Bringing Your Whole Heart Home

drawing 001Pen, ink and watercolor, 2013, Molly Larson Cook

 Forgive me, but today’s post is somewhat more personal than most of what you’ve seen here.  It comes in part as a response to a recent health issue – nothing serious but painful day in and day out.

Oddly enough, it also comes after receiving a particularly fine award and publication for my poetry, a gift I’ve hoped for all the many years of my writing life.  And it comes after a struggle following that award with the big questions of how I’ll spend my remaining years.

Since childhood, I’ve wanted to be an artist.  But – also since childhood – encouragement came for my writing, not any childish drawings.  Writing came easy – poems, essays, plays – along with awards for them and praise.

Over the years, I had secret sketchbooks in which I drew pictures that never saw the light of day except for my eyes only.  I continued to write, but it was the world of art that tugged at me.  In college, I boldly signed up for an art history class, a move that boggled my parents, but I loved every minute of it.

I followed other creative paths in addition to writing – dance and theatre at the top of the list.  I finally took my first art class in my early 40s and was encouraged by the instructor to “consider art school.”  When I heard her words, it was like the moment in the old movies when the homely secretary takes off her glasses and lets down her hair, and the boss says, “My God, Miss Fenster, you’re beautiful.”

Yeah, it was that powerful.  Someone, someone who knew about art, had recognized my heart’s desire.

I continued to take drawing classes from her and others but it was another ten years before I made it to art school and began to understand fully what it meant to me.

Over the years, my desire to be an artist was sidetracked by one thing or another – relationships, the need to support my family as a single mom, once by an art professor who took pleasure in making me feel small and incompetent, and not least – by all that praise for the writing.

Praise is not a bad thing, and I’m grateful for every word of it, every award, every note from others to let me know I was accomplishing something worthwhile in the world.

The problem was inside me.  The problem was that the desire to be an artist was powerful, and feeding it in a half-assed way by creating posters for poetry readings and greeting cards for friends wasn’t doing the trick.

After I received the award for my poem,  I decided to enter a competition for a poetry chapbook.  This meant that I needed to write another dozen poems to go with the best of what I had, and I turned to that during the month of March.  I painted a little, but most of the time I was writing and editing and organizing poetry.

It was about that time that the health problem kicked in.  I didn’t make the connection immediately except to note that I was now spending most of my time at the computer which meant a completely different posture from the one I had when painting.  It also meant that I was spending much less time with all those tubes of colors that I love.

Happily, two pieces of wisdom crossed my desk during that time – one from Rumi and one from Joseph Campbell.

From Rumi –  “A thousand half-loves must be forsaken to take one whole heart home.”

From Joseph Campbell, his wise words that became clichéd in the 80s and 90s – “Follow your bliss. Find where it is, and don’t be afraid to follow it…It is a matter of identifying that pursuit which you are truly passionate about and attempting to give yourself absolutely to it. In so doing, you will find your fullest potential and serve your community to the greatest possible extent.

“If you follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. Wherever you are — if you are following your bliss, you are enjoying that refreshment, that life within you, all the time.”

 

Writing is important.  Words are powerful.  Poetry is beautiful.   None of my pictures may be worth a thousand words.  They may not be perfect. They may not be worth trying to sell.  But they’re mine, and I know I’m on “the track that has been there all the while, waiting for me.”

I don’t plan to get derailed again.

With love to all of you who are happily doing art, and encouragement to all of you who are hesitating.  Go ahead – bring your whole heart home.

Molly

 

Imagining Forth!

As both a poet and an artist, I tend to wander back and forth, crossing the invisible line between the two like a drunk on a bicycle.

I give many of my paintings poetic titles and I write poems about art.  I’m not the only one who does this.  One of my favorite books on the practice of writing is titled The Writer on His Own, and much of what’s here applies just as well to my painting.

Take this one, for instance, one of the many short bits of advice from author David Greenhood:

“Our main effort should be to imagine forth, rather than to be always backtracking.  Ruing. Picking up stuff that fell off because we were overloaded or so badly loaded that we couldn’t carry it.”

I like this thought a great deal – for art, for writing, for life.  “Imagining forth” strikes me as just the thing to keep the energy and excitement of the work, any work, going.  And in my head it goes nicely with the great line from one of the songs in A Chorus Line:  “Keep the best of you, do the rest of you.”

As we work in any creative arena, we learn new things all the time – at least we hope to if we’re creative and not robotic.  Our work builds on these new things, and we either figure how to incorporate the old with the new or we drop the old.  We “imagine forth” instead of backtracking.

It’s pretty simple, really.  We start with our ABCs, but once we can read poetry and novels, we don’t backtrack to saying our ABCs every morning.  Art, writing and life are about building, incorporating, imagining forth.

When I got back to my art a few years ago, I did collages.  I’ve liked collages since I first saw those done by Picasso and Braque, so it seemed a good place to start – tissue paper, recycled images, a little paint.  I gradually moved on to more paint and less paper, finally going full tilt with paint.

This week I decided to “imagine forth” about what would happen if I combined the paint with paper but in a new way, so I gave it a try.  At the top of the page are four images of the result from start to finish.  The piece looks nothing like my old collages or my newer paintings either.   And it sure doesn’t look like Picasso or Braque.  It was an experiment.  And every time I try a new experiment, I am a happy fledgling again!

I really want an “Imagine Forth!” tee-shirt now.

 

 

 

Marriages of Love

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Map of the LaBrea Flower Fields

“I adore the theater and I am a painter. I think the two are made for a marriage of love. I will give all my soul to prove this once more.”  –Marc Chagall

This is a lovely statement by an artist who loved color as much as I do.  But I long ago gave up the theater, so I would amend it to this:

“I adore poetry and I am a painter. I think the two are made for a marriage of love. I will give all my soul to prove this once more.”

In addition to adoring poetry, I’ve long believed that poetry is more like visual art than it is like other writing genres.  There are arguments against my belief, to be sure, but I hold it nonetheless.  One of my favorite poetry books includes a center section of paintings with poems written about them.

In both poetry and painting, I prefer a certain economy of line not really possible in sprawling novels or exhaustive wall-sized paintings of the English countryside.  In both poetry and painting, I like to leave room for readers or viewers to add details of their own, to participate in the story. This is not for every artist or poet.  There’s room for us all.

Recently, after a few years concentrating on my painting instead of writing, I was surprised to win a serious poetry prize.  I submitted a poem rather on the spur of the moment with no expectations and lo, it won.  The win shifted my energy and I’ve been spending more time with poems lately.  Still painting, but the balance has changed.

The energy is there again for the writing and I’m enjoying it more than ever.  I’m not fool enough to turn my back on it and proclaim “I’m an artist!”  Nor have I turned my back on the art. The paint-splattered work table and the drawers and rolling stand with more supplies are still intact in the middle of my living space with paints and tools spread all over.   The words and colors are feeding each other, and it’s a lovely thing to experience.

It’s late in the game for me to attain real fame or fortune with either the words or the art, but they are, together, a lovely team pulling my chariot through a new and vivid landscape.   I can’t wait to see what’s over the next hill.

The Exactly Right Word

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“Map of the Elusive Waterway”
11″ x 14″ acrylic

Over the past year, I’ve been working my way up from small collages to larger canvas pieces and then up to even larger canvas pieces.  I’ve enjoyed every step of the way.

The larger canvases gave me freedom to push some boundaries and experiment with new techniques – loosen my stays, so to speak, and get a little crazy.  And I did all that.  Some of my favorite pieces came out of that larger work, and I still have blank canvases in bigger sizes waiting patiently for me against the wall.

But a friend and I are considering a pop-up gallery in my neighborhood during the summer.  The summer starts in May where I live and the tourists start filling the sidewalks and streets, so it’s time to get ready.

I’ve been doing a little research and visiting a local year-round art fair, keeping my eyes open to learn what sells and what doesn’t.  A pop-up gallery, like a weekend fair, appeals more to folks who are passing by than to collectors (although you never know).

For this venture, I need to scale down.  I’ll show a few of the large canvases (in case one of those collectors happens by), but the bulk of sales will likely come from smaller pieces that can sell for less and be easily carried away.

At first, I was loath to give up those bigger canvases, felt as if I were taking a step backward to go smaller.   I wanted to keep working with color but I had to make adjustments in the way I worked and the tools I used.

At the same time, I began working on poems for a chapbook.  Poetry is, of course, all about compression.  When I teach it, I advise students to bring in drafts and then tell them to cut the draft by a third.  Their “oh no!” looks are pitiful. Thirty lines down to twenty.  Fifteen lines down to ten.  It’s the compression that makes a good poem what it is – tight, concise, solid.

And so it was with the paintings.  The smaller canvases gave me a great exercise in compression.  How could I say with the paint, with the colors, what I wanted to say in “fewer words”?

As the poems and the smaller paintings proceeded, side by side, I felt the joy of discovery, of finding not the almost right word, but the exactly right word.  Not the almost right splash of color, but the exactly right splash of color.

Life is full of lessons.  Some of them are worth the learning.

 

Robin Hood’s Barn

My dear father-in-law had a saying about occasions when it seemed that a person was taking too much time to get somewhere or had deliberately made the trip longer than necessary or just seemed to be lost on the way or was telling some convoluted and long-winded story.

“That fellow went all the way around Robin Hood’s barn to get there.”

The phrase came to me again today as I thought about my progress as an artist.  Or anybody’s progress as an artist – or a writer, dancer, actor, musician, anything that requires some creativity and imagination to find the place where one feels – I don’t know – a spiritual connection with one’s work.

That sounds pretty high-and-mighty, I know, and I’m not given to using such words easily, but let’s face it – if the spirit ain’t in it, it ain’t nuthin’.  (I didn’t steal that from anybody.  I just made it up.)

You can use your own definition of “spirit.” There are plenty to choose from or you, too, can make up one you like.  But I think anybody who’s serious about the work will get what I’m trying to say.

When it comes to creativity, spirit can be elusive.  I knew I was headed this direction when I realized after several moves that the two things I always packed first were my books and my art supplies.  Art supplies I hadn’t used in years but could not bear to leave behind.  Then I made a move and left most of my books behind, but not the art supplies.  That was the clincher for me.  I hadn’t found the spirit yet, but I knew there was joy in just being with those brushes and paints and pieces for collage.  And when it came to living in my little studio apartment where space was beyond limited, I chose art instead of books/writing.  Truth to tell, I chose art over just about everything but my bed!

Spirit watches and waits for our commitment.

I’ve been painting a lot of things over the past year and a half that I found satisfying and that other people liked, too.  I’ve sold some pieces, but I knew I was not there yet; I was out of the fledgling nest, but still flying like Bob Dylan’s rolling stone, “no direction known.”

A couple of weeks ago I ran onto a Dutch abstract painter on the web, a painter and a jazz saxophonist as well.  I watched and listened and especially paid attention to Jan van Oort’s lesson about painting tools for abstract art.  Something resonated.  Then I set my brushes aside and went to the art supply store and the hardware store where I picked up all kinds of things.  For me, the tools were the key.

Not only do I love hardware stores, but I also now love the freedom to do what spirit has been calling me to do all along:  Be brave, be bold, have fun, take risks, speak your own piece.  Listen to the music.  Color is an animal that not only wags its own tail, but also sings its own song.

I may have been around Robin Hood’s barn, but I made it home.

Here are the first results.  All 20 x 24.

img_1844                img_1847

img_1851             img_1843-1

 

 

Coming On Like Blazes

 

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copyright, 2016

Several years ago when I was offered two different jobs, both of which were good and both of which I was quite capable of doing, I found myself in a dilemma. One of the jobs paid very well. The other job paid a lower salary but was at a well-regarded art school and the fringe benefit was free (and quite expensive) art classes.

Going to art school was my dream, but I had debts and that larger salary called me, too. I conferred with a friend who offered this advice: “Take the job that pays more and you’ll be able to buy all the art you want.”

I took the other job. When I heard my friend’s words and felt my heart plunge, I understood that I was not a passive viewer. Or even a consumer. I was a maker.

Oh, sure I love looking at great art, and a person does a lot of that in art school – slides, exhibitions, trips to the city to visit museums. But in art school you do this with a different purpose and an entirely different appreciation because you are also a maker.

Trying to explain this to others is more than difficult. It was easier to explain my desire to write novels and plays, perhaps because so many out there want to be writers or because everybody knows how to write something or because best-selling writers get a lot of press, aka fame.

Best-selling artists are mostly dead.

I could write my novels and plays at my desk in the living room or at a coffee shop. I didn’t have to wear an old shirt when I was writing to avoid getting my good clothes stained. I could keep the pages of the novel or play, once printed, in a neat stack or a small box.

Painting is messy and takes up a lot of space.

I could, and did, do readings and other performances, sometimes for money, and others found these entertaining.

Holding up a painting is not that entertaining.

But still, still…Here’s what Bayles and Orland say about artmaking in their wonderful book, Art & Fear:

            Look at your work and it tells you how it is when you hold back or when you embrace. When you are lazy, your art is lazy; when you hold back, it holds back; when you hesitate, it stands there staring, hands in its pockets. But when you commit, it comes on like blazes.

It’s been three years now since I walked back through the Art Door. I started with small collages on cut up cardboard boxes. The only painting I did was covering the cardboard with a base color. I moved from there to include some drawing, worked on bigger pieces of cardboard and called what I did “mixed media.” I moved then to small canvases and entered a couple of art shows with my mixed media work. More recently, I’ve painted more and pasted less. Worked on larger canvases. Entered a serious art competition.  And now, the last couple of weeks, a light went on and I’ve moved to all painting. No collage.

When I walked into this particular room and felt the joy, I knew I was home. Color. All color, all the time. Abstract Expressionism. This is the art that resonated for me when I first began to see and appreciate serious art. I make no judgments here about what anyone else wants to do, and I’m not going to try to explain why this is the art I love best and want to make.

I have a lot to learn, believe me, but the joy has not diminished for a moment.

There are plenty of schools of art for everybody who wants to pick up a pencil or pen or brush. You may not find yours with your first efforts; in fact, you’ll likely have to play around, experiment, look and read, do some searching, but you’ll find the one that makes your heart hum.

When you do, I think you’ll understand why Bayles & Orland speak of the place you’ve found as “hearth and home.”

Now, I’ve gotta put on my old painting shirt and my red Chuck Taylor high tops and pour myself a cup of coffee and turn on some good jazz and start a new piece. I’ll let you know how it turns out.

I think the canvas is blazing!

 

A Body for My Body of Work

Since my last post regarding the need for a body of work, I’ve had a conversation with an artist/instructor who gave me some much-needed feedback on what I’ve done so far.  He also introduced me to new materials and techniques.

Before we finished the conversation he let me see pieces of an exercise for one of his classes, not unlike the exercises I remember from art school.  I haven’t done anything like this for a while, but I liked what I was seeing.

A couple of days later, I did my own version of the exercise which meant creating six different papers – four of mine were hand painted or stamped on plain white paper and two were modifications of already printed paper with stamps or pen and ink.  After everything was dry, I got out my paper cutter and cut each piece of paper into a lot of strips and other rectangles in a variety of sizes.

I used a sheet of Bristol board for six 7″x7″ supports.  Bristol board is not really heavy enough, but I was vamping and it was handy. Then I started to play.  The goal was to use at least a small piece of each of the six papers in each of the six collages.  It was rather like doing six jigsaw puzzles, each different.  I was pleased with the results and especially with the cleaner lines than most of what I’ve been doing.

My favorite piece of advice from an instructor at Maine College of Art was:  “Rich and complex, not complicated and confusing.”  I’ve held those words as a measure of my writing over the years and even of life in general.  Now I was applying it again to the art.  But the pieces seemed perhaps too clean, a little sterile and I wanted more richness, more complexity.

I’ve had a wonderful little image of a nude woman sitting on a stack of books, back view, for some time now and I realized she was the right image for these pieces.  A single image on each of the six pieces.

They’re finished now.  I like them and I laugh to think I have a start on my “body of work” with a real body in the picture. Honestly, a writer’s mind never stops…!

A "body of work..." Molly Larson Cook
A “body of work…”
Molly Larson Cook