“Sketchbooks and journals are the street lamps that illuminate the artist’s journey.” ― Neil Waldman, Out of the Shadows: An Artist’s Journey
“Sketchbooks and journals are the street lamps that illuminate the artist’s journey.” ― Neil Waldman, Out of the Shadows: An Artist’s Journey
Although not truly abstract, these landscapes are studies of pattern, form, color, and motion.
“An abstract painting is exactly what it purports to be, whether it be paint splatters or stripes, while a representational painting has to give the illusion of the paint being air, or flesh, or flowers… therefore abstract paintings are rather concrete while representational paintings are rather abstract.” – David Leffel
“I understand abstract art as an attempt to feed imagination with a world built through the basic sensations of the eyes.” – Jean Helion
Recently I took a second Experimental Drawing weekend workshop through the Continuing Studies Program at MECA. This one was taught by artist Michel Droge, whose work and spirit I admire very much. There were six of us and much of the work was messy and collaborative. I’m not normally drawn to those two aspects, but due to the instructor’s appetite for exploration and the camaraderie within the class, the workshop developed into a grand adventure in learning how to embrace the instinctual and let go of expectation.
Instinct and trust are two of the most powerful forces in art; ironically they are based on not caring too much. At one point Michel commented that the secret to “95% of artistic success is not caring.” In other words, when you invest too much expectation and put too much pressure on the outcome, it often stifles rather than provokes one’s creativity. I’ve known this all along, but to hear it put this way was both revelatory and liberating. The supportive instruction, messiness, and collaborative nature of this class gave me permission to make choices that were far less fussy and constraining than in my normal practice. The results amazed me.
The class began with some examples of artists who incorporate the subconscious, the surreal and the instinctual into their work (see other people do this too and it’s O.K.), such as Andre Masson (who bears the highly poetical full name of André-Aimé-René Masson), William Kentridge, Joan Mitchell, Stephanie Hadingham and Amy Stacey Curtis. Amy is a local artist and what I find intriguing about her is that her work is extremely structured and detailed yet profoundly experimental (this gives me hope for my own work).
First we taped large sheets of paper onto the floor and placed a heavy antique fan in the center. Then the six of us all took long sticks that had graphite pencils taped to the ends and proceeded to draw the fan. Every few minutes we rotated so that we all collaborated on the drawings.
Next, we took these drawings and drew into them with pencils and pastels, continuing to rotate so that we all contributed to the pieces. Rather than making a confused mess, the drawings were coherent, energetic and lovely.
We drew the antique fan again, using graphite powder (talk about messy!), kneaded erasers, brushes and rags. You have no choice but to confront gesture through this technique. Again, the results were rich (especially after we vacuumed off the powder).
We made ink drawings of tools using stamp pads and hard erasers. Once again we rotated and worked on each others’ drawings. This was helpful in letting go of too much ownership of a particular image and led to more exploration and invention.
We listened to poetry by D.H. Lawrence and Emily Dickinson accompanied by the music of ocean waves and jazz and drew ink drawings with brushes.
Then we did something truly radical. We taped a roll of drawing paper up on the wall and we TORE up the ink paintings and collaged them.
After that we took drawing sticks and drew in ink on top of them and then used drawing pencils and pastels and other media. We drew all over it. It was so fun!
We each covered a sheet of paper with charcoal and drew into it with erasers. Then we added more charcoal drawing techniques. This was mine:
The next morning we covered another large roll of brown paper with charcoal and graphite.
Then we each took a section and went wild with charcoal, erasers, rags and white chalk. Eventually we each freely moved around on the mural, drawing into various portions with the long drawing sticks, charcoal, and other media until we were happy with the results. I was very impressed with the end product.
In the everyday world of getting to work on time, fulfilling responsibilities, and meeting deadlines, it is hard to reverse mental traits such as obsessive attention to detail and perfectionism. After all, we become rightfully proud and socially rewarded for these traits, which begin to define who we are. When given the opportunity/permission to let go of those expectations and demands, however, and take some risks, it feels like a caged bird has been allowed to soar. As Michel observed in the beginning of the class, we all make choices and create self-imposed structures. That is not a bad thing — it helps create order and stability. But once you learn how to break (or at least play with) those social and self-imposed structures, it can be tremendously freeing. And having done it once, you just may have the confidence to do it again.
“Like a lamp, a cataract,
a star in space, an illusion, a dew drop,
a bubble, a dream, a cloud,
a flash of lightning;
view all created things like this.” – Diamond Sutra
What is it about these miniature worlds that fascinate me so deeply? The smaller and more intricate, the greater my delight. Perhaps a dash of color, an accent, or more vivid tones are needed to portray their strange biographies. These flakes, stamens, stalks, droplets, buds, blossoms, fossils, desiccations, landscapes . . . form precious moments of frozen time, evidence of being. Their scientific precision is unconscious. Their imperfection is perfect. They are alive, they are dead, they are dying, they are transforming. I like to fix them in time by recording them on the page, extrapolating and refashioning them into reflections of my own inner frangible world made visible.
“When you realize there is nothing lacking,
The whole world belongs to you.” – Lao Tzu
Life is unreal, unfathomable, illusory. What we think is solid is a spider web. What we think is obvious is a delusion. By exploring these hidden realms and studying their secrets, we honor their fragility, and our own.
“Miniatures invite us to leave our known selves and perspectives behind.” – Lia Purpura
“I can be sure that even in this tiny, insignificant episode there is implicit everything I have experienced.” – If on a winter’s night a traveler, Italo Calvino
Even in our devastated and technologically enslaved world, the deep romanticism of autumn cannot be denied. It is good to think about and celebrate the life of John Keats, who was born October 31 and died at age twenty-five. Keats life was tragic. His father died when Keats was only eight. His mother remarried disastrously, lost her fortune, abandoned her family, returned, and passed away of tuberculosis when Keats was fifteen. Keats nursed both his mother and his brother Tom throughout the terrible illness of which Keats himself would die. He abandoned a medical career, lived in poverty, and his work was reviled by the critics of the day. But the mundanely tragic was transfigured and heightened by the flames of genius and romantic love into some of the greatest writing ever penned.
As I walk the streets of Portland, with its old Victorian houses, many of which are evocative of Keats (places where Keats lived, such as Wentworth Place and Hempstead Heath would not be out of place here), through the pearl-gray dawn and the rose-gold twilight, along gardens thick with purple asters, golden light streaming through red maple and oak, pine cones and acorns crushing underfoot as the last blooms of autumn glow with heightened color through the mist and rain, the warm sumptuous days growing ever more stunted, Keats and his poetry come to life, infusing the city with their presence.
Keats letters, though he often complained about the time it took to manage them (much as we complain about e-mail volume today), stand as a literary compendium in their own right and form a rich autobiography that is humorous, joyful and exquisitely intelligent. It is doubtful any modern e-mail correspondence could ever take their place.
“What astonishes me more than any thing is the tone, the coloring, the slate, the stone, the moss, the rock-weeds; or, if I may say so, the intellect, the countenance of such places. The space, the magnitude of mountains and waterfalls are well imagined before one sees them; but this countenance or intellectual tone must surpass every imagination and defy any remembrance. I shall learn poetry here and shall henceforth write more than ever, for the abstract endeavor of being able to add a mite to that mass of beauty which is harvested from these grand matrials, by the finest spirits, and put into ethereal existence for the relish of one’s fellows.” – page 167, Letter to Tom Keats, 25-27, June 25-27, 1818, John Keats, Selected Letters, Penguin Classics.
The artistic, literary, and intellectual movement that peaked 1800 to 1850 was in part a rebuttal to the Industrial Revolution, which one could argue was the beginning of the end for life on Earth. Today intense emotion is shunned and science is king – our emotional life is consumed by fears of terrorism, climate change, social anxiety, and fear of nature. Romanticism celebrated a love of solitude and contemplation and decried population growth, the dark side of urbanism, and industrialism. Individualists and artists were heroes and imagination was considered a freedom from critical authority. Ultimately Romanticism was eroded by Realism and the spread of nationalism.
“As to the poetical Character itself (I mean that sort of which, if I am any thing, I m a Member; that sort distinguished from the wordsworthian or egotistical sublime; which is a thing per se and stands alone) it is not itself – it has no self – it is every thing and nothing – It has no character – it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated – It has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen. What shocks the virtuous philosoper, delights the calemion Poet. It does no harm from its relish of the dark side of things any more than from its taste for the bright one; because they both end in speculation. A Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no Identity – he is continually in for – and filling some other Body – The Sun, the Moon, the Sea and Men and Women who are creatures of impulse are poetical and have about them an unchangeable attribute – the poet has none; no identify – he is certainly the most unpoetical of all God’s Creatures.”
While Romantic love is deemed by modern psychology as a toxin that poisons relationships by giving rise to unhealthy attachments, it continues to permeate our world. And in fact it stands as testimony to something eternal and necessary to the human psyche. What would Keats’ life have been without Franny Brawne? Has there ever been anything more beautiful, fragile, or romantic than their relationship? He often said the depth of his love was killing him, but it also gave him life.
You fear, sometimes, I do not love you as much as you wish? My dear Girl I love you ever and ever and without reserve. The more I have known you the more have I lov’d. In every way – even my jealousies have been agonies of Love, in the hottest fit I ever had I would have died for you. I have vex’d you too much. But for Love! Can I help it? You are always new. The last of your kisses was ever the sweetest; the last smile the brightest; the last movement the gracefullest. When you pass’d my window home yesterday, I was fill’d with as much admiration as if I had then seen you for the first time. You uttered a half complaint once that I only lov’d your Beauty. Have I nothing else then to live in you but that? Do not I see a heart naturally furnish’d with wings imprison itself with me? No ill prospect has been able to turn your thoughts a moment from me.” — To Franny Brawne, March, 1820
“Upon my soul I have loved you to the extreme, I wish you could know the Tenderness with which I continually brood over your different aspects of countenance, action and dress. I see you come down in the morning: I see you meet me at the Window – I see the pleasant clue I live in a sort of happy misery. . .” — To Franny Brawne, June, 1820
“The persuasion that I shall see her no more will kill me. I cannot q——- My dear Brown, I should have had her when I was in health, and I should have remained well. I can bear to die – I cannot bear to leave her. Oh, God! God! God! Every thing I have in my trunks that reminds me of her goes through me like a spear. The silk lining she put in my travelling cap scalds my head. My imagination is horribly vivid about her – I see her – I hear her. There is nothing in the world of sufficient interest to divert me from her a moment. This was the case when I was in England; I cannot recollect, without shuddering, the time that I was prisoner at Hunt’s, and used to keep my eyes fixed on Hampstead all day. Then there was a good hope of seeing her again – Now! – O that I could be buried near where she lives! I am afraid to write to her – the receive a letter from her – to see her hand writing would break my heart – even to hear of her any how, to see her name written would be more than I can bear. My dear Brown, what am I to do?” – To Charles Brown, November 1-2, 1820
But the Romantics weren’t all doom and gloom. Bright Star, the astonishing film by Jane Campion about Keats and Fanny Brawne, is itself a metaphor for the Romantic Age, which, like it or not, has infiltrated Western culture. The film’s melancholia may seem morbid, but it is pierced with exquisite moments, illuminated by an essential “truth and beauty.” And that is the point.
A Thing Of Beauty (Endymion)
A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its lovliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.
Therefore, on every morrow, are we wreathing
A flowery band to bind us to the earth,
Spite of despondence, of the inhuman dearth
Of noble natures, of the gloomy days,
Of all the unhealthy and o’er-darkn’d ways
Made for our searching: yes, in spite of all,
Some shape of beauty moves away the pall
From our dark spirits. Such the sun, the moon,
Trees old and young, sprouting a shady boon
For simple sheep; and such are daffodils
With the green world they live in; and clear rills
That for themselves a cooling covert make
‘Gainst the hot season; the mid-forest brake,
Rich with a sprinkling of fair musk-rose blooms:
And such too is the grandeur of the dooms
We have imagined for the mighty dead;
An endless fountain of immortal drink,
Pouring unto us from the heaven’s brink.
— John Keats
Like most artists, I wish I could spend all my time writing and making art. Nonetheless I’m happy to have occasional time to do it at all. Painting for me is frustrating, challenging, joyous, meditative, pure. Angels wrestling in the dirt. Madness. Flying. The incredible stillness of the self at its core. A bell in the silence. Painstaking, overwhelming, liberating. A dark and bright bliss. Living and alive. The miracle of the moment.
Autumn Bridge, Acrylic on Wood, 4″ x 4″
Flora, Acrylic on Wood, 8″ x 8″
by Annie Seikonia
rain globe –
long red worms
graze the soil
a startling lime-green haze
creeps from frozen brown
water sloshes in the lungs
and heart, thermostat plunging
from childish fevers to hellish chills
beckons through weeks of rain
from imaginary islands
weed and bud
fermenting the meridians
of dark brick corners,
coal midnights —
a ceaseless windy plash
soft unimaginable petals
the richest desires. . .
the outset of the walk was
through lush catastrophe and we
slept in a sodden sullen church
hovering in the dense
cheap sick room where
the living bacteria flumed
in the quay submerged
rhythms of forest and
rocks in the chest.
lush wheels of geometric
provoke and set
clink music as
a cat licks its lips
two crows toy
veins of muddy brine
the heat cruelly
exploding the farm
kiss the wall
covering it with whispers
spectral fairies prance
a red ribbon of flame
a purple dress
the heath of health
you were correct
to fear the scansions of love
the verse would not
nor the world uncurl
yet still time? to
set things right
put the house in order
sweep out the larks
though a moist
so one goes on
perhaps even marries
settling into the stitch
it’s nothing like
marrying the sea though
Living on the Edge in Portland, Maine. This is the site they don't want the tourists to see.
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