“We’ve got to be as clear-headed about human beings as possible, because we are still each other’s only hope.”
“We’ve got to be as clear-headed about human beings as possible, because we are still each other’s only hope.”
“I find my position as a poet today a curious one… For a long time I have maintained that the poet’s affair was the individual human soul, the story of it in one man, in my case the transforming of personal emotions into written events. Now it has become impossible to guard one’s soul — death to do it — we are forced to read the papers, and yet I still believe that our job is somehow or other to be above the mêlée, or so deeply in it that one comes through to something else, something universal and timeless.”
May Sarton, 1939. (With extra thanks to Maria Popova at http://www.brainpickings.org, for featuring the writings of poet May Sarton in her weekly newsletter).
The painting My God Your God is from a series started in late 2012, begun after seeing last year’s exhibition of work by Richard Diebenkorn, a painter I’ve long admired, at the Corcoran Gallery. It was a way of having a conversation with his work, of remembering the experience of standing before the richly marked and nuanced surfaces of one of his paintings and having a sense of actively participating with the history of its making.
In my own work, I never begin a painting with a specific idea or have an end image in mind. Rather, I start with a very slight notion of some triggering subject. The subject is often connected to a memory fragment of a landscape or gesture, or to a dream image that I can just barely grasp. I work with the image as it develops—all the while trying to remain open to associations that open up on the surface in front of me. This is really an internal conversation, a process that is simultaneously balancing a complicated set of issues, ranging from formal considerations (composition, color relationships, etc., ), to material concerns (paint too thick/thin, which medium works best, etc.), to those which are more difficult to articulate (what am I getting at here? where is the “heat,” the thing that I care about, the thing that will keep me interested and pushing ahead?). At some late point in working, it becomes more clear what the general subject of the painting is and arriving at a title clarifies this even further for me.
To do a slight rift on a Robert Frost quote: “The making of the painting helps me to remember something I did not know I knew.”
In the studio, there are images that I return to over and over. They have become an elemental part of my visual vocabulary and even if I don’t understand exactly why I so readily turn to them, I sense that they bear enough weight (visual, psychological, emotional, intellectual) to convey what I need at that moment.
With this in mind, I want to examine two paintings, made several years ago, and see what’s going on here— What terrain was I mining? What connections did I find and follow as I worked on these? Where did the images come from? Why this element? Or that one? These images still feel strangely mysterious to me. I like that I don’t understand them completely, that I am not the same person that I was when I made them, and that enough time has passed that they feel distant and “other”.
First, there is the blindfolded figure, common to both paintings. I recognize this as a condition of sensory deprivation. Of being without power. Being kept in the dark. I started using this image after clipping a newspaper photo of blindfolded soldiers, hands tied behind them, standing in the back of an open-air truck sometime during the Balkan War. They looked completely vulnerable and there was something about their way of standing there–their posture, their stillness–as they were being driven away, that seemed so very old. It’s the low tech aspect of this way of humiliating and instilling terror, I think now, that was working on me. And imagining what they must be “seeing”. Even as an artist, to draw a face that has no eyes but, instead, an anonymous strip of cloth, is to realize that this is an act of negation.
Years ago, while visiting the Czech Republic, I went to see the former concentration camp at Terezín. Terezín Memory comes out of remembering that place, remembering an empty concrete swimming pool that was on the grounds of the house where the Nazi commandant-in-charge and his family lived. I couldn’t get that scene, as I imagined it might have been–children swimming, adults sunning poolside–out of my mind. Am I remembering correctly this detail from that place? It doesn’t matter, really. And I haven’t researched it. The symbolic truth of it feels correct to my perception of the situation.
The blindfolded man wandering above the line of the pool–who is he? With his long pointed feet and heavy winter coat, his one sleeve wrapped with … what? Are these leather, phylactery-like, bindings? Gauze strips? Loosened bindings of some sort? The speech cloud for what he is saying is empty. It is as if he and the landscape he wanders, as well as the tower rising before him, and the smokestacks beyond—all scratched into the paint surface—are made of air. Are just notations in a dream. Whose dream? Mine? His? Sometimes when I look at this painting, it feels as if I have made visible some other’s memory—as if I have made his memory. Have made visible how, from inside, he saw himself: living blindly, without power. Floating. How odd, this lack of separation between myself and him. And yet, the statement doesn’t feel untrue. We write persona poems. Why not persona paintings?
Night Blind II is a related image, though not entirely; it was done a year or so after TM. It’s really more a drawing/painting. Monochromatic. Done on paper coated with a black gesso that has the feel of a blackboard surface when it dries. Is that why I kept the palette to a chalky gray/white and why I tended to draw more deliberately, as if I was writing? I hadn’t thought of it before now.
Again, the figure is blindfolded. The speech that pours from his/her mouth is like water spewing from a fountain. Stairs or ladders climb the tiered hills rising to his side, and there are smokestacks in the background, also, like in Terezín Memory. But this image feels like it comes from a more particular and personal landscape. The figure is larger, set in the foreground. It feels androgynous to me. The shape of his/her hand, the right one, is suggested (I wish this photo was clearer), and water washes over it. You, reader, will have to take my word for it when I say that the face, in profile, is the most delicately, sensitively, rendered part of this image. The face is first, and then, the loose, open collar and neckline of the shirt, and, finally, that hand.
This figure may be “in the dark”, but to me it feels like a darkness that is chosen, and that light and water (sustenance, energy), emanates from some interior place. Truth be told, this figure feels like it could be my father as a young man, or it could be me, or it could be, part-way, my son. Or some combination of all of those. I just “feel” it to be that way and that seems like a kind of lame way of describing my relationship to him/her in this particular context. But sometimes when I am working–and I think that other artists and poets would recognize this–there are truths that come to the surface in one’s work that are momentarily so clear and at the same time, one senses that they are so layered and complex, that it is better to just quickly acknowledge their presence and not get sidetracked. Push on. Re-vist them more deliberately sometime down the road. The subject matter that wants to come forward, is always coming forward. I believe this.
The Train—Meudon, 1928
Hangs suspended in time at the edge of the picture frame,
its smoke trailing east, following the engine’s glide
along the line of the high bridge—
over the river, over treetops, concrete, and oxen—
over the nightingale that rests
in the shadow of the cathedral’s arched windows.
Each day morning glides in beneath
the train’s suspended shadow, beneath the turning,
sputtering, steel wheels that grind through dust and grime,
grinding the air the world is building,
until the flat package of noonday is wrapped
inside the faces of those who stand waiting,
until the chin watches the sky
from behind the shutters’ bristling clapboards
and a man looks out, watching how I watch him,
over and over, from outside the picture,
his right arm shielding a brown-papered parcel,
his left thumb pressed against the object’s neatly-turned upper corner.
He’s gray hat and thin, silken tie.
He’s two long arms roaming the flat emptiness
that holds him
while the train moves on, moves on,
through a space never-changing, melting
its trails of smoke, layer upon layer, into the sky.
(originally published in Ekphrasis, A Poetry Journal; Spring/Summer, 2008)
Ekphrasis: from the Greek ek, “out of,” and phrasis, “speech” or “expression,” originally referred to a written passage of description. The ekphrastic poem evolved from this intersection between seeing and language, to go beyond the purely descriptive as the poet sought to make from this encounter a new and original artifact.
Some of my earliest attempts at writing poems were ekphrastic poems. I didn’t know that term at the time, but the approach made sense. I was an art student in a liberal arts college, studying and making art, but also fulfilling a range of other academic requirements. I was a reader. And a listener. Words and their sounds, when I wrote poems, were as materially real to me, and varied, as marks made with a stick of charcoal on a sheet of paper. Writing a poem that began with looking at a painting or photograph, etc., seemed like a natural source for subject matter. It was a starting point. A way in. I didn’t hold myself captive to the “facts” of the image once I started writing. I still work this way, wanting to find out where entering this territory—the one that I see in the image before me—will take me.
I’ve long felt an affinity for the photographs of Hungarian-born photographer André Kertész (1894-1985), especially the earlier works. With Meudon, 1928, it was that train, crossing right to left the upper strata of the photograph, that first pulled me in. It called to mind the paintings of Giorgio de Chirico, those cityscapes devoid of human presence, and also the trains of my childhood, carrying their carloads of coal, coke, and scrap iron alongside the steel mills edging the Monongahela.
The train almost defies gravity. It feels as if it is both weightless and the image’s most active force. A male force in a man’s world. Unstoppable. And yet: frozen in time. I entered the photograph at the point of the train and from there, worked my way down. Train led to bridge, bridge led to what I imagined was happening in the space beneath, then to the buildings lining the street, to the man in the foreground, holding his package. Then, finally, full circle and back to the train.
Sound associations pushed me forward. The short i sound in bridge certainly suggested the related short i of river. In the same way, going on somewhere beneath the surface of consciousness while I wrote, looked, and listened: glide led to line and high, then to nightingale, glides, grime, grinding, etc. – sound leading to sound, image to image, all by association, speeding along fast as that train.
Certainly the year 1928 resonated as I worked: the time between two world wars, the year before the worldwide Great Depression; everything is changing, changing…. And, as I write this, I realize that it’s the year that stands at nearly the half-point in time between the end of the first WW and the onset of the second. Did I consciously plan this when I had the man in the foreground holding the flat package of noonday ? Absolutely not. It kind of thrills me to discover this several years after writing it. And confirms—again, again!—my faith in the mysterious and enduring work of the unconscious as it relates to the creative process. It is the work that goes on within, making connections for us even if we think we’re not “working”. No. We’re always working.
After a nine month hiatus, I’ve decided to try a fresh approach, an approach which will bring together an exploration of the processes I engage in when working in the studio or at my desk. If I dig deeply enough into what I’m thinking and making, and give it language, my hope is that I’ll become more articulate about what I know intuitively: that poem and painting (drawing, collage, print), though materially different, rise from the same source and that by engaging with one, the other also evolves.
Breath & No Breath; mixed media on paper, 2013
I’ve been working on a series of same-size collages, paintings, and mixed media pieces, for a couple of years now. The papers, a thick, ivory Legion rag—about 40 sheets—were torn ends, “scraps”, from a print studio, trimmings that would likely have been discarded. I’ve worked on these pieces, put them away, taken them out again, several times. I pin them to the studio wall for a week or two without touching them, only looking. I let the images sink in. I let this happen as Emily Dickinson would describe it: …at a slant. What I know is that the piece isn’t finished. But what it needs, I’m not sure. What I trust is, if I pay attention long enough, something will be suggested.
Breath & No Breath began as a painting—and what my intention was there, I can’t remember. It’s not important. It didn’t “work”, so I covered it up and moved on, re-working the surface with a layer of yellow and allowing the ghost of the former painting to show through. That “ghost” is so important; it gives the imagination a way to enter. Going through a box of photocopy transfers, I found an image that resonated with the yellow field. Black and yellow. The colors used in warning signs. A suggestion of threat, of possible danger. This black/yellow combination worked well with the first collaged element, with its feel of a child being “strong-armed”. Then I screen-printed, twice, the image of a set of lungs, with their root-like capillaries, their visual relationship to plant roots and varieties of sea life.
Next, from the box, I pulled the cut-out shape of a snake. Snakes are loaded repositories of symbolic multi-leveled meaning. Primal. And compositionally, they function as arrows, leading the eye. I played with its placement, found the area where it felt “right” and adhered it to the paper. It’s not until now, as I write this, that I see what I wasn’t consciously registering but what must surely have been guiding me: the curve of the snake is almost a mirror image of the shape the woman’s crooked arm makes.
The silhouette shape in the top right corner was traced from a photo in the Washington Post of an Australian sheep farmer dragging a sheep by its front paws, from a barn that was either burning, or soon to be burning (was the sheep dead? … or resistant?… ) due to wildfires. Again, there was something about this particular image that struck me as primal, Biblical, sacrificial. I cut the shape from a page in an old dictionary, the paper spattered with red and green paint. I realize now that associations between heat and breath (suffocation) were at play here, too, when I added this image, though I’m sure I wasn’t aware of it when I chose it.
All of these steps occurred over an extended period of time.
To say that a piece of art, whether it’s visual or a poem, is “finished”, is, for me, to say that for now it feels formally complete enough, and that together with the sense of it—its content—the work contains enough information that I, as viewer, can find a footing to repeatedly enter it and discover something new. I think the same active process that goes on in the making, goes on in the looking. Just in writing this, I’ve uncovered more of what was going on, associatively, when making Breath & No Breath than I’d realized.