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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Iconic Books, Individuality and Confidence

Robert Henri and his 1923 book, The Art Spirit, continue to be wise and welcome companions on this artist’s journey.

I have begun to carry the book around with me the way I once carried Walden and Yevtushenko’s Selected Poems and Steinbeck’s Log from the Sea of Cortez.  There were others over the years. We all have our iconic books at one time or another.

Henri, of course, speaks directly to art.  No need for Emily Dickinson’s telling anything “slant.”  It’s all there in plain language to the working artist.  Here’s a passage I came across recently that struck me in its simplicity and applicability:

The technique of a little individuality will be a little technique, however scrupulously elaborated it may be. However long studied it will still be a little technique…The greatness of art depends absolutely on the greatness of the artist’s individuality and on the same source depends the power to acquire a technique sufficient for expression.  The (artist) who is forever acquiring technique with the idea that sometime (he) may have something to express will never have the technique of the thing (he) wishes to express.

No little individuality! For me this is a call to have confidence in our work, whatever it may be, and to take the risks that go with it.  Individuality is about that confidence, not about behaving wildly or wearing mismatched socks.  It’s the individuality of our work, not some quasi-Bohemian idea of the artist as an unusual person.

Dressing, as someone once wrote of a character in a book, like a person leaving a burning building doesn’t make anyone an artist.  It just makes the person – well, look like someone leaving a burning building.

Artists and other creatives are rarely run-of-the-mill individuals, to be sure, but there’s no need to call attention to that or make it the basis for any kind of entitlement.  In the communities I’ve loved the most, creative people – artists, writers, musicians and more – are treated not with entitlement but with the same respect other members of the community are accorded, no more and no less.  Those who claim entitlement become smaller in my eyes.

So we soldier on, toilers in the creative vineyard like toilers in any other vineyard.  We encourage each other, laugh with each other, engage in serious discussions with each other, feed each other when called upon and breath the same air as everyone else in the community.

Our difference – Henri’s “greatness of art” – is in our fearless individuality and our power (read confidence) to express that.

To my artist sisters and brothers, I can say only, “Keep on keepin’ on.”  (Yes, I’m that old!)

Here are the three pieces I’ve been working on…I’ll write more about the process and lessons learned next time.  These are 15×30 acrylics.  No titles yet.  The center panel which a week or so ago was wanting to be horizontal changed its mind in the company of the other two.  We never know…

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Forget the Axeman – It’s Finished When I Say It’s Finished

The holidays are here in full force, but I’ll admit that my head is more in the studio than in wrapping packages.  I’ll get the packages wrapped in time, I know, but it’ll be a last minute rush because something happened – a good thing – in the studio.

Of course, each good thing is balanced by something else, and yesterday it was balanced by knocking over a ceramic mug holding brushes in water.  The mug smashed to bits on my tile floor and I was left mopping up the gray water and shards before I could get back to work.  Well, Mercury is in retrograde and these things happen.

The good thing is that I began reworking the painting I posted last time (Me afraid of the axeman?  Not on your life!), and the result makes me so happy that I’m off today to pick up a couple more 15 x 30 canvases to turn one painting into a triptych.

Although I had not read any of Robert Henri’s The Art Spirit in the last couple of weeks, this book has become my go-to guide, and yesterday – after the reworking – I happened on these words:  “Very technically speaking, thicker paint, a fearlessness in painting over and not being afraid of spoiling in so doing, may be conducive to a development of more solidity…”

Are you listening, axeman?  The painting is finished when I say it’s finished.

The other part of the good thing is that once I finished, I realized that my vertical painting had become horizontal.  Now this is not just a matter of randomly turning it one way or another; this is a matter of the bricks telling Kahn what they wanted to be.

When I work with writers, I tell them to pay attention to the subconscious which often knows more than the writer about what to say and what’s happening in a poem or essay or story – things the writer may not learn for some time to come.  I’ve had the experience myself with writing and now I’m learning to trust it with the art.  I intend to pay attention.

I’ll be on the alert for the axeman, but as confidence builds – along with the layers of paint – and as my trust in the subconscious takes hold, I’ll do just what I do with the writing:  I’ll start with a general idea of what I want to create, a general idea of the palette, a general idea of where I’m headed, but I will always – always – let the paint have the final say.

Here’s the painting I posted last time along with the final result:

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I’ll wrap the packages later…

Happy holidays and creating time to all!

 

 

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.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Frank Lloyd Wright in My World of Jazz

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My Jazz paintings cozying up to two from my Deconstructing Frank Lloyd Wright series

As promised, here’s a photo of this month’s exhibit of my work at HYPE Gallery. The initial response has been good to this mixing of earlier and newer work.

Hanging a gallery show can be a challenge in the desire to keep the work consistent and not present a mish-mash of everything an artist has done.  As my sculpture prof used to profess about many things – you want something rich and complex, not complicated and confusing.

So I pulled smaller pieces from last time and added the two new ones. The first comment I heard was from a visitor who liked the arrangement and how the colors worked together.  That made my heart sing as, for me, it’s all about color.

The entire show this month with six women artists is rich and complex with color, and not one bit complicated or confusing. I’m delighted to be part of it.

As a side project, I’m also participating in the Postcards from the Edge exhibit this month at The Studio Door (our mother ship), a national project that benefits visual artists with AIDS.  The original, one of a kind, postcards created by artists all over the country will be sold and proceeds will go to the fund.  Because the postcards are exhibited anonymously, I’ll wait to post a picture of my entry until later this month.

Finally, I offer a couple of short passages from the 1923 book, The Art Spirit, by Robert Henri, artist and teacher.  His writings, nearly one hundred years old, stay fresh and inspire me every day.  He writes about visual art, of course, but his words apply to ever so many other things.

“Know what the old masters did. Know how they composed their pictures, but do not fall into the conventions they established. These conventions were right for them, and they are wonderful. They made their language. You make yours. They can help you. All the past can help you.”

and

“We are not here to do what has already been done.”

Amen to that.  Amen to that.