Reality manifests itself as constant and objective – independent of us, but as changeable in space and time. Consequently, its reflection in us contains both properties. Mixed up in our mind, these properties are confused and we do not have a proper image of reality. – Piet Mondrian
Think: Mondrian meets Jell-O Jigglers. Like the Jell-O, this artist’s mind does not stop moving. Victoria Palermo and her work are of a malleable nature, recognizable, yet positively reinvented over the years: flexible, accommodating, expansive. From her well known molded rubber sculptures to small poured nail polish drawings, to “chairs” made from living moss, she continually surprises the viewer with her unique creations. Shifting recently into the intriguing possibility of the viewer participating in the composition of the work, her latest constructions and her thoughts on plasticity reveal a complex mind and fantastic spirit.
– Mary Kathryn Jablonski
Say the word ‘plasticity’ and most everyone thinks ‘plastic,’ that ubiquitous molded material that we love to hate.
In sculptural art, plasticity refers to the degree of dimensionality in an object, and the active interplay between positive volume and surrounding space. The term comes from the Greek word plassein, meaning “to mold.”
Catherine Malabou describes plasticity in her book, Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing. The active potential for mutability is the quality that engages her, and she proposes plasticity as a handy, adaptable concept to describe how to perceive form, time, and reality. Malabou is a former student of the French philosopher Jacques Derrida.
Malabou takes up the vocabulary of materiality to critique earlier philosophical models. By way of establishing a framework for reference, she describes the transformation masks made by coastal peoples of Northwest America, masks that were hinged to reveal multiple faces. Plasticity describes the ability of something to become something else, but implicit too is the possibility to resume original form.
Bernini’s baroque sculpture, Apollo and Daphne, comes to mind. A vivid—even literal—illustration of metamorphosis, the work presents two figures, one in hot pursuit of the other. We see the moment of contact as Apollo catches up and Daphne simultaneously turns into a tree. In side views, there is space between the two, but that distance collapses when the sculpture is viewed from behind or in front of the figures. Then they appear as one sculptural mass. Daphne alternates between appearing either pretty much like a woman or pretty much like a tree, depending on your vantage point. The space around and within is activated by arms, legs, hair, and drapery, all unified in a swirl of directional flow.
Toy transformers are a pop culture reminder of our fascination with objects that go about changing before our eyes. As I write, Transformers 4: Age of Extinction, will soon open at the local mall cinema, and that makes me smile. Transformers have plasticity.
The term plasticity may also indicate the capacity to explode or come apart.
D.I.Y., wood and Plexiglas, 2013
Applying the concept of plasticity to worldview sounds plenty plausible in a time when fixed meanings have gone the way of fixed identities (who do you decide to be on Facebook?).
But, what does all this mean for art making? Always, on a material level, there is a plastic nature to our perceptions of form (an object), which evolve as we take in additional visual information, our brains on auto-update. In studio—what to work through? —perhaps, making visual, the subject of plasticity, mutability, and transformation, and the idea that…
(my) little complex, silicone rubber, 2013 (three views)
nothing is static, but nothing is lost. It just becomes something else….
Lean-in, silicone rubber, 2013 (two views)
– Victoria Palermo
Upstate New York artist Victoria Palermo works in both two- and three-dimensional modes with scale ranging from vest pocket to too big to fit in a pick-up truck, she favors a variety of media—as in nail polish, rubbery mix, wood chunks and carpet scraps. Recent projects include a bus stand in North Adams, Mass (thanks to support from MASS MoCA), outdoor sculpture at Chesterwood, and a three-person exhibit at Union College exploring the implications of Simon Mawer’s (and Mies van der Rohe’s) Glass Raum. Her work was included in the 2010 exhibit, Jewel Thief, curated by Ian Berry and Jessica Stockholder, at the Tang Museum. In 2004, she had a solo exhibit at the Williams College Museum of Art. Previous exhibits have taken her to farther away places including Marseilles, NYC, and LA, with reviews in Sculpture, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Lake George Mirror.
Pink Mountains by Thomas Pecore Weso (acrylic, 3′x4′)
Denise Low thinks big, as her first poem suggests. She wants a new Good Book, a rewritten Bible for a new country that grew up before it had any sense of itself. She juxtaposes the slow rhythms of geology with the quicker beat of history and both with the jittery rhythms of contemporary poetry. She places the Bible next to Native American lore and that lore infiltrates the history of pioneer settlement jostling against New Age neo-mythology of UFOs, “Atlantis aliens” and Sasquatch. Pioneers burn their furniture to bear out the Kansas winter, but the poem is haunted by the native version of the weather.
Another year trees explode.
Crows fall from trees.
Lakota winter counts show a black-ink crow.
Ben Kindle writes, “K’agi’ o’ta c’uwi’tat’api.”
Crows, they freeze to death.
Denise Low is a prolific poet and prose writer (twenty-five books, not to mention an active blog), a protean editor and administrator, a perceptive critic, a Kansas Poet Laureate, a past-president of the Associated Writing Programs, and a Native American conscious of all the heritages that run through her. In February, she contributed an essay to these pages, “Optical Structures in The Shrubberies: Ronald Johnson’s Cascades.” But that was just a warm-up. Now we have poems. Four of them — “Shooting Stars Wolf,” “Sedimentation,” “Cold” and “West of Hays City” — will be published in her new collection, Melange Block (Red Mountain Press, Santa Fe), about to be launched on Saturday in Albuquerque (see her web page for details). The fifth — “Imperfect Refraction” — will be in a book of prose and poetry Jackalope Walks Into an Indian Bar (Mouthfeel Press, 2015).
To accompany the poems we have images by Thomas Pecore Weso, Denise Low’s husband, paintings and drawings that pick up the juxtaposition of mythic landscape and native myth. (I once drove through Kansas from southwest to northeast, and there was nothing higher than an anthill as far as I remember till I hit the Flint Hills, which have always loomed high in my imagination.) The two together, poems and paintings, are a spectacular image in themselves, beautiful and mysterious.
West of Hays City
The challenge is to rewrite the Bible, think big
fill these unrelenting spaces with murals.
Swathes of sun-yellow stubble glow intensely,
the pale hue illuminated improbably into brilliance.
I grew up in this gessoed landscape without edges or peaks,
people lost in swells of dried seas and granaries,
wandering my own stories of seven-year droughts,
dust devils, narrow escape, baptism by prairie fires.
Patches of ponderosa pine windbreaks slide into gullies.
White frame houses huddle hidden in windbreaks.
Bright corn circles drain Ice Age ground water.
Weathered outbuildings shelter crazy prophets.
Wending bluestem and datura outlast this summer.
One drought and buffalo grass fills in the blanks.
All else turns to trail ruts and shibboleths
Quartelejo Pueblo, Fort Zarah, Fort Wallace.
Yellow Kokopelli (acrylic, 2′x3′)
A family burns chairs, clothes, and axes
but nothing stops the silent killer.
Neighbors find them frozen in bed.
Another year trees explode.
Crows fall from trees.
Lakota winter counts show a black-ink crow.
Ben Kindle writes, “K’agi’ o’ta c’uwi’tat’api.”
Crows, they freeze to death.
This enemy seeps through sills and door jambs.
Chimney flues fill with its wrath.
North is its direction.
Nothing stops it from reaching
through flesh to the center of bone.
Winter Shaman (acrylic, 2′x 4′)
Shooting Stars Wolf
River Leonid Showers overhill
UFOs flash Feather Lane
tribal cop’s SUV is
dark pines hover glitter
woodland county lit-
Phone camera off missed
Sasquatch on cable TV
his treetop moans
Riverview Circle dogs yowl
Saint Anthony burials
Little People trick nuns
Snake effigy mound upstream
here the clans Eagle Sturgeon
Crane Beaver Moose
Tumbling Atlantis aliens
stoned freaks stars
Cherokee Bear (colored pencil, 12″x18″)
Sedimentation: Alligator Junipers
oblong scales tiered
centuries old living shale
spiral rows mortared
circling pith of sap
guarding scant water
seared drought forged
creased wrinkled torsos
Flint Hills (acrylic, 2′x3′)
Imperfect Refraction ……………for Roger Holden
Lens convex image pop
this is your peyote brain
hologram alive one sliver
image falls forward—boom—
memories this is what
it’s like going on in years
Artoo Detoo burbles back
pulse quickens reruns
Bre’r Rabbit Tsi-s’tu Wau-pus picture rolls on
no mirror background
Roger Rabbit projects out
particles assemble for Skype
beam you back beam aboard
this Love Boat Osiris cruise
#—Poems by Denise Low with paintings by Thomas Pecore Weso
Denise Low, 2nd Kansas Poet Laureate, has published 25 books, including Ghost Stories (The Circle -Best Native Am. Books of 2010; Ks. Notable Book). Heath Fisher writes: “Filled with vivid imagery of the land and the culture, and both verse and prose, Ghost Stories is an enchanting tribute to the plains and the history (Rain Taxi). Low’s Natural Theologies: Essays (The Backwaters Press, 2012) is the first critical review of mid-plains literature. Mary Harwell Sayler writes: “The literature of the ‘New Middle West’ seems to adapt, innovate, and follow Low’s insightful view” (Rattle). Low is a former board member and past president of AWP. She writes articles, blogs, and reviews and also publishes a small press, Mammoth. A critical article on the poetics of Kenneth Irby is forthcoming from Jacket 2. Her heritages include British Isles, Delaware, and German. Recent writings appear in American Life in Poetry, Yellow Medicine Rev., Virginia Q. Rev. New Letters, Yukhika-latuhse, Unraveling the Spreading Cloth of Time(rENEGADE pLANET), I Was Indian (Foot Hills), I-70. You can find Denise Low on the web athttp://deniselow.blogspot.com and www.deniselow.com.
Thomas Pecore Weso, enrolled Menominee Indian from Wisconsin, has paintings in private collections throughout the country. He has had one-man shows at Hutchinson Center for the Arts, Haskell Indian Nations University, Percolator Gallery, and others. He has an MA in Global Indigenous Studies from the University of Kansas. www.tomweso.com
Ingrid Ruthig is a protean artist, a poet, fiction writer, editor, recovering architect (now dealing in architexts), hybrid artist, text artist (dealing in dBooks and recodings and TexTiles, i.e. puns, visual and verbal), the very epitome of the kind of artist we like to feature on Numéro Cinq, a hungry spirit who breaks forms and recombines them, who is always trying a little something new, the kind of artist Contributing Editor Nance Van Winckel is always on the look-out for, to interrogate and display, as in here, below, the latest in her amazing series of Off The Page art & interview pieces.
Two facing pages from BinaReCodings: ‘In the beginning was the word’ Click on the image to view the entire book.
NVW:BinaReCodings. I recently read Kenneth Goldsmith’s book Uncreative Writing, in which he talks about these binaries (of 0 and 1) as the basis for all computer “language.” If a jpg image file won’t open, it comes to us as linguistic code. In referring to a Charles Bernstein poem, Goldsmith explains that the “text becomes active, begging us to perform it, employing the spaces as silences.” (p. 18) Goldsmith goes on to say that “Never before has language had so much materiality—fluidity, plasticity, malleability—begging to be actively managed by the writer.” (p. 25) And, I might add, re-managed by the reader! It seems to me your BinaReCodings sketchbook suggests similar ideas. Here, I’m thinking specifically about remaking and repurposing what has gone before, but with a focus on an elementary nature of linguistic activity, a 1 and a zero, a something and a nothing.
Ruthig: When a viewer responds to the work as you have, it’s both exciting and disquieting, because it forces the artist to revisit and reconsider what was deliberate, intuitive, serendipitous—that is, can she actually explain the work? does she want to? Well, here goes!
Yes, on the surface BinaReCodings breaks down language to building blocks, to the letter, in order to prod new connections as we re-see it. It also documents how, through a type of repurposing of pages from history, it has been key to human progress. However, in terms of language, I see the process as akin to translation or transposition. If I use music as an analogy, the original libretto remains, but the score’s been shifted into another key. And the soloist sings in Cantonese rather than Italian, and the oboes play the first violin’s part, and all this happens against a changing backdrop, a contextual repositioning. The result alters how the reader-viewer engages with the original. But let me backtrack a little . . .
Two facing pages from BinaReCodings: ‘In the beginning was the word’
While studying architecture at the University of Toronto in the early 1980s, I took an elective on computers. I must have been intrigued partly because I worked as a bank teller during summer holidays, and new ooo-aah robo-digited computer systems had recently replaced pen-on-paper record-keeping. It all sounds incredibly antiquated now, but this was the era of UNIX OS and dot matrix, that held-breath moment before software and personal home computers, such as the Commodore 64, exploded off the digital launch pad. Along with punch cards, much of what the elective offered has dissolved into the shadows of the ancients. Yet the basic premise that everything can be reduced to “On” and “Off”, “1″ and “0″ remains, and thirty years later, its impact infiltrates our everyday lives.
BinaReCodings reexamines language by putting it into a state that confounds immediate meaning. It draws on Viktor Shklovsky’s notion of “defamiliarization” and aligns with Goldsmith’s take on language as ever-present material. Words are symbols of ideas, holding meaning so long as we know the language and take time to decode it. Using the usually invisible 1 and 0 elements of binary code, I translated the biblical phrase “in the beginning was the word.” But “word” is no longer capitalized and, rather than referring to God, instead references the human facility for language. Letter by letter the recoded phrase then spreads throughout the sketchbook, superimposed on images of key historic pages, those language vehicles.
By showing us where we are, surrounded by invisible (binary) language, as well as where we’ve been, by presenting words from history, by mixing things up, by juxtaposing then and now, known and unknown, BinaReCodings forces the viewer to relinquish assumed meaning and look again, look harder, see something different. Significance is not quite lost, only less obvious. BinaReCodings does manage and demands managing of text as well as image. In the end, drawing connections is what matters.
Sci Fi from the Textiles Series
NVW: Several visual artist friends have told me this, or variations on this: “Nance, when people go to a gallery, they don’t want to READ; they want to LOOK.” This is an issue I struggle with— how to tempt someone not necessarily to “read” per se, but to want to interact with the text AS text. As both a poet and a visual artist, could you share your own thoughts on this, and perhaps with regard to this particular piece of yours I love, (detail) from TexTiles. To what degree does the semantic meaning of the words themselves illuminate or further the “looking” experience, or does it? Is it important to you that someone do something akin to “reading” while experiencing this piece?
Ruthig: A wild synchronicity is at work here… I tripped across this read/look issue a few days ago, so I’m glad you’ve brought it up. I understand the galleried inclination—I’ve caught myself responding that way to worded works. And if I’m honest, it usually stems from laziness on my part, especially if the text is oriented off-horizontal—I think, Seriously? I’m to stand on my head to read this? Just as we approach visual art with expectations, we approach language with assumptions, programmed so we have one less decision to make, and in a way that’s indolence on the collective scale. Yes, reading does require more from us. We have to process written language. To refer to Goldsmith’s Uncreative Writing—which, like you, I only recently read (another intriguing synchronicity)—“the act of reading itself is an act of decoding, deciphering, and decryption.” We can’t connect with the ideas or images until that language processing has taken place. I might argue with myself here, and say that, if words are recited aloud, it’s entirely possible to preempt meaning by connecting through sound—I think of how mesmerizing it is to listen to Gertrude Stein’s work. But if we accept the usual premise about text, gazing at an image seems less daunting by comparison, because it taps intuition and is more immediately sensual, regardless of how it makes us feel.
The way someone experiences any of my textworks is going to be as unique as the person. If she’s inclined to read each word, great. If not, that’s fine too. I’d be happy to know that someone simply liked to look at it, that it was visually appealing. Just as I reassure those who insist they “don’t get” poetry not to worry so much about getting it, similarly, I’m open-minded about how viewers take in my art. To a degree, response does depend on the work—certain pieces are configured for reading, while others aren’t. Any approach is valid, though I believe the deeper the engagement with any work, the more the reward—in other words, the more you put into it, the more you come away with. The only thing that’s critical is to engage. In the case of TexTiles (based on sketches I made while preparing other work for the 2012 exhibition Reading the Image), the work questions assumptions and hopefully prompts the viewer to look again, to see print language less for what it means and more for what it is—i.e. a vehicle with form, one we expect will tell us something. The work plays upon our compulsion to seek (even concoct) meaning, to uncover story in what we don’t immediately grasp. And if we can’t make sense of it, is it still true? Was the original text even true? What was it? And does it matter?
70s Potboiler from the TexTiles Series
When TexTiles was first shown, a viewer asked if he could tell me what affect it had on him. Of course! He said he came to it believing he would read what were obviously pages from a book, and they would reveal something. Then he realized the language, while still familiar in form, was remade and now unreadable. He found he was seeing the pages in a new way, and reading his own expectations. He also found himself thinking that, if only he could access the strips of woven text, he could realign the words and unlock the mystery. By letting me in on his experience, he revealed my own work to me. It’s easy to forget that we’re never merely looking—we’re always reading and shaping connections, even when words are not involved.
dBooked (mixed media on canvas)
NVW: In your artist statement about dBooked you talk about how with this work we “become archaeologists, asking What was the story? Who told it? Where? And with whom did it once connect?” I’m interested in this idea of reconstruction too, in ways the reader/viewer “remakes” a whole out of pieces. It seems to me this is quite akin to how we live our lives: gathering pieces that seem increasingly fragmented, then holding and sorting these pieces, hoping to infer connections or patterns, albeit not necessarily a “whole.” With this particular piece, can you talk about how you think a reader/viewer might engage with it, i.e. your own understanding of how this “remaking process” might best occur.
Ruthig: Driven by curiosity in a wired world bursting with the incomplete, we’re reclaiming or inventing back-story all the time now. It’s second nature. My own inner archaeologist can’t pass up a chance to puzzle the pieces. The first series I did, Fragments of the Missing, happens to echo something of Walter Benjamin’s preoccupation with the modern world’s fragmentary nature. As a series of deconstructions and reassemblies, Fragments visually stitches shards of language from a variety of sources into a figurative, semi-semantic, patchwork quilt. Lacking punctuation and the usual paratextual guides, the narrative is further remade by each reader, who forms connections with words and phrases and reads the text based on the way the panels are arranged in relation to each other.
In contrast, dBooked is a single work of dismantling and a remaking of a different sort. The viewer confronts in two dimensions the remains of what once existed in three: a skeleton of pages nearly devoid of text flesh; segments of dust jacket, cover, endpapers, its physicality; library markings indicating a previous life; conjunctions and a sequence of chapter headings. Paratext is otherwise absent, though its original locations are still apparent. Most of the language has been removed word by word from the first page of each chapter of a novel, then reintroduced as visual streams and pools without semantic continuity. As the words drain away, the vivid, colourful picture they painted evaporates, the story disappears. Anything that might have been an obvious clue has been deliberately erased. The reader becomes viewer who must look beyond the words.
dBooked is less a commentary on language’s inherent metamorphosis than it is a reflection of the book’s apparent decline as iconic cultural object, as quintessential container for language and conveyor of narrative. In a sense, it is reverse architecture applied to text, where mindfulness of context is achieved by dismantling. The exercise is to take what has come before and deconstruct it for a new perspective. I think the viewer arrives at a similar place as with Fragments of the Missing, by searching for clues that might answer the questions it evokes. Though the original story is undone by the book’s undoing, and may never be rebuilt, language continues to exist and to offer a fresh, if different, narrative.
Your Heart Like A House
NVW:Your Heart Like a House. With this one I think about the kinship of the actions of the heart and of reading: passages in and passages out, intake and output (responding). Little by little what enters us becomes us; the “house” is a construct. This piece is a sensuous mix of materials, of text and image so beautifully married. Those four quadrants/ventricles. And what is the text here? Might you speak a little about your process with this one: how did text and imagery find each other or “arrive” together?
Ruthig: Thanks, Nance. Words are at the heart (pardon the pun) of the textworks, usually arriving first, then driving the visuals forward. This piece is no different. It flipsides traditional ekphrasis, in that I wrote the poem “Your Heart Like A House” years before I thought to attempt a visual representation. The poem, which surfaced hard on the heels of unexpected news that overturned my view of the future, begins “I lie down in the rooms of your house / and listen to a new creaking / of timbers that contract and expand, / flexing to the weight of your sleep / while the wiring, unseen, / pulses from space to space / in the walls that contain us both. . . .” Years after it was published, after everyday life had again settled down, after I realized the poem’s images would not leave me, I began to experiment with a visual incarnation. I guess my architectural background is never far from the surface, because I’m inclined to interweave disciplines and mine the rich territory found in the crossover—as when a poem is visually transmigrated, or an image spawns words.
Yes, the quadrants mimic the cardiac chambers, and even at risk of pissing off the viewer, I chose imagery to reiterate that construct—I love how complex and beautiful the actual human heart appears, especially as rendered in historical anatomy books. The poem itself provides the rest of the framework. It loops in its entirety on and on in the background, circulating in red and blue from one space to another, reminiscent too of how we follow a stream of words from page to page when we read. In large font, foreground lines regenerate the stanzas, more or less, and also pass from room to room.
Adages are ingrained in us, and no doubt “home is where the heart is,” as well as Bachelard’s “abode” from Poetics of Space, found their way in, as did a lot of traditional residential and construction imagery—anything that felt as though it belonged. Your Heart Like A House has a lot to do with how we create and inhabit physical and psychic space, how we fill each with expectation, memory, our everyday vision of life, and what happens when that vision is shaken to its foundations.
The creative process, for me, is like stepping into a canoe and choosing a direction as I start to paddle. Then the current takes over. I can’t control it, but if I trust in the flow of words, images, textures, and imaginings into layers, discovery becomes arrival.
NVW:Antoinette’s Head. Ah, a diptych, a hinged “book.” Here I like how the “head” image gives way—or opens upon—the more language-based material. Even the title gives the work a luminous context. I think, for instance, of Marie Antoinette, and all that was in that lovely head . . . perhaps even as it left its body. You use weaving in some of your new work, and I wonder if you could talk about that craft in general with your work and perhaps in particular with this piece.
Ruthig: Here’s where I wax rhapsodic about titles for a moment! The way I see it, a title is a key to unlock the work, the point of entry, especially for a poem, that might also set the stage or mood. While providing one isn’t critical, it’s an opportunity for the artist to invite the viewer inside. I find, even as the artist, a well considered title helps gel the work in my mind. So I pay close attention to them, and it’s good to hear how this one let you in!
Antoinette’s Head is based on two portraits of Marie Antoinette and two pages of text, all from a fairly recent biography. Reweaving the images and text let me confront a number of perceptions. On one level, it continues the exploration of the weft and warp of language, especially print language. On another, it examines our perception of books as repositories of truth. If we stop to consider what we take for granted as historically ‘true,’ we might realize a historic figure, in this case a queen, had to have been misread and a far more complex person than the one some historian or painter claims she was. There’s a literal warp to how people in history are portrayed. Even we ordinary people are storified differently by each person who knows or has ever met us, and each version is a reflection of the individual experience of whoever is relaying the image. In this era of the Web’s tightly woven net and social media’s image-massaging filter, it’s even harder to break the fictional code. What’s true? I want to suggest that we should recognize then question. Rather than read and accept, we should consider the fluid nature of text and image, the telephoning of story that inevitably takes place, even if fact-driven.
By physically shifting image and printed word to illegible states, Antoinette’s Head hopefully shifts assumptions of the reliability and integrity of any documentation, and encourages questions. Arguably, every work of documenting is the product of a narrator who filtered, translated, transposed, and in the process often composed a fiction, intentionally or unintentionally. What we think we know is more than likely false to some degree. Truth is threaded through the language we use to describe everything, but it’s tough to decode it then extricate it from the larger fabric.
Antoinette’s Head, as an extension of the TexTiles series, surreptitiously tapped into the personal. In the mid-1800s, my great great grandfather, an Austrian textile industrialist, founded the family business, which flourished despite war, upheaval, and relocation, and remained in the family until my grandfather died. The inherited stories linger in me, and some latent tactile knowledge, more tangible than one might think, prods me to visit his craft through mine. Antoinette’s Head is a way to explore the weft and warp of language, stories, history itself. It’s also carrying me into a new series of works. I’m well into the current now, and there’s no knowing where it will lead!
—Ingrid Ruthig & Nance Van Winckel
INGRID RUTHIG graduated from the University of Toronto with a Bachelor of Architecture in the mid-1980s. For more than a decade in Toronto she practised as a member of the Ontario Association of Architects – a profession in which word and image are inextricably linked – then retired her licence to write full-time. She also co-edited/co-published the Canadian literary journal LICHEN from 2000–2007, and later, was an associate editor for Northern Poetry Review. Her poetry, fiction, and nonfiction have appeared widely in Canada and abroad, in The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2012, The Malahat Review, The New Quarterly, National Post, Canadian Notes & Queries, and many other publications. Her textworks have been shown in galleries, public venues, and are in private collections. Her books include Slipstream (a poem sequence / artist’s book), Richard Outram: Essays on His Works (as editor/contributor), Synesthete II, and she recently edited The Essential Anne Wilkinson (Porcupine’s Quill, fall 2014). Ingrid lives with her husband and daughters near Toronto. Her web page is here: www.ingridruthig.com.
Nance Van Winckel is the author of six collections of poems, including After A Spell, winner of the 1999 Washington State Governor’s Award for Poetry, and the recently released Pacific Walkers (U. of Washington Press, 2013). She is the recipient of two NEA Poetry Fellowships and awards from the Poetry Society of America, Poetry, and Prairie Schooner. Recent poems appear in The Pushcart Prize Anthology, The Southern Review, Poetry Northwest, Crazyhorse, Field,and Gettysburg Review. She is also the author of four collections of linked short stories and a recent recipient of a Christopher Isherwood Fiction Fellowship. Boneland, her newest book of fiction, is just out with U. of Oklahoma Press. Her stories have been published in AGNI, The Massachusetts Review, The Sun, andKenyon Review. Nance’s photo-collage work has appeared in Handsome Journal, The Cincinnati Review, Em, Dark Sky, Diode, Ilk, and Western Humanities Review. New visual work and an essay on poetry and photography appear in Poetry Northwest andexcerpts from a collage novel are forthcoming in Hotel Amerika and The Kenyon Review Online. Click this link to see a collection of Nance Van Winckel’s mash-ups of poetry and photography, which she calls photoems. She is Professor Emerita in Eastern Washington University’s graduate creative writing program, as well as a faculty member of Vermont College of Fine Arts low-residency MFA program. She lives near Spokane, Washington with her husband, the artist Rik Nelson. Her personal web page is here.
Numéro Cinq has a thing for hybrid art, for cross-genre art, for parody and mixed form, more Menippean satire and art made out of books and in that vein we offer here encaustic paintings by the Boulder, Colorado, artist Marco Montanari along with poems by Elaine Handley from Saratoga Springs, New York. The poems and the paintings combine; the paintings inspired the poems. They are ekphrastic and hybrid. Ekphrasis is the Greek rhetorical device of inserting the description of a work of art into a text as a way of creating meaning (by analogy or parallel). Coincidentally, the standard classical example of ekphrasis is Homer’s description of the shield of Achilles in the Iliad (also Hesiod’s description of the shield of Hercules). It’s a device with an ancient tradition, never abandoned. For example, here’s a stanza from W. H. Auden’s “The Shield of Achilles.”
She looked over his shoulder …For athletes at their games,
Men and women in a dance …Moving their sweet limbs
Quick, quick, to music, …But there on the shining shield
His hands had set no dancing-floor …But a weed-choked field.
And so it’s delightfully literal that Handley and Montanari have chosen warriors and shields as their central motif, adding to an ancient tradition that in this instance they have reanimated with more recent wars and warriors. Gorgeous, sad, dignified, violent images and words, given yet another twist by the poet’s particularly female point of view.
My Father’s Helping Hand – I. Encaustic paint on board with gold, bronze washes and dustings, 21×42 inches, 2013
Out of Hand
Their fluttery needs, their choking
insistence, too powerful for words,
gestures of desire, insatiable.
The fingers more nimble than the brain,
they take flight or become nests on a lap:
their instincts all their own
to seize a pen write a poem
cradle an egg pluck a weed
brush back hair stir a cake,
slap a cheek smash a plate
tear a hole poke an eye
mend a sock button a shirt
clutch grab snatch grip
trace the boundaries of a kiss
hang dumbly from the wrists.
Like mouths they are always
hungry, and sometimes the palms
are lonely as the sky, fingers as fast
and nervous as moths.
neatly folded, quiet,
like the still wings
of a shot bird.
Dark Merging to Light – I. Encaustic paint on board with gold, bronze washes and dustings, 30×36 inches, 2012.
When war ends ghosts rise up
to blossom white against
the world gone black,
color like hope, bled out.
How can we stand such times
and live? What we have destroyed blinding
as bright snow. Self‐righteousness
hatching into responsibility; guilt
flies around like wild birds.
More hauntings will come from those
who were there, who ate the landscape
and try to live with its poison in their craws.
Like snow, death covers everyone,
everything with its sameness. Grief,
white breath in cold air, last words
and all expectations stilled
with your heartbeat.
But annihilation is another matter.
Can light emanate from darkest deeds
the way opposites love each other:
now we speak of the pearly cell
of peace. The arithmetic
of possibility. Its labyrinth.
door closing or opening
the grayness of promise.
Entering a Contrary Moon – Phase I. Encaustic paint on board with gold, bronze washes and dustings, 17×25 inches, 2011.
Entering a Contrary Moon
Enter the contrary moon.
See how it tumbles,
bright scrape in the sky
turning and turning
its measured dervish way.
Its silvered light
milk we drink.
what we are made of,
how we live.
To be contrary is to be truest
to ourselves, all clash and remedy:
harlot, saint, demon, beggar.
What you are Sunday is not
what you are Tuesday. Impulses
flick like leaves in wind;
what you see gets clouded
and then emerges
bright and clean again.
Let the moon tumble
in its wanton way
and let us live our contrary lives
confused and laughing
at how we contradict
the alchemy of light and dark,
belief and action, thinking
we confound the ellipse of life,
but we cannot, no more
than the gold stain
of moon can erase
its corona from the sky.
Maiden, Mother, Matriarch of the Spiritual Warrior Woman – I. Encaustic paint on board with gold, bronze washes and dustings, 28×31 inches.
After every war someone’s got to tidy up. Things won’t pick themselves up, after all. From “The End and The Beginning” by Wislawa Symborska
Women have done it for generations,
for centuries, in fact, throughout all time.
Quietly, they set about making repairs.
First they must solder together
what has been broken
in themselves. Hard to do
and clumsy. Sometimes they give
up and make do. Jagged fragments
float in the bloodstream,
lodging close to the skin.
Next, they have to cauterize time.
When he returns it must be as if
no one has changed, feelings have not
clotted, he is the beloved returning.
She still knows him even though
he is now a stranger.
And so they colonize; it is not
spoken of, this new life
as aliens, exiles living
in the wreckage of the familiar.
He is looking for the secret passage
from war to the present, from war to her.
She sees his shadow from the mouth
of the cave, but to look back means
losing him forever, and who
will she see him with?
It is the bottom of the morning
in their lives, scarred compatriots,
lonelier than they have ever been,
subsisting on memories and dreams
they wrote each other, what fed them before.
She has tried to tidy up, she knows things now
she didn’t know before about cost.
They have children who feel amputated
and are yet whole. They live like ghosts.
The truth is not hers to utter,
but there is no one else to say it.
Dismantled to the Blood Moon – I. Encaustic paint on board with gold, bronze washes and dustings, 23×27 inches, 2013.
Securing the Perimeter
Once I loved a man
who secured only
his own perimeter,
heart razor-wired shut
wandering eye on patrol.
I waited for him, hoping to dismantle
what ticked inside him
trying to navigate
the concussion of his moods,
to ignore his dereliction
What did I know of war,
but what I tasted
on his lips?
If you don’t tell it, maybe you didn’t see it.
If you don’t tell it, maybe you didn’t feel it.
If you don’t tell it, maybe you didn’t do it.
If you don’t tell it, maybe you can forget.
Maybe the war will stop some day
festering in your gut, marching
to the flat knock of your heart.
Who counts the bodies
after war is over?
How long does friendly
fire last? Who listens
to children crying in their beds
He wears memories like skin
so close we are heartbeats
away from the flash.
The dead should not sit at table with us;
They have their own places to be.
We might then stop feeding the children
annihilation with every meal. And no, dear, no
wine for me, the color of blood.
He lives in no woman’s land, a boundary
between dying and dying. Between the war
torn raggedness of us now and what we planned.
Were Adam and Eve this lonely?
Did they make love in the light
Of the blood moon?
Did she lie awake listening to
his breathing, patrolling the shadowlands
of his dreams?
Did Adam stalk the perimeter
of the garden while Eve watched,
brushing away the scorpions
crawling toward her
in the unforgiving sun?
—Images by Marco Montanari; Poems by Elaine Handley
Born in 1952, Marco Montanari was raised in Buffalo N.Y. His art education includes a minor in Fine Arts at Erie Community College and classes at the State University of N.Y., as well as ongoing study in sculpture, life drawing and painting throughout the years. In 1993, while living in Saratoga Springs N.Y., Marco developed a process of sculpting wax on a wood lathe and then painting the sculpted surfaces with paraffin wax. These sculptures were designed as luminaries with the painted surfaces glowing when lit. In 2000 Marco began to experiment with translating these techniques into encaustic painting. He developed his alternative to traditional encaustic and as a result has produced a distinctive body of work that has been exhibited throughout the country. In 2003 Marco and wife, Kathy Zilbermann, relocated to Boulder Colorado where he is currently working exclusively in encaustic painting.
Elaine Handley is Professor of Writing and Literature at SUNY Empire State College. She has published poetry and fiction in a variety of magazines and anthologies, and has won the Adirondack Center for Writing Best Book of Poetry Award, with writing partners Marilyn McCabe and Mary Sanders Shartle, in 2005 2006 and 2010. Their latest book of poetry Tear of the Clouds was released by Ra Press in 2011. Handley’s most recent chapbook of poetry is Letters to My Migraine and she is completing a novel, Deep River, about race relations during the Civil War.
The moral overhang of plants, in the present case a disregarded bonsai, is the notional subject of this deft, intricate essay (with photographs) by Shawna Lemay, an essay that is also an anthology of quotations (about plants, art and people) and gnomic phrasing, an essay that almost seems to unwrite itself as it is written. “…we understand each other illegibly.” “In this way we come to know the unrepeatable secrets of flowers, and then to forget them.”
The bonsai, now. Purchased years ago from the hardware store. A wish, a pretension, a desire for peacefulness, with an envious thought to the serious practitioners, precipitated its purchase.
Relegated to the basement when it sensed I was not living up to its requirements for emptiness, calm, and a true tenderness. It became too lush and I could not be severe in bringing it back to balance. Years later, it re-emerges. Parts of it have died, irretrievable. Unbalanced but splendid and we understand each other illegibly.
At the stage where she was dreaming, conjuring, The Waves, Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary, “A lamp and a flower pot in the center. The flower can always be changing.” There would be, “…a perpetual crumbling and renewing of the plant. In its leaves she might see things happen. But who is she?”
Quickly followed by the wish she remain unnamed. The leaves would most certainly see things happen.
I forge a plan which I quickly abandon, to ask women I know about the plants they have on their windowsills, kitchen tables, desks. I imagine receiving answers about geraniums being overwintered, about African violets, and about bouquets of grocery store tulips and about long stemmed, candy coloured daisies, and roses that deliberately open. Once, someone told me about the aloe vera plant she has on her desk which has vast properties of healing and with which she conducts séances and hearing this made me too delicate.
We breathe the plant in and the plant receives our exhalations and our chakras align accordingly.
Of course, with Clarice, I’ve been thinking about the sadness of flowers in order to feel more fully the order of what exists for a very long time.
As Cixous said, we have all lived one or two flowers. We have felt the light of them, the light they attract and which goes right through them, and also the heaviness, the gravity, and we have known, perhaps, as the painter Francis Bacon called it, the violence, of roses. Not just the thorns, but the colours changing and bleeding and seeping out of those generous, soft, petals. The way our souls might rise up and speak to flowers, met by flowers, their breathing, the faint breath of them. The pain of finding we can’t quite sip, can’t quite internalize the answers, to the question of scent.
I imagine the pots and vases of flowers on a table near a window in time lapse photography, one that encompasses several years. The first day emerges deliberately. It begins in a veil of morning light, I place a vase of garden roses on the weathered table. The pink-orange petals are so various, each one a slightly different combination of pink fluttering into orange. They have opened under the sun, been changed by breezes gentle and ardent and arduous. Insects have nibbled and continued on their way. And now the light becomes more diffuse, evens out, brightens, declines again, and then moonlight comes in and bathes the roses, they soften and at the same time become more radiant, full. The leaves droop a little, curl, the water clouds, the edges of the petals wither, turn a greyish brown, and the pinks become less vibrant, and the orange deepens, lessens. They begin to look tattered in the repetition of this cycle, more graceful, more noble. At one point a hand comes into the frame, and shoves the vase from the center of the table to the edge, to the far end.
In this way we come to know the unrepeatable secrets of flowers, and then to forget them. We learn opening, opening. And then empty, drunk, we succumb to their heavenly sadness. It is the sadness of flowers that reminds us to keep the secret.
The table is empty for several days. The time lapse speeds up. A geranium arrives in a terracotta pot. The stems are thick and gnarled. The plant has lived and lives on in the slips that have been taken. It grows, leaning toward the light through the day, a slow dance. And then the cuttings are removed, and it must grow more leaves, and it does, small sprouts emerge. At which point someone takes it to make room for a gift, a vase of flowers. A ghostly image enters the frame and leaves, which reminds one of security camera footage.
An arrangement, a gift. A florist’s concoction. Tulips, roses, hydrangeas, snapdragons, bits of greenery in a rigorously balanced and visually interesting triangle. Light pink, fresh green, and lavender. For days they stay as placed, rather too perfect. But then the tulips begin to droop through the course of a single day and are nearly done in.
The time lapse slows and then speeds up, and this feels alarming, how the flowers move as though in a deep conversation, the intensity of their gestures, leanings, listings, to and fro, petals drop in what could be happiness one moment, anger the next, then resignation.
Those which have perished are removed, and the bouquet is awkward, strange. A hand removes the bouquet, the arrangement returns in another form, the remaining flowers cut down and placed in a water glass. They last a day or two more. And at this point, the light in the room becomes grainy, and I can’t help but think about the clouds which must be responsible for this effect.
It goes on like this. Long periods where the space is empty. Shadows of people pass over the table. A bird flies by and casts a low and fleeting shadow. Snow falls so the window resembles a 20th century television screen at three a.m. The window is opened and the curtains blow into the frame, ever so gently. Punctuated by moments of flowering. Flowers changing. And changing.
It goes on like this. The fragrance. The colours. The fading. The beauty of decline, the simplicity. All of the attendant moods arrive and pass in waves, swelling and subsiding, at dawn, at dusk.
While I’m imagining the flowers on a table I’m also thinking about 17th century Dutch flower paintings. The way that artists would make and collect studies of flowers so that they could paint them into lush floral bouquets that couldn’t really exist as the specimens wouldn’t naturally bloom at the same time. Sometimes an artist would share a particular study they’d made, so that another artist would have the exact same rendering of a flower in their own floral painting.
I also remember the painting by Remedios Varos called Still Life Reviving, which is the last thing she painted before her unexpected death. At the center of a small round table with a tablecloth draped on it is a lit candle. Swirling around and hovering above the table are plates, and above them various fruits which at times collide and explode, all of this witnessed by dragonflies. Seeds drop from the colliding fruits, and plants are being born from them before they hit the ground.
I remember the way things appear to lose their magic, and later regain it.
Paper whites in winter. An amaryllis bulb, forced. Spring plum blossoms. Forsythia. Peonies. Roses. Tiger lilies.
The flower is always changing which is dizzying. Which is why, still life.
Shawna Lemay is a writer, blogger, editor, photographer, and library assistant. She is the creator and co-editor of the website, Canadian Poetries. She has written five books of poetry, All the God-Sized Fruit, Against Paradise, Still, Blue Feast and Red Velvet Forest, a book of essays, Calm Things, and a work of experimental fiction, Hive: A Forgery. A book of poems and poem-essays, titled Asking, is forthcoming in April of 2014. Her daily blog is Calm Things. She resides in Edmonton, Canada, with her partner, Robert Lemay, a visual artist, and their daughter, Chloe.
Why do we write? Why bother to write? I remember the advent of Game Boy, the beginning of the current culture wherein the signal gesture is eyes downcast concentrating on some hand held device, and thinking, well, it’s all over now. Readers gone, illiterate sons, no point. But then my sons grew up to be writers and one persists. And we started the magazine (so that now, when I see someone bent over a phone, I think, ah! another reader — okay, wishful thinking). But the question persists, always persists — why write?
Genese Grill, who in February contributed to Numéro Cinqher insightful and erudite essay on Marcel Proust and Robert Musil, herewith delivers an apologia (ancient form — nothing to do with apologizing) for writing, a passionate, persuasive, eloquent (not to mention well-written) defence of the realm of writing. Read it and rush to the barricades (or get out your laptop and start writing). This essay is the preface to a book of essays in progress. Genese (have I mentioned that she is an artist, also a scholar and a translator of Musil?) also created a room-sized hand-painted accordion book with one of the essays painted on the panels; we’ve included images of that as well (photos by Rebecca Mack). Because in this day and age, as we see over and over in Numéro Cinq, the word is art.
When so many others have written before us, illuminated, explained, shown, arranged, described the world and human existence, when so many others more eloquent, more learned, more witty, more poetic have polemicized and preached about what is important, about how we must live, about what is wrong with society, with our lives, with our thinking, when the world is arguably in countless ways even worse now despite all the words, when it is even less humanistic, more materialistic, less poetic, more utilitarian, when humans seem even less connected, more isolated, even after generations of writers have toiled to share their insights and to inspire to a better existence —we persist in writing, in feeling that writing might be a meaningful way to save the world, save our souls, to right the wrongs, make up for disappointments, overcome alienation and despair.
In addition to all of these common complaints lodged against writing, there are even people who believe that reading and writing belong to a hopelessly corrupt past, that they are the tainted remains of a paternalistic Enlightenment attempt to control people’s thoughts by an elite which, the theory goes, misguidedly or even treacherously posed as reformers, teachers, fellow human beings. Such theorists, in the spurious interest of freeing mankind from the discipline, authority, and standards of the old world, have contributed greatly to the denigration of so much which makes life worth living. They have aimed—when they aimed at culture—at the wrong enemy; and if today’s citizens are more free than they were two hundred years ago, we need only ask, as Nietzsche did: free for what? To go to the mall whenever they please? To never challenge themselves at all? To live lives where natural and artistic beauty, reflection, relative silence, awe and wonder are present in only the scantiest proportion compared to the fragmented technocratic busy-ness and consumerism that has become the norm? Is there no other way to get free?
Are great books really something to defend against, to ridicule, to knock off a pedestal? Or have they not always, mainly, been a powerful force of liberation, often a critique, often a means toward humanizing, toward inspiring tenderness and compassion? Ironically, the great books of the past seem to have increasingly induced a sort of revolutionary fervor which has itself taught people to doubt, to deconstruct, to denigrate books themselves. The educated Marxist professor snarls at the great works of the past like an ungrateful cur or a parasite who has forgotten who first taught him the word freedom. Like Caliban, who complains that Prospero taught him language, the ingrate only knows how to curse the magic of culture. But poor Caliban, the reader may object, is Prospero’s colonialist slave, so he may well begrudge his master’s “kindness”. Quite right, my skeptical post-modern reader, quite rightly read. Yet who but Shakespeare taught us this?
Now that people read so little it is even more difficult than ever to measure the “use” or benefit of writing (leaving aside for just a moment the all-important non-utilitarian aspects of writing). We might even ask why, if writing is efficacious, it has not succeeded in ensuring a practicable love of reading in our society, where, apparently, the average person reads but one book a year—at most. If we really want to change the world, if we really want —indeed, even in a maligned Enlightenment tradition—to inspire reform, reach people, impart urgency, does writing a book make sense? Who will read it? What will it do? Won’t it just be ignored?
Do words and ideas impact the world at all, or are we raising our voices like that passionate orator Mynheer Peeperkorn in The Magic Mountain, howling at the edge of a riotously loud waterfall, our words hopelessly drowned out by the spray and sensation of a force — in our case of media, convenience, technological sensationalism, consumerism, novelty and speed—a force far stronger than all our dusty fusty intellectual intensity and our airy ideations? Why do we persist in writing when writing seems sometimes to make so little palpable difference?
Do we continue out of a self-indulgent personal love of a way of life that has now become solipsistic or stubbornly antiquarian? Because it is what we like to do or because it is the only thing we know how to do? Or can it be that the act of writing itself—yes, real writing, inscribing, on paper, with ink, for printing in books that one can hold in one’s hands—is now something of a revolutionary act in itself, an act that is more than just an empty fatalistic last gesture in honor of some lost world?
I wager that, yes, to write books, to read and treasure books and ideas and intellectual discourse is a revolutionary act (if somehow simultaneously reactionary). I might even venture that one of the reasons reading is so out of fashion is not that it is boring and ineffectual but because it has the power to function as a sort of flaming conscience illuminating the “bad faith” of a general state of denial and a neglect of higher ethics and spiritual aesthetic values. As Kafka suggested, a really great book is like an axe that breaks the frozen sea within us. Do today’s humans care to be thus destroyed, broken down, burnt up, challenged? Whether they do or no, it is imperative that we strain and strive to rouse to wakefulness whoever is still even the least bit conscious, even if it means pouring a bucket of cold water upon our fellow humans and, yes, even upon ourselves in our most comfortable and ethically lazy hiding places. To write is to challenge the negligent, disinterested, laissez-faire status quo. Culture, in the coinage of my friend Stephen Callahan, is the new Counter-Culture. We may not win the war, but we have no choice but to fight, or write, as the case may be.
But let us return to the aforementioned non-utilitarian aspects of writing and reading. These aspects are inextricably bound up in everything which is to be gained or lost along the way. Outside of the content and import of what there is to be said and argued and persuasively insisted, the experience of writing (reflective, committed, difficult, grappling, ruminative, essayistic, careful, aesthetic, emotional) and the experience of reading (in relative quiet, with respect to the considered ideas of another human being, critically, with margins, with emotion and inter-subjectivity, with devotion) bears its own weight and its own significance in the context of today’s fragmented and casual society. In other words, the way in which we read and write is directly commensurate to the way in which we construct meaning and measure value in our lives, our world, our history, our future, our fellow beings. Reading and writing are two very representative practices that demonstrate the essential dynamic relationship between spirit and matter. Ideas and words, living and breathing in books and sentences, synthesizing, dissecting, and re-animating realities, influence and engender our physical world. By altering these practices or marginalizing them, we are, in essence, altering the very way we conceptualize, share, proffer, process and manifest ideas. Thus I begin with an underlying assumption about the ability of spirit to matter in questions of matter and in hopes of breaking internal frozen seas on an individual and universal level, one reader at a time, one tiny fissure, one tiny idea at a time.
Writers all sometimes believe that they have something new and important to say that has not been said in quite the same way and quite the same context as before. Other times they fear they have absolutely nothing at all of value to add. Even our own “freshest” ideas are but reanimations and reworkings of mostly the same things that have fascinated us since the beginning of our personal consciousness. We think we have come upon something new only to find it in much the same words in a notebook from a decade ago. Yet the slight variations of syntax, the context into which we have now placed an idea, may make worlds of difference, may be the small strand of hay that breaks the proverbial camel’s back. A small idea may be waiting, hidden in a large book, for the right reader, just like a despairing romantic inside a country house deep in the woods, with just a candle in the window, is waiting for a surprise visitor.
Something another writer has said may make us furious, or egg us on to verbally spar; we may be exhausted by received ideas, by the sort of questions which seem to leave only two possible and unsatisfactory possibilities as answers. We may think we know how to pose a new question altogether or provide a third or fourth answer which, as Cummings hoped, asks its own new question and so on and so on. I am reminded of the utopian visionary Charles Fourier, whose preface to his opus The Four Movements claims that he alone, finally, after so many centuries, has discovered the single most important secret to human happiness that no one, not one person ever, has even begun to imagine before him. An outrageous, majestic, beautiful and absurd claim! Nevertheless, it is true that each new voice may add something invaluable to the conversation. Imagine how bereft the ensuing centuries would have been had Fourier not had the courage of his crowing and had kept his revolutionary ideas to himself?! This French visionary is an apt exemplum of the way in which spirit works on matter, because his ideas were, in fact, directly influential on actions. The words that he committed to paper in a tiny room in Paris formed a good part of the basis of American utopian communities (like the late Brook Farm), even if a slightly puritan-tinged interpretation of his phalansteries and phalanxes left out some of his wilder and more improbable imaginings (the sea that would turn to lemonade, the evolutionary development of human tails, the benefits of unhindered passional attractions).
On the train to Concord Massachusetts to attend a transcendentalist conference, I met a fellow scholar and we fell quickly into a surprisingly heated argument about whether or not the intellections of the abolitionist movement had had anything significant to do with the ending of slavery. This fellow maintained that all the ideas, all the writing, all the speechifying, all the newspapers and broadsheets of the period had really had no significant influence on the success of abolitionism in comparison to that effected by the Northern soldiers’ experience going into Southern states and seeing the horrors of slavery with their own eyes. While it certainly makes sense that this real life experience was revolutionary, it seemed rather odd to me to deny that ideas and words had contributed to changing things. The eye-witness experiences of these soldiers were, in fact, written down in letters home or in essays for Northern journals; and other first-hand accounts, by escaped slaves, penitent owners, or in fictional accounts, such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, surely crystalized vivid experiences into words, ideas, and theories.
Why then did my fellow traveler want so much for it to be so that words did not do anything, that ideas were ineffectual in history? I knew why I wanted the opposite to be true. I needed, with every fiber of my being, to believe that ideas changed the world, for better or for worse; and he, whose dislike of Emerson turned out to be no accident, needed to believe the opposite. He wanted to take the power out of the hands of the educated classes, and away from the individual, self-reliant, supposedly elitist genius, and place it in the many hands of the illiterate soldiers, or into the slippery hands of fate, as Tolstoy tries to do in War and Peace, where he argues, implicitly in his story and explicitly in his essayism, that history is not made by individual choices or heroes, but by the random forces of accident.
But this dualistic split between the elite educated classes and the illiterate masses is, to my mind, a dangerous and largely unexamined construct that demands unpacking and re-visioning. Is it really necessary to throw out culture and intellect because one portion of humanity has traditionally had a unique access to it? Would it not be better to work toward providing more members of society with the skills and the agency to critically consider philosophical, social, and aesthetic ideas and to participate in a meaningful and reality-relevant conversation about how we are best to live and function as a society? Anti-intellectualism seems to be a persistent American trait which somehow is inextricably bound up with the mythology of democracy. But is the vilifying of culture really a helpful response to our current problems?
My desire to believe in the efficacy of ideas and writing combines a commitment to the preservation of high culture and committed scholarship with a conviction that the realm of ideas and words should never be something to which only one class of people has access. I am also certain that such culture is best, most lively, most meaningful, when kept in the closest possible contact with our real lives and experiences, not separated into mere abstractions or de-contextualized from social practices or the lives of others. I believe that almost anyone can learn to read, write, and think and that the insights and depth of consideration to be gained through the process of wrangling with the written word is a richer and fundamentally different process than that to be acquired through the more casual and relatively non-committal process of conversation (though speech might also meaningfully aspire to more careful and sacred consideration). I also maintain that almost anyone has the power to change the way the whole world sees and acts and lives, with little more than curiosity, some learning, and some passionate discipline, and that the words and ideas of any one individual can and do and will move others immeasurably.
In my years as a community college instructor I have seen with my own eyes how even those students with little to no academic preparation, students who are struggling to hold two jobs, go to school, and raise children on their own, can and do become immediately passionately engaged in the philosophical, social, and aesthetic questions which need to be considered before beginning to live a considered, ethical, and socially-responsible life. While it is of course easier by far to engage in philosophical and poetic activity when one is not under the constant strain of putting bread on the table or buying a new pair of shoes for one’s children, to thus conclude that only those who have easy access to leisure can participate in reflection, critical thinking, and spiritual aesthetic experience is really the worst form of cynicism—one which hides a treacherous snobbery under its supposedly compassionate condemnation of the alleged elitism of culture.
For to deny anyone the right or responsibility to participate in the communal reflection on and creation of the world is to me a crime. To do so is to deny that person his or her humanity. Instead of silencing further those whose concerns and ideas have all-too-often been traditionally undervalued, this is a call to innovative and positive inter-action rather than continual complaint about the restrictive and technocratic megalithic structures and systems that seem sometimes to confine and define us; a call to utilize the language and the raw material given to us instead of stubbornly calling foul and refusing to participate in a system, history, and culture that are, indeed, deeply flawed and haunted by ghosts and demons of all kinds. This communally created labyrinth of oscillating desires, repressions, rebellions, resistances, and generativity remains, despite or even by virtue of its darker shadows, also a culture rich in beauty, humanism, tenderness, striving, passionate inquiry, imagination, and myriad evidences of the most ecstatic forms of life and love.
The conflict between intellectual culture and popular action had of course been rehearsed before we 21st century humans repeated it on the suburban train out of Boston—by former now-famous Concordians. The transcendentalist movement notoriously split off into two factions comprised, on the one hand, of individualist thinkers and writers, and, on the other, of engaged activists and communal utopians. But this narrative of a clean split is quite misrepresentative of the complexities and overlappings that really obtained. Bronson Alcott, possibly the least grounded of all the Concordians, felt impelled to actually experiment with his ideals in the real world, and founded the Fruitlands community, which eventually foundered on an unworkable proportion between the physical and the spiritual realms. George Ripley founded Brook Farm, which made a formidable attempt at bridging the gap between ideal and reality. Both utopian communities featured excellent progressive schools and were fundamentally attempts to give working people access to higher learning and to give the all-too dainty middle and upper class intellectual the chance to get his or her hands dirty. Hawthorne quickly learned that he could not get any literary work done after a day’s toiling in the fields; but others found the combination of matter and spirit salutary if not precisely conducive to the creation of great works of literature. Finding the right balance of body, mind, and soul is never easy.
Hyper-educated “bluestockings” like Elizabeth Peabody and Margaret Fuller (who claimed she had the headaches of a genius) suffered myriad physical pains in their striving for intellectual transcendence (but Margaret, at least, finally ran off to fight a real revolution in Italy and take on her first lover, supposedly an Adonis with limited intellectual talents). Elizabeth educated herself prodigiously, wrote, edited, taught, and ran the most intellectually exciting bookstore in Boston, while simultaneously supporting and caring for a large and unruly family of siblings and various unstable and sick relatives. Her two sisters, Mary and Sophia, won away from her the only possible suitors she entertained (Nathanial Hawthorne and Horace Mann). It may be difficult to measure the effect of her genius (despite her own share of headaches) on the real world, but I think, although largely unappreciated, it was not minor after all was said and done.
The abolitionists (spear-headed by fiery women strategists) kept spreading the word, with and without the intellectual authority of rousing speeches by Emerson and Thoreau; Thoreau built a real house in the woods, instead of just writing about an imaginary one, but scorned the jailers who tried to imprison his soul within the walls of the Concord jail one night (because his soul, his conscience, his mind was free) ; committees and clubs were founded; gardens were planted; journals begun, printed, proliferated, and abandoned; walks were taken; hands were grasped; love was and was not consummated; letters were written and sometimes not sent; and, as Emily Dickinson cryptically noted from nearby Amherst, “people must have puddings”.
Bronson Alcott’s inability to take the physical world into consideration (exemplified by his comic attempt to move his family home without putting a foundation under it) was counteracted by his daughter Louisa’s intense focus on ensuring material security (with LittleWomen, she earned more money from her pen than any other writer of the period, with the possible exception of Harriet Beecher Stowe); but her traumatic experience with an inept spiritualist father may have kept Louisa from ever daring to enter into conjugal relations with a man. When a visitor asked if there were any animals laboring on the farm at Fruitlands, Louisa’s mother famously answered, “Only one woman,” but of course there were more women than one: the daughters helped too. Ironically, Louisa’s practical innovations were all in the interest of avoiding more physical labor by providing herself and her family with the financial support necessary to dream and imagine. In a similar strain, Thoreau began his peon to transcendence with a chapter entitled “Economy”—an economy calculated to afford its readers with a model most conducive to musing, intellectual activity, aesthetic experience, walking and communing with Nature, the World All, and the timeless reverberations of morning moods.
The painted trays, quilts, and pies made by abolitionist women supported the more ineffable traveling lectures given by escaped slaves as well as the writing and publication of propaganda journals and the legislative process of lobbying and advocacy. The theories and words of social intellectuals were answered by the actions of smugglers on the underground railroad and even more violent physical acts of daring such as the raid on Harper’s Ferry—or perhaps the actions inspired the words; quilts and pies and gunpowder and risked lives worked in tandem with ideas, words, and ideals.
The idea craves and creates action and manifestation; the experience and the action are object lessons, rituals, or manifestations that inspire ideas and fresh conceptualization. The experimental enactment is spurred on, checked, re-evaluated, and given meaning by the idea, the vision, the transcendental imagination. Material choices are made on the basis of spiritual values and spiritual values must be made on the basis of certain unavoidable material realities. Of course there are times in history or in one’s personal life when actions may be taken that fly in the face of physical practicality and prudence, when a person literally sacrifices his or her bodily comfort, convenience, or even existence for an idea or ideal. For ideas and values that are not lived or have not touched and changed or colored our lives and perceptions may as well not have been thought or written down at all.
We write in the hopes that our words could mean something to someone, somewhere, across time and space. Has Walden made a difference in the world? Have Thoreau’s words been heeded? On the one hand, when we see the mass of men and women in quiet desperation who prefer to go on with their accumulating and wage slavery rather than consider living a different way, his words certainly do not seem to have mattered much. When we see the persistent and total destruction of the ecosystem, we may wonder about the power of his statement: “Thank God they cannot cut down the clouds”. For, as if in refutation of a cryptic oracle, they (or is it even we?) really have managed this seemingly impossible feat, as clouds are visually cut down by skyscrapers, airplanes, and countless towers of technology. On the other hand, we know “many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book,” as Thoreau himself noted in his chapter on reading. We ourselves know how much certain books have meant to us, how they have changed our lives both materially (in terms of conduct of life) and spiritually (in terms of directing how we see the world).
Like the awkward anti-heroes of a fairy tale, like Dumb Hans or the Goose Girl, we write as if we were attempting to complete some impossible task against all odds. We are climbing the mountain of glass, separating the millions of lentils from the millions of stones, weaving gold out of straw before dawn, trying to guess the magic word in three days, and scooping the ocean out with a leaky thimble, day after day, decade after decade, on the chance possibility that some drop, some one word or phrase of what we write, will get through to someone, make us, make a possible reader feel less alone, confirm our own suspicions, solicit a response, an echo, a challenge, across the watery abyss. And if it sometimes seems as if writing has made no impact at all on the rushing, raving world, let us at least consider that it might have been an even uglier, an even colder, an even more callous world still, without the absurdly Sisyphean labors of writers and thinkers who have constantly brought all their small weight to bear against the weighty downward slide, who might, in fact, be the ones responsible for keeping total chaos, destruction, and utter indifference at bay—just until now.
If we were to let up at long last, give up, resign ourselves to silence — I dare not even suggest what might happen, what horrific indifference and simulated emptiness might ooze into every last crack and bury us alive, unable to remember the slightest thing, unable to form sentences or consider our actions, unable to value, denounce, celebrate, or dream. We may never know what nasty nightmare our often thankless little efforts keep at bay. But let us, at the very least, write in thanks and tribute to those who have persisted in the past, against such odds, in believing that writing, that ideas, that visions and images, do matter. One thimble-full of salvaged words, one pearl of sweat or salt tear, one drop of ink, made of belief, commitment, made of love of humanity, of history, of culture, and of nature, no matter how humble, no matter how seemingly quiet, inarticulate, or out of tune, no matter how seemingly unheeded, may be precisely the enlivening, moistening alchemical liquid needful to keep the well of inspiration from going dry once and for all. Was it in despair or in hope that Robert Burton in his Anatomy of Melancholy counseled thusly: “Writers! Open the vein!”? Did he mean we had better end it all? I like to think, rather, that he meant we ought to write as if our own life blood, all our experiences, thoughts and feelings, were flowing onto the page, that we might die even in the midst of writing—in making visible and hopefully intelligible— whatever it is we have within us.
—Genese Grill, with photographs by Rebecca Mack
Genese Grill is an artist, writer, and translator living in Burlington Vermont and the author of The World as Metaphor in Robert Musil’s ‘The Man without Qualities’: Possibility as Reality (Camden House, 2012). “Apologia” is part of a collection-in-progress entitled, Keepsakes: On Matter, Immateriality, and the Making of Meaning. She currently is pursuing the mad task of possibly re-creating the world through metaphor by building and inscribing a giant room-sized hand-illuminated accordion book portal containing an essay from this collection, and by working on a series of translations of previously unpublished Robert Musil writings (to be published by Contra Mundum Press beginning in 2015).
In the heart of Tuscany the age-old rite of the hunt for wild boar rages long and lethal. Every Saturday and Sunday from November through January hunters converge in the hilly country spreading beyond the shadow of Siena’s Duomo. Men gather—no women in their number—with dogs and rifles, knives and bullets, walkie talkies and cell phones. Outfitted with modern equipment, today’s hunters are but a few in the long line that stretches back through the Renaissance and the Middle Ages to the days of Caesar and Odysseus. Ancient Roman reliefs depict boar hunts, while one tale recounts how the ancient Greeks baptized an island in honor of the beast; this was Kapros, now called Capri.
This morning, to one side of Monte Maggio, or May Mountain, men section off fields and cassocks, swells and dips. They pull numbers from a bag, assigning post to pursuant. Then the fifty or more shooters, tiratori in their camouflage, wind through the woods. For kilometers they tramp, then for hours they wait in their appointed spots along one side of the drifts and dales, rifles skyward. When a boar draws near they shoot ahead, never sideways, where fellow tiratori hide. No friendly crossfire tolerated. Meanwhile, twelve canai, doghandlers with their packs of sniffing hounds and growling terriers, park their jeeps on the far side of the woods and set off across the expanse toward the line bristling with tiratori. Scouring and routing, the men and their dogs startle and flush the boar, propelling them forward.
On the periphery of this elaborate orchestration today: my father-and law and I. I’m armed with my camera and am tolerated only because my father-in-law is a hunter of long standing. “We don’t want to end up on the front page of the animal rights group paper,” his comrades say in jest, but just barely, when they learn that he’s brought me here to take photos of the hunt. Siena with its Palio where horses are often injured in the famous race around the square in town already attracts a fair share of unwanted attention by animal rights advocates.
Today the canai’s dogs rootle through the woods above Celsa castle. The owner is an Aldobrandini prince who lives in Rome. Weathered marine pine line the avenue to the entrance. Someone has opened a couple of windows facing the sun. In the summer the castle is open to the public but now I wonder if the prince has come to his country estate for Christmas vacation. Or perhaps a maid is simply airing mildew out of the stony rooms on a bright and sunny winter’s day.
Hounds howl and bark and then several shots ring out. One who has lost the scent emerges onto the road near the abandoned carabinieri station that once controlled the area. When Monte Maggio was a tougher place, three-quarters of a century or more ago, bandits lurked here and the carabinieri chased them. After that, during the war, partisans hid in the caves. The Black Shirts and Germans hunted them.
The dog runs in circles, nose to the pavement. A woman in a Jeep spots it. She tries to lure it into her vehicle with a length of jerky.
“Scandalous,” she says. “Poor dog could get hit out here on the road.”
My father-in-law suspects she’s part of an animal rights group. He thinks she’s trying to sabotage the hunt by rounding up the dogs.
“But I bet she eats meat,” he says. “Probably pappardelle with wild boar. Take a picture of her license plate.” Then he pulls out his phone and calls il duca—the duke—one of the canai. The man’s not really a duke; it’s a nickname he’s earned one way or another. I suspect it has something to do with his less than genteel ways.
“A lady’s trying to lure one of the hounds into her car,” my father-in-law says. “Over here, on the road by the carabinieri station. We’ve got her license plate number. But maybe you should send someone over.”
I can hear il duca cursing into my father-in-law’s ear. No run of the mill obscenities though; he insults saints and the Virgin. Then he wants to speak to the lady. My father-in-law passes the phone over. It turns out that il duca and the lady know each other.
“Okay, I won’t. But get it off the road,” she says into the phone. In the meantime, the hound has already run off, back into the woods, having found the scent.
My father-in-law started hunting here when he was eighteen. Sixty-seven years he’s been hunting. At first, he hunted for hare and pheasant. He kept his own bird dogs—Jack and Tom, English names for Italian hounds—in a pen behind an old stone farmhouse. Then in the sixties when boar populations grew and overran the woods, he gave up Jack and Tom and turned to boar hunting. He loves the woods out here on Monte Maggio. He knows every centimeter. He comes when it rains, when it snows, when it’s warm and sunny like today. He’ll still keep coming as long as he’s able. He’s not sure how much longer that will be. He won’t think yet about when the hike, the interminable wait, the bad weather and the mountain itself will conspire to keep him home.
He goes to the woods for the peace, he says, and for the camaderie after. But best is when he’s the one to bag the prey. You can tell when the boar approaches. The dogs’ howling grows loud, the brush and bramble tremble. You take up your gun and aim, but only when you see the boar’s dark eyes. If you shoot into the waving thicket you risk killing a dog. You face that beast—black and fierce and angry, ringed by thirty or more frenzied dogs.
I imagine the jolt. I think the hunter’s heart must whip like pine boughs in a windstorm.
“No,” says my father-in-law, “it’s not like that. At least not for me anymore. You feel a strange sensation, but it’s more wrapped up with blood and life, the ebb and flow.”
“I see,” I say even if I don’t quite.
We find a break in the woods. “Here,” my father-in-law says. The hunters will pass by on their way back to their cars, parked on the rim of the road behind us. “We’ll wait here. Then you can shoot them as they hike through.” He grins. He likes how we’ve turned the tables on the hunters. I grin back.
We wait. Then we wait some more. While we wait we pull ivy off old oak and pine. Bark flies, red bugs scuttle, the air fills with sap, the sun shines through branches in filmy snatches. “Is this what it’s like,” I ask him, “when you’re a tiratore? Do you tend to the trees then too?”
“No,” he says. “Not when you’re stalking boar. You can’t make noise. You can’t smoke. You can’t eat. You can’t even pee. You wait ever so quietly for that one brief moment when you squeeze off a shot.”
After an hour or more, we hear voices. Men surge forward. One short, chubby hunter, a middle-aged man nicknamed Smilzo, or Skinny, drags a small boar up the path. My father-in-law thinks Smilzo’s boar may weigh 30 kilos—if that. Since Smilzo shot it, he will get the ears, tail, heart, liver, kidneys, lungs and tusks in addition to his share of the meat which will be divided equally among all hunters present. “In Tuscany,” he says “no part of the boar goes to waste. Make sure you write that.”
We follow the hunters to their shack in the woods. They roast sausage and steaks they brought from home, drink Chianti and exchange tall tales. My father-in-law recounts how we rescued several dogs from an army of animal rights do-gooders. Listening, il duca insults several more saints. Smilzo describes how his boar almost tore his leg off. Feroce, or Ferocious, a small man whose real name no one remembers, scoffs. Burlacche, or Wiseass, jokes about Smilzo’s small boar and how it couldn’t have torn off a toenail.
Butchers gut and section the carcasses. Hunters light cigars, cigarettes and pipes. Hounds wait in small trailers, their noses poking out through bars. Two canai discuss returning to the woods with their dogs to look for a boar that someone swears is wounded.
My father-in-law’s cell phone rings. It’s my mother-in-law. She’s been keeping lunch for us even though it’s almost 4 p.m.
“You get what you need?” my father-in-law asks. I nod. We say goodbyeto il duca, Smilzo, Feroce, Burlacche. On the way home he tells me the menu. Polenta with stewed wild boar that he shot last season.
“Okay,” I say. I realize I’m hungry after hours of tramping through the woods. Eating the kill is part of the ritual. And my mother-in-law is an ace at stewing boar. It’s fiery and rich; red pepper in the sauce is one of her secret ingredients, a tribute of sorts to the animal itself.
When my father-in-law and I first met, he wasn’t sure how he felt about having a foreigner in the family. I wasn’t sure how I felt about someone who thought killing was a sport. Over the years we’ve gotten to know each other. Now he’s warm and proud to show me where he loves to spend his weekends from November through January. And I’m glad to have had the chance to witness this chapter in his life, one that won’t go on forever.
Natalia Sarkissian has an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and has been an editor and contributor at Numéro Cinq since 2010. Natalia divides her time between Italy and the United States.
Bianca Stone is an amazing poet/comic creator/illustrator/hybrid/amalgam artist who, yes, changes the weather a bit because she goes where she pleases, much like Anne Carson, with whom she collaborated on the book Antigonick (New Direction, 2012), Carson’s translation of Antigone. Stone has a new book just out, Someone Else’s Wedding Vows (Tin House/Octopus Books, 2014), and she has great genes, being the granddaughter of the of the poet Ruth Stone. We have today an interview between NC’s own amalgamated poet/artist Nance Van Winckel and Bianca Stone, delightful and knowing. Note especially Stone’s analogy between drawing and the poem on the page.
And when I draw—poof! There’s suddenly a physical thing there, that can talk, that can move. And I take advantage of that. The body itself, the air around the body, the expression on the face—these things can work just like a poem. Speaking, but not saying everything.
NANCE VAN WINCKEL: In some of your comics the text can seem suggestive of a state of mind, a thinking-feeling condition. I’m thinking of, for example, “It’s like there’s a house in my skull with a woman waiting for someone to resurrect and take her outside.) The artwork itself, however, often gives this more “lyric” text a kind of narrative context: a physical space, characters, and situation. Can you comment on your own sense of how narrative and lyric impulses combine for you—in process and/or technique?
BIANCA STONE: I’ve always had a great love of narrative. But I prefer also to allow surrealism in to complicate the narrative. I think that’s just how our minds work. In my poetry comics it’s the perfect space to explore the two. You have the push and pull of the visual image (which is so much more immediate than words), and perhaps work against the literal. And against abstraction.
That line you mentioned, for example—how could I possibly draw that without wrecking the imagination of it? I don’t want to draw it. I want to imagine it; more importantly, I want the reader to imagine it. So I draw something that lies beside it, so to speak, like another line of the poem. So that it moves forward, avoiding the didactic, the static.
NVW: Regarding the Practicing Vigilance Series in Notnostrums.
“No coins left in heaven/ you say every day/ to the coin-operated wind.”
In this series I especially like how you get at one’s impulse to “speak,” to give voice to inner turmoil, “someone’s lipstick burning in your skull.” The bats in this series fly like bits of language into the urban brew-ha-ha. Many of your poem comics seem to be haunted by what I’d call “incomplete linguistic transactions.”
BS: I love that you imagined that the bat was bit of language. Because isn’t language, in a way, an image? Especially a poem—which uses the page like a canvas, and appreciates white space, the shape and sound of words, the drop at the end of a line. It’s beautiful for the eye (or perhaps hideous to the eye).
And when I draw—poof! There’s suddenly a physical thing there, that can talk, that can move. And I take advantage of that. The body itself, the air around the body, the expression on the face—these things can work just like a poem. Speaking, but not saying everything.
And often I’ll use poems for a drawing that perhaps need a little more. That aren’t done enough to be on their own. I’ll be using a poem, and take a line out because suddenly, while it’s all alone on the page, I realize it’s not strong enough. Thus, it often creates the non sequitur method that you find in more experimental comics and poetry. But also that method resists the narrative and allows more for music.
Some day soon I’ll be making a comic that’s much more narrative…that’s more a prose poem.
NVW: You say that in your poetry comics you “want to use the image as another element of form in poetry.” Could you talk a bit more about this text & image “gestalt?”
BS: Again, one is constantly resisting “illustration, ” in its traditional definition. You don’t want to draw what’s being said, because that’s redundant.
It’s damned abstract to talk about, frankly. An image as a line in poetry—it doesn’t make entire sense! But I believe it.
NVW: Regarding Antigonick, your collaboration with Anne Carson, is it true you didn’t even see her written text until after you’d done the illustrations? But of course you no doubt knew the play. Did you come away from this project with any new understandings about the collaboration process?
BS: Not entirely true! What I did see (read, spend hours with) was Anne’s text. I had it beside me while I did the art. I worked from it, as I do with all my poetry comics.
However, Anne and Robert Currie didn’t show me the hand-written text until I was finished. And then Currie magically came up with a method to put the images and text together.
Collaboration is hard. Very hard. You make endless false starts, and you spend a lot of time alone, weeping internally, worrying about everything. But then you come together and put things together like a couple of curious, eager architects. You step back and you have this one giant product. And you’re so proud. Your ego isn’t too wrapped up in it, because you all did it together.
It’s something that you do with people you trust artistically, and emotionally. And it makes you a better, more humble person.
NVW: I loved the poem “Elegy with Judy Garland (and Refrigerator).” I so admire how the language synchs with the music and the graphics. The intermix of drawing and film, of music and voice-over make for one of the better poetry videos I’ve seen. Does the poem come first, and then the animation take shape around that? And is poetry video a main direction for your work these days?
BS: I’ve always loved making videos. Ever since I was a teenager and had a massive VHS camcorder. The past few years I’ve been doing it again, and it’s really something I’ll keep doing.
It takes a long time. But the main things to remember are:
1. Use a good, finished poem.
2. Make a high-quality recording of it. (Read it well. Read it slowly.)
3. As I preach in my poetry comics, avoid “telling” the poem. Let the poem speak for itself. Use ghosts of subjects in your poem, but not verbatim.
Then comes all the hard work of figuring out the visuals. I’ve developed a kind of stop-animation process with my drawings, which is time consuming and bizarre. The process itself is a kind of performance piece (drawing free-style with a camera blocking half my view; trying not to move the paper or my camera.)
Thinking of the video-making process as part of it will slow you down, and help you make a better video.
A lot of poem videos are kind of awkward…it’s important to pick the right tone (music, sounds, title font, footage).
NVW: I know you’re the granddaughter of Ruth Stone, a poet who’s near and dear to my heart, and I know too that you’re running the foundation to make her Vermont house a writer’s retreat and artist space. Could you talk a bit about how her life and/or her poetry have influenced your own? In your video, “Because You Love You Come Apart,” I could swear the first voice is Ruth’s.
BS: YES, the first voice is grandma’s voice, with me pantomiming it. She was an amazing reader.
Well, how to begin with this….grandma’s poetry is the most important poetry to me in the world. Her voice, her words, her love, is why I’m a poet.
I’ve written a lot about it. But to kind of sum-up, I spent my childhood with her (living with her in Binghamton while she was teaching there, traveling to readings, spending summers with her in Goshen, VT). We wrote together all the time, read her poems out loud; created together. I was raised by a single mother, so we spent a lot of our life dependent on my grandmother. My whole maternal family really revolved around her.
Since her house in Vermont has always been a haven for her writing, and for students, poets, artists (and of course my mother and aunts), I’ve always dreamed of making it into a writer’s retreat. Sadly, the house needs about 500,000 worth of renovation (it’s also a historical landmark, so that price includes the parameters of restoring such a house). People tell me to tear it down, and I just want to scream! I wouldn’t dream of it! I’ve been toiling away with whoever will help, raising as much money as we can, trying to save it. All her writing and books and my family’s history is in there, getting eaten by mice and consumed by the elements. This summer I’ll be up there full-time. I’m going to get married there!
NVW: I know you have a new book, Someone Else’s Wedding Vows, just out with Tin House/Octopus Books. Does it include visual art? Or did visual art—your own or others—inspire the poems in the book?
BS: I did the cover. (Which, I at first said I wouldn’t do, because art sometimes trumps words.) But besides that, it’s all about my poems. However, you’ll notice in the book that several poems are also poetry-comics and/or poem-videos out in the world.
I’ve been looking forward to my first book for a long, long time. I was patient in the end, waiting until I had it right. Now I’m thrilled with the whole trajectory of my poetry. I just wish grandma were here to see it.
—Nance Van Winckel & Bianca Stone
Bianca Stone grew up in Vermont, and graduated with an MFA from NYU’s Creative Writing Program. She is the author of Someone Else’s Wedding Vows (Tin House/Octopus Books, 2014), several poetry and poetry comic chapbooks, and is also the illustrator of Antigonick, (a collaboration with Anne Carson). Her poems have appeared in magazines such as American Poetry Review, Tin House, and Crazyhorse. She lives in Brooklyn.
Nance Van Winckel is the author of six collections of poems, including After A Spell, winner of the 1999 Washington State Governor’s Award for Poetry, and the recently released Pacific Walkers (U. of Washington Press, 2013). She is the recipient of two NEA Poetry Fellowships and awards from the Poetry Society of America, Poetry, and Prairie Schooner. Recent poems appear in The Pushcart Prize Anthology, The Southern Review, Poetry Northwest, Crazyhorse, Field, andGettysburg Review. She is also the author of three collections of short fiction and a recent recipient of a Christopher Isherwood Fiction Fellowship. Her stories have been published in AGNI, The Massachusetts Review, The Sun, and Kenyon Review. Boneland, her fourth collection of fiction, is forthcoming in October from U. of Oklahoma Press. Nance’s photo-collage work has appeared in Handsome Journal, The Cincinnati Review, Em, Dark Sky, Diode, Ilk, and Western Humanities Review. New visual work and an essay on poetry and photography are forthcoming in Poetry Northwest and excerpts from a collage novel are forthcoming in The Kenyon Review Online. Click this link to see a collection of Nance Van Winckel’s mash-ups of poetry and photography, which she calls photoems. She is Professor Emerita in Eastern Washington University’s graduate creative writing program, as well as a faculty member of Vermont College of Fine Arts low-residency MFA program. She lives near Spokane, Washington with her husband, the artist Rik Nelson. Her personal web page is here.
It is well-understood that the language we speak shapes our perception, the structure of the language affecting the ways in which the speaker conceptualises his or her world. In this regard, bilingualism has been shown to have many cognitive advantages including an additive effect on a person’s creativity. Doireann Ní Ghríofa, a bilingual poet writing both in Irish and in English, exemplifies this. Although the written poems appear on the page in a single language, the thought processes to create them are borne of a far more complex interplay. I like to think of this interplay occurring in a type of cognitive marshlands, a ghostly transition zone between water and land with its own unique emotional ecosystem. Doireann’s poems, it seems to me, dwell in that world, and emerge from it like a rare and endangered species might emerge from its wetlands habitat through an early morning, low-lying mist.
— Gerard Beirne
My poem Waking gives voice to a woman waking up in the recovery room of a maternity hospital. At the core of this poem is the sense of disorientation, loneliness and loss that follows a miscarriage. This is an experience that is, sadly, not unfamiliar to me, personally.
I chose to dedicate Waking to the memory of Savita Halappanavar, whose appalling death while under the care of the Irish maternity system left many in shock. She was admitted to hospital while suffering a miscarriage, and despite her repeated requests to terminate her pregnancy, she was denied the procedure that would have saved her life. Savita’s death led to many protests both in Ireland and abroad, where protestors demanded a review of Irish law that prevented her from accessing the abortion that would have saved her life. I would wish nothing more for Savita than to allow her the treatment she needed in order to wake up and draw breath, and it angers and saddens me to live in a country where a woman must die in order for society to effect essential constitutional change.
I am very grateful to the talented filmmaker Peter Madden for interpreting my poem visually with a sensitivity that I believe honours those many, many women who each year suffer the pain of miscarriage in silence. The haunting soundtrack is an original musical composition by guitarist Stephen Moore that adds further depth to the collaboration.
Glaoch/Call is a consideration of modern life and love. I am intrigued by the multiple paradoxes of contemporary life — we are more connected than ever through technology, and yet there often remains a fundamental disconnect between us, an emotional distance, a fundamental interpersonal detachment. This poem arose from dissonance between these opposing constructs, and our collaboration in film seeks to further explore this matter.
The procedure complete,
I wake alone, weak under starched sheets.
As the hospital sleeps, my fingers fumble
over the sutured scar, a jagged map
of mourning stitched into my skin —
empty without and empty within.
Cradling my hollowed womb,
I trace this new wound and weep.
The only sound I hear now is the fading retreat
of a doctor’s footsteps, echoing my heartbeat.
Ní cheanglaíonn …………………………aon chorda caol,
aon sreang teileafóin sinn níos mó.
I réimse na ríomhairí, ………………..ní thig liom
do ghuth a bhrú níos gaire do mo chluas.
Ní chloisim tú ag análú. Anois, ’sé an líne lag seo ……..an t-aon cheangal amháin atá fágtha eadrainn
agus titimid ……….as a chéile ………………………..arís
is ……….arís eile.
No slender thread, ………………………………no telephone cord
binds us anymore.
Now that our computers call each other, …………I can’t …………………..press your voice to my ear.
No longer can I hear you breathe. Now, we are bound only ……………………………..by a weak connection
and we break up ……………………………..and break up ………..and break up.
“The Iceman was carrying a sloe, presumably to eat” –Mandy Haggith
In the frozen foods aisle I think of him,
as I shiver among shelves of plastic-wrapped pizza,
green flecked garlic breads, chunks of frozen fish.
I touch the cold wrappers until my fingers
tingle, until my thumbs numb.
Strangers unpacked his body in a lab and thawed his hand.
His long-frozen fingers unfurled one by one,
his fist finally opened, let go,
and from his grasp rolled
a single sloe.
Ice-black with a purple-blue waxy bloom,
it waited through winters and winters
in his cold fingers. ……………………………………………………….Inside the sloe, ……………………………………………………..a blackthorn stone. ………………………………………………………Inside the stone, …………………………………………………………….a seed.
In a frozen aisle, white on glass
I watch my breath freeze.
a sonnet for Edna O’ Brien
This chapter begins in a pharmacy.
Over the counter, you smooth prescriptions,
weigh powders, pass parcels. You nod shyly,
greet customers, mix tonics and potions.
Yellow liquid pours into glass bottles—
here, cures come from chemical addition.
All summer, you study, fill tins with pills,
dispense tablets, count coins, make medicines.
Summer blooms fade and fall. Rain returns. Bored,
you think up tales with each cream you concoct.
Every time the bell rings over the door,
you conjure symphonies of secret plots.
Name—ailment—payment. Pencil strikes paper,
filling the ledger, each word a step to your future.
In the University Library, I open the Book of my Finger
I study the same words again and again.
Smells of damp tobacco and beeswax polish
hover over a hundred desks of beech.
A sudden incision slices my skin,
splits my fingertip—a narrow breach.
The wound is so thin that it barely bleeds
but the slit stings, insists that I look again.
My cracked fingertip turns inside out.
Broken skin become walls, white-limed, gritty.
In the split, the red roof of a cowshed peaks. Doubt
rusts in my blood. I can’t live in this city.
On my palm, a road through streets and roundabouts
leads me home. Under beech trees a bee flits, free.
Her papers still hum
in lead—lined boxes labelled Curie
in the Bibliothèque Nationale:
boxes filled with jotters
filled with the spools and loops
and curlicues of her hand
page after page of trials and tests
ideas in metamorphosis
the gleam of polonium and radium
the slow glow of understanding
a century later, her papers
still set our Geiger ticking
like a metal heart.
—Doireann Ní Ghríofa
Doireann Ní Ghríofa is a bilingual poet based in Ireland, writing both in Irish and in English. Her poems have appeared in literary journals in Ireland and internationally (in France, Mexico, USA, in Scotland and in England). The Arts Council of Ireland has twice awarded her bursaries in literature. Doireann’s Irish language collections Résheoid and Dúlasair are both published by Coiscéim, and her bilingual chapbook A Hummingbird, Your Heart is available from Smithereens Press. Doireann was the winner of a Wigtown Award (Scotland) in 2012. She has also been nominated for a Pushcart Prize (USA) and her pamphlet of poems in English Ouroboros was longlisted for The Venture Award (UK).
Peter Madden graduated from IADT National Film School, Ireland in 2011. Currently working in photography and video advertising, he also works in short documentary, short film and music videos, editing the award winning short documentary ‘Rose’ in 2011. His own directorial pieces have been screened at Irish and international film festivals. He works with two media based companies; Replayhouse and Little Beast, and has just recently co-created MadBag Films, all based in Dublin, Ireland.
I am always trying to push the envelope in regard to author artist/photos. I loathe the refined, posed, airbrushed glamor head-and-shoulders shots publishers seem to prefer. The author as inhuman, noble object of adulation. NC has always had a subversive edge. And I have been thinking for a while of honouring some of our more adventurous and outlandish spirits for their efforts toward having a bit of personality in their images. I don’t know if I have all the best ones here. If you have a favourite that you remember, remind me in the comments.
I cheated a little bit. bill hayward’s photo of Gordon Lish wasn’t taken especially for NC, but bill has invented a brilliant style of artist/author portrait and we did get to show the photo on NC. But check out bill’s wonderful book of images Bad Behaviorfor inspiration. Also Jonah’s photo wasn’t his author photo; it’s a self-portrait of sorts. Sometimes I tell authors to at least get a child or a dog in the photo. Horses and goats will do… André Marois went for bees.
“A home filled with nothing but yourself. It’s heavy, that lightness.
It’s crushing, that emptiness.”
Margaret Atwood, The Tent
Is this what it means to be an artist? To be a committed, practicing artist over decades? Perhaps. If so, this world, this version of “home” is utterly familiar to Bruno LaVerdiere. His subject matter over these many decades has been nothing other than the simple shape of the home, the house, devoid of detail. Completely Zen in its presentation, could it be seen as a representation of the life of an artist himself – that heavy, that light, that crushing, that empty? For him, “It’s a spiritual thing.”
When you listen to Bruno, he describes the creative life with delight, from his childhood into his seventies, as something rich and full of magical experiences. And you get the idea that he would describe any path he had chosen in this way, so full of verve is he. Seen through the eyes of this peaceful, joyful man, the world and art seem both simple and complex. At times he is effusive with excitement about the creative life. At times, it is something beyond words. And in his “quiet moments,” he gives us a gentle wisdom through his persistent work.
- Mary Kathryn Jablonski
I remember I was about seven or eight years old. It was in Maine. My father had given me a jackknife and he encouraged me to carve and whittle, you know. What do kids do with a jackknife? It was during the Second World War and my father was an airplane mechanic, so I was pretty much into airplanes and I had a small piece of wood. I think it was a piece of lath. And I carved an airplane wing. And I remembered the shape of the wing, but then I also knew that the wing had a dip in it, and I’ll be damned if I didn’t carve that piece of wood in the shape of a wing with a dip in it. It was the most exciting thing I had done! And all of a sudden I felt I could do just about anything with that jackknife. This was sort of a beginning. And I felt this sense of – oh – what do you call it? I was kind of “in charge of it.” It gave me courage to continue with it. Confidence! It gave me a lot of confidence. It was the Beginning.
It was the beginning of having control over a craft – of being able to do something, and do something well. And so that feeling has continued with me several times, piece after piece, where there was a kind of breakthrough with the craft. And it didn’t have anything to do with “art.” It was control over a medium: to be able to make it do what you wanted it to do. And I remember being excited, very excited, about half way through a project, standing back and looking at it, starting to absolutely hyperventilate at the craft of it, not at the art of it.
Shrine Series, clay, 7x5x2.5 inches. (2003)
Shrine Series, clay. 6x5x2 inches. (2012)
Years later I remember going to the MOMA, looking closely, very closely, at a Matisse painting, studying, say, a one square foot area, and looking at his brush strokes, and having that same feeling, which he must have had when he looked at them or while laying down that paint, just right. But it had nothing to do with the art. The entire painting was… it was a process, a technique. Art is so much beyond that. You know, this emotional moment of feeling good about a craft is not at all the same thing you find in “art.” Art is a lot harder to do – to come by. I had a guru once who told me, “If there is a harder way to do it, it must be wonderful; tell me about it.” That is the beginning of art. But you can’t really tell anybody about it. It has to come from inside you someplace.
And I guess you can’t get away from the physicality of art-making. Whether you’re writing a book, a poem, choreographing a dance, creating music, drawing on a piece of paper with a pencil, painting. The physicality of it all; you can’t get away from it. But that’s not art. The art is almost a by-product of the physicality. And that’s not to demean it, not at all. It can’t exist without the physicality, but it’s an untouchable thing. It’s not a physical thing. It’s a spiritual thing. It comes from the heart, not from the hand, or from the mind. It’s a spiritual thing. Was there ever that moment, that honest moment where something just flowed that easily? You can’t talk about the spiritual because you destroy what you’re talking about.
The intellectual is when we try to pretend we’re doing something terribly intelligent. My efforts in this regard have been to try to create simple things that don’t take any intelligence to observe and give the chance for the person observing to have a spiritual moment… that is not hindered in anything else. That’s what simple things do. So, in a sense, you might say I learned things from the Pop Culture. Where you present people with something they might recognize immediately, like a Campbell’s soup can. They don’t have to think about it; where it came from. You bypass that, and that doesn’t enter into it, the spiritual moment. Although I don’t think Andy Warhol had that in mind, it opened the door. With my work, I do create quiet moments for myself or for the viewer.
Triptych—Shrine Series, Encaustic paintings on wood panels, 12×18 inches. (2012)
I moved to the Adirondacks from New York City in about 1970 and left, I suppose, all the near influences of the galleries and other artists behind and became somewhat of a loner. The work took an enormous dive into a pothole that took me awhile to, uh, get past. But, I climbed out of it somehow. And a couple of years later I found a new source of inspiration. I remembered the old Adirondack graveyards. Before the bicentennial they cleaned them all up. The tress growing up in between the stones and the sort of mixture of natural chaotic nature and the order of man-made stones mixed together in great harmony was a huge influence on my work.
My sources have been historic, such as temples, shrines, the graveyards (of course for awhile) in places like the U.K. and Spain… What stayed with me the most was the house form, the home; the universal shape. All over the world people recognize it immediately. It’s just a little pointy structure, which was meant for many purposes in history I suppose: homes, barns, storage places, temples, churches, etc. Those became my work. And I simplified it down to just a little shape, a kind of “Monopoly” house, if you want to put it that way. And I’ve been working with it for ten years now. And I can’t let go of it.
Shrine Series, Encaustic painting on wood panel, 12×12 inches. (2012)
Before that I was skipping around with not much of a specific idea; just creating things without having any kind of foundation to them. And because of that I had a really hard time getting into the market. Galleries just found it was too scattered. Now, because in my sixties and seventies I’m not looking for an art market anymore, just creating, I have this, this focus that I didn’t have back then, and I feel good about it. It’s hard to work with. It’s harder to work with than a continued change of menu.
Occasionally I’ll drift off from this particular source. A few years ago, I spent four years just drawing cats. And it was a great kind of release, but when I ran out of the pleasure of doing that, I fell back onto my “house” again. And let’s just say I feel like I came home! It’s always been a place that I’ve been able to come back to and feel like I’m on the right track.
Cat, Encaustic painting on wood panel, 12×12 inches. (2008)
Recently, in my later years, I have really slowed down a great deal, and I don’t venture into a new project very easily anymore. I’m not as prolific as I used to be. But I feel like I’m not making the huge mistakes I used to make. Not that I’m playing it safe; that is not at all what I mean, but I guess you reach a certain maturity in your work after 50, 60 years of working and you do find a certain comfort zone. Which doesn’t make it any easier, by the way. The work actually gets harder. I’m still working with clay. That was my main material throughout all of my years in the arts. Using it as a sculpture medium, more than a pottery medium, or a craft medium, I don’t think of it as a craft source anymore, although clay is associated with craft quite heavily. There are a lot of great artists who have used clay to create their statements both in pottery as well as in sculpture.
Shrine Series, Clay, 15x5x2 inches. (2003)
Shrine Series, Clay, 16x6x5. (2012)
I’ve been working with color for the past four years with these houses, and the color has opened up a whole new world of art for me: the science of color. By using it as a means of portraying my house shapes, my little quiet spots: a cold area here and a hot area there, you know, the colors may introduce a kind of emotional thing, which color can do. I remember once going to the Guggenheim and almost crying because of color. The Guggenheim had a collection up with a Gauguin landscapes and I stood there and almost cried, not at the landscape, it wasn’t the subject matter, but at the color. Extremely powerful source of inspiration. It was so wonderful, so imposing on my senses. Not very often can it be said does this happen, where tears would come to your eyes because you were looking at a painting.
—All photos by M. Cheri Bordelon, copyright Bruno LaVerdiere
Born in Fairfield, Maine in 1937, Bruno LaVerdiere was a monk with the Benedictine Order at St. Martin’s Abbey, Olympia, Washington, from 1955 to 1969. He studied art at the Art Students League from 1965 to 1967. His work is held in numerous private and public collections including the American Craft Museum, Columbus Museum of Art, Everson Museum of Art, and the J. Patrick Lannan Collection. He received Artist’s Fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1976 and 1990, and an Individual Artist’s Fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts in 1987. He received a three-month residency grant from the La Napoule Art Foundation in southern France in 1991, and shared the job of resident director of that Foundation from 1994 to 1996. He is a working artist living in the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York.
Mary Kathryn Jablonski is a gallerist in Saratoga Springs, a visual artist and a poet, author of the chapbook To the Husband I Have Not Yet Met (APD Press, 2008). Her poems have appeared in numerous literary journals including Salmagundi, Slipstream, Beloit Poetry Journal, and Blueline. Her artwork has been widely exhibited throughout the Northeast and is held in private and public collections.
Katie DeGroot is an old friend who lives in a farmhouse on the picturesque banks of the Hudson River just outside of Fort Edward, NY. Her son Niles was in day care with my boys. Her husband Jon and I used to ski together while the three boys practiced mayhem on more dangerous slopes. Like most artists I know, she has a quiet, obsessive side that drives her to long solitary hours in the studio relentlessly putting shapes and colours on paper or canvas. In this case, the shapes come notionally from nature, those rotted, knobby logs you see off the trail, festooned with things growing upon their morbidity. Strange symmetries. But she takes the logs out of nature and puts them up on a white ground, often in tandem (parallel constructions), with the images running off the page, and the moss, lichens and fungi elaborated in fantastic profusion.
It’s funny, but as an artist I hate to even say I use watercolors because it’s the medium so much bad art is made with. It’s what your mother uses to paint with in her art class. I only started using watercolors because I had them and I was waiting for the oil paint to dry on a group of paintings. I have never learned the “correct” way to use them. I think of it as fast drying paint that can give you the most amazing color and translucency. You really only have one chance to make the artwork, the watercolor demands that you work quickly and then walk away. If you push too hard, or second guess your first take on the painting, the result is often an overworked failure. I edit a lot.
I have worked from nature for many years. Recently found objects such as sticks and logs have become a starting point for my studio investigation. Where these objects lead me in my artwork has to do with my interests in surrealism and abstraction, as well as my own quirky interpretation of the objects’ personality.
Natural Attraction, watercolor on paper, 45″x 60″ (2012)
Big Diva, watercolor on paper, 45″x72″ (2013)
Untitled (Nonquitt), watercolor on paper, 24″ x 18″ (2013)
Untitled (Grey), watercolor, 24″x 18″ (2013)
Dumbo, watercolor on paper, 24″x 18″ (2011)
Mr. Smiley, watercolor on paper, 24″x 18″ (2011)
Family Relations, watercolor on paper, 24″x 18″ (2013)
Katie DeGroot attended New York University and Illinois State University before living and working as an artist in New York City for nearly twenty years. Katie now resides and works in a studio on her great grandparents farm next to the Hudson River in Fort Edward, NY. Katie has exhibited her artwork regionally and nationally. Currently she is exhibiting work in the 2013 Mohawk-Hudson exhibition at The Hyde Collection in Glens Falls, NY, and the Albany Airport Gallery. This fall she had a solo show at Gallery Gris in Hudson, NY. She is currently the Director of the Skidmore College Summer Studio Art Program.
There is a line in Rilke’s “The Spanish Trilogy” — “…to make the Thing, Lord Lord Lord, the Thing” — that rings down through this amazing interview, NC Contributing Editor Nance Van Winckel with visual artist Lynda Lowe, an interview about art, making art, and the art of collaboration. All art is, yes, about making Things. We forget that sometimes. Expressing ourselves, making a point, sending a message, selling a line, finding a market, all take a back seat to the thingness of the Thing, its sudden and utter presence, sui generis and unique. Whether it’s a poem or a painting or some combination thereof (or a novel or a figure in a block of stone…).
NVW: I thought we’d begin with a few questions about our collaboration for the Poetic Dialogue Project, a group exhibit of poets and artists who were paired to combine poetry and visual art. Since we both live in Washington, we were paired together. I remember coming to your lovely studio near Tacoma and seeing all the cool “tools” you’d collected and thinking about a poem I’d written called “Left to Our Own Devices,” which was also about tools, tiny clock-repair tools.
I sensed we were both interested in objects and, as we went on to discuss, “thingness” or “objecthood.” We called our collaborative project The Object of the Object. I particularly love the piece of yours with those calipers in it. I would suppose that as an artist you must have developed a close kinship with the “tools of your trade.” Can you describe a bit what our collaboration WAS (the series, sizes, etc.) and also talk a little about the subject of “things” and its appeal to you as a visual artist?
Lynda Lowe: The Poetic Dialogue’s intent was to have a visual artist and a poet collaborate in the creation of a new work for a traveling exhibition. It was on my mind to not just make an illustration for your poems or for you to write something in reaction to a painting, but to integrate these forms as much as possible. Since we didn’t know each other before beginning the collaboration, we spent time sniffing out the turf where we might find something common and fertile. We passed back and forth word lists, favorite readings, images, and poems to see where we might begin.
Through Rilke’s poetry we discussed the interiority of the object, its thingness: “to make the Thing, Lord Lord Lord, the Thing.”
Things contain narrative, perhaps even a kind of sentient presence. Humans make stories from, and meaning out of, even the most random collection of them. The idea seemed a good starting place as it shows up in your poetry and also in my imagery. Thus began “The Object of the Object.”
Our work had to grow organically between us and achieve a balance that honored both word and image. I started with a group of paintings on 12” square panels that were deliberately left unfinished and sent images to you. You sent poetry in progress. We had to meander about with some directionless hiking for a while. An “aha!” moment for me was reading the last line in your poem “Coxswain”: “in us are the woods.”
Beautiful! Imagery began to coalesce for me. Our circumvolution continued. I remember we discussed the creation of a codex form where a viewer-reader would have to physically walk the expanse of a series of panels, thereby engaging time and memory through repeated imagery and text. The final product was a twenty-foot span of eighteen panels that were seated on a shallow shelf, leaning against the supporting wall.
NVW: During our collaboration, I recall you also brought up another term that’s near and dear to my heart: wabi-sabi. I think you rightly sensed my simpatico with this idea as you so well described it in our email exchange back then, ” the worn beauty of age and the graceful disorder of nature.” I know your work is influenced by Eastern philosophies in general and perhaps by the concept of wabi-sabi in particular. In our collaboration, how did these ideas influence the process and/or product?
Lynda Lowe: We both pay attention to that earned patina: your marmot playground of rusting factory equipment and my hundreds of old wall photos taken on travels. The layers of wear, weather, the mark of a passerby build such beautiful surfaces that speak of narrative use and history. Nature has these cycles of age and re-growth too of course. Being a gardener you can’t miss it. Imperfection and disorder is an undeniable part of the landscape on every level. When I’m developing a painting, vestiges of many additions and subtractions layer the work and this is never quite predictable. It lends a wabi-sabi quality to it.
NVW: I know you’re a great lover of T.S. Eliot and in particular his Four Quartets. You’ve used passages of his poetry in your work before, as well as lines from other poets, myself included. Can you explain a little about how you think text—and perhaps specifically poetry—may best share the visual field with your incredibly textured and expansive imagery?
Lynda Lowe: Text and imagery are in some basic way, information. They comprise part of a larger perceptual field. I’m very interested in how we construct meaning from a personal blend of reason, intuition, memory, and spirit. In the combining of elements such as poetry, diagrams, equations, realism, intuitive mark, and abstract color field, I’m creating a matrix that suggests these are all part of a unitive whole.
NVW: I was happy to reconnect with you recently in Tacoma at the Museum of Glass and the opening for your wonderful show, a series of 108 ceramic vessels called The Patra Passage. Again, I realized we had another mutual interest, Lewis Hyde’s wonderful book The Gift. I recall reading this book in the mid-1980′s and being very moved. It helped me to feel a better acceptance and even joy about my own life-choice: to make poems. Hyde speaks about art as a kind of gift the artist gives to her world. The gift is meant to be shared. This making and giving concern important aspects of community and shared values.
Hyde’s messages came to me at a time when I really need to hear exactly that. The promises of financial reward, publishing contracts and such sorts of “recompense” had begun to feel far off and unreachable to me, but I still loved and valued poetry and I wanted to continue with this art front and center in my life. Can you talk about your vessels which you gave away, and which the recipients (myself included) will again give away, and so on—and how, as an artist, you think about this interconnectedness of art-making and art-giving? And how The Patra Passage, in particular, was inspired? Here’s the wonderful video about that project:
Lynda Lowe: After a rough couple of years and I felt I was looking at life through the other end of the telescope. What do I consider valuable when viewing things in reverse, not ahead? I’d been incubating ideas for the Patra Passage for over a decade. The image of a bowl repeatedly shows up in my paintings as a symbol for the fluid act of giving and receiving. Interconnectedness is of great interest to me.
I knew where I wanted to take the idea, but the project required a total change in media and a large commitment of time without income. Lewis Hyde’s writing was and is indeed a true gift and encouragement. Also hugely significant is the privilege of many wonderful supporters and participants – you being one of them! The Passage seeks collaboration and connection. The website more fully describes the project. I wholeheartedly invite interaction from all visitors to the site: www.patrapassage.com.
NVW: What’s your next project?
Lynda Lowe: I’m in that transitional phase now after the launch of the Patra Passage where it’s back to the meandering path without a destination in mind. For the moment I’m playing again with my old friend T. S. Eliot and The Four Quartets. I don’t think I could ever mine that out. There are several exhibitions ahead, including the return of the Patra vessels at the Museum of Glass in Tacoma. And soon I’ll be working collaboratively with poet Joseph Heithaus on another project. I’m grateful to be doing something I love and that challenges me.
—Nance Van Winckel & Lynda Lowe
After completing an MFA at Indiana University, Lynda Lowe taught fifteen years at Wheaton College and Northern Illinois University. In 1998 she left her academic position and began painting full-time. Soon after, a move to the Pacific Northwest brought fresh opportunities and the construction of a studio on the Puget Sound in Washington state where she currently resides.
Lowe’s overall imagery combines sections of color field, realism, text, and diagramatic figures. She employs fragments of poetry, handwritten scientific observations, and mathematical formula and layers them alongside highly rendered recognizable images to suggest that the construction of meaning is shaped from many different frames of reference. Archetypal symbols are deliberately integrated into her art, pointing out that the human experience is intrinsically connected the sentient world. Her surrounding environment and her travels abroad also profoundly impact her work.
A recent project, the Patra Passage. centers on the gifting of 108 hand-built ceramic bowls which are re-gifted at least three times throughout one year. After they return, the Museum of Glass in Tacoma, Washington, will host an exhibition February – May, 2015.
Lynda Lowe’s paintings have been widely exhibited nationally in galleries and museums. She has been the recipient of two Artist Fellowship awards from the Illinois Arts Council, a distinguished resident of the Ragdale Foundation, a finalist of the Neddy Award, and represented by the following galleries:
Nance Van Winckel is the author of six collections of poems, including After A Spell, winner of the 1999 Washington State Governor’s Award for Poetry, and the recently released Pacific Walkers (U. of Washington Press, 2013). She is the recipient of two NEA Poetry Fellowships and awards from the Poetry Society of America, Poetry, and Prairie Schooner. Recent poems appear in The Pushcart Prize Anthology, The Southern Review, Poetry Northwest, Crazyhorse, Field, and Gettysburg Review. She is also the author of four collections of linked short stories and a recent recipient of a Christopher Isherwood Fiction Fellowship. Boneland, her newest book of fiction, is just out with U. of Oklahoma Press. Her stories have been published in AGNI, The Massachusetts Review, The Sun, and Kenyon Review. Nance’s photo-collage work has appeared in Handsome Journal, The Cincinnati Review, Em, Dark Sky, Diode, Ilk, and Western Humanities Review. New visual work and an essay on poetry and photography appear in Poetry Northwest andexcerpts from a collage novel are forthcoming in Hotel Amerika and The Kenyon Review Online. Click this link to see a collection of Nance Van Winckel’s mash-ups of poetry and photography, which she calls photoems. She is Professor Emerita in Eastern Washington University’s graduate creative writing program, as well as a faculty member of Vermont College of Fine Arts low-residency MFA program. She lives near Spokane, Washington with her husband, the artist Rik Nelson. Her personal web page is here.
Paul Forte is a fascinating artist and thinker. “Visual Thinking and Cognitive Exploration” is a major essay on the theory and practice of Conceptual art, also a short history of the tradition, also a lesson on how to appreciate art, and also a Cook’s tour of Forte’s own amazing art (dwell on the images, meditate upon them). Steeped in the history of art and philosophy, Forte sorts out definitions and vectors of influence, does not lean on jargon but explains it, and is above all infectiously passionate about his subject. Note also that the essay is dedicated to the late Arthur C. Danto, a hugely influential philosopher (whom I have myself read assiduously now and then over the years), Forte’s friend and mentor.
For Arthur C. Danto 1924 – 2013
The international Conceptual art movement that swept the art world in the late 1960’s emphasized the primacy of the artist’s thoughts or ideas in the art making process and forever changed how many artists think about and make art. Reaching its peak in the late 1970’s, the movement was eventually overshadowed by the resurgence of more traditional art forms, but not before sowing the radical seeds of a new consciousness, at least where art is concerned. Almost a decade after Conceptual art passed from the scene something interesting happened: in the mid 1980’s the movement seemed to resurface in what was touted as a revival called “Neo-Conceptualism” (also referred to as “Neo-Geo”). While roundly dismissed by Conceptual purists at the time as lacking in critical value, Neo-Conceptualism nevertheless signaled a significant turn for contemporary art.
In hindsight it appears that Conceptual art began evolving in the late 1970’s, and Neo-Conceptualism was one outcome of this evolutionary process. The curious thing about this supposed revival was its acquiescence to the importance, indeed necessity of perception for expressing or communicating ideas along with the return to more conventional materials and methods of art making. While an implicit acceptance of the centrality of material form in art didn’t necessarily negate or displace the predominance of the idea, it did give material form equal weight or footing, rendering the most controversial theory of the 1960’s, “de-materialization,” highly problematic. Even so, much of the work that resulted from this supposedly renewed Conceptualism seemed sensationalist and facile. In this sense the purists were right, and yet the reintroduction of perceptual concerns while adhering to the basic principle of Conceptual art concerning the primacy of ideas was highly significant. Thus the stage was set to usher in a post-Conceptual era: art, or at least, Conceptual art, seemed to be evolving in a cognitive direction. “Visual Thinking and Cognitive Exploration” attempts to make sense of this far reaching development and hopefully contribute something to our understanding of aesthetic experience.
Desert Parcel (book fragments)
Paul Forte, 2013
Collage on canvass made from the fragments of an illustrated volume titled: Picturesque Palestine, Egypt and the Sinai, published in the late 19th century 39 3/4 x 54 3/4 inches
“Artists today are an especially serious group of what one ought properly to think of as visual thinkers.” — Arthur Danto
Arthur Danto’s observation about artists, expressed in a review of the Whitney Biennial over a decade ago, seems prescient given the ubiquity of art made along ostensibly conceptual lines today. Writing for savvy readers of The Nation in 2000, Danto was concerned about what he saw as an erosion of aesthetics for the sake of imparting moral meanings. He was not objecting to art that raised social awareness, only work that might do so at the expense of aesthetic value, as he understood it. There are many competing concepts of aesthetic value, making the subject contentious to say the least. And yet, the notion of visual thinking seems generic enough to have some bearing on a host of ways in which art might be valued. I believe that Danto felt that by focusing on contemporary art as a form of visual thought we might renew the discussion of aesthetic value and perhaps rediscover just what it was about the experience of art that we find so engaging. Danto’s basic point about artists as visual thinkers remains sound and was never at odds with the possibility of art being used as a vehicle for moral posturing. His concern over the advancement of moral agendas through art at the expense of aesthetics carries little weight today, because most artists, critics, curators, and others understand that there was never an issue between aesthetics and socially committed art, although a fundamental change in attitudes about the use of aesthetics has taken place, something that Danto may not have anticipated: the aesthetic practices of many contemporary artists have become, for lack of a better term, conceptualized. In other words, aesthetic properties such as line, form, and color, for example, are often not explored for their own sake as it were but are used as indices or signifiers, elements of visual thought perhaps best understood in terms of the artist’s intentions. This outcome is one legacy of Conceptual art, that radical re-visioning of art begun by Duchamp and championed by Danto. There is no little irony in the fact that the undermining of aesthetic attitudes that troubled Danto should come as a result of this legacy.
Headstone (Laying NO to Rest)
Paul Forte 2005
Black Slate, 42 x 22 x 2 ½ inches
Collection Yale University Art Gallery
Arthur Danto’s view of artists as visual thinkers prods us to re-examine our aesthetic experiences in light of what they can tell us about cognition. Danto’s perspective, shared by a number of his contemporaries, is important because in supposing that many contemporary artists are basically engaged in visual thinking, he suggests a fundamental reevaluation of art. This reevaluation can be summed up in terms of the potential that art has for deepening our understanding of cognition or cognitive processes. Certainly such understanding is as important as the moral or intellectual purpose of one’s artwork, if, indeed, that is the intention of the work. In fact, it could be argued that it takes precedence over any moral or intellectual purpose, however lofty or urgent, because art that explores how we know and understand, however implicitly, can at the very least reveal new and engaging ways of communicating ideas. Palpable realizations about knowing and understanding are not simply byproducts of one’s social or political messages, rather, they are the very things that make these messages effective, enduring, or even possible in the first place. If we consider the potential of art in light of this basic value, surely its “moral or intellectual purpose,” whatever it is, will be preserved by virtue of the deeper ways the work has changed our hearts and minds.
Paul Forte 2012
Alarm bell, map and biology text in found box
13 ½ x 16 ¾ x 12 ½ inches
The idea of artists as visual thinkers gained currency in the 1960′s and 70′s through the advocacy of visual thinking by the psychologist, Rudolph Arnheim. But visual thinking, according to Arnheim, is hardly limited to the activities of artists. It is a capacity that we all share, artists and lay people alike, and may be the only form of thought capable of engendering productive understanding on a broad scale. “Visual thinking is the ability of the mind to unite observing and reasoning in every field of learning. Whether people spend their days on using the physical forces of their bodies as garage mechanics or surgeons or dancers or whether they labor quietly at their desks as mathematicians or poets, the principal instrument on which their minds rely will always be the same.” That instrument, of course, is the eye. The practice of one’s discipline forms the connection between observing and reasoning, something that results in the give and take or back and forth of one’s art or activity. One does, observes and evaluates the results, and then proceeds to adjust the doing as is necessary. The work of either artist or garage mechanic involves a dynamic interaction between doing or making and observing.
Façade (Compendium Wall)
Paul Forte 2013
Encyclopedia covers (1893) on wood
42 x 52 ½ x 1¼ inches
But art making, certainly for the creative artist, requires open observation and careful reasoning. The mind is always implicated in what and how we see, so the challenge for the creative artist involves sustaining an imaginative approach to both observing and reasoning without succumbing to solipsism or sophistry. An imaginative mind combined with a critical eye seems to be the key.
Compact Record of Discarded Thoughts
Paul Forte 2005
Wadded paper (artist’s writings), glue, varnish
12 x 12 x 12 inches
Our knowledge of self and world is in constant flux; there is an ongoing interrelation or interaction between what we know and what and how we see. Visual thinking in this regard seems more fundamental than abstract thought; thought seemingly divorced from qualitative features of perceptual states that determine what something is like, or to employ a philosophical term: its qualia. The artwork of artists exploring the interrelations between the phenomenal properties of their materials and ideas is often provocative and unusual, calling for a more demanding set of interpretive skills; skills beyond at least aesthetic judgment that puts great store in absolute distinctions between perceptual and conceptual concerns. When this dichotomy is guiding appraisal of the artwork it is often misunderstood and subsequently misjudged. For example, critics, curators, and the art viewing public often overlook or underestimate the cognitive value of contemporary art seemingly indebted to some tradition or another, assuming that such work is primarily concerned with furthering that tradition and little else. If, on the other hand, such art is presumed to simulate a tradition and have a conceptual intention, then it is usually viewed as a matter of either pastiche or parody. The presumption in the first case is that the work is primarily the result of formal concerns, to some extent or another, in the second, that the work is either a matter of critique or gamesmanship, and essentially conceptual. It appears that much like the apparent opposition between aesthetics and socially engaged art, absolute distinctions between the formal and the conceptual, eye and mind, are overstated if not illusory.
Book of Maladies
Paul Forte 2013
Sealed book, crystals and mixed media on painted base
16 x 22 x 3 inches
While visual thinking is commonplace, it is nonetheless a mainstay of creativity. For artist and audience alike, artwork that engages visual perception and thought on an equal footing can imbue aesthetic experience with clarity, depth, and passion. Artwork that delivers in this way may even lead to a new attitude toward aesthetics in general. In my view, such engaging artwork precedes or makes the new attitude possible. Thus Danto points the way when says that contemporary artists “portray themselves as engaged in conceptual exploration, calling boundaries into question, seeking to bring to consciousness the way we think about many things.” This is all well and good, and yet, it seems that artwork that both results from visual thinking and requires it in order to be properly understood or appreciated will implicitly call into question the limits and efficacy of conceptual exploration. This is a reasonable assumption supported by a diverse yet coherent body of contemporary art practices, regardless of how those practices might be characterized (i.e., as “conceptual or conceptually oriented”). It is my contention that the primary factor underlying these practices is not conceptual exploration, but rather, cognitive exploration.
Paul Forte 2008
Magnetized globe with metal objects on wood stand
20 x 12 ½ x 12 ½ inches
Many artists, critics, and curators continue to use the terms “conceptual” and “cognitive” interchangeably. One reason for this indiscriminant usage may be related to the orthodox understanding of cognition as a domain consisting of “logical reasoning, awareness, and judgment, and the rational structuring of sensation and perception.”This understanding relies on or is in keeping with presumptions concerning mental processing and the formation of ideas. But cognition is essentially a matter of knowing and understanding, which certainly involves thought and ideas, but thought and ideas, in daily experience as well as in the art making process, are never fully independent of sensory input or emotive aspects, at least indirectly. A fuller understanding of cognitive processes entails apperception and the emergence of new consciousness. Consciousness of the integration of thought, sensation and feeling merits mentioning because it has bearing on understanding the basic distinction between the cognitive and the conceptual. Consider for a moment the fact that a good many of our ideas and concepts are first expressed metaphorically, expressions that were originally based on some manner of sensory experience. Consider also the deep relationship between thought and emotions. Feeling may be ultimately inseparable from thought, however subtle the thoughts or manifest the feelings. Think about the feelings that often accompany ideas that give rise to strong religious or political convictions. The person holding such convictions may not be aware of his or her feelings, but others often are. There is even a question as to whether the “rational structuring of sensation and perception” is possible in any definitive sense because it seems that sensation and perception are never entirely free of unconscious factors. Briefly put, knowing and understanding are intertwined processes that involve more than just thought and ideas.
Paul Forte 2008
Sealed bottle on brass stand
13 x 4 ½ inches
The late philosopher, Nelson Goodman, made a lasting contribution to our understanding by clarifying the distinction between the cognitive and the conceptual, as well as prodding us to reconsider the nature of aesthetic experience. “In contending that aesthetic experience is cognitive, I am emphatically not identifying it with the conceptual, the discursive, the linguistic. Under ‘cognitive’ I include all aspects of knowing and understanding, from perceptual discrimination through pattern recognition and emotive insight to logical inference.” Thus it seems clear that the cognitive encompasses the conceptual, not the other way around. That memory, knowledge, and imagination, as mental capacities, to some extent all determine what and how we see is beyond dispute. But the point is to see anew. Cognitively effective art can have an impact on our lives because it enables us to, in Goodman’s words, “See what we did not see before, and see in a new way.” I think that Goodman’s main point here is that such art can be instrumental in developing visual acuity, thus enriching our daily experience. I believe that some of this artwork can do even more. Cognitive discoveries, finding new ways of seeing things, are, ultimately, discoveries about cognition itself. The new experiences that art can provide lay the groundwork for how we come to understand ourselves and the world and how we eventually conceptualize that understanding.
Paul Forte 2010
Bird’s nest, glass globe, photo and map in found box
10 ½ x 13 x 7 inches
There is a mode of reference that has bearing on the notion of visual thinking. This is metaphor; something that occurs primarily in verbal form, but is not limited to the realm of letters. I accept the supposition that metaphor is an essential component of language, in both its literary and everyday usage. Metaphor animates language in complex and subtle ways. It makes words breath, adds color and interest, and generally makes reading pleasurable. But it is more than an ornamental or humanizing gesture. In instances where, for example, denotative language falls short or is nonexistent as a means of describing a particular phenomenon, metaphor serves an invaluable function. Thus, in science, for example, metaphor has an indispensable role in the advancement of knowledge. Catherine Elgin comments on the value of metaphor in this regard. She maintains that while it is true that scientists, unlike artists, “strive for literal, univocal, determinant symbols,” it is wrong to assume that metaphor and other indirect forms of reference are alien to science. Elgin states her case eloquently: “Inasmuch as metaphor is a device for drawing new lines and for redeploying conceptual resources that have proven effective elsewhere, it is an immensely valuable tool at the cutting edge of inquiry. Where there is no literal vocabulary that marks the divisions that scientists want to recognize, they resort to speaking metaphorically of strings or black holes or central processing units. But as inquiry progresses, the talk becomes increasingly less metaphorical.” I think that visual metaphor has an equivalent value for the visual arts. The practice of appropriating images and or objects from everyday life for metaphorical ends could be considered analogous to a redeployment of conceptual resources as it occurs in the theoretical language of science. Just as it is wrong to assume that metaphor plays no essential role in the advancement of knowledge through science, it is equally wrong to assume that visual metaphor in art is not essential to our understanding of aesthetic experience. Indeed, it may be essential to our even having an aesthetic experience. If aesthetic experience is cognitive, as Nelson Goodman contends, then visual metaphor in art is also a very valuable tool at the cutting edge of inquiry. That metaphor in general connects disciplines or domains, at least in principle, indicates more than versatility. Given its reach, it may be an instrument that combines thought, imagination, sensation, and feeling in ways that lead to new knowledge.
Paul Forte 2009
Collage and mixed media on board
32 x 40 inches
Book covers, postcard, map and compass on board in artist’s frame
26 ½ x 30 ½ x 1½ inches
Of course not everyone agrees that art is a form of inquiry. Those who balk at the idea that art can teach us something fall into two general categories: those who cannot take it seriously, and those who resist its seriousness. Art is as serious as science, and just as the results of scientific inquiry need not threaten our well being, understanding and accepting the seriousness of art need not undermine the spirit of art. Some people maintain that they love art and that it is possible to enjoy it for no other reason than the pleasure that it affords. Some people take it seriously for the moral instruction or social message that it conveys. Whether we treasure art as a way of refining our sensibilities or as a tool for consciousness raising, in either case we gain immeasurably when we can better understand why we consider a particular work of art pleasurable, important, or both. The point is that understanding the artwork from a cognitive perspective can both deepen our pleasure in the work and or our respect for its moral or social message. Moreover, artwork with the primary purpose of exploring cognition through visual metaphor can be both pleasurable and socially relevant. Just as the metaphorical language of science can broaden our understanding of the world, the metaphorical images and objects of art can deepen our understanding of ourselves. As understanding grows, the metaphorical language used to express the theoretical advances of science gives way to more literal or denotative forms of expression. Something similar may be happening as the investigation of cognition through art progresses, although it is the nature of the visual metaphor that is changing, not the underlying metaphorical orientation through which the exploration advances.
— Paul Forte
Author’s note: Arthur Danto was a wonderful philosopher and critic as well as accomplished print maker. I am very fortunate to have known Arthur, a mentor of sorts, and someone who genuinely cared about art and never shrank from offering his support and encouragement to those artists that he deemed worthy of attention. He gave a talk at the Yale University Art Gallery on my “Headstone” in 2005. It was a great evening and Arthur was in fine form. He will be greatly missed.
Paul Forte’s career as an artist began in the San Francisco Bay Area in the early 1970’s. The Bay Area in those days was a crucible for social, political and cultural change, and Forte managed to play a small but vital part. Like many artists at the time, he was interested in the experimental possibilities of art and, like many others, believed that the changing nature of art still had the capacity to enable new visions, new voices. Art and politics were always an uneasy combination for the artist, although he understood perfectly well that how art is received, or enabled is largely contingent upon politics and economics, perhaps especially in a capitalist society, which tends to marginalize those artists who cannot or will not meet the demands of the market. This realization led to an interest in Conceptual art, and to one of its principle mediums: the “artist’s book,” of which he self-published a number of works in small editions. Throughout the 1970’s Forte’s work explored the subjective and aesthetic dimensions of conceptual approaches to art making through a variety of media that would later become the basis for what the artist calls a cognitive approach to art making.
A resident of Rhode Island since 1987, Paul Forte has exhibited at the San Francisco Art Institute, San Francisco, California (1975,1983); A Space Gallery, Toronto, Canada (1978); 80 Langton Street Gallery, San Francisco, California (1981); The Center for the Visual Arts, Oakland, California (1986); The Wadsworth Athenaeum, Hartford, Connecticut (1991); the Kim Foster Gallery, New York City (1998); and Francis Naumann Fine Art, New York City (2007 & 2008). Forte’s work is included in the Sol Lewitt Collection, Chester, Connecticut; the Museum of Modern Art, New York City (artist’s books); and the Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut, among others. Forte has lectured on his work at Hera Gallery in Wakefield, Rhode Island; The University of Rhode Island; The Rhode Island School of Design; Brown University (Honors Program); Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York; The California College of the Arts in Oakland, California; and the University of California at Berkeley. Paul Forte is a past recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts, Artist Fellowship (1978), and a Pollack-Krasner Foundation Fellowship (1990).
Footnotes (↵ returns to text)
Arthur C. Danto, “Art of the Free and Brave.” The Nation, May 8, 2000, p. 45.↵
Rudolph Arnheim, The Split and The Structure. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1996, p. 119.↵
Whether or not verbal metaphor is related to visual thinking is an open question, one involving an understanding of how mental images are the bases of associations underlying most verbal metaphors. If most verbal metaphors are the result of making associations based upon mental imagery, does that make such metaphors inherently a matter of visual thinking? It seems self-evident that visual metaphor is a matter or form of visual thinking.↵
Catherine Elgin, “Reorienting Aesthetics, Reconceiving Cognition.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 58, No. 3 2000, p. 223.↵
Self Portrait as a Dead Man, 2011, oil on board, 16 x 13.5 in., collection of the artist.
I am always alert to what artists have to say about their work. They are thoughtful, patient people who spend a lot of time by themselves working with their hands (something that always promotes a kind of detachment — you think with your hands and the rest is a kind of meditation). I first met Stephen May 25 years ago when I was writer-in-residence at the University of New Brunswick the first time. Stephen, despite the title of the painting above, is manifestly not dead (see the photo below), but still alive, painting and asseverating. When Stephen writes, he writes with passion and a style that rises here and there to the aphoristic; when he paints, his work shimmers with a kind of classic beauty. Herewith a sample of both, painting and text — the measure of the man and artist.
This is about how inadequate logic, reason, passion, intelligence and imagination are in art. It’s about how reasonable it is to accept that. It’s about how misleading and misguided the word creativity is. This essay is not meant as a spiritual work, but it necessarily enters territory that sounds spiritual.
I want to make good paintings. Sometimes when I’m painting something good happens. I remember not the first time it happened, but the first time I realized what was happening. The words that came into my head were, “Oh, all I have to do is tell the truth!” or “Oh, all I have to do is put down what I see!” (It was a long time ago).
In the late 1800’s a critic named Albert Aurier reviewed an international exhibition of contemporary art in Brussels that included the work of Van Gogh. He singled out Van Gogh as a leader and praised his work in terms of its form, the way he used colour. Van Gogh wrote letters to friends in response. In one of them he wrote, “Aurier’s article would encourage me if I dared to let myself go, and venture even further, dropping reality and making a kind of music of tones with colour, like some Monticellis. But it is so dear to me, this truth, trying to make it true, after all I think, I think, that I would still rather be a shoemaker than a musician in colours.”
Van Gogh loved truth. He is not famous because he cut off his ear. He is famous because his paintings are good. His paintings are good because of his relationship with truth.
What is truth anyway?
I’ve painted good paintings and bad paintings, which is to say beautiful paintings and banal paintings. I’ve reflected on both experiences. I want to understand what it was that seemed right with me when the paintings were beautiful and what seemed wrong with me when they were banal. My experience has brought me to an understanding of the way my art relates to my life and how what is good in art, what is meant by good art, relates to what is good in life in general.
Beauty is just a word. There are many claims on it. Something is happening, though, in the art of Bach, Tolstoy, or Manet, for example, that is unpredictable and mysteriously complex. I use the word beauty to serve that phenomenon.
Artists sometimes say beauty is truth, and people sometimes say God is truth or truth is God. I tend to say those things now. When John Keats and Emily Dickinson equated beauty with truth, and when Gandhi and Simone Weil said truth is God, I don’t think they were using the words as a slogan for an intellectual position. I believe the words occurred to them the same way they occurred to me. And they occurred to me as a revelation but only after many experiences of the difference between true and false, beauty and banality. It is reasonable to be skeptical about the expression beauty is truth, but, ironically, skepticism led me to the expression.
Simone Weil describes prayer as paying attention. I thought I stopped praying when I was a teenager, but now I think perhaps I’ve continued to pray all along.
Painting is an act. Painting is living. The problems of painting — the problem of whether to paint or not, how to paint, what to paint — are the same problems we all face in just being human. They are the problems we have figuring out what to do with our lives, figuring out what’s possible. A person acts, and we find out what’s possible.
Shakespeare wrote plays.
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more; it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
So Shakespeare is possible. How did he do that? We want some explanation for his power and the continued effect it has on us. The only thing we can see and hear is the form, so we look for the secret there. Did Shakespeare have a secret formula? Did Bach and Beethoven? Did Manet and Monet? Did Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.?
What allows some people to leave us better off than we would have been without them? Those who do that sort of work are, invariably, un-secretive, and the infinite variety of the forms their actions (art) take suggests that there is something very un-formulaic at the root of their work. The root of whatever it takes to do something good outside the art world might be the same as within it.
Our ego lives behind our eyes and the world pumps it up to blind us. Our bitter disillusionment (those lines of Macbeth’s) steals upon us concealed behind the blind of illusions created for us, within our ego, behind our eyes.
A beautiful painting is never simple. It’s never just some canvas with colours on it, never just the image, what it may or may not symbolize, never just an artist’s diary or an artist’s taste and opinions, and never just a reflection of the artist’s culture either. We all tend to be distracted by the specifics of our lives, our passions, etc. Socrates is supposed to have said the only true wisdom is knowing you know nothing. And Einstein once said there are only two ways to look at the world. Either nothing is a miracle or everything is a miracle.
I need to use the word truth. Like the word God, it is a metaphor. I don’t think you can say God without imagining something like lord or father, something understandable. But if you use metaphor it moves mystery in the direction of non-mystery, and you undermine the significance, you undermine the psychic weight of mystery. You undermine the useful purpose of the word.
The thing about being human that makes me need to use the word truth is the hardest thing to put into words and the thing that if I could put it into words, might be the best use I could ever make of words. I am. I know I am because I experience. I know something else exists because I experience it. It’s a circular knowledge. There is no proving anything about myself, no proving anything about what I experience. One defines the other. There is no going outside that circle to see what’s outside it or to look back and see what that I really is, or what experience really is. It’s not even worth saying I know I experience as I can’t define either of the words I or experience other than in terms of the other. All our acts are acts of faith. Lived experience is normally so consistent it allows for a deep faith in nature and science, but as the Buddhists say, all is illusion.
I could ignore Socrates’ or Buddhist wisdom. I could ignore Keats’ revelation (my own) and call what happens within that circle knowledge. But it would be the first selfish act, the first subjective act that sanctions all subsequent selfish acts. It would be the end of wisdom. It would be the end of loving truth. It would be the end of true love. It would be the beginning of cowboys-and-indians. It would be the beginning of the presumption of knowledge and the sanctioning of all acts of relative good. It would be the end of goodness and love. It would be the end of beautiful action. It would be the end of beauty in my life. I wouldn’t paint anymore, or at least I hope I wouldn’t.
Truth is beauty is God. But I can only say that in the sense that I accept that all three words reflect an understanding that we really don’t know anything, that reason is limited. Beauty is mystical. It can’t be made un-mystical by social science or neuroscience (and yet it accepts those sciences). It accepts everything without judgment or fear or contempt. It isn’t fragile so requires no soldiers to protect it, nor rites to keep it holy.
We’re simply invited to fall on our knees. All our assorted lives and deaths lose all their gravity, they melt into air. We’re released from grasping, striving and collecting. Our fists are opened. We accept the ants on the kitchen counter, the dandelions in the lawn, our own nature, too. Poetry begins where separation between what’s solid and what’s mysterious melts away.
In Grace and Gravity, Simone Weil gives us an apt analogy. She describes a space normally filled up with our self, a space filled up with logic, reason, passion, intelligence and imagination. It’s only if we can remove our self from that space that there will be room for beauty or truth or God to arrive (she used the word grace). When we fill up the space again, there’s no longer any room for beauty. Reason and passion etc. are all manifestations of self love and they leave no room for beauty.
The mystical root of beauty and wisdom is in loving truth. Buddhist wisdom, Christian wisdom, and the wisdom of great art begin there. To love truth means knowing you know nothing. It means only accepting and accepting and accepting. It means being without agenda or prejudice. It means being without pride.
Egocentric taste is what is in the eye of the beholder. That’s not what I mean by beauty. I am not strictly speaking a religious man, but there’s no separation for me now between art and religion, painting and prayer, beauty and truth/God. If you consider aesthetics as philosophy of art, then for me aesthetics and ethics have merged.
I don’t know
A beautiful painting is not a representation of something you think is beautiful. If you see an image of an attractive and healthy young man or woman, or a sympathetic portrait of a beloved personality, a saint for instance, or an image of some idyllic setting, a place you’d like to be in, you have to be extremely wary. All of us involved in art have to make ourselves aware of the seductive power of imagery. What goes for art often fails to be more than expressions of taste or pandering to taste. Art very often fails to be more than seduction or manipulation.
You see, hear and taste, you feel beauty. How much do we miss though? Two people might be smiling at you, while one wishes you well and the other wishes you ill. Those smiles might look the same but they are different. It is a dangerous misconception that beauty is what something looks like. Beauty is what something is. Ugly, distorted, or plain things reveal themselves to be golden. Glittery things disappoint.
My struggle to come to terms with experience is the same as anyone else’s. We’re raised on illusions and comforted by them. My moments of disillusionment were unpleasant and life changing. We’re all taught by experience (or should be) the danger of mistaking illusion for truth. Some people wear blinkers their whole lives, loving escapism. Some people get cynical and don intellectual armour. Some love truth.
An old commandment, “Thou shalt make no graven image”, doesn’t make much sense to us at first glance. But if we make images of God from imagination, in words or pictures, and then love those images, it is really ourselves that we love. We create God in our image. We get what we want. We enter the brothel of illustration.
This isn’t new, nor will it ever grow old. It is in establishing whatever relationship is possible with truth that we begin to be beautiful, that our actions begin to be beautiful and the results of our actions, the traces we leave in our wake begin to be beautiful. Without that relationship all form is normal, banal. Within that relationship any form is beautiful.
In the pursuits of science, philosophy, theology, art, and in our everyday lives, truth is beautiful. Artists are prone to getting distracted from this no less than others. When I was young I liked art class best. When it came time to choose a career all I wanted was to play for a living, as opposed to work, so I chose art. It wasn’t too long though before I realized the only worthwhile thing an artist can do is love truth. I believe it’s the same for any career. I wonder what it does to a person’s soul if his career is ugly (spin doctors, etc.). In loving truth, the apparent incompatibility between our pursuits, between science and religion for instance, disappears.
I’m not suggesting we forsake intelligence, but beauty is not a strictly intellectual pursuit. You don’t need to be Plato to be beautiful. Being smart can just as easily get in the way. Maybe you need to be smart to realize that or to be able to put it into words (maybe it’s stupid to try to put it into words). A beautiful intellectual argument would be one free of rhetoric in the sense of persuasion. The rhetoric of persuasion is banal. That banality is an invitation for realities much worse than simply banal. We are attracted to intelligence for its own sake, to rhetoric and sophistry. But is leaves no room for love of truth. The rhetoric of persuasion is dangerous. It’s a truly ugly idea that if you’re better at persuasion than anyone else in the room, you win and truth is yours. Intelligence is for safe guarding ourselves against cleverness, distinguishing the difference between truth and rhetoric.
Elements of art
We can’t talk about art without talking about form. Art always takes a form, but the form that art takes isn’t what matters in art. The derogatory term academic art is reserved for art where form matters too much. It matters too much if you’re searching for new forms just as much as if you’re trying to conserve old forms. There is something more crucial than innovation. The painters Manet and Picasso are famous for breaking old forms and inventing new ones. That’s the orthodox story of western art. Really though they are famous because they are good, just like Van Gogh. Rembrandt was no breaker of form. All four of them are good in that they take form out of the precinct of words. Those who find refuge in form, the progressive and conservative alike never escape history, never escape their own time. Oscar Wilde asks us to be kind to fashion because it dies so young. I can’t muster much sympathy.
Manet’s contemporaries were offended by his lack of respect for what they considered to be the serious concerns of art. Things don’t change much. We get so caught up in our moment. Manet’s early paintings were designed as signposts, as if to say, “If you want to understand what I’m doing, just look at Velazquez (for example).” Manet’s painting, far from merely being a precursor to the triumphant art that followed, actually makes most subsequent painting look like window dressing and doodles, just as it made most of the painting of his contemporaries look like huge bags of brownish wind.
Sometimes when a person associates himself with the word realism it is meant to reveal their desire to dismantle false hierarchies. It is meant to express a willingness to accept all that is seen even though it may undermine the romantic/idealist notion that we are individually or collectively somehow the figurative center of the universe. It is meant as an acceptance of the fact that we are not the purpose or goal of existence. There have been many painters willing to put us in our place but none who have done it with such gentle humour, intelligence and kind sympathy as Manet.
Manet understood as well as anyone the potential of looking at something and painting a picture of it. He was reported to have said that a painter can say all he needs to say with fruit or flowers or even clouds. We can be moved generation after generation by paintings of nothing in particular, a glass of water, an empty field…by music without words. Manet’s perfect advice to artists: “If it’s there, it’s there. If not, start over.”
Chardin painted a picture of a brioche. He said you use colours but you paint with feeling. There’s a long list of great painters who looked at things and painted pictures of them, a long list of great paintings done that way. If sophistication prevents anyone from doing it today, there’s something wrong with sophistication. Van Gogh stuck candles to his hat so that he could see what he was doing when he painted outside at night. The French artist Marcel Duchamp called that stupid painting. The question of futility is empty. We are and so we do things. We can draw a moustache on the Mona Lisa or we can paint TheNight Café, one or the other. The sublime and the ridiculous are Siamese twins. It’s a bit of good fortune if you don’t mind looking ridiculous.
We can’t talk about art without talking about media. There are practical advantages and disadvantages with respect to each medium, degrees of suppleness, degrees of ease of dissemination, etc. Ultimately though, we are the message. It is ourselves who are being delivered. We must tend to ourselves first. Our instinctual egoism is embodied in any new form and delivered by any new medium as naturally as in and by the old ones. That the delivery is increasingly more efficient is no great comfort.
A new medium is not necessarily a better medium. As a medium or technology becomes more complex, McLuhan’s observation that “the medium is the message” becomes truer. Love and empathy disappear within the complexity. We need to be careful that the increasingly complex media we adopt don’t cause this we that’s being delivered to become we-the-machine.
Painting most likely persists as a medium because of its infinite suppleness. It always bends to the force of the person who paints and makes it impossible for that person to hide. Anything that is good about them is plain to see. It’s almost as simple and obvious as singing or dancing. Less machine means less machine. It’s for those who love a person.
We can’t talk about art without talking about content (or substance). The word content is an acceptable word to stand for what matters in art. Whenever something gets formed (by humans or otherwise) all the causes, the obvious and the mysterious, of its being formed are contained within it. Content might be a word that denotes the limits of our understanding of what is there in the form, the limits of our ability to read it, to perceive it, as in, content is what I see, or content is what I know. Content might also be a word to denote all that is contained in form, independent of our ability to perceive it. When we form something we could define content as what we meant by forming it, or we could define content as what we are, as the force that determines the form. We don’t know what we are. We say intellectual content without knowing exactly what a thought is, what consciousness is.
If it’s true that the universe is in a grain of sand, that the content of a grain of sand is the universe, what then distinguishes a beautiful man-made form from a plain or ugly one, or nature from art? If content is what matters, what is the content in Bach’s form that distinguishes it from all other form in his time or before or since? What constitutes its value to us, if all sound, every sound, any sound holds truth in it? I would say that art is a human affair. A communion occurs. The origins of Bach’s music are mysterious. Bach willingly collects us within this mystery. It’s a kindness, a generosity on his part. When the sun shines, or the rain falls, or the volcano erupts, we can’t be sure it’s a kindness. A grain of sand isn’t kind.
We seek knowledge. We seem to be offered it but beauty takes it away again. We are stripped of the urge to be assertive. Maybe the beautiful thing about beauty is that no one knows how to do it, that no one ever has or ever will. We only know little pieces of a puzzle that keeps expanding in unimaginable dimensions beyond our potential and when we look again at that piece of the puzzle we thought we knew, that we so carefully and assuredly put in its place, it’s no longer what we knew it to be. I don’t know why Bach is so good. I don’t know how he so consistently avoids failing when it’s so easy to fail. I borrowed a Maria Callas CD from the library of her first recording when she was in her early twenties. The person who wrote the commentary for the CD ended with, “Listen to it on your knees.” It’s of crucial significance when one of us fails to fail.
There is a potential for art beyond metaphor. It would be better if people would understand that the value of art comes not from the nature of it being about something crucial and important, but from the nature of it actually being something crucial and important. Its value is not as illustration or documentation or story or metaphor, but as the embodiment of what is valuable. Imagery and symbols come naturally to painting which makes it particularly susceptible to this perceived limitation. 20th century painters abandoned the image to declare an understood kinship to music’s intrinsic abstract qualities. The same is true in modern dance and literature when they abandoned plot. There are no formal safeguards against failing to be beautiful, no formulas, but one understands the motivation.
I’m beginning to get angry at images. They seem to have an innate tyranny to mislead. When you see, when you feel with your eyes it happens in colour patches, in light and dark shapes. We respond to it in all the ways we respond to it ever since we’ve been human, by backing away, by approaching, in fear, in wonderment. But culture turns images into symbols that have meaning. The tyranny of the image is that it distractw one from realizing that the paintings aren’t symbols first, they are art first. They are embodiments of the painter, hopefully embodiments of feeling. For every painter who feels as Rembrandt feels, there are 100,000 painters whose symbols are the same as Rembrandt’s. For every painter who feels as Tom Thomson feels (in his plein-air sketches), there are 100000 painters whose symbols are the same as Thomson’s. This is the tyranny of the image.
My best paintings were done by putting dark paint where it looked darkish, light paint where it looked lightish, like some glorified, faulty camera with two eyes instead of one and self-awareness instead of none. Cézanne said of Monet that he was “only an eye—yet what an eye!” I love Monet’s late paintings of the Japanese footbridge, when his eyes were ruined by cataracts and the operations to fix them.
I want so much to trust somebody. All I have is my eyes, ears and time to find out who I can trust, to discriminate between who might care and who might be looking out for themselves first. I think much of what is admired in the world is admired for being great examples of people overpowering other people. It’s taken it as a license to do the same. Hell is other people.
I’m searching for something and am compelled to walk away when it doesn’t appear to be present. If I can separate the good from the not so good, the difference between them becomes much clearer. The success of this phenomenon might be why there are long line-ups to get into the Musée D’Orsay every day.
There is an idea in vogue right now of artist as critical thinker. There is a relationship between art and philosophy, but they aren’t identical. Matisse said if you decide to be a painter you must cut out your tongue, you give up the right to express yourself by any means other than painting. He didn’t cut out his tongue though, and his art didn’t suffer. It’s good to hear it from the horse’s mouth. It would be even better if the horse could be as articulate as the horse experts. One tries.
Marcel Duchamp was a competent painter with interesting ideas. He stopped painting. He eventually ended his involvement with the art world altogether. He probably noticed the difference. Faithless action is impossible for a sincere person to sustain. Dadaism as it is manifested in his art—great art by function of its influence on later artists—reflects a strange cynicism with respect to the possibility of a person doing anything beautiful. Goodness saves each one of us at every turn. Disillusionment is with ideology. To abandon the cynicism that accompanies disillusionment means abandoning ideology. Icons are ideas. Marcel Duchamp has become an icon of iconoclasm. He’s his own mistake. When you destroy something, unless you arrange otherwise, the vacuum will be filled up again with normal things.
You can’t make anti-art. If you make it, it’s art. If you persist after realizing that, then you kind of need to accept that you’re the type of person who likes a joke at another’s expense. Duchamp kept attempting to present an art without value, anti-art, suggesting that the value we place on art is false. Every time he made something though, he realized he failed. The thing became art. By having been done, it inevitably participated in the phenomenon that is art and was valued as such. He realized that the only way this wouldn’t happen was if a thing remained un-done, un-made, that the idea remained unrealized. An unrealized idea, though, isn’t anti-art, but rather the absence of art.
The term conceptual art is a classic oxymoron. Conceptualism was still born. Art-as-idea has evolved from an absurdity to a concept of art reduced once again to illustration and documentation. Research, the collection of facts, has replaced perception, replaced feeling. Duchamp’s cynical act of pointing at a urinal and calling it art has spawned the current fashion of pointing. The art in this situation is not what is pointed at but rather the act of pointing and the implicit declaration. It is more vapid than the more traditional and self-centered pointing at yourself, drawing attention to yourself when you have nothing to offer, no beautiful intentions.
Duchamp was the first artist to gain a history book kind of success because he had nothing good to offer. The root of his powerful influence on today’s art world lies in the hope he gives to so many artists with ambitions for a similar kind of success, who, despite reasonable intelligence, like Duchamp have nothing good to offer. It is a telling fact to consider that some of the greatest paintings ever made were painted by Monet with his coke-bottle glasses in his garden in Giverny years afterDuchamp pointed at a urinal. The history of what matters is more like a pulse than a march.
It’s in the nature of institutions to be conservative. Institutions must hold on to the ideas of themselves to exist. As we are in the era of art-as-idea, there is institutionalized sanctioning of cleverness within the contemporary art world that looks suspiciously like the 19th century Academy. It’s what happens when ideas replace feeling. There is a work of conceptual art that consist of a panel that has the words on it (in French) “Art is useless. Go home.” Without beauty, without feeling this is more or less true.
All artists, great and small, make things that aren’t beautiful. Sometimes some of them make things that are. A thing shouldn’t be held sacred just because Leonardo painted it or Mozart composed it. We’re allowed to walk away from art, even great art, if we find we can’t trust it.
Making beautiful things is beyond me. If it was just a matter of sincerity or intelligence or skill the world would be full of beautiful art. If it happens for me I’m never sure where it came from, or why it happened. It has many of the characteristics of accident. I realize I’m not controlling things. Simone Weil talks about waiting for God. All I can do is wait and hope for the beautiful thing to happen.
There was hope the industrial and technological revolutions would give us the opportunity to become our best selves but we sit in cars at drive-thrus and in chairs staring at screens and allow the means to become the end, the medium to become the message. We never seem to be up to our dreams, our utopias. We always imagine things that need us to be better than we are: Camelot, Star Trek, socialism, democracy. Occasionally a person saves us though, for a while, by disappearing, by being disinterested, by being selfless.
I have my moments
William Blake wrote, “If the doors of perception were cleansed, man would see everything as it is, infinite.”
As the best musicians listen, so the best painters look.
I’ve been trying to figure out the word tactile with an artist friend of mine. It’s one of those words, like beauty, usedto denote something crucial in art but difficult to define. My daughter is a performance artist, a dancer. She uses the word presence in a way that I think might stand for a manifestation of the same crucial quality of art. When you stand in front of a painting, often you read the image as a few symbols and that’s all that’s there. You run into the end of the art quickly and moving up close to it or remaining with it for hours is fruitless. If a work is tactile, if a work has presence, you are rewarded by any kind of closeness.
When artists look, when that word means something, they can’t avoid seeing themselves there, present in their art action. Our undeniable and mysterious presence is inseparable from our experience (what we’re seeing when we’re painting) and our action (painting). It is one thing and it is the connection. As E.M. Forster said, “Only connect.” The eternal and universal miracle of realness is what connects us. When I paint a picture, if I’m looking, I am the man in the cave scratching on the wall. I see myself living and already being gone.
When I started out as a painter I emulated my heroes in a superficial way. Eventually I realized their paintings all had something in common that couldn’t be attributed to style or technique. The mechanics of painting never change much. We all use our hands and eyes and some painting supplies. Most artists are happy to share their methods. My method is pretty simple. I put green or red where I see green or red, dark or light where I see dark or light and make lots of corrections as I go. The results are predictably ordinary much of the time. The alchemy that occasionally happens has something to do with looking and feeling. Occasionally an image results that wasn’t imagined. A painting becomes that mysterious truth that is infinitely close and at an infinite distance.
Manet, Monet, Van Gogh, Matisse, Cézanne, Picasso, and Lucien Freud all lived in the era of the photograph. The unimagined image is, as are we, embedded in a miracle.
What it feels like when I’m painting is that I’ve gotten into a very small boat by myself and pushed off land out into a vast ocean where there are no fixed points to navigate by and everything’s constantly changing. I’m searching for an island in the middle of that ocean where there’s a spring with regenerative waters. It is only by being quiet that I can see and feel the subtle signs, the quality of the air and light, the push of the currents on the boat in order to sense where the island lies. The clumsiness of a large boat and the distraction of ideas would blind me. I wouldn’t be able to find the island.
I very often fail to find it anyways and return with nothing more than a documentation of facts I encountered on the way (stupid paintings). I can’t take anyone with me and I can only bring a small amount of water back. The only proof that island exists is the water I taste and bring back for others to taste. The water does what it does for those it works on. My responsibility is just to get into the boat and push off away from land and try to be quiet.
But for the water on that island I’d have no reason to get into the boat. I get to taste it too. All I know is how I am different as a result. Once you’ve made a good painting, a beautiful painting you’re driven to do it again. All arguments against beauty carry no weight against experience of it.
My most recent good painting happened this way. I was fearless, which isn’t normal. Usually I’m lucky if I become fearless along the way. Maybe I was fearless because I began by destroying a painting I’d been struggling with for years. I scraped and sanded something mediocre. I had no clue what the new painting would end up being. I didn’t think much about composition, the kinds of marks that I’d make, or the image that would result. I set the easel up facing a window I’ve painted countless times, something handy, and then the painting just sort of fell on to the canvas. I was in a wonderfully submissive state of acceptance of everything. I felt weightless. The ultimate form the painting would take wasn’t my concern. It felt like everything that I did, or might do, would be OK. There were no weighty decisions that were mine to make.
The Oxford dictionary defines grace as (in Christian belief) the unmerited favour of God; a divine saving and strengthening influence. It defines nirvana as perfect bliss and release from karma, attained by the extinction of individuality.
I don’t like to talk about technique. I feel like it would be misleading to talk about technique after realizing that I can make something beautiful with just a fat charcoal stick on a plain piece of paper. Though inferior tools and materials and clumsy and inefficient technique can frustrate an attempt, ultimately we can’t be saved by what colours we have on our palette or what brushes we use.
I have a number of techniques in my bag of tricks, all of them impatient. There are many painting techniques I don’t know, the patient and careful ones. Sometimes I find myself hopping from one technique to another in a short space of time during one painting session. I do that, not because I’m searching for the right one for that particular situation but because I’m trying to trigger the escape from technique. Things aren’t going well. I’m mired in knowledge and I want to get out.
In my bag of tricks there’s only one that matters. It’s not a secret and it’s supremely simple. Stop looking for your voice. Stop trying to distinguish yourself. Give up.
There is no substitute for feeling in art. Logic, reason, passion, intelligence, imagination, skill, maybe even what we call talent, are all realities of self. There is no beauty without their surrender. Feeling may not be all that’s required to be an artist, but it’s all that required to be beautiful. If you want art to be worth something, you need to know that it’s only beauty that saves the world, grace our reconciliation with gravity, love our relief from futility.
There’s a relationship between creation and destruction and a point at which the two seem to become one. Or perhaps neither exists except as different perspectives on change. In the fearless state of art, things are constantly being “created” and “destroyed,” constantly changing. Sometimes very good art will be perceived as irreverent and destructive, punk. It wasn’t their intention, but Manet and Van Gogh probably seemed like punks at the time. We trust them now. How do you distinguish between the good people and bad people when both ignore the laws? The question can make a conservative soul feel uncomfortable, mistrustful, angry and at sea. Beauty is found in realizing that we’ve never been anywhere other than at sea.
Great creators realize they are merely instruments. We place them on a pedestals and aspire to be there ourselves. Leonard Cohen once said something to the effect that he didn’t write his songs but he’s really glad we think he did. What’s rare is the understanding that none of us are creators. There are countless artists with Rembrandt’s or Manet’s skill but the skill is almost always wasted on inventions and opinion, on presumptions of knowledge. We’re all guilty of such waste. Rembrandt often was. Rubens was especially.
Their ability to find detachment for short periods of time doesn’t make saints of my painting heroes. Humans are clever, aggressive, territorial animals and are driven for the most part by biochemistry and overpowering social and survival instincts. Selfless detachment is difficult to maintain in the everyday world. I feel like I get to take little vacations from myself. Tolstoy said, “The one thing necessary, in life as in art, is to tell the truth.” In life, though we’re all aware of the risks of telling the truth.
The art history books are filled with art that flatters our species, magnificent follies, conceits of the intellect and imagination…pyramids and urinals, but there is no better reason for making art than being able to do for people what beauty does for people. On a number of occasions I’ve ended up weeping at the experience of beauty. I ask myself why I’m crying. It seems to be from some deep and unexpected sense of relief. I feel delivered from banality, from the sense that no-one cares, or from the sense that people’s concerns are exclusively worldly. It ends some kind of loneliness. It is redemption from narrowness and subjectivity.
Thomas Mann’s novel Death in Venice is a cautionary tale about confusing two types of beauty. At the end of the story he points us in the right direction. Attractiveness-type beauty leaves one with an ache to possess the object, the form. Truth-type beauty is only ever joyful. Whoever owns the object or form is irrelevant as beauty is not the form itself but what is manifested in it. In the experience of beauty, it is yours. It takes possession of you, it breaks your armour, and you expand into it. You participate in the artist’s expansiveness. It is unrestrictedly generous.
I want to do this, I want to make beautiful paintings, but I realize you can’t get there from here. You can’t try and make one. Striving to be great doesn’t help. You just need to do your job and hope for the best. Sometimes, strangely enough in telling yourself you’re going to make a bad work on purpose you can trick yourself into avoiding pretentiousness. The best thing an artist can be is nothing in particular; the best thing an artist can do is disappear. What’s left is infinite.
There’s a category in the thesaurus: artlessness. Under it you find ingenuousness, simpleness, naivety, innocence, unguardedness, unpretentiousness, sincerity, trustfullness, openness… reminds me of that lovely Shaker song.
In Shakespeare’s The Tempest Prospero the usurped Duke/magician has, in his daughter, one gift to bestow. This gift is “plain and holy innocence”. Prospero’s one great fear is that this gift won’t be received with respect. It is a gift that when respected “will outstrip all praise”, a gift that if held at an impossible distance by disrespect will issue nothing but “barren hate, sour-eyed disdain and discord”. Plain and holy innocence is the sine qua non of good art. With The Tempest Shakespeare passes the torch, and includes instructions.
Though we often reject critics and scholars as popes of culture, they often do what they do out of love and they’ve likely seen things we haven’t yet. But to love something does not necessarily mean you have insight into what makes it possible. Northrop Frye seemed to think that what enabled great art and made it special and valuable was what he called imagination. He also confessed to being unable to write a work of fiction.
I think most people assume that a work of art is a product of imagination, that Bach and Shakespeare had great imaginations. This idea implies that the work of art is generated within. Imagination is but a useful tool. But there’s a force to which it must surrender. It can provide situations but must surrender those situations to the infinite which the imagination can never be. Imagination gives us pictures of where we want to be, mythological gardens, things to strive for. We’re never up to our progressive ideas, our dreams. Everywhere we go, there we are. Without beauty life is nasty, brutish and probably too long.
I’ve condemned imagination’s role in the search for beauty. Perhaps others have a broader understanding of the word. Perhaps I should use the word fancy. Yet the root of imagination is the word image. It’s what our minds are limited to. Cézanne said, “I should like to astonish Paris with an apple.” As with Chardin’s and Manet’s, his paintings of apples continue to be astonishing. It doesn’t take much imagination to put an apple in front of you and paint a picture if it. Simone Weill wrote in Gravity and Grace, “The imagination is continually at work filling up all the fissures through which grace might pass.”
We need to acknowledge that our understanding is limited, yet our condition is a consciousness of limitlessness. In loving truth we have to accept paradox. If you acknowledge that agenda, prejudice, preconception and conceit are facts of life and therefore facts of art and then decide that your conceit is an art without agenda, prejudice, preconception and conceit, that’s quite the paradox…sophisticated innocence. No wonder it’s so normal to fail.
All you need is love
We’re proud of artists like Picasso. Some are even proud of people like Napoleon, all that strutting and fretting we do. The history of humans is the history of the failure of ideas. In studying history we hear the haunting refrain “never again,” “never again,” “never again.” The critical stance we adopt with respect to what we perceive as wrong is born of the conceit that we know better, the same conceit that gets us in to trouble in the first place.
The ambition to be beautiful is really an anti-ambition. It is the ambition to de-create the self, using Simone Weil’s expression.
In his play Antigone, Sophocles warns us to beware of hubris and to always hold the gods in awe. John Keats tells us in “Ode on a Grecian Urn” all we need to know on earth is that beauty is truth. The hardest thing an artist can do, the hardest thing a person can do, is act without self-interest. Once you have come to know that beauty is truth, you realize that any step away from beauty is the greatest danger we face. Perhaps this is what Dostoevsky meant when he said that beauty saves the world.
The last lines of George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch describe the selfless character Dorothea:
But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.
The absence of beauty in a person is the root of callous indifference. The presence of beauty is the proof of love. The presence of it in what we’ve done is the great value of art.
Nobody can be good all the time, but if I can be good while I’m painting, at least that’s something, a few shining moments.
Stephen May’s canvases have been collected by prestigious corporate and private collectors for over three decades and are included in the public collections of the Canada Council Art Bank, the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, the New Brunswick Museum, the New Brunswick Art Bank, the University of New Brunswick, l’Université de Moncton, the New Brunswick Department of Supply and Services and the Department of External Affairs. The Beaverbrook Art Gallery presented a solo exhibition of May’s work entitled Embodiments in 2006 and the following year he won the Miller Brittain Award for Excellence in Visual Art. May graduated from the fine arts program of Mount Allison University in 1983. He lives in Fredericton.
Almost every night my husband brings me home a fish. It’s been our ritual for a decade. A kind of seal on the day’s end. With the presentation of a fish, the workday endeth. Each fish gets a number on its back. Last night’s fish was #1362. That’s the total completed so far. Usually Rik’s fish are of the bright and colorful variety—made from repurposed materials like cookie tins and bottlecaps. They hang cheerfully, as these do, in various galleries and museum shops (e.g. The American Folk Art Museum shop) around the U.S.
In a spirit similar to that of Neo-Dadaist Jasper Johns’ variations of flags, targets, and maps of the U.S., Rik uses the fish to play traditional fine art/folk art expectations against consumer culture, setting up a natural/man-made dialectic from “trash.” After the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Rik began work on a new group of sad-but-also-beautiful fish he calls CRUDE (The Oil Spill Series).
For us in the Inland Northwest, oil spills are tragic, yet distant catastrophes (even the Valdez spill in Alaska). It’s one thing for it to happen There and to empathize, but what if it happened Here? To our own waterways, beaches, flora, fauna, and economy? Translate such a catastrophe to our local fish, right in our own front yard. Might that be more of an eye-opener, have more impact on awareness and influence consumer practices? Don’t know, but I resolved to try to find out by taking my repertoire of fish forms and mutating them into a “school” of deconstructed/reconstructed oil-spill-despoiled flotsam. This effort has pushed my bas-relief fish forms to more sculptural representations. I’m continuing to expand this body of work until I have enough to offer it up for a show, a show entitled Crude.
Brown Trout Triumvirate
Small Fry Mashup
Small Chinook in Flames
Rainbow Trout and Small Fry
Rik Nelson Rik Nelson makes art out of cast-off consumer objects, recycled remnants and cultural detritus, and the art reanimates the natural world threatened by the very detritus he mines for his work. His work is shown and sold at: the Crow Valley Gallery, Orcas Island, WA; the Ohio Craft Museum, Columbus, OH; the New Morning Gallery, Asheville, NC; and the American Folk Art Musuem, New York, NY. As you can tell from the introduction, he is married to NC Contributing Editor Nance Van Winckel.
Tim Deverell grew up on the flat geographical abstraction of the Canadian Prairies, spent many years studying and evolving in the urban abstraction of New York and now lives in Toronto, a city that, if anything, is an abstraction or an abstraction, a sign of its own absence (but very busy nonetheless). Deverell’s influences are a set of party invitations to painterly Modernism and Abstract Expressionism with a nod back even farther to Heironymus Bosch and James Ensor who composed proto-abstract paintings of multitudes of human scenes, figures or faces. Hence Deverell’s use of collage, cut up bits of magazine image and sketch applied as paint or instead of paint — that’s one compositional theme. In the interview he talks of influences, of a structure and destruction of structure, the two always in some ironic tension with one another, and about obsession which has its effect in the detailed recursiveness of the work.
Deverell has a new show opening in Toronto November 2 (details below). If you happen to be lucky enough to be around, go take a look.
Tim Deverell: Paintings 2000 to 2013 is an exhibition of Deverell’s paintings, his first solo show since 1999, at the yumart gallery in Toronto, November 2-23, 2013. Location: yumart is located on the 2nd floor of 101 Spadina Avenue, south of Adelaide on the east side of Spadina. Gallery Hours: Wednesday to Saturday, noon to 6:00 p.m. Phone: 647-447-9274. Gallerist: Yvonne Whelan.
Y.M. Whelan: Donald Brackett wrote about your work in Toronto Life Magazine as being a ‘portrait of urban life as it plunges into the next millennium’ with images that ‘build into a storm of little symbols, graphic designs and geometric forms and give way to a feeling that you’re looking at 21st century hieroglyphics’. Do you actually reference or draw upon the urban landscape as source material, and if so, would you say your work is abstraction?
Tim Deverell: The paintings are abstract. The city is abstract. I wander and get lost in the city as I search and find my way in the painting. The cityscape is continually reinvented, as is the painting.
YMW: After a recent visit to your studio, I noticed that you have two distinct yet complementary bodies of work: paintings composed of tiny figures, heads, texts etc., and paintings that are composed of pure colour and light. Do you see these as two separate styles? How are they related to each other?
TD: They both depend on multiplicity and a cross-fertilization. The one is in the other, opposite equals striving to be one body.
YMW: Can you tell me some of your major influences throughout your art practice? Have they changed over the years as your work has developed?
TD: Two very different artists have been key influences from the start of my art-making: James Ensor and Piet Mondrian. Influences are to be absorbed then shaken off, but I feel a strong affinity with the work of Mark Tobey, H. Bosch, Arshile Gorky and Wols — a German artist of the Tachisme movement. Also, Sally Drummond, an American painter who also uses a built up saturation of tiny marks. From the Canadian prairie I continue to look at the work of Agnes Martin and Art McKay. Having made paintings for over fifty years, I prefer being influenced by what lies outside the art world, such as the urban environment that I soak up through long walks where I observe the human element and bustle.
YMW: Your work is highly detailed. Can you describe your technique or process of making art and what kind of time-line is involved? Do you work on several paintings at once?
TD: Thinking about technique can get in the way. There is a certain randomness in how I choose imagery and colour; it’s not predetermined. I often start with a grid and broad washes of colour which will slowly become obliterated as I continue working. They act as a structure or discipline to destroy. The tools and materials are simple – palette knife, brush, pen, pigments, collage elements from diverse sources and canvas. I have an innate need to saturate the surface in a search for a space my mind roam in. The infinite variety of the visual is seductive. I work on one large painting for an average of two months companioned by small pieces – collages and gouaches. Drawing is a constant, though I don’t make studies or drawings for paintings.
YMW: This one might be too personal: what informed your decision to leave New York City after so long? Do you regret your decision?
TD: There was no rational decision to leave Manhattan, just a usual upheaval of human relationships, confusion of personal and artistic direction and an unrealistic idea of what life would be like in Canada. Regrets? Deep, for over ten years. I did return to New York for a year, but something had changed, either in me or the place. Toronto is in the Now. It’s hard to describe the grip a big city can have on one. I feel New York as a place that formed me as a painter. The art world at that time was a place of incredible flux. You protect yourself in a big place by creating a smaller world, as I did with three close artist friends who were from Saskatchewan.
YMW: Where do you see your work going from here?
TD: I let the work tell me where to go. I am increasingly involved with balancing collage elements and paint. I have countless images to pluck from shoeboxes full of fragments of my own drawings and printed material such as magazines, encylopedia and dictionaries. The challenge is in bringing the collage elements into the painting and having them work as paint.
All I know is that I will continue to make paintings in my usual obsessive way.
– Tim Deverell & Y. M. Whelan
Tim Deverell was born in Regina, Saskatchewan, in 1939. His father worked as a journalist, his mother as a nurse. He first studied art with Ernest Lindner at Saskatoon Technical Collegiate. He went on to work at the Regina College School of Art with painters Ken Lochhead, Art McKay and Roy Kiyooka. At age eighteen, he travelled to New York City where he lived for the next seventeen years. Deverell studied at the Art Students League with Theodoros Stamos, George Grosz and Charles Alston during a period when painting was a dominant force in the New York art world. At age 21, Deverell had his first solo show at the Kornblee Gallery on Madison Avenue and a follow-up show the next year. During the late 1960s and early ’70s, he was a member of the 55 Mercer Street Gallery in Soho and exhibited there many times in solo and group shows. During the New York years, he made extended trips to Europe, and India.
Returning to Canada in 1976, Deverell settled first in Vancouver, then in Toronto, where he has lived since, with frequent forays to Mexico and Berkeley, California. Since his return to Canada, he has exhibited at the Bau-Xi Gallery in Vancouver, the Mendel Gallery in Saskatoon, the National Gallery of Canada, and had solo shows in six different Toronto galleries.
Tim Deverell: Paintings 2000 to 2013 is an exhibition of Deverell’s paintings, his first solo show since 1999, at the yumart gallery in Toronto, November 2- 23, 2013.
Ralph Angel’s lectures are theater pieces; he enacts meaning; he breathes presence; he speaks with quiet reverence and passion of great artists. He is my colleague at Vermont College of Fine Arts (along with Mary Ruefle, who has the same theatricality, reverence and passion but in a different key — it’s rare air that we breathe in Montpelier); so I watched him give this lecture; he starts by pulling your brain inside out like a sock (reading the Reverdy poem backward and forward); then he teaches a lesson about craft and art, not just by telling (Ralph is so NOT into telling) but by a series of images, Mark Rothko paintings that illustrate the true artist’s journey from craft to clarity and essence.
Watch for Ralph Angel’s new book of poems Your Moon, coming out next year with New Issues Press.
A long time ago a short poem by Pierre Reverdy changed my life forever. Its title is “Departure,” as translated by Michael Benedikt.
The horizon lowers SPACESPACEThe days lengthen SPACESPACEVoyage SPACEA heart hops in a cage SPACESPACEA bird sings SPACESPACEAt the edge of death
Another door is about to open SPACEAt the far end of the corridor SPACESPACEShines SPACESPACEOne star
A dark lady SPACELantern on a departing train
And for whatever reason, a long time ago—maybe because it retained its mystery each time I read it, maybe because each time it took me to some unnamable and wholly present, wholly immediate place—for whatever reason, I read this poem backwards, from last line to first line.
SPACELantern on a departing train
A dark lady SPACESPACEOne star SPACESPACEShines SPACEAt the far end of the corridor
Another door is about to open SPACESPACEAt the edge of death SPACESPACEA bird sings SPACEA heart hops in a cage SPACESPACEVoyage SPACESPACEThe days lengthen
The horizon lowers
And voilà! This short poem, read from last line to first line, or from top to bottom, so validates the mind’s capacity!
I understand things in my mind—I understand things in my heart. There are times when I understand things in my knees.
Meaning involves the mind. The brain is a receptor. It’s like a dream machine. It receives impulses and it receives image upon image upon image upon image, but the mind craves meaning. The mind is assembling stuff all the time. It’s what makes the human species pretty interesting. We crave meaning by our very nature and by the size of our brains. If you think about language, it can be understood, it seems to me. You have twenty-six abstract symbols that mean absolutely nothing. And yet, in any arrangement, arbitrary or contrived, any arrangement whatsoever, we are orchestrating meaning. Those symbols, as they interact with one another, generate something greater than themselves. So it’s kind of like the brain itself. Impulse upon impulse upon impulse, and yet the mechanism is constantly, without our having a whole lot of say in the matter, making meaning out of what we receive.
The mind craves language, and Reverdy trusted that. Reverdy trusted language, and, therefore, a long time ago, trusted me, an embryo yet to be and waiting for a taxi.
In the first sentence of Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” “Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams….” And he can’t get up—he’s on his back!—and he’s late for work. Sound familiar? He hates his job. He loathes his boss. It’s a tedious, boring, undervalued job, but his father’s retired, and he’s the only son. His sister is a prodigy, and she’s young; she has a future ahead of her as a concert violinist. But Gregor’s arms and legs don’t work. He can’t turn himself over. The door is locked. His mother and sister and father and the char woman are outside the door. And then his boss arrives, and they are all exhorting him to get out of bed. But he can’t communicate with them in a way that they can understand. He just sort of squeaks.
Now Gregor lives with his family in a five-room flat, and his room is at the center, right at the center of the family. And, yes, he eventually tumbles from his bed—because he has will power and guilt and anger, and because he doesn’t know anything different—and he even gets a tiny hand to the key. But what’s on his mind? “…they should all have shouted encouragement to him, his father and mother too. ‘Go on, Gregor,’ they should have called out, ‘keep going, hold on to that key!’”
Not one time in this story does it ever occur to Gregor Samsa that he is a bug! And why should it? How may times have I awoken and not wanted to get out of bed? Or resented having to make money, or envied the sanity and good fortune of others, or hoped someday soon to murder my landlord? On any given morning I wear my skeleton on the outside because I am an insect at the center of the family and maybe could use some applause and a little more encouragement for once in my life! On any given day, friends, I am a bug. How else could I communicate with you? How else might you recognize me?
Gregor Samsa does not awaken one morning feeling like an insect. He is an insect. As time goes by he abandons cleanliness and stops sleeping. He loses all interest in food. “I’m hungry enough, but not for that kind of food.” He is the size of an insect now and does what insects do—skittering this way and that, climbing on things, collecting dust on his tiny legs, and leaving a weird sticky substance everywhere he goes.
Kafka’s title, “The Metamorphosis,” is a bit of a ruse. Gregor Samsa does not become a bug in this story. He is simply, from beginning to end, in spite of himself, who he is.
Poppies In October
Even the sun-clouds this morning cannot manage such skirts.
Nor the woman in the ambulance
Whose red heart blooms through her coat so astoundingly—
A gift, a love gift
Utterly unasked for
By a sky
Palely and flamily
Igniting its carbon monoxides, by eyes
Dulled to a halt under bowlers.
Oh my God, what am I
That these late mouths should cry open
In a forest of frost, in a dawn of cornflowers.
In the last months of her life, Sylvia Plath, one of the supreme craftsmen of the last 75 years of American poetry, did not suddenly make transcendent poems by perfecting her craft. No poet or writer or artist or musician ever perfects his or her craft. The poet, for example, has only two tools with which to work: the language in which one composes, and the fact of one’s reality—and each is in flux. Just as one’s orientation to language evolves and changes over time, so too does one’s life.
Every poem is a revelation. Instead of perfecting her craft Sylvia Plath became, without much say in the matter, precisely who she was. She could not help but look outside of herself, at anything at all—in this case, at a bed of poppies in autumn—without discovering herself!
Like Reverdy who, at his purest, jettisoned the story of his reality for the fact of his reality. Poems comprised of essential language only—simple catalogues of details and images without exposition or explanation, without connectives, referents or transitions.
Language is powerful stuff. And essential language does the work. Inexplicable experience can never be explained, but it can be said.
Impulse upon impulse upon impulse, when we were born our brain weighed about three pounds, and our body was a mere appendage of it. Metaphor upon metaphor upon metaphor, isolating out metaphor is a futile task. Everything is simply what it is. Situations are not similar to something else. Situations exist within themselves, as tone, as mood, as state of being. Just ask Gregor Samsa!
Sylvia Plath and Pierre Reverdy and Franz Kafka were great artists in part because they did not endeavor to explain reality. Rather, they were attentive to reality, which is the job of the artist, and each found a language to depict it. They were not tricked by the idea of perfecting one’s craft in order to make great art possible. Rather, they aspired to more than that. To immediacy and absolute presence.
To become themselves, they learned how to get out of the way.
Like all the great American abstract expressionists, Mark Rothko began painting with marvelous technique and craftsmanship.
But for years his paintings resembled closely the early paintings of many of his contemporaries,
like early Gorky, for example, or early de Kooning or Pollock.
But as he progressed in his work and began to make utterly unique, transcendent paintings
he learned to get out of the way, to become indivisible with his tools,
and to trust that, without referents or points of departure,
they could spin a viewer into his or her own ineffable interiority.
That they could make presence possible.SPACE
“The progression of a painter’s work,” wrote Rothko, “as it travels in time from point to point, will be toward clarity: toward the elimination of all obstacles between the painter and the observer….
As examples of such obstacles, I give memory, history, or geometry, which are swamps of generalizations from which one might pull out parades of ideas (which are ghosts) but never the idea itself.”
Poems, stories, paintings—art objects are like mirrors. No matter what we think we’re up to when we make them, they reflect precisely who we are at the time.
But it’s our job to be there. Attentively.
But we don’t always want to. To be there, I mean. I mean we all want to be liked, and we all want to spin things in a way that will make us look interesting and important and likable and smart.
It’s why not everyone is an artist.
“It takes ten years to master the art of basket weaving,” said the Master. And that’s just the first sentence of this story!
— Ralph Angel
Ralph Angel is the author of five books of poetry: Your Moon (2013 Green Rose Poetry Prize, New Issues Press, forthcoming); Exceptions and Melancholies: Poems 1986-2006 (2007 PEN USA Poetry Award); Twice Removed; Neither World (James Laughlin Award of The Academy of American Poets); and Anxious Latitudes; as well as a translation of the Federico García Lorca collection, Poema del cante jondo / Poem of the Deep Song.
His poems have appeared in scores of magazines and anthologies, both here and abroad, and recent literary awards include a gift from the Elgin Cox Trust, a Pushcart Prize, a Gertrude Stein Award, the Willis Barnstone Poetry Translation Prize, a Fulbright Foundation fellowship and the Bess Hokin Award of the Modern Poetry Association.
Angel is Edith R. White Distinguished Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Redlands, and a member of the MFA Program in Writing faculty at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Originally from Seattle, he lives in Los Angeles.
Recently we went photo hunting–it was a beautiful Sunday in Milan and fashion week was wrapping to a close. The streets in the fashion district brimmed with trendy types and photographers with telephoto lenses stalked them, hiding behind traffic signs or at the curb between cars. We did likewise, snagging a few frames with our gear.
Later, we followed the sounds of loud music and found the venue for the John Richmond show, held in a lush garden behind Corso Venezia. It was lunchtime; only a small, steadfast group waited outside the gates for celebrity attendees to exit. When Italian television star, Belen Rodriguez (of Argentine descent), and her brand new husband, Stefano, emerged, people scrambled, clicking madly.
“You’re so beautiful,” one woman said, gushing.
“I love your ring,” said another, referring to her huge diamond. “Good luck on your marriage.”
“Thank you,” Belen smiled. She seemed tired by the hoopla; she had married Stefano just two days prior in the midst of a media frenzy.
The crowd thinned and by the time Jane Hamilton, star of the TV serial, “Elisa di Rivombrosa,” emerged, just a few bystanders were on hand. Two men asked to have their pictures taken with her; she graciously complied.
Journalists from the Russian World Fashion network worked the crowd. “I like your shoes,” said the journalist to one man in a fedora. “Where did you buy them?”
Later, to one side of the Metropole theater where the D&G show was underway, the ticketless congregated on the street, here too snapping their cameras at anyone who looked fashionable.
“Who is that?” I asked one man in a baseball cap who was avidly immortalizing a blond. The man shrugged.
“I don’t know, but she looks good doesn’t she?” he said.
“She’s a blogger,” said a woman in a black tunic printed with green dinosaurs. “No, don’t know her name,” she answered when I asked.
We drifted toward the corner where several tall, thin, photogenic types in eccentric costumes—former models I wondered?—paraded back and forth as if they themselves were on the runway, enjoying D&G’s reflected light. A masquerade rave in via Piave.
We were back at the Metropole entrance in time for a glimpse of the D&G grand finale. From our vantage point, we could see through the glass doors into the lobby. Models in gold–with Stefano Gabbana in their midst–filed through.
Some in the audience likewise wore precious metals.
Fashion pundits write in The Guardian that with this 2014 summer collection laden with gold coins, “Dolce and Gabbana seemed to be saying, ‘If you’ve got it flaunt it.’ [The whole collection] seemed like a metaphor for wealth.” This may be Milan’s last D&G show; convicted in June of tax evasion, rumor has it that the designers may vacate the city.
Several minutes later, the models had changed into street clothes and mingled on the street, some stopping and posing, others heading for the tram.
Then the street crowd began to hurry away; the Missoni show was about to begin elsewhere. Economic times are difficult but during fashion week the Milanese find it satisfying to watch, take pictures and dream.
Natalia Sarkissian holds a BA and MA in art history, an MBA in international finance and an MFA in Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her writing and photographs have been published in the US and Italy by the University of Texas Press, IPSOA publishers, Corriere della Sera, The Huffington Post, Numéro Cinq and other publications. She divides her time between Italy and the United States.
Numéro Cinq is pleased to introduce the Algerian-born photographer (now living in France) Abdallah Ben Salem d’Aix. I became friends with Abdallah several weeks ago on Facebook, and was drawn immediately to his pictures of flowers, which reminded me of freeze-frames from a deeper, more vibrant, twenty-first century version of Stan Brakhage’s The Garden of Earthly Delights. When I asked Abdallah to describe his process for the series of twelve breathtaking images that we are proud to feature this month, he wrote:
First, while walking to the site, the lake or on the mountain, I collect dead leaves, petals, plastics…everything tiny, which, in a brief moment, has a self sufficing and sweet “presence” while playing with the Light and the “perfume” of that day. Second, the “Theater”: the support (mirrors, sheets of papers, material) is my little scene or stage, under the shadow of a tree. Third, the Play: I just shake, animate; left hand, the support and the hints; right hand, the camera. Light is decisive; sometimes, I have to wait, while reading or in reverie until the twilight. Fourth, the Images: they have to be cute, strange, “farcesques,” easily lisible, pleasant.
Jacques Rigaut is not dead
—Photos by Abdallah Ben Salem d’Aix
A Brief Autobiography of Abdallah Ben Salem d’Aix
1949—I’m three years old. Death of Dad. “A hero.” During the WWII, he saved his French officer severely wounded. Medals, medals. 1962—End of the Algerian War. Family divided. Mother, a maid, preferred to follow her gentle employer, Mme Martin, and Mab, Mess and me, too. We, the children, have been Witness of the cruelties of the Adults of the Two Sides. Out of Hell! 1965-1969—Comedian, activist (Vietnam). During a year (Aix), training with J. Grotowski and his assistant Serge Ouaknine, (now in Montreal, and on FB). At night, drinking with the Ionesco’s (Madame Ionesco buvait du thé, elle). 1969-2001—Psychiatry—I work as a nurse, at first with psychotics, then the last ten years in the department for Alcoholics. 2001-2013—Travels. Algeria? No, thanks, no return, I prefer not. Shame. Mother was berber!…I prefer Greece, Crete, my future and last homeland, I hope. And the photos? I am an autodidact. No skill (to kill) (pardon), but rather a ritual with everything I find on my way, everyday. No studio, but always outside. Depressed when thunderstorms. Yes, the Wars. My heroes now? Robert Smithson, Annie Dillard, Goya, Chekhov…
Eric Foley holds an Honours BA in English and Literary Studies from the University of Toronto and an MFA from Guelph University. He has been a finalist for the Random House Creative Writing Award, the Hart House Literary Contest, and the winner of Geist Magazine and the White Wall Review’s postcard story contests. His writing can be found online at Numéro Cinq and Influencysalon.ca. He lives in Toronto and divides his time between his writing and teaching at Humber College
Footnotes (↵ returns to text)
Editor’s Note: Abdallah Ben Salem is one of those NC readers who have really made the effort to join the community. He friended us on Facebook and then shared many NC posts on his own wall. He “liked” and commented regularly. When a person makes that kind of gesture, NC often reaches back. In this case, the results are spectacular.↵