Don’t Try This at Home

Art is mysterious to artists as well as those who appreciate it. Stone Age cave paintings are among the most amazing human artistic achievements. On the rough walls of a cave, those artists could portray the rushing movement of a whole herd of stampeding bison. The techniques and materials are as old as time and still used. Most of the paintings are done in charcoal and ochre; ochre is clay. Many of the cave paintings are on limestone which makes the cave paintings very ancient frescoes. I LOVE the idea that fresco painting is THAT old, that it’s just come down and down and down and down through humanity’s almost countless generations.

We have these paintings but we don’t know the people. Archeology loves that mystery, I think, and I enjoy reading their discoveries and conjectures. The newest is that these Stone Age artists did their artwork — which is often in the deepest darkest parts of these caves — while they (the artists) were high on oxygen deprivation. Not just that they were high, but that they painted in those dark inaccessible places on purpose.

I don’t know much about the minds of Stone Age people (who does?) but maybe the archeologists were right. I’ve had a little challenge sussing out the cause and effect from what I’ve read , but the gist is that the artists painted in the convoluted depths of the caves BECAUSE to paint there they had to take flaming torches which would deplete the air of oxygen, inducing visions and confusion in the brains of the artists. It seems to me that the paintings could have been (some archeologists have posited this) a kind of prayer. Maybe the archeologists are right, too, that the artists sought an “altered state” to bring them closer to whatever mystical power (muse) inspired the paintings. If the Stone Age artists didn’t know WHY they ended up in an altered mental state when they were back there, they could easily have believed that those spots in the cave had mystical powers of inspiration and clarity; showed them the future, allowed them to commune with the beasts they needed to eat and those who sought to eat them, the old kill-or-be-killed thing.

Art and mysticism have always been very close together. Both the Illiad and the Odyssey begin with an invocation to the Muses to be with the poet and inspire their words and their performance, all convey the message that poetry is not in the day-to-day realm of human endeavor. Though there is no Muse specific to painting, I know that in the times in my life when I’ve been truly inspired, I haven’t felt “normal.” Those have been really glorious moments and working in that state of mind (heart?) is very different from the normal day-to-day. I don’t use — and haven’t ever used — anything external to get into those states; they happen spontaneously, often the result of seeing something striking, like a single crane walking among the winter willow saplings. It doesn’t happen immediately. Inspiration seems to need some time to mature, to make the journey from my eyes to my mind and heart and eventually to my hands. Sometimes it is the result of the work itself, seeing through the process of writing or painting what something wants to be. I think others can see the difference between work done in inspiration and those done from other motivations, like the simple pleasure of painting. Anyway, I can say in total confidence that I’m not likely to try this carbon monoxide trick any time soon.

l You can learn more about this archeological theory here.

More Ink Drawings!

Finishing the drawings for An Alphabet of Place: The Little Snake River Valley by my blogging pal, Sharon O’Toole of Ladder Ranch, I felt a little bereft. I’d done some ink drawings before I began Sharon’s project, but never 30+ of them over a concentrated period of time. They were — once I got over my initial nervousness — meditative, challenging and fun. In the back of my mind something else was percolating. When I got an email from Louise, who runs the Rio Grande County Museum, I knew what it was.

A similar little book about Rio Grande County Colorado — my county! No one knows more about it than Louise Colville, and she and I seem to work well together. I suggested it to her and sent her a PDF of Sharon’s book. She loved it. Yesterday I drove to Del Norte to collect my riches (I sold a sign and two packs of note cards) and we chatted about it for a while. It’s a go. She’s going to present the idea to the museum board on Tuesday so I’ve had to ask Li Bai and Tu Fu to share some space on my drawing table. They’re very cooperative beans and said it was fine as long as I kept taking them outside to catch the sun every morning. They also promised to be clean and keep their dirt in the pot.

The board meeting is this coming Tuesday and my job is to come up with a few drawings for which Louise will write the text. Hopefully, we’ll get a grant and some money.

It’s cool to have shouldered another drawing project. A writer inspired Sharon, who in turn inspired me and now Louise. It’s weird. I used to be a famous writer, but now I don’t want the job. Thinking about that, I remembered being in Chicago so long ago when there was an irrational marriage proposal on the table. I was walking through the garden of my erstwhile boyfriend’s parents with his dad, Frank. The relationship with his son was over and his dad knew it, the boyfriend knew it, I knew it but I was stuck there for another 30 some hours. Back at home, in Denver, I had been painting and drawing and pondering the possibility of showing my work. I talked about this with Frank. He said, “I thought you were a writer. Now you’re an artist? What’s the deal there? Why not a writer?”

I told him that visual art was more rewarding. I could SEE it and its effects even as I worked, and it didn’t take so much effort for others to see it. At the time I was writing what I thought was a novel (it was a journal) and sometimes poetry. But then, as now, I don’t think there’s any valid law that says a person can be and do only ONE thing.

Anyway, it’s nice to have more drawings to do. I think my biggest discovery during this pandemic is how much I love making art, just for itself. However, I must now carry Li Bai, Tu Fu, Li Ho, Bai Juyi and Szu-ma Chien out to the garden of the Thousand Aspiring Iris.

Featured photo: Adobe Potato Barn, first “letter” in the little book

Ruminations

Sometimes it seems like my mind is a kettle brewing stuff while I sleep. I woke up thinking about two very difficult things: communication and mastery. It struck me that they might be related.

Back when I had an art shed and lived in California, I started a blog on blogger about painting. I called it “A Lifetime Apprenticeship” because I couldn’t imagine ever being a master or even imagine what it would mean to BE a master. I also decided that becoming a master would be the end of the exciting part of painting which, at the time and still, seems to be learning more and doing better.

I still think that way, and it’s a good thing because I’m a long way from being a master, but… I wonder what it would be like to approach a project and KNOW it’s going to work out. I wonder if that’s even possible.

I did a drawing yesterday that seemed to be going really well and then, later, when I looked at a photo of it, I realized the river in the drawing was behaving in a manner that is impossible for rivers, all for want of a line.

The thing about this is that I’m OK with that. I’m even OK with, “I’ll never get it,” and that doesn’t discourage me because I don’t even know what “it” is.

As for communication, I can’t begin to figure that out. Like drawing and painting, there’s probably no mastery. Unlike drawing and painting, I can get discouraged, fatigued, disgusted, and hopeless about communication. It’s all Samuel Beckett: “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Sage Grouse in Luv

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2021/03/15/rdp-monday-kettle/

Shep

Border Collie

Just one drawing today… Yesterday coming home from a walk with Bear I heard a song on Mohammed’s Radio that I first heard the day I accepted the offer on my California house and KNEW I was leaving. I’d seen Monte Vista by then, and knew I was moving here, but I didn’t know where. The song struck me as prescient except for some of the details. Of course I didn’t know then, 2014, what the valley to which was moving would mean to me. My river has a different name. And hearing the lyric, “I wish I was a slave to an age old trade…” I thought, “Yeah but I’m retiring.” I still thought that would be cool but what trade?

I started painting again after decades when I was still in California, probably in 2009. I was already in love with it. Painting was liberating while teaching was mostly a struggle. “Is this who I am?” I asked whatever it is we ask.

My writing life and travel taught me about painting, history, materials, motivations. This year when I decided to just go for it and to paint what would sell as well what came from the innermost part of me, I consciously joined the timeless choir of hired painters, and I love it. I am a slave to an age old trade. It’s grand.

Lingering Effects of Poetry

“Tell me not in mournful numbers
Life is but an empty dream;
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.”

Some words trigger memories and some words trigger memorized poetry. Today’s Ragtag daily prompt — the word “slumber” — triggered memories of “A Psalm of Life” a poem written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow when he was only nineteen. My mom tossed lines from that poem at me even when I was very small, but the lines she usually tossed were “Life is real! Life is earnest!” The poem has been a constant echo throughout all these years.

I got to teach that poem several times and I always enjoyed it, but the best experience was in the People’s Republic of China. Somehow my teaching and Longfellow’s poem hit my students just right.

I introduced the poem by saying that, to Longfellow, our lives were something to create, like a piece of marble that we would carve into something beautiful. I remember reading a lot of very beautiful essays written into the little copy books they used that they were going to “carve their stone.”

It’s funny how the poem still resonates for me. It was sometime during the late spring 2020, with COVID scaring the crap out of everyone with half a brain, that I realized I’d better start oil painting and RIGHT NOW because, “Art is long and time is fleeting…” and I had/have a ton of unused supplies.

Art is long, and Time is fleeting, 
   And our hearts, though stout and brave, 
Still, like muffled drums, are beating 
   Funeral marches to the grave. 

“Crap! I have more paint than I might be able to use in the entire rest of my life and if COVID??? HOLY crap! Martha, you don’t have TIME to be afraid of that big canvas!! Get your ass in there!!”

I really did think that, and I got my ass in there.

Essentially, I guess, the poem is a paean to stoicism and “making the best of it,” which is, you know, pretty much all any of us can do .

A Psalm of Life
What The Heart Of The Young Man Said To The Psalmist.

Tell me not, in mournful numbers, 
   Life is but an empty dream! 
For the soul is dead that slumbers, 
   And things are not what they seem. 

Life is real! Life is earnest! 
   And the grave is not its goal; 
Dust thou art, to dust returnest, 
   Was not spoken of the soul. 

Not enjoyment, and not sorrow, 
   Is our destined end or way; 
But to act, that each to-morrow 
   Find us farther than to-day. 

Art is long, and Time is fleeting, 
   And our hearts, though stout and brave, 
Still, like muffled drums, are beating 
   Funeral marches to the grave. 

In the world’s broad field of battle, 
   In the bivouac of Life, 
Be not like dumb, driven cattle! 
   Be a hero in the strife! 

Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant! 
   Let the dead Past bury its dead! 
Act,— act in the living Present! 
   Heart within, and God o’erhead! 

Lives of great men all remind us 
   We can make our lives sublime, 
And, departing, leave behind us 
   Footprints on the sands of time; 

Footprints, that perhaps another, 
   Sailing o’er life’s solemn main, 
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother, 
   Seeing, shall take heart again. 

Let us, then, be up and doing, 
   With a heart for any fate; 
Still achieving, still pursuing, 
   Learn to labor and to wait.


P.S. I appreciate the encouragement on the ink drawings. It’s not my “thing,” but it’s an interesting challenge. One good thing about it is that, unlike painting, I’m not constantly cleaning brushes so the winter cracks on my thumb from cold, dry air and brush washing might finally heal.

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2021/02/27/rdp-saturday-slumber/

Painting and Painting

When Goethe FINALLY found the resolve to run away from Weimar and go to Italy, he discovered so many things he had only dimly felt but hadn’t seen and couldn’t know, the vast number of talented artists whose names were unknown to the world. He was also aghast at the incredible quantity of religious paintings. For Goethe art was self-expression and he threw his bias over the world of Italian painting and concluded that artists would like to have painted something else, but were forbidden to.

When Goethe fled Weimar he was disenchanted with himself as a writer and wondered if he were not really meant to be a visual artist and he went to Italy in search of salvation as a creative being, his heart crushed by unrequited love, his mind clouded by what he feared was an inability to write. He’d had one rock-star success with Sorrows of Young Werther many years earlier and since?

I’ve mulled that over several times in the years since I read Italian Journey. I’ve wandered around parts of Italy myself looking at art, and I’ve seen some of what Goethe saw. Rather than fleeing unrequited love, I went to Italy to embrace it. Ha ha. Art was my redeemer during that strange trip, my rope out of an abyss of anger and disappointment. I had days and days to collect images and see time through that miraculous mirrored time tunnel of a really great art museum — the Pinacoteca in the Sforza Castle in Milan.

I was there before 9/11 and the entire art museum was open to the public including rooms of racks of paintings, the racks on wheels. You could pull out the racks and look at dozens of paintings.

Most were religious paintings. Some were exercises and commissions; others were much more.

I was thinking about that the other day, why the large painting of the crane and the woman, dog and tree are so different to me and people who’ve seen them. The experience of painting them was different, too. I like to paint things that a little risky (for me) and from which I’m going to learn something, and that something is usually about painting. Recently Facebook showed me posts showing the series of steps that led to this painting of an adobe potato cellar. It’s painted over a sunset I tried a few years ago. It was a challenging painting, but the challenge was mostly technical and improved my skills as a painter.

Two other paintings, the Tree and the Crane, are “religious” paintings. There’s no San Sebastian or John the Baptist’s severed head or Mary holding the infant Jesus, but entering each one was an act of faith for me. They were both MORE than most of my paintings had been, more than “Can I do this well?” They both challenged my ability as a painter, but they also demanded a certain journey into a psychological and spiritual unknown, each in a completely different way.

The crane painting is obviously a painting of a crane, and there was the challenge of the large canvas (4 feet x 3 feet), but it’s more than that. I wanted to paint the silence of the big empty under the silvery pre-snow sky. The moment I saw this in real life, the world was silent except for the sounds of cranes. I don’t have words to explain it, but I have long wanted to say to Goethe that the really great paintings are ALL religious paintings and the metaphors people had with which to paint their inner spiritual reality have always come from their world. A world in which the Christian allegory is as potent as hunger will render its spiritual self in those images. It’s more than painting well. There is a mystery behind it.

Matthias Grünewald

Goethe never went to those places with his visual art. He DID go there with Faust and attempted an even more profound journey with Faust, Part II. I’m not sure that the person looking art or reading something is aware of the journey the artist takes in the process.

A finished work is an almost sterile coda to the experience of attempting to show, attempting to say. It’s one experience for the artist, another for the consumer of art. But some works of art allow the consumer inside, if only for a moment. I experienced this with Leonardo’s Last Supper which, in all its ruin and restoration is still way beyond a painting. As Goethe noted, it is a force.

Featured photo: On the Tiber above Rome, opposite the Villa Madama Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2021/02/16/rdp-tuesday-art/

Joy or Pain?

The painting below is The Artist at His Easel by Rembrandt. The first time I saw it was in a program narrated by Simon Schama. Art historians and commentators and critics say a lot of stuff about paintings, but what Schama said about this stayed with me. All the energy in the world is coming from that canvas. Of course logically and in the world of physics, there is a window in front of the canvas and it is reflecting the day, but even that is pretty beautiful.

I have two paintings going now — both cranes. One is the big painting and the other is on a piece of exterior plywood; a garden sign. The person who ordered it ordered a sunflower sign in August and now wants a sign for winter.

Last evening, I watched the second installment of Waldemar Januzsczak’s three programs on American art. It ended with Mark Rothko whose work I don’t get and will probably never get. Januzsczak centered the episode on the twentieth century phenomenon of New York City — which I don’t get and will probably never get. It’s strange that Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, San Francisco, LA, Chicago, Milan, Zürich and Venice were welcoming and wonderful places, but New York City? I’ve been there three times and every time I could’t wait to get out. I’ve even driven in that city, but, no. It’s not for me. Still, it is an amazing place.

Some of what I saw and heard was familiar — I, like many people, went through an Edward Hopper phase and pondered, in my twenties, the problem of alienation in the midst of people Hopper depicts so well. Now I recognize that alienation is the human condition, but at 24? I’d hoped for something beyond a terrible marriage and crowds of people I didn’t know, to whom I had nothing to say.

Edward Hopper Night Windows

Januzsczak’s favorite New York artist is a man who painted New York in the 1930s, a guy named Reginald Marsh. His work is very alive, filled with people, and the kind of crowded, purpose-driven I have felt when I’ve been in New York City. I liked Marsh’ pictures, too. (Featured photo: Twenty Cent Movies)

I saw many beautiful paintings in this episode, but the biggest thing I got was the source of much abstract art was the religion of Theosophy. The essence (according to Waldy) is that under everything there is an order, a structure, a divine reason. This philosophy/religion had a tremendous influence, apparently, on modern art and was the motive behind abstract painting. Since, honestly, abstract painting never seemed to have a “reason” behind it (for me) though I often like it, it was interesting to learn this. For a long time, this has been the most important words about art I’ve read:

“The artist must have something to say, for mastery over form is not his goal but rather the adapting of form to its inner meaning.” Wassily Kandinsky

When a person looks at one religious painting after another in a museum that person might think, “Good God!” (no pun) Goethe was sorry all these artists had been “forced” to paint only one story. I shrugged reading Goethe’s words. How could he know how they felt or what else they may have wanted to paint? Painters paint for money and the church was where the money was and, what’s more, that was not just the “same painting” for a lot of those artists. Painting virgins, babies, etc. was more than that, possibly a spiritual thing.

For me, there’s something more to painting than slapping paint on a surface. Way more. I’m not going to put words on it, not any more than that.

Sadly, Mark Rothko and another Theosophist abstract artist of the era both hung themselves. The other’s life had turned into a sad country song. He’d gotten bowel cancer and was tied to a colostomy bag forever and his wife left him. It took him three tries before he found the old barn with a beam that held the rope and suspended his weight. As for Mark Rothko? Perhaps there is no why. I took all this focus in Januzsczak’s discussion as more of the same: artist’s are tortured souls who are difficult for us normal people to understand, a thread that has run through many of Januzsczak’s discussions of art.

Maybe it just isn’t that interesting to people to think that an artist might be, as the little painting by Rembrandt, above, seems to say, happy, humbled and filled with wonder at the prospect of painting. Still, I think Frank Stella was wonder-filled and happy when he painted these.

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2020/11/05/rdp-thursday-paint/