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

IMG_1954

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

img_1927

“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.

 

The Naming Game

When I was an art history student required to memorize names of artists, dates, places and works of art, my favorite title for an artwork was Marcel Duchamp’s “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even.”  The work itself is an abstract composition of glass, paint, dust and the workings of Duchamp’s mind, but the title – to me – is sheer poetry and adds to the intrigue of the piece.

bride-stripped-bare

“The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even”
Marcel Duchamp

“The Bride…” came to mind this week when I read an article about problems abstract artists have titling their works.  Working as one of those artists myself I’ve been stumped by this, too.

Landscape painters and portraitists have a more solid place to begin:  “Sunset over Ocean Beach,” “Meadow with Wild Flowers,” “Henry Wiggins, 1968,” and so on.  But even realist painters sometimes want to branch out and come up with something a little different.

Many abstract artists, especially abstract expressionists, simply number the paintings.  “Blue No. 5,”  Black and White No. 32.”  I understand this impulse because I want to let viewers of my own abstract work decide for themselves what the painting is about.  I prefer to let the painting connect to their experience and emotions without me butting into the conversation like a Miss Fidditch of the art world.

There are a lot of schools of thought about this naming business, but I did find help online as we artists work to come up with names – a name generator that will do the hard work for us!  I gave it a try the other day and came up with a few possibilities for a new painting:  “Complicated Movement,” “Unconscious Eye of Lust,” “Intimate Intensity,” “Surface of Fear 1955,” “Intensity vs Investigation,” “The Celluloid Air.”  Hmmm.

Writers have a similar problem when it comes to titles for their novels and I wonder how many copies of a book titled Among the Ashes and Heaps would have sold.  Probably not nearly as many as The Great Gatsby. 

Other suggestions for titling abstract works include using lines from books or poems, either something you already love or just a random stab with your finger in a book.  As a poet, this idea appeals to me and as a jazz aficionado, so does the idea of song lyrics.  I gave the random stabbing idea a try for this new one and grabbed a book of poetry off the shelf.  Not mine, somebody else’s.  This is what my finger landed on, “…this reliable frame that lets color be…”  I like it.  I’m going with it.

Maybe next time I’ll give the generator another try, but until it comes up with something as inventive as “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even,” I’ll go with poetry. Or possibly just “Red No. 43.”

img_1902

“…this reliable frame that lets color be…”
title from “News of the Occluded Cyclone”
by Alice Fulton

acrylic painting on canvas, 11x 14

 

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

 

“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.