Archive for the ‘writing’ Category

Workshop Ponderings

May 2, 2016

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The Bible opens with the words “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” That is an adequate summary statement, but the curious reader wants more.  And the following verses provide more:

And the world was without form and void and darkness was on the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved over the face of the waters.  And God said, “Let there be light.” And there was light.

There is a quality image: a world of chaos, a Mind that is brooding, moving, and suddenly creation occurs.  As one continues to read the account, the record shows God creating the world by a series of divisions, organizations.  The artist Robert Motherwell said that drawing was the division, the organization of space.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, in “The American Scholar” testified that the scholar of the first age received into himself the world around, brooded thereon, gave it the new arrangement of his thought, and uttered it again.  It came into him life.  It went from him truth.

In about an hour, I will stand before my second watercolor workshop in the midst of this circuit I’ve been traveling. This will be a plein air watercolor workshop.  And my sincere hope is that the participants experience this parallel that Emerson drew from the opening verses of Genesis. They will stand enveloped in a world swirling with myriads of visual stimuli, holding before them a void, a square white rectangle.  As they ponder this visual world of complexity, their minds will begin to sort, to sift, to edit, and as their brushes move over the surface of the papers, worlds will begin to flow out of their brushes, first the wash, then the divisions, and finally the focused details.  There is little more rewarding than watching a world flow out of the tip of your brush, and realize that you are the one creating this world.

The Bible says that God created humans in his own image.  What is that image of God, that imago Dei?  I believe it is that essential urge to create.  The first word written about God identified him as a creator.  And he created people after his image.  My position is that people, by nature, create.  They have to, because it is in their essential nature to create.

Gotta go.  Workshop begins in one hour and five minutes, and I still have to drive to the location.

Thanks for reading.

I paint in order to understand.

I journal when I feel alone.

I blog to remind myself that I am not alone.

 

Filling the Lacuna

April 7, 2016

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Motherwell’s formidable intelligence was matched by his capacity for deep feeling, and the conflict between intellect and instinct formed one of the richest undercurrents of his art. He approached the situations of his life and of his art with a remarkable flexibility–constantly alert, his thought constantly in motion, his attitudes toward the world around him continually in a state of reappraisal.

Jack Flam, Robert Motherwell: 100 Years

There has been a considerable gap since my last blog posting, because I’ve felt that nothing was going on worthy of a post, though I have been extremely busy chasing school-related and income tax deadlines. I seem to be currently slogging around in the swamp water, yet life is good. Grateful for so much good that has washed over me in recent weeks, I still find myself fumbling over what to do just now with my life with this overload of stimuli. Still, that is a good thing, right?

Last Sunday, I stumbled on a Robert Motherwell installation at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, and the timing couldn’t have been better–Amazon just delivered to me the book I quoted above. I am immersed in the reading of this remarkable text, always in awe of this marvelous, spiritual man.  And I have already returned to visit the show a second time. Thanks to Motherwell, I am drawing more in my sketchbook and plotting out my next series of watercolors. With an art festival approaching in eight days, I doubt that I’ll be able to pursue painting for another week-to-ten days. But at least my mind and heart are fixed on the notion.

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My Tuesday night “Parisian Café” is one of the most precious events to enter my solitary life. As I’ve stated before, “the French Impressionists had their Café Guerbois. Picasso and friends had their Les Deux Magots. The Ash Can School had 806 Walnut Street in Philadelphia. The Abstract Expressionists had the Cedar Bar in Greenwich Village. I myself have ached for an art cafe where I could show up once a week or so and just talk with other creative people . . .”  This gathering of artists and writers fills my cup to overflowing every time I sit down with them. I have gone most of my adult life without a close circle of friends, and I cannot describe the joy and warmth I feel now that I have been embraced. Stacy (seated on the left) is the most soulful poet I have ever known personally, and conversations with her always leave me with an overflowing sense of gratitude.  To make things better, she teaches in the same school as I. Here is a link to Stacy’s blog:

stacycampbell1010.wordpress.com

 

laguna madre poster

Since my last blog post, I’ve cranked out thirty-nine pages of typed rough draft on a book I’m trying to write, recording my Laguna Madre experience of last summer. All my adult life, I’ve wanted to write a book, but never knew how to go about getting it published. I’ve decided I’m writing this one anyway, for me. I’m enclosing the draft of my introductory chapter, and trust me, it’s rough.

Cleansing the Eye:

Recollections from a Grateful Artist-in-Residence

PROLEGOMENA

“Gauguin returned from his first Tahitian sojourn in 1893 with enough canvases and carvings to constitute a one-man show; but he knew that the strangeness of his Tahitian imagery would require some stage-managing if it was to be a success. He had in mind the idea of producing a book that would introduce and explain his imagery to a Parisian audience.” (page X, Writings of a Savage)

How do I introduce myself as quickly as possible and then get out of the way?  I hope that this is not a book about me, but a book about you, dear Reader. I have never believed that quality reading is a passive exercise; you the reader create your own world as you read my words and interact with this text.  Upon completion and release of this book, I will not go forth into the rest of my life, wondering whether or not I am understood; I just want to make a contribution.  I want someone’s life to improve because they spent time with me in this book.

So, what exactly am I?  An unfrustrated public school teacher who has had the pleasure (for the most part) of doing as he pleased for more than a quarter of a century.  My only real issue has been how to make a gift of the knowledge and experiences that have enriched me throughout these years.  My lifestyle, as I’ve sojourned in this world, has been to absorb knowledge, Faustlike, and embed these observations in lesson plans, lectures, and paintings, hoping always that others received something significant from the encounters.  I never expected others to see the world my way, but always hoped to deal an ace worth picking up and inserting into someone else’s poker hand.

Why did Henry David Thoreau go to Walden Woods?  My perspective has been this: he received a vaunted Harvard degree, and with it a skill set, an academic toolbox.  But early in life, he reached the conviction that all knowledge he had received up to that point was secondary.  All the divines whom he had read received their truths directly from nature, he from their books and lectures.  He had lived out Emerson’s complaint that opened Nature in 1836:

The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes.  Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe?  Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs?  Embosomed for a season in nature, whose floods of life stream around and through us, and invite us by the powers they supply, to action proportioned to nature, why should we grope among the dry bones of the past, or put the living generation into masquerade out of its faded wardrobe?  The sun shines to-day also.  There is more wool and flax in the fields.  There are new lands, new men, new thoughts.  Let us demand our own works and laws and worship.

Travelling to Walden Pond to live, Thoreau decided it was time to learn directly from nature, to find out what he could learn from her, and then to publish those results to the world.

And hence I find myself this day at the Laguna Madre.  This is a gift.  My education over my past sixty-plus years has been a gift, but nearly all of it secondary.  Now, for the first time, I hope to scoop primary experience and pass it on to other outstretched hands.  Hopefully, by the end of this sojourn I will echo Nietzsche’s words that I have become weary of my wisdom as a bee that has gathered too much honey, needing hands outstretched to receive it.

Quoting Thoreau, “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. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan- like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.”

My conviction has always been grounded in the notion that solitude is the studio for creativity.  I myself have never found fulfilment in collaborative projects in the visual arts, nor have I found my inspiration in the vortex of think tanks.  The school of solitude is where I have always mined my ideas for painting.  Anthony Storr has argued:

The creative person is constantly seeking to discover himself, to remodel his own identity, and to find meaning in the universe through what he creates.  He finds this a valuable integrating process which, like meditation or prayer, has little to do with other people, but which has its own separate validity.  His most significant moments are those in which he attains some new insight, or makes some new discovery; and these moments are chiefly, if not invariably, those in which he is alone.[1]

“Alone” is the key word that describes my life, though I have been in relationships for most of my years.  I have always required space for my own thinking, writing and creating.  This was true in public school, the university, graduate school, the ministry, and all my subsequent years devoted to the classrooms and lecture halls.  I still look back with gratitude at those times spent in library study carrels, in my own study, under trees, beside flowing streams, in hotel rooms and lobbies, coffee bars and book stores, in roadside parks or staring through a windshield while driving across the country.  My private study cubicle has been wherever I could pause, alone, and pull out a journal or laptop or sketchbook, and pour out my thoughts on the pages.  And throughout my years, I have looked at those file drawers filled with stuffed manila folders, those computer files filled with data, the over one hundred volumes of handwritten journals on my shelf—and wondered how to distill those memories and research efforts into some kind of a book, my life, my philosophy, my love.  Volumes and volumes, pages and pages, layers and layers of themes and threads seeking some kind of resolution, some kind of synthesis, some kind of understandable “story” for others to read and use as desired.  My clusters of recorded ideas have milled about over the decades, as actors on a stage waiting for a director.

As shared in the opening of this chapter, Gauguin returned from his island excursion with a stack of canvases and sought a way to “stage-manage” his public exhibition. So I too returned from the Laguna Madre with nineteen plein air watercolors, with a plan to show them in two exhibitions, conduct a series of watercolor workshops, deliver some public addresses, and attempt to relay to my audiences what I gleaned from this peak experience.

And so, this book will be my first effort, since my doctoral dissertation, to engage in an extended essay, synthesizing the ideas that have meant so much to me over the years and found a way to crystalize while sojourning on a small spoil island in the Texas Laguna Madre.

When Hemingway accepted his Nobel Prize, he declared that “writing, at its best, is a lonely life.”  I would propose the word “solitary.”  I don’t feel lonely when I make art, though I am alone, solitary.  I find those moments soothing.  When the boat pulled away from the dock that first Sunday morning on June 6, 2015, and I waved good-bye to my new friends, watching as they diminished in size on the horizon, the first thing I noticed was that the island was quiet, very quiet.  And I could feel myself beaming inwardly.  I was in an unspoiled paradise, though standing on a spoil island.  It was time to go to work.

[1]Anthony Storr, Solitude: A Return to Self (New York: The Free Press, 1988),  p. xiv.

Thanks for reading.

 

Lost in the Labyrinthe

March 19, 2016

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Newman chose his terms ever so deliberately: “plasma” (or “plastic”) connotes an organic fluidity; it also suggests the more familiar word “plastic,” which refers to an organic quality in materials. Semantically, “plasmic” and “plastic” are closely related (they derive from the Greek word for molding or forming); but they are also inversions of one another, with the one term oriented to living organisms and the other to inert matter. Simply put, the plasmic is lively and active (like the movement of thought, it gives form to things), whereas the plastic is passive (it is the form that thought and other forces produce). The various drafts of “The Plasmic Image” explore the links between “plasmic” and “plastic,” between creative thought and the material form it can assume. Newman’s guiding metaphor is this: plasma, as the fluid part of the body communicates thought. Thus the plasmic and the plastic bond together whenever “the new painter is concerned with his subject matter, with his thought”.

Richard Shiff, Introduction to Barnett Newman: Selected Writings and Interviews

Countless times while posting on my blog, I feel that I am wearing my underwear on the outside. This is one of those moments. I love reading artist’s writings about the task of making art. Robert Motherwell has been a favorite of mine for years, and now, one of his contemporaries, Barnett Newman has crossed my desk. A former student of mine, Ian Watson, now a serious painter pursuing a path that has issued from his serious study of Abstract Expressionism, has passed on to me this book on Newman’s writings. Though my painting style is nowhere near the Abstract Expressionists, the more serious thinkers among them engage my mind in the most satisfying way. I don’t feel that I have a clear-cut aesthetic theory of art, or even a style for that matter. I love the process of making art, and love reading the thoughtful writings of artists who engage in that same enterprise, always hoping one day I will figure out what I am trying to do and express it well.

Finishing my term as Artist-in-Residence day before yesterday has yielded an experience similar to jumping into a warm pond after emerging from a sauna. Yesterday, back home for the first time, I spent the day in galleries and museums, searching for some kind of direction of where to go next in my work. I enjoyed the museum time, but nothing really clicked with my own work. I had trouble going to bed last night, finally succumbing at 2:00 a.m. Waking at 8:00, groggy, I made coffee, built a fire (wow, a delightful 43 degrees outside!), settled into my reading chair before the fireplace, and read extensively from Thoreau’s journals and Barnett Newman’s writings. Coming across the introductory quote posted above, I thought about that conflict between the artist’s mind and the materials s/he is trying to manipulate, and I looked up at this watercolor I started last year and abandoned.

The painting is of a section of bluff carved out by Highway 30 west of High Ridge, Missouri. I drove through that section last Thanksgiving on a dreary rainy morning, en route to my Texas home. I was so taken by the soaked landscape under the dark morning skies that I turned my vehicle around, drove back, got out in the rain and took several photos.Once I got home I began the painting enthusiastically, but nothing seemed to go right. I tossed it aside and forgot about it. Once I found it again this year, and wished to give it another try, I could not find my reference photos among my computer files. I wasted almost an entire Saturday morning looking for them. Disgusted, I put the watercolor next to the fireplace and went on with my life. Then, I came across the photos just before leaving on Spring Break for Corpus Christi. I thought about this painting the entire time I was on the coast.

Reading the comments on Newman’s theory jolted me and I returned to the drafting table. I love the slice of landscape I viewed that morning, and have re-visited countless times in my mind’s eye. And this morning, I decided to push my mind and imagination harder against the resistant colors and shapes to see if I could wrest some kind of pleasing composition from it. I keep working back and forth between the complementary violets and yellows as well as the greens and reds. And, as many times before, I am lost in the network of winter tree limbs that trace out a labyrinthe against the sky. I purchased an atomizer from Asel Art yesterday (I lost mine from 1974!) and sprayed some Hydrus liquid watercolor across certain areas. I feel like a small child in the classroom, but that is O.K. I’m back to the joy of discovering new artistic possibilities and am enjoying this ride in particular.

Thanks for reading.

I paint in order to learn.

I journal when I feel alone.

I blog to remind myself that I am not alone.

 

A Loving Tribute to a Story-Teller

January 2, 2016

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Uncle Paul Holds Court

On this New Years Day 2016, I’ve successfully built and maintained a fire in the fireplace, and have spent the winter morning soaked in primal feelings while gazing into its flames, listening to the crackle and reliving years of memories beside a bonfire, listening to my Uncle Paul.  My father’s older brother always believed that he was better than the life offered him in rural southeast Missouri—a Mississippi River tenant farm culture.  He served in the Navy during World War II, and when discharged in 1945, chose not to return to the farm, but to continue serving the Navy as a civilian for another nine years, living in Guam.  Once that connection dried up, he returned to the United States, but chose to begin life anew in San Mateo, California.  Fancying himself as a writer, he managed to freelance and publish for magazines while opening an automotive repair shop, and then later entered the employment of Greyhound where he worked his way up to night manager, and remained till retirement.  He never stopped writing.

Paul came home to southeast Missouri once a year, traveling free on a Greyhound bus, and taking up residence as a guest in the squat little house of his sister Bea and her husband Bus, overlooking Little Indian Creek rolling by below.  Paul had become a celebrity to the rest of the Tripp clan, consisting of his eleven siblings along with their children and grandchildren, a number increasing to scores of people pouring into that little house.  Paul had developed quite an art to humor and storytelling in the grand manner of Mark Twain.  His snarly, nasal voice sounded like William Burroughs, and Uncle Paul acquired the persona of a sage.  His annual arrival eventually morphed into an event–a bonfire/wienie roast at Bea and Bus’s.  This became the ideal forum for Paul to launch his stories.

Paul’s visits have now commingled with my own special teenage memories of hiking and fishing Little Indian Creek all day and returning to Bea and Bus’s house at sunset, sunburned, with a stringer of bluegill, catfish and memories of the day.  The driveway already filled with cars, I knew what I was going to encounter when entering through that kitchen door: a living room packed with uncles, aunts and cousins, and a cigar-chewing Uncle Paul seated before them all, clutching his can of beer, and holding court with his stories and anecdotes.  And what I noticed from the start is that Paul never spoke to anyone—he spoke to everyone.  Paul never showed interest in engagement; he only wanted an audience.  The evening would always be a sustained roar of laughter, fueled by cases of beer and soda.  Once it grew dark outside, it was time to withdraw to the bonfire and wienie roast.  Uncle Paul was just getting warmed up for his Second Act.  The curtain would always close around 4:00 a.m.

  1. My senior year in high school. My final bonfire with Uncle Paul.  Bea and Bus were older now, retiring to bed at twilight, and no longer tolerant of Uncle Paul’s late nights.  When the day arrived for Uncle Paul to visit, they announced the close of an era.  No wienie roast this time.  No bonfire.  Not here.  We’re going to bed.  Paul arrived around noon.  He was told the news.  One hour later, cars began pulling into the driveway.

“Why is everyone coming?”

“Wienie roast.”

“No!” said Bea firmly.  “Not this time.”  More stations wagons arrived, and Tripps were discharged.

“Where’s Uncle Paul?”

“Down at the creek, cuttin’ limbs for the wienies.”

“No!” shouted Bus.  “We’re not doin’ that this time!”

“Where’s Uncle Ralph?”

“Gettin’ wood for the bonfire.”
“No!” repeated Bea. “We’re not havin’ a fire tonight!  We’re goin’ to bed this time.”

More cars arrived.  Trunks opened.  Crates of beer and soda were unloaded.

“Might as well pack ‘em back up!” drawled Bus.  “We’re not partyin’ tonight.”

“Where’s Denzil?”

“Gone to the store to get wienies.”

“Wienies?!” cried Bea.  “We’re not havin’ a wienie roast!”

The skies darkened.  The fire ignited.  Dozens of Tripps skewered their wienies and approached the altar.  Libations were poured.  Bea and Bus yawned loudly enough for all to hear and ignore.  And Uncle Paul’s stories began.

4:00 a.m.  Everything has grown deliciously quiet save for the sounds of tree frogs overhead and the crackling dying embers of the fire in front.  Paul has gotten quieter, more reflective.  Only a few of us are still there, staring quietly into the fire.

“You have a fine vocabulary.”  Paul was talking to me.  For the first time.  Ever.  “You should write.”

Settling into My New Writing Sanctuary

November 23, 2015

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A Most Precious Gift–a New Writing Desk

desk library

My Newly-Designated Writing Area

“Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there.  It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that you knew or had seen or had heard someone say. If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut that scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written.

Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

The most frutstrating part of being ill the past couple of weeks was the inability to use my eyes for reading, writing or making art.  For months I had been toiling over a manusccript describing my experience painting and journaling on the Texas Laguna Madre last summer.  During the struggle I took Hemingway’s words to heart, refusing to succumb to writer’s block, and refusing to think my writing was garbage. As the manuscript grew and became more unmanageable, and as the school semester became more demanding with its unceasing deadlines, I pushed the manuscript into a drawer and decided to let the ideas “compost” awhile. Then I got sick!

Now I’m better, and a most wonderful gift was given to me that I shall always cherish–a rolltop desk. Designating a corner of my bedroom as my writing area, I’ve dedicated a part of every single day to sitting here and reworking the manuscript I began last June. I have always loved the writing process and now will seek a way to strike a balance between my writing and painting studios. I’m grateful that life is abundant enough to support both endeavors.

Thanks for reading.

I paint in order to remember.

I journal when I feel alone.

I blog to remind myself that I am not alone.