Archive for February, 2019

When Journaling was More Magical

February 15, 2019

Emerson’s organized, persistent, purposeful journal keeping is one of the most striking aspects of his early intellectual life. He wrote constantly, he wrote about everything, he covered hundreds of pages. When he had nothing to say, he wrote about having nothing to say. . . . He laughed at much of it when he read it over, inserting comments such as “dead before it reached its subject,” but he kept at it.

Robert D. Richardson Jr., Emerson: The Mind on Fire

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Pages from Journals of a More Creative Past

The delicious part of my mornings during these retrement years is usually spent at my desk, reading with pleasure over cups of hot, French-pressed coffee, while cafe music plays from Youtube. In the midst of this morning’s reading, I suddenly detoured to swan-dive into my old journals, using passages from some of them to flesh out the memoir I’ve been drafting for over a month now.

Somewhere around 1985, I began scrawling journal entries on loose paper to place in manila file folders, and by the fall of 1988, when I began teaching full-time, began purchasing notebooks to keep these pages bound. By 1990, Emerson became my hero of journaling, and I became more obsessed with saving my notebooks, though I never indexed my ideas the way he did, and probably never will.

For about the past decade, I have shared with many friends my conviction that, despite the feeling that I am thinking and synthesizing better now than ever before, I still sense a malaise in the quality of my journaling. In former days, I sketched much more on my pages, collaged images, and inserted many more notes from my reading, accompanied with my own critical observations. Those cross-fertilizations are not happening of late, and when I tried to explain to my sister why my journals were growing stale, she raised an eyebrow and replied: “Running out of words?” A good moment!

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My Entire Assembly of Journals

At any rate, I have resolved in 2019 to find ways to freshen my journaling practice. The habit is firmly in place–I scribble daily–but I am getting bored by the lackluster content of my scribbling. And I am bored from looking at pages filled only with words; I need to return to collaging, drawing, and designing. My real hero of the journal is not Emerson as much as Leonardo da Vinci. Throughout my years of teaching philosophy, art history and art studio, I have urged my students to take up his practice of what I call sketchbook/journaling, to devote time to writing out one’s thoughts as well as drawing and designing. I used to do that long ago, but got away from the practice.

I also plan to be more aggressive in my journals in the exploration of my fleeting thoughts and ideas, not just essay topics. I once read that journals were maps for organizing wonder; I feel that much of the wonder and magic have been drained from my own journaling, and I am ready to recapture that.

Quoting again from Richardson’s Emerson biography:

He was now trying to capture not just major conclusions and insights, but the slightest, most evanescent hints and glimmers that rose to the surface of his mind and then as quickly sank from sight: “For the best part . . . of every mind is not that which [a person] knows, but that which hovers in gleams, suggestions, tantalizing unpossessed before him.” Emerson’s journals show that for years he fished along the edges of consciousness, eager to note down the smallest fresh suggestion or hint of a suggestion. . . . These were all struggles to forestall and cheat the repressive processes of the mind, to snatch and write down everything that reached the surface of consciousness. Much of Emerson’s journal is not intended as finished work or public utterance, nor even as the record of private conviction. He is concerned to explore–and then to save–impulses, essays, hints, trials, spurts, exaggerations, the most fleeting and evanescent flowers of the mind.

Emerson left behind a collection of over 263 volumes of journals. Long ago, I stopped worrying over my quantity of volumes; I simply hope to recover some quality as I proceed.

Thanks for reading.

I make art in order to discover.

I journal, hoping to recapture the magic.

I blog, always realizing I am not alone.

 

 

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Fragments

February 13, 2019

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One of the ways Benjamin is most interesting is in his resistance to production, his determination, similar to Wittgenstein’s, to remain devoted to thought and reflection for their own sake. His was the guilt of the fragmentist, the man who never finishes the great work which he and his admirers think he is capable of. He is all sparks, yet the sparks rarely produce a steady flame; but the sparks do have a white brilliance that in itself is enough.

Larry McMurtry, Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen: Reflections at Sixty and Beyond

This morning I believe I have learned a soulful lesson. The temperatures had dropped to thirty-seven degrees, and I thought: “Yay, a fire in the fireplace!” I set about doing that quickly, but then, halfway through getting dressed, suddenly realized that I was in a foul, dark, surly mood, and wondered what had happened. That was not hard to figure out–I had turned on the national news. A few minutes of listening to soundbites from a blustering sourpuss had managed to switch me into a similar disposition. Abruptly, I switched to a YouTube search, and finding an interview with author John Updike, tuned in. Listening to his thoughtful, reflective responses to well-put questions shifted me to a better outlook, almost immediately. Now, seated before the fire with freshly-pressed coffee and a stack of books, I am in a serene place. That wasn’t hard to figure out; I now know how I will start tomorrow morning. No national news, find something thoughtful to hear.

Yesterday I finished the engaging book I’ve quoted above. This series of autobiographical essays are among the best material I have read in awhile; I love this life of “reflections at sixty and beyond.” McMurtry addressed the anxieties one often feels when thinking that production has tapered once the senior years advance. I really appreciate his allusion to Wittgenstein and the love of “thought and reflection for their own sake.” As for the comment on the “fragmentist,” I would also add Samuel Taylor Coleridge who was known for working in a studio littered with unfinished drafts of poems, short stories and essays–he just loved the craft of writing, even if he often did not complete projects.

I know all-too-well the feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy, musing over things I did not complete. But I try to shift gears quickly by reminding myself that I know how to finish big tasks–I did manage to remain at the same job for twenty-eight years, and before that I did manage to complete a Ph.D., dissertation and all. And as for my art, I did manage to complete a number of large-scale murals along with thematic collections of watercolors to bring out for several one-man-shows.  Currently I am musing over my next watercolor, drawing and writing project with enthusiasm. But at my current age, I am trying not to put myself under some artificial, self-imposed deadline. I have paid my dues. The time has come to enjoy life, enjoy retirement, and savor these gifts that life experience graciously grants.

Thanks for reading.

I make art in order to discover.

I journal when I feel alone.

I blog to remind myself I am not alone.

 

Thoughts at the Morning Fireside

February 8, 2019

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Except for the occasional square dance, no one had any entertainment except the exchanging of experience that occurs in storytelling. So it was, no doubt, in rural places throughout the centuries; then, there was no media–now, it seems, there’s no life.

Larry McMurtry, Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

Henry David Thoreau, Walden

A sweet morning indeed, when temperatures outdoors are twenty-five degrees and I have nowhere to go until evening. I don’t get to burn enough fires in fireplaces during Texas winters–some winters never get cold enough for a single fireside experience. So this morning I consider a luxury.

Larry McMurtry has provided plenteous food for thought. His grandparents were pioneers settling Archer County, Texas, and by the time he came along, Archer City was still quite small, there was not yet radio, and the only entertainment he knew after chores was listening to the adults tell stories. I connect with this easily, because this is similar to what I knew growing up. My family had radio, and I listened to programming throughout the day. Television did not come till I was nearly school-age. But I do recall the visits to the grandparents on both sides of my family, at farms in southeast Missouri. Mom and Dad had eleven siblings each (children in that generation were farm hands), and so anytime we visited in the country, all the kinfolk would gather round (most of them had continued to reside in the country, though Mom and Dad moved two-and-a-half hours north to St. Louis). Stories passed around the living room circles, and I still remember the constant chatter and laughter. Sometimes we children got bored and went out to play. But hours were still spent listening to these stories.

I still love a good story, and my closest friends still delight in exchanging them. To this day, I would still choose the company of those who like to share life stories and meaningful memories over the ones who wish to rant over political, current or religious issues. I spend little time tuning in to news on radio or television, because I have been fed up with the anger and resentment for years. I am grateful for the life that has been given me, for every good experience worth remembering, and every good conversation I have encountered.

This evening will be my privilege to take part as an Academic Decathlon judge for the interviews. My task will be to listen to high school students answering questions about their individual life experiences with family and school, along with their dreams and life goals. Each will have a chance to tell his/her story, and I for one will be an enthusiastic listener. And as I hear these stories, I will recall with gladness the best parts of what I was privileged to experience in over three decades of classroom encounters.

Thanks for reading.

I make art in order to discover.

I journal when I feel alone.

I blog to remind myself I am not alone.

A Larry McMurtry Story Comes to Life

February 6, 2019

dark study

Rainy Morning in the Study

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It is necessary to think one thought and one thought only and think it through to the end.

Martin Heidegger

The daemon knows how it is done.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

With a dim light from the rainy morning filling my study, I am reading Larry McMurtry’s Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen. He opens this autobiography, recalling his reading of Benjamin’s 1936 essay “The Storyteller” while sipping a lime Dr. Pepper at the Dairy Queen outside Archer City during the hot summer of 1980. As he looked around the Dairy Queen at the patrons drinking coffee, he noted there was not a storyteller to be found anywhere among the gathering.

I trembled at this written account, because it stirred a memory of my own. Pulling my old journals from the shelf, I discovered that on this very day, three years ago, February 6, 2016, I recorded notes in a pocket journal at 6:15 a.m. in Archer City, just down the road from that Dairy Queen! It was 38 degrees that morning (this morning it is 70). I crossed the dark street from the Spur Hotel and entered Murn’s Cafe to enjoy a hot breakfast during that frigid pre-dawn. Thirty-six years after McMurtry lamented the absence of storytellers at the Dairy Queen just down the road, I realized on this particular morning that I could not concentrate on reading Jack Kerouac’s Visions of Cody because of the stories percolating from three farmers wearing seed caps, enjoying their coffee and breakfast. Their ruminations covered subjects from bulls, heifers and feral hogs to how long it takes to drive from Wichita Falls to Longview. I noted in my journal that their most common word was “sumbitch.” Pulling a notebook from my pocket, I tried to scribble out snatches of their conversation:

When I git sleepy drivin’ I jus’ stop and take a nap or git somethin’ sweet. I come all the way from Bossier City and when I got to Longview I wuz one sleepy sumbitch. Bought four of them jelly donuts and eat ’em. Drove the rest of the way . . . 

I drove all kindsa trucks. Cain’t beat a Shivverlay. Shit, I useta drive that sumbitch all the way from here clear to Looziana three times a week . . .

When I wuz younger and cowboyin’ here, New Mexico and Nevada, I learnt you kin shoot all the sumbitches ya want. Them pigs are tearin’ this place plum up . . .

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Since Monday morning, I have been inspired to create a new series of watercolors and stories spawned by memories I hold sacred. Between McMurtry, Benjamin, Harold Bloom and Martin Heidegger, I have been weaving pages of notes taken from their writings with snatches from my own journals and memoirs, believing these fragments could actually yield a series worth pursuing.

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Heidegger reminds me in his poem “The Thinker as Poet”:

To be old means: to stop in time at

            that place where the unique

            thought of a thought train has

            swung into its joint.

After months of feeling barren of inspiration, I believe finally that something is beginning to bloom.

Thanks for reading.

I make art in order to explore.

I journal when I feel alone.

I blog to remind myself I am not alone.

Late Night with Walter Benjamin

February 5, 2019

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Back in my Study Sanctuary

The pressure disappeared with the first word he put on paper. He thought–while his hand moved rapidly–what a power there was in words; later, for those who heard them, but first for the one who found them; a healing power, a solution, like the breaking of a barrier. He thought perhaps the basic secret the scientists have never discovered, the first fount of life, is that which happens when a thought takes shape in words.

Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead

Staying up late at night is not my habit, but last night I slept poorly, and so was tired all day today. By the time I made the two-hour drive home, I collapsed onto my bed late this afternoon and slumbered deeply for a few hours. An evening exercise walk only managed to stimulate me beyond hope, so here I am, after midnight, wired, and continuing my delicious reading of Walter Benjamin’s 1936 essay “The Storyteller.” After reading only three pages of it in the gallery this morning, I opened my journal and scribbled out a plethora of pages of ideas, and now I am continuing that this night. Hence, one of my favorite quotes above from Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. Writing affects me that way, but sometimes I go for weeks without that thrill from writing. Lately I have been quite dry, and wondered when the winds of inspiration would blow again, when would the muse whisper again. Thankfully, this morning’s stroll around downtown Palestine, Texas, along with the reading from Walter Benjamin, brought stirring breezes back to my soul.

What I find stirring in this essay is the way in which Benjamin describes what newspapers in the Germany of his day (1936) did to the general public–the same as what the media in general does to people in our society today–deluges them in data, facts, trivia, with no interpretive weaving. People no longer listen to stories; they swallow facts, events, statistics. No one weaves stories; people merely report the news, changing the subject by the minute. There is no longer any sustained narrative.

I am still absorbing the contents of this engaging essay, but right now, I am stirred deeply by this statement that storytelling “does not aim to convey the pure essence of the thing, like information or a report. It sinks the thing into the life of the storyteller, in order to bring it out of him again. Thus traces of the storyteller cling to the story the way the handprints of the potter cling to the clay vessel.”

This is what has me spinning tonight. As an artist, I constantly struggle against becoming a mere illustrator. I often think that illustration does no more than convince the viewer that the artist is talented. That is not enough for me. Like Van Gogh used to lament, I wish to make art that moves people, touches people, heals people. I want people to be drawn in by what they see. I want them to enter into my pictures (my stories) with their own imagination, their own history, their own feelings, and re-emerge more fulfilled. Yes, I want to convey the “fact” of my subject matter, but above that, I want to put flesh on those bones; I want viewers to see more than the bare facts, the bare skeletal structure of the painting.

I don’t know when I will get to the end of this essay. The more I read from it, the more I end up scribbling in my journal. So many fascinating ideas from this fertile mind of Walter Benjamin. Such fascinating late-night company.

Thanks for reading.

I make art in order to discover.

I journal when I feel alone.

I blog to remind myself I am not alone.

 

Our Town, U.S.A.

February 4, 2019

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Palestine Railyards, Chamber of Commerce, Sacred Heart and Redlands Hotel

This is a rare Monday morning, enjoying The Gallery at Redlands and listening to “Kevin and Marc in the Morning” broadcasting just on my right, sharing space in this gallery.

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The Gallery at Redlands, with “Kevin and Marc in the Morning” behind the Screen

I keep my phone muted during broadcasts, and when I saw the screen light up, I stepped out into the streets to return a missed call. The 64-degree overcast morning featured cool breezes, compliments of recent rains. The air smelled fresh, and the sounds of the city enraptured me, particularly the pounding of the behemoth locomotives in the Union Pacific railyards, just two blocks from the gallery.  Feeling my senses enriched, I strolled around two city blocks, talking on the phone, and then just stopped to gaze in all directions. The dark gray morning sky promised rain, and I decided to shoot a panorama of my favorite section of the town: the railyards, the park, the Chamber of Commerce building (which used to be the railroad headquarters), Sacred Heart Catholic Church, and the Redlands Hotel, with the gallery window visible, and just inside, Smooth Rock 93.5, broadcasting live.

This morning, I am reading Walter Benjamin’s 1936 essay, “The Storyteller.” This inspired Larry McMurtry’s book of autobiographical essays, titled Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen. Having already read the early portions of it before stepping out into the Palestine streets, I gazed up and down the city blocks and thought of main street U.S.A. My mind drifted back to Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street, Sherwood Anderson’s Winesberg, Ohio, Thorton Wilder’s play Our Town and Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon Days. An old idea returned to me that never came to fruition–in 1999, I had this notion of creating a series of watercolors with accompanying short stories titled “My Town 63050.” I was going to create a fictional town as Keillor did with Lake Wobegon, Wilder with Grover’s Corners and Faulkner with Yoknapatawpha County. The zip code is fake, falling between the two Missouri towns where I carved out my childhood: 63051 in House Springs and 63049 in High Ridge.

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“Turvey’s Corner”, painted in 1999

“Turvey’s Corner” is an enlarged giclee print on canvas of a watercolor I created to launch this series, “My Town 63050.” I created four additional paintings for the series, but never got the short stories written, and within six months, all the original paintings sold, and my idea evaporated. Until now. Perhaps the year 2019 will witness the resuscitation of this series. The morning walk certainly flooded my imagination with possibilities. Palestine is the quintessential railroad town to provide the setting. The 1914 Redlands Hotel could be the soil out of which this seed sprouts. And the addition of Smooth Rock 93.5 brings to mind that wonderful book by Garrison Keillor, WLT: A Radio Romance. The more I write this morning, the more enthused I feel about the possibilities. Let’s see if I can roll this project out of the garage.

Thanks for reading.

I make art in order to explore.

I journal when I feel alone.

I blog to remind myself I am not alone.

 

Commission Finished

February 3, 2019

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Thank you, all of you who have shown interest in the development of this watercolor. There have been requests to post it, so here it is, everything except the signature. This was a labor of love, as the stories behind it warm my heart and are very similar to experiences I knew, growing up and visiting my grandparents on the farm. The patron is a published author, with many fine stories to tell. I hope she publishes the stories surrounding this picture, as they have kept me good company while working on it.

Thanks for reading.

Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen

February 3, 2019

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Breakfast at the Dairy Queen in Palestine, Texas

Enjoying my weekend in Palestine and The Redlands Hotel, I was tipped off yesterday by Jean (owner of the hotel) to try out the local Dairy Queen for breakfast. This morning when I arrived and ordered the “country breakfast,” the counter girl asked me how I wanted my eggs. “Over easy?” I hesitatingly offered. And what to drink? “Coffee.” She handed me a real mug! And, a short while later, this was brought to me, on a real plate with real silverware.

I do not take meals at the Dairy Queen, but I still recall that the one outside Archer City, Texas serves breakfast this way, as a real American diner would. When I returned to The Gallery at Redlands, I decided that I need to acquire a copy of Larry McMurtry’s Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen. I understand that this collection of essays, autobiographical in nature, contain the author’s lament at the demise of story telling in American culture, and ways in which small American towns have been drained of their local charm. Though I live in Arlington, I have found far more of a fascinating world and culture in Palestine, Texas. I am truly blessed, granted time to spend in The Gallery at Redlands and reside in The Redlands Hotel and enjoy the music and camaraderie of Kevin and Marc at Smooth Rock 93.5 FM. As I write this, I am finishing a watercolor commission for a local author (I know of two authors that live in this vicinity), and the community is awash in musicians. Many of us have the same thing in common–growing up in small towns, working and raising families in large cities, then returning to these small towns to enjoy life at a lovelier pace.

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I Should Finish this One Today

After I finish this painting, I intend to read Walter Benjamin’s 1936 essay “The Storyteller.” And who knows–I may just pick up a copy of McMurtry’s collection and see what I can glean from the reading.

Thanks for reading

I make art in order to discover.

I journal when I feel alone.

I blog to remind myself I am not alone. 

Night Life in Palestine

February 2, 2019

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Kevin Harris, Lighting Up the Night

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My Attempt to Sketch & Journal while Kevin Played

After spending most of the day painting in the gallery, I decided to drift over to a popular night spot and listen to Kevin Harris perform his acoustic set. I have enjoyed associating with Kevin since Smooth Rock 93.5 FM moved into the gallery with me last summer. As it turns out, Kevin is the quintessential soloist, and I should not have been surprised. Perhaps with more practice I can grow more comfortable sketching the human figure from life, but I’m not there yet. The night was cool and temperate, and the performance was outdoors. I guess Texas isn’t so bad in February.

Thanks for reading.

 

 

Nearing the Finish of a Commission

February 2, 2019

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. . . some of the words you’ll find within yourself,

the rest some daemon will inspire you to say.

Homer, The Odyssey

While taking breaks from my painting to read from Homer’s Odyssey, I was arrested by these words Athena spoke to Telemachus when he feared that, as a youth, he did not know the proper words with which to address King Nestor. The reference to the daemon reminded me of a book I still haven’t completed reading: Allan Bloom’s The Daemon Knows. In this work, Bloom quotes an obscure reference from one of Emerson’s journals, claiming that the daemon knows where the idea is going to go. Throughout the work, Bloom extols the virtues of intuition and daring to go outside the box. He argues that we don’t know if our efforts will produce a work of genius. Nevertheless, we continue to push, continue to love the work.

I find all of this refreshing when I find myself struggling with a watercolor. With the one in progress above, I have encountered countless problems that I have not been schooled to address, and I have had to remain focused on the task. So far, nothing has happened to upset me, and the patron came in to look at it today and was pleased with the direction it is taking. Her sentiments freed me considerably, so now I am working on it with much more confidence. All the same, however, I still don’t really know what it is that makes a composition “work”, and I continue to feel this concern that I will make the wrong moves and the piece will “miss.” Even at this age, I must learn to trust my instinct and push onward.

This day has been a soothing balm, reading and painting in the gallery and greeting patrons. Soon, I’ll get to listen to my radio friend, Kevin Harris, perform a solo gig here in Palestine. Afterward, I plan to return and work late in the gallery, as the Red Fire Grille stays open late on Saturday night, and sometimes a good number of patrons come into the gallery. And who knows, maybe I’ll finish this painting tonight!

Thanks for reading.

I make art in order to learn.

I journal when I feel alone.

I blog, reminding myself I am never alone.