I got out a failed painting today and was preparing to paint over it. BUT… I put it on the easel and looked at it.
“Hmm. I think I understand you, failed painting. You’re not failed. You’re just different. Maybe you’re the future.”
“Could be,” said the painting. “Thanks for not painting over me.”
“No, thank you.”
“You see what’s missing.”
“I think so, but whatever. We don’t have anything to lose.” I squirted a minuscule amount of Cerulean blue paint on the lid of an empty yogurt container. A tiny bit of white. Got what seemed to be the appropriate brush. Did the thing — put light on the water. It is a WETLANDS after all. Then I put light in the sky. Then I needed magic in the sky and I opened the tube of magic, and as I did, I felt like weeping. “I missed you so much!” I put some on the yogurt lid but I didn’t put the brush into it. I put my finger in it and did work with my finger. I love that paint so much, I wanted to touch it. I didn’t even want a 6 inch brush handle between my paint-covered finger and the painting’s surface.
It felt so good and smelled so good. Linseed oil and lapis ultramarine, that miracle color. “I need gray.”
“I’ll be that for you.”
“I think I love you.”
“You’re not the first one.”
“No, I know that.” I thought of how in the so-called Renaissance this color was used to paint Heaven above the Virgin Mary in frescoes (really rich patrons) and I thought, “Well, this is Heaven,” as I finished a stormy sky out at the Refuge. I decided to liberate myself from “getting this right” because I don’t know what “right” is right now. I’m heading into terra incognita with my lapis ultramarine blue. What a marvelous vessel, and I trust it.
I also see now what’s wrong with the painting. It’s a painting of wind. The storm cloud should not be in the center. OH well. As they say; paint and learn.
I tried so hard to describe it to my friend, a painter who is now blind, BUT he has it in his mind that the lapis ultramarine would be even MORE intense than the synthetic. It isn’t. I wouldn’t even call them the same color. Lapis ultramarine is transparent, grayish, magical, cooperative. It doesn’t insist on anything. I wish so much I could paint with it on plaster, but I don’t see that happening. The closest I can get is the gessobord. SO…I bought another one with the remainder of my Christmas money. We’ll see where it takes me.
You can kind of see what I mean in this paint chart from the Natural Pigments company. “lazurite” is their lapis ultramarine. The chart shows the paint in the tube and then tinted (with white). It’s become very hard to get now because of the chaos in Afghanistan. Mine is from Argentina. I was ready to spend my whole Christmas present ($100) on a tube of lapis ultramarine from Afghanistan, but… Maybe someday.
The first time I heard the word “polymath” was in a college writing class. No, the word did not emit from my repository of SAT words, but one of my Mexican students asked something about Goethe. “Wasn’t he that German polymath who wrote poetry, drew and painted, developed theories of optics and the origin of plants?”
I looked at the student and thought, “That’s an interesting word!” And I thought, “Boy, if you grow up speaking a Romance language you have the SAT sewn up.”
Lately, I’ve been reading academic papers about the Middle Ages from a site called “Academia.” They send me papers periodically, and if they interest me, I read them. One caught my attention, “The Aged polymath as a Non-professional Artist” by Joseph Salzman. It discusses the retired scientists who become artists after retirement and the hurdles they must face — notably learning to paint (ha ha). Some of his points ring true for me, too. I’m not a retired scientist, but I have not been a career artist, either. If I’m honest with myself and look at my actual life as I have lived it, I have been a teacher. So…I have had to learn about the materials, struggle to get my work shown (even more difficult in a place where no one lives), face my lack of skill, deal with jealousy and competition (not mine; other artists in this place where there are more artists than people…what?)…
I remember the way some of my science teachers looked down their noses at art, as if it didn’t require any “mind,” knowledge or discipline. My dad — a theoretical mathematician — had a high regard for art, particularly poetry and drawing, and he tried all his life to improve his abilities at both. I grew up with that as a model. I’ve always known that the dichotomy between art and science is a false dichotomy, but… Salzman writes in his piece about the OPPOSITE judgmentalism on the part of artists toward the retired scientist turned painter which is, basically, that the cool kids won’t let him play.
But there is a more compelling challenge: the perspective of the art-world. The aged poly-math is trying to erase boundaries while the art world institutions are set to preserve them. In spite of the high diversity and variability of artistic expressions, institutions, constructs, there is always a divide, a frontier between the professional artist and the “others”, and the ubiquitous gatekeepers (Art critics, curators, gallery owners, dealers, art teachers) Gate keepers defend boundaries by using social theories of cultural capital, habits, and held value. They may assume the role of arbiters of quality without offering justification for their judgments.
They marginalize by labeling: outsider, art-brut, folk-art, self-taught artist, naïve-art, outlier,craft, junk art, and more recently amateurish! Labels communicate confusing ideas, causing misunderstanding and derogative connotation. But polymathy is beyond all that. It is rooted on the very foundation of humanity: onfostering culture. Regardless the specific field: science, technology, poetry, mathematics or the arts, the polymath is vitally engaged
Joseph Salzman, “The Aged Polymath as a Non-professional Artist”
The word “amateur” means “one who loves” and that should be reason enough for anything we do. I have no problem being an “amateur.” If there were some miracle and I were suddenly a famous painter/writer I’d still be an “amateur” (I hope). And a dilettante — one who delights. Bring it on. And, IMO, any artist should work for the sake of the work FIRST. Any accolades (and money) are kind of after the fact. A retired scientist — presumably with a pension — isn’t in the same boat as a young person striving to make his/her way as an artist. That retired scientist is like me.
I’ve thought a lot about what if I’d had art as a career. My mother was adamantly opposed to either my brother or me being an artist. My brother went for it anyway (kind of) and I didn’t, but it didn’t mean I stopped making art, stopped writing and stopped painting. Not at all, never. But the necessity of earning a living meant I had to work and, lucky for me I had work that I loved and which was meaningful to me most of the 38 years I did it. I realized some years ago that I was lucky that my mom pretty much forced me NOT to become an artist (I began college as an art major) because I was never compelled to become an art whore. I’m no great talent. I’m a good talent that, until I got to know myself, would have been a pretty decent commercial artist. Nothing wrong with that, but teaching was better for me. Being a versatile kind of human made me a better teacher — I think. Being a teacher made me a better person — I’m sure.
The question the article ends with is the important point, the meat of polymathy. That question is “Why?”
For him there is no outside or inside. If he makes art, it is simply because he has to. He may bring new values, new projections, create novel versions of the world. Isn’t this the real platform of progress? In reality, not every retiring polymath becoming a non-professional artist is likely to be-come a modern Leonardo. Still, they hold a potential value of social impact. In words of (Professor) Martin Kemp:
…true polymathy involves a unique and improbable blend of incorrigible ambition, undeterability, imagination, openness, and humility… the principle of see-ing something as it were something else – seeing it as belonging in other than its normal conceptual place – is more vital now than ever if we are to nurture the culture of mutual understanding necessary for the survival of the human race…
Joseph Salzman, “The Aged Polymath as a Non-professional Artist” (Joseph Salzman is an Emeritus Professor at The Andrew and Erna Viterbi Faculty of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and the Zisapel Nanoelectronics Center, TECHNION The Israel Institute of Technology.)
So, if I had Joseph Salzman in front of me right now I’d just say, “Shut up and paint,” but I’m not sure he’d listen to me. After all, I was just a writing teacher. 🤪
I could use up all the memory left in my WP plan if I posted photos to illustrate the constantly changing, wildly variegated skies of the San Luis Valley. I’ve even attempted to paint them, but the ineffability of clouds is a huge challenge. That’s OK. I don’t think it will keep me from trying. I just figure I have to be a better painter and that might happen by continuing to try.
This time of year the phenomenon of lenticular clouds appears pretty often because the air over the mountains is colder than the air in the valley.
In my painting life, I know I’m confronting a turning point but I don’t know what it is yet. Painting sky and painting weather seem to be my thing which is lucky because there is a lot of both down here. I have a painting on the easel right now and it’s not living in my mind which means I’m probably going to cover it to keep the dust off and wait for a better day. You can’t hurry love.
I was “talking” (in epistolary language) about my reaction to selling paintings with a friend and he put it in clear language. “…stai solo raccogliendo i frutti ” … “You are gathering the fruit”. I have always painted and written without much thought of that. I think that’s the best approach because what happens after I finish something and put it out there is really none of my business. The sky just does its thing.
The philosophy behind a painting or book? I guess that’s what critics and the future get all lathered about and, I’m sure that, in my case, that isn’t going to happen. For me painting and writing are more like one of the images in Yeat’s poem, “The Double Vision of Michael Robertes:”
On the grey rock of Cashel I suddenly saw A Sphinx with woman breast and lion paw, A Buddha, hand at rest, Hand lifted up that blest;
And right between these two a girl at play That, it may be, had danced her life away, For now being dead it seemed That she of dancing dreamed…
O little did they care who danced between, And little she by whom her dance was seen So she had outdanced thought. Body perfection brought..
For what but eye and ear silence the mind With the minute particulars of mankind?
A break is probably for the best. My wonderful short-term job judging independently published books for the contest is about to begin. I’m expecting boxes of books to start arriving any time.
Yesterday I went to the museum in Del Norte to collect some money and restock my notecard offerings. It was a good weekend for me financially, and I was able to buy surfaces to paint on. Not the BIG canvas, but some pretty good sized panels and a linen canvas. With all drugs, you can be happy with “cheap Mexi” until someone gives you something better. Last summer I painted on oil-primed linen and I don’t think I’ll ever be the same woman.
It’s a small painting — 8″ x 10″. It turned out that this oil-primed linen is a wonderful, wonderful surface. For the last little while I’ve been trying to figure out how I could organize this technology myself, stretching and priming my own canvas, and it turns out I don’t want to. A lot of the stuff that becomes paint and related substances is poisonous. Some of it is very poisonous. I had to draw a line. Sometime down the road? I don’t know but for now…
The woman who runs the museum is also my friend and as you might know if you read this blog regularly, she lost her husband this past summer. They were married for 58 years. I’ve been listening/talking to her about it all this time and, recently I’ve heard something different in her voice which is she is beginning to see what she CAN do now; she’s looking into the future.
I spent some time Thanksgiving chatting with a friend in Switzerland who lost her dog not long ago. Through a lovely concatenation of events, she has a puppy, but the emptiness of the loss is still eating her up. I can imagine — but don’t know — people saying “She was just a dog,” and the kinds of things people say when losing an animal is out of their experience. Obviously, I don’t feel that way, but I have lost 25 dogs so I have a lot of experience losing and recovering.
As I was talking with my friend at the museum I tried to support her recent decisions to paint her house and travel to Europe (yay!) with the salient point that we live here and forward. I remember the moment I realized that. It wasn’t all that long after my mom died. I was opening the garage door and suddenly had an epiphany that my eyes were in front of my face for a reason. The same with my Swiss friend. Nothing replaces what we’ve lost, but it seems to me that even in calm and ordinary times, we’re a slightly different person every day than we were the day before. A big loss hastens the transformation.
I think that’s part of the sorrow, strangely enough. We don’t just lose the person/dog we loved, we lose the part of ourself who was (in a way) an attenuation of that person/dog. I recognized quickly when I had to put my last Siberian Husky, Lily, to sleep that it marked the end of trail-running Martha even though I hadn’t been able to run for a while. The possibility of that person existing was completely gone with Lily’s passing. I didn’t just lose my beloved — and very old! — dog; I lost a big part of myself, or the way I saw myself.
These recent weeks — selling paintings and confronting the inner Wicked Witch of the West — I have realized I’ve held onto my mom without even knowing it. Part of my trauma with selling a painting to strangers was letting go of yet one more finger of that woman whom I loved in spite of everything.
The other day I sold a painting to a stranger, a nice young couple who were in love with all my work and spent a long time looking at all of it. It was the opening of a holiday art show at the local museum in Del Norte, Colorado.
I have never sold a painting to a stranger before, not in those circumstances, face-to-face. I found it weird, embarrassing, uncomfortable. I don’t think I showed that. On an abstract level I was able to be THE ARTIST, but I turned the conversation away from my work to them. It was a way out.
By the time I got home from the event I felt very strange. It took a while to understand WHAT I was feeling.
I was feeling ashamed.
It’s a “thing” to blame our parents for our neuroses so I don’t feel so good moving into that territory right now, but here I go.
I have always been an artist, specifically a painter. I have loved painting since I was a LITTLE kid. Among my dad’s souvenirs was a pencil drawing I did when I was 6 or so presumably of myself as a grownup. I’m standing in a big room. I’m wearing a long dress (like all little girls want). Behind me is a window and from the window you can see a mountain range. All around the woman (me) are sleeping dogs. In front of me is an easel with a landscape on it.
And here I am. THAT lady. The three things I love most in my life are dogs, mountains and painting. I always wanted to be an artist, have dogs and live in the mountains.
I don’t know how we come into this world, if we come in with a pre-programmed job description (like the Dalai Lama) or if it’s completely random. I SENSE there’s more to it than being completely random and in my case it certainly has been. I have always known who I am but not how to get there. Who tells us that the self is a destination, in the sense of destiny? I fought hard several times for my own survival; as a kid against diseases, as a woman against abusive men. Until my therapist (long story) explained to me (after listening to me for hours) HOW I’d been raised, I didn’t fully understand that my home was an environment in which I’d been used as a scapegoat to enable my mom’s alcoholism and that I would — naturally — feel more comfortable in environments where I’m not appreciated and even treated badly.
Most of all, my mother hated that I am an artist. She hated it vocally and publicly and all her life. When she died, I found some of my work rolled up and stashed in the guest room closet. I also found a couple of small drawings in a scrapbook of clippings about me and my life. The woman had (obviously) no clear perspective about her feelings for me. I can’t say the same about my feelings for her.
I don’t have any feelings for her. I have somehow integrated both the good and the bad from that woman and live it every day. The good is good. If she’d lived in MORE of the good about herself she might not have been bitter, angry, hateful and drunk. The bad? It’s landmines and I stepped on one Saturday when those people bought my painting and rhapsodized over my work. I realized that though I’ve sold several paintings, they had all been bought by people who know me and like me. On some level my mom’s voice has said, “Well, they like you, so they bought your painting. I don’t know why they like you, but they do. If they knew you like I do, they wouldn’t have bought your painting.”
She actually DID say things like that. Publicly. Until she died.
SO my job is to get her to shut up by recognizing that I know a lot about painting. I’ve looked at paintings all over the world and done a lot of other things to “self-teach” myself. I’ve written a prize winning novel about a medieval painter. I like my paintings — not just doing them, but looking at them. I’m interested in how to do them and what I learn from them. I have painted since I was a child. It’s not a new thing. And, most of all…
the first imperative is to work. That much I get. But today, I sold another painting and learned more.
Don’t worry; I’m not freaking out. I know the person I sold it to, not really well, but still I know her. This morning I took a painting to the museum to hang where the one that sold Saturday had hung. The buyer works at the museum and wanted to see it so she followed me when I hung it.
“It’s the river,” I said. “Frozen, mostly.”
“The paint, though. Yeah. It’s special.” I told her all about where the pigments had come from and that I had seen them “in the wild.” I told her about the prehistoric “Buon” fresco I’d seen in the limestone cliffs north of Verona where the green in this painting “grows.” “All these colors,” I said, “except for that lighter blue there and the white, come directly from the earth. Well this color,” I pointed at some burnt Sienna, “was heated to bring out the iron color.” I pointed at the highest part of the sky and told her about ultramarine and lapis lazuli, how special it is, how expensive in olden times. I told her about the book I wrote about the artist who painted fresco. Then she said, “I want this painting.”
She went to the bank and came back with the money. “I love it, but hearing you tell me about the colors makes it mean even more.”
That made sense to me. Colors are miraculous. “It’s all dirt,” I said, “everything we are, everything we eat, all of it, all these beautiful things.” I personally see it all as miraculous.
Talking to a customer THAT way is totally possible and made me happy. It’s part of what my paintings are; part of who I am.
I really appreciate the support I got yesterday for the excruciating trauma I experienced from selling a painting. I know it was absurd, but none of us is uncomplicated. And, the only way out is through.
After the question, “Do you have larger paintings?” was posed to me at the little art show recently, and having heard the advice (for a long time!) of my friend Perla that I should paint big paintings, I decided to see if I could reasonably manage larger paintings on a regular basis. I have ONE truly large painting and one pretty large painting. I have the truly large painting because a friend — a painter friend — had gone blind from macular degeneration and he gave it to me. It hung out in my garage for four years intimidating me every time I went out there. Then I saw a painting waiting to happen on my way home from Salida one day and I brought it into the house. I could see painting it was going to be a major challenge because, at the time, I didn’t have an easel. OH well, I had a table and a wall. 🙂
That idea never germinated, though the underpainting did. I got the REAL inspiration for it last year and painted the large canvas with an image FAR different from my original idea. I finished the painting almost exactly a year ago. It’s 4′ x 3′. It was a wonderful experience to paint.
This past year I also experimented with oil primed linen canvas.
So yesterday I opened the catalog of Martha Porn (art supply catalog) and looked for 1) large canvases 2) oil primed linen canvases 3) rolls of unprimed canvas (cotton AND linen) and stretchers (this has got to work somehow, right?).
I’m ready to grow flax.
I reached ONE conclusion after a not-exactly-exhaustive search. Now I’m pondering a triptych but I’ve already done the math (in my head) and it’s just as expensive as a big canvas. Still, I found one that might be possible. Bottom line, drugs are really expensive.
Yeah. A LONG time ago I dreamed that my dad (already long dead) picked me up in a white van and we drove to San Francisco. We had a blast on the road and ended up in LA where we got lost when my dad wanted to see the “old places” he knew from back in the day (1942 WW II, 1957 Family Trip/work). We ended up on Venice Beach. “How do we get back on that goddamned freeway, MAK?” he asked me. I told him to turn onto Venice Blvd and we could get on the 405. I don’t even know if that’s right, but it seems right. ANYway, we did that and just as we were to turn on to the freeway there was an art store right outside the window of the van.
From the awning hung plastic bags of raw pigment shining in the sun. “Stop, Dad!” I called out. The most beautiful of all was a blue pigment.
“Are you sure, MAK? Those are drugs. Once you’re hooked…” He was right and now I’m twitching.
P.S. The featured image is the logo of a government driven anti-drug movement from back in the day. Sadly, it was only moments before D.A.R.E. became “Drugs Are Really Expensive” which, oddly, might have been a REAL deterrent. All the kids I knew made fun of it. Sometimes our leadership is completely tone deaf.
Yesterday, I went to the opening of the little art show at the Rio Grande County Museum. I was filled with trepidation. I showed up about 11:30 and was immediately met by a huge (masked) smile from Louise who runs the museum. She was in the gift shop, behind the counter, taking money from a young woman who turned to look at me.
“That’s the artist,” said Louise. I had to go meet and greet. I’m a friendly shy person, that first of all, and as for being an artist? Someday I’ll get to the bottom (or I won’t) of how I feel about that. Anyway it’s complicated. The young woman told me she had just bought a Christmas tree ornament I’d painted.
“Which one?” I asked her “This one. It’s the Valley, right? The river?”
“Yeah. And Mt. Blanca.”
“I love it,” she said. “I love all your work. Do you do bigger paintings or just those medium sized?” She gestured toward “my” room. “I have bigger paintings, but I hurt my shoulder and didn’t think I could hang them. I did last year.” “Fair enough,” she said. I thanked her and went on to see the show, feeling embarrassed and a little weird. I have never interacted with a buyer before, not one I didn’t know.
I found my artist colleagues that I haven’t seen since last year and chatted for a bit then walked around to see the show which is very beautiful. The wandering and chatting went on for a while, and while I was engaged in a conversation with a colleague’s voluble husband, I noticed another colleague with the young couple (who’d bought the ornament) in “my” room. She was actively engaging with them and my work. I saw her tell them to take a business card. I saw her lead them around the room — as if she were a docent! — looking at all my paintings. The husband came up to me and said something that I should be able to remember, but don’t. Essentially could he get a deal on one of the paintings, the one in the featured image. I said, “Sure. I really want to sell it.”
“What kind of deal? And why do you want to sell it?”
“I’ve had it for a while. I’m just ready to look at something else. Let me go see what I’m asking for it, OK?”
“Sure.” I understood it was going to be a gift for his wife for Christmas. I came back, gestured with a number, and we made the deal. I’m sure his wife knew. Meanwhile my colleague’s voluble husband engaged with the wife. I boxed up the painting and stuck in a pack of Christmas cards that she’d told me earlier that she liked. They were very excited to have my painting and he paid me more than I asked. Afterward they told me all the things they liked about the painting and I just felt weird. I invited them to come back to the museum on December 11 when I’ll do my reading. I hope they do.
I realized through all this that I might be a painter, but as a professional artist, I’m not very experienced. I have to keep at this show thing until I’m as good at it as the colleague who helped me. It’s not the first painting I’ve ever sold, but it was the first one in that way, in that scenario, to someone who didn’t know me at all. It felt very different and validating that, yeah, I’m doing this.
Later I was talking with a friend about the experience. How does one talk about one’s own art? I know that people analyze paintings and want to know about techniques. I know there are philosophies and theories of art. I understand the major art “movements” — if not what they all represented, I know that they existed. I know many people — both painters and appreciators — approach paintings with a theory of something, a theory of colors or shapes, all kinds of things. When one of my colleagues looked at my paintings yesterday, she mentioned, “There is a lot of white.” I know that comment meant something to her. To me it didn’t. I just said “Yeah” because it is true. Paintings of snow are going to be white. So what is painting for me? What am I trying to “say”? Achieve? I don’t even want to go there. I just want to paint.
Last night I had kind of an epiphany about me and my artist’s novel, Martin of Gfenn. Martin is an artist and a leper. He has to fight against time and the community Commander’s lack of comprehension to paint the walls of the newly built (1244?) chapel of the leper community where he lives. He argues on behalf of painting the walls of the chapel, the importance of painting for communicating the message in scripture. Finally, he just paints (draws) an important element around the east window of the chapel and, seeing it, the Commander understands. From then the only thing Martin has to fight is the encroachment of the disease.
So here I am. As I talked to my colleagues yesterday — most of whom are at least my age — it hit me. It’s always been that for me; paint IN SPITE OF — because of — life.
“I hate logical plans. I have a horror of set phrases that instead of explaining reality tame it in order to use it in a way that is no use to anyone. I don’t approve of definitions or labels. Labels should go on suitcases, nowhere else. Myself, I should find it false and dangerous to start from some clear, well-defined complete idea and then put it into practice. I must be ignorant of what I shall be doing and I can find the resources I need only when I am plunged into obscurity and ignorance. The child is in darkness at the moment he is formed in his mother’s womb.” Federico Fellini