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.

 

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Solo Show in the Works – The Organic Artist Asks the Paint

When Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

Wait, I hear you say, we haven’t even had Thanksgiving yet.  True enough, we haven’t, but Spring is on my mind for a happy reason.

I’ve been offered a solo show in San Diego that will go up at the end of March and run for three months – April, May and June.  The gallery is one in our Liberty Station arts venue, a popular and busy place in the heart of the city, and I am more than delighted to have been offered this opportunity.

Spring is not that far away when it comes to generating enough pieces to fill not one, but four walls!

Yes, I have a lot of pieces already finished, but mounting a solo show means putting the very best of my work together in a coherent and cohesive manner.  As I’ve said before – rich and complex, not complicated and confusing.

Since color is my animal, I know that much of what I put together will be connected by color.  But not only color.  Even as I think about new work, I’ve begun it, but being an “organic” painter just as I am an organic writer means that I have no clear, pre-determined plan for any piece.  (See below.)

I have a general idea, but I let the paint take me where it wants to go.

Architect Louis Kahn, who designed the Salk Institute building in San Diego, was asked how he came up with his beautiful designs.  His answer was that he asked the bricks what they wanted to be.

I ask the paint.

To those who want more structure in their lives (and their work), who want to know exactly where they’re headed on any journey, an answer like that can be disturbing.  Possibly even irresponsible.

“What do you mean, you don’t know what you’re going to paint when you start?” (Or write. Or visit.)

What we mean is that we’ll engage the media – words, paint, the wheels beneath us – and journey together.  We’ll sing and dance and explore.  We’ll take some risks and laugh at ourselves when things go wrong, because we know there’s no “wrong” when it comes to the creative life.  There are only ideas that don’t work.

One of the best things about the creative life is that we get endless “do-overs”…and every one of those – every new layer of paint or different word – gets us closer to who we are as artists or writers or dancers or inventors or musicians or cooks or any other creative thing we want to be.

Because each try, whether it succeeds or not, becomes part of our history, and we are richer for it.

Those who keep learning and experimenting and refining their creative work will be like Titian. As Robert Henri has it in his The Art Spirit:

I believe that keeping one’s faculties in full exercise is the secret of good health and longevity. It made Titian a young man at nearly a hundred.”

We could probably say the same of Grandma Moses, too, but Henri’s book was written long before Grandma Moses came on the scene.

Here’s a recent example of my own experimenting and refining.  On the left is a painting I posted more than a month ago.  First draft, as it were.  And on the right is the recently finished piece.

IMG_2075       IMG_2137

 

I asked the paint what it wanted to be, and I got an answer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hippos in Tutus and Other Odd Thoughts about Art

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As I work at my continuing/continual self-education in the art world, I read a lot of articles and blogs about art.  They’re often quite helpful and informative, but I realized recently that few of the articles I read actually have to do with the work of art – technique, problem-solving, materials, tools, etc.

Rather, nearly all the articles from any art source these days are about marketing.

So much talk about price points and the relative salable merits of oil over acrylic over watercolor.  Talk about which sizes sell best and advice on salability of paintings that are (a) larger or (b) smaller.  Realistic paintings vs abstract.  Competitions vs art fairs.  The marketing discussions never seem to end.

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Let me say that I know most of us want to sell our work . Let me say further that I am not a cock-eyed optimist who believes some major buyer will one day – sooner than later, I hope – see my paintings and the clouds will part, angels will sing, I’ll get a one-woman show in a well-known gallery, and I’ll sell every painting I’ve done.

(This scene is related to the one in which the plain young secretary takes off her glasses, unpins her hair and  the young executive says – breathlessly, “Why, Miss Havisham, you’re beautiful!”)

Yeah, it happens in the movies, but hippos dance in tutus in movies, too.

In many arts – theatre, dance, and music for instance – it’s understood that you keep “taking class” as long as you keep working.  You keep learning all the time – practicing, rehearsing, polishing, perfecting.  Sure you audition and try to get paying work, but not without continuing to make your work better.

That’s where I am, this recently fledged artist who is no longer a beginner, working on the craft every day, rehearsing and practicing and then evaluating as best I can what I’ve done and what more I need to learn.  Plenty.

As I do this, the through-line for me (to use a theatre term) is color.  It’s the consistency I want and can depend on and which makes my heart sing.  If your heart doesn’t sing, why are you doing what you do?

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I can draw and I thought recently that I’d try something a little more realistic, but my mind, body, and art spirit just balked.  So unless something changes, I’m in the colored world of abstract expressionism for the long haul.  I don’t think I’ve found my voice yet in visual art, but I do know where to look for it.  I’m guessing it will turn up somewhere among the azurite blue, cadmium red and Naples yellow.

The recent 8″ x 10″ pieces here are my latest step on the journey…

 

 

Everything Counts

“Mere color, unspoiled by meaning, and unallied with definite form, can speak to the soul in a thousand different ways. ” — Oscar Wilde

I don’t make any claims to speaking to the souls of others in even one way, let alone a thousand different ways.  But I will admit that choosing abstract expressionism with color “unspoiled by meaning and unallied with definite form” speaks to my own soul. Shouts. Whispers. Sings. Teases. Promises.

Looking back – and it’s a long and winding road – I can see that my love of color and of art began back in those kindergarten and first grade classes before computers and kid-size electronics.  We used a rough natural color drawing paper that made a wonderful canvas-like ground for our Crayola crayons.  Most of us had standard boxes of 24. Opening the box and looking at the two rows of pristine points of color was a wonderful moment.

Lucky kids had boxes with forty-eight colors, but some of us had already figured out that we could make all the colors we wanted with twenty-four. And we’d also figured out that it was fun to do that.

I didn’t come from an artistic family that encouraged me to paint or draw.  I was encouraged to write but my grandmother saw through this and bought me my first real painting set when I was ten.  My mom gave me a paint-by-number set when I was twelve, but beyond those two isolated events, I was on my own, and writing filled my days until I got to college where I took my first art history course and was blown away by the way modern artists used color.

Eventually, I did get to art school and other workshops. I learned to draw and learned about the tools of an artist. I’m still learning.  Artists, musicians, dancers, actors never stop “taking class.”

Over time and with more than one detour I’ve found the way to my own abstract expressionist paintings, and I’ve not forgotten a single thing I learned about or loved on the way from there to here – all the way back to kindergarten.

Two new pieces:

I Took a Trip on a Train
I Took a Trip on a Train
While Listening to Thelonius
While Listening to Thelonius Monk

Making Our Marks in the World

Frank and Rothko in Manhattan
Frank and Rothko in Manhattan
Frank and Claude on the bridge at Giverny
Frank and Claude on the bridge at Giverny

I’ve just been reading an article about the ways different artists “make their marks.”  “Markmaking” is a topic that often engages artists as they talk about their work.  Or it engages critics and gallery-goers as they view the work.

When I was in art school in Maine, our drawing instructor, a well-established painter,  gave us one key rule about our drawings – no erasers allowed.  She emphasized the importance of every mark to an artist’s work.  She also called on me as a writer to talk about this related to writing.

Yes, we eventually edit our work, but in the beginning the words all stay.  I strongly believe that computers have played a negative role in the writing world because it’s so easy to instantly erase a word or a phrase or a page.  Writers were a lot more thoughtful about their words when pages had to be retyped for the smallest mistake!  (Without intending to offend anyone, I think computer generated art has the same problem.)

Artists also eventually “edit” our work – cleaning up a painting, redoing a line that’s not quite what we want, adjusting here and there – but not at the beginning. My favorite writing guru, Miss Fidditch, says:  “Get the words down.  Then fix them.”

Miss Fidditch, who has joined me on this art journey, now advises: “Get the paint down. Then fix it.”

In the writing world, I’m what’s known as an “organic writer.”  I didn’t start out with a plan for a story, but with an idea – a character, a scene perhaps, a seed.  It turns out that I’m the same kind of painter.

I have an idea in mind, colors I can see in my head, shapes – a seed.  But I like to see what happens when I make the first marks.  I used to live in a city where there was a wonderful little store that advertised:  “Come in with nothing in mind and leave with something you love.”

Apparently that advertising line is my artistic spirit guide.  I could do worse.

As I wrapped up my “Deconstructing Frank Lloyd Wright” series of ten paintings in which the architect meets various artists, I realized that my mark making had changed.  After a lot of work with brushes, I’m now a devotee of the painting knife.  I proved this to myself today when I began a new, larger color field piece.

The pieces I did earlier were done with brushes.  But this one got right in my face and put the painting knife in my hand instead.  I am already in love with what’s happening.

When architect Louis Kahn was asked how he came to design certain buildings, he said:  “I ask the bricks what they want to be.”  And writer E.M. Forster said:  “How do I know what I think until I see what I say.”

For me who has taken up residence in the color field, a painting is not about a plan.  I ask the paint what it wants to be. Then I load up the palette knife, begin, and see what I say.

Making my marks, for better or for worse.

 

 

 

 

Frank and Vincent Have a Conversation

"Frank and Vincent Talk About the Weather"
“Frank and Vincent Talk About the Weather”

Another gift from the Art Pixies who come in the night and leave things for me.  Things I never dreamed of painting myself.  Things that seem at once familiar and strange to me.

You have to understand that I’m not a follower of “automatic writing” or “automatic painting” or the idea of art rising out of my depths.  I’m a follower of doing the work.  A follower of, “Painting is about paint.” So I do the work and I paint.

When I finished this one, the colors reminded me a little of Van Gogh.  Please understand, I am in no way comparing my work to his – it’s just the colors.

But the color of the circle/ball/orb in this one really belongs to Frank, so I thought perhaps he and Vincent had something to say to each other.  I hope it’s more than the weather.

Who knows, really, where abstract images come from?  For me, it’s still all color, all the time.  Adding the discrete circles is new, and they’re challenging.  They’re also imperfect, the space within the circles broken or incomplete.

It’s easy to make assumptions or to assign meaning beyond what’s on the canvas.

Here’s what’s on the canvas:  Paint.

 

 

“What You Need for Painting”

New piece in progress 20" x 20"
New piece in progress
20″ x 20″

When I taught writing, I told my fledgling writers to “Read, read, read.”  Now that I’m a fledgling artist, I tell myself to “Look, look, look.

I bring books home from the Library every week to add to my own small collection of art books.  As you probably know, art books are big and usually heavy, so I congratulate myself on also “working out” as I carry the books to my car and then from my car to the apartment.

This week, I found a relatively new book, 100 Painters of Tomorrow on the shelf.  In our fast moving century, the book is already two years old, but all of the artists are new to me. It’s quite a collection – something for everybody.  Paintings to love, paintings to question, figurative, abstract, careful, slapdash (although I know that’s an illusion)…all interesting and informative.

I look at the book every day and study what these painters of tomorrow (now today) are up to.  It’s a terrific window on the contemporary art world.  But I also find myself interested in what each artist has to say about his or her work.  The statements nearly all begin with a variation of “My work is about…,” “I am interested in…,” “These paintings represent…”

I started thinking about what I’d say if and when asked to speak of my work.  Granted, I have not yet painted enough to claim anything like a collection.  And I’m still exploring, or rather circling.  I know I keep coming closer and closer to “my work” with each piece, and my recent awareness that it’s all about color for me has put me very near the heart of the work I want to do.  “My work is about…”

Writer Raymond Carver included a poem in his collection Ultramarine titled “What You Need for Painting.”  This is a “found” poem taken from a letter written by Renoir and is largely a (lovely and poetic) list of pigments and painting tools, but it ends with this quote from Renoir, perhaps the main thing needed for painting:

“Indifference to everything except your canvas.
The ability to work like a locomotive.
An iron will.”

Whatever the work is about, it is first of all about commitment, focus, and will.

But mostly commitment.