Creativity, Solitude and Happiness

 

24″ x 30″ acrylic © 2018, Molly Larson Cook
“A Felicidade”

“In order to be open to creativity,
one must have the capacity for constructive use of solitude.
One must overcome the fear of being alone.”
~ Rollo May

I’ve begun work on a new collection of jazz paintings, putting my solitude to constructive use as Dr. May suggested.  I’ve long been open to creativity, have rarely had any fear of being alone, in fact enough of an introvert to be quite happy alone much of the time.  A felicidade.

Which is not to say that I’m not also happy in the company – even in a crowd – of a like-minded spirit who also appreciates solitude.  Context is everything.

Rollo May also wrote a book titled The Courage to Create in which he likened the creative person’s pursuit as something akin to Prometheus stealing the fire of the gods.  (Who do we mortals think we are, wanting to horn in on the gods?)  Prometheus suffered a painful penalty for being so bold.  Nobody wants what he got.

But the title of the book is provocative and so is May’s point.  Isn’t it just fun to mess around with paint or play a few tunes or fiddle with one inventive activity or another? Where does courage come in?

Well, I’d say courage comes in at about the same place Bayles and Orland were when they wrote the little book Art and Fear: Observations on the perils (and rewards) of artmaking.

I say this because true creativity involves risktaking, and risktaking requires courage – a lot of courage or a little depending on the risk, but always courage.

As Bayles and Orland put it so well, “Simply put, making art is chancy–it doesn’t mix well with predictability. Uncertainty is the essential, inevitable and all-pervasive companion to your desire to make art.  And tolerance for uncertainty is the prerequisite to succeeding.”

I daresay these words can be applied to all kinds of creative activities.  Or – why dodge it? – to life itself.   Life, love, and the pursuit of happiness all take courage.

Case in artistic point – uncertainty…In my last post I included a new painting.  I knew it was not finished, and I tried a few things with it this weekend, but uncertainty being what it is, I wasn’t happy until late in the weekend with the finished piece, above.

It’s miles from where I started, but aren’t road trips to unknown destinations always the best?

Be brave. Be bold. Be happy.

 

 

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Knowing Home

This Is My Home, This Is My Work, This Is My Life…

In her beautiful poem, “To a Serious Woman,” Judith Sornberger sets these words as a mantra between friends reviewing their lives as artists who cherish their work and also cherish the thorns and blessings of every day life that animate that work.

I was thinking about Sornberger and the poem as I looked around my tiny studio/home this week after a visit from someone I used to know who made it clear through his silence and sly jokes that my tiny place hardly rated as a home in his vocabulary.

But I was also thinking about it after the opening reception Friday evening for my solo show, a happy event where the slight sting of my visitor’s remarks disappeared when one of the guests, who has seen my place many times, pointed out to a small group that my apartment was “the most wonderful place, filled with color and art.  Everybody loves it.”

Perception is everything.

We artists rarely lead ordinary lives or live and work in ordinary places.   No, let me amend that – we rarely lead the lives that magazines and media have come to pronounce as “ordinary” (aka “acceptable”).  And we often don’t work in them either.

Most of us are simply toilers in the vineyard who make do (a lovely, old-fashioned phrase) with what we have.  When we can afford studios, we rent them.  When we can’t, we work at home.  When we can dedicate a room in the house to our art, we use it.  When we can’t, we work in the living room.  Or kitchen.  Or a corner of the bedroom.   And we don’t care much what anyone else thinks about it.

Our not-caring is not a pose.  It’s simply who we are.  I know home when I see it and I see it in my tiny art studio with a bed.  This is my home, this is my work, this is my life.

The reception was great with friends, strangers, artists, jazz mavens and a few stray writers who wandered into the studio expecting poetry.

Robert Henri writes in his The Art Spirit that “Art should be persistent; exhibitions should be small.”  We were right on the money with the opening.  The crowd was just right and a good time was had by all including Tanner, the gallery dog who visited my earlier show at the HYPE Gallery in North Park.

     

Now, back to work – painting and following up on new contacts with trips to the beach sprinkled into the times between.

As Mason Williams once sang, “Isn’t life the perfect thing to pass the time away?”

 

 

 

 

Looking for Your Lost Joie de Vivre? Try Art!

“Boplicity,” 20″ x 24″, acrylic on canvas,
copyright 2017, Molly Larson Cook

I read a question the other day on one news site or another, a question about art.  I’ll paraphrase here, but it went something like this:  “With all the craziness going on in the world and in the United States, all the corruption and politics, threats of war or actual war, why does art matter?”

My first thought in my often smart-alecky way was “Well, it keeps a lot of us busy in our studios and off the streets.”  My cardio doc would add that it keeps a lot of us healthy.  Only the Fortunate Few would say that it makes anybody rich.

On one level, I understand the question.  But on another level, it makes no sense to me.  It’s kind of like saying “With all the craziness going on in the world and in the United States, all the corruption and politics, threats of war or actual war, why does eating matter?”

There’s a sense of fatalism in this question about art and another more bothersome sense that art has no value.  That we should be stewing and fretting about serious matters instead of indulging in the frivolities of art.

I’m reminded of a moment during the Cold War when Richard Nixon went on the air to say that if there was an enemy attack, he would come on television to reassure Americans.  A kid somewhere in America apparently responded to this by saying that all things considered if the bomb was going to be dropped, he’d just as soon watch “I Love Lucy” reruns.  Amen to that.

But joking aside, art matters even more in desperate times because it reminds us while the economy goes to hell in a hand cart that there is, indeed, still beauty in the world.  Art is the joie de vivre of the human animal, the human spirit.  And there’s something for everybody.

Landscapes, portraits, still lifes, sculptures, collages, abstract expressionism and more.  It’s a free camp. From Damien Hirst’s colored circles to Monet’s garden, from  O’Keeffe’s sex-on-a-stem flowers to Whistler’s mama just a’sittin’ and a’rockin’.  From the caves of Lascaux to Venus on the Half Shell (I say this lovingly).  From the Mona Lisa to the drawing your kid posted on the refrigerator.

Joie de vivre! 

Let the naysayers try to steer us ever thus to the serious business of life.  It is the artists who will always be there to keep us on the wide and playful side of life.  They’ll inspire us, delight us, annoy us, confuse us, offend us, make us think and laugh and wonder.

In troubled times, and baby we got ’em, art is our defense and our protection against the slings and arrows of the serious business of life, the 24-hour news cycle, our dwindling retirement accounts, arrogance and pomposity and meanness.

I’m off now to finish preparations for my own art show.  I’ll be delivering the paintings tomorrow, “The Colors of Jazz,” my small contribution to help counteract all that’s going wrong in the world today.  If the paintings make even one person feel better about things, I’ll call it a success.

 

 

 

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.