Never, Ever, Talk About What You’re Working On
This is one of the most fundamental and most deeply held superstitions of artists and writers. This I know anecdotally, not through some carefully designed statistical study, but I know it is none the less true and powerful to those who believe it. It has been my own personal credo for a very long time now. Never talk about it; just do it. I am intentionally vague when people ask me what I am working on in my studio. I suppose it sounds rude when I am asked what I am currently working on when I say, “Oh, well, er, well, some things.” I try to add something upbeat and friendly by saying, “I go into my studio every day.” I am so deeply superstitious that I am afraid to even say “I go into my studio every day to work,” as if using the word “work” might hex what I am doing by sounding too braggy, the assumption being that by saying I am “working” that I am doing something significant and good. Besides, as every artist or author knows, a lot of what we do does not exactly pass for “work” to an untrained eye. There is a lot of work that takes place around the work, not necessarily on the work.
For instance, right now there is a jazzy danceable tune on my radio and I am bobbing around in front of my laptop. And just this morning I was dusting things and moving furniture. And yesterday I sat gazing at my table top as if it were the Tarot, which, by that bit of free association, reminded me of my own Tarot cards and led me across the room to the bookcase to actually get them. I spent the next hour or so gazing at the cards as avidly as I had been gazing at my table top. They told me…ah but if I were to tell you here that would hex things as badly as talking about my work would do. There are so many things, come to think of it, that I cannot talk about without putting the kibosh on them.
Are you like that?
Some of this not talking about things stems from lessons I learned at my mother’s knee. For example: my mother taught me not to name-drop as it was rude in two ways: rude to the person whose name I dropped and rude to the person to whom I did the dropping. It was rude to the person whose name I dropped because it intruded on their privacy, although how they would even know I had name-dropped was beyond my imagination—perhaps there is some kind of omnipotent gossip recorder that totes up and reports all the mentions made by ordinary people like me of this or that famous person. I was also taught that name dropping would somehow be rude to the person to whom I dropped the name. It could be seen as self-serving. Well! Darn. That leaves out a lot of interesting stuff to talk about. Gossip and all that. With my mother’s baggage and my own hyperactive conscience, how do I tell the story of my having seen Stephen Jay Gould in the restaurant at the Museum of Modern Art in New York? Oops! There I go. Well it’s too late now.
Most trips I have taken to New York include going to MoMA and the Guggenheim and the Metropolitan Museum. As an infrequent traveler, my visits can almost be counted on my ten fingers: once when I was a teenager, several times when I was a west coast editor on a NY fashion magazine, a few times when I was an advertising copywriter, several times in the 80s visiting friends, and several times within the last decade. On these infrequent trips, I like to go to familiar places and check out my favorite art. I understand that the collections have been much edited and rearranged lately and, of course, the museums themselves have had massive plastic surgery. I feel bereft. How am I going to find my old friends?
Stephen Jay Gould was a paleontologist and evolutionary biologist and a Harvard professor. His PBS series on these topics was charming, articulate and accessible to a general audience. He was scholarly without being recondite. He was droll, wicked even. He had a way of speaking as though he were stifling a giggle. His arguments and theories and proposals were delicious. He seemed to particularly savor making mincemeat out of poorly assembled conceptual concoctions. We loved him.
Well one day back in the 90s I needed a break from my painting trance and decided to have a restorative lunch in the MoMA café; the expensive one, not the cafeteria. I have a memory of fine napery, crispy butter yellow table cloth and a creased napkin spun into the shape of a coronet. I recall that, when the bill came, it was quite a lot of money for my little lunch. There was something about wine and dessert and I suppose all that laundering and pressing and the artisan who folded the napkin; it must have all ended up on my bill. But with a taxing morning of wandering around looking very closely at the paintings – I like to see them very close up – to see brushstrokes, crazed surfaces, and pentimento – my little lunch at MoMA was my reward and recess. Sitting alone at my fine little table, I could think lofty thoughts about art. I could worry a little about my not liking Cezanne. I could wonder about the condition of Guernica. It was a nice little day.
Leaving my table, I had a long walk to the door and in a kind of lazy noncommittal way, I swept my gaze side to side along the diners, not really looking, and not really not looking. And there he was: Stephen Jay Gould. He sat at a round table with several other people and I kind of jumped at my recognition of his face; it was so ordinary and surprisingly familiar from his PBS program. The surprise, for me, was seeing him out of context and seeing him looking exactly as I had seen him on the TV. He looked up at me; perhaps molecules of my optic system bumped into his epidermis and made him feel my presence. Or maybe he scans rooms to see if anyone sees him. Anyway, he looked up when I was about 20 feet away from his table and, as I said, I kind of jumped or jerked in surprise. I almost—but thankfully did not—I almost performed a little finger wiggling wave at him. But just in time, I stopped myself, my own mother’s daughter. Maybe waggling my fingers at Stephen Jay Gould would be rude. It would certainly be silly. And, although looking silly doesn’t bother me most times, I certainly did not want to intrude on his privacy. But we locked eyes, we did, and he gave me that bemused Stephen Jay Gouldian expression. I smiled at him. I’m sure my eyes dilated. And as I passed his table, not 5 feet away from him, I gave a little noncommittal nod in his direction.
That’s it. That’s all.
Not wanting to be an embarrassing groupie, I did not say hello or barge in on his lunch table. Although I suppose being a Stephen Jay Gould groupie is a notch above being a Mic Jagger groupie. Still, decorum seemed in order and I simply walked on by. And what, you may ask, does this have to do with never, ever, talking about my work?
You might imagine as I chatter away on this essay, that I am currently working on something. But I am not talking about it. So to keep this blog going, I am talking about not talking to Stephen Jay Gould. Like the negative space in composition, my not talking about my work at this time is the negative space that flows around and around a painting, creating dimension, delineating form, beautiful, but secondary.
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Product Placement Notes
I know. I know. I’ve got to get out more often. But this is ridiculous!
Here we are sitting in our library, Gary reading aloud to me from our latest choice of novels—a thing he has been doing every morning for about the past decade—and I’m holding my nice hot coffee mug and the character in our book is chatting amiably to another character, a buddy of his, and the buddy lights up a cigarette and the brand name is mentioned and then the character says—he actually inserts it right into the novel—he quotes the advertising slogan for the cigarettes. Wait a minute! I sit up. Gary stops reading and looks up. Hey, wasn’t that a product placement you just read?
I guess I’m a little slow, but apparently this has been going on for a long time in novels. What I want is details: does the novelist receive a spiff for casually working a major brand name into a novel? Is the spiff paid to the author in addition to the publisher’s advance? Or does the publisher negotiate the spiff and include it in the advance? Does the novelist receive a check from the publisher or the advertiser for this kind of product placement? Is the spiff larger when the clever novelist manages to work in the company slogan in a casual, offhand way so that you, the reader, barely notice the pitch? Does the spiff increase the market share of the product based on a target market that might read the novel? How does the author or publisher or advertiser determine that target market—in other words, is it somehow predetermined that this particular author attracts that particular market segment and that that target is exactly the kind of consumer the advertiser wants to sell to? If so, some advertiser out there is in big trouble with the cigarette product placement. Gary and I don’t smoke.
Is a puzzlement.
And if this goes on in novels, and, obviously it goes on in the so-called blogosphere, then how about on this web site; what should I get for mentioning, say, the brand name of the paint I use? And remember that post in which I mentioned my latex gloves by brand name? Shouldn’t I receive hush money because, as I recall, my reference was to the “thousand little cuts”, tiny slits, which had mysteriously developed in those studio gloves. Tut tut, Mr. Latex glove manufacturer! Now I have new alternatives to consider, yes? Product placement could turn into a real revenue stream for me; always an attractive incentive for an unknown artist. Right? And I love the sub-rosa aspect of not mentioning a negative thing about a product in exchange for, well, need I say more?
Doesn’t the novelist’s use of product placement compromise the integrity of the novelist? Doesn’t this kind of usage infer a quid pro quo between author and product? Well, of course it does. There are no free lunches in these free markets.
How little a college education prepares one.
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That Fame Thing Again
I am so un-Prada here in my studio. Today it’s old jeans, a brown woolen cardigan, pastel orange anklet socks and fuzzy slippers. Should I mention my Cartier wedding ring—you know—the one formed by three linked gold bands? Well, that’ll spiff up my image! One does tend to feel so ragtag after watching the Oscars! I used to wonder why old people wore brown cardigans. Knowing now, I won’t tell.
Anyway, indulging in the annual ritual of watching all the beautiful people navigate the red carpet, I wonder for the umpteenth time: what is fame anyway?
Is it having everybody know your name? Having everybody in the grocery checkout line read about your gaffs in the tabloids? Is it large checks in your mailbox? Is it having your alma mater print a little blurb about your accomplishments? Having your ex read that blurb and wish he’d been nicer? Does fame reward or punish its recipient? Is the necessity for a bodyguard the price you pay for fame or a perk you get from fame?
Anyone in the catbird seat can look down at the ants on the pavement and it must be more than wind in their hair that they feel. It’s hard to strike the right note when one talks about fame without actually having it; looking up at the catbird seat. But let me try here. It’ll be my experiment.
Some fame seems to hinge on the source of the fame and is thus qualitative. So, while I may have received recognition and some bit of fame from a computer graphic arts magazine that no longer exists, I may have really hoped for fame and recognition from the Times.
Some fame may hinge on the number of times you got it. So, while I may have received a rave review for a book I wrote, I only wrote the one book, so, obviously, my rave review cannot have been very potent.
Some fame is additive: as in a fifteen page resume.
Some fame is subtractive: as in “she cut off his what?”
Some fame is cumulative: as in the Academy Award for lifetime achievement and they wheel the drooling recipient onstage on a gurney.
Some fame is diminutive: as in the kittens saved from the fire.
Some fame is at one remove: as in the fame a mother shares in her children’s success.
There is early fame: as in Mozart.
There is early, middle and late fame: Bob Dylan
Then there is posthumous fame: as in poor old Van Gogh.
The absolute best time in my studio is early morning. Shafts of sunlight stream through the dust motes and angle onto my work table. My table is a white door—now splashed with so much paint that you would never guess its original color. This door lies astraddle two wire bookcases. Right now, the place is quite a mess. My boot tracks from the snow days have evolved into plain old dirt. Splashes from watering my plants help create nice dirty irregular rings. Thousands of tiny dead leaves from my indoor tree blow around the paint splashes on the floor. A paper grocery bag, my very hip wastebasket, bulges by the door. Why don’t I just take it out to the trash can? We are out of control over here!
Now here’s a question: I wonder if fame, in and of itself, was what the people who have it had originally sought? Or were they driven by some special thing that they loved doing? Writing, painting, music, theatre, politics, statesmanship, business, medicine, education, acting, journalism, mountain climbing, sport; wanting to do it more and more, better and better, until, at last, through work and love, they achieved their fame. Or was it just fame they sought, qua fame, regardless of some great passion that they might have had? Do some people just want fame, any old kind of fame?
I had a friend in advertising, Jack (who is just famous enough now so that I have not used his real name) who once told me that he wanted to make a lot of money. He was a big gangly kid fresh out of an MBA mill. He wore very expensive two-vent, three-piece pinstripe suits and big shiny Ferragamo shoes that were too small. His gait swung from side to side, toes out, like a man with sore feet.
“So, Jack”, I’d say, “Did your mother buy your wardrobe? Surely you can’t afford clothes like that on your meager trainee pay?”
He always took my jibes good-naturedly. Tall and stoop shouldered, he would just laugh, slumping and swaying down the long corporate hallway that led back to the management wing. He had a name for the way he walked. He called it “going to the arms.” I love that!
One evening a noisy group of us had convened at the downstairs conference room, a murky oyster bar with its incarcerated lobsters and the rancid scent of buttered popcorn. I asked Jack what he really loved to do. I had assumed that he’d be as down on advertising as the rest of us were that night and that he had had some great passion he would eagerly pursue if he could just cut loose of that darned ad agency. He said to me, “I don’t care. I’ll do anything. As long as I make a lot of money.” I was shocked. I told him I was shocked. He just laughed at me.
“Carts,” he said, pronouncing it “cotts”. “You are so full of shit!” And we both had to laugh at that.
By the time he was forty, he presided over the corner office somewhere down that long corporate hallway. He had made his “lot of money”.
How can a guy not want passionately to do a certain wonderful thing? To do that one wonderful, intensely satisfying something that so fully absorbs mind, body, ego, and soul that all sense of “I” and time vanishes into the mesmerizing beloved task at hand? Or is the desire for the fame alone the single most powerful motivator? Does everything else—like the passion for a beloved task—remain simply a means toward an end? For instance, would a famous painter be just as happy being a famous astronaut? Or is fame always bound to a particular task; the thing that a person is passionate about? In the case of my friend Jack it was not. But is his attitude common? For Jack, any old thing would do as long as it came with lots of money. This, to me, seems to be less than pure “fame”. There’s a kind of premeditated scattershot quality to Jack’s fame. Any old thing would do. Let’s just see where the slugs land.
Sitting here at my laptop, I listen as my satellite radio pumps rhythmic electronic music into my ears. I can be certain that the texture of my life, the very synapses of my brain, are as alike to my old colleague Jacks’ as, well, as alike as chalk and cheese. Jack may have his money; and his accolades, I am sure, are piled higher than his stooping shoulders. But is there a frisson when he views his bookshelf of 3-ring presentation binders? Maybe there is. Maybe he’s right. Doing just any old thing to make a lot of money; maybe he is right. Money, after all, can be a great, if depressing, motivator. But I’m getting too theoretical here. Whether it’s money for fame or fame for money, let’s don’t split hairs about fame. Who cares which begat whom? Fame is the thing. Fame is all. One thing about fame seems certain: it’s not for wimps. Seek it early and often. Don’t be shy. Don’t get distracted. Stay focused.
We all know who said we’d each get our fifteen minutes of fame. Well, I can tell you, Andy, fifteen is simply not enough! Really, fifteen minutes is what almost anybody gets with birth, marriage, and death announcements in the newspaper and the occasional published act of Good Samaritan kindness. Once you are born, your fifteen minutes is ticking.
Plenty has been written by and about the famous. Libraries, magazines, newsblogs—they are all chockablock with the famous. Yet far and away the majority of population, me included, is not famous. Oh, well, perhaps in small, cozy kinds of ways. Like my uncle who was “famous” for collecting Wagner 78s. Or the neighbor we had who was “famous” for his popping VW. But, truly, the rest of us, those not discussed in public forums, are just out here, running errands, breathing in and breathing out, doing what we do—what was that, again, that you do?—with little or no “fame” attached to it.
Not having had much fame, I am not sure, really sure, that it is what I want or need. But let’s say that I do, indeed, seek it—because look at my current attempt at fame after all—then what? I am not so sure that fame would make me feel any better than my current anonymity, given a pretty awful world in which to experience it.
Oh come on Mary! That sounds so sour grape-y, as if I’m saying it with my arms tightly folded with a bitter little smirk on my face, foxy under those unattainable grapes. I’m really not like that. I am just confused and curious. Aren’t I? Or I am really just a vixen peering in scorn up at the fruit at the top?
From my studio this morning, surrounded by the fruits of my labor as a first rate second rate painter, I wonder if these fruits aren’t bitter or if I have missed some greater point to this fame thing; wouldn’t be the first time. I hear Jack’s voice reverberating back at me from a time when we were both young and full of notions, and hear his “Cotts, you are so full of shit!”
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Copyrights To The Scale of One
My latest painting, interrupted as it has been with delays, diversions, and duties elsewhere than in my studio, has a crazy tangled feel to it. I don’t like it much. But I just keep returning to it, between times, adding and deleting elements to it. Now it seems to have taken off without my permission. I’ve lost control of it. It looks as scattered as I feel lately. I have flung real confetti at it, meticulously glued it onto the canvas, only to have spent days painting out the confetti. Then I painted the confetti back in, using a stronger palette. And then I backed off and replaced the brights with pastel hues and painted it all over again. I’m frankly not very happy about all this dithering. Usually I am quick and focused when I work and I move right along. Still and all, it is my painting and I will sign it on the back at some arbitrary moment with my usual circle “C” to ward off the copiers—as if that would be a problem down the line—the painting is that bad. Deeply superstitious, my circle “C” is the juju that I apply to all my paintings, knowing full well that copyright law is not very popular right now – at least not to the avant in the creative gard.
There are a lot of articles circulating these days about copyright law and how it won’t work in the Internet world. The only people, or should I say, the only entities which really like copyright law are the big corporations who have money and legal departments and are in a position to pay for the privilege of enforcing their copyrights in courts of law. Little folk like me are left out of, or opt out of, our due process because we lack the funds, or the time, or the requisite fire in the belly for the pursuit of our little copyright infringements.
What it comes down to is this: there are those who want copyright law to continue to “protect” creative works and there are those who do not want copyright law to continue to even exist. Two very specific camps: Yeah and Nay. Copyright lovers want to protect and own their tangible creative assets and to be paid for them (eventually). Copyright haters want to be able to glean freely from any and all tangible creative assets of others and not have to pay for them. Oh, and by the way, copyright haters want to append their own names to these gleaned works. And, the arguments, both pro and con, rage. Articles about copyright law are long, intelligent, discursive and prolific. I enjoy reading them, even the ones that I do not agree with. So I’ve been plowing through many of the most recent ones and for me, a party of one, I mostly wonder “why?” Why is this such a hot topic right now? Why are people from both sides so vehement? What I am about to say will make a lot of people mad. So shoot me!
I believe that those who are against copyright law are not very creative themselves. Oh, they are very creative indeed in tearing apart copyright law, in debunking it, rearranging it, and, even very creative in rewriting it until it no longer resembles the law itself, but looks like some, dare I say it, some parody of existing copyright law.
The Internet makes it very easy to copy and paste somebody’s creative output into your own files. Now it is easier than ever to copy just about anything. So along come the hangers-on, the poseurs, the wannabe artists and writers, those who are too lazy or too unimaginative to create their own tangible creative “things” and they are so venal as to simply click, copy, and download someone else’s ideas and to claim them as their own.
Artists and writers copy things they admire, mostly when they are students and just starting out in their craft. There is a long tradition of students copying paintings in the Louvre. But these exercises are mere juvenilia, the metaphorical schoolbook exercises needed in the search for your own unique voice. I copied Van Gogh when I was fifteen and learned something about how he painted back then. I would not have claimed any originality or authorship in the oil paintings I painted which were copies of Van Gogh’s works. But beyond painting copies, I wanted to move on and to develop and discover my own voice on canvas. I did not want to paint using somebody else’s voice. I did not want to be a marked-down Van Gogh! Where are all the grumpy artists today who eschew painting “like” anyone else? They have been replaced by an entire cadre, a huge population, of appropriators and self-proclaimed satirists who cop to their own impression of “fair use” or “public domain” as an excuse for not having their own creative ideas. We have gone from the artist as rebel to the artist as copycat.
And now this: the orphaned works provision proposed as an improvement to copyright law makes it only minimally necessary to seek out original creators and to get permission—or not—to use their images. In effect, you may whisper into any dark alley, “Is anybody in there responsible for this image I downloaded on the Internet?” And when the answer is silence, off you may go with another “orphaned” tangible creative work produced by someone else—just change the color and, presto, it’s yours!
What gets to me about the arguments by the naysayers in copyright discourse is that they often leave out very important information from the copyright cases that they use to somehow “prove” their points. Are they too lazy or too stupid? I do not know. But elements of omission are rife. For instance, in a February 7, 2007 article in Slate entitled “Can Photographers Be Plagiarists?” by David Segal there is such a case of omission. Coincidentally I had researched and written quite a bit about one of the cases Segal mentions in his presentation. (With my usual dislike of links and all the jumping around required to read this and then to read that, may I suggest this: look up the article at slate.com and read what Segal has to say about Jeff Koons’ use of an image he found and then return to this article. Or read this first, then click off to the Slate piece.)
In 1996 I wrote a book about copyright law for artists. Published by Peachpit Press in Berkeley, my book Electronic Highway Robbery: An Artist’s Guide to Copyrights in the Digital Era included a chapter on Rogers v. Koons. My research included reading and studying the actual court transcripts.
Jeff Koons used a “snapshot” that he had found to create one of his sculptures. The photograph was of two people with a group of puppies. The Koons sculpture was a copy of that “snapshot” image. The plaintiff in the case was Art Rogers, a well known Bay Area photographer.
David Segal stated that “…To the art establishment, the plaintiff was an opportunist who didn't get it—the "it" here being the notion that everything on the planet is potential raw material for art…” In saying this, Segal misses the significance of this case and diminishes the stature of the plaintiff.
The photograph that Jeff Koons used to create his sculpture was not a “snapshot”, but one of a significant documentary series of photographs that Art Rogers produced over a number of years in the community of Point Reyes, CA. For his work, Art Rogers received a Guggenheim Fellowship. Rogers also received wide recognition as a professional photographer and had been widely exhibited. His work could not be categorized as “snapshot” work. The card upon which the puppies’ image appeared was not a postcard, but a published greeting card which included Rogers’ copyright line on the back. Koons removed or ignored that part of the card and did not seek to obtain permission to use the image from Rogers even though he had done so for other projects. Quoting from the United States Court of Appeals transcript:
“Koons’ documents show that he was well aware that he had to obtain permission to use copyrighted material in his works. In numerous prior instances, he had asked for, and obtained, permission to use others’ copyrighted material.”
Who, after all, was being the opportunist here?
To the legal establishment, the plaintiff was not an opportunist, but was a well respected, widely recognized artist in his own right who knew what his copyrights were and who, by the way, prevailed in his case against Koons. The United States Court of Appeals cited fifteen incidents of copyright infringement in the case.
In his diminishment of Art Rogers – by not even using his name or citing his credentials—Segal performs a sin of omission that so weakens the structure of his anti-copyright concept as to make the whole notion fall apart. By referring to Rogers as an “opportunist”, Segal denigrates Rogers’ very real legal standing in the case.
I have to wonder what Segal would do to me if I published his whole piece under my own name here in my own blog. After all, in his own words, “…everything on the planet is potential raw material for art …” Raw, perhaps, being the operative word.
But you know what? I will still place my circle “C” on my new painting. Bad painting or not, it is still mine—my own minimally creative tangible object. All its quirks and mistakes are my own. And if someone downloads it and copies it and claims it, I will be none the worse for the infringement I suppose. But that other person will not have learned a tenth of what I have learned in painting this painting. I may have lost control of it in my studio, plus I may have lost control of it by simply posting it on this blog. Click, copy and off it goes! My circle “C” is only a talisman to ward off the honest crook.
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Simple Bourgeois Comforts
There once was a time when to use the word “zeitgeist” was to set oneself apart as one of the intelligentsia. “Intelligentsia” was also a word which would set one apart, say, from the bourgeoisie. Of course, if you were part of the “intelligentsia” it would have been bad form to label yourself as such. By using these two defining words—zeitgeist and intelligentsia—you became part of what those words meant. But if I do say so myself, being part of the zeitgeist, any zeitgeist, is a lot harder than being part of the bourgeoisie. When you consider yourself to be part of the zeitgeist you cannot unthinkingly put your TV in your living room.
Lately I watch the zeitgeist as represented in the world of painting. But don’t label me part of the intelligentsia! I see that current painting trends are well and truly ugly. So you can see how bourgeois I really am! Flipping through a recent big art magazine, I decided to create a headline for each page of paintings. Here are a few: Blood Paintings, Dismemberment Paintings, Unpainted Paintings, Crash Scenes, Rape Scenes, Historic Rape Scenes, Mangled Technological Objects, Dead Landscapes, Fat Ugly Humanoid Forms, Scatological Paintings, and Meat Paintings. A lot of contemporary painting is ugly. The zeitgeist of today is as harsh as the very sound of the word “zeitgeist” with its sizzling Z and spitting Ts. I guess it is stupid or out of style or banal or naïve or pointless to paint something decorative or just plain pretty—except of course if you are a painter in one of those places where the iconic graphic elements of the region are very pretty indeed—places like Maine or New Mexico. Everybody is so cranky these days!
Last night we had Escalopes Foyot—pork chops draped with grilled onions and sprinkled with breadcrumbs and Parmesan cheese—prepared from a recipe I found in Monet’s Table, a book which has lovely photographs of Monet’s gardens and home. I note that the word “bourgeois” appears only five lines down in the first chapter of the book and I agree: to keep a house like Monet’s at Giverny would require strict attention to bourgeois details that would be quintessentially, well, bourgeois.
So what is wrong with those simple pleasures?
I have always needed a share of bourgeois comfort. Not for me the cold echoes of a cold studio, the soiled toilet, and the cockroach companions. Petty little bourgeois that I am, I have always loved my cozy little apartments, my carpeted homes, my tufted chairs. My bourgeois tendencies may account for at least some part of why I did not pursue life as a painter and instead became an advertising copywriter; advertising jobs included creature comforts. I look at it this way: my life back then—reporting to corporate meeting rooms—made my life right now—reporting to my studio—possible. But there is something more compelling in my bourgeois life than simple homely pleasures. Now I have the gift of time in which to concentrate on all the events in life that I think are more important than just painting, painting, painting. From time to time I take off from my studio to dive into living. Painting, after all, is only a symbol of, a simulacrum of, living events or things or people. A painting is a flat depiction of a particular world, of a particular zeitgeist and—regardless of how accomplished or well executed—a painting is still only a painting. So last week I left my studio to visit friends.
February, icy and still and forlorn, is the perfect time to live through the last significant moments of living, the moments of waning human life and then of slipping away. And I would rather participate in these last things in the lives of my loved ones than to just paint and paint and paint.
We visit the sick.
What can I say when visiting the person who has been felled by a stroke? “Hi, remember me?” Or this: “Remember that summer day when we sat and talked out under the umbrella?” Or “Remember the chickens?” For our ailing loved one, the process of remembering is almost out of reach. The channels for reminiscences are clogged. We eat soup. We have a little wine. And we chat with our cousins. They are not real cousins. We are unrelated by DNA. Yet we are all deeply entwined with one another by our love of our frailest relative. Our loved one, ill and distracted, may, or may not, be with us really this evening. We take snapshots so that maybe one day we will remember this memory-less afternoon.
Afterward we visit friends who have a standard poodle. He strides off with his long legged poodle gait and brings back his green fuzzy ball. He meticulously places it on the coffee table, placing it and replacing it, nudging it this way and moving it a millimeter that way, pushing it with his long slender black nose, placing it compulsively and very precisely, and very many times, until it is arranged just so. Then he gives it a little nudge with that beak of his and the game is on! He is ready. He is life.
The gardens are wet and cold with dripping black branches. Swarms of little yellow finches cluster on the bird seed dispenser like fleas, like mice, invading harbingers of spring. But it’s not spring yet. Pointed daffodil shoots sprout here and there in the mud and they promise cheer; but not yet. Entire hedges are frozen and burnt brown. The cats, like wild Beethoven creatures, come home with their manes wet from the droopy bushes. It is the perfect time to mourn.
We attend a memorial.
What can I say to a mourner? Do I say, “I know. I know?” Isn’t that presumptuous because, really, what do I know about someone else’s pain? Should I say, “This too shall pass?” Doesn’t that sound too facile when I truly believe that some things will never pass? Should I say something about the departed? Like what? What kinds of things truly define that person who is not among us now? What kind of cold comfort would that kind of comment be? It only makes the mourner feel the loss more intensely. It is impossible. The senses of the mourner are so heightened and focused that almost any kind of remark will be remembered. Or not remembered.
These tenuous last moments happen just once and then they are gone. I would not want to squander them by staying in my studio to ponder painting in a haze of theoretical self-absorption.
When we got home it was just in time, sunny and cold and clear. Today it snows again and it is piled all around our house. We would have gotten stuck if we had traveled just one day later. I tramp thru the soft snow on my deck and open the screen door of my studio. It makes a nice clean arc as it pushes the snow away. My latest Goose Girl painting leans against my table. Before our trip, I had already been painting decorative elements around her. Confetti rains on her. She looks happy. She needs more glitter. I want her to be pretty, happy, joyful, dancing. Hi, remember me? Right now I don’t care if it is stupid or out of style or bourgeois or naïve or pointless to paint something decorative or just plain pretty. I don’t care if I am any longer part of the zeitgeist of today’s painting. I need the homely comfort of yellow and blue and red and the dancing figure of my lively constant companion.
The cats are fat and warm in our little library. We sit, desultory, enclosed; outside it is dark and icy. We sip a golden Calvados and watch the snow, big white cornflakes falling silent, outside our curtained windows.
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Metablogging in the Virtual Community
Now we are told by “media conglomerates” that without media conglomerates to push creative content into the world that we toiling artists, writers, musicians, or movie-makers would not have any incentive to create.
Oh for heaven’s sake! This is so patently self-serving as to not even merit comment. But I just want to float this news item here on my blog so that we can stash it in the back of our creative minds and never lose sight of what is discussed at the mahogany tables in the boardrooms of corporate America.
Now, off I go to continue in my creation of this blog, with absolutely no incentive save my own beating heart.
Yes I still paint. Goose girl keeps me company and pops up when I’m examining broccoli or thinking about product placement in contemporary novels or reaching up under my glasses to trim my bangs. Currently goose girl is fading in and out of a misty surface which I create by painting lean pale colors—like my current favorite—think of the pale green of mint ice cream. I scrumble it over burnt umber, then rub it off with my thumb pad or the heel of my hand. The mist created over the dark underpainting is something between a transparent scrim and a floating fog. This I can go back and forth with, from dark to light and light to dark, seemingly for hours and it is not only painting I am doing but also a kind of hypnotic thinking process, preverbal. I call this “chewing”.
I come to this blog as an early, if not somewhat inadvertent, adopter of the online medium. Back in 1994, while poking around in a bookstore on an average Saturday afternoon, I saw Howard Rheingold’s book The Virtual Community and some kind of premonition made me pick it up. I purchased it without the slightest idea of what the Internet was at that time. Nothing felt different as I drove home with my book. But everything had already changed.
Gary and I read The Virtual Community together; he read aloud and I listened. By the time we had gotten only part way through it, we had joined the WELL, the “virtual community” about which Howard Rheingold wrote.
At first I had not fully realized how interactive the WELL was. I went blithely in and asked if anyone out there would like to hear about my backyard flock of chickens. Within moments I had several replies and people were very enthusiastic and encouraging me to tell my story. My home at the WELL for the next several years was to be in the Miscellaneous Conference, hosted by Reva Basch.
Reva was my first online friend and she responded almost instantly to my query about my chickens. Those were the days of posting by using Picospan, a UNIX-based posting language with keyboard commands. Yet despite the sometimes clunky protocol, Reva came across as warm and personal. Until quite recently I had believed that she had been one of the WELL’s original founding members. She was an early member, not a founder as it turns out, but she was, indeed, an original. As far as I am concerned, Reva was instrumental in the founding of a very great part of the persona of the WELL. She and other people at the WELL came up with a very special and new kind of communication between people and established a conversational caring tone which reverberated through the geeky parts of communicating via Picospan.
And so I started writing a series of essays, writing about the daily vicissitudes of living with a flock of chickens. I observed their personalities and took off from there. Character drove plot. And on and on and on I went, embarrassingly oblivious to the WELL’s loose tradition of short, pithy and more conversational, ad hoc postings. There I was, writing light, yet fairly formally constructed, essays. I must have been a bit stiff for the WELL environment, really, but nevertheless my chickens were popular characters and I started to receive dozens of public and private responses to the pieces; all of it enthusiastic and warm. Not a single WELL member flamed me for my long-windedness. Soon I became a “character” there online; people called me the Chicken Lady. After I had been submitting my pieces for several weeks, Gary and I went to a WELL party and we finally met the people we had formed friendships with online.
Having the hens to talk about on the WELL was a better creative structure for writing than what I have here in 2007. I want to blog here about art and process and being age sixty. But it’s wobbly as a chair in the desert; the joints come apart because the glue is dry. As I said, character drove the “plot” of my Chicken Lady writings. Plotless, here in my own mind, what do I say and how do I say it this time around?
I can certainly see why the most active and compelling blogs are those that focus on politics. For the creators of those blogs, every day brings conflict, suspense, slug fests, evil and good, bombs, mayhem, blood, sex, all of it and it’s all deeply personal to the blogger’s audience, because, after all, what can be more personal than the fear of being accidentally thrown, personally, into one of these situations? Part of what I think is interesting about political discourse is watching in horror and being just plain grateful that it’s not I who is going through all that stuff. Whether it’s bombs or scandals or even the necessity of having to speak in public—especially not having to speak in public!—at least it is not my poor self who has to cope with it. Bloggers in the political sphere can’t work fast enough to keep up with the volume of stuff thrown at them for distillation, interpretation, criticism, regurgitation, analysis—any way you slice it, there’s plenty to talk about in a political blog.
So what is blogging anyway? Conversation? Writing? Bad TV? Is it generous or self-indulgent? Is it lonesome or insanely, wildly sociable? Is it self-publishing? Is it dangerously revealing or linguistically manipulative? Are we authors or conversationalists or artists or vaguely humanoid technologically competent content providers? Anyone who calls it “content” is not my friend! Are bloggers altruistic hive-minded souls? Or are they just egomaniacs with yet another, and even bigger, forum for self-expression? Why do bloggers blog? Many, most, do not make an income doing it. Many, most, have a tiny audience of faithful parents and friends. It takes time and technological expertise to keep the blog working and mostly the blogger works in a cave, webby with self-doubt, lonesome and cold. Every once in a while an individual blogger comes to the attention of a larger audience and a new voice is heard, discussed, or heard and discarded. Either way, it cannot be easy.
It is very cold here where I live. But it is cold everywhere. Germany, the Czech Republic,Poland, Netherlands,France, Britain,Belgium, have all been thrashed by stormy winds. I turn my muddy car home from the market after stocking up for our own local next snowstorm—orange juice, eggs, bell peppers, potatoes, onions, mayonnaise, butter—things we will need if we get snowed in again. The last storm brought snow which piled over the top of my boots and clear up to my knees. When we were shoveling it off our very long driveway Gary asked me, “Which do you like better: shoveling snow or earthquakes?”
I wish we would get snowed in again so that I would have an excuse for just painting and writing. “Just.” As if I need extenuating circumstances for doing what I do. Do you have gallery representation? No. Are you a published author? Yes. Do you make money blogging? No. Do you sell your paintings? Sometimes. What exactly do you DO all day long? Well…
Turning left onto the highway, I see a flailing hand, palm out, waving overhead, glowing along its edges with a smoky greenish light. I do not see it next to the cement plant across the street as I turn left; I see it in my mind. I start to paint it. My turn indicator clicks off. I merge into the right lane. I paint the hand, starting with thin watery yellow dripped onto canvas. I blot an imprint with my own palm, then I redraw it in the wet dripping paint, extending the fingers so that they are spectral and spider-like, the finger bones, phalanges?, long and curved, waving, in a sense, like seaweed. There needs to be green, palest, chalky, and a kind of pink with yellow, like smoke, pale, ineffable. Whose hand is this? Lovely Goose Girl, she moves in and out of focus. She is decorated. Her bony beak is pierced with more nostrils than an ordinary goose would have. Her blue tongue ululates. Her body blends in and out of the atmosphere. She is wearing a skirt; vain creature! And, until I get home to my studio, she exists in this incarnation completely inside my head, driving along the highway, bringing home the bread.
Time and all the words and voices on the WELL showed me just how embracing and personal the new electronic connection could be. Chicken Lady was just a person with a hen house. Nothing could be more low-tech than a flock of hens. But the lady with her hens made people laugh and cry and shout. Far from cold, this new medium was simmering with emotion and intelligence, with complex feelings from real, live people.
This all sounds so quaint somehow. But the atmosphere was unique from anything that had come before it. In 1994 “blogging” was an activity which did not have a name. It was considered to be somewhat “weird”. Some of our “real life” friends back then thought that what we did on the WELL was strange, impersonal, and somewhat sinister. Of course the WELL could be strange, impersonal, and somewhat sinister at times. But that was certainly not all the WELL could be.
The silence into which I blog today in 2007 stuffs my head with paranoia. It is so overwhelming sometimes that I wonder at my own energy; how can it hold up under such an absence of an audience?
Your point, Mary?
Well, from the time of my Chicken Lady posts on the WELL, up until this very moment on the Internet, cacophonous with bloggers, nothing much has changed in the possibility for communication between people using this medium. Sure there are better, quicker tools with which to communicate and new methods for exchanging ideas. But on fundamental levels, people reading blogs these days are still interested in stories, in original thinking, in other people. And at least some people are looking for literate and interesting writing in the same way in which they look for literate and interesting books. We are still dealing with the human brain, mind and soul in all its permutations. Nothing has changed since I was Chicken Lady on the WELL, except the medium itself. The human mind is still contained within its skull.
As to the media conglomerates: are they the engine driving all this creativity? Do they control this evolving medium? Well, their sticky tentacles are all over the place, of course, cluttering all kinds of interesting blogs with advertising. Is there no surface left untouched? But as to corporate entities being the engine that drives this train, I do not see that in operation here. What I do see is the flourishing of individual creativity which is louder and more powerful and more urgent and more quirky, creative, and compelling than what traditional publishing companies could provide. The source and energy for anyone with an original creative idea comes from something far less controllable than a corporate entity’s marketing department or, for that matter, from the corporate entity’s paychecks. Now the rebellious and childlike mind of the artist can show its creations to the world without the filter of the grownups.
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I learned to drink coffee when I was in love with a silent, handsome painter back in college. He was, I believed, fascinating and mysterious and we were art students and, so, of course, our love was as intense as chartreuse and just as overpowering. We would cut class to get a cup of coffee and there we’d be in the campus diner; cute couple, dead silent. I, gripping my coffee mug—it was the kind of mug that is so thick that you have to wrap your lips around the edge of it to siphon off a mere thin flow of liquid. I would peer, concentrated, into the black depths of, not of his eyes, but of my own coffee. Staring into my coffee postponed the moment, any moment, when he and I would need to talk. This guy never said a word. Then again, neither did I. For some unknown reason I could never think of a thing to say to him. With anyone else I could chatter on carelessly. This guy was mute. It seriously affected my ability to parry a gambit. Coffee filled the deep voids in the meeting of our minds.
To be fair, his crutch, in these situations, was cigarettes. I wasn’t the only one biding my time between speaking opportunities on our dates. He had a Jean Paul Belmondo capacity to infuse cigarette smoking—lighting up, inhaling, exhaling and holding the burning cigarette—with intense existential meaning which was thrilling, if it had not been so vapid.
I wouldn’t call it love at first sight; the coffee, I mean. But it served me well during my awkward early love affairs. Nothing is more fraught for a young man than a pretty girl staring into a cup of coffee. It can serve all meanings. I love you madly and am speechless. I hate you thoroughly and am speechless. I am considering what you just asked of me and am speechless. I am speechless, beautiful, and I am staring into my coffee. I didn’t actually care for coffee until much later in life. Between the ages of eighteen and twenty, coffee was my prop.
Okay, you say; this is all very nice, too nice, in fact. So where are the bad parts? Surely, aged sixty, you have had some bad things happen to you? Let’s hear about those.
Of course, having managed six decades it’s a given that bad things have happened to a person; some of them very bad indeed. In my second decade I was constantly spilling my guts hither and yon. In my third decade I spilled them to a professional, very therapeutic. By my fourth decade I began to realize just how seriously bad some of those things had really been. In my fifth decade, détente. And now? Now I am in a race with time, with myself. Think, just think, about all that wasted time. I do still let a few of my guts seep out from time to time, but to an increasingly narrow audience. Guardedness has replaced garrulousness and with good reason; some companions betray all that loose talk.
This morning I sit staring into my cup of coffee. The early morning studio chill causes lovely arabesques of steam to rise off its surface. I’ve said all this before. I hold my coffee cup—today it is the blue of a swimming pool—and, as it ever has done, my coffee is a refuge from the need to do anything.
Stare into this black bitter liquid and remember, or not, and relive, or not, and feel my stomach clutch in somatic agony over some past slight or fight or devastation. Or not. Is it better—evaluative word—to mull it all over and over or to get on with it, whatever that particular “it” may be? How many times, numberless, have I held onto a cup of coffee while in the throes of some new jolt to the psyche? Coffee, black, has sat in my hands at every meridian, good or bad, in my life.
Coffee, black, in mahogany corporate meeting rooms; I could always stare into its cold dregs when my copy was being lacerated. Coffee in an echoing room, impervious to the fact that someone, or some cherished belief, was dying very slowly in another room. Don’t cry. Don’t cry. Don’t cry. Coffee, black, with every friend I have ever bumped up against and, too, with every person who would ever, one day, betray that friendship. It, the coffee, is the innocent bystander to all my human encounters that are too complex or too fraught or too angry or too lustful to be experienced other than in silence. Coffee has been my prop and my excuse for saying, or not saying, doing or not doing; just about everything I have ever experienced in four decades.
If I select from the events of my lifetime and cull out the bitterness of the worst of it, I may disappoint a certain feral population in the blogosphere who love to feast on old bones. But I do not seek a confessional at this point. I could tell you things here. But I won’t.
Cold, empty, I set my blue coffee cup beside a pint of cadmium yellow. Enough!
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Linked Linkages Linking
Everybody’s doing something else—or four-and-twenty other things—while doing what they’re doing. Everybody’s multitasking; a verb without an object! Hurry! Hurry! Brusque and jumpy! Little bits pop into view. And then as quickly, pop away.
But not right here and not right now.
If that’s the way you want to live; live on. But do it somewhere else. This blog’s not for multitasking multi-taskers. Here I write long pieces. My form: the essay. Here I do not multitask. I paint. I write. I eat. I think. I do a lot of things. But each thing I do, I do it singly, just one old fashioned thing at a time.
Here I sit.
Sitting in the principal’s office on a big hard wooden library chair next to my mother, I watched the dust motes floating between the alternating stripes of sunlight and darkness made by the drawn Venetian blinds. There was serious quiet talk between my mother and the principal—a Mrs. Walker, as I recall. Words like English came out of their mouths, but they were not words I could understand. I was seven years old.
After many words back and forth, Mrs. Walker and my mother turned to me. Their tightly curled permanent waved hair wobbled in and out of the alternating slats of sunlight and darkness and the falling dust sparkled like snow in the sunlight and I could see it landed on their curls.
“What?” I said.
Mrs. Walker said, “What could you have been thinking, Mary?”
What I hate most is links. Interruptions.
There are plenty of blogs with blurbs and ads and sponsors and commentators and flash and whiz-bang and sexy tempting little blue links. I am so cranky in my old age that I believe that busy blogs do not inform but merely confuse and over-stimulate the viewer. No wonder we have an epidemic of attention deficit syndrome.
So put down what you’re doing. Turn off your phones and earphones. Sit down. Listen up. A nice cup of tea or coffee? Okay, I make this one exception. A dog or cat for company? Okay, a dog or cat.
Mrs. Walker continued, serious, “Destroying the playground is a serious act of vandalism. Your mother and I are very unhappy that you would do such a wanton thing.”
I watched the dust motes go in and out of light and dark stripes and the dust actually landed in Mrs. Walker’s dark springy hair.
Wanton was a word from the Bible.
I observe that online writing is, generally, short, sometimes terse or snippy, and almost always, disjunctive.
Every day in the San Fernando Valley, we little elementary school kids were routinely turned out onto the blacktop to play. It was called recess and the blacktop was called the playground. Perhaps the only exception would be when it rained. Playgrounds in 1952 were just truckloads of blacktop which had been steamrollered flat across acres and acres of steamrollered dirt and then ringed about with festive swags of chain link. Pink stucco prefabricated buildings were assembled each summer vacation and plunked in rows right on top of the blacktop. These temporary buildings, called “temps”, never were and it was inside these pink ovens where most of my elementary and junior high school education took place. It did not kill me. It did not kill a single student in the whole 9 years I attended school in these buildings.
It is as if blog writers are rushing to say something, anything, before they get clicked off.
Shade was sparse, especially during noon recess, and hundreds of us little kids swarmed to the scant twelve inches of it provided at the north edge of a wood fence that screened the school incinerator from view. It was hot from the sunshine beating down from noontime apogee. It was hot from the blacktop blasting the heat back up at us. The playground was where I first saw heat waves, like water shimmering, way out by the softball field a block or two away. While we waited for our turn at the handball court, we would sit jammed side by side, squirming and shoving, trying to get closer and closer to the incinerator fence to get out of the relentless sunshine. I assure you, none of us died in the process. The only problem with our strip of shade was that if you sat on the blacktop with your legs straight out in front of you, your shins would be part way in the sun. And that is where I sat one noon recess, skinny little shins stuck out onto the melting tar of our playground during recess.
For those of us who love the human voice, the literary voice, we want to hear the voice which tells its story, lovingly, with details, memories, diversions. And we want to hear it uninterrupted. The literary voice explores linkages that are not blue in color but, rather, are right in front of you and these linkages unfold as the story wends its way. These linkages are filled with contextual relationships, with surprises, with chatty digressions too, all of which establish the voice of the writer in a reader’s mind. The flow of good writing links one thing with another and another and expresses the prejudices, choices, and quirks of the individual writer. There are still those readers to whom this form of linkage is the very soul of satisfying communication. Links—those little blue lines of type which are scattered in an otherwise well-written blog post—the kind of links that remove readers from the written word in front of them—destroy the essence of an individual writer’s voice and obliterate a writer’s more complex and surprising linkages which are created by putting one word in front of another, one thought in front of another, one at a time. Just because the medium has a tool which allows the blogger to link one thought to another on a completely different web site does not mean that a blogger absolutely must use that tool.
In the San Fernando noontime sun the blacktop stank of tar. But it looked like licorice. I folded my legs up to my chest to get more in the shade, but it wasn’t really all that much cooler this way so I thrust my right heel back in front of me and discovered, like that man we had heard about, Lewisanclark, I discovered I could make a shiny round ball out of the playground pavement. I further discovered that if I rolled my ball up and started it over again near my butt, pushing with my Buster Brown heel, I could push it along what was now a deepening black trench and my ball would gather even more tar with each push I made. My tarball grew and glistened and I formed it into a nice perfect sphere, as perfect as a seven year old sculptor is able using Buster Browns and little hands as tools. This I did, happy and busy, many times with many balls, which I laid in rows beside me in the shade. At last, it came to the attention of a Miss Chittenden. I knew this when she rushed up to me, lanyard-whistle and all. She towered there in the sunshine and I showed her the balls I had made. She was not completely indifferent to my work, however, it was just not the kind of interest I would have expected. I showed her my display, the neat little rows next to my now-tarry little plaid dress, for this was an era when little girls wore dresses to school every day. Miss Chittenden was not pleased with my tar balls. This was the first portent of a sensation that I was to grow into as an adult who would become a not very well known artist. Miss Chittenden did not like my work. She was, in fact, mad at me for some reason.
The artist part of me hates links, too. In a way links with visual content are even more egregious in their capacity to interrupt. First of all and most important: the online visual image is digitized and, of necessity, horribly shrunken and diminished in the process. The artist can only hint at the content of a work by putting it up on a blog. Add to these handicaps the tens of thousands of different screen resolutions, and godknows what people are looking at when they view an artist’s blog. Then, if those viewers shift their attention to yet another blog, via an evil little blue link, I can guarantee they comprehend neither the original image they were presented with, nor the one they skip to with such callousness. Skipping over these tiny grainy images is a crime against art, really. It is hard enough to look at actual paintings which are hanging on a wall right in front of you, never mind looking at mere simulacrums on a computer screen. Linked artist blogs kill the process of slow looking. And there is enough of that slaughter taking place in galleries, in magazines, in big art books. Observe people in art galleries and put a stopwatch to them as they stand in front of a picture. You may never paint again!
My mother and Mrs. Walker turned to me. The alternating slats of sunlight and darkness crawled up and down their dresses; stripes, but stripes like on a zebra’s back, moving over and under in shapes around their arms, along their skirts, following peaks and valleys of fabric and body. Undulations. I did not know that word on that day.
So here I write long form essays. Linkless. And I show images of my paintings, greatly reduced. And if someone wants to hear my kind of voice, see my kind of art, then good. If not, they may bounce off into the ether, no harm done. And, dear reader, if you seek related works, I trust you to do it after you have read what I have had to say.
But you know what? I believe that there are others like me out here, people who want to read a good story, who care enough to concentrate on one precious thing at a time. My work, both written and painted, benefits from slow looking, slow reading. And this blog builds as each individual essay adds to the richness of my whole story. I make linkages between one thing and the next, but my linkages unfold gradually, as my writer’s conscience guides me.
“What could you have been thinking?” my mother asked. “What could you have been thinking!” she declared
At last I said, with as much truth as honesty can tell, and sitting there, seven whole years old and everything, all of it, just so very, very interesting.,
“It was an experiment.”
I did not know what they wanted. I still do not know what they wanted. Was I to have had to pay for the damaged blacktop? Out of my own allowance? And where were my tar balls?
My essays may be read out of context because I am still attached to the notion of a coherent structure for each of my individual pieces; each one can stand alone. But the whole story is contained when all my stories are read.
“Mary?” My mother called from inside the kitchen. I was sitting on the back steps holding the cat’s tail.
“What are you doing?” she called again, though not very interested by the tone of her voice.
As the kitty would walk away, I would increase my grip, and, not pulling it, never pulling it because my mother had taught me to never do such a thing, the kitty would screech and swing around to bite at me and I would let her go. It was an experiment, really. I wouldn’t really Hurt the kitty, but it was interesting to see when she’d screech and twist around to strike back at me.
“Mary!,” a little louder this time, “What are you DO-ing to the kitty?”
Linkage is nothing more than synapses firing off this way and that. Linkage is NOT a line of blue words that take you out of your immediate context and into something related—but I say, the thing at the end of that click is not really related, it’s only related in the way that a synonym is related. The link you skip to is not the link of one mind going hither and thither, it is a new idea or thought that someone else said or did. It may or may not be, and probably is not, contextually related. It’s not so very hard to read just one story at a time. We’ve been doing it since Guttenberg. Just because this technology has the tool, the mechanics, to let your reader wander far away does not mean you, the writer, must use it – and in fact, that tool’s rude interruptive quality should, actually, preclude your use of it. Linkage, a link, is that ineffable jump that your own conscious, pre and subconscious mind makes when it jumps to a new, yet relative, topic.
Playing handball on my own garage door is one thing I like to do after school. That and an only child’s game I made up which I called “TV Commercial”.
When I was in elementary school I would pay closest attention to those old TV demonstration commercials where someone would show all the tricks a Vega-matic could perform on potatoes. Slices, dices, peels, makes French fries. Cuts onions without tears!
In my game “TV Commercial” I pretended to demonstrate a new substance for re-painting old wooden fences. It was applied using a regular garden hose. The substance would rejuvenate the wood (I did not say “rejuvenate” in my spiel) and those old gray boards were transformed, like magic, to a rich dark brown, quickly, easily and with no harm to the plants and flowers at the base of your fence. When it got on plants, my new substance acted like ordinary water. This I demonstrated for hours until all the wood fencing between our driveway and our neighbor’s back yard had been painted.
My mother, the mother of an only girl-child, was accustomed to hearing my chatter as I went about my backyard experiments. And I wonder, now, if copywriter DNA compelled me toward one of my adult career choices. Then I wonder, is there a “thing-making” bead on my DNA too? Is there “experimentation” DNA? “Visualization” DNA? “Linkages” DNA?
Linking along, one minute you’re in the schoolyard, vandalizing, wantonly, the blacktop playground; the next minute you’re sixty—home again, home again, jiggity jig.
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Pistol Packin’ Mamas and Other Tough Devis
My mother and I played badminton inside when the weather was too hot to play outside. Southern California can have atrocious heat in the summer and so we would stretch our badminton net across the living room and move a couple of the larger pieces of furniture to the sidelines and off we’d go.
My mother was very athletic and I never was. She spent a lifetime trying to get me going in that direction. I spent my lifetime daydreaming and wanting to be Van Gogh. She was a mean badminton player. With great energy she would lunge around the furniture, lobbing the shuttlecock with the strokes of a tennis pro and the earnest competitiveness that came from her having been the middle child between two brothers. A cerebral only child, I did not have the requisite fire in the belly for sports and so I was never a very serious adversary for her. Too desultory, my returns would get stuck in the netting. Or, herky-jerky, I would launch the shuttlecock cleanly over her head clear into the dining room. This made her laugh uproariously. Sometimes I would miss my shot completely. In our energetic exchanges, lamps wobbled, books and magazines slithered onto the floor, and the glass candy dish spewed its contents. We tromped right over the backs of the upholstered pieces to get our shots—squashing pillows, tipping chairs, crashing into the bookcase. My mother could not have cared less about damage to the things in our living room. She would laugh hysterically as objects scattered and I would laugh too—she had a very infectious laugh—and we’d giggle, and hoot, and screech as the game hotted up. Yet, through it all, no matter how giddy we got, she played focused and fierce. I loved the teetering lamps, airborne hard candies, flapping draperies, the general delinquency and hysteria of it all. We laughed and laughed, shrieking and panting. Then one of us would call “kings ex” and we’d flop down on the nearest teetering wing chair, breathless and sweating. There was not a thing in that living room that was not dislodged, scattered or scuffed. The room, our badminton court, lay in splendid disarray. Puffing, panting, then breathing more and more steadily, we would talk.
“If anybody hurt you I’d kill them.”
“No. I’m serious. Anyone lays a hand on you and I will kill them.”
“But Mama, you’d be sent to prison for murder.”
“I don’t care.”
“I’d serve my time and be proud of it.” she interrupted, “It would be well worth it.”
This was not just idle motherly protectiveness. My mother served in the US Navy during World War II and was a gunnery instructor. She could dismantle, clean, assemble and fire with accuracy a wide range of military firearms, including air-to-air machine guns. She was an ace. She was up for OCS when she got pregnant and was finally mustered out in the spring of 1945.
Hinduism embraces the concept of a female divine and she is called, in her various incarnations, Devi. Her energy can be filled with loving-kindness or it can be violent with fierce rage. What is most interesting to me is her incarnation as the one with fire and skulls, the horrific flesh-eating female who destroys her foes. She is the paradox of the soft cuddling mother who coos down at an infant and who then, unthinking, furious, and strong, heaves the car off her child’s leg. Frankly, I like her best in this more virulent form.
In the culture of my childhood, mythical concepts of female behavior tended toward the maudlin. In the kiddy books I was raised on there was a plethora of kindly, grandmotherly types who doled out nice, hot, fresh-baked cookies. It was only in Grimm’s Fairytales that we got a more sinister female figure, but those tales were quietly censored by our own kindly grandmothers.
When I discovered the images of Kali—bejeweled in skulls, tongue lolling, crazy eyes—and of the goddess Durga—many arms, many weapons, killing demons—I was compelled by them, fascinated yet, too, squeamishly repelled. I read about them, studied their myths, their stories. And gradually their repellant first impressions changed as I learned more about them. The logic of their existence—that for every mooshy form of sentimentality there is a furious, indignant and wrathful counterpart just makes epistemological sense to me. Just as there is an up and a down, an opposing force to any given movement, and entropy for activity.
But importantly for painting, and specifically for my painting, the concept of the devi’s contrariness, of her fierce, angry expressions, her frown, her violence, her crazed beauty, blood thirst, her necklace of skulls – the visualization of her concept makes possible pictures that are not merely “pretty”.
This I find interesting.
The Hindu culture accepts visual depictions of the female divine that our culture might label as “ugly”. I believe that the personification of Kali as bloodstained, taunting, and menacing makes possible a more interesting kind of art than our culture’s personification of the simpering Minnie Mouse for instance. We have Barbie, too pretty by half, role model for being trendy and thin (the first personification of anorexia?). We have Beth March, the dying little do-gooder. We have Cinderella dancing on inappropriate shoes of glass. Much more interesting to me, in fundamental visual and aesthetic terms, is a many armed Durga, armed with a weapon in every hand, angrily slaying demons on a bloody battleground. Now there is subject-matter!
This explains some of my recent paintings.
Daughter of Icarus and Kali Mother Goose are two paintings made possible by my having seen and studied female iconography that, at first glance, might appear to be the very opposites of female beauty.
In Daughter of Icarus I asked: what would the daughter of the ill-fated winged Icarus be like? Would she want to, or try to, follow in her father’s path, building a pair of wings with which to fly? Would she make more of a success of her project than her father had done, seeing as how she had his bad example to learn from? My flyer made her wings from objects that she had at hand: a kitchen broom, wooden spoons, and, in a nod to her father’s invention, candle wax. But, smart girl that she was, she chose to fly by moonlight so that the wax would not melt. In my picture it melts anyway. True to its destiny, her DNA foretold of her flying, floating, and, ultimately, falling, just as her parent before her had done. She is not beautiful with lovely floating tresses. She is bald, stripped bare. She gives me a look as if to say, “I told you so.” She sports a single patent leather pump which won’t help her one bit on her downward path. She is naked and lumpy and unsuccessful, as much a failure in flight as was her progenitor. She is broken before she even hits the ground. I like her enormously.
In Kali Mother Goose I wanted to contrast the bonnet-ed female goose of my childhood fairy tales with the angry she-god of my recent discoveries. Why is it possible for one culture to accept a visual representation of femaleness which is mean and ugly while in my own culture we venerate more consistently cute little anthropomorphized animals, cute little girlchild dolls and cute little recreations of Tyrolean villages for us to live in? It’s puzzling. We live with the eternal Disneylandization of our environment. My beloved San Francisco cable car turnaround at the foot of Powell at Market was made “cute” with fake cobblestones and phony cute Victoriana in the shape of electrified gas lanterns.
And now, horrifically, there is the Disneylandization of the human female face so that every wrinkle, every sign of humanity, of struggle, of experience, of irony, of sorrow, of pain, of age, of humor is to be erased and replaced by a blank stretched bland visage, red-lipped, flattering, on perfect doll-like display, a Barbie face, cleared of anything which is now considered to be unattractive. In this Disneylandization of the (let’s face it) older human female face, the goal is to have a face of beckoning flattery, youthful recreation, and taut beauty. “Who is fairest of them all?”
With my Kali Mother Goose painting I am impatient with my own cultural concepts of female beauty. And, for that matter, I am also impatient with the concept of beauty in art with a capitol “A”. Armed with my unavoidably naive cultural observations about Hindu concepts of female strength and beauty (I am, after all, limited by being an American westerner), I painted a picture to contrast Mother Goose-ness with a Kali-ness in a single female figure. The goosy mythical apron flutters about the naked skull-bedecked she-god. The goose bonnet hides the face of one who looks at you straightforward and neutral—there is nothing that flatters in this character. Her face is black, a color considered to represent power in Hindu mythology. She is suspended in the night sky, caught in that second of improbable floating that happens just before the flight reverses and the body starts to fall. She, like my daughter of Icarus, is broken before she hits the ground; her severed limbs portend of a very serious crash.
In a way, my mother prepared me for looking at Hindu art. I believe that every atom of what we see, think and do during our lifetimes relates to every other atom. And so the seed of my ability to glean information about female beauty from Hindu Devis was planted on a hot summer San Fernando Valley day, playing badminton in the house with a mother who would not shed a single tear over a broken candy dish, but who would have, with unquestioning swift and very able anger, killed anyone who would have hurt me. Her legacy to me was this fierce beauty.
“I’m amazed at how much I’ve learned in just a week—I can now strip a 30 cal. machine gun—I know how to operate a turret and guns contained in it…shoot a pistol and 12 gauge shot gun, run a trap house—compute various sighting problems—name advantages and disadvantages of various iron sights, telescopic sights, and reflector sights…also today we started a class in teaching methods…when the bill is passed in the House of Reps to allow Waves to go to advanced bases…the gunnery instructors would be the first sent as they are considered the most vital as we not only instruct, but are prepared to run training devices that gunners must practice on as often as possible…Love, Mary”
11 May 1944
United States Navy
(She was 23 years of age)
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The best fried chicken I ever made was in 1983. Back then I had resumed painting for what would become five years. It was a hot fudge sundae of a hiatus from my job as an advertising copywriter. Concentrated studio days replaced corporate American hallways. Day after day, week after week, month after happy month I woke up with no other preoccupation than to place convincing marks on waiting substrates. Happily, I worked alone.
One morning in the midst of my idyllic idyll, I reluctantly remembered a package of chicken pieces with a treacherously looming sell-by date. Visions of creeping salmonella drove me out of my studio, off to the kitchen. With post-vegetarian bloodlust, I had a sense that what I needed today, right here, right now, was fried chicken—toothsome, greasy, crunchy, and animal. Flipping thru my New York Times Heritage Cookbook, I found a great little recipe called: Southern Fried Chicken I. It was the marinade of milk and Tabasco sauce that did it. That and lots of black pepper. The part about marinating was perfect, so I could “cook” while still putting in studio time. I love recipes like this—a perfect reduction of kitchen sloth, seared flesh, and high spices.
Well, you know how you have one of those days in the kitchen when you have every ingredient on hand; when you have the deftness of motor skills you never knew you could muster; when you have abundant time; and when that stingy little kitchen goddess bestows her blessing on you, the cook, and you cook very well indeed? You cook better than you deserve to cook and it all comes together in the most appetizing, most delicious, loveliest meal ever. Such was that day for me.
With unexplained grace, I was somehow able to heat the oil without burning it, to sizzle the chicken pieces without undue spitting, to turn them with flair at the exact apogee of their crunchy perfection, and to remove them at the point of perfect doneness. It was—a miracle!
There my chicken sat in delicate stasis, miraculously not sodden, quaintly picturesque, nestling on fluffy white paper towels, old fashioned, elegant, tender, and serenely uniformly golden. The deep-fried flour crust released a little arabesque of steam that positively cried out for Norman Rockwell to record its photogenic pose of Americana. Only thing was: I was all alone. I would never, ever, be able to pull this off again. Certainly not in front of company. As the quintessential only child and adult loner, it was for me one of the few times I had ever felt the lack of someone else to share my experience with. So much gorgeous friend chicken pulchritude and just one diner.
There was only one thing left to do then; to dine.
Sunshine in my studio, I pushed my half finished painting to one side of my big worktable and replaced it with my lunch tray. A leg, a thigh, a rolled gingham napkin in a pewter ring, cold wine, the cat for company. Redolent is a threadbare word for my fried chicken studio lunch that day. Guilt? I do not think I felt guilt, never guilt. Guilt was definitely not what I felt as I proposed to feast alone. You wonder if I shared with the cat. I did not share with the cat. I picked up the leg and crunch. Little moans of gastronomic astonishment sneaked past my palette as I savored my creation. The cat was not disinterested. The wine, unremarkable, played a counterpunctual accompaniment as I methodically, attentively worked my way across my lovely plate of chicken.
It was one of the most intensely aesthetic moments I have ever experienced in my studio.
Today it is brilliantly sunny and freezing cold. The deck which connects our house with my studio is crunchy under my boots. Fiendish ice creaks just under a fine layer of fuzzy new snow. Ice is my treacherous companion here where we live now, having both deceived me and comforted me throughout our relationship. Ice, black and hidden, swept my feet out sideways one year, smashed me down, cartoonlike, onto my left shoulder. Ice, soothing and anesthetic, comforted the excruciating pain of my subsequent endless therapy.
The studio is almost blindingly sunny today. Sunbeams streak silently at light speed up and down my jars of paint. The sun illuminates Indian yellow, a jar of phthalo blue that is diluted with quite a lot of white, a jar of pale lavender in the same value as the phthalo blue, and a color I have labeled “roots”. Another label says “this is the one” and yet another, “with orange”.
In a while I will discover that the water in my studio is frozen in the pipes. Ice has done its treachery again. But it’s no matter. Really. We forgot to plug in the pipe warmer. This too shall pass and so will the water, eventually.
Here in this studio I have a box of SemperGuard latex gloves which I use when I finger-paint. I do this a lot during the first phases of a painting. I splash a lot of watery paint onto a raw new canvas and push it around and blot it and let it drip and make fingerprints in it and rub at it with the heels of my hands and most of the time I remember to use my latex gloves before I’m too far along. Lately I’ve noticed the gloves have dozens of tiny wounds, death by a thousand cuts. If the clean dry air here where I live can do this to latex gloves, imagine—and I do—what it must be doing to in my own cells.
I need vitamins. Cracks in the corners of my mouth mean not enough B vitamins. Skin problems point to gluten allergies. Why are my teeth so translucent? They never used to be like that. My hair is thinning; probable scurvy. Bob Edwards’ guest says “You can get used to anything, even pain.” Is this true?
In the free associative meanderings of my brain’s interstices, how come I think about my fried chicken studio lunch today? Why today? Is it the juxtaposition of salmonella chicken with my rotting latex gloves; the crunch of fried chicken and the crunch of icy snow? Was my fried chicken studio lunch really one of the most intensely aesthetic moments I have ever experienced in my studio?
Intensely aesthetic moments; is there a scale in value for those moments for an artist? Is it more intensely aesthetic to be in your studio and lay down a perfect mark of paint on a perfectly taut piece of linen and to hear the brush go pum. Pum. Pum. And the dryness of the stroke and the creaminess of the stroke combine to push and pull in choreographed simultaneity, scattering microscopic perfectly spherical little color splashes that denote—what?—quickness, liquid, clouds, a blush? And you, the painter—with all good luck favoring the one who is well prepared—are lucky enough to get it all together on this day in your studio, all of it, your training, your years of practice, your intuition, and you have the deftness of motor skills you never knew you could muster with your brush, your paint, your mind, and it is you, little you, who made that beautiful mark and you paint very well indeed. You paint better than you deserve to paint and it all comes together in the most delicious, loveliest stroke of paint you have ever made. Is this more intensely aesthetic than biting into fried chicken in that same studio?
For me, no.
Today I dine with a primary palette; scrambled eggs on a turquoise plate, toast with cherry jam, sunshine and a cat.
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The Studio Cat
Barnaby Wallace Wallace Barnaby Cat observes the early underpainting stages of one of my paintings. His posture and upright ears indicate alert, and I believe, intelligent attention. Barnaby is one of the most aesthetically involved of my visiting studio cats, showing more interest in my medium and techniques than his predecessor Kitty Priester, for instance, and spending more awake hours than Beanie The Cat. Not every cat visitor wants the honorific, nor the responsibility, of being Studio Cat, involving, as it does, long boring hours of snoozing, interspersed with frenzied salving of the artist’s delicate ego which requires rubbing, purring and otherwise kissing up to her when she’s had a self-important dose of existential ennui. And then there is the frustrating job of watching, without batting at, the end of a fuzzy stick as it zips around a piece of stretched cloth; this latter requiring poise that is both stressful and un-catlike.
Typical of cats, each of my official studio cats had its own way of scheduling the studio days. After an ample breakfast, Kitty Priester slept all day on the studio sofa until three in the afternoon at which time she got up onto my work table and carefully walked onto whatever canvas I was working on and sat down. I have always said that my paintings may be authenticated (should future doubts exist as to their provenance and should future viewers give a fig) by the presence of cat fur imbedded in the painted surfaces.
Beanie The Cat slept most days. Occupying dreamtime, she was an ideal Studio Cat, quiet, clean and well behaved. And yet, disappointingly, she was completely oblivious to paint, painting and the painter. When awake she was thoroughly obsessed by food, feeding and the feeder.
Barnaby Wallace Cat has been much more involved in my imagery and practice, dedicating hours in wide awake contemplation of each canvas as I work on it. I feel that
he is the reincarnation of one of my old boyfriend painters. He’s a little fussy and overcritical, always has a better idea, is a little grabby with the brush, unforthcoming with compliments, and always wants to go to bed in the afternoons.
When I ran across this picture of Barnaby Wallace Wallace Barnaby I wondered about his vision. He looks at the very bright yellow which has some red elements and I wonder if he can actually see them. Naturally I google “cat vision” and here’s what I found:
Question: What part of a cat's brain lets them see color?
Answer: Cats can detect some of the blue and yelow [sic] color wavelenghts [sic], however, they are for the most part color blind.
What part of the respondent’s brain doesn’t understand “what part of a cat’s brain”? What part of the respondent’s brain is in charge of spelling?
Google also offered me this source:
The lack of evidence for more than one cone type suggests that colour discrimination in the cat may be a phenomenon of mesopic vision, based on differences in spectral sensitivity of the rods and a single class of cones.
And then this highly scientific statement:
Google, god bless ‘em; an entire world of muddled facts, right at your fingertips!
The nub of it, fuzzy or not, is this: cats have binocular vision; are somewhat less color sensitive than humans; can see more distinctly in the dark.
None of these humble little factoids informs me much about Barnaby Wallace Wallace Barnaby Cat’s color perceptivity or his aesthetics. These snapshots are proof of his attention, but of what his attention consists, I cannot know, Google or no Google.
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