The art of bliss

The Park (A5 sketchbook page collage and mixed media 2017)

In January 1946 a fire broke out in Arshile Gorky’s Connecticut studio, destroying two dozen paintings and many drawings. The following month, he was diagnosed with rectal cancer and endured debilitating surgery. A couple of years later, he broke his back and lost the use of his painting arm in a car accident; shortly afterwards, his wife moved out with their children, and so, heart and spirit broken, Gorky hanged himself in his barn after writing the words “Goodbye, my loveds” in chalk letters on a crate.

The tragedy of Gorky’s final years was mirrored by the hardships of his early life. Brought up among the persecuted Armenian community in Turkey, he and his family lived as hunted refugees: his beloved mother died of starvation in his arms before, still a teenager, he was able to escape to the United States.

Yet in between, he produced some of the most joyful art you could wish to see. Something of a father to the abstract expressionists, and an enormous influence on Willem de Kooning, he painted sensuous, organic forms, coloured with crayons or thin washes of oil paint. Titles such as Pastoral or Virginia Summer give some sense of his work’s roots in the natural world, as do the abstracted forms of seed-pods, fungi and bulbs that inhabit his paintings.

I was reminded of Gorky by an article by Holland Cotter in the New York Times, a review of an exhibition of his landscapes at Hauser & Wirth, “an exhibition as manic and tender as a Schubert song cycle.” He looms large in Mark Stevens’ and Annalyn Swan’s magnificent biography of De Kooning and his retrospective at the Tate Gallery some years ago was a revelation.

I wanted to do something in honour of Gorky that wasn’t intended to copy him so, being still engaged with collage as much as drawing or painting, I put together the piece that heads this post. The shapes are hard-edged and angular where Gorky’s are sensuous, their positions in the grid formal where his are abandoned, but the curling shapes owe something to his vision, confined as they are here to the background.

If you don’t know Gorky’s work and you’re lucky enough to live near New York City, I would urge you to visit the current exhibition. For the rest of us, there is an excellent biography by his son-in-law, Matthew Spender, and resources are plentiful online. Once seen as a somewhat derivative painter who put together elements of Cezanne, Picasso and the surrealists, he is now recognised as an important figure in the development of abstract art and a painter of subtle beauty. Once seen, his paintings and drawings, born out of his early suffering, can never be forgotten.

 

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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 think 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.

 

Simple Gifts

Autumn Leaf (A3) mixed media

‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free…

I sometimes think that the Autumn, knowing what’s coming over the next few months, gives up little gifts as a kind of consolation. Winter’s coming, and where I live it’ll be grey and soupy. Sorry about that, sighs the Autumn, here’s a damaged quince, here’s a leaf containing more shades of red and green than you can name, here’s a late flowering rose.

Last Sunday – after a delightful, celebratory evening with a friend – I walked down to a nearby petrol station to buy a newspaper and a croissant (surprisingly good, believe me). On my way home, the wind blew a dried and twisted leaf in my path. The thing about following most creative journeys is that simple things can mean a great deal: the rotting fruit that I posted last week, for example, and now this leaf – a colour chart of Autumn shades. Almost anything can inspire, it seems.

I took it home and used it as a starting point, painting the colours much brighter than in nature and using broad brush strokes of watercolour. Only after the basic shape of the leaf was laid down did I draw the curling edges of the leaf in ink and add all the rest of the embellishments it now contains.

The leaf – my simple gift from a passing gust of wind – now sits on the table, growing ever more brittle and slowly losing shade after shade. If I had a German-speaking cleaner, no doubt (s)he would ask, “Ist das Kunst oder kann das weg (Is that art or can it be thrown away)?” The inspiration for this remark is said to be the famous incident around the Fettecke (Grease Corner) by Joseph Beuys. It consisted of 5 kg of butter installed in the corner of a room. On the day before a visit from a VIP, a janitor removed and disposed of it. As the result of a court case, the German state of North-Rhine Westphalia had to pay 40,000 DM in compensation to the owner.

So beware what you throw away. It might just be art after all.

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On the brink of everything

Mangosteens blog

Mangosteens (A4 acrylic 2017)

If you’d told me a few years ago that I’d eagerly await Facebook posts from a 78 year old Quaker educationalist I would have been, er – sceptical. However, I now do just that: I’ve yet to read a dull or uninspired post from Parker J. Palmer.

Last week he took us back to a piece he wrote for the On Being website in 2015 called On the Brink of Everything: An Early Morning Meditation. In it, he references another article on the site in which a mother writes about seeing the world through her toddler’s eyes, greeting everything with a sense of wonder and discovery. You don’t have to be a child to do that, PJP demonstrates:

It’s winter in Wisconsin, and the east-facing window was filigreed with ice. The horizon behind the bare trees was aglow with a crimson sunrise that, seen through the tracery of ice, turned the pane into stained glass. For several minutes I took in that scene as if I were admiring a great cathedral through a rose window.

Could anyone other than Mr Palmer write so eloquently about having an early-morning pee? I wondered.

The article ends like this. ‘I’m old enough to know that the world can delight me, so my expectation is not of the world but of myself: Delight in the gift of life and be grateful.’ Isn’t that superb? ‘My expectation is not of the world but of myself‘ – how often do we wait for something to happen, for things to improve, for someone to do something that will enable us to feel better about something else? And how often are we disappointed when the planets don’t align? Discovering one’s own delight in the world is a gift beyond riches, what the mindfulness gurus call ‘beginner’s mind’, I believe.

In the comments on PJP’s Facebook page someone quoted some lines from a Mary Oliver poem (not a writer I usually enjoy): ‘When it’s over, I want to say: all my life/ I was a bride married to amazement./ I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.’

The painting above grew out of a simple delight, finding a fruit I’d never seen before during a day out with a friend in Borough Market, London. It  was meant to be much bigger. It was going to have a table’s edge, a scrubbed out wall behind it. For weeks, on and off, I painted and re-painted, drew a cup and a vase and a cylinder and painted over them all. I was so pleased with the three mangosteens and how loosely I’d rendered them I was determined to finish the painting and not abandon it. Posting it as a work in progress on Instagram and sharing it on Facebook, the painter Karolina Gacke advised me that all it needed was some shadow on the tabletop and it was done.

Less is more…

 

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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.

Ships that pass

Head Over Heels (A4 mixed media with collage 2017)

This isn’t a blog about my life but some background is necessary to this, I feel.

When I was a teenager I was in love most of the time. I nourished myself on a rich diet of Romantic poetry – Keats, Shelley, Coleridge, those boys – and Pre-Raphaelite painting (lots of women staring wistfully at pomegranates). Teenage girls, it seemed, allowed you just enough of themselves to break your adolescent heart, or they were aloof, hanging out with the cool boys.

One reasonably constant object of my teenage desires was Veronique Smith*. Her exotic name – French mother and English father perhaps ? – was only the start of it. She played the violin, she read poetry, she was shy in a way that only self-assured people can affect, she knew about things I didn’t comprehend, she drank red wine.

Veronique and I would often meet at parties. When she walked towards me the angels sang and surrounded us with clouds of joy. We’d talk about this and that. I would look her in the eye to try and keep her engaged or watch her beautiful lips moving as she spoke. I was conscious of the imperfections of my skin and wished I’d worn something different. All too soon she moved on and left with one of the cool boys while the angels wept tears of frustration.

Life went on, I moved to London, and then, during a visit ‘home’ before I left England for a twenty year spell in Europe, I bumped into a mutual friend of mine and Veronique’s from those earlier years. I asked how she was. Married and expecting her second child, said the friend. Of course, she was never meant to be alone for more than a few moments at a time.

A mischievous look came into the eyes of our mutual friend. “You know something,” she said, “Veronique had such a thing about you. She thought you were adorable – but you never asked her out.” Clouds covered the sun, leaves fell from the summer trees, the angels stared at each other and shrugged their heavenly shoulders.

So here’s the love boy, head over heels for the object of his teenage passion, scattering pieces of his heart around him as he turns in confusion and indecision. If only I could reach back down the years and give my younger self some fatherly advice. Follow your heart, I’d tell him: it may not always lead you where you want to go, it may not always be the best choice for you or those around you, but at least you’ll live your life to the full and it’ll rarely be dull – it’ll ring to a glorious music that you’ll never forget.

Veronique Smith wasn’t her real name, of course.*

 

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