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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Who Put the Art in the Party?

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Part of my wall at the HYPE Gallery

It was no coincidence that “art” was right in the middle of “party” on Saturday night at the Studio Door/HYPE Gallery in San Diego.  Live jazz, good wine, happy people, great conversations, a little dancing and – of course – art!

Like writers, artists like me without a big studio where I can invite people in work much of the time in solitude.  The possibilities of getting our work to the public are generally limited to street fairs or a neighborhood coffee shop or competitions where we might exhibit (if we’re lucky) one or two paintings.

But the chance to show our work in a gallery, several pieces of our work at one time, is a break we don’t take lightly.  And the possibility of making sales on the spot is a possibility that means a lot.  Most of us are not starving in garrets, but selling our work is not just about making money with it.

I sold two of my smaller collages Saturday night, one to someone I know and one to strangers, a delightful couple who told me how much they liked it and talked about where it would go in their home.  That’s the part that means something to me.  And the person I knew did know about my art but had not seen it.  When she did, she wanted to own one of the pieces.  We were both happy.

As a born people-watcher, I also enjoyed observing the flow of the crowd on Saturday night – the folks who come to see a specific artist as well as the art aficionados who enjoy a pleasant evening out and want to see what’s new. It’s instructive for an artist to watch what happens when they pass by your own work – the ones who take a quick glance and move on, the ones who stop to take it in, spend time with the work, sign the guest book or pick up your card and slip it in a pocket.

Abstract art is not for everyone, so I didn’t expect everyone to be interested, but I listened to comments and watched.  Learned.  None of this will change what I do – I’m not creating art for the masses – but I did hear things that helped me know I’m not headed into an art ditch either.

I came home Saturday night gratified by the whole experience.  And Sunday morning, I gessoed up a new canvas and got right back to work.  An artist.

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New work.  Only just begun…stay tuned!

Resonance

 

January is now over and February is upon us.  I vowed to take the month of January off to recoup after the holidays and unsettling  news stories.  By the end of December, my painting mojo was on some other planet and I needed time to find it again.  So, no social activities, concerts or major events in quiet January.

I broke the quiet last evening when I went to a small jazz performance by a world class guitarist and a flute player.  It was the perfect way to rev up the mojo again and get me back to both painting and writing.

As for the groundhog who apparently poked his nose out this morning in Pennsylvania, I don’t know.  I’ve got myself on a media diet this month and as far as I’m concerned, “No news is good news” for the month of February.  I’m hoping that the worst will be over by the end of the month.  “Yeah,” I hear you say, “right.”

Either way, I’m happily playing with the paints and gesso, the palette knives and canvas even as I fiddle with words for a new poem.  My first major art instructor told me long ago to put my easel in the best light and my writing desk next to it.  “They’ll feed each other.”

Judging from what’s happened so far in February, I have to think he was right.  My painting table and my writing table (with computer) are, in fact, right next to each other.  I’m able to move from one to the other as the paint dries or the words come slowly and feel the resonance between the two.

It may not be magic, but it’s something.   And I’m keeping it.

First February painting, 11×14 acrylic, “Map of the Inner Harbor”img_1899

 

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.

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