Circling around the truth

Jasper Johns web

Jasper Johns (pencil on A5 sketchbook page) 2018

In February, I sat on a friend’s couch in upstate New York and read an article on America’s most prominent artist, Jasper Johns.

Johns can’t be the easiest person to interview: he famously said the book about his work he most enjoyed was by a Japanese scholar – he couldn’t understand a word of it. His renowned flag paintings, which the MoMA was afraid to buy in the McCarthy shadowed 1950s, can be interpreted as either patriotic or subversive. Make up your own mind: all Johns will say is that the idea came to him in a dream. And he won’t even tell you about the dream.

According to Deborah Solomon, the author of the New York Times article, his flag paintings were revolutionary because they didn’t turn private feelings into public statements but claimed public symbols for the realm of inwardness and personal experience. His goal was not to convey a truth, but circle cryptically around it.

I love that idea about circling around the truth. I suppose that’s why I admire those artists who can keep a foot in the figurative but bring a sense of abstraction or mystery to their work. To me, seeing a painting of a vase of flowers that gives, say, their colours prominence over form allows us privileged insight into the artist’s view of the world – not just painting – more than would be the case with a deliberate representation of the subject. If you follow this link and look at the images before you read the bio, wouldn’t you already feel that the artist’s philosophy is something like “living is not just surviving”?

Raye, over at Jots from a Small Apartment, shared this quote from Jasper Johns:

I think that one wants from a painting a sense of life. The final suggestion, the final statement, has to be not a deliberate statement but a helpless statement. It has to be what you can’t avoid saying.

That’s what makes some artists’ work so essential, I think. Not just Jasper Johns, but anyone making ‘helpless’ statements, statements that they ‘can’t avoid saying.’  I’ve written before about the compulsion to draw or paint, that feeling that it’s something that must be done and, more to the point, must be done in this way. It’s that creative vigour that separates art from picture making, artists from painters.

There is a truth in everything we see and perhaps the best way to tell it is to suggest it rather than say it, to circle around it instead of stating it directly. Just like Jasper Johns.

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The forest at dusk

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Olivia (A1 charcoal, pastel and graphite 2018) Drawn over an existing charcoal drawing which was partially rubbed out

Can you remember your childhood? Sometimes you’d rush into things – where angels might fear to tread, perhaps – without a second thought about the consequences of your actions. Yet I bet there is no child in the entire world who could be encouraged to enter a dark forest alone as dusk became night.

I feel like that on the morning of Seawhite Studios‘ workshops. Not because there’s anything scary about Katie Sollohub or Emily Ball, but because when you sign up for their courses you know you’re going to be encouraged to stray over boundaries, perhaps into the dark forest of your creative fears, and challenge your own preconceptions.

Earlier this week I was fortunate enough to attend Katie’s one-day workshop on drawing the human head. Katie and Emily work closely together, so anyone who was at all familiar with Emily’s wonderful book, Drawing and Painting People: A Fresh Approach, would know this wasn’t going to include a three-hour portrait session on the precise representation of the model in pencil.

We were guided through some liberating exercises – drawing our own faces with eyes closed, drawing the model without looking at the paper:

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(which resulted in the rather pleasing abstract above) – and producing a drawing by gently spreading crushed charcoal and coloured chalk over paper, completing it with a few lines. I’ve done this before – it’s discussed in Emily Ball’s book – but not with such a light touch, which made all the difference to the finished drawing:

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The image at the top of this post looks reasonably conventional. However it was one of two drawings that we were asked to do over existing ones. It was a pleasure to rub out a very dull drawing I’d done earlier in the day and concentrate on Olivia’s astonishing profile and her remarkable ear-rings. Little of the original drawing remains except for a few faint lines and the tint of the rubbed-out charcoal on the paper.

I’d had a rather difficult January, creatively: the lingering effect of flu over New Year and some demanding issues in my work life left me drained and uninspired. I’d done a bit of messing around with acrylic paint and sat in front of empty sheets of paper thinking, “I haven’t a single idea in my head…” The gentle explorations of Katie Sollohub’s workshop, however, cleared a path through the undergrowth as they have before – especially in that charmed space between the figurative and abstraction, which for me has all the wonder and terrors of the forest at dusk!

 

A creative thanksgiving

Apples blog

Apples (A4 acrylic 2017)

“At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to thank with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.” Albert Schweitzer

Parker J Palmer opened his Thanksgiving Facebook post with this quotation. We don’t have Thanksgiving in England. We now have Black Friday, of course, another opportunity to acquire stuff we possibly don’t need, but we don’t have a formal occasion to sit and be grateful for what we already have.

Many times during this rather dismal year I’ve had cause to be grateful to friends and family who have helped me keep the flame alight. As I’ve mentioned before, there were times during the first half when that seemed an almost impossible task and I thank all of you who have helped with a well-timed spark. You know who you are.

But this is an art blog so let’s move over to that track.

There are times when you bump up against what might seem like an insurmountable obstacle to creativity. Over the past few months I’ve been struggling to consciously loosen up the way I paint and I have plenty of half-finished monstrosities to prove it. Yesterday evening I took three apples from the bowl, squeezed out some acrylics onto a palette and set about painting a simple still life. My ambition wasn’t to recreate what I saw in front of me but to intrepret those three apples with a complete freedom of execution. The result (above) is no masterpiece, but as with other experiments it got me over that hump.

There’s a fascinating blog post by artist Christopher Gallego entitled 5 unusual habits to keep you growing artistically that I urge you to read. His second piece of advice is ‘Do the impossible’ (the first, ‘Paint some crap’, is also worth trying): ‘Attack something, anything, that scares you to death’, he advises. So painting these apples with big, bright slabs of colour, buttered on with a square brush, was far from the usual way I paint. It was glorious. After an hour of that I felt exhausted and exhilerated, defeated and victorious in equal measure, and glad that I had just attacked the thing that scares me to death: looseness and spontenaiety. As Lorca described the Andalusian folk lyric, ‘a momentary burst of inspiration, the blush of all that is truly alive…the trembling of the moment’ – that’s what we should be aiming for!

So thank you, Christopher Gallego, for your timely spark. Thank you, Annabel Mednick, for making me look and draw what I see every week in my life drawing course. Thank you, Ingrid Christensen for showing us how to paint beautiful loose still lifes, and to you Stanley Bielen, John Button, Lisa Daria, Jennifer Pochinski, Karolina Gacke and many others who show what can be achieved just this side of abstraction.

That’s my creative Thanksgiving.

Interlude

Pencils (A4 ink and coloured pencil 2017)

I started this blog to motivate myself to complete a drawing or painting each week, something that I wouldn’t be too ashamed to share with a small group of followers. The ‘small group’ is now around 950 and I’ve managed to sustain the pace despite a demanding full-time job and some turbulent times.

At first, I thought I’d just post the images with the minimum of explanation but I soon found that there were things I wanted to write about – some weeks the images even became secondary to the text. The nature of creativity became a recurring theme along with my particular passions for Henry James, Leonard Nimoy, John Berger, minimalist music, quinces and illustrators.

Send me a dozen long stemmed roses
I’ll tell you what I’ll do:
I’ll bend them into a crown of thorns
Then send them right back to you.

Michelle Shocked, ‘On the Greener Side’

During the past seven months I’ve lived through the scrappy break-up of my 15 year relationship and two deaths, my Mother and a friend of some forty years. Grief has been an almost constant companion, but so, too, has gratitude. I’ve come to treasure the support and kindness of good friends and my family. In a rather surprising way I discovered that it is possible to still feel intensely when I thought all emotion had been numbed by grief.

My departing partner left me a poem by John O’Donahue which advised:

This is the time to be slow,

Lie low to the wall

Until the bitter weather passes.

I did about a week of being slow, lying on the couch watching the shadows of the quince tree on the ceiling wondering where it had all gone wrong. You start to feel yourself dying inside if you do much of that. Far better to climb over the wall and let the bitter winds and cold rain lash you back to life. Perhaps I haven’t given myself time to properly grieve for any of these losses, but I have felt alive throughout it all which is the important thing for me. I wouldn’t wish my recent life on anyone else, but there have been more bright spots than one might imagine.

I’ve also taken part in some stimulating art workshops which have truly kept me going through these dark times, especially gestural drawing at Seawhite Studios and life drawing with Annabel Mednick and model Blue King. Both have caused me to think about the work I’m doing and how to move forward.

So for a while I’ll post less frequently while I attempt to work more slowly and on a larger scale (I’ll continue to post smaller things, older work, photographs and favourite art books on Instagram). I do hope you’ll stick with me during this period of recalibration: it’s been a pleasure to interact with so many generous, creative and inspiring people and I’d hate to lose you! Thank you so much for your support – despite it all I’m blessed in many ways.

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Facts and wonder

A Garden in a Grid (A4 collaged painted papers 2014)

What do you do if you feel you’re following the wrong path through life but haven’t the courage or the financial security to retrace your steps to the point where you took the false turning?

If you’re an author or an artist or a musician, how do you react if your writing, paintings or compositions don’t live up to what you see or hear in your mind?

Suppose you were to declare a passion for someone, but that person couldn’t – however much they cared for you – return your feelings to the same extent?

The novelist, Sebastian Barry, asked in The Temporary Gentleman, “Does wonder have any dominion over facts, in the end?” In the context of the novel, these words have a specific meaning. Removed from their context they provide an interesting way to view pedicaments such as the ones described above.

If we take ‘wonder’ to be our ideal – that one-man show at the Gagosian in New York, proud of every piece hanging on those expensive walls, our partner of choice at our side during the private view followed by a quiet dinner for two at Pearl‘s after the event (“Sorry, Larry, we’ve got something lined up for later…”) – what determines the distance between that and the facts of our existence? Is it just talent? Luck, opportunity, chance? Setting aside self-help platitudes, can believing in a desired outcome influence the facts as they stand this morning?

Of all the painters I admire, Cy Twombly is perhaps the one that divides opinion the most. I find much of his work both exciting and moving, yet others see him as a charlatan who fools the gullible into believing they’re looking at something profound. Yet whatever we think, Twombly had faith in his own vision and how it developed over the years; also, influential dealers and collectors – some of whom, you’ll be surprised to hear, are only in it for the money – were prepared to gamble their reputations on a large canvas with two smears of yellow oil paint and a badly-written quote from the Aeneid scrawled across it. Like his work or not, Cy lived the ‘wonder’.

Perhaps the important factor is belief. Had we believed sufficiently in ourselves at that decisive moment we might not have taken an ill-judged turning at the crossroads; perhaps the gap between the music we hear in our heads and the notes on the stave is down to our belief in the piece; perhaps our potential lover turns us down because in our heart of hearts we know that we are unable to provide what he or she needs? Twombly’s teachers, fellow artists and, crucially, he himself believed in what he was doing; he sold those controversial paintings, married the beautiful Luisa Tatiana Franchetti and lived in elegant style in Rome for the rest of his days.

There may always be a distance between the facts and the wonder, between what is and what could be. As I’ve mentioned before, perhaps that’s what drives us on. If we feel we’re on the wrong road the answer may not be to go back, but to find a way forward to where we need to be given where we are now rather than where we were ten years ago. After all, there’s no choice about that: we cannot go back.

I can’t provide answers to the questions posed at the beginning of this post. I’m also aware that this is not the most fully realised piece I’ve posted: I’m still working through it. However I’m fairly certain that belief has a great deal to do with those questions.

What do you think?

A note on the image: As those of you who follow my Instagram feed will already know, the image is made up of pieces cut from a couple of unsuccessful flower paintings and repurposed. I’m grateful to Jacob for the title.

A note on Sebastian Barry: Barry is a beautiful writer, as this will demonstrate: “We are in the great belly of the whale of what happens, we mistook the darkness for a pleasant night-time, and the phosphorescent plankton swimming there for stars.” However, his stories and his plot turns can be desperately sad and I advise caution when reading his novels in public. Last week I found myself on a plane bound for Frankfurt surrounded by international businesspeople. I was approaching the end of The Temporary Gentlemen when something unexpectedly tragic happened to one of the characters. Fighting back my emotions, I became aware of someone standing next to me and I looked up to see a Lufthansa stewardess. “Käse oder Salami?” she asked, a sandwich in each hand.

An Act of Daring

Cracked Bowl (A4 charcoal and acrylic on a sketchbook page 2017)

“You don’t decide to paint. It’s like getting hungry and going to the kitchen to eat. It’s a need, not a choice.”

These are the words of surrealist painter, Leonora Carrington, and they’ll resonate with many of us. When things are going well, of course, creating something from the depths of your own heart is magical. When not, it’s an ache as painful as unrequited love. Hopefully the former more than makes up for the latter, but even if not, you continue regardless: it’s a need, as Carrington said, not a choice.

If my subject is an apple, I just want to discover my way of looking at it and how I interpret that with paint, charcoal or pastel. I don’t really know if I have anything profound to say about the apple, I’ve simply tried to say something about the apple in the manner I wanted to say it. It would be wonderful if you enjoyed looking at it, but really, so long as I’m happy with my apple that, in the end, is what matters. If it somehow lets me down, no amount of your saying how delightful it looks will make up for my own disappointment.

In a new book, my good friend Bálint Varga mentions ‘the loneliness of creative people in the face of their own creativity. They are solely responsible for their decisions, for the choices they have to make – the act of creation is an act of daring.’ He captures the creative impulse so neatly there, I believe. I would never sail the Atlantic in a small boat, or even go up in a hot air balloon on a calm Sunday afternoon, but several times a week I stare at a blank page and risk my peace of mind assembling marks and colour on that sheet, knowing that if the outcome works I’ll be elated, if not, all manner of doubts and uncertainties will crowd in. Sometimes the difference between ‘success’ and ‘failure’ is one ill-judged line.

Some time ago I wrote to Bálint that I was more often dissatisfied with my work than happy with the final result. His reply, which I printed out and taped above the mirror on my wardrobe door, was:

Insecurity and dissatisfaction with one’s work are part and parcel of being an artist. It would be tragic if you were perfectly happy with what you were doing; you would have no incentive to search and experiment further.

Seen in that light, all those crumpled pieces of paper in the recycling bin are steps on the journey, necessary to advance, to move forward. It’s a comforting thought and one I hold on to when I have a whole evening of crumpled pages behind me.

This week’s image is a fairly quick and loose drawing of a cracked bowl, something fairly symbolic of my life during the first six months of this year. I’m fortunate enough to have kind and supportive friends and this creative urge which propels me forward – speeding out of trouble, so to speak!

Next week I’ll be at Katie Sollohub’s Gestural Drawing workshop at Seawhite Studios: rolling around in charcoal for a couple of days is just what I need. The spirit soars.

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The limits of your longing

Caroline's Flowers blog

Caroline’s Bouquet (21 cms x 29.7 cms pastel on Rembrandt pastel paper 2017)

Last week I heard and read two contrasting attitudes to growing older.

First was an interview with the late Roger Moore’s publisher, Michael O’Mara, talking about a book that the actor had delivered shortly before his death. It was a “humorous meditation on old age”, O’Mara explained, and he read a passage in which Moore goes into a coffee shop and works himself up into a lather because all he wants is a simple black coffee.

Secondly, on the Quaker educationalist and writer’s Facebook page, Parker J Palmer reproduced a poem by Rilke which “urges us to live life to the fullest, fearing no danger and ‘flaring up like flame’.”

“Go to the limits of your longing,” Rilke writes, “Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror./ Just keep going. No feeling is final…Nearby is the country they call life…Give me your hand.”

There’s so much going on in those lines. Essentially, though, the poem urges an engagement, as Palmer says, “to take life-giving risks as opportunity arises”.

For those of us in middle age engaged in creative activity – this is a blog about drawing and painting so I’m afraid all trains will stop at this station – the lessons here are clear. Let’s look again at the Japanese master, Hokusai: both his wives and two of his children predeceased him, he was struck by lightning, suffered a stroke in his 60s which required him to relearn his art, he had scarcely any food when he produced his masterwork Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, and five years before his death a studio fire destroyed all his work. Hokusai lived until he was 89. His last words were “If heaven will afford me five more years of life then I’ll manage to become a true artist.”

So what’s it to be? Pushing on to the “limits of your longing”, feeling your life crackling with “beauty and terror”, forever striving to become “a true artist”, or standing in your beige slacks in Cafe Nero ranting about the names of the coffee?

This week’s image celebrates my dear friend and colleague, Caroline Palmer (no relation to Parker J), who, after 25 years as an editor of medieval history and literature books, is having her achievement honoured by some of the academics she’s published over this time. One sent her a lavish bouquet of flowers of irresistable colour combinations and tonal qualities, which she kindly allowed me to babysit over this holiday weekend. As a woman and an editor very much in her prime, no doubt she’ll continue to publish young scholars and established academics for many years to come. I wish her more beauty than terror along the way.

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