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Pearls from artists* # 192

"Dichotomy," soft pastel on sandpaper, 38" x 58"

“Dichotomy,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 38″ x 58″

* an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

Interviewer:  Do you have any unfinished poems that you look at occasionally?

T.S. Eliot:  I haven’t much in that way, no.  As a rule, with me an unfinished thing is a thing that might as well be rubbed out.  It’s better, if there’s something good in it that I might make use of elsewhere, to leave it at the back of my mind than on paper in a drawer.  If I leave it in a drawer it remains the same thing but if it’s in the memory it becomes transformed into something else.

Writers at Work:  The Paris Review Interviews 2nd Series, edited by George Plimpton and introduced by Van Wyck Brooks       

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Pearls from artists* # 151

“The Storyteller,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 20″ x 26″

* an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

I am a storyteller, for better and for worse.  I suspect that a feeling for stories, for narrative, is a universal human disposition, going with our powers of language, consciousness of self, and autobiographical memory.

The act of writing, when it goes well, gives me a pleasure, a joy, unlike any other.  It takes me to another place – irrespective of my subject – where I am totally absorbed and oblivious to distracting thoughts, worries, preoccupations, or indeed the passage of time.  In those rare, heavenly states of mind, I may write nonstop until I can no longer see the paper.  Only then do I realize that evening has come and that I have been writing all day.

Over a lifetime, I have written millions of words, but the act of writing seems as fresh, and as much fun, as when I started it nearly seventy years ago. 

On the Move:  A Life by Oliver Sacks

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Pearls from artists* # 103

Quemado, NM

Quemado, NM

* an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

There are times when the art-maker’s solitude feels mildly pleasant, or deeply pleasurable, or even blissful.  Many people refer to Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi’s concept of “flow” as their experience of art-making – that state of being in which one is focused and concentrated, removed from time, energized, and not lonely at all.  But flow happens most readily when the task is not too frustrating, and when the obstacles feel manageable.  I feel flow more readily when the writing is going well than when I’m trying to wrangle with some thorny bit of it.  Then I feel unflow and, sometimes, too alone with the labor and very glad to have fond people close at hand in my life and in my memory.

Janna Malamud Smith in An Absorbing Errand:  How Artists and Craftsmen Make Their Way to Mastery

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Q: What is your earliest visual memory?

Arizona road

Arizona road

A:  I remember being in a crib at the house where I lived with my parents and sister, a two bedroom Cape Cod in Clifton, New Jersey.  I must have been about two or three years old.  The crib was next to a wall and I remember putting my right leg through the slats to push against it and rock my crib.  I spent hours looking at the space age wallpaper in the room, which depicted ringed planets and flying sci-fi space men.  My parents had recently bought the house and the bedroom’s previous occupant had been a boy.  This was in the 1950s and I dare say, the wallpaper was very much of its era!  

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Pearls from artists* # 78

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

* an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

To me, openings are never what you want them to be.  The excitement, relief, anxiety, and anticipation are too much to process.  There’s no apotheosis, no pinnacle, no turning point.  It’s not like theater, where at the end of a performance people get up and applaud.

Nothing gets created at an opening.  Nothing of artistic merit takes place.  All of that important stuff happens in the studio, long before the exhibition, when you’re alone.  For me, anyway, openings are something to get through, an ordeal to be endured.  The bigger the event, the less I remember it.  I pretty much walk in, and wherever I stop is where I stay.  I paint a grin on my face so fixed that by the end of the evening my jaw is sore.  I remember none of the conversations.  I stand there shaking hands, blindly mouthing, “Thank you.  Thank you very much.”  Then eventually April [Gornick, Fischl’s wife] collects me and we leave.

If, on the other hand, you were to ask me what I remember about making the paintings in a show, that’s a different story.  Imagine touching something, stroking it, jostling it, caressing it, and as you’re doing this, you are creating it.  How you touched it is how it came into existence.  Unlike other pleasures, where the feelings fade quickly as details become blurred, with paintings you remember everything.  Within the details are all the bumps and the friction, the memory of when the creative instinct flowed, when you were distracted or lazy or working too hard.  It’s all there on the canvas.  When I look at my paintings again, years later, even, I remember it all – the victory laps and the scars.

Eric Fischl and Michael Stone in Bad Boy:  My Life On and Off the Canvas  

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Pearls from artists* # 42

Balinese dancer

Balinese dancer

* an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

Things-as-they-are offer such an abundance of material that a photographer must guard against the temptation of trying to do everything.  It is essential to cut from the raw material of life – to cut and cut, but to cut with discrimination.  While working, a photographer must reach a precise awareness of what he is trying to do.  Sometimes you have the feeling that you have already taken the strongest possible picture of a particular situation or scene; nevertheless, you find yourself compulsively shooting, because you cannot be sure in advance exactly how the situation, the scene is going to unfold.  You must stay with the scene, just in case elements of the situation shoot off from the core again.  At the same time, it’s essential to avoid shooting like a machine-gunner and burdening yourself with useless recordings which clutter your memory and spoil the exactness of the reportage as a whole.

Henri Cartier-Bresson in Images a la sauvette

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Q: Why do you need to use a photograph as a reference source to make a pastel painting?

One of Barbara's reference photos

One of Barbara’s reference photos

A:  When I was about 4 or 5 years old I discovered that I had a natural ability to draw anything that I could see.  It’s the way my brain is wired and it is a gift!  One of my earliest memories as an artist is of copying the Sunday comics.  Always it has been much more difficult to draw what I CANNOT see, i.e., to recall how things look solely from memory or to invent them outright.

The evolution of my pastel-on-sandpaper paintings has been the opposite of what one might expect.  I started out making extremely photo-realistic portraits.  I remember feeling highly unflattered when after months of hard work, someone would look at my completed painting and say, “It looks just like a photograph!”  I know this was meant as a compliment, but to me it meant that I had failed as an artist.   Art is so much more than copying physical appearances.

So I resolved to move away from photo-realism.  It has been slow going and part of me still feels like a slacker if I don’t put in all the details.  But after nearly three decades I have arrived at my present way of working, which although still highly representational, contains much that is made up, simplified, and/or stylized.  As I have always done, I continue to work from life and from photographs, but at a certain point I put everything aside and work solely from memory.

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Pearls from artists* # 29

"He Just Stood There Grinning," soft pastel on sandpaper, 58" x 38"

“He Just Stood There Grinning,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 58″ x 38″

* an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

And all the spaces of our past moments of solitude, the spaces in which we have suffered from our solitude, enjoyed, desired, and compromised solitude, remain indelible within us, and precisely because the human being wants them to remain so.  He knows instinctively that this space identified with his solitude is creative; that even when it is forever expunged with the present, when, henceforth, it is alien to all the promises of the future, even when we no longer have a garret, when the attic is lost and gone, there remains the fact that we once loved a garret, once lived in an attic.  We return to them in our night dreams.  These retreats have the value of a shell.  And when we reach the very end, the labyrinths of sleep, when we attain to the regions of deep slumber, we may perhaps experience a type of repose that is pre-human; pre-human, in this case, approaching the immemorial.  But in the daydream itself, the recollection of moments of confined, simple, shut-in space are experiences of heartwarming space, of a space that does not seek to become extended, but would like above all to be possessed.  In the past, the attic may have seemed too small, it may have seemed cold in winter and hot in summer.  Now, however, in memory recaptured through daydreams, it is hard to say through what syncretism the attic is at once small and large, warm and cool, always comforting.     

Gaston Bachelard in The Poetics of Space

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Q: Would you talk about some of your early experiences with art?

Zebras in Chelsea

Zebras in Chelsea

A:   I grew up in a blue collar family in suburban New Jersey. My father was a television repairman for RCA. For awhile my mother worked as a sewing machine operator in a factory that made women’s undergarments, but mostly she stayed home to raise my sister and me (at the time I had only one sister, Denise; Michele was born much later).  My parents were both first-generation Americans and in those days no one in my extended family had gone to college. I was a smart kid and showed some artistic talent in kindergarten or earlier.  I have always been able to draw anything, as long as I can see it (i.e., I require a visual reference as opposed to drawing from memory).  I remember copying the Sunday comics, which in those days appeared in all the newspapers.  At the age of 6 my mother enrolled Denise and me in Saturday morning painting classes at the studio of an artist named Frances Hulmes in Rutherford, NJ.  I continued the classes for about 8 years and became a fairly adept oil painter. Living just 12 miles from New York City in Clifton, New jersey, my mother often took us to museums, particularly the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Museum of Natural History.  I remember falling in love with Rousseau’s “The Sleeping Gypsy” and being astonished by the violence and scale of Picasso’s “Guernica,” when it was on long-term loan to MoMA. I have fond memories of studying the dioramas at the Museum of Natural History.  They are still my favorite part of the museum. I suppose it goes without saying that there were not any artists in my family so I had no role models.  At the age of 15 my father decided that art was not a serious pursuit – he said it was a hobby, not a profession – so he abruptly stopped paying for my Saturday morning lessons. With no financial or moral support to pursue art, I turned my attention to other interests (ex. I learned to fly airplanes, becoming a commercial pilot and Boeing 727 flight engineer) and let my artistic abilities lie dormant.

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 16

"Big Deal," soft pastel on sandpaper

“Big Deal,” soft pastel on sandpaper

* an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

For the artist drawing is discovery.  And that is not just a slick phrase, it is quite literally true.  It is the actual act of drawing that forces the artist to look at the object in front of him, to dissect it in his mind’s eye and put it together again; or, if he is drawing from memory, that forces him to dredge his own mind, to discover the content of his own store of past observations.  It is a platitude in the teaching of drawing that the heart of the matter lies in the specific process of looking.  A line, an area of tone, is not really important because it records what you have seen, but because of what it will lead you to see.  Following up its logic in order to check its accuracy, you find confirmation or denial in the object itself or in your memory of it.  Each confirmation or denial brings you closer to the object, until finally you are, as it were, inside it:  the contours you have drawn no longer marking the edge of what you have seen, but the edge of what you have become.  Perhaps that sounds needlessly metaphysical.  Another way of putting it would be to say that each mark you make on the paper is a stepping-stone from which you proceed to the next, until you have crossed your subject as though it were a river, have put it behind you.

Geoff Dyer, editor, Selected Essays:  John Berger

Comments are welcome.

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