Posts Tagged ‘genius’

Keeping the Motor Running

January 2, 2016

image

The creative geniuses of art and science work obsessively. They do not lounge under apple trees waiting for fruit to fall or lightning to strike. “When inspiration does not come to me,” Freud once said, “I go halfway to meet it.” Bach wrote a cantata every week, even when he was sick or exhausted. Though most composers would kill to have written even one of his best pieces, some were little more than wallpaper music. Eliot’s numerous drafts of “The Waste Land” constitute what one scholar called “a jumble of good and bad passages [that he turned] into a poem.” In a study of 2,036 scientists throughout history, Simonton found that the most respected produced not only more great works, but also more “bad” ones. They produced. Period.

Sharon Begley, “The Puzzle of Genius,” Newsweek, June 27, 1993

Today has been a rewarding Saturday.  As I near the end of it, I recall that I made a sketch from a large watercolor I did a few years ago of a 1902 cabin in rural Arkansas.  I used the watercolor as a model for a 5 x 7″ drawing. Then tonight, I decided to knock out a 5 x 7″ watercolor sketch of the same composition. I’m not finished with the watercolor, but I’m getting sleepy and will shelve it until a later time.

The piece I posted above is from an article that I have never been able to forget.  I took it out today and re-read it, encouraging myself to make more art in this New Year, and not worry about whether or not the works is good or not, frameable or not, marketable or not. I love the observation that creators just create, period.  They create a large body of good work and bad work.  Ralph Waldo Emerson, discussing the writing experience, said that a pump brings up muddy water before it gets to the clean water, and that a writer has to write through the mud before reaching clarity. I think the same can be said for making art. Perhaps we start out cold and clumsy, but we’ll warm up to the occasion, provided we care enough to stay with it.

Thanks always for reading, and Happy New Year.

I paint in order to remember.

I journal when I feel alone.

I blog to remind myself that I am not alone.

This World is but Canvas to our Imaginations (Thoreau)

July 31, 2015
Experimental Sea Shell Sketch

Experimental Sea Shell Sketch

Imagination is the air of the mind, in which it lives and breathes.

Henry David Thoreau, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers

Though this day was fraught with art-related business errands, the sweetness of Thoreau’s words stayed in my heart, and when finally the evening light faded, and the business ceased, I was afforded the satisfying sweetness of curling in a comfortable chair and reading further from this young man’s pen.

Waves of serener life pass over us from time to time, like flakes of sunlight over the fields in cloudy weather. In some happier moment, when more sap flows in the withered stalk of our life, Syria and India stretch away from our present as they do in history.

Thoreau, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers

As I scribbled in my journal, I thought about the life that I prefer (a quiet, contemplative one) and the one I often live (dashing from engagement to engagement to engagement), and realized that there does exist a life of the mind alongside the daily routine of industry. When I feel the frustration of checking off the bullet points of a daily calendar list of tasks, I must find a way to remind myself that the life of the mind is still possible in the midst of all this action. And then . . . there are those delicious hours like the ones I enjoyed this night, where it is possible to loosen those coils of tension while reading the serene sagacity of Thoreau’s musings. I love this notion of our world yielding itself as a canvas to our imaginations. I am still haunted by the story of the lonely poet Wallace Stevens while working at his insurance job:

I do recall one time when I got to know him a little better, he called me in the office one day and he says to me, “Brownie,” he said, “Can you give me your idea of what imagination is?”  And I said, “No I don’t have any idea.” He said, “Well, why don’t you think about it a couple of days and come back and we’ll talk about it.”  But he never brought the subject up again.  I’m very thankful, too.

Lynn Brown Jr., recalling a conversation with poet Wallace Stevens while working at Hartford Insurance Group.

One thing that has not changed throughout my life is the conviction that the imagination is among the richest gifts life has bestowed upon us. Daily, I wonder if I am still not giving myself enough time to explore this gift. The notion of “genius” too often has been associated with I.Q., but I don’t buy that, and haven’t since I began teaching in 1985. I think genius is one’s courage to trust his/her innate curiosity, and like Emerson, I believe this gift of genius is the “sole estate” of every person.

I don’t know what diverted my mind to the sea shells, but while reading, my mind drifted to an abandoned practice that I had once found intriguing in the early 1990’s–back then I used to experiment with several different pencils when layering textures of the bark of winter trees. I decided to try this out on the sea shell. Positioning a desk lamp close to the shell, and placing it on a dark wooden box, I looked at the shell closely and tried to draw it with my usual HB pencil. After getting the basic contours down, I then decided to use a hard, sharp 8H pencil to cut into the drawing paper, and then skate over the top of the scribbles with a soft 6B pencil. The impressions from the hard pencil showed beneath the darkened smears of the soft one, and what emerged reminded me of some of the effects I admire so much in etchings and engravings from Renaissance and Neo-Classical works. This is my first attempt, and now I am excited to try it some more. I am feeling like the mad scientist in his laboratory, late at night.

Thanks for reading.

I make art in order to explore.

I journal when I feel alone.

I blog to remind myself that I am not alone.

Meditations on “Genius”

July 19, 2015
Nearing the Finish of an Earlier Painting of the Laguna Madre

Nearing the Finish of an Earlier Painting of the Laguna Madre

What makes men of genius, or rather, what they make, is not new ideas, it is that idea—possessing them—that what has been said has still not been said enough. . . . Novelty is in the mind that creates, and not in nature, the thing painted. . . . That fever, you take it for the power to create, but it is, rather, a mere need to imitate. . . . Ah, no.  The fact is that they have not said the hundredth part of what there is to say; the fact is that with a single one of the things that they skim over, there is more material for original geniuses than there is . . . and that nature has put in safe keeping in the great imaginations to come more new things to say about her creations than she has created things.

Eugene Delacroix. Journal

Recently I listened on Youtube to the late Abstract Expressionist painter Robert Motherwell, fielding questions from an audience. He was asked about why he painted “Elegy to the Spanish Republic” over a hundred times. Was it a series. His response was No, not a series. His reason for the repeated paintings was that he felt that he never found what he was looking for as he explored that composition. He believed that was the same reason Paul Cezanne painted mont sainte victoire over fifty times. Delacroix, in his journal, pointed out that “genius” believes there is still much to be said in the subject under consideration.

The topic of genius is one that has intrigued me for a number of years.  I confess that in graduate school I dreamt of publishing an original idea (probably the dream of over 90% of dissertation authors).  Once I landed in the teaching arena, I continued to look for that original idea to publish, to put myself on the map so to speak.  As time went on, I came to this notion that creative genius is manifest in the act of configuring ideas in a way not done before.  As history continues to unroll, it becomes increasingly impossible to be “original.”  Once I began to think down this track, I tossed the vision of originality and instead found my joy in the act of creating, no longer fretting over whether or not my work would stand the test of time.

Back in 1993, I was enraptured by an article published in Newsweek, titled “The Puzzle of Genius,” written by Sharon Begley.  I saved the issue, and twenty-one years later, I still read it, and now quote from it:

The creative geniuses of art and science work obsessively. They do not lounge under apple trees waiting for fruit to fall or lightning to strike. “When inspiration does not come to me,” Freud once said, “I go halfway to meet it.” Bach wrote a cantata every week, even when he was sick or exhausted. Though most composers would kill to have written even one of his best pieces, some were little more than wallpaper music. Eliot’s numerous drafts of “The Waste Land” constitute what one scholar called “a jumble of good and bad passages [that he turned] into a poem.” In a study of 2,036 scientists throughout history, Simonton found that the most respected produced not only more great works, but also more “bad” ones. They produced. Period.

A few years back, I stopped using my full-time job as an excuse, and leapt from averaging fifteen-to-twenty watercolors per year to well over a hundred.  Sure, some of them are 5 x 7”, but some are 22 x 28”.  Some are quite bad, but others are quite alright.  I’m pleased that I’m cranking out creations, no longer fretting over every one of them being worthy of framing and hanging.  Funny—around the time I began feeling somewhat smug over cranking out great quantities of art work, I read about the day in 1975 when Andrew Wyeth was approached by Thomas Hoving to assemble a major exhibition for the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Wyeth unlocked his cabinets and drew out more than fifteen hundred pre-studies for his tempera, dry-brush and watercolor masterpieces.  Fifteen hundred!

In my life today, I frequently encounter colleagues who describe themselves as “frustrated artists.”  Oftentimes, I discover that they haven’t created anything in years, using as an excuse their job, family, health—any number of obstacles that all humans encounter during this all-too-brief sojourn on earth.  David Bayles and Ted Orland collaborated on a book that has impacted me probably more than any other book from this recent decade: Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking.  I was stung by this observation: “The world is filled with people who were given great natural gifts, sometimes conspicuously flashy gifts, yet never produce anything.  And when that happens, the world soon ceases to care whether they are talented.”  I loved the musings of Howell Raines, long prior to his becoming the Executive Editor of The New York Times.  He movingly testified that “we are not on this earth for long.  Part of what a midlife crisis is about is figuring out what gives you pleasure and doing more of that in the time you have left without asking for permission or a financial or emotional subsidy from anyone else.”

As I write this, I am aware of file cabinets jammed with my old sermon manuscripts, my graduate school term papers, my lectures from college and high school classrooms, public speeches given, and over 130 volumes of my journals dating back to 1987.  And I look across my library shelves jammed with volumes filled with highlighted, underscored and marginally-noted texts spanning over three decades.  The shelves are also crowded with VHS tapes and DVDs of documentary and Teaching Company lectures.  And they continue to whisper their invitations for me to explore new pastures, but I simply cannot get at them all, not just now, and probably never will.  Yet still I find time sufficient to think on these treasures, and tonight am delighted to have a little space to write what’s on my heart.  On this day, I also had the pleasure of picking up a painting that I had stopped working on a few weeks ago. Though I was at a crowded art festival, I still found some time to tinker with the painting, trying to learn a new angle in watercolor. I enjoyed the time painting, and I enjoyed the wonderful chats with patrons throughout the afternoon. It’s been a good day.

Thanks for reading.

I paint in order to remember.

I journal when I feel alone.

I blog to remind myself that I am not quite alone.