Immersed in One’s Art

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Helen Frankenthaler in Life Magazine, 1956

There’s something immensely satisfying to see Helen Frankenthaler immersed in her art this way. I found this image on Facebook, along with the following quotation:

“I’ve seen women insist on cleaning everything in the house before they could sit down to write . . . and you know it’s a funny thing about housecleaning . . . it never comes to an end. Perfect way to stop a woman. A woman must be careful to not allow over-responsibility (or over-respectabilty) to steal her necessary creative rests, riffs, and raptures. She simply must put her foot down and say no to half of what she believes she ‘should’ be doing. Art is not meant to be created in stolen moments only.”
― Clarissa Pinkola Estés

Why is it we women (is it only women?) too often put our personal passions last in line behind all else?

I’m trying more and more to put those passions (my writing, painting, music-making) first on my list of to-do’s. But it’s hard. Somehow even blogging comes first, although it too is writing, a kind of art-making. Or at least I try to make it so.

Perhaps because I’ve set firmer deadlines for my blog, or I see it as a commitment I’ve made, to keep this up and running, to not let readers go too long without hearing from me. And blogging is just another way for me to “riff and rapture” about the things I love, to share what inspires me with the world.

Still, to imagine myself immersed in my art as she is in this photo, surrounded by bright splashes of color, my bare legs curled beneath me on the cold floor, and that Mona Lisa smile, that dark gaze . . . it does my heart good.

More of her artwork

Helen Frankenthaler Kendall Conrad | Blog   Helen Frankenthaler Paintings

helen frankenthaler

Helen Frankenthaler, Tales of Genji III, 1998 - ElemenoP

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“Divine Bodies” at the Asian Art Museum

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During my trip to San Francisco last weekend we visited the Asian Art Museum, which was featuring an exhibition of “Divine Bodies,” sacred artwork from Asia. The theme was transformation and transcendence, and the various aspects of divinity as embodied by the Beautiful, the Sensuous, the Fierce, and the Gentle.

I’ll share a few of my favorites below.

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A wooden statue of Avlokiteshvara, the compassionate bodhisattva who “gazes down” at the people with eyes full of sympathetic understanding, embodies The Gentle aspect of the Divine.

Below, another “Gentle,” this time of the Buddha, with outstretched hand and lowered gaze. The faces, the gazes, of these two are so similar they could be the same embodiment, although from different times and cultures.

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Some of my favorites were the female deities.

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Here Parvati, wife of Shiva, represents the female energy of the universe. She embodies The Beautiful, The Sensuous, and The Gentle, with the partial figure of her babe on her knee.

The two below embody The Sensuous, the first representing the link between the female form and fertility, with the woman holding a flowering tree branch. The second is the Buddhist deity Guhyasamaja, meaning “hidden union” of apparent opposites: male and female, mind and body, wisdom and compassion.

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The phallic emblem below is a powerful representation of Shiva as the cosmic creator.

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The following two represent The Fierce aspect of the Divine, powerful enough to transmute the negative force of attachment into wisdom, although these were found on other floors of the museum.

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The Divine Body exhibition also included some intriguing modern art installations. My favorite was Impermanence: The Time of Man by David Hodge, a multichannel video installation with various people off the street speaking about the transience of their own lives, in all its frightening and illuminating aspects.

Another by Dayanita Singh featured the transformations of Mona Ahmed, who says that God gave her a man’s body but a woman’s spirit, and that is why they call her Hijra. In India this is considered a third gender and is closely associated with the divine. Her faces follow.

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I can see why the artist found her face so fascinating and timeless.

Compare it to the ancient one below, seemingly the same embodiment, transcending time as well as gender.

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Scattered throughout the exhibition were quotations mounted on the walls. Two follow.

“Mind has no body distinct from his soul, for that called body is a portion of the soul discerned by the five senses.” – William Blake, poet and artist.

“And while I stood there I saw more than I can tell, and I understood more than I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of things in the spirit, and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being.” – Black elk, Oglala Lakota (Sioux) spiritual leader

I found so much more at this museum that fascinated and inspired me, but I’ll save the rest for a later post.

 

A Slice of San Francisco

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Last weekend I accompanied my friend Paula on a trip to San Francisco. We stayed in a lovely old building owned by the Native Daughters of the Golden West and designed by Julia Morgan, a five-floor townhouse in the heart of the city.

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Third floor parlour . . .

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. . . and atrium.

While she attended meetings, I took my camera to explore the nearby neighborhood, full of lovely Victorian homes.

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This little fellow caught me by surprise!

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The Victorians weren’t the only interesting sights as I made my way to the famous Haight- Ashbury district.

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In the afternoon we took the bus across the city to the old Ferry Building and eventually to Fisherman’s Wharf, and two Peach Mules at a seaside pub as we watched the sailboats gliding into the sunset.

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I think in another life I could live quite happily in one of San Francisco’s Victorian walk-ups, wandering by foot and bus through it’s many colorful landscapes. It would take a lifetime to explore this vast and vibrant city.

Poetry that Takes Us Beyond Articulation

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Pierced By the Morning Light | oil on canvas mixed media rick steven

Pierced by the Morning Light, by Rick Stevens

Some of us are always seeking a path beyond ourselves, beyond articulation. It’s not escape. It’s the opposite of escape. Its entering the present moment so fully all boundaries fall away.

Beyond articulation, beyond words . . . and yet poetry is often the way we savor those moments. It becomes the latch that allows us to re-enter that rare space.

I’ve written about these moments in the past and shared some of the poetry that rose like mist in the aftermath, capturing the essence, if not the thing itself.

Here’s one I wrote and shared in Wheeling Away on the Isle of Pines, slightly altered. If you’ve had such moments too, or know poetry that takes you there, please share below.

A Path Beyond (Ilse du Pins)

There is a path
green and thin
that wends away
and wheels me in

Rising, falling,
tree by tree,
lanced by light
through streams of leaves

Breathing pines
that breathe in me
like heady wine
flowing, free

Green above
and green below
no in, no out,
no high no low

Winds are water
everywhere
I walk on water,
float on air

Drifting mindless
round the bend
bursting out
bursting in.

by Deborah J. Brasket

More of Rick Steven’s amazing paintings

Other posts that savor such moments:

Walking Among Flowers

Into the Flow

Taste and See, I Am Spare

Recognition for “Slow Swirl at the Edge of Time”

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I entered a local art show for the first time this month and was surprised and pleased to get recognition for my work, one of my personal favorites. I wrote about this work a few months ago, my first abstract painting, which I enjoyed quite a bit. Later I wrote about how I came to name it, although I “renamed” it for this show. The theme was “Light” so I called it “Light Swirl at the Edge of Time,” still fitting, I think (smile).

I used watercolor and oil pastel. so it was entered under a broad category of 3D, glass, and mixed media. During my turn as docent for the show one rainy day last week, I shot a few photos.

I’ve been doing more writing than painting these last few months. But the few I’ve worked on have all been watercolor and oil pastel. I love the texture it creates in combination, the way the watercolor washes over and puddles between the oil marks, the way the pastel adds sparkle, and how the two together sometimes gives the work an almost mosaic quality.

I’ll share some of these later, but for now my little “Swirl” gets center stage.

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“Water Falling Through Sunlight” – Poem & Paintings for Troubled Times

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Sunrise with Sea Monsters is an 1845 painting by J.M.W. Turner, currently on display as part of a Turner show at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

JMW Turner – Sunrise with sea Monstors

September, 1918

This afternoon was the color of water falling through sunlight;

The trees glittered with the tumbling of leaves;

The sidewalks shone like alleys of dropped maple leaves,

And the houses ran along them laughing out of square, open windows.

Under a tree in the park,

Two little boys, lying flat on their faces,

Were carefully gathering red berries

To put in a pasteboard box.

Some day there will be no war,

Then I shall take out this afternoon

And turn it in my fingers,

And remark the sweet taste of it upon my palate,

And note the crisp variety of its flights of leaves.

Today I can only gather it

And put it into my lunch-box,

For I have time for nothing

But the endeavor to balance myself

Upon a broken world.

by Amy Lowell

Emil Nolde - Dark Mountain Landscape

Emil Nolde – Dark Mountain Landscape

Bearing Witness – Art that Hurts, Art that Heals

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So much of art-making is bearing witness–to things we love, to things that wound. And often they are the same things: The beauty that breaks your heart. The brutality that tears it open and lets the light in.

The image above, Rodin’s seven-foot bronze study for his most famous sculpture “The Burghers of Calais,” is art that hurts, and heals. It tells the story of how six citizens during France’s Hundred Year War with England volunteered to sacrifice themselves to save the town. The sculpture shows the pain and suffering, self-doubt and determination of the men as they are led away to captivity. It bears witness to that cruelty, that self-sacrifice, that love. How it’s all wrapped together.

This need to bear witness to how it’s all wrapped together is not new. It’s been written over and over again by poets and artists though the ages. I’ve written about it here on these pages, in my homage to Marc Clamage’s paintings of the homeless, in my meditations upon a deer’s scream and my mother’s death, and the beauty and brutality in the hills of Vietnam.

Not surprisingly I write about it in my novel From the Far Ends of the Earth. And I write about it there in terms of art-making, how turning the underbelly outward in our art can be a healing process, how it lets the light in. For the artist and the viewer.

“If the book we are reading does not wake us, as with a fist hammering on our skull, why then do we read it?” Franz Kafka once asked. “What we must have are those books which come upon us like ill-fortune, and distress us deeply, like the death of one we love better than ourselves. . . . A book must be an ice-axe to break the sea frozen inside us.”

Gwendolyn Brooks wrote:

Does man love Art? Man visits Art, but squirms.
Art hurts. Art urges voyages–
and it is easier to stay at home,
the nice beer ready.

What we see and experience out there in the world and in our own hearts bears witnessing. Not only the beauty, but the brutality as well. While the first lifts us up and makes us soar, the latter throws us down in the pit. It confounds us, it confuses us, it demolishes us.  It makes us want to stand up on our hind feet and howl. It makes us want to cut open our wrists and bleed out our anguish on the page. It makes us want to splash our pain in brilliant colors across the canvas.

It makes us rage against the night, and at the very same time trace the frgile broken bones of the milky way across the sky with awe and wonder.

It’s the roil of chaos that boils over into stars and star-dust, and becomes the tender, naked beauty of an infant’s breath.

We cannot help writing about it, welding it into our art, because it is us, and we are it. It’s the thing we were born to bear witness to, when we are awake to do so.

 

Perfect Pairings – Klee and cummings

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Paul Klee - Farmer Garden Personified

I’ve long been a huge fan of Paul Klee’s paintings and e.e. cummings’ poetry, and for similar reasons: their playfulness and sense of excitement, as if “bursting with something very important and precise to say.,” as one critic writes of cummings’ work.

They dared to take their art in new and often jarring directions, playing with syntax and form, with color and composition. The reader/viewer is forced to see things in a new way. To question old ways of looking at the world.

Beneath the playfulness, something deeper is going on. Each bends toward the light.

“Everything passes, and what remains of former times, what remains of life, is the spiritual. In everything we do, the claim of the Absolute is unchanging.” – Paul Klee

“Love is the voice under all silences, the hope which has no opposite in fear; the strength so strong mere force is feebleness: the truth more first than sun, more last than star.” – e.e. cummings

A few favorites of each follows.

Paul Klee 'Sky Flowers Over the Yellow House' 1917 Watercolor 15 x 23 cm

Paul Klee Mit Grunen Stumpfen 1939

Spärlich Belaub ~ Paul Klee,1934

[in Just-]

BY E. E. CUMMINGS

in Just-
spring when the world is mud-
luscious the little
lame balloonman

whistles far and wee

and eddieandbill come
running from marbles and
piracies and it’s
spring

when the world is puddle-wonderful

the queer
old balloonman whistles
far and wee
and bettyandisbel come dancing

from hop-scotch and jump-rope and

it’s
spring
and

the

goat-footed

balloonMan whistles
far
and
wee

The sirens of ships, 1917, by Paul Klee (Detail) Stuttgard, Staatgalerie (Art Gallery)

Paul Klee

paul klee art - Bing Images

somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond

By E. E. Cummings, 1894 – 1962

somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond
any experience,your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near

your slightest look easily will unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skilfully,mysteriously)her first rose

or if your wish be to close me,i and
my life will shut very beautifully,suddenly,
as when the heart of this flower imagines
the snow carefully everywhere descending;

nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fragility:whose texture
compels me with the colour of its countries,
rendering death and forever with each breathing

(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens;only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody,not even the rain, has such small hands

Paul Klee

Paul Klee (Swiss:1879-1940), Landscape of the Past (Paysage du passé), 1918

Paul Klee

Shogun VS. Lincoln in the Bardo

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Oak Hill is the setting for a book inspired by a poignant time in Abraham Lincoln’s life.

I have two books on my nightstand, Shogun by James Clavell and Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. Both are historical novels, the first an epic adventure story set in feudal Japan in the 1600’s, the second a literary novel centering around the death of President Lincoln’s son, Willie. Both are highly acclaimed.

I began reading them around the same time. The first is 1210 pages, the second 342. Guess which I finished first? Yes, Shogun.

This surprises and disappoints me in some ways. But perhaps it shouldn’t. I had resisted buying, let along reading Bardo, for a long time, despite the fact I’m a huge Saunders’ fan. I fell in love with his short stories in The Tenth of December, especially the title piece and “Victory Lap,” which I wrote about in The Light-Craving Stories of George Saunders.

The reason I resisted reading his first novel, even though  I had read so many ecstatic reviews of the work, was because it just sounded so dark and somber. This despite knowing what a wild sense of humor Saunders has and how “heart-searing and heart-soaring” his light-emitting stories can be, as I had written earlier.

Still. The setting, a graveyard? Inhabited by souls lost in Limbo? A dead boy? A grieving father? I felt the ratchets of my mind closing down one by one: resist, resist, resist.

I’ve already written in my last post how a resisting reader almost always dooms a piece of writing. Here it wasn’t the writer I was resisting. I already knew the pleasures of reading Saunders. It was the subject matter I was resisting (as it was, come to think of it, in the Outlander example I wrote about in my last post.)

On the other hand, I came to Shogun, not as a new reader, as I’d already had the pleasure of reading the book 20 years ago or so. I already knew what to expect, but I was curious to see if it would still draw me in and keep my interest so many years later.

What I was really looking for, I believe now, was a book to binge on, like the series I liked to watch on TV–Game of Thrones, The Last Kingdom, Downton Abbey–with characters I cared about, and plot-lines that drew me deeper and deeper into the story. A ship-wrecked sailor cast upon shores of Feudal Japan had the potential to do that. A dead boy in Limbo, not so much.

So does it all just boil down to what kind of mood I’m in? Perhaps. But even more, it comes down to that ever-enduring quint-essential question that all writers, and all publishers, I dare say, grapple with: what keeps the reader turning pages and wanting more?

In Shogun I immediately became caught up in the plight of the sailor and the culture crash when West met East for the first time. I was caught up in the game-of-thrones-type warfare and strategic plotting that was taking place between the Lord Toranaga and his rival feudal lords. I was caught up in the tender and precarious relationship developing between Anjin-san, the ship-wrecked sailor, and his beautiful and wise translator, Marika. It wasn’t that I wanted to find out what was going to happen next. I knew that already. It was just because it was all so fascinating, and deep enough and rich enough that I felt well fed, and yet still craved for more. I’ve already started on the next book in Clavell’s Asian series, each book taking place a generation of so after the other.

But while I found the historical excerpts about President Lincoln and the loss of his son quite interesting, and I was amused and delighted by the array of misfit lost souls inhabiting the graveyard, and deeply touched by the young boy finding himself stranded between worlds while his hapless grief-stricken father holds his now lifeless body in his arms, I was not compelled to find out “what happens next.” The writing was deep enough and rich enough to make me feel well-fed, but not enough to make me crave more–to keep turning pages.

It’s a different kind of story, of course, and is meant to be. In so many ways comparing Bardo with Shogun is like comparing apples and oranges. The first is meant to “capture the pathos of everyday life,” as  Michiko Kakutani wrote in a New York Times review . Or as Saunders himself wrote in an email interview with The New York Times Book Review, to elucidate “that terrible conundrum: We seem to be born to love, but everything we love comes to an end. What do we do with that?”

Bardo is meant to make us ponder the deep, disturbing questions about life, and to deepen our capacity to have compassion for each other, to show us how, as I wrote before, that in the end, “when all the superficiality and fears and meanness are flayed from us, beneath that, we are light-craving creatures: people who are starving for the want of goodness, the want of grace in our lives.”

Bardo‘s purpose, perhaps, is to deepen our understanding of the human condition, first, and to entertain, second. While Shogun’s purpose, perhaps, is the other way around. But deepen our understanding it does nonetheless. The best books do both.

In 1975 Webster Schott wrote about Shogun in the New York Times: “I can’t remember when a novel has seized my mind like this one. . . . Clavell has a gift. It may be something that cannot be taught or earned. He breathes narrative. It’s almost impossible not to continue to read Shogun once having opened it. Yet it’s not only something that you read—you live it.”

Creating characters and plot lines that allow us to live and breathe through them, that compel us to ponder the deep, disturbing questions about human existence, and to leave us craving for more. Isn’t that what we all want when we pick up a book?

Isn’t that what we all want when we put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) in our aspiration to write a novel?

The “Willing Suspension of Disbelief” in Fiction and Film

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Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan) and Claire Fraser (Caitriona Balfe) in the ‘Outlander’ ‘Wedding’ episode

What draws a reader into a story and compels her to keep tuning pages? This interests me both as a reader and a writer with a novel ready to publish. It interests me because so many novels I start I never finish. I’m beginning to wonder if the fault lies more with me as a reader than with the writer.

As a writer I’m used to reading my own work with a critical distance and a skeptical eye, which are essential to the purpose of revision, but deadly to the act of reading for enjoyment.  What’s essential there is what Coleridge coined “a willing suspension of disbelief,” or “poetic faith.”

But if what we bring to the table, instead of poetic faith, is a skeptical and critical disposition, the novel may be doomed before it’s ever given a chance to work its magic on us.

Perhaps the reason so many novels I pick up fall short is because I’m reading through the wrong lens, with a critical eye towards revision, toward rewriting the page in my own image, rather than that willing suspension of disbelief, allowing the writer to draw me into the story in her own way.

A case in point: Outlander by Diana Gabaldon.

I had been looking for a steamy romance with a literary bent, having found nothing lately within either of those genres–romantic or literary–that held my interest.

Someone suggested I try the Outlander series. I was highly skeptical from the start. A time-travelling romance? It sounded far-fetched. But since I had nothing better to read and the book came with so many 5 star reviews and a huge fan-base, I decided to give it a try.

I was not impressed. The writing was fine, the characters okay, but the pacing was extremely slow. It wasn’t at all the book that I wanted to read and I kept thinking how to revise it to better hold my interest. But I kept reading because I wanted to get to the juicy parts, to see how the author and protagonist would handle the time gap, the sudden jolt 200 years back into the past. And I wanted to see who her love interest would  be.

Well, needless to say, I was disappointed again. Claire seemed barely phased by the fact she had been transported back 200 years. She saw it more as a logistical problem, how to get home, rather than “am I losing my mind, this can’t be happening” response I had imagined and felt would ring more true. Then when the first person she meets, a captain in the British army, tries to rape her, the whole thing seemed so implausible, I almost stopped reading right there.

But who would be her love interest? That question kept me going until I discovered it was this low-level member of a rebel band who had managed to get himself wounded, and was clearly several years her junior. If I had been writing the book I would have chosen the daring, hot-headed leader of the group, who while years older, seemed more exciting. Clearly this was not the book I was hoping to read and I set it aside.

But when the film series about the Outlander came out on TV, I decided to give it another try, and the film easily sucked me in. The music, the scenery, the costumes, the actors chosen to play each part, all were perfectly pitched to draw me in and sweep me away. The resistance I had initially for the series, and the critical distance I held it, melted away. The willing suspension of disbelief so needed for my viewing pleasure was in full force.

By the time the first season ended, I was so enthralled, I eagerly picked up the book again and began reading. This time I thoroughly enjoyed it and couldn’t understand why I hadn’t before.

I think we are more willing to suspend disbelief when viewing a movie than when reading a novel. The visual and auditory power of film-making does most of the work for us without the need to translate black letters on a white page into scenery or sounds. The musical score is an added bonus manipulating our emotions to match what the filmmaker wants us to feel, and when well-done it’s barely noticeable.

Much is required of both writer and filmmaker to make his or her creation “sing.” Both must learn their craft well and comply with the basic elements of story-telling, as I wrote about in my last post. But the filmmaker has more tools to entice the viewer into that willing suspension of disbelief needed to enjoy the film.

The writer has less to work with. So it’s essential for the reader, especially if the reader is a writer, to come to the work as a willing and eager partner. We must be willing to set aside our writerly prejudice to allow the story to work its magic on us.

Below are links to posts referenced here:

Sexy, Smart, Sweet, & Soulful

Speaking of Erotica . . .

Loss & Desire, and the Search for Something More in Life & Literature