiful or a misshapen lump.  The Meryl Streep portrayal of “singer” Florence Foster Jenkins demonstrated that it’s not possible to fake singing, either.

So I think fear of success for an artist is more about one of two things:  fear that our work doesn’t meet our own expectations and fear that we might not be able to produce enough work to meet the expectations of others (audiences, gallery owners and potential clients) or that these “others” will become so locked into our style that they’ll resist any changes we might make.

(Consider the response to musicians switching from acoustic to amplified instruments.)

All things considered, I’m a lot more comfortable with artists’ fears than those of the business world.  And I sleep better, too…







To Frame or Not to Frame

Backstage at the Art Studio

When I began to think about submitting paintings for art shows, I also began to think about frames for those paintings.  As I strolled through framing stores or framing sections of art supply stores, I thought more about it.

Looking at art in galleries and museums, frames are even more on my mind – the many styles and possibilities.

I sometimes wonder why an artist chose a particular frame for his or her painting.  Some of them work, it seems to me, but many others distract.

Some juried shows require a frame and are often quite specific about what kind of frame is acceptable.  I don’t argue the point.  But I’ve made the decision not to frame.  I stick with painting the edges and offering my work unframed with hanging hardware installed.

I have a couple of reasons for this and will be interested in your take on the framing question.

Reason #1 – Frames can be quite expensive and if I add a frame, I have to build the price of the frame into the price I charge for the painting.  By not adding a frame, I’m keeping the price lower for the buyer.

Reason #2 – Frames – to me – fall into the “décor” category and are as personal for the buyers as choosing a sofa or carpet or any other furnishing for their homes or businesses.  Because I work in abstract expressionism with a focus on color, I can guess that the buyer might like color, but beyond that, I have no idea how anyone’s home or office  is decorated or a buyer’s taste when it comes to framing.

I was told a few years back by a framer that most people who buy framed art have it reframed to suit their décor.  It makes no sense to me to spend – and charge – money for a frame that will be removed and replaced by something to the buyer’s liking.

When invited to mount the solo show coming up this spring, I was quite clear with the gallery owner that my work would not be framed.  She was fine with that.  The finished black edges define and don’t distract from the art.  If pushed, my taste would be for the simplest black frames, but I already know, after selling a couple of pieces that were framed this way, that the buyers wanted something else.  Something more ornate that I could not have guessed.

Of course, if a buyer asks to have it framed and we can choose a frame together, I’m happy to facilitate that step.  Some buyers know exactly what they want and others want to try a painting in one room or another before giving it a “forever home.”

Initially, I suggest that a buyer hang the painting without a frame and live with it for a bit before they decide whether to frame or not to frame.   It’s a take on the advice I got from an interior designer years back when I moved into a very modern high rise apartment and had questions about some of my antique furniture.

“Live with it for a while before you decide to make a change,” the designer told me.  I did, and the antique oak dining table and chairs stayed.

One note – if a gallery I’d like to be part of wants to show my work and requires that paintings be framed (as some do), I will by all means frame my work with those simple black frames.  I’m not about to shoot myself in the foot.

If you’re an artist or an art buyer, I invite you to let me know your thoughts on framing.

Painting, Juggling and Business


Untitled, copyright, 2018, Molly Larson Cook

The beat goes on as I continue to work on new pieces for the upcoming show.  And I’ve expanded the canvas, so to speak, by bumping myself up to a slightly larger size.  The new one above, as yet untitled, is 22″ x 28″ and I had fun working again with a wider surface.

As a writer, I know what it means to find one’s voice and also one’s genre.  Yes, there are writers who do it all, and I’ve done most of it myself, but I know where I’m most comfortable – where my voice can speak most clearly and resonate best.

As an artist, I’m learning the same things, and it’s a joyous moment when it all comes together.

Musicians say it works this way as well whether they’re playing classical music, pop or jazz.  Actors get it, too – the moment when the character “gels” and they know they’re in the groove of the role they’re playing.

When it happens, you stop thinking about what you’re doing and just do it.  The words “Paint first, think later” become the mantra.  Don’t get me wrong – this doesn’t mean you never think.  It means you’ve done the groundwork and practice necessary to finally take you to a place where you no longer have to “think” about every step. You’re free to “paint first”  and do it with confidence.  I liken it to an early experience of learning to juggle.

In the beginning, learning to juggle is insanely awkward and messy, not to mention frustrating – dropped balls everywhere.  I was advised to practice over my bed so the balls wouldn’t roll under the furniture.  An old-fashioned telephone booth works, too.  So you practice until your arms hurt and then one day, one surprising day, you get all those balls in the air and don’t drop a single one and you’re on your way.  You stop thinking about it and just do it.

After this breakthrough, I could juggle balls in the air as well as lemons at the market, stones at the beach, anything handy.  I could bounce-juggle balls as I walked along a sidewalk or danced.  I learned to juggle with a partner, passing the balls back and forth.  Juggling, not thinking.

And so it’s going with the art these days.  And as I’m more comfortable with the paint, I’m also becoming more comfortable with the – oh, no! – business side of the work.  Because there is a business side.

In that endeavor, I’ve been reading a great book for artists titled simply, The Artist’s Guide: How to make a living doing what you love.  The author is Jackie Battenfield, artist, consultant and instructor at Columbia University.

We make choices – we can be “Sunday painters” and never want to sell a thing, but we can also choose to be “professional artists” in which case, Battenfield’s book is a terrific guide with a realistic look at what it takes as well as all the help you might need to get there.

Battenfield describes the book as one intended to help artists at all levels including those who might be “resuscitating a stalled or dormant practice.”  Bingo.  That’s me.  I have a significant birthday coming up in March and no time to waste on this resuscitation.

Back to work – bring on the gesso!