Following the Headlights

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First Blush
Acrylic, 16 x 20 on canvas

In the gardening world, there’s a phenomenon known as “second flush.”  This has nothing to do with anything that happens in the bathroom, but involves a second round of blooms on flowers, shrubs and trees.

I thought of this today as I considered the paintings that surround me and are encroaching farther and farther into the limited space of my little apartment.

I’m not a kid.  I have grandchildren your age.  I have a couple of careers under my belt and a few additional “odd jobs” under there as well.  Painting is perhaps the last dance for this old dame, but painting it is, along with a sprinkle of teaching.

In order to think more fully about beginning an art career this late in life, I went to trusty Google to learn more about late starts.  What I found was not the least bit encouraging because the articles about artists – or anybody else – starting “late” focused on individuals ranging from 28 to 40 years.

I’m so far out of that ballpark, I can’t see home plate.

So I Googled “starting after 70.”  My search yielded nothing but information about Social Security and when to start drawing on my IRA (if I had one) and topics more medically inclined.

I’m reminded of Tom Lehrer’s great line from one of his comedy albums:  “It is a sobering thought that when Mozart was my age, he’d been dead for two years.”  I can only imagine how many great artists were long dead by the time they were my age.

From my view, it’s never too late to start painting or anything else you’re passionate about.  I don’t subscribe to the “do what you love and the money will follow” line of thinking, although money is a terrific fringe benefit.  It’s the “follow your bliss” line that appeals to me more.

The painters before me followed their bliss.  Theirs is not my bliss.  But I’m grateful they led the way.  I don’t expect to see my work in big, expensive books of art or museums, but that’s okay.

Painting now is a gift to myself.  Think about the gifts you can give yourself.  We deserve them at any age.

Writer E.L. Doctorow once wrote:  “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night: you can never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

I know about writing novels.  Now, I’m following the headlights with my painting.

 

 

The Right Color and the Almost Right Color

Mark Twain once wrote that the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.

This week I had an artist’s equivalent dilemma.

Working on a new painting, I had come to a place where much of it was pleasing to me, but for one remaining large section I knew just the color I wanted.  You’d laugh to see the number of tubes of paint I have in every color of the rainbow.  And I laughed at myself, too.

How, out of all those tubes of paint, could I not have – or mix – the color I wanted?

But paint colors, like words, are specific.  The chemistry of paint is a fascinating subject and variations among different manufacturers are equally fascinating.

I often experiment with the paintings and try out combinations that work or don’t, that please me or don’t and then get busy layering on something different until I’m satisfied and stop.

In this case, however, there was no experimenting to be done.  In my mind’s eye, I knew exactly the color I wanted and why – how it would balance the rest of the work and why I could not just mix up a batch of the “almost right color.”

The particular color I had in mind is Golden’s Azurite Hue, which has some magical quality that a paint chemist could explain.  I’m not that paint chemist.   I use this color often, sometimes full-strength, but in this case I wanted it as a glaze over underpainting that I didn’t want to cover.  And the tube had run dry.

So, I put aside all ideas of mixing and took myself to my favorite art supply store, Artist’s and Craftsman in San Diego, to pick up a new tube of Azurite Hue.

The almost right word is never as satisfying – or as accurate – as the right word.  And neither is the almost right paint color.

Here’s the finished, so far untitled, piece with two coats of Azurite Hue glaze on the left.  Once in a while the mind’s eye and reality match up rather nicely.

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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.

A Note on Technique

Last time I posted a photo of a recent painting, “Map of the Elusive Waterway,” and it generated a couple of questions about my technique.

Did I have a plan when I started a painting?  Did I just throw the paint on and see what happened?

I think any abstract artist might be asked similar questions.  Anyone who thinks Jackson Pollock’s drip or action paintings are entirely random and could be painted by a five-year-old must have the idea that there was no thought behind the finished work at all.  (Please don’t think that my mention of Jackson Pollock is in any way a comparison of my work with the master.  I have miles to go…miles and miles!)

Yes, abstract painting has a different “feel” than realistic work in which the subject is readily and clearly identified.  But most abstract painting includes thought along with emotion.  The answers to the two questions I was asked are Yes, I have a loose idea of what I want to create when I start a painting and No, I don’t just throw the paint on and see what happens.

Like other artists I consider design and space along with color theory, matching how the painting feels as it evolves with what I know about the basics of painting.  I also work in layers – layer upon layer – for the end result.

Because a single photo can never show the depth or detail of what’s on the canvas, I’m including here the original photo of “Map of the Elusive Waterway” along with a few close-ups of various sections of the painting to give a better idea of the texture and layers.

It’s all in a day’s work.  Or in the case of this painting – several days’ work.  I paint with acrylics which dry quickly – both a blessing and a curse – but even though the paint dries quickly, it still takes me several days to complete any one painting.

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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.