When the reviewer from the Historical Novel Society wrote about Martin of Gfenn he called it a “quiet book.” The reviewer from the Zürcher Oberlander said something similar. I found myself thinking about that last night, then about my life, then my art, then my brother… Strange cascade of realizations.
I looked at my paintings a lot yesterday, the ones that are in the co-op store. They’re quiet, too. They’re conventional (superficially) landscapes in realistic (nearly) colors. I don’t take big chances with them, and if there is any self expression in them, it is in the way something is seen and rendered, not in the subject of the painting.
I thought about how I have been affected by paintings inside buildings — directly on walls — that I’ve seen in Europe, paintings that on the surface are all pretty much the same (as Goethe pointed out) but in fact, are not the same when you give yourself a chance to know them, to really look at them. I thought of Martin, the protagonist in my novel, Martin of Gfenn and how his whole brief life was focused on painting just this, conventional scenes in ways others could recognize and yet he had a vision of his own. I began to see how much my own writing, that story, has influenced me.
I once had a different view of art, of painting. That it should be all about expressing the self, and I still think of myself as an expressionist painter, but my perspective on that has changed. Often all I want to do is show another person how I’ve seen something they’ve probably seen too, but not in the way I have. It’s just something that says, “Look!”
That’s what I’ve learned from looking at nine hundred million paintings of Mary and Jesus, I guess. Goethe wrote about this, how the artists of the past (particularly medieval artists who are, in my mind, chronically under-appreciated and mis-perceived) were “trapped” by the requirements of their time. Goethe, and others, assume a different set of values — their own values — and imagine that the painters of the past felt constrained and constricted. I’m not sure they did. First, the relationship between man and God was different in medieval times and, second, they were not painting as I do — for my own self — they were painting to put food on their family’s tables. Painting was everywhere; medieval buildings were painted elaborately inside and out. Painting was a job. An artist would improve just through the labor of a days work, day after day after day. I don’t know that these artists were attacking the surfaces of self and reality. I think they were painting walls.
Quietly. Often masterfully. Wandering around Verona — once called the “painted city” — I saw a whole range of wall painting. Some of it has been recognized as masterpieces; most of it is ignored except as a historical record. Most of it is anonymous. Some of the masterpieces are very hard to see, painted as they were on some remote reach of a high wall in a dark cathedral, such as this one by Pirandello:
It’s very difficult to see; clearly painted where there was room to paint it, not hung carefully on a well-chosen gallery wall painted the perfect shade to show off its features. Quietly.
When I was 18, I wanted to be a painter. I set off for college to pursue an art major. It wasn’t long before I heard from my sculpture teacher that I had no talent, something I’d also heard from my high school art teacher. I am not a brilliant artist as my brother was. I’m just…quiet. I remember a drawing I did that fall after a strange experience with a man who became kind of a boyfriend. I drew it. It is, was, I now know a kind of work that is typical of me, something I do, have done since. A semi-surreal figurative work with an image of me in the center of the story, and it was, as are the others, a narrative work. I went to see my sculpture teacher who’d asked to talk to me. His plan was to get me to drop the art major, the sculpture major, anyway. I took my drawing and he pinned it to the wall outside the classroom, unfortunately, next to the Coke machine.
We talked. He said, “This is what you should do, this is what you’re good at. You’re no sculptor.” He was probably right. My wood carving project — mahogany — ended up looking like my first baseman’s glove. I liked the activity of sculptor but I didn’t produce much.
Then a couple of (more talented) girls came in and said, “Professor, the Coke machine just exploded over some chick’s weird drawing.”
I ran out. My drawing was kind of ruined, but not really. The dripping water (that’s what had sprayed on the paper) gave it something kind of cool and not only in matters of temperature.
My drawing teacher, however, had a different take on my work. She thought I was an artist, she suggested I become a painter. “You’re a painter. Even your drawings are painterly.”
Nonetheless, I changed majors — art to English — and the rest is history.
I probably could have made a living in medieval times as a painter (if I’d been born a man) and that is what I know of myself now. Maybe not all the stories we have to tell, we humans, are large stories, loud stories, bright stories. Maybe not all the stories are magical and sexy and tragic. Maybe some of our stories are the paintings in the crypt of my favorite church in Verona, they simply last, letters in the few bottles that survive the ocean of time. Not masterpieces, just some guy saying, “Look!”