Experimental Drawing Redux

IMG_2078Recently 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.

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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.

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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!

 

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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:

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The next morning we covered another large roll of brown paper with charcoal and graphite.

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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.

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In the afternoon we sectioned off our two mural projects, each picked a section and worked on them individually. These were the ones I worked on.

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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.

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Ode to John Keats

JohnKeats1819_hires“My imagination is a Monastery, and I am its Monk” – John Keats (1795-1821) to Percy Shelley

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.

In nature and in art that which is fragile, delicate, complex and temporal may also be the most sublime. RoseGarden4

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.

10.5.13.purpleasters    DreamHouse

Selected Letters

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.

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“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.”

autumn3hinckleyWhile 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.

“Sweetest Fanny,

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

FMFall13“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

Autumn FlowersBut 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

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Painting Time

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.

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Autumn Bridge, Acrylic on Wood, 4″ x 4″

 

 

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Flora, Acrylic on Wood, 8″ x 8″

Rejection

Create Commons Photo by Mysza

Creative Commons Photo by Mysza

Rejection is hard. But there’s no way to thrive and grow as an artist without sharing your work and taking that risk. Right before starting this blog I made a commitment to work harder on sending my work out. As a writer with a full-time day job, I found it hard enough to do the writing, let alone do the work to hone it for publication and make the effort to send it out into the world. But I was excited to start doing it more. And lo and behold, the very first short short story I submitted was accepted to a small literary magazine (online AND in print) in the U.K.! Eagerly I began revising stories and poems to send out and developed an organized list to track this process.

Since that first huge validation, I’ve gotten only rejections (I’m still waiting to hear on work still in the cybersphere, however, and I also sold a piece of artwork). My method is to try to send something out again right away, to maintain my momentum, and I have been trying to do that. It’s a lot of work to do the research and try to match what I hope is the right piece to the right publication. It’s a bit like gambling, and it’s a big risk.

Rejection is a teacher of sorts, though. It teaches you to deal with it. It forces you to focus on the work and remind yourself that the selection process is very subjective and, yes, quite competitive. And that it’s not personal, no matter how hard that is to remember, considering that what’s at stake is something you created from a lifetime of inspiration, study and soul-mining.

Recently an editor rejected a piece and commented that though the piece contained some nice details and descriptions, she didn’t find it that compelling. I felt fortunate to receive a comment in the first place, as that is not the norm. And I found myself revisiting the site realizing that the published pieces there were  more compelling that what I had submitted. I felt disheartened for awhile, but since then I’ve gone back and looked at some of my other work that I think might be more substantial and I plan to  hopefully re-submit something better. I will also go back to the work I originally sent because I believe the editor was right — the piece needs more substance. It is too superficial. It’s important to have faith in your art, but it’s also helpful to know when you could do better.

I have been heartened recently by reading Tinkers, a novel by Paul Harding. When Harding sent it out to agents and editors, he met with resounding rejection.  It was mostly criticized for its slow, quiet pace, and the novel “languished” for three years before finding acceptance by an editor at a tiny independent press who appreciated it.  It was published and met with critical acclaim, placing on several year-end “best” lists.  And then it won the Pulitzer Prize. Naturally, this is a pretty dramatic and unusual outcome, but it’s a helpful story to remember when prospects seem bleak.

I have also been inspired by writers I know who work hard at their craft and refuse to let discouragement overtake them.  My friend Lunden recently won a Pushcart Prize for a piece published by Creative Nonfiction that took months to place.  Rejection is teaching me to be as honest as I can about my work, and to pay attention to criticism, if it helps me to improve. Rejection is also teaching me perseverance and patience, without which any chance of success is slim indeed.

“Talent is helpful in writing, but guts are absolutely essential.” – Jessamyn West

“Rejected pieces aren’t failures; unwritten pieces are” — Greg Daugherty

“I wrote for twelve years and collected 250 rejection slips before getting any fiction published, so I guess outside reinforcement isn’t all that important to me.”  — Lisa Alther

Artscience

horizonmachine by Crystal Heiden

horizonmachine by Crystal Heiden.  Image courtesy of the artist.

Artscience: Creativity in the Post-Google Generation by David Edwards is a dense book chock full of interesting ideas about the ways in which art and science not only overlap, but can result in the kind of synergy that crosses multiple barriers to lead to innovative projects of great social and cultural benefit. The book is written in a somewhat dry academic style, and is sometimes repetitive. Nonetheless, it contains remarkable examples of how art and science have become intertwined.

Edwards notes that the gap between the two is fairly recent: “Long ago, scientists cared deeply about aesthetics. They did not reveal a major theoretical insight without presenting it in literary language, perhaps accompanied by beautiful hand-drawn sketches, with evocative prose and visual imagery. Great British scientists from Newton to Reynolds wrote like poets.”

Examples of artscience type thinking can be found in “. . . Benoit Mandelbrot,whose invention of fractal geometry has helped artists and scientists probe more deeply into the beauty and complexity we encounter in nature. As Mandelbrot writes in his book The Fractal Geometry of Nature, ‘Clouds are not spheres, mountains are not cones, and bar is not smooth.’ Nor are scientists and artists the pure right- or left-brain thinkers we may assume them to be.” Another example is the poet Andre Breton, once a French medical student, who developed his philosophy of Surrealism from his study of hysteria.

Contemporary examples include Doris Sommer, founder of Cultural Agents, an organization that sends artists and humanity majors to work in Boston communities. “Others explore today within and outside research institutions how the arts can mediate human behavior by understanding the effects of music on intelligence, color on mood, and improvisational theater on patient care,” Davis writes. Mark Fischer, an engineer and artist: “. . . uses wavelets to transform ocean mammal sounds into beautiful visual images that express distinctive structures human ears cannot detect.”

The idea of the “lab,” a fluid place of experimentation and interactivity, is Davis’ vision of a place where creativity and education mixes with industry, society and culture. “Process matters, more than results,” Davis says, an observation that will ring true for any writer or artist.

To me, the artist’s studio is a similar kind of lab, a place where many ideas and disciplines may become synthesized and coalesced within the artistic process. Art is no longer contained in rarefied realms such as attics and museums – it is an exciting confluence of ideas, events and projects that increasingly spill into society.

Crystal Heiden is an artist who occasionally combines her multiple disciplines of photography, sculpture and woodworking into visionary pieces such as her horizon machine, through which the viewer watches a constantly approaching horizon. It is exciting to live in a time when the conventional methodologies and territories of art become more adventurous every day.

horizon machine (detail) by Crystal Heiden.

horizon machine (detail) by Crystal Heiden.  Image Courtesy of the Artist.