Tag Archives: work

A Painting Liar

black eucalyptus

“You must have so much fun, painting,” someone in the crowd at the gallery reception says.

How many times have I heard that? Too many to count, that’s for sure. How do I answer? Reflex takes over and I lie. I nod, I smile appreciatively, I give assent.

I lie because, no, it is not fun. It’s not following my bliss. It is what I do, it is a bred-in powerful sequence of systems kicking into action that mean when I am painting, I am possessed. It is the kind of prayer that wrings out the center and leaves it void.

I’m not in control, not guiding my brush, if anything the brush is taking me. For my part, I wreak revenge, I’ve been known to snap brush handles and break bristles when I paint, I hit the board or canvas with intemperate force and I cannot possibly paint fast enough. This possession is riding me, I am riding this possession, afraid to get off because like a tiger it might vanish into the grasses out there and I shall never find that particular tiger again.

Sunburst ii

You look at my paintings hung orderly in the gallery and they seem pastoral, the smooth curves of the persistent land, a sweep of one hill merging into another, transforming over the sequence from surge to fall. You look at the colors, balanced; even in my dissonances, there is a sense of one section or one extreme taking part with others so that each work pulls into a whole no matter how loud the tangerine of sun-soaked rise or cobalt-steeped dip.

Evening Flows Down

You tell me my paintings are pretty or even beautiful and I look humbly surprised and pleased. It isn’t humility, it is surprise, because I don’t really have a memory of making my work. When I say I am possessed when I paint, I mean I am no longer the self who sits here today and types out this attempt at an explanation for you. I have little memory of the acts of painting, only scraps at best. I do not choose what color comes next, I instinctively reach out, take what I need, squeeze my tubes in the middle to make them splurt out the colors my inarticulate need dictates. My hands fumble for the next sacrificial brush, trying to catch up to the idea that drives my hands. My hands, not my brain.

Funny because I have spent so much of my life acquiring techniques and honing skills. Adding everything I can to the toolbox, so that I have mastery over the options. But in the act of working, there is nothing temperate about the effort. Nothing civil or studied, nothing calculated by some cunning plan.

Unnamed Hills cropped

You know what I look like, a small dumpling of an older woman with silver-streaked black hair and thick glasses. Usually wearing a home-sewn jumper with thrift store blouses rolled up to conceal the frayed and splashed cuffs. Someone’s grandmother, decent, well-mannered, surely a gardener in her spare hours. But I am another thing when doing this work. I am the tiger, the tiger is me. I am predator after my prey, driven to take hold of it and rend it with all ferocious hunger, to remake as I feel it must be.

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The land I paint is complicit– it tells me how it wants to become onto the canvas and I channel that surge. Pastoral, what a word full of deception. Those mountains and hills, those waves ranging upon the sands are all savages with their own agendas, survivors, but never safe, they speak in terrible tongues of a drive to go on, to keep being, even though they will never be the same for more than an instant, that instant passing. All impermanent all doomed, all full of a fury at their dying moment. That is what they speak to me and when you praise the peaceful measures of my sloping hills, I smile, and I lie.

Yes, it was fun, I say, as you expect me to say.

Eucalyptus Glow

I wrote this because I just had a marvelous lunch with new friends who somehow prompted this rant out of me, and said I should, after all, tell the truth!

Looking down into Surprise Valley

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Don’t Wait

I am so afraid of my own procrastination that I work fast, in a fury of action. I break brushes. No, not the hairs, the handles.

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I learned early on as a painter that the point is never THE painting, that when a painting is done, you continue on with the accreted abilities, and passionate insights gained, each piece building on that base, no end, thank God, in sight. My mother said once when I raged at the failure of a day spent painting, “Your time is never wasted. If the painting is bad today, your hand and eye learned from your mistakes. You will never lose that learning.”

My gallery owner likened me to a volcano, spouting forth upon the horizon, painting after painting, surprise after surprise, and he never, ever– let me praise him– tried to influence me to compress myself to a single style or limit myself to a predictable palette.

He made the comment that the price upon a given work didn’t matter, keep it low, even if you have the fleeting thought it may be your best ever. Each piece has to leave its maker, go out and make a difference somewhere not restricted to a little studio. In those days my studio was little indeed; I painted in a four foot by four breakfast nook, my easel set diagonal to fit.

Then I realized this applied to writing as well.

“You have a lot more than one novel in you,” my husband said when I completed the first draft of Night Must Wait.

Yes, I remember the surge of power that went through my hands and shoulders at that remark. It’s just like the painting, his words reminded me. You don’t make just one and hoard it forever. You don’t have that liberty.

No painter has only one painting in him or her. To think so is to let the maker perish. One work? Well, that’s a different matter. I’ll get to that.

But don’t fall in love with the one story, the one character-love-of-your-life, the one landscape, the one painting, photograph, song, play or sculpture. It would be as false as keeping all your passion focused on one day in your life; however rich that one day, you have cheated yourself of all the others, and in particular, the future. There are so many, many more days to come.

And that’s my message for the day, the week, and forever. The work is not, never will be, one singular bit. It is a stream, an ongoing ouevre as the days of your life are only fragments of your life. Jim Svejda said in his radio essay on Beethoven, that the Beethoven was the work; not any single symphony to pick out as ‘best’ or ‘core’, but all Beethoven’s enormous outpouring of his evolving creation. In Beethoven’s case– written in a medium that could rage and sing and triumph across ages. That is what any artist, writer, composer, scientist–we makers, do. Work builds on work, experience, technique, concentration and insight mixed with inspiration–the work is never over, it goes rolling on through time and rushing through different lives, translated through languages and the personal filters of experience. Each piece a new part of the greater work that is the maker.

So my advice to you, unpublished writer, artist, scientist, is this, don’t wait for the perfect contract, for the biggest bid. Publish, and write then create again. Let us have your work outpoured, ongoing, to read to share and criticize. You were formed to do this, making, creating — and you will do it, if the drive is there. You will do it in the silence of your room or the busy chaos of McDonald’s, you will make the things you were born to make, and you will and must share them because nothing is done until it has been shared. The cast pebbles of our works make ripples, and no one knows how far they will expand or how they will collide with others and make yet more patterns. Influence is immortal, and the rings of expanding impact, infinite.

Don’t love your products, don’t keep them at home. Move them on. Make more. If you are a real writer, a real painter, a real composer, a real scientist, there is a lot more than one piece in you. Each is a mere fragment of the Work.

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We’re not going

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We are the people who can’t take vacations. We hear the whispers– nay shouts, of our ancestors—’Sybarites! Hedonists! You’re the reason Rome fell!’

So how do you expect us to take a break? Take a lie in the sun on a beach? Who in hell are you kidding? We are the people who make the world work. We labor for results that reach far beyond ourselves. When we put our shoulders to the plow, by God, you see turned earth.

I grew up, part-time on a farm in New Hampshire. My husband Bruce grew up on a farm in Massachussetts.  When you step out on a farm, things happen. Chips fly, seedlings are set out, trees cut down, uprooted weeds pile in mountains, their green fading, wilting. The earth takes in manure as you turn deep cuts of mulberry brown soil over and re-spade, then do it one more time, the clods crumbling, accepting the change. You take the wheelbarrow back to the neighbor’s barns and load it up again with rich offal reeking while flies swim lazy in the air. Back and back again. (And what back by the way? Backs have the obligation to remain silent until the job is done.)

So how can we deal with the idea that the purpose (how can it be so misnamed) of action might be the relaxation of our puny bodies? Unnatural thought. We’ll need so much brainwashing before we believe in that notion of ‘vacation’ that a legion of CDC and NIMH  flunkies will fall asleep in the fields before we give in.

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