Art, TEGWAR, and Sweet Songs in the Halls of Creation

“These Women in My Life”
Mixed media collage
24″ x 24,” Molly Larson Cook, 2015

“I don’t follow any system. All the laws you can lay down are only so many props to be cast aside when the hour of creation arrives.”  —Raoul Dufy

“Do what suits you…try to paint in the moment…
forget everything you have learned…”
–Jan van Oort

The words of these two painters are near and dear to my creative heart.

Dufy was a French Fauve painter who lived and worked at the end of the 19th century and through the first half of the 20th century.   In addition to being a painter, Dufy was a draftsman, printmaker, book illustrator, scenic designer, furniture designer and public planner.

van Oort is a contemporary Dutch abstract expressionist painter as well as an architect, composer,  jazz saxophone player, writer and advertising concept designer.

In other words, neither of these artists put all their creative eggs in one basket – or even two.   The word polymath comes to mind.

As I look at their short biographies, I begin to detect the great appeal both these artists have to me and why their advice which is essentially advice to break the rules resonates so strongly.

One of my favorite novels and without question my favorite movie is Bang the Drum Slowly. This is a story of baseball, rain and human understanding.  On off days or when it’s raining, the players sometimes engage in a game called TEGWAR – The Exciting Game Without Any Rules.

I’m not proposing a full monty game of TEGWAR for artists and neither were Dufy or van Oort.

But they, and so many others who came before us, know the value of learning the rules and then tossing them aside in pursuit of our own voices, our styles, our artistic ventures into new territory.  As Joseph Campbell once said (and I paraphrase), if you’re following a path, it’s somebody else’s path.

I know this from another side as well.  I’ve taught creative writing for several years and my goal is to teach the writers the basics and – yes – the “rules” of whatever genre we’re working on – poetry, fiction, nonfiction.  They sometimes ask to see samples of my own work and I show them.  But I don’t want them to write like me.  I don’t want them to write like any of the writers they read.  And I don’t want them to be slaves to the rules.  I want them to use the rules as a foundation and the writers they read, including me, as samples, but I want them to write like themselves. 

When we look at the art of those who’ve come before us, when we browse the magazines with the newest art, when we walk the galleries and museums, we get ideas and appreciate the art that interests us.  But we don’t want to paint like those artists – we want to be inspired by them to paint like ourselves!

There’s a kind of poem called a “nonce” poem in which the poet creates a one-off poetry form just for that poem.

I’m all for nonce art.  One-off paintings that will please the artist and won’t be repeated.  The artist will make the rules and the result will be the artist’s voice sweetly singing in the halls of creation.

 

 

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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!

 

 

Knowing When to Stop: The Axeman Cometh

I’ve spent a lot of years in the world of words – writer, writing instructor, editor, and oh, yes, reader.  I’m familiar with William Faulkner’s famous advice to writers that they must sometimes “kill your darlings,” those phrases you are particularly fond of which are really not all that good.

This kind of murderous idea is a little shocking, I suppose, but I laughed out loud when I recently came across another murderous idea advanced by American Impressionist William Merritt Chase.

“It takes two to paint. One to paint, the other to stand by with an axe to kill him before he spoils it.” 

Chase is perhaps best known for his often idyllic scenes of idle leisure that suggest no sign of murderous intent.  But his point is well-taken and describes a problem inherent in almost any creative endeavor I can think of – knowing when to stop.  Closely related to another problem for an artist – wondering later if you stopped too soon.

It’s a dilemma.

Hemingway said he rewrote the ending to A Farewell to Arms 39 times.  The interviewer asked what the problem was and Hemingway said, “Getting the words right.”  I wonder if Michaelangelo or Picasso or David Hockney would say something similar about a particular painting.  “Getting the paint right.”

I’ve certainly had the experience of finishing a painting only to find myself awake at 3:00 a.m. with questions and new ideas for the painting.  Out of bed and lights on so I could look at it one more time, perhaps even graced by a shot of inspiration before I headed back to bed to dream sweet dreams of what I’d do with it in the morning.

A couple of times it worked.  Other times it turned out to be like the “inspiration” of a writer awake in the middle of the night who penned the immortal words, “All the tears fall in my ears.”

I started a painting a couple of weeks ago in a new format for me – I abandoned my 20 x 24 canvases for a 15 x 30 just to “see how it would feel.”  So far, I’ve “finished” it twice and then reworked it after one of those nagging 3:00 a.m. calls.  I think now it’s really finished.

Perhaps it’s true that an artist never finishes a painting, she just stops.  Either that or we get a glimpse of the guy with the axe waiting to make sure we don’t ruin it.

Here’s the new one…as yet untitled…

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The Writer/Artist Is Finding Her Voice

More and more often I find my paintings overlapping with my writing.  To put that more clearly, I find that the characteristics of my painting style overlap with those of my writing style.  In other words, I’m finding my voice.

Today I worked on a painting I started earlier this week.  I was pretty happy with the way it had gone – two large areas of color divided by a textured diagonal “line.”  One side was a soft aqua I’d mixed myself.  The other was Hooker’s green.  The line was red with Naptholene Carmine against Indian Yellow Hue.  So far, so good.

But when I looked at it last night, the whole thing felt too flat, with a kind of Stepford-wives too-perfect quality.

While I admire great technical ability, I’m not drawn to “perfect” paintings as things I want on my own walls any more than I’m drawn to “perfect” writing which always feels cumbersome and stilted to me.

I want rougher edges.

After looking last night, I over-painted with a lot of other colors, not sure where I was going with it (“paint, then think”) and left it to dry.  This morning I knew where I was going.

I mixed up my soft aqua again and painted that half, then painted the Hooker’s green.  But now, of course, there was something going on under those layers, something I liked a lot and I heard myself say, as if I were working on a novel or a short story, “Now there’s some character.”

Now it has depth, some rougher edges, and has become – like what I think of as the best literary characters – rich and complex.  Textured.  Not perfect.  Interesting.

This new “character” on my canvas, whoever he or she is, has been around and has a story to tell.  Maybe that’s the whole reason I’ve moved from writing to painting.  More characters.  More stories.  More life.

One of my favorite drawing workshops was run by a woman who loved to show us the flaws in masterworks.  She’d bring in slides of those masterworks and then point out the problems the artists had had.  Hands and feet gave a lot of them trouble.  Or maybe it was a nose or an impossible angle, a shadow in the wrong place.

It was encouraging to those of us thinking we had to make things perfect, and it was also instructive when we considered what art was really about.

Mirrors reflect perfectly accurate images.  Art reflects life.

 

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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

 

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.